Birds on a Wire

Chapter 3: In the Maelstrom

It took her more effort than was reasonable to drag herself out from between the scratchy sheets of the hospital bed. Running a hand through hair that had been tugged free from its customary buns, Tenten surveyed the small room. Where were her clothes...? Ah, there. All of her thoughts, every action, even pulling on her clothes felt odd, mechanical, and tired.

And as much as she wanted to blame it on her battered body and the healing done on it, she knew that wasn't the primary reason. Her vision swam once more with tears and she cursed, rubbing her eyes vigorously with the heels of her hands. Crying just caused more trouble than it solved, and it made her look like a baby. Not to mention she already had a headache, and she really didn't feel like sniveling any more.

Instead, Tenten busied herself by stretching and walking out of the cold, white space. She turned her back on the room and strode down the hallways, her steps echoing ahead of her.

As she entered the lobby, Tenten noticed a person with long, dark hair turning from the front desk and heading towards the doors. Purplish hair, she realized, sighing. Not deep brown like the bitterest, strongest coffee. Still, Hinata was one of her friends, so she reached out a hand to grab the shorter girl's shoulder.

Any other time, she would have tried to avoid the other girl, preferring to take solace in training and working. Right now, though, she couldn't go to the training grounds and drown her sorrows in wave after wave of throwing implements. And for some reason, something compelled her to talk to Hinata, to spill out her sorrows to the younger girl who had become one of her best friends (next to Gai and Lee and, yes, Neji).

"Oh, Tenten!" she said, surprised. "What brought you here? Are Neji and Lee all right?" the Hyuuga heiress asked, her eyes wide with concern and her voice smooth without the stutter that had plagued her when she was plagued with a lack of confidence.

A small smile fell upon Tenten's lips, more a gesture of affirmation than of happiness. "Yes, they're fine. I took a hit from Lee this morning at training–one of his new techniques, and whatever it is, it's good–and just got released. What about yourself?"

"It's good that you're all alright, even if you must have been hurt pretty badly. You normally don't go to the hospital, do you?" Hinata wondered. A wry look on her face, the older girl shook her head. "Ah. I was here volunteering again." Tenten nodded. Of course; Hinata volunteered around the hospital almost as much as Sakura worked there, and that was quite saying something. "Did you need anything, or did you just want to chat? Oh, not that I mind or anything!" she hastily added, frowning. She didn't want Tenten to think she disliked her company.

For a second, Tenten shuffled her feet, an action that Hinata noticed. It wasn't really like the other girl to be shy or reluctant, and that worried the Hyuuga. "Yeah, Hinata. Uhm, can we walk? Like outside?" Tenten asked, biting her lip. Now she'd be burdening Hinata. Great.

"Of course!" Once they were outside, walking along a path in a grassy, secluded area, Hinata turned her pale gaze on the weapons mistress. "Is something the matter?"

Tenten meant to speak cooly and calmly, and even to ask Hinata's permission before throwing her troubles on the heiress's already-laden shoulders. "I'm just so stupid, Hinata!" Tenten cried out, rubbing her head. So much for having any control over her tongue. "In the academy, they used to bash into us that emotions were wastes, and caused more harm than good. And I freaking fell in love and I'm an idiot and that's what's the matter!" she exclaimed. "And he's a complete jackass about it! Apparently, I'm 'delusional!' And he was the one who kissed me!" Tenten emphasized, her voice cracking slightly on the last word.

For a moment, Hinata processed all of the information. Well, that perhaps wasn't the most cohesive of explanations, but she figured Tenten would tell her all of it. First, though, she reached up to wrap her arms around the brunette's shoulders. "If you need to cry, I promise I would never think any less of you," she uttered quietly. That was more or less what Kiba and Shino told her when she would have a particularly bad day, and it was always a great comfort to her. Tenten, it seemed, was no different, because soon her shoulders shook under Hinata's arms. "Was it Neji?" Hinata pried gently, once she had finished hugging the weapons mistress.

Suddenly, Tenten stiffened, and Hinata feared she'd said quite the wrong thing. "Oh my God! And I was obvious about it, too?" the older girl half-wailed, bringing her hands up to rub at her eyes.

Hinata couldn't help but smile gently. "Not quite. I know you both very well, and Neji gave off some hints of his own."

Letting out a sort of a watery snort, Tenten shook her head. "Yeah. Hints that he thought I was 'delusional,'" she spat bitterly.

"No, Tenten," Hinata demurred. "Believe me, please. I know more than a little bit about unrequited love-"

"Naruto's a moron."

Hiding a smile, Hinata pretended to ignore the remark. "I know more than a little bit about unrequited love, and that is not what is happening between you and Neji." Letting out a little sigh, Hinata continued. "The Hyuuga clan places the importance of the Byakugan higher than the happiness of its members. With a half-Hyuuga child, not only is the bloodline trait not guaranteed, but what if the non-Hyuuga parent wanted to raise their child separate from the clan? Civil wars have erupted because of lesser things, and the Hyuuga clan isn't renowned for its members being slow to anger. To ward off potential problems, arranged marriages are not only common, but practically mandatory. Especially for a member of the branch family. Tenten, Neji must have just visited you at the hospital, correct?"

The other girl nodded, her gaze on her feet. "Yeah."

With a sigh, Hinata pushed a lock of hair behind her ear. "He had just come from a meeting with my father and the elders. They probably have a bride or two, maybe three to choose from if he's lucky. And he will be expected to marry before his next birthday. Otherwise... well, my clan is not kind to those who do not follow the rules," the heiress said sadly.

Her eyes wide, Tenten looked up. "That's not right! In fact, it's probably somewhere near illegal!" she argued, her lower lip trembling.

A small, sad laugh escaped Hinata's voice. "Tenten, do you believe the Hyuuga clan cares what is right and what is wrong? And do you really believe that they're not above the law if they want to be?" she asked gently. A few moments passed, everything silent except for the quiet noises of shinobi sandals against the soft grass. "I... I thought something was wrong. Ever since your mission Neji has been distant. And maybe... well, it would be uncharacteristic of him, but I thought once I heard crying from his room."

Numbly, Tenten blinked up at Hinata. "He's been hurting, too," she said, almost too softly to be heard. She brushed her hand through her hair (it was still down? Why hadn't she put it up? What did it matter?) and attempted to keep her voice normal. "Ugh, God, this really isn't how I would have wanted to find out he cares."

"I can't even fix it! Not even if I become the head of the clan!" Hinata exclaimed suddenly, sadly. "I-I want to so badly, Tenten, I want to make it so the Hyuuga clan... so there's less pain. But I can't help anything. The elders control everything, and I... I'll just be useless again," she muttered.

Tenten surprised Hinata by hugging her tightly. "No, no you won't. You will change things, Hinata. Even if not that one thing, I know you. I know you'll be able to help the clan. When you become head."

"Thank you." Hinata felt slightly abashed as she rubbed traces of wetness from her eyes. "I just feel insecure, sometimes. There are so many things that are wrong, and every move I make will only make me enemies. But there's too much pain in the Hyuuga family right now. And I c-can't even help you two."

Shaking her head, Tenten faced Hinata. "No, you already helped, if only a little. At least-" she cut off for a moment, coughing gently to try to keep her throat from catching. "At least I know he doesn't hate me, right?" Tenten asked, smiling gently.

The younger girl shook her head empathetically. "Neji could never hate you, Tenten. I know him, and as much as he seems otherwise, well... he's difficult to understand. But whatever he told you, it was because he thought it would be for your best, whether it hurt him or not. It was because Neji is the type to follow duty, whether he likes it or not. He knows where his duty must lie, even if he hates it and it hurts him." Both of them considered that for a moment as they continued their walk. The sky, which had been turning dark, finally caught Hinata's attention. "I need to return home, Tenten. Will you be alright?"

"No. But I'll just have to live, won't I?" Tenten asked almost bitterly. "Thanks for listening, Hinata."

"If... if I can do anything, I will try. I'll look for a way, Tenten, I promise I'll try. For you and for Neji!" the heiress exclaimed, courage bright in her eyes.

Shaking her head, the older girl looked over at Hinata. "I don't want to bother you. I've already caused too much trouble, I think." With a apparition of a smile, she reached over and mussed Hinata's hair. "Have a safe trip home."

There was nothing the Hyuuga woman could say that wasn't pointless, so she gave one last glance at her friend and slipped away.

Tenten stood numbly for a moment, looking around her. They'd traveled pretty far away from the hospital, and the place she stood now was a small grassy knoll bordered by trees on one side. Her ears caught the sounds of evening, and her eyes scanned the surrounding, but she comprehended neither. Her brain was swimming with too many new discoveries, too many sad truths.

The Hyuuga's perfect bloodline. Neji's pain. Hinata's tearful wishes. Her own heartbreak. It was like all the sadness was cycling constantly, and she was pulled into the middle of the maelstrom. And she could hardly breathe.

.eriw a no sdriB

Hearing the doorknob begin to twist, Neji vaguely wondered how long he had stayed in the library. Any intimations of hunger or tiredness were indistinguishable from the dull ache that had long since settled over his consciousness. As the door opened, no light pooled in from the hallway, a sure sign that most of the household was either at dinner or settling down for the night. As Neji desired neither food nor sleep, he was quite unconcerned which.

"Oh! Neji!" Hinata exclaimed as she saw him bent over the book in his hands. "I-I'm sorry. Should I leave?" she asked worriedly.

The small stutter in her voice had been caught by Neji. It was a habit that she didn't often fall back on except when nervous or worried. Neji sighed. Maybe she had spoken with... with her. Or maybe he was just being a little too obvious that he wasn't at his best. The second option made him frown before he realized he didn't quite care any more. A week ago, anyone catching him being upset was cause for an alarm. Now... well, what did it matter? "No, Hinata." His voice sounded heavy even to his own ears. "Feel free to stay. I was just reading." He thought a moment, then looked up at his cousin. "What brings you here, anyway?"

Hinata had turned her backs to him and was searching the extensive shelves of the Hyuuga clan's main library. A moment later, she pulled away with a heavy tome in her hands. "I've been coming here a lot lately, reading on the history and law of our clan. Since I may still be the heiress of this clan, I assumed the least I could do would be to learn about it."

Pleased in spite of himself, Neji watched her make her way to a table and sit down, twining her hair and pulling it away from her face before she picked up the book and read almost voraciously. He wished he could put that much effort into his reading, but all that he could think of was the expression on Tenten's face right before he left.

And so far he hadn't found a single word in the clan's law books about open marriage being allowed. Neji sighed softly and watched as Hinata read, the only sounds in the room the sound of pages turning. "Hinata?" he brought himself to ask after several long minutes of quiet. She looked up, her white gaze questioningly meeting his own. "What is your opinion of the arranged marriages mandated for clan members?" he brought himself to ask.

It really wasn't an unexpected question, Hinata thought as she marked her place with a finger and turned her attention to Neji. "I believe it places the purity of our bloodline as more important than the happiness of the clan members, and I think that's wrong. Father and the elders disagree, of course," she added to, trying to keep the bitter edge out of her voice. "What's your opinion, Neji?" she asked him.

For a while he was silent, pondering his answer. Hinata was about to turn back to her book, assuming he didn't want to speak of it currently, when he replied. "I used to think it was completely logical and at the best interests of the clan, and I still do think that. I also used to think it would work to my advantage. I assumed that I would be too busy training to find anyone whom I would love, and I thought having a wife chosen for me would make matters simpler, easier, and less painful. In that respect, I was completely misgiven." If anything, the arranged marriages definitely were not less painful. He'd seen members of the clan upset about it before, but had assumed they were stupid or confused by what they thought was love. He'd been close-minded, he knew now. Too little, too late.

"I spoke with Tenten today, when she was released from the hospital." If there were any words that could fill Neji with horror and guilt, it was those. "Y-you were... Neji, you were so cruel," Hinata said, biting her lip. What if she had overstepped her bounds. He was hurting, too. Still, she couldn't bring herself to take her words back.

"She needed to hear me say that, Hinata," Neji replied, his voice clipped and angry. "She should be able to handle something like that. She is a shinobi and-"

"She is a person, Neji," Hinata interrupted, her voice not rising a modicum but managing to cut through his easily. "She has feelings. Neji, Tenten thought you hated her!" the woman exclaimed sadly.

Neji's face was stern. "It would be better for both of us if I hated her and she hated me, Hinata. What would happen if I told her I loved her? Do you think that would make it easier on me when I must marry someone else? Do you think that would make it easier on her?"

Shaking her head, Hinata met Neji's gaze squarely. "No. But she deserved to know. I told her about the law. And she told me she understands. She knows what she can change and what she cannot, Neji. She says... she says she'll just have to live with it. Tenten has enough courage to accept this, even if she doesn't like it."

His head swimming, Neji slammed his book on the table, allowing a rare display of anger. "Why?" he asked tightly, barely containing the anger in his voice.

"She deserved to know, Neji. And I wanted her to know, because I will work my hardest to see if I can find some way, any way, for you two to be together. I'll stay in the library all day, searching if I have to. Neji... I just want to try to help people. I want to help our clan."

Sitting there with a humble look on her face, twisting her hands, Hinata looked more like a leader than her cruel, commanding father ever had, Neji thought with a hint of a smile. "Sometimes there is nothing you can do. I have accepted that, and Tenten has accepted that. You shouldn't worry about that," he said, attempting to keep his voice strict.

Her face was transformed by a small smile. "It's what people do for friends and family, for people they love. How can I not help, seeing how much you two matter to each other?"

He stood and returned the book to one of the shelves, thinking as he did so. Once, he had thought Hinata was weak. She had been so quiet, so physically incapable that her younger sister could defeat her. He had underestimated her gentle strength, mistaking cruelty for strength. "I can't stop you from doing what you want, Hinata. Please don't do anything rash." A foolish precaution, he knew; Hinata was everything but foolhardy.

"You know I won't, Neji," was her gentle reply. "Are you going to sleep?"

"I wanted to train." This almost made Hinata laugh. Of course, he wanted to train. It was one of the charms that his whole team possessed, this borderline-obsession with training. "And Hinata?" he asked her, pausing at the door.

"Hm?" she questioned, glancing up from the book she had returned her gaze to.

"Thank you," he said quietly before slipping down the hallway and through the corridors until he reached the wooden floors and comforting scent of the main dojo.

Hinata waited until his footsteps had faded away before she turned her back to the door and began to search through the shelves, apprehension pooling in the pit of her stomach. She just prayed that somehow she would be able to find something to help them, and only time would tell if she would accomplish even that.

AN: A little bit of a break in the angst, I hope. Thank you to all those who have reviewed, faved, or alerted. And thanks for reading, everyone. Hope you guys liked this chapter.