A/N: It has been over two years since my last anything on this site. It's insane.
Tenten thought she'd gotten used to this, this 'almost dying' affliction that seemed to haunt her wherever she went, but as she crouched on the sidewalk, hands pressed against her chest and her whole body shaking, she knew she was very, very wrong. The red Honda that almost hit her moments ago hadn't even stopped to see if she was alright, just drove on as if she was invisible. And what a funny coincidence, Tenten grimly noted, that this was not the first time a car had narrowly missed her tonight.
Snow began falling and Tenten started as if woken from a dream. She straightened, readjusting her muffler, and began walking home, careful not to fall on the icy sidewalk. Because wouldn't it be convenient if she slipped and died? Tenten shook her head and laughed a little at her own morbid thoughts. Life for her was going anywhere but down. She'd gotten near perfect scores on her midterms, she was going to a hot spring resort with her friends for the spring holiday and when she came back she had a date with her cute coworker from the patisserie. She was going to graduate high school and attend Tokyo U.
With these thoughts in her head Tenten was practically giddy walking up the steps to her apartment.
Then her foot slipped on the icy stairs and she could feel herself falling. Quickly she grabbed onto the stairwell railing, holding on for dear life and breathing hard. Her bag slipped from her shoulder and fell to the foot of the stairs. Tenten winced and sighed sadly at the thought of repeating her venture.
The door to her apartment opened and the source of her torment made his appearance at last.
Tenten was always struck by his elegant features, those silvery irises that appeared to blend into the rest of his eyes, the skin that was smooth and perfect and the hair. Oh, how she envied his gorgeous inky locks. The light coming from her apartment enveloped him in a golden glow and made him appear to have a halo around his head, but Tenten knew this man was anything but.
"Neji," she began, looking past her shoulder to her bag then back up at him, "can you get that for me?" She begged him with her eyes but he stared back impassively. Tenten was beginning to feel the cold creep up her spine and she slowly righted herself, careful not to give him any opportunity for an untimely demise. She gave him one last pleading glance before sighing and began walking down the stairs. Suddenly, her bag levitated off the floor and floated upwards. Tenten watched its slow progress and found herself grinning. The bag found its way into Neji's hands and he abruptly turned around and went further into her apartment, leaving the door open.
Tenten shook her head wryly at Neji's surliness while she climbed the stairs and entered her apartment. Her body immediately welcomed the warmth inside and she shed her muffler, coat and shoes. When she looked up there was a small towel floating in front of her eyes. Gingerly she took it out of the air and started patting her slightly damp hair with it.
Tenten sighed. She didn't know what to think.
Neji was, and had been since she met him, an enigma.
When he first appeared three months ago, after a late night run in with a crazy knife wielding man she'd talked out of mugging her, she thought he was a guardian angel who had appeared just a little too late. That image quickly dissipated with the flick of his wrist when the window next to her exploded into a shower of glass shards. Thankfully she blocked her face with her arms and only her back was really damaged in the onslaught. From between her arms she saw him stare at her and disappear. She touched the skin of her back and her hand came away with blood; from the small contact and the sharp pain on the side of her lower back she knew there was a piece of glass stuck in her skin.
Her apartment hadn't been far from the attack, so instead of going to a hospital she went home, knowing she had clean bandages and antiseptic. She thought that was the last she'd see of him, but she had been very, very wrong because he was in her apartment when she got home, lounging carelessly on her sofa drinking a cup of tea.
Tenten distinctly remembered letting out a strangled cry and falling against her living room wall, pain exploding from the contact.
He hadn't even blinked and calmly said, "You're getting blood on the wall."
"How did you get in here!" she cried, inching her way towards the phone mounted on her living room wall. "Why did you attack me! Who the hell are you!" Her hand crept towards the phone and then she felt her wrist being squeezed tightly; he was suddenly by her side and she hadn't even seen him move.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you."
Tenten could feel her heart beating rapidly in her chest and it was getting painful. She sank to the ground, feeling him let go of her wrist, and tried to breathe slowly. In and out, she reminded herself, in and out. Tenten looked up between her bangs and the stranger was still gazing at her with a blank expression on his face. Apparently he had nothing better to do than to watch her bleed to death and hyperventilate. She knew he could kill her, the scene earlier had been ample proof of that, but at the moment he didn't seem too keen on finishing the job he started.
Tenten slowly got to her feet, leaning against the wall for support. She glanced at him from the corner of her eye and said, "I . . . I'm going to bandage my back. I-If you came here to kill me, then you should do it now, but . . . but if not, can you help me to the bathroom?"
And he had. Helped her to the bathroom, helped her pick out the piece of glass that had lodged itself into her back and helped bandage the wounds he had inflicted. It was one of the most bizarre experiences she'd ever had and the conversation afterward had been even more bizarre. She'd never had such a calm conversation before, and the conversation had been about her death; to be more precise, her impending death. The method had not been decided at that point.
As Tenten made her way into her living room she was surprised to see tea and some castella cake laid out on the table. Neji stood by the window, staring out at the night.
It struck her then the relationship they had must be one of the strangest known to man or shinigami. After all, who would normally be so cordial with the person, used in the loosest sense, who was trying to kill them? But somehow she and Neji were friends, at least she liked to think they were after three months, because after every failed attempt on her life, and they were becoming more frequent, Neji helped patch up her wounds.
She still remembered the moment he told her he was a shinigami, because Neji was in fact a death god and her soul would be the last he needed to help depart the human world. Tenten didn't know the reason. The first and only time she asked him why he needed one thousand souls he abruptly left, disappearing on the spot. She didn't see him for days and the attempts on her life had reached a fever pitch during the time he was gone. She learned never to ask him that again.
Tenten sat on her couch and gently picked up a cup full of tea, sniffing and swirling experimentally.
"It's not poisoned," he remarked, guessing at her ministrations. Neji's eyes slid from the window to regard her. "The cake isn't poisoned either."
She took a small sip of tea and detected nothing but jasmine and a slight hint of honey. "You can understand why I'm a little skeptical, right?"
She should've been used to this by now, his blatant disregard for her well-being, but tonight she was more rankled by this than usual. "Do you regret trying to kill me even a little?" Tenten asked hotly. "I know it's your job, you said so when we first met, but why me?"
Neji didn't answer right away, instead contemplated her in the silent way that always made her a bit uncomfortable and mad at the same time. "I was just told it had to be you. I don't get to choose who I take."
"Right," Tenten breathed, taking another sip. "Right."
A consequence of having a shinigami following you around was the fact that you had no apparent privacy. However, Neji seemed to understand her need for it in certain situations. Tenten didn't think he was spying on her in the bathroom or when she was changing because that wasn't the type of person he was. At least, he didn't appear that way. Tenten supposed there was no way she could actually make sure he wasn't peeping, so she just accepted the possibility and made her showers as quick as possible and dressed fast as well.
One of the good things about Neji was that he didn't ask too many questions. Actually he didn't talk much to begin with but his lack of an inquisitive nature was a bonus. After he'd been her shadow for a few weeks she'd kindly asked him to refrain from following her to her appointments and he, disinterested in the whole ordeal, had agreed. After all why would he be interested in her visiting the doctor or the dentist? Those were people who were intent on helping her live a longer, healthier life. He'd told her these appointments were completely useless, but Tenten laughed and replied that the visits made her feel more in control of her life.
So, making good on his promise, Neji wasn't following Tenten today. Today was a doctor's visit. Instead he was home, his home, reclining on a bench in a place that bore a striking resemblance to Ueno Park in Tokyo.
After he died Neji knew he wasn't truly dead because he didn't end up in an endless void or his own personal hell. He'd ended up right back in the world he had just left, or in a place that strongly resembled it. The first person to greet him, at the time he hadn't known the man was a shinigami, was named Guy. An overzealous person, and someone Neji never would've taken for a shinigami, he disliked Guy immediately but could not deny that Guy was a wealth of information on the strange world he suddenly found himself in.
"This is Jigoku," Guy had said, "It's not the hell that humans think of, merely a reflection of the human world, like a shadow, and we shinigami live here. The world changes gradually, to accommodate for the changes in the other world, but everything you remember from your human life should be here."
"And why," Neji asked, "am I a shinigami?"
"Shinigami are people who have died from unnatural deaths. So you must've died from an unnatural cause, Neji."
Neji didn't remember telling Guy his name, but this situation seemed so surreal he didn't really care. "What am I doing here? What does a shinigami do?"
"Shinigami help humans depart from the human world," Guy replied. "Basically we lay souls to rest. You'll pick it up really quickly. Now I'm supposed to take you to Tsunade so she can explain what you need to do. If you'll follow me . . ."
Neji threw an arm over his eyes and sighed. Reminiscing about the past annoyed him, especially when it was the past he was trying to forget.
Shortly after meeting Guy, who he soon learned would be his mentor while he learned this whole shinigami business, he met Tsunade. His impression of her wasn't much better than his impression of Guy at the time. Big breasted, loud and a drunk she seemed the type to run a brothel, not Hell. She'd given him a key to an apartment, one that looked suspiciously like the key he owned during his human life, and told him to be gone from her sight. He had been only too happy to comply.
So Neji learned how to be a shinigami and, two weeks later, laid his first soul to rest.
It was a thankless job with lousy pay and by the twentieth soul Neji was sick of it. He thought that becoming a shinigami would mean the gradual loss of his human memories but everyday they only seemed to grow more prominent, aided by the environment and his daily sojourn into the human world to complete his work. He felt like he was slowly going mad with glimpses of the life he left behind everywhere he looked.
Then he learned from a shinigami named Sasuke, who was technically two years his senior in terms of how long he had been a 'dead', that there was a way to completely forget one's human life.
"All you have to do," he remembered Sasuke saying, "is lay a thousand souls to rest and you'll forget."
Neji recalled those words everyday and worked assignment after assignment for years. His waking hours had been devoted to work and sleep was a bare necessity that he tolerated with loathing. After a hundred years he reached his goal.
She would be the last.
Then, he would finally be able to rest and not see his family everywhere he turned.
Today had been a strangely murder attempt free day, and that worried Tenten. It worried Tenten that she was worried. Was she honestly becoming accustomed to this? Even wishing for it to happen because it made her more comfortable? She shook her head at her own silliness and told herself this was a good thing. After all, she lived through another day.
Her heart clenched at the thought. Lived one more day, but how many were left? She sank to the floor, wrapping her arms around her knees and resting her head against them. It was times like this when she was glad Neji wasn't around to see her face and the pathetic expression that it showed now. Tears threatened to spill over but Tenten stubbornly held them in. She'd known for months her death was inevitable, had steeled herself for it but was anyone ever really ready for this sort of thing?
She knew he was there before he said a word. It was in the way the air chilled and the brush of his shirt against her arm as he knelt down to be eye level with her.
Tenten raised her head and Neji regarded her silently. Finally he said, "Steeling yourself for the inevitable will not work. No one is ever ready for death." Like always he could read her expression perfectly, answering her silent question with a matter-of-fact answer. Sakura had told her countless times before that her face was an open book, but until encountering Neji Tenten had never believed it.
"Is there really no way for me to change this?" Tenten asked miserably. "Could I win you over with an argument or something?"
Neji was suddenly reminded of another girl in another era he had laid to rest. She looked nothing like Tenten, but the age and the fear and the sadness were the same. This was part of the job requirement that he had never fully come to terms with. He'd learned to turn off his emotions when the soul belonged to a child, but he was always filled with a sad resignation when they died. Perhaps when he finally got Tenten's soul he wouldn't remember or care.
"There isn't anything you can do," Neji replied, ignoring her crestfallen expression. "However, I've heard of those about to pass making a list of things they've always wanted to do and completing it. I am told it provides a sense of fulfillment before you die. In the West they call it a bucket list."
"Yes, that sounds like a good idea," Tenten said absently, then she focused on Neji and he was surprised by the determination in her eyes. "Will you help me, Neji?"
He repeated her words slowly, as if saying them again would make their meaning clear. "Help you . . ."
"Help me complete it. I don't have much time left, right?"
"No, you don't."
Tenten got to her feet and quickly made her way to the kitchen and rummaged around for a piece of paper and a pen.
"It's winter break right now," she stated, "so I have a little over two weeks to complete some parts of my list. The rest can wait till spring." She marched to the small table in the center of her living room and slapped the paper down with more force than necessary and glared at Neji. "Are you going to help me or what?"
Neji sat gracefully and watched Tenten's progress.
Some of the things on her list were easy enough (visit the ocean, eat taiyaki, graduate high school, attend college), others were slightly harder (watch a meteor shower) and some seemed impossible (fall in love, get married).
"Some of this seems a bit . . ." Neji searched his vast vocabulary for the right word. "Improbable."
Tenten frowned. "What's the point of a list if everything is easy to complete? I don't want contentment. I want fulfillment."
And so Neji found himself part of an attempt to complete the dreams of a seventeen year old girl.
The first month Neji followed her around, stalked was too harsh a term, she tried her damnedest to ignore him and the 'accidents' that seemed to happen when he was around. Frequently she found herself tripping and a counter corner or something equally dangerous too close for comfort. It happened the most at her workplace; Neji even came in as a customer, donning a human disguise. Tenten could still remember the whispers of her coworkers about the hot guy who looked like an idol with the gorgeous dark hair and eyes. She hadn't thought anything of it because Neji sure as hell didn't look like an idol, but when she passed by him briefly the human disguise fell, just for a moment, and Tenten knew it was him.
She'd studiously managed to ignore him, but when Tenten slipped and almost fell into the glass case containing the day's pastries for a third time she knew she couldn't any longer. She had a strange suspicion that Neji secretly enjoyed tormenting her this way.
The suspicion hadn't gone away, only grown stronger with time.
Most likely today would be no different, but Tenten was too giddy with excitement to care.
She was finally going to see the ocean. The train made progress and the cityscape passed by in a blur of silver and blue. Tenten grinned and turned to Neji to talk about her excitement but the shorter hair, the bangs, and the dark eyes of his human disguise startled her and she just stared, at a loss for words. Tenten couldn't get used to this look of his and it always showed on her face. The girls she worked with had been right; indeed, he looked like an idol off a billboard, but it was all wrong.
"What is it about this appearance that throws you off?" Neji asked.
Tenten shrugged helplessly. "I don't know. You just don't look like you. It freaks me out."
He casually brushed his bangs out of his face and Tenten noticed two girls a few seats ahead who watched him appreciatively.
"This look is more human," he said, "and it is this appearance that 'freaks you out'."
"I guess I've gotten used to you looking like you."
"Indeed," he mused, then turned to her and she saw that the dark color of his irises was disappearing and his natural silvery white was returning, if only for a moment. "This is only for today. You shouldn't get so attached."
Neji always had a way of bringing the future into perspective and Tenten smiled wryly. In an attempt to lighten the mood she half-joked, "Are you sure you're not the one who's getting attached?"
When those words slipped out Tenten knew she wanted them to be true, wanted Neji to become attached so maybe her life wouldn't end so soon because Tenten, no matter how cavalier she acted, did not want to die.
Neji didn't respond.
A/N: Comments are very welcome and I'll try to reply accordingly.