She doesn't cry when Neji dies.
It's not for lack of trying, she tells herself. She, too, wants to mourn her teammate's death, the way Lee is currently doing—strong arms wrapped around Neji's vulnerable body, as if he is finally letting his guard down only in death. But she couldn't feel anything except the obligatory sting, of losing a comrade in the war, of a childhood colleague she has spent countless hours doing missions with—just a notch higher than the sadness she felt for the death of Asuma-sensei, really. Her heart does not break in her chest, her eyes do not shine with unshed tears, and there is no stirring in her stomach that demands her to take revenge for Neji's death.
And she watches Lee as he mourns, as he bawls like a baby and—seriously, can't he see that they're in the middle of a war right now? There are more pressing matters to attend to, and he really should learn how to keep his feelings in check, lest he wants to end up the same way as their dead teammate.
"Lee," she whispers, not out of sadness, but disappointment, because Lee shouldn't be losing himself right now, not with everything going on around them.
She wonders then if she has reached that point in a shinobi's life where one no longer feels anything. And she realizes she's very much afraid.
In this world, I am suffocating.
She volunteers for a mission the moment they return to their village.
The allied nations are all still recovering from the war, still trying to pick up the pieces—fix the structures, rehabilitate the injured, bury the dead.
She doesn't attend his ceremony, refuses to watch as they burn his remains to ashes. It's punishment, she tells herself, for not feeling remorse over his death. She does not mourn with his family, with their team, with their friends, because she thinks that she is heartless and the idea of never seeing Neji again, hearing his voice, doesn't prick her heart like it should.
So she leaves Konoha under the guise of a mission, because she cannot, would not, face Lee and the rest of them, all of them hurting over Neji's demise, while she stands there, mute in her indifference.
Two weeks into her mission, she wakes up from a nightmare, one where Neji is drowning, except that Neji wouldn't, couldn't drown, because wasn't he the one who saved her and Lee from drowning back when they were fighting Kisame?
And she shakes her head and tells herself that she's being stupid, because Neji is Neji and he is invincible and no one, nothing can hurt him.
She turns to her right, where her usually stoic teammate almost always places himself whenever they were in missions together, and realization hits her like a bucket full of iced water. She clenches her fists on her blanket, and fights a sudden tremor in her chest, because suddenly, all too suddenly, she realizes that Neji is, in fact, dead.
Gai and Lee are on a mission when she returns. It's been two months—too long to be away from home—and her body and soul ache for the familiarity of her surroundings.
Still, she is not ready to face her friends, those who loved Neji more than she did, so after her report—the Hokage eyes her warily, as if privy to information she does not wish to share—she goes home and locks herself in, fearing that she will break down if she sees any of her colleagues.
She stays indoors for two days.
She sees him on the third day.
Or his ghost, she tells herself.
Because who else could it be?
She spots him near the edge of their usual training grounds, meditating under his favorite tree, her favorite target board three inches above his head.
She freezes, seconds ticking away as she takes his image in—the same Hyuuga garb he dons during missions, the same long, dark brown hair, the same meditative pose he takes after every sparring session. And yet she knows he isn't real, because his forehead shows not a hint of the bandages he wears, or the cursed mark that sealed his fate.
She runs away before the ghost opens its eyes.
She spends the rest of the day under her covers, forcing the image of a peaceful Neji out of her mind.
Eight o'clock welcomes a knock on her door, and she almost doesn't answer, except that she thinks it might be a summon for another mission, and she desperately needs one right now.
She drags herself out of bed and opens the front door, only to find him, pearly gray eyes locking with her hazelnut brown ones, regarding her with something akin to, what is it, mild consternation?
She slams the door to his face, her breath hitching, and she wills her rapidly beating heart to stay still. A few seconds and another set of knocks, impatient this time. She inhales, exhales, inhales, exhales, and cracks the door open for a peek.
He is still standing there.
She almost shuts the door again, except that there was something in the ghost's eyes that stops her. Instead, she opens the door wider, and meets ghost-Neji's eyes as squarely as she could, given the circumstances.
"Neji," she whispers, and something in her heart cracks. "You shouldn't be here. You're dead, remember?"
And she says it so casually, that ghost-Neji actually raises an eyebrow in response. She frowns, and risks a step closer. "Are you haunting me, Neji?"
Ghost-Neji looks amused, and she holds up her left hand in defense. "I'm sorry for not attending your funeral, Neji," she confesses, hoping his ghost will leave. It doesn't, and she clenches her fists to her sides. "I promise to visit your grave first thing tomorrow, so you don't really have to visit me tonight."
She looks up, and he's still there, eyeing her strangely. She sighs.
Minutes later, she finds herself sitting beside him on her small couch. She refuses to look at him, because she doesn't trust herself. Not yet.
The front door remains open.
"I've finally cracked, haven't I?" she whispers to her silent companion. "Years with you crazies, and I finally crack." She sighs, almost in relief, then chuckles. "I thought I was the sanest member of our team. Seems like I'm no different from you three."
She risks a glance at his direction, and finds him regarding her seriously. "Why won't you say anything, Neji?" she asks. "The dead don't talk. Is that true?" Ghost-Neji raises an eyebrow again, and she has the sudden urge to smack him. Except she doesn't, because there is no use hitting a phantom. Her hand would just go through him, and she fears that if it does, Neji would disappear. Forever, this time.
"You look so real," she murmurs then, lifting her hand up to touch his forehead. "But you're a dream, aren't you? Or a nightmare to punish me, like you've done countless times these past two months." She pauses, fingers hovering over where his seal used to be. "But you look so real this time, it's almost as if I could touch you."
Ghost-Neji finally opens his mouth, and her fingers freeze millimeters from his forehead.
She blinks, then slowly pulls her hand away. "You even sound just like him." She is melancholy all of a sudden.
"I'm not dead."
She manages a small grin. "Of course you are. Stop being stubborn, Neji."
"Tenten." His tone is exasperated.
She risks her fingers near his forehead again. "You're here to haunt me, and I deserve it, I think. Or maybe I really am crazy, because I'm talking to you as if you're really here with me."
She finally presses her fingers against his forehead, expecting them to go through. Except they don't, and she feels solid flesh against her fingertips, cold but very real.
She gasps and pulls her hand away. "W-what?"
A sigh of exasperation, and she sees Neji frowning. "I'm not dead, Tenten. Stop saying otherwise."
She stands up abruptly and jumps away from him, watching as ghost-Neji tries to reach out to her. "No!" she yells, extending her right arm to protect herself. "Stay away! You're dead! You're dead, Neji! I saw you! I saw Lee hold you in his arms! I saw him close your eyes! I saw . . . I saw . . ."
Breath hitches in her throat as Neji holds her wrist and pulls her closer, placing her palm on top of his chest.
"My heart's still beating, Tenten," he tells her, as if speaking to a child. "Stop saying I'm dead."
And she feels it, thump-thump-thump, in his chest, and suddenly she is shaking, because Neji is alive, Neji is not dead, but maybe she is just crazier than she originally thought.
"How?" she asks silently, after she has recovered enough to speak again.
They are sitting side by side on her couch, like minutes before, but she sits farther away, because the idea of a still-living Neji is harder to digest than the existence of a ghost-Neji.
"A forbidden Hyuuga jutsu," he murmurs, baritone voice stirring something in her stomach. "I could explain the details, but it's prohibited by our clan." A pause. "Plus, it will probably just bore you."
She nods, as if his answer is acceptable. Which is not, of course, but who is she to argue? He is back, isn't he?
And then she remembers something important, and she snaps her head to his direction, eyes zeroing on his forehead. "Your seal," she says, tentatively. "It's . . . gone."
Neji nods, and she reads the unspoken explanation in his eyes.
"You can't use byakugan anymore." Neji nods again, and she thinks it's the most heartbreaking thing she has ever had the displeasure of knowing.
Team Gai is reunited after five days, when Rock Lee and Maito Gai arrive in Konoha after their week-long mission.
They smother her with hugs and waterfalls and rainbows, but not before chastising her gently for running away two months past, for not being there to welcome Neji back when he woke up from his youthful slumber.
"I'm sorry," she offers, and shoots Neji an exasperated glance, willing him to step in. But he eyes her, amused, and keeps his mouth shut, and she thinks it is his way of getting even, because she had not stayed long enough to find out that he's been resurrected.
She mutters a foul word but lets him be. She does owe him, after all.
"Your scars," she murmurs, six months after that fated evening, "they're so . . . big."
They are on a mission, just the two of them, and they are in their room for the night, after a gruesome encounter with a couple of enemy nin. They still work great together, but the perks Neji's byakugan used to offer are no longer there, and it takes them almost twice the time to get the job done.
It frustrates her, but she knows that it is nothing compared to what Neji is feeling.
She takes care of the wounds he could not reach, nasty shuriken stabs on his back, and she sees them—three round, ragged pieces of dried flesh and skin, marring his otherwise fine features. The scar that Kidomaru's arrow hovers at the fringes of her vision, but she focuses on the newer marks instead.
She places a tentative hand on one of them, frightened, but Neji doesn't flinch against her touch. She rests her palm on the biggest one, thumb silently running through the roughest edge.
A sob, eight months past due, escapes her throat.
She presses her forehead against his back. "Please don't ever die again, Neji," she begs him, her left hand clenched against her thigh, her right hand still on his scar. "Promise me you won't die again."
It is a foolish thing to ask, because they are shinobi, and she deserves no comfort, no reassurance, especially not after what she did. Still, she feels Neji reach for her left hand, and silently, he pulls her closer, so that her chest almost touches his back, but barely.
"I promise," he says simply, and the tears she has been keeping for so long finally gushes forth.
She finds herself almost spooned with Neji half an hour later, except that her back doesn't quite touch his chest, and his right arm is draped loosely on her waist, but not really holding her close.
Her sobs and tears have left her minutes ago, but she doesn't want to move, because this is the closest she has been with Neji since they've been assigned in the same genin team with Lee. And she realizes she doesn't mind the proximity, kind of likes it, actually, and it makes the sobs in her chest echo painfully again.
Neji pulls her to him then, and she feels his eyelashes flutter against her nape. She entwines their fingers together, her thumb rubbing the back of his hand, and suddenly she is turning around, facing him, placing her hand on his chest, as if she needs assurance that his heart is still beating.
"You won't really keep that promise, will you?" she whispers, because they are far too old to lie to each other, and their lives far too broken to pretend otherwise.
Neji meets her gaze, and for a few precious moments neither of them breathes.
A hushed "I'll try," and her lips slip and slide against his, because no amount of words could reassure her, only the feel of Neji against her, in her.
And although she knows that sooner or later, Neji will have to break that promise—and when he does, it will be permanent—she realizes that maybe, just maybe, it will be all right.
They will be all right.
Feel your presence fill up my lungs like oxygen.
I breathe again.
Because a living Neji, even in fanfiction, is better than dead Neji in canon.
Plus I don't really want to add to the growing angst stories about Tenten mulling over our favorite prodigy's death. Lord knows I've cried over them too many times to count.
Still angsty, this story is, but hey, at least he's alive, right? Or is he? Maybe Tenten has gone crazy after all. Or maybe this author has. (Chuckles)