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Neji knew a lot about Tenten.
He knew she was an enthusiast, a busybody to some extent, a training devotee, and enthusiastic about her training. He knew she liked fortunetelling, Chinese food, all of her projectiles, and dragons. He knew that she was hard-working, yet lax; calm, yet able to get fearsomely angry as well in a matter of heartbeats. He knew what her face looked like when she was annoyed, exhausted, accomplished, happy, sad, and countless other expressions. He knew that unlike him, she wasn't one to keep a lid on them twenty-four-seven.
Above all else, Neji knew Tenten was strong. He hadn't needed to hear about her promotion to Jounin to prove him of that. He hadn't needed to learn she was heading on her first A-rank solo mission so soon after her promotion to verify him that. He knew Tenten was strong.
That is why hearing about her hospitalization after her mission hadn't really been a surprise, but more like impossibility.
The actual surprise occurred when Neji stepped inside the clean hospital room and gazed at the patient lying on the bed, her face completely blank and devoid of any expressions. Even her voice was completely monotone when she spoke.
"Hi, Neji." Had it not been for that little flick of a wrist that usually served as her trademark greeting, he would've thought she was some kind of an impostor – identical in looks but unable to produce her usual expressions. "Please, have a seat." Too off-balance to object, the Hyuuga complied.
Silence reigned for a few seconds during which he tried to determine just what was wrong with Tenten. A post-injury trauma that would've scared her expressionless was not an impossibility, but from what he could judge, she seemed to be uninjured save from a few minor cuts and bruises on her limbs; Nothing big enough to cause something like this.
Tenten's empty voice brought him to his senses, and he had to suppress a twitch at how wrong the tone sounded coming from her lips.
"Lee visited me an hour or so ago. He brought me these flowers." The weapon mistress reached for the bouquet in the vase that was standing on the table, fingering a petal. As Neji looked at her face, he could see a ghost of a smile in her eyes, even though it didn't touch the rest of her features. It was then he realized that she wasn't scared emotionless or holding them at bay – it was simply that he couldn't produce them, not even a slight smile.
"What happened to your face?" The words came out more bluntly and more swiftly than he had intended, even though their tone was still carefully neutral. Both of them, however, knew what was behind his tone; he was worried, deeply so. Tenten drew her arm back to her side and heaved a sigh.
"The opposition in my last mission had hired a ninja of their own, from the Cloud. I avoided direct combat as long as possible, but in the end I had no choice but to take it to the offence." It was clear that he hadn't survived that battle, and Neji didn't need to even look at her to sense her slight tension. Killing wasn't easy, no matter how many times you'd do it. "He used lightning-based techniques, and I had to avoid being hit. In the end, I nailed him down, but the backlash of his final move hit me square in the face." A sigh, again.
"Tsunade-sama said the electrical current messed with my facial neural tracks. None of them were cut or charred, thankfully, so there's no permanent damage. However, there's no telling how fast the neural tracks recover from a lightning being shoved through them." Tenten bit her lip, and Neji added somberly what she had left out.
"Or if they recover at all." She could only nod. Neji turned his face away from her, gazing out of the window instead. After a moment of silence, he tried to direct the conversation to safer waters - and buy himself some time to digest the situation. "What else did the Hokage say?" Tenten, too, seemed content on the slight change of topic, for she began immediately talking.
Neji learned that a more common variation of her condition was called facial palsy, where only one side of the face was paralyzed. It was caused by the malfunction of facial nerve, the seventh cranial nerve and normally occurred when the nerve was damaged by a burn, a head trauma, or a brain tumour. He also learned that it had a good recovery percentage, and often recovered all by itself. But, like Tenten reminded him, like Tsunade had reminded her, her case was special, and the neural tracks might be permanently damaged by the strong electricity. There was no way of telling what the probability of her recovery was.
"There are worse handicaps for a ninja," Neji stated matter-of-factly after a moment of silence, ignoring the feeling in the bottom of his stomach and hoping it wouldn't hear in his voice. He would be the calm one in this situation. "Even in the worst case scenario, this doesn't make you any less skilled or talented." Tenten snorted slightly before shaking her head.
"You're right, Neji. But it does make me less me." Her retort silenced him for a few seconds, but it didn't take him any longer to muster an answer.
"Rubbish," he snorted and could practically feel her surprise. "Even if you were to remain paralyzed for the rest of your life, you'd find a way to express yourself without expressions and without a tone in your voice. You would find a way around it, sooner or later." Neji fixed his eyes on hers. "You're not one to give up get depressed over something like this."
'You're strong. I know you are.'
Apparently, the lack of her facial nerves didn't prevent her from blushing. It was an odd sight, seeing her cheeks tint pink while it remained completely blank.
"Gee, Neji. Consolation from you? I must really look horrible," she muttered, fighting to gain control over her blood circulation.
"I'm saying this because it's true," he retorted matter-of-factly, turning away from her. A small smile crept on his lips. "And also because you're delusional." Tenten chuckled dryly in response.
"And now you're lecturing me. You're really on the roll today, did you know?" The Hyuuga let his head fall, fighting to control his own facial features. He was not amused by this, he was simply happy - no, content - that his team mate was seeing things his way, that she was breaking out of deluded her depression. He was content that she was herself again.
"It was necessary to make you realize the true nature of things," he replied after a while. Even with his face away from her, his Byakugan inactive, her facial features paralyzed and her voice monotone, he could still tell when she was smiling. He knew her that well.
"Well, thanks, Neji. I suppose I needed it, eh?" He nodded.
"Indeed. And you're welcome." He didn't bother turning to face her, for he also knew that she could tell when he was smiling, too. She knew him that well.
Tenten sat down on a rock and was pigging out on chocolate ice cream. In fact, she had been eating ice cream all day, much to Neji's annoyance. It was keeping them from resuming training. Lee was with them and made the mistake of commenting on how so much ice cream was bad for health.
The girl barked back for him to shut the hell up. Neji rolled his eyes. Lee should have know better than to piss her off today. Both men knew what it meant when their female friend had an ice cream rush, once a month... And it was best to stay out of her way.
But the lack of training was starting to irritate Neji. So what if Tenten had her female things? HE didn't have to suffer from it! If women were not able to control their mood because of something as absurd as hormones, then they really were weak!
"Tenten, let's spar."
"I thought I told you I don't feel like it today!" the girl replied harshly, putting down her empty bowl.
"That's ridiculous. You can be a woman some other day! I need you now! We have no time for your weaknesses."
Lee gulped and took a few steps back, as he knew a storm was coming.
"Excuse me?!" Tenten said as she got to her feet. "I'm weak because I have periods?"
Neji gave her a smirk.
"No, you're weak because you're a woman."
The insulted woman gritted her teeth.
"Maybe if I kicked you in the crotch hard enough you'd understand how it feels to have blood running from between your legs!"
"I'd like to see you try!" the smug Hyuuga added.
Unable to restrain herself any longer, the girl lunged at her teammate with exploding rage. Lee watched nervously as Neji smoothly evaded all of the girls' kicks and punches.
"What's the matter?" he said teasingly. "I thought you were aiming for my crotch?"
Now, Tenten wasn't truly being serious. After all, if she intended to have Neji's babies some day, she'd have to make sure his... stuff was still functional, you know? But since he asked for it...
The girl aimed her kick right at her friend's crotch, missing it by just an inch. Hiding behind a tree, Lee winced as he could anticipate Neji's pain. He bit his fingernails each time Tenten's foot approached the vicinity of Neji's...stuff.
Eventually, the girl grew tired and stopped, catching her breath, while Neji tried to hide the cold sweat he had gotten when Tenten's foot came dangerously close to crushing...his stuff.
"Looks like you can't do it after all..."
"Shut up! Get me some ice cream!"
"That's too bad," the smug man said. "When you're in that state, there's no better opponent."
"So you were only using me?" the girl growled.
"Yeah, sorry I took advantage of it," Neji said as he sat next to her. "I don't understand all of it, but if you ever need support during that time, I'll be there for you."
"Neji..." the girl said as she tried to hide a blush.
The scene had magically turned romantic as the two stared at each other's eyes in silence while shoujo pink bubbles flew in the background...until Lee popped up.
"Me too! I will go buy tampons for you if you need it!"
Without taking her eyes off Neji, Tenten punched Lee in the face, and the two resumed their oscar-winning shoujo anime scene, as if nothing had happened.
ENTRY C: Her Nature
In six years of friendship, Hyuuga Neji could not claim that Tenten often became angry with him, or he with her. They had their disagreements, naturally, but that was all they were; a difference of opinion, made harmless by the fact that they could distinguish matters of importance from matters of frivolity. They did not dwell on disagreements either. Once discovered, the two merely acknowledged that a certain disagreement existed and left it at that. They did not judge each other based on separate beliefs.
As ninja, they were experts at controlling their emotions. This explained why Gai or Lee were never lashed out at but rather bore as one bears any trial. Neji and Tenten's response to the Beautiful Green Beasts never went any further than irritation or exasperation. Anger, they concurred, was a worthless, distracting emotion. This shared view had helped Neji curb his frustrations with his clan and trained Tenten to never let things get out of hand when she wielded hundreds of sharp instruments.
Despite this understanding, Neji came to realize that six years of friendship also made Tenten an eighteen-year-old girl. Eighteen-year-old girls were masses of confusion, feelings on legs (and, in Tenten's case, armed with blades).
And the first time Neji was victimized by this irrefutable truth, Tenten was not just angry. "Angry" suggested a shortness of temper, a loss of patience, a leaking of control. And while she embodied all of those things when she approached him one morning in their usual training spot at the usual time, a more fitting phrase was probably "enraged to the maximum."
He was drinking caffeinated tea, allowing himself just a little boost as he'd been up late filing a report from a recent mission, when a familiar blur of pink fabric and brown hair effectively invaded his personal bubble. Neji, in a moment of uncharacteristically dragging reflexes, almost fell backwards off the log he was perched upon.
Tenten's dark eyes appeared lit with gold flame as she glowered at him. With her this much in Neji's face, the prodigy was sure he could see the flickers of individual tongues of fire. Something icy and trembling clenched his lungs. He wasn't afraid of Tenten – he did, after all, know all of her combat movements just as she knew all of his – but the unprecedented chill spoke of some unidentified response.
"How could you, Neji?"
The words were like her knives, slashing deep and squirting blood. She appeared angrier than hurt, but the hurt was there, and apparently it was his fault, and he didn't know what it was, and he couldn't stop thinking in run-on sentences and—
"You told Lee? Lee who can't keep his mouth shut when he thinks something is important?"
Tenten's hands were planted on the log on either side of Neji's body. He could not escape to either side without the possibility of breaking one of her arms. He could have flipped backwards off the log, but then he risked kicking her in the jaw. While she had shaken off worse injuries, somehow he thought this time an accident like that would not slide by easily.
There was only one option the Hyuuga was capable of calling to mind. He would have to go through with it. Very softly and, he hoped, serenely, he asked, "What's wrong, Tenten?"
He wasn't sure, but he thought somewhere in the world, an entire country was hit by a second winter just from the force of her lividness. "What's wrong?" she echoed. She seized the front of his gi and roughly shook. Neji stilled his neck so that his head did not jerk around, but he didn't touch her to defend himself.
"It's just...I am not sure I quite understand the issue..."
"Issue!" She released him, and Neji was surprised she hadn't torn holes in his gi. "An issue, Neji, is running out of hot water when you want a shower. Falling out of bed in the middle of the night is an issue. This is a calamity!"
She backed away a few paces, his proximity possibly tempting her to commit murder. "I will rephrase," he said. "What did I do?"
That wording seemed to work on her because she pierced him with her steely gaze and bit out, "You told Lee that I don't like the color green!"
He was floored. Really, truly floored. Neji had never experienced such a feeling of uncomprehending shock and was not completely sure what physical manifestation, if any, the emotion should take. He was still reeling from that fact that Tenten was not merely angry but furious with him. And the day had just begun!
At last, he answered his own question...by chuckling.
Her eyes went round and wide, and he saw the glint of steel come into her hand. "It's not funny!"
She was right. It was, on all accounts, hilarious. But the Hyuuga were not a belly-laugh kind of family and so the chuckling sufficed. He bent over and gripped his knees while Tenten stood there, not sure whether to let her temper die or flare.
"I don't think you get it," she told him. "Lee wears nothing but green! So does Gai-sensei! I'm actually certain that identify themselves with green. If they think I don't like green, they'll think I don't like them and then our teamwork is ruined and it becomes my fault! But not really, because it'll be your fault."
"All right," he relented, "I admit it. I mentioned that you once said something about not favoring the color green. I didn't think Lee would take it to heart."
"He did. He's sulking and won't come out of his apartment. I've been shouting through his door all morning, and now my voice is hoarse."
Neji refrained from commenting that she had also been shouting at him and that did not help her vocal situation. Tilting his head a bit, he noted her narrowed eyes, the mussed hair buns, and the smirk would not flee from his face. "Very well, Tenten. I'll go speak with Lee as soon as we're done training."
"You're clearly angry. I don't think it would be wise to leave you without helping to alleviate your excess emotion."
Tenten paused, considering. "Okay, Neji. We'll train." Her eyes had not lost their sharpness. "But I might have to beat you mercilessly."
Stepping over to her, still smirking at how she was slightly pouting, he said, "I'm looking forward to it." Tenderly, he touched his smirk to her pout.
Her hands resting on his shoulders, she replied, "Good thing you're dating me. It's in my nature to act according to my emotions. The only reason I didn't kill you is because I still want to go see a movie tonight." Then she pushed him hard enough so that his feet trailed on the ground and clouds of dust rose up between them, and their sparring began.
Fortunately for Tenten, Lee learned the difference between not liking someone and not liking their color choice. Unfortunately for Neji, Tenten grew much more accustomed to getting angry.
Neji could not have been more mortified.
"Yes! That is exactly what our Tenten has been conveying!"
"It is the only way our beautiful flower of youth knows how to show her love!"
"And to think that our very own Neji-san has been chosen as The One!"
"And that Neji-san has decided to reciprocate!"
Now Neji contemplated seppuku.
"You must tell her at once!"
"This very minute!"
Neji was being humiliated to death by the most florid duo Konoha had ever had in its history. As of Last Week, Neji had Decided that he was going to Tell Tenten that he Liked her. As in Like. Unfortunately, all of a sudden Tenten had started coming to practices late and completely black with soot. Confused and worried that perhaps it was not appropriate to tell her of his decision, Neji had asked (which in hindsight, was a very bad idea) Lee for advice.
Beyond the inevitable gushing of celebration (which Neji had expected), it had somehow led into a full-blown introspection of Neji's history with Tenten, under the examination of Gai and Lee (which Neji had not expected). To Neji's utter confusion, they concluded that it was Tenten's attempts to wear make-up in front of Neji, except as Tenten was enamored of explosives, she believed that the blackened soot was a beautiful expression of her youth. …Or something like that.
Gai struck a pose. "Go, Neji, and tell Tenten of your everlasting love in return!"
x x x
Neji concluded that would be best if he found out the reason himself, and then he would go ahead and tell Tenten of his decision. He would do so in a very straightforward and simple way. No frills, no fancy words, just that he liked her, in that sort of way, and it would please him greatly if she would be his "girlfriend." (Which she would, he knew, but he would have to find a better way to phrase that. It didn't sound quite right.)
He made his way to Tenten's experimental area, a place where she made alterations to her weaponry, made additions to her scrolls, and tinkered with explosives. Thus the reason why it was far away from Konaha, was spitted with craters partially filled in with earth jutsu, and had a large number of dead, blackened trees full of indents. Neji walked over to the lean-to where Tenten tended to be when she wasn't blowing/hacking things up in the area. He could see the white of her shirt underneath the awning, and from the curve of her back he could tell she was working on something delicate. Neji stopped respectfully just outside the opening.
"—So maybe if I put it in this order, then—oh, hey Neji, um, I'm a little busy right now—"
Neji waited for two seconds.
"Tenten. I have something important to tell you."
"Um, can it wait?"
Neji considered. "No."
"…If this is about me coming late to practice and completely black with soot, I'm working on something really important, like Right Now, and it's really delicate and it has to do with explosives so if you could please—"
In retrospect, Neji would say that it was because he had been waiting for two and a half years, it was late in the afternoon, he had found out that it was just explosives, and that he could deal with anything that Tenten could dish out anyway. Tenten would say that Neji was just a plain idiot. In any case, Neji interrupted Tenten to say,
"Tenten, I love you."
What happened next was a massive explosion, caused by Tenten losing control of her chakra-flame match and setting off her entire supply of home-made black powder. Which was quite significant.
Tenten and Neji were blown in opposite directions, Neji slamming into a tree and Tenten into the cliff-side. Tenten groaned.
"Okay. Neji. Next time, tell me stuff like that when I'm not about to light something on fire, okay?"
Neji blinked up into the sky, completely black with soot, hair askew and fried and even sizzling. "Understood."
"Oh yeah. Love you too."
ENTRY E: With Your Shield
Tenten had awoken at the break of dawn to her husband pulling on the armguards of his uniform with his helmet tucked under his arm, the silver metal of his chest plate reflected small streaks of sun light onto the bedroom walls. His long dark locks had been tied back, not as his low ponytail as usual, but higher up as to keep the strands out of his face. His face looked serious and stern, though his pale eyes softened when he looked upon his queen.
"You're continuing with the battle even without the Counsel's consent?"
The Counsel was the only group who had more authority than the royal couple themselves. They approve every political document, battle plan, or anything that affects the land of Konoha. The word of war against the Sound outraged them, mainly by the king's decisions on the subject.
The king, Neji, sighed, "They have told me to do nothing. How can I simply do nothing for this country? The Sound will take over if we do nothing, they will make our elders, our women and children into slaves…I cannot agree to that."
The queen stood from the tangled bed sheets, appearing to her husband's side. She pressed her lips to his ear, only to whisper several words before he would leave for one of the most major wars of today's history.
"Come with your shield…or on it."
His back stiffened, her touch still electrified his body, and he was ever grateful for that jolt of energy.
"I will…" he whispered back, "I will."
x x x
Neji had arrived in the battle training fields where he would have the soldiers including their captain, Rock Lee, would meet him before leaving off to battle.
"All 300 of them are here sir, with born sons to carry on their name."
He nodded, pleased with the 300 soldiers in front of him. Neji's silver eyes carefully assessed each soldier.
"But only 300 soldiers, your highness?" Lee murmured under his breath,
"The Sound claims to have over a million soldiers."
Neji glared to the captain, silver eyes sharp.
"No other soldiers on this Earth have been trained the way these soldiers have."
Lee was about to open his mouth to reply before hearing small thuds of hooves crossing the land to where everyone had stood. A man riding horseback approached the men. His bald head gleamed from the sun, and severe green eyes pierced into Neji's silver ones. He dismounted his horse.
"I'm a messenger from the Sound," he said, "Lord Orochimaru would willingly withdraw from the war if you agree to simply relinquish your land and water."
The messenger soon became confused, however, when he heard a low rumbling chuckle from Neji.
"Land and water…" He chuckled, "Your ‘Lord' is either a coward or a fool…possibly even both."
The messenger glared, "How dare you insult him!"
Neji's mocking chuckles ceased, his jaw clenched.
"I will dare! My men have been prepared much longer than any of yours could possibly be! You may fight for land and water only to gain more power, but I fight for my nation, quite unlike your so-called Lord!"
The messenger growled, "Our arrows will block the sun!"
Neji's eyes narrowed, "Then we will fight in the shade."
The messenger could not reply as a spear whizzed from next to where Neji was standing, grazing the man's arm with a stinging pain.
"Get out." Lee seethed, "or the next one won't miss."
The messenger scrambled back onto his horse, the slight cut on his arm beginning to bleed.
"The Sound will prevail!" He yelled at a final moment, his voice hoarse as he galloped off to where he had appeared, leaving to tell his Lord about Konoha's hostile attitude.
"Over my dead body." Lee said, his eyes now proudly observing the 300 men in front of him as Neji signaled them to march.
x x x
Under his own words, Lee had been killed.
Neji did not have time to mourn, nor did his other soldiers. Neji single-handedly killed 43 Sound soldiers. Lee had killed 44, the 44th one to save Neji's life, sacrificing his own. He did not have time to feel guilty. Nor to ask himself why.
His body had spun around, his sword killing two soldiers in the process. A single tear rolled down his cheek.
He did not have time to cry.
x x x
The soldiers remembered that day clearly, it had rained. It had rained like the sky was weeping, and Neji thought it reflected his mood perfectly.
Even for a moment however, the sun had managed to peek through the clouds as everyone marched forward. The sun had abruptly darkened once more, but Neji looked up not to see clouds at all, but arrows, waves and waves of arrows, as if they were raining from the sky.
He chuckled, his deep voice resonating.
"SHIELDS!" he roared as all of the soldiers huddled, arranging their shields to shield not just themselves, but those next to them in an ongoing chain, the perfect defense.
"Sir?!" a soldier asked, curious of his leader's
"We are fighting in the shade!" Neji grinned, the arrows thundering against their metal shields, some even piercing against it.
The soldier smirked, no explanation was needed.
Orochimaru was not pleased. His original plans were failing and king Neji was killing his men left and right. Orochimaru hoped that the death of their captain would remind them who was the more powerful. Yet they still fought with the strength much stronger than their actual number of 299 men, or possibly 300 if they brought another soldier in to take the captain's place. He did not know.
His next decision would have to make or break this war. Orochimaru intended to make it.
"Kabuto…" He hissed, beckoning his commander for his army, "Send out the immortals."
x x x
The soldiers of Konoha were still going strong. Loud clangs of swords against shields echoed throughout the land. All was well until a roar was heard.
Neji turned to see a massive dark mass traveling through the battlefield. It took him moments to realize they were people dressed in all black, including black masks covering their faces. As the mass dispersed, seemingly disappearing into the groups of soldiers, a large throne sat behind all of the mayhem, and upon that throne was Orochimaru himself.
Before he could even react, Neji heard two blood curdling screams as he saw one of the black-masked men standing over the bodies of two of his soldiers.
Orochimaru smirked. "Neji, wonderful to see you."
"Pleasure." Neji mockingly scoffed.
Orochimaru gestured to the wide array of soldiers upon the battlefield that have now completely stopped, surprised to see the Sound leader upon them.
"I can guarantee that every one of my men, "he pointed to the black masked soldiers, "will annihilate every one of yours."
"On the contrary, if you agree to end this war on your behalf, you may keep your land and water, you may be appointed king of ALL of the Leaf Villages, but you will bow down to the rightful almighty ruler of this Earth." Orochimaru smirked once again, his golden eyes blazing in power.
"If I refuse?"
"Well…" Orochimaru snapped his fingers.
A rustle of artillery clanging against shields, and sudden yelps of shock made Neji look up to all of his men with knives to their necks by the black masked soldiers, their eyes were confused, as if they didn't know how in the world that happened.
"Bow down, King Neji."
All of his men were helpless, so with no choice, Neji went to his knees with his head down.
"Relinquish your sword,"
Neji did so, dropping it with no hesitation as he still looked to the ground.
"Your shield as well,"
The shield dropped with a clang, Neji did not flinch.
Neji did not move.
"Your spear, King Neji."
There was no movement from the young king; he was still facing the ground, his spear in his right hand. With that, Neji did not allow Orochimaru to prepare before throwing the spear at a rate so fast that nobody even saw him release his hold.
For Lee, he thought, For Tenten, for my son.
All you could hear throughout those lands was a small but satisfying thud.
x x x
Tenten was told to report to the fields by the messenger Neji established. Knowing Neji, he most likely meant the meadow behind the fields which was bordered by a thin forest, as he didn't want anybody to know of their secret haven that they found as teenagers. She walked gingerly to the open meadow, purple, yellow, and white wildflowers were painted upon the grass, the long green stalks swaying in the soft breeze.
She was nervous, she didn't know whether he'd appear or if there would be another message sent reporting on his death in the place they held most dear. Tenten wrung her wrists, listening to the comforting babble of the creek not too far off. This was all interrupted by a small rustle that she heard behind her.
Neji stood, his sword gone, his spear gone, but his shield held by his right hand that he had salvaged from the field before heading home. His clothing was torn, revealing scars, gashes and wounds. A thin scar crossed his cheek, his dark hair matted against his head. Yet his face held the smile so happy and serene that all other negative characteristics vanished.
Tenten cried, her tears staining his torn shirt as he held her, smelling in her scent, kissing her forehead every moment he could, and thanking Lee for allowing him to have this moment, otherwise this would have been a much different scenario.
He was home, within Konoha,
His beloved land.
They confronted him at the tail-end of a long day of training, and really he should have been tired and testy and prone to annoyance. But for some reason he seemed in a distracted mood, and he actually heard them out rather than ignoring them utterly and stalking past them.
"What," demanded Yamanaka Ino, "is wrong with you?"
Hinata stood nearby wringing her hands; while Sakura looked half-exasperated at Ino and half-agreeing with her.
For the sake of his Main House cousin, Neji stooped so low as to request clarification.
"Do you, like, not eat or something?" was the reply. Neji only leveled a bland, uninterested gaze at Ino.
"Okay. We wanted to know your favorite food and no one can tell us, so we decided to cast a genjutsu on you. It should have constantly made you imagine what you were hungriest for, and trigger you going to find said food. But - nothing! And you didn't eat today, we saw you! Man, even Sasuke-kun revealed his love for tomatoes..." Ino trailed off, but not because she'd run out of things to say.
It was because Neji was suddenly emitting a killing aura.
"You – you – you...!" he spat, advancing on Ino with hands up and ready to strike. "All day today – in clouds, bark of trees, falling leaves, ripples in water, in the frigging flames of our cookfire.....she must think I'm an idiot now, the way I acted around her! All day long, damn you, I kept seeing naked Tenten around me!"
x x x
He counted birds as he walked, an old exercise for his Byakugan. And then suddenly as the eighth bird winged into the sky, his attention was caught by something else, by a white cloud stark against the hot blue of the summer sky, clouds that reminded him of …
He suddenly realized what he was fantasizing about and began shaking his head frantically.
He strode quickly towards the training grounds. In his preoccupation with NOT thinking about Tenten's sleek, long-limbed – NO! –
…he stepped in a puddle. Cursing, he looked down, only to get lost in how his own ripply reflection in the water, and the slant of sunlight on it, transformed in his mind to an image of Tenten……
He began to run.
He found no respite in training in the trees – somehow the leaves falling around him, swirling in the wind, combined to form a scandalous image of Tenten – and turning away from them exposed him to a rather interesting pattern in the tree-bark – and landing, the earth had reminded him of the rich color of her hair, and then that led to picturing her clad only in her loosed cascade of chocolate-dark locks…
When the actual Tenten appeared, Neji had been reduced to a twitchy, wide-eyed, nervous pile of nerves (and hormones) and actually shied away from her, and requested with rather wild eyes that they switch things up a bit – he would train with Gai-sensei, and…
His eyes kept darting to her as she sparred with the smaller green-clad Beast of Konoha.
How would she look if she fought without anything but her weapons…..?
GAH! Not again!
x x x
There were tears, there were fissures in the earth and cracks in walls, there were scorch-marks and there were rent clothing. And this was what Neji achieved while Hinata fairly hung onto his arm and begged for clear heads all around.
Sakura watched Ino race away, Neji as hot on her heels as Hinata was on his, the younger Hyuuga pleading for peace as fervently as Neji was promising pain and suffering on Ino. The pink-haired medic dropped her head and sighed, before chewing lightly on her lip in confusion.
"But the genjutsu shouldn't have shown him anything but food…." she wondered aloud...
x x x
'Unless someone cast another jutsu to modify it,' silently answered Tenten, relaxing in the shadows where she had hid herself – although the wide white grin splitting her face might have been less than inconspicuous.
ENTRY G: Navigation
Night was drifting down onto their clearing, remaining wisps of light bleeding into the horizon; the woods quieted and stilled, settling wearily into the dark. The air had grown cold. Neji lay by her side with his face tilted away, hooded eyes glimmering as he watched the shadows spread thickly beneath the trees. The earth crumbled under his hands, sucked dry as rust.
Autumn leaves resembled dead butterfly wings on the ground: cool, brittle, colourless. They reminded him of something (they reminded him of him) and so he reached out and found her by touch, sliding his palm across her ribs, feeling the subterranean ridges arc gently beneath the light cotton of her shirt. He trailed his hand up between her breasts to slant over a collarbone before pressing his knuckles against the hot pulse at her throat, reassured by the slow, steady beat that thrummed against his fingertips. She was warm enough to thaw his coldness, bright enough to stain his white and solid enough to ground him where he needed to be (but he knew without looking that her eyes were opened wide and turned unwaveringly heavenwards).
He glanced up at the dry humour in her voice. A smoky thread of gold was streaking through the sky high above them from the direction of the village, its tip crackling with hard white sparks.
"Not a natural one," he murmured wryly, proved right when it abruptly split into separate branches that were flung out into the darkness like a vast, glittering net. Naruto must have accidentally set off the fireworks three hours early. (He wondered briefly how the most powerful shinobi in the village could also be the most tragically inept.) Tenten sucked in a breath when they erupted simultaneously, molten gold exploding into numerous miniature suns.
"One, two, three…." She counted each crest, staring almost reverentially as they lit up the sky and turned the night momentarily into day. "......Eight. Nine. Ten." One for each gruelling month since the last of the legendary Sannin had been killed and Konoha was dragged kicking and screaming out of wartime devastation by the current Rokudaime. Remember, they said. Remember the Godaime, remember what she died for, remember how far you have come and the distance yet to go. Neji felt something constrict in his chest when he saw the look on her face, the rapt attention and wordless longing that told him this part of Tenten was untouchable, even by him, even now. At barely nineteen years of age they had already watched the destruction of their village and fought tooth and nail to resurrect it from the ashes – but there was still so much to do, so much ambition to fulfill, and Tenten had always chased after far too many suns in her sky.
"I saw you training yesterday with the Aburame." He spoke evenly as if stating a fact, but knew she would understand what he was really asking anyway. Tenten never used to train with anyone outside of Team Gai; it was tradition, after all, for her to ask him – and only him - to spar when Lee and Gai were unavailable. Even after he had started training with Hiashi she had never strayed away; Neji knew his uneasiness was irrational and unfair but he couldn't help but feel vaguely threatened anyway, as if she was slipping through the cracks in the walls he had built to keep those he needed within his reach.
"Shino's kikaichu are a challenge for my techniques," she told him firmly, unapologetic, her face still turned to the sky. "Normal blades are too thick to damage targets of their size and number. He was helping me find ways to overcome those snags." She had seen him in the distance when she leaped into the dusk, had noticed the stiff set of his shoulders as he looked up at her spinning silhouette while she trained with Shino. Traditions can be broken, Neji, and there are better things to be shackled to than the past.
A pause. "I see." But his hand slid down her arm, circling around her wrist more tightly than necessary. Tenten let him.
After a moment she finally turned to face him, leaning gently into the length of his body. "As legend goes," she began tentatively, pausing to kiss the skin at his shoulder left bare by his ANBU uniform; Neji knew she was referring to the stories that belonged to the land her clan inhabited before they migrated West to Konoha. "At the beginning, there existed ten suns in the sky." She shifted, pressed her lips lightly to his cheek. "The combined heat and blinding light was too much. The earth was scorched dry and it became difficult and painful to live in those conditions. To save the world, an archer named Hou Yi took his arrows and shot down the suns, one at a time." Another kiss, this time sweetly on the mouth. Neji closed his eyes. "But after the ninth sun was gone, Hou Yi put down his bow. The last sun was the furthest away but he spared it not because it was too difficult to shoot; he spared it because while having too many suns was destructive, we need at least one to survive."
He knew what she was trying to say. It left something hollow in him, the prolonged silence between each ticking of snagged clockwork, but he knew what she was trying to say and there was nothing he could do but to accept it.
"You've helped me achieve so many of my goals already, Neji." Her voice was soft. It was true: their duet had strengthened her over the years and honed her skill, had given her the respect and admiration of her fellow shinobi, the status as the best weapons-user in the country, given her the rank of jounin and then ANBU, given her him. She brushed his hair away from his forehead, exposing his hitae-ate. "But I need to have this." Because even Hyuuga Neji couldn't shoot down this last sun in her sky, this pervading dream to be even better than she was now, even faster and smoother and sharper.
There was only so much that she could learn training with the same person over and over again. After a while she had to move on to find new and challenging terrain, terra incognita to map and explore and conquer. Neji had gone on to study with his uncle. Tenten drifted restlessly, wandering everywhere, trying to learn anything and everything she could about her steel.
"I need this," she repeated. "You need this. Lee, Hinata, Naruto….they all do." But strength was relative, not a static state of being. There would always be the possibility of becoming stronger and even stronger then; they who navigated by the sun knew it was unreachable yet chased it anyway, because there was nowhere else to run, no brighter star in the sky. Neji understood this perfectly but it left him uncomfortable because it meant that there would always be this hardness inside of her, this untouchable core that he could never call his own, something bright in her life that would never have anything to do with him or be his. (And he knew that the same thing existed within himself, but perhaps he was really just afraid that one day hers would lead her far away from him to where he could not follow).
There was only one thing he needed to know.
"And when night falls?" Because this sun was forever but every sun will set at the end of the day, leaving the earth to rest briefly in the darkness that stretches before dawn. His face was impassive but Tenten recognized the faintest tension around his eyes that betrayed his worry. She smiled softly, leaning closer to whisper in his ear:
"I'll come back." Always. It was ironic, in a way; no matter how far they wandered apart in the light they would always find each other again in the dark.
He was still for a long moment. Tenten could hear music and the continuous murmur of the crowds, muffled by the distance; the anniversary festivities must be in full swing by now in the village. She preferred the quiet of his company.
Then Neji finally slackened his grip on her wrist, fingers uncurling slowly, letting her free to move away. Tenten pulled her hand up so her palm rested on his instead, and when he spoke his voice was steadied by a subtle undercurrent of trust. "Thank you."
I'll be waiting.
ENTRY H: Blind
'Five birds . . .' Neji counted. The pronounced veins surrounding his activated Byakugan pulsed with exerted chakra as he watched with a gleam of envy at the sailing creatures overhead. They were free of the earth, free of the high canopies. They were different entities altogether.
Neji spun back in time to avoid the accurate thrust of a thrown kunai, spliting the air soundlessly and heading straight for his precious eyes.
It collided into the mangled bark of a towering Konoha tree.
"Daydreaming again, Neji?"
Neji reached out to pluck the now stationary missile, letting it hang loosely betwixt his fingers. "What is it, Tenten?"
'I want to spar with you.'
Even with two kunai curled in her fists, he didn't take her seriously. Even after months of partnership, it still felt like he was going easy on her. "Nothing," she said, intuitively knowing that her words would sound the same to him. "You've been out here a long time."
'I wish you wouldn't overlook me.'
"Gai-sensei wants us to run two-hundred laps. Lee failed to finish all seven-hundred push-ups, so now the team has to suffer the consequences," she informed him, attempting a light-hearted jest despite staring at his cold, uncaring back. He still didn't look at her, although, she conceded, he really didn't have to. Not with those eyes.
"C'mon." She quietly slipped the kunai back into her pouch; it seemed she wasn't about to use them anytime soon. She headed towards the vigorous shouting in the distance, hoping he'd follow.
"You came to spar, didn't you?"
She swiftly about-faced, eyes receptive in surprise. He was standing in a battle-ready position, the kunai raised, the Byakugan activated. She felt pitied, but still smiled. She was willing.
"Alright," she grinned, wider than she actually felt. Kunai emerged from her pouch. They didn't stay in her hands for a single, full second.
He easily deflected them, then narrowed his stance. She smirked inwardly; he was trying to get through her guard. She jumped into the air, pulling a fuuma shuriken from blood and scroll. It was sent scissoring into the air, leveling at least a dozen trees behind him.
He seemed to cluck his tongue (but didn't really; his eyes said it all). "You missed."
"I wasn't aiming for you," she was pleased to announce. He hesitated a moment, trying to decipher her meaning, then – realizing his mistake – recommenced his assault. She dropped onto the newly-formed stumps, giving her an advantage in height. As he thrust his deadly techniques at her, she cartwheeled backwards onto another, one hand as balance, the other sliding out a blade to parry him with.
She grinned. She never got to use her swordsmanship with him.
She dashed the blade at him, skewering off strands of fine hair. She saw him grimace; she knew he would count that as a point of loss. Just as she was beginning to feel smug, his fingers grazed her upper arm. In shock, she realized that she could suddenly feel nothing. Her handling hand went limp, and she cursed, ducking beneath his outstretched arm to escape the dangerous propinquity.
He furiously spun, the force and speed of Kaiten first sucking her in then blowing her backwards. She landed badly, pressuring her ankle at odd and undesirable angles. She managed a sharp gasp, before resuming her stance, refusing to let such a small physical injury hinder her.
With Kaiten complete, and the air feathering down in whipping spirals, he watched her, an arrogant smirk in his expression. He was asking for surrender.
She chuckled. "I don't think so." She discharged three angry shuriken at him. Just as planned, he took the bait, sprinting rapidly towards her whilst dodging the diversions. When they were nearly nose to nose, she flipped back, and using a severed stump as leverage, launched herself once more into the air.
His pale, colorless eyes followed her into the sun. He was directly beneath her. He was finally in her shadow.
She released her scroll. The cream-colored paper unfurled in the air, tracing ostentatious lines. From the black ink came black steel.
He realized he was in the center, with no trees to obstruct her range. He was not caged; he was trapped.
In a heartbeat, she rained weaponry at him with all the fury of a goddess of battle.
But like the wind, he whirled. The gales of Kaiten shielded him from the unforeseen wrath. Metal was deflected into the surrounding ambiance, glittering like diamonds separated by the pinnacle of a pyramid.
She dropped to the earth, breathing heavily, spent.
"Good planning," he admitted, "but poor analysis of your opponent, Tenten."
She managed a weak smile. "You never let me forget that, don't you?" She hopped into the trees.
It was then that Neji realized Tenten – however direct she appeared to be – was an evasive kunoichi. She deceived her opponent into thinking she was a straightforward fighter, when all she ever did was strike at a distance. Any time he approached, she would spread back, keeping a constant distance.
There was a discrepancy between her desire to challenge him, and the method in which she went about it. It was inharmonious. Was she unaware of it?
What did she really wish to gain from this fight?
Tenten's could hear her own ragged breathing--it was too loud. Her chakra depleted, she had no other methods with which to fight save the few weapons she managed to collect on her way up. She knew she was going to lose, but she didn't want the fight to end yet. She never did.
Her tongue went across her lips, tasting sweat and dirt. With disconcertion, Tenten noted that Neji wasn't focused on her. He wasn't looking for her? What was he watching, then? Brows knitted, she hurled a kunai at him, if only redirect his attention back to her.
Tenten felt it, before she saw it.
He turned a little too slow, a little to hesitantly…
Crimson spilled to the ground. Pale eyes narrowed in pain, Neji stumbled back, a hand pressed against the open wound between the junction of his neck and back.
"Neji!" she screamed breathlessly. She dived from the treetops, and hit the ground sprinting. She was at his side in an instant.
Blood. His blood. She didn't know she was clutching him until she retracted her hands and saw them red. Her hands were shaking. Her eyes were dilated in sick realization and horror.
"Neji, I–I'm sorry! You didn't expect it! It was an underhanded blow, I know it—I didn't realize—"
"No." He stayed her trembling arms. "I didn't see it." Just his voice made as if to calm her.
She hurried to unravel the bandages from her pouch pocket, the panic only barely suppressed. Gently as she could, quivering like a leaf in a storm, she prompted him to withdraw his bloodstained hand. (It was her fault he had blood there, and how many more times in the future would it be her fault? She felt ill.)
She was relieved to find it was a shallow wound; the kunai had only kissed his neck. The initial shock made it seem more than it was. "Neji," she murmured in a subdued tone, "I'll take you to the hospital. I'm…"
His brow was creased finely, nobly. He appeared ponderous, not looking at her. Tenten wondered vaguely, with this horrid stir in the pit of her stomach, what kind of hatred he would manifest for her. She wondered how exhilarating it had all been, and how it upset it now all seemed. Her mouth twitched as if to bite her lip in anxiety. Her hands were aggravatingly unused to treating him – anyone. She felt a little more than useless now.
Neji suddenly stood, brushing away her touch. She let her hands fall limply to her sides, the white strips dangling from her blood-spotted fingers. They were silent. She was staring at his back again, but he didn't seem so invincible this time – so unreachable. Did she make his this way? She wasn't sure yet if she regretted it.
He was still bleeding.
"Neji, I'm sorry." She could hardly hear them breathing. "But let me stop the bleeding."
He shifted a little, barely catching her eyes in his. Those pools of white captured her in a way she never had been involved before. She didn't see the rust-colored spread against the jacket, or the dark oak of his hair splayed against the play of solemn color.
She just saw him.
"I have," he paused, but not nearly long enough, "a blind spot."
She was quiet for a very long moment. Then, she murmured, "I see."
Playing with a smile, she approached him, holding the bandages up to his skin. "We'll stop the bleeding now."