“Alongside time exists fate, the bearer of cruelty.” -Nyx (Persona 3)
Hyuga Neji waited. He was sitting crossed legged at the foot of her bed, attempting in vain to distract himself from her absence by meditating. However, hard as he tried, he just couldn’t concentrate. He glanced at the ticking clock for what felt like the hundredth time. The little squared object mocked him from its perch on her nightstand. He had half-a-mind to smash it into bits and pieces with his Hakke Kūshō. The only thing that held him back, was the fact that it was Tenten’s and he was reluctant to provoke her anger.
He sighed, running a hand through his long hair. He couldn’t decide whether to feel worried or annoyed at her unusual time off. He had been looking for her all day relentlessly, being extra careful to hide the frustration that had inevitably crept inside him. He’d been forced to abandon his search after he’d attracted too much unwanted attention. For the first, he cursed his aloofness. Had he been more willing to show at least some outward sign of emotion in the past, his current state would not have stuck all who knew him as odd!
But what else could he expect? To the world, they were supposed to be nothing more than teammates. As much as Neji craved to openly confirm Tenten was his and his alone, he had other matters he needed to settle first. Mainly, he had to convince the Hyuga Elders –especially the stern and heartless Hiashi—that she was the best choice for him to marry. No, not even that! He had to make sure they understood that Tenten was his only choice. Unfortunately, that was easier said than done and a lot of protocol had to be followed. Still, he was not about to let the lengthy sessions deter him from his self-appointed task –the first goal he ardently wished to achieve no matter the cost.
Yet that, by no means, meant that Tenten should have to suffer through the obnoxious process too. Though he wished for nothing more than to let her in on his plan, he was unwilling to hear her explanation of how she was not worth the effort. Because, as experience had shown before, that’s exactly what she would do. She would argue that he should not struggle for someone like her; as if by leaving he would not suffer an even worse pain! For Kami’s sake, the woman could be so dense sometimes!
It surprised him -and in a level, it also irritated him- that she often thought so little of herself. That, despite his constant reassurance, that shadow of doubt still lingered in her eyes. This was especially true when they were in public, separated by the strings imposed by people who had long since passed away.
So what if she had no clan to call her own…? What did the fact that her father had betrayed the Land of Earth, and had sent his daughter to the Leaf for protection, had to do with Tenten’s superb abilities? Why would she be less significant because her family’s ancestors were from a different land, her origins shrouded under layers of mystery? It changed not the fact that she had proven her loyalty –even to the point of disregarding her life- time and again for the Land of Fire!
She may not have a last name now, but he would work raptly until he changed that. He would give her his name to share, because Neji was firm in the belief that only his last name would do. No other family name would suit her, period. Only she had what he wanted to in a wife and he was not about to let anyone get between them, not even his Clan.
Hyuga Tenten, it even has a nice ring, his mind whispered smugly.
A beep coming from her clock marked the fact that it was already ten o’clock. Neji sighed dejectedly, his anger reduced to mild annoyance at not being able to see her prior to his departure. It was hard enough knowing it would be a while before he could see her, touch her… kiss her again. The fact that she’d been missing all day made the unavoidable, temporal parting much more difficult.
Aware that there was little he could do about it, he approached her desk. He took a blank piece of paper and decided to leave her a message. More so given that whispering it in her ear was, sadly, out of the picture. He paused at mid-stroke, wondering how much information he should convey. In the end he decided against explaining in detail his purpose of leaving, writing in its stead one of his customary cryptic notes. If everything went according to plan, then he would be able to propose to her in two months. And even if part of him felt certain she would accept, the other part of him knotted with nerves and yes, even fright.
But for all the sure fights that were to come, for all the complications that were certain to impede his way, the whole struggle would definitely be worth the prize. Because, there was no doubt in his mind and heart, that she was worth it. And he would do everything to keep her with him.
Having finished the message, he folded it and left it atop her bed. He realized just then how very much he had come to rely on her presence to get him by in a daily basis. The fact that he felt so upset about not finding her was proof enough of his increasing dependence; one that did not particularly appall him, though in the past it would have. The truth was, up until now she had always been here. She’d always lingered in a place where he was sure to find her whenever he wanted, ready to welcome him with an unwavering smile. No ulterior motive for her happiness beyond the fact that she enjoyed his company just as much as he enjoyed hers.
Of course, he’d noted how much he hurt her whenever he would pull away from an embrace if he sensed someone coming. He knew because, in the second before she managed to don her mask of cheerfulness, her real emotions would flash inside those beautiful, doe eyes.
Tenten never asked for anything, but that didn’t mean she didn’t wish for something. She wanted people to know about them and, as time went by, it became increasingly obvious that she was getting tired of settling with what he managed to give her. Her attempts to hide that became sloppy –or maybe it had to do with the fact that he was able to read her better? In any case, he’d often been tempted to screw it all and kiss her senseless before that obnoxious crowd she referred to as friends.
However, he couldn’t do it. He wasn’t about to place her at the receiving end of the Hyugas’ wrath because he was selfish enough to break the old-fashion, highly impractical traditions of his Clan. He liked—no, he loved her too much to force her to suffer through that. If anything, he was willing to suffer by himself and he’d done it too. Every time she hurt, he felt it twice as much because he knew he was the one causing it –even if she did not know the entire truth. Because, unknown to her, he was fighting for her. Every day, he was filled with thoughts of how to keep her with him without having to wrestle his entire Clan. Naturally, if it came to that, he would do it. He would battle even Haishi himself for the honor of staying by her side. That was the length of his silent devotion to her. If only the fiery minx knew…
Heaving a long sigh, he was about to leave before something tossed on a cornered chair stole his attention. He strolled to it and took the item between two fingers. He smiled. It was only a quirking of his lips, but when it came from the stoic Neji, that pretty much translated into a toothy grin.
It was one of the sets of white bandages she sometimes used to bind her chest. He hesitated about what to do for a second, before he tucked it inside the folds of his white gi, feeling the texture pressing against the skin of his chest and smiling at the thought of her indirect touch. Satisfied that he would at least have something of her with him, he scanned her room one last time before leaving her house, locking it and pocketing the spare key she had given him almost four months ago.
Tenten… You better be okay, he found himself thinking, as he made his way back to the compound. He knew she was somewhere in the village, even if he hadn’t found her, which helped in putting him somewhat at ease. But just as he began to jump from rooftop to rooftop, as if to mock his previous assumption, he felt an uncomfortable feeling of impending disaster fluttering inside him. Shaking his head, he realized that the odd sentiment was gone. Deciding not to read more into it, it was promptly pushed and lost inside the darkest recesses of his mind.Everything will be fine, he told himself, and by the time he reached his room, he believed it.
Tenten stood up from where she’d been sprawled on the grassy hill looking at the stars; the folder with the papers of her mission still clutched by her wounded hand. Though she had originally intended to go home, and mentally prepare herself for what lay ahead, her feet had opted for an entirely different target. After mild hesitation, she had yielded to her body –or maybe her spiritual desires?—and had blindly followed her instincts. Before long, she’d found herself standing on a hill just outside of Konoha.
For a while, she had entertained herself by mutely gazing upon her home and her people, watching as they moved to and fro with the comfort of their never-changing routine. Slowly, day had given way to night and still she hadn’t dared moved from her place below a leafless tree, courtesy of the coming winter.
Sometime during the day, she had studied the papers that filled the folder, memorizing her cover story and paying special attention to the instructions and advice the Hokage herself had written. After sometime she had desisted in her efforts of convincing herself that this was another trial that she would have to overcome. The heart of the matter was, that there was a huge chance this would be her last assignment, no matter how much she insisted otherwise. Funny how, even when acknowledging this, she still remained quite at ease.
A little before midnight, as the night got too crisp to bear with solace, she began her languid journey back home. Strolling through darken streets, she wondered if Neji would be waiting for her in her apartment. The thought of finding him there made her smile. Ever since she’d given him a spare key, he had been more than eager to use it every chance he got. At least four times per week, he would visit her, slipping like liquid through the shadows of Konoha, careful not to be seen by anyone. But as soon as he was inside her cozy apartment, he would stroll through her corridors at a complete ease –a clear sign of the comfort developed between them.
For her part, Tenten would lay in bed, patiently waiting for him to rush up the stairs and slip into his spot by her side. Sometimes he would come, others he would stay at the compound, peacefully slumbering within the quiet solitude of his room. On the nights he did visit her, she rejoiced, relishing in the warmth of his strong arms and the gentle touch of surprisingly soft –albeit muscled- smooth skin.
Tenten remembered vividly their first night together. She recalled his hesitation and her soft beckoning, a signal that she was willing to be claimed in body as well as in heart. The nervousness from both had threatened to ruin the moment, but they’d pulled through. She remembered especially that first intimate caress he’d given her body with silken palms. The minute attention he’d bestowed to her every muscle, as he traced them with tentative fingers as though he’d never noticed them before. Foremost, she remembered how bad she felt that he could not feel soft hands upon his body in return, for hers were calloused, rough and quite clumsy. And yet, he seemed just as pleased by her trembling strokes, just as excited by her passionate kisses.
His eyes showed what she knew he was incapable of wording. There was devotion and awe; surprise and happiness. It was a look that bared his soul to her, allowing her to see the warm feelings he harbored underneath his cool exterior; feelings he had been frightened to develop but which he ultimately had. Neji, she believed, loved her just as much as she loved him, even if he rarely voiced it. Yet, when he did whisper those three little words into her ear whenever they made love, she felt like hugging him --clinging to him in an attempt to merge him into her.
Despite what people thought of him, Neji always managed to act tender whenever they were within the intimate cocoon of her apartment. It was almost surreal, and Tenten felt the smug satisfaction of knowing she was perhaps the only one who knew of this other side of him. The carefulness with which he handled her, the gentleness he managed to impart with his every touch, were some of the things that melted her heart like no other thing could. It still struck her as surprisingly ironic how the same gentle fists that had been trained to crush and maim, were able to instinctively learn how to love and caress with the same deadly efficiency. And oh, he trained both techniques with the same passion and tireless effort. And he loved him for it all the more.
Tenten’s smile disappeared the moment she stepped inside her mute, empty and dark house. She closed her eyes for a couple of seconds, assimilating the fact that her day would not get better after all. But did she really want him here? Would it not be better for him to be away from her, least a probing question would crumble the hard shell she’d built to hide her vulnerability –her ghostly distress?
Pushing herself off the closed door, she made her way up the stairs and stole into her room. She had not eaten anything after breakfast and yet, she was not hungry. Brushing carelessly that oddity aside, she went straight to her closet, pulled a pair of sweatpants and a plain, black t-shirt and moved to the bathroom to prepare a bath.
After today, a well-earned treat was in order and a warm bath was just the thing to sooth her emotional turmoil —if not vanquish it altogether. Barely paying attention to what she was doing, she left her body soaking in the bubbly water for half an hour before she was forced to get up– the water losing its attractiveness by the time it shifted from hot to lukewarm.
She got dressed automatically, nimble fingers working on the familiar action while her mind wandered through stored images of her moonlight kissed lover. The same white-eyed sprite who, unfortunately or fortunately –she had yet to decide- was not here to brush her worries aside.
Making her way to her room while combing her hair, she finally spotted a folded piece of paper lying atop her pillow. The smile she’d hastily lost came back to grace her lips as she reached for it. She took it with tremulous fingers, aware only one person could have written it, and opened it with the eagerness of one who’s given an unexpected gift.
It was an unpleasant –and quite unusual- experience that I was unable to find you today. I guess you may have had your reasons for keeping to yourself and I shall respect that. I don’t know if I necessarily like it, though.
It was my intention to let you know that I will be leaving with the Clan’s head and the Elders early tomorrow morning. I will, thus, be absent from Konoha for two weeks. Though I would have preferred to spend tonight with you, it is imperative that I stay at the compound in case we are required to meditate before leaving –which would most probably be the case.
Suffice to say, I will miss you presence. However, I sincerely hope you will not plague my every thought since the company I’ll be forced to entertain will demand my full attention. It is of the utmost importance that I show them I can hold my own. But it is likewise important to make you proud of me and my actions, for which you will still most probably invade my mind against my better judgment.
I know what you’re thinking. If I cannot stop it, then might as well enjoy it, right? I suppose it is for the best that I should steal some of your positive views. Hopefully, I will plague your mind as much as you will mine. So, if you cut yourself while training just call it karmic justice, little minx.
Until then, keep out of trouble.
PS: I trust you will not plan to make a hobby out of vanishing even from my byakugan, correct?
Her face split from ear to ear in a breathtaking smile none would see. She read the message again, almost hearing him whispering the words in that beautiful baritone of smooth elegance. Even in writing he could not set aside his formality and the mannerism that decorated his messages –an unexpected thing since the man rarely spoke. Still, it goes without saying that he was really upset for not finding her today –else he wouldn’t have added the ‘unpleasant’ adjective. Tenten felt a bit guilty about that.
Thing was, Hyuga Neji was pretty high maintenance or, simply put, very needy. She doubted the man ever noticed that, but likewise hoped he never did. If she was to go on a mission where the rates of returning were pretty low, she would prefer to do so without having to think that she would not be the only one suffering.
No, wait! The idea of Neji suffering on her account was close to unbearable! Why hadn’t she pondered this more deeply until this moment? It struck her as strange that, though she knew the risks towards herself when she’d accepted the mission, she had not once thought about how it could possibly hurt him!
“It’s too late to change things now,” she reminded sternly and, just like that, something inside her snapped. A hysterical pitched voice began to scream inside her head, urging her go to the Hokage and convince her that this mission was not worth her life!
But no sooner had those thoughts formulated, before Tenten vanquished them with a confusing tint of rage. What the hell was wrong with her! She was a kuniochi, a professional shinobi! An ANBU operative, for Kami’s sake! Her life was no longer hers to control. It hadn’t been for a long time.
Regaining some of her scattered wits, she stalked towards her bed intent on getting some rest. Putting the message that had freed those unwelcomed feelings atop the nightstand, she laid on her bed. Her brow creased, marking her internal turmoil as the weight of her decision and its inevitable consequences came crashing down on her. Tenten bit hard on her lower lip, feeling burning tears welling behind her lids, ready to roll out and prove to the shadows around her that she was scared. That despite her training and her pride, she was doubting that fearlessness she’d often boasted about.
“Kami, I don’t want to leave him,” she whispered hoarsely, folding her body and hugging her knees to her chest as though that would keep her heart from shimmering. “I don’t want to die…”
For some mysterious reason, it was not until now that she finally realized what she had agreed to do. It was only now, alone and hidden inside the confines of her room, that she understood with blinding lucidness just what her mission would demand –the sacrifice she would have to make. Pain and suffering with absolutely no respite, that is what awaited her.
I just have to train, a voice in her mind offered hastily but without conviction, so that even though her message went unspoken, the voice still trembled with building dread. I will do my best and I will come back to ‘him’. To everyone. I will show them that I’m a power to behold even without a family to back me up. I will show ‘him’ that I’m worthy of him to hug under the daylight as passionately as under the moonlight…
She closed her eyes tightly, trying to ignore her fears in vain. Her teeth plunged mercilessly into the thin skin of her lower lip with so much force, that it ripped through, giving way to a small river of blood that she was quick to suck at.
It will be fine. I will be fine. It will be fine. I will be fine…
Though her mind repeated her mantra furiously, the cold fingers of dread clutched at her drumming heart, making her tremble beneath the thick blankets. So far she had studied this mission by its detailed sections, learning one before moving to the next. Yet now her mind had glued those pieces together to present the bigger picture; the picture that showed, not letters and instructions, but ruthless and bloody pictures of gore-filled scenarios.
And it was thus that, between cold walls and muted space, the weapon mistress of Konoha plunged into the first flood of grim despair, vowing and hoping, that it would also be her last. With frame-shaking sobs, Tenten realized that here was no going back. The only path remaining was forward. And, for her damn, steely pride if nothing else, she would follow it till the end… even if it killed her.