Hyuuga Neji doesn't understand why she insists on doing this. It has become an inalterable event repeated on a yearly basis. From the moment Tenten came of age and was introduced to alcohol, she made it a point to drop by a random bar and drink herself silly once every year. The infamous eighth of March, one day before her birthday, marks the mystery of Tenten's drunken stupor till today. It is the only day in which she forgets herself and casts away her mask. The day when her laughter rips the night apart, ringing not with happiness, but with an edge of insanity. The day that always ends the same, with her eyes swollen shut due to all her crying and his arms around her fragile form.
Today is the day Tenten shows that she's depressed. Neji has yet to learn if that depression comes as a result of alcohol. Or if it happens the other way around, her depression prompting her to search for something in the bottom of an ocean of scotch glasses- most of which end up broken on the floor.
The pounding on the Compound's door comes exactly at eleven. This, too, is always the same. When he opens the door, he finds an angry man there, calling for him. This is the point where he'll be asked to fix her mess. This man - like all those who came before him - seems too scared of the drunken Tenten to flinch at the wrath of the Hyuuga clan. When Neji asks what he wants, the man demands his immediate presence to deal with an unruly customer who keeps calling for him.
Despite threats and warnings relayed in years past - in which he has sworn that he would not help her the next time - Hyuuga Neji never fails to show. Today is no exception.
Like always, he finds her perched precariously on a barstool, forehead pressed against the dirty table, cheeks blushed, eyes shiny, hair disheveled, hands cut open by the glasses she broke. She's a different Tenten, more human, less perfect and yet... incredibly beautiful. A Tenten that is bleeding, hurting, open and vulnerable. She is a kunoichi-turned-woman-turned-child. Neji is glad no one has dared to take advantage of her, even when part of him mocks him for the thought.
What a hypocrite, the voice says, is that not what you're doing?
Neji ignores that and the truth with which it speaks. He checks on Tenten, making sure she's breathing, that she isn't badly hurt. Then he turns to the grumbling owner and the nervous patrons and apologizes. Only Tenten can prompt someone as proud as him to dip his head to mere civilians.
He reaches for his wallet automatically, already used to it, following his own script down to a tee. He throws the same amount of money on the table, enough to cover the destruction and then some more. Perhaps the extra cash is the real reason why they brought him in the first place. Neji doesn't want to consider that too closely; else he ends up questioning if Tenten asked for him at all. The idea that she might not have is unwelcome - which is weird, considering how annoying it is to come get her in the middle of the night in the first place.
"Hey, wake up," he leans forward and speaks into her ear, lips bushing her hypersensitive shell. She shudders, tempting him to repeat the action, but his discipline restrains him. The mask of the perfect gentlemen is secured. "Ten, come on, can you walk?"
He brushes tendrils of hair out of her face, speaking in a tone softer than intended. He hates the fact that he is going against his threats yet again. He is too easy on her, spoiling her. She cannot do this every year, it is unbecoming! He should be angry; he should snap at her, chide her like a child because that is how she's acting.
Yet he can't.
Tenten looks so damn broken, that Neji cannot bring himself to break her more. He doesn't dare. For what would happen if she shatters like those glasses at her feet? What kind of a man would he be if he risked her to such fate?
"Newwwjiiii," her eyes flutter open and she cracks a smile so wide, her eyes disappear yet again. It is a silly smile, but it warms his heart. It makes him feel like he is the only one left in her world, like she had been waiting for him all her life, like he is all she will ever need, like he's become her dashing knight.
Neji straightens, putting some needed distance between them. He takes a moment to regain control, to remember that she is drunk, to realize that her breath smells of alcohol and not of mint. Hyuuga Neji is projecting and he knows it.
"Time to go, Ten. Come on," he pulls her up and she stumbles into his arms, hugging him tightly.
He sighs, holding her by the waist, forcing himself not to answer her touches and playful caresses. He unlocks her arms from around his neck and keeps hold of only one, so that she is forced to look ahead instead of up at him. It helps him to clear his mind of the haze she has roused.
She molds to his flank as soon as he does this, leaning onto him, resting her lolling head on his shoulder. She nudges his neck again, her nose cold, a contrast to how warm her lips feel when they press against his throat. He groans inwardly, but says nothing. He doesn't trust his voice.
"Neji, you came fur me!" She hums happily, looking satisfied. "I like you da most, you know?"
Neji heaves a deep sigh, that's the only thing he can do.
"This is the last time, Tenten," he threatens, leading her outside, shouldering most of her weight. They both know those are empty words.
They fall silent when they hit the streets. They always do. She allows him to guide her down the deserted road. They'll go to her house, where he'll put her to bed, where he'll stay by her side, holding her as she cries, never knowing the reason why. Or at least, that is how the story is supposed to play out, yet it doesn't. It changes when they cross a street and she points at a different direction.
"Les go," she says, leading on wobbly feet. Neji doesn't know if she understands what she is doing. He doubts she knows where she's going, but he doesn't stop her.
He follows her to a property void of life. Literally. It is a piece of dry land to which he has never paid any attention. He knows that it has always been there, in the outskirts of Konoha, forgotten, abandoned, ignored. So why does Tenten seem so reluctant to go inside? Why does she square her shoulders and flinch when she finally steps in? Why is she pulling him along?
She keeps walking and stumbling, grasping his hand tightly, as if afraid that he will leave if she doesn't hold on to him. Why would he? She is important. And somewhere deep, deep inside, he is aware that he's enjoying the situation: to be relied upon by her in such a manner, to see her relaxed enough to be so vulnerable in his presence, to have her hold onto him so tightly... Hyuuga Neji wonders what he would do if she ever did any of those things sober.
She stops when they reach the middle of the beaten-down property. For the first time since walking into this place, he notices piles of stones all around, five in all. Tenten stops before one of them. The stones are painted black, piled clumsily, like a child had used them to bury her dead pet.
Tenten sits -no, crumbles on the ground and pulls him with her. When he glances at her profile, he becomes uncomfortable. She's looking at the stones with dead eyes, devoid of the shine that made them look so disoriented before. She looks sober even. No. It's more than that. She looks hard, somber, angry and in pain. In so much damn pain. Like there is a darkness inside her clouding the brilliance of her smile, dimming her eyes, breaking her perfect mask.
"The first thing they take away from you is your name," she says. She's still holding onto his hand. When she squeezes, Neji squeezes back, still unsure.
"Who are you talking about?" he prompts after a while, softly, hesitantly. He doesn't like that darkness. Wants to chase it out of her and yet... he's too curious to stop her descent.
"Me. My father."
She's staring at those stones, glaring at them. This is the first time she's ever spoken about her family, so Neji can't stop himself from probing.
"What's under those stones?"
"My father. My name. A traitor," She deadpans.
A traitor? Her father was a traitor? Neji doesn't know how to react. He doesn't know what to say. He is not even sure how that makes him feel.
"The first thing they take away from you is your name," she repeats.
"Your name is Tenten," he reminds.
She looks at him for the first time since they've arrived. A sardonic smile curves her lips, twisting her face. Neji doesn't like it. It reminds him a little too much of himself. The expression doesn't suite someone as beautiful as her. Someone as happy... As happy? Is Tenten really happy? Or is this the real Tenten, the one that hides under a beaming smile that nobody ever questions, not even himself.
"Your name is Hyuuga Neji. My name is Tenten. Do you see the difference?"
"Your family name..."
"Is the first thing they take away..." she digs her hand into the pocket of her pants and brings out a rock. It is small, black, just like the others. She places it atop the pile, not carelessly, but slowly, lovingly. "They take away your name as well... when you're the daughter of a traitor."
Neji doesn't know what to say. What does anyone say in this situation? He wants to comfort her, but how? HOW? He feels like a fish out of water. He wishes Tenten would revert back to her silly drunken self. At least he knows how to comfort that Tenten. But part of him wants to go on. Part of him wants to know more. Part of him wants to be relied upon by this Tenten. This broken, angry, sad, beautiful Tenten.
"This was his gift to me," she says suddenly, breaking the pause. "Strip me of my name a day before my birthday." She places a hand atop the pile and squeezes Neji's hand with the other. When she glances at him, her eyes are shining. Except now they do so with tears. "Am I bad, Neji? That, despite all of this, I still love him? I still miss him... I still hate him. Every year, every day, every hour. He's a traitor... but I'm his daughter."
He pulls her into his arms and holds her tightly as she breaks. He can hear her shattering with each sob, trembling in his arms, wailing like never before. She clings to him and he clings to her in turn, trying to keep her hold, catching all her falling pieces. He feels her tears moistening his shirt, caressing his skin, burning it. He hates her tears just as much as he loves how she trusts him. How much she has shared.
And Neji realizes in a moment of clearance that he is in love with a traitor's daughter, and that he would not have it any other way.
One day, he vows to that pile of black stones that had given her so much pain, I'll give her a family name. A name no one will be able to take away. A name that will strip her of the cross you left her with. And I will give her what you denied her. I will bestow a happy-ending, one that won't be buried under a pile of black stones.
Neji holds her until she stops crying, until she stops sobbing, until her grasp falters and her breathing evens out. Then, and only then, does he leave the hidden cemetery with a sleeping Tenten tucked in his arms. He goes to her place and puts her to bed. But he alters the script even further by kissing her forehead and promising the opposite of what he always does.
"I'll always be here, Tenten," he whispers in her ear. "I'll always, always stay."
In that moment, Hyuuga Neji discovers something else, something monumental: there is no such thing as an inalterable fate, least of all when it comes to Tenten.