[r]ating: ESRB rating of T for Teen
[t]heme: 01. It's Been Five Days
[s]ummary: Increments of five days are driving him mad. Come back to me, Tenten.
[n]otes: Blah blah blah, I play with the whole "catatonia" "something isn't right here" and "come back" themes again. References to Twinborn. Also, way, way post-series, with spoilers for Naruto 328.
"under this tree"
It is a distress signal, those three scrawled words, written on a thin scrap of paper. Someone tore about a quarter of the paper away, but that one phrase is all he needs.
Neji closes his hand around the scrap, clenching his fist so tightly his nails dig into the meat of his hand and he bleeds.
It's been five days. Somewhere between 'short' and 'long', more than long enough for her to die of dehydration, but not long enough for her to die of starvation.
Five days since she fell into their hands.
Six days since she last communicated with the team ("tree," he thinks, and closes his eyes).
Two minutes and thirty seconds before he launches his operation. He checks the wakizashi strapped to his back, pulls his gloves on a little higher, and pulls the ANBU mask down onto his face.
He doesn't draw the wakizashi at all, at first. Bursts of chakra to the face, to the solar plexus, to the heart-- bursts of chakra from his hands and from his feet and his knees and his elbows-- these fell the first enemies, the ones who don't immediately back away at the sight of The Hawk.
He dispatches them all with the efficiency he admires in Tenten. Dragon-One. The Dragon, in Konoha ANBU parlance.
She is the first woman in the past twenty years to drop the number from her codename. She will not follow Tsunade's exact footsteps-- a combat specialist, an assassin, a mercenary, at the heart of it all a killer, not a medic, not a leader-- but she will be great. She will go down in history.
He stalks his way through silent halls, Divination Field turning circles in his mind. Pale green lines, forming where only he can see them. Within his field of divination, eight strikes, sixteen strikes, thirty-two strikes, sixty-four strikes, one hundred and twenty-eight strikes, two hundred and fifty-six strikes...
Doors open and close and men scream and bleed and Neji sees almost nothing of it. He sees through everything, aware only of his Divination Field, only his trigrams and his lines and there--
He sees her.
He finds her in the corner of her cell. She has wrapped herself up in her blankets. Her blood makes the dirty beige cloth sticky and brown; it has smeared on her face and one of her eyes has stuck closed in a mess of blue and green and sickly yellow and yes, black.
He wants to pummel the stone of the castle until either all the bones in his hands fracture or the stone crumbles to dust. He wants to pick her up and carry her out, he wants to smooth her hair back from her face and wash her cheeks and eyes with lukewarm water and kiss her and murmur pretty words that mean nothing.
He doesn't know what to do.
"Dragon-One," he says.
She doesn't look up.
"Konoha ANBU Operative Dragon-One."
She doesn't even blink.
He is getting frantic, now, because she isn't responding and he doesn't know what to do. He kneels in front of her then, kneels and puts his hands on her shoulders and looks into her eyes.
He calls her by her gypsy name. The surname-honourific that denotes having no prior relations with a person, coupled with the way her company bastardised her name.
Not a twitch, not a response. Nothing. She does not recognise it, does not recognise him, does not recognise herself.
So he tries again, genuinely frightened for her and trying not to be. He moves up a rank in the 'relationship' scale, still using a name that probably won't be traced directly back to her identity in Konoha.
"Fa Tian," he calls her, near-kin, Tian. Her eyelids flutter, so he tightens his grip and tries again. "Fa Tian. Tian!"
Her eyelids flutter again.
Truly desperate by this point, he drops the honourific and calls her by name, like the prince who stretches out his hand.
Come back to me.
She blinks, once, and her eyes focus on him, but she isn't with him.
Still not enough. He makes a frustrated noise and takes a leap of faith, bounds right over propriety, pretends that this honourific isn't just for blood relatives and spouses. If it would bring her back to him, he'd marry her a thousand times, a thousand ways, in any tradition she might mention.
"Han Tenten," he says, voice cracking and raw and Please, please, remember me, remember yourself, remember us, come back.
She blinks again, long and slow, and yes, she is focusing on him, he can see it.
But there is no miraculous sudden awareness. She doesn't come back to him with a dizzying rush of air, like a swimmer breaking the surface of a lake, and that feels like a punch to the gut.
It's been five days. They are in Konoha now, and that Haruno girl is watching over her nearly constantly.
Technically, Haruno is watching over them both. Neji hasn't left Tenten's side. He's tried everything he can think of to bring her back. He's wracked his brains and old mission briefings and mission reports going back to their genin days for a way of bringing her back to him.
"These were a part of the playing I heard, Once, ere my love and my heart were at strife," he whispers to her.
But she is silent and still, and he must fill in the rest: "Love that sings and hath wings as a bird, Balm of the wound and heft of the knife."
"In a coign of the cliff between lowland and highland, At the sea-down's edge between windward and lee."
But there is no response.
"Walled round with rocks as an inland island, The ghost of a garden fronts the sea," he murmurs and strokes her hair. "Remember that, Tenten."
The Haruno girl's eyes are troubled, a little wet with tears. "I'm not sure she can hear you."
He ignores her. "A swirl in the air where your head was once, here. You walked under this tree, spoke to a moon for me."
It is not until the Haruno girl is gone, and Tenten has remained silent for minutes upon minutes, that Neji rests his tingling forehead on the metal rail of her bed and finishes the brief poem: "I might almost stand here and believe you alive."
It's been five days. There are no more half-verses to go through, no more distress signals or inside jokes, nothing is calling her back, she will not come back to him.
Neji bows his head, keeps his voice level and sane. "This is the first time she hasn't recovered immediately."
"And I care about that, why, Hawk-Eight? The girl is catatonic. She isn't likely to recover--"
"She has only been catatonic for ten days. There is still hope--"
"The Hawk is right," murmurs Hawk-Four,her former captain. "The Dragon is a professional killer. There has to be something more to this than simple trauma. Please, call in a specialist."
"We don't have any genjutsu specialists available at--"
"--is it because the operative is female?" Hawk-Four rips off his mask and glares at their superior. Neji is faintly surprised to see Haigatake Takaha, a man he has encountered more than once.
"It is not because the operative is female. ANBU simply does not have any genjutsu specialists available at this time."
The hawk mask lands on the floor, Haigatake's boot crushing it. "Morino Ibiki. What about him?"
"He's currently working a case. ANBU does not have--"
Neji, desperately, cuts in. "Yuuhi Kurenai."
"She's not ANBU," Haigatake says, blank confusion in his face and voice.
"We do not, as a rule, contact Jounin for ANBU cases. You know this, Hawk-Eight."
"This is obviously a special case. It needs to be solved, studied, documented. Yuuhi is the best person to do it outside of Morino Ibiki."
Their superior thinks for a moment, before finally nodding his consent.
It's been five days. He has located Yuuhi, has requested her assistance, has issued orders--
And now, thanks to a chat with his cousin, who subsequently spoke with Yuuhi, five days after their superior's consent, Yuuhi begins to study his partner.
Neji watches, ANBU mask lowered onto his face, hands on the wickedly long, curved knives he carries for use in perfect conjunction with the Hyuuga family style. He stands by the door, just far enough away that Yuuhi can write him off, but near enough to put sharp steel into her should she try anything stupid.
As a Konoha ninja, he knows she won't. As an ANBU, he can't afford to be so sure.
Kurenai sits down beside Tenten, lowers the metal railing, and looks into her eyes.
"Definitely, she's still under the influence of genjutsu," the older woman says after several silent moments.
"Do you have any indication as to what it is?"
"Be patient, please. I could cause irreparable damage if I make a mistake." Her voice is cold, matter-of-fact. She is not bothered in the least about this fact.
Is she that confident, or does she just not care?
It'd better be the former, Neji resolves.
"She is being held in a catatonic state through genjutsu," Kurenai tells him. "It's not unheard of, though fairly rare. I haven't seen anything like this since--"
Since Mangekyou, Neji's mind supplies. Kurenai is one of the only people living who have been subjected to the Mangekyou Sharingan four times and come out sane.
Once, with Asuma.
Once, for Asuma.
Once, for Shino.
And finally, for herself. The day of victory, the day the war ended, the day Itachi died and Akatsuki fell and--
"Is there a way to bring her out of it?"
Kurenai looks at Tenten, idly brushes her hand on top of Tenten's head, and then closes her eyes. "We all lose people, Neji."
He breathes in sharply, his stomach twisting and tight and twirling in knots. Every muscle tenses, everything goes still and it hurts, yes it hurts.
Desperate for something to do, he takes his mask off, holds it in his hand, holds it so hard it nearly cuts him. "Is there a way?"
"It'd take time. Days, maybe weeks. And it'd be complicated. I'd have to work with the genjutsu, mould it toward an exit trigger."
"Yes, mould it. It would grow its own exit trigger, likely out of a code phrase you used in the past, or maybe a line from a poem she liked, or maybe a name. It could be anything." She looks at Tenten again, closes her eyes again.
They are silent for a long while.
"It could take you years to find it, or you might never find it, or it might not be there at all."
He closes his eyes, swallows hard, opens them. "Is there any way to simplify the process?"
Kurenai looks at him. She says nothing for a long while, and Neji will not say anything until she does.
After several moments of silent scrutiny, she says at last, "We all lose people, Neji."
It's been five days.
Neji holds Tenten's hand, Kurenai strokes her forehead, and then looks up.
That's all the instruction he needs. Immediately, he begins rushing through pass phrases, starting with the ones from their genin days.
"Youthful love explosion."
"I wish I lived in Bird Country / with a farmer's daughter."
He tries and he tries, moving forward in years.
"Stately, kindly, lordly friend-- Condescend-- Here to sit by me, and turn."
"I will go back to the great sweet mother, Mother and lover of men, the sea."
Desperately, recalling the cult, recalling the way she had fought her way back, he murmurs, "These were a part of the playing I heard, Once, ere my love and my heart were at strife."
She hasn't turned to face him, but her eyes are focused on a fixed point, and she replies, "Love that sings and hath wings as a bird, Balm of the wound and heft of the knife."
A SWIRL in the air where your head was once, here.
You walked under this tree, spoke to a moon for me
I might almost stand here and believe you alive.
--Carl Sandburg, "Swirl"
Additional quotes taken from Swinburne's, "A Forsaken Garden", and Swinburne's "The Triumph of Time".