Here it is, friends: the last chapter of 'Underneath it All.' I can't thank you enough for the support I've received for this story!
Underneath it All
***You're really lucky, underneath it all...***
The skies were rapidly filling with thick, gray clouds, and the snowfall was steadily increasing. Neji pulled the borrowed cloak more tightly around his shoulders. Begrudgingly, he allowed that Gai's latest iteration of poor fashion sense was surprisingly warm. Still, the protection of the cloak Sai lent him was more than welcome, both for its additional warmth, and the visual coverage.
After all, he might have henged his appearance to hide the offensively green garment, but it was still there. He reached under the cloak, checking his weapons pouches.
He had the foresight to bring a small weapons and supply scroll with him, so he was well armed, but he had not thought to bring a change of clothes.
"Foolish," he muttered to himself, even if it had been a logical choice at the time.
He redirected his focus to observing Tenten via his Byakugan.
Sai's voice rang in his earpiece. "Do you still have visual contact?"
"Yes," Neji answered. "Takayuki is riding with at least five other men. He and Tenten are on the same mount."
"Is Tenten alright?" Sai asked.
Neji focused more intently. Tenten's chakra was slow, and she was leaning heavily on the other rider, but neither her hands nor feet were bound. Her body position indicated she was not wholly awake, leading Neji to one conclusion.
"She's been drugged," he said into his earpiece. "Otherwise, she appears unharmed."
"We aren't far now," Sai offered. "I do not think the others will be a problem."
"I've just gotten word from the General," Shikamaru joined in. "Takayuki left shortly after the official toast where he formally welcomed the guests. He asked Lady Tomoe to accompany him to the matriarch's garden, and from there, one of his men must have alerted him."
"How?" Sai asked. "No one should have known what was happening. There wasn't time, and we sabotaged the lines of communication."
"We aren't sure," Shikamaru admitted. "It is possible this was pre-planned and unrelated to our own movements; we are still sifting through the data. The only men we haven't rounded up were the private body guards. From what we know about them, they are all seasoned, skilled fighters. At least three missing nin and two unknowns."
"At least we have some cover," Sai reasoned looking at the clouds above them. "We will be harder to spot against these kinds of skies."
"They are splitting off," Neji interrupted. "Three of the men are going on their own, heading north. Takayuki, Tenten, and two others are heading toward what must be the abandoned mine."
"Don't worry about the other three, then," Shikamaru instructed. "The two of you go after Tenten."
As much as Neji hated to lose any target he was tracking, he wasn't going to argue. Sai was quickly painting on a scroll, even as they landed at the entrance to the cave. He sent a wave of ink creatures ahead of them.
"There are probably many places to hide," he reasoned. "This way, we have extra eyes and ears."
Neji gave a brief nod, scanning the tunnels as they moved through the low light. "They are not far. Looks like he is taking Tenten somewhere, and the other two are standing guard."
There was very little communication after that. Sai knew to follow Neji, and Neji knew Sai would have his back. He stopped them before they were in sight of the enemy.
"The two guards are flanking a heavy door to a series of corridors. That's where he took her."
"Then we need a distraction," Sai said quietly, crouching and painting with quick, fluid strokes. "I'll keep these two at bay. You get Tenten and exit the mines."
Two ink tigers roared to life and charged around the corner, one snatching up a guard, the other cornering his counterpart. Neji raced forward, and pushed at the locked door.
"Keys," He snapped to the man cowering in the corner, who shook his head vehemently, involuntarily flicking his gaze to his partner.
All eyes turned to the other man trying to claw his way out of the tiger's mouth.
"Shake," Sai ordered.
The tiger violently whipped its head back and forth until the man in its jaws looked green, and the keys fell from his person.
Neji arched an eyebrow at Sai, who scooped up the keys.
"Picked that up from Kiba," he explained, handing the keys over to Neji.
"Secure them and then follow," Neji instructed, unlocking the door.
"Understood," Sai looked back over the two men who were quickly becoming less than a threat. 'You'd better hurry. If she overcomes the drug, she'll probably kill him, and we could use some more answers."
Neji took off down the hall, navigating the darkness with his Byakugan. He shoved open a heavy door and found himself in what had to have been the mine's infirmary. It had been adapted to allow multiple people to take shelter, and two rows of narrow cots marched down the length of the room. Tenten was laid out on one of the cots, and Neji hurried over to her, checking for traps and Takayuki as he ran.
"Tenten," he dropped to her side, putting a hand to her forehead and then her cheek.
Her eyes fluttered open, and she looked over to him slowly, a smile breaking across her features.
"Neji," she breathed weakly. "You're alright."
"That's more than I can say for you," he quickly checked her pulse, and her eyes, noting the multiple layers of her outfit that were not as in place as they should have been.
She noticed his inspection and was quick to reassure him.
"Turns out that the best feature of this outfit is that it is a pain in the ass," she smiled groggily. "He drugged me – something in the drink for the toast. I'm wearing too many layers to allow for easy or quick access. He was going to scout supplies and an escape route then come back. Don't think he planned on letting the layers be a problem after that."
Something burned in the pit of Neji's gut at that thought, and it must have shown in his expression. She chuckled and clumsily wound her fingers in his.
"Don't worry. I wasn't planning on making it any easier for him," she said with a wicked grin. "You'd be amazed at how much I can hide in this thing."
"Let's get you out of here," he helped her to sit up, putting a strong hand at her back. She swayed with the effort but once she came to sitting, she could steady herself. "Can you walk?"
Tenten shook her head. "Sensation is just starting to return to my legs, so not yet. Soon, though."
He looked over her critically, before pressing a quick, relieved kiss to her forehead. "Sai is with me. We just have to get to him and we can fly back. Hold on to me."
Tenten wound her arms around his neck, and he adjusted her heavy cloak over the multiple layers of fabric, grateful to every single one of them. Scooping her up, he stood, just as Takayuki burst back into the infirmary, eyes blazing with a crazed fire.
"I don't know who you are," he said, holding his sword out menacingly, "but put down Lady Tomoe and leave or face the consequences."
Neji's eyes were hard and cold as he tightened his grip on Tenten.
"No?" the other man sneered. "Are you in a hurry to die?"
"Takayuki, don't do this," Tenten interrupted. "It's over."
"No, my lady," he shook his head. "It is just beginning. I am sorry that I had to drug your wine. We have a long journey ahead of us, and I couldn't afford to have you struggle before I got you to safety. Do not worry. This... interloper will not detain us any longer."
Neji arched an eyebrow in grim amusement.
"She is right, Takayuki. Your mines have all been shut down. You have nowhere to run; nowhere to hide. Put down your sword and surrender peacefully."
Takayuki's lips twisted into a mocking smirk.
"Can you stand?" Neji asked Tenten, never breaking eye contact with his opponent.
"I'll manage," she said in a tone that told him she would stand even if it was by sheer force of will alone. He carefully set her down, keeping an arm firmly anchored about her waist and hip.
Takayuki's face flushed scarlet, giving Neji no small sense of satisfaction. He kept Tenten pressed to his side a moment longer. "If there is an opportunity," he murmured against her temple, "get to Sai and get out of here. I'll rejoin you as soon as I'm able."
She didn't respond, but he felt the tension in her back; he knew she was biting back her irritation at being told to leave him.
"Don't act so familiar with the Lady," Takayuki snarled venomously.
Neji couldn't help himself.
"Who said anything about acting?"
Takayuki charged forth with a strangled cry and surprising speed, but Neji snatched up Tenten and leaped out of the way. He gently sat her down on another cot and stepped in front of her.
"Stay safe," he instructed over his shoulder, watching Takayuki regroup from his charge.
He felt the heavy press of cool metal in his hand.
"Where did you get a sword?" he asked, puzzled.
"Don't waste time with stupid questions," she scoffed.
He took her advice to heart and charged Takayuki before he could get any closer to Tenten. Kenjutsu was not Neji's preferred method of combat, but that didn't mean he didn't excel at it. He was more than capable of keeping Takayuki occupied, but his real aim was to disarm him and force him to use taijutsu instead. That would allow him to incapacitate his opponent swiftly and effectively...not to mention, he wouldn't mind landing a solid punch to the man's jaw.
"Why are you here?" Takayuki asked, eyes wild, veins throbbing in his neck and forehead. "Who sent you?"
Neji remained cool, and didn't answer. Instead, he let his opponent grow more agitated, and less in control. Takayuki was fast and strong, and out for blood, but Neji had someone to protect.
"You aren't here for me, are you?!" Takayuki grunted as they locked swords and then pushed away. "You came for her. You came to take her away from me!"
Neji dodged a particularly viscous slice, jumping back, but Takayuki had taken the opportunity to launch a dagger toward him.
A resounding clang of metal rang in the air and the dagger deflected less than a foot from him, thrown off course by a fistful of shuriken.
Takayuki looked in disbelief, finally noting where Tenten had propped herself up and pulled weaponry from somewhere to come to his aid.
Neji tossed her a quick nod of thanks before taking the opportunity to charge Takayuki, sending his opponent's sword skittering across the floor and well out of reach.
Wild eyed and feral, Takayuki looked between them.
"Why do you help him, Lady Tomoe?" he spat out. "This is not one of us; this is a shinobi, not a samurai. He is nothing like us – help me to eliminate the enemy!"
Tenten looked to the man sadly. "Surrender, Takayuki," she said calmly, still pale and slow from the effects of the drugged wine. "This isn't a fight you can win, and it will cost you your life."
"He is here to steal our future," Takayuki cried. "Don't you see? We are the new generation – the return of the onna-bugeisha heralds the rise of the samurai once again! Our empire goes beyond borders now – the demand for what we mine has put us in a position of power. The shinobi world will pass in the wake of the war, Lady Tomoe. The new era calls for new warriors and new traditions."
"Built on the backs of kidnapped labor?" Neji asked, his sword still in his hand. "An empire built by prisoners buried in the dark of your mines? That is the future you see for the Land of Iron and its people?"
"N…no!" he sputtered, flushing a deeper red. "We just had to get started. Now there is time – we can provide for the workers and build up our country. No more people going hungry! No more wars brought to the villages by the shinobi – It will be a better life!"
He looked at Tenten desperately.
"Can't you see?" he asked her holding a hand out to her. "We can make it right for our people."
"This isn't about the people, Takayuki," she leaned more heavily on the wall. "This is your own ambition. I can't stand by and let you do this."
Neji, watched him warily, still standing with his sword at the ready. Takayuki swiveled his head between the two of them and backed up slowly. "You are wrong, my lady," he said in a harsh whisper. "You are tired – it is the wine. You just need to rest, and you will understand. You will see I am right."
His eyes glazed over, and he spoke as if to himself. "You are just confused," he continued. "The others – they have lied to you. But history will bear me out – and Takayuki will be honored."
"Takayuki or Tatsuo?" Neji narrowed his eyes.
Takayuki snapped his head around, his body shuddering as if he stepped on an electric wire.
"Where did you hear that name?" he snapped. "Ohhh. I see..I SEE!" he seethed. "The imposter – he is the one that told you, isn't he. He told you how to find me. It all makes sense now," his eyes bugged out of his head. "He told you his lies; made me the criminal. He is the one that is trying to keep her from me. It is all his doing! He wants it all for himself, but it isn't his legacy to have! It is MINE." He clawed at his chest, grasping at the fabric above his heart.
"I am sorry, my Lady," he said, continuing to back away from them. "I will have to return for you another time. Make no mistake," he looked to Neji. "I will return for her. I will return for what is mine."
"Then I have no reason to worry," Neji growled. "Because she was never yours."
"We'll see, shinobi," Takayuki laughed darkly. He slammed a hand against the wall, activating the emergency alarms. Red lights flashed and a siren blared.
"Emergency alert," an automated voice declared. "Evacuate immediately. Sealing the mines in three minutes."
"You can get the Lady to safety or you can try to follow me, shinobi. But I already know what your choice will be," he crowed triumphantly. "I'll return for you, Lady Tomoe," he assured her. "Wait for me."
With that, he ran full tilt back out of the infirmary, and Neji jumped back to Tenten, watching with his Byakugan.
"He's going deeper into the mines," he raised his voice over the blare of the alarms. "We can't follow."
He scooped her up and hurried out of the infirmary, back the way he had come. "Sai is waiting for us," he said, absently wondering if Takayuki had really given them three minutes to escape.
They burst into the cold night air and found Sai waiting for them.
"I was coming back for you," he said idly, "but Shikamaru said you were on your way."
"Shikamaru?" Tenten cocked her head to the side. "He is here?"
Neji had completely forgotten about the man in his ear. "In a manner of speaking," he muttered, glancing to his earpiece.
Tenten grinned, and wriggled in Neji's arms so she could call into his ear, "Eavesdropping, Nara?"
Neji winced at the volume, and gave her an annoyed look, which she ignored.
The buzz of something electronic – a sound still new to them – came from the pouch at Sai's hip. Tenten squirmed her way down while Sai pulled out one of those mobile devices that Neji was still reluctant to carry. Swiping a pattern on the screen, he turned it to face them all. Shikamaru was sitting calmly at a desk, his characteristic unperturbed expression oddly comforting given the situation.
"Hard to communicate with you once you were in the shelter," he said dryly, "but we were monitoring you as best we could."
"We?" Tenten asked.
Temari appeared in the frame, leaning over from her seat next to Shikamaru. "You didn't think that only one person was monitoring this big of an operation, did you?" she teased.
"So everything went ahead with the total take-down?" Tenten asked eagerly. "Did it work?"
"All mining facilities were shut down," Temari confirmed. "The information Neji and Sai gathered confirmed that we had pinpointed all locations."
"What about this place?" she flicked a glance over her shoulder to the mine entrance. "What did Takayuki do when he set off that alarm?"
Shikamaru gave a lazy sigh. "Takayuki activated an emergency system that seals the mines off from the infirmary and the main exits; presumably to keep others safe from any explosions or gas leaks. He probably knows the way out of there," he sighed again. "It's troublesome, but Mifune has men on their way to each of the known exit points. Takayuki isn't in any real danger, assuming he sticks to the safe routes. If you had followed, he could have arranged to trap you down there."
Suddenly, a deep rumble echoed deep in the earth below them
"What is that?" Tenten asked as the ground began to vibrate beneath them. Neji instinctively stepped in to anchor her to his side, as she was still unsteady on her feet.
"Looks like someone is trying to cover their tracks," Temari said grimly.
The first sounds of detonation came from deep within the heart of the old mine.
Tenten looked up at Neji, who shook his head solemnly. "Nothing we can do."
Sai glanced up at the sky. "Then we should return to the General. Ugly sent word that Tenten is to report to her immediately, or she will kick my ass." He looked back at them and shrugged. "Her words, not mine."
Neji and Tenten shared a smile, before Neji cleared his throat. "Then we'd better not waste any more time." He nodded to his waiting ink ride. "Tenten will ride with me."
"That is fair," Sai shrugged. "I've got the other two."
Neji glanced over to where the tied and bound men were in a cage of Sai's creation, trying not to look incredibly nervous, and failing miserably.
"We'll be in touch later," Shikamaru said. "Report in when you get to Sakura." With that, he ended the transmission.
Sai mounted his ink bird, which in turn clutched the cage in its talons and soared off into the sky. If their bug-eyed expressions were any indication, Takayuki's underlings were screaming under their gags.
Neji settled Tenten against himself, and despite her wearing multiple layers and the fur-lined cape, pulled his cloak around them both, before they took to the skies.
"You are always warm," she murmured, leaning into him, resting an arm over the one he had circled about her waist.
He pulled her closer – or as close as their respective layers would allow – and pressed a kiss to her temple.
Tenten sighed contentedly, and her eyes drifted closed as she absently stroked his forearm with her thumb.
Neji was just allowing himself a modicum of relief and relaxation when he felt her stiffen in his arms. She glanced down at his arm, puzzled.
"Neji...what are you wearing?"
He stiffened. "What do you mean?"
"I mean," she plucked at his sleeve, "This is part of a henge. But it feels like…" her eyes widened, and she turned to better look at him. "You're not…!"
He looked straight ahead, and kept his face impassive. "I have no idea what you are talking about," he said coolly.
Tenten stared in disbelief, before bursting into laughter – a clear, honest, heartwarming sound that was so very much her that he couldn't bring himself to mind it all that terribly much.
Perhaps - just this once - it was worth losing a bet.
Sai handed over the captured men to the General and his forces.
Takayuki's home had been combed for any other prisoners or guards, but nothing was turned up.
The girl Sai and Neji had seen the other night was gone.
"Maybe she was evacuated with the miners," Sai offered unconvincingly. "She might yet be in the med-tents."
"I don't think so," Neji shook his head. "If she was moved, she was taken – probably by whoever decided to warn Takayuki."
"The maid that attended Tenten was reporting to one of Takayuki's men," Sai rubbed his chin. "But it appears she was doing it just as her job to her master. It does not appear that she had any knowledge of the mines or outside dealings. I even heard her say she thought it was because Takayuki secretly loved Lady Tomoe, and she thought it to be quite romantic."
"She is young," Neji snorted. "She doesn't understand the difference between genuine affection and obsession."
"Where is Tenten?" Sai looked around. "She should be back from the medics by now."
"She went to her room to seal her things," Neji nodded to the stairs leading to the upper levels of the mansion. "Clearly," he looked over to the teams still investigating the area, "we won't be staying here tonight."
"Ah, I heard they were making arrangements back at the previous inn. I hope they can accommodate us all."
"We'll manage for one night," Neji shrugged. "Many of the forces will return to Mifune's fortress, or begin escorting villagers home."
"Takayuki - the one we found in the mines, not the one that tried to kill us last night – has offered to help in any way possible; even to the point of taking on the expense of transporting the villagers, or offering them a place to stay this winter. It works out well, really," Sai continued. "Many of the villages were destroyed; the people have nothing to go back to, and they can't possibly secure the supplies they will need for the winter. . And Takayuki gets to keep his labor force."
"That is convenient," Neji mused.
Tenten rounded the corner in one of her simpler outfits for 'Lady Tomoe,' carrying an unassuming satchel that Neji knew would have her scrolls and anything she didn't want to let out of her sight. One of Mifune's guards would handle the remaining luggage and transport it back to the inn where it would be checked again for tampering or tracking or listening devices.
She gave a weary smile to her friends and adjusted the bag on her arm. "I'm packed. Can we go soon?"
"I'll take you now," Neji bobbed his head. "See you back at the inn, Sai."
They traveled with minimal conversation and four of Mifune's men. Their dinner was quick, largely because Tenten looked like she might fall asleep in it. The innkeeper assigned them the same large, adjoining room they had before, insisting that Lady Tomoe be assigned every consideration – especially in light of her recent ordeal. She had wanted to write to Lady Takeko, so Urakaku kept her company in one of the small sitting rooms while Neji inspected their old room and their luggage. Even if their situation hadn't necessitated it, Neji probably would have insisted that she be watched over. He made sure the fire in her room was well tended before starting his own, and had the tea brought up to his room while readied herself for sleep. They were just sitting for their tea when there was a knock at the door. Neji checked before answering, so he was not surprised to see Sai. The pale painter waited until the door was closed and locked before speaking.
"Several of Takayuki's men are unaccounted for," he said without preamble. "The General wants a decoy in Lady Tomoe's room. That is why I am here."
Tenten frowned. "Then where will I-"
"Fine," Neji cut her off. Both men strode toward Tenten's door, and did a quick sweep of the room. Tenten hadn't unpacked, so Neji moved her bag of scrolls into his own room, leaving 'Lady Tomoe's' luggage in place. After Sai set some traps, they sealed the door between the rooms with an alarm and he returned to where Tenten sat, chin in hand.
"A little overkill, don't you think?" she asked wryly.
"After the events of today?" he asked. "No." And he sat to his tea.
She sipped at her own, and gazed into the fire. Several moments passed in silence as he watched her slip into the hypnotic trance of the flames.
"Are you alright?" he asked.
"Hm? Oh. Yeah. I'm fine."
"Takayuki," Neji said slowly, putting down his cup. "He… did he…"
"Just messed up my clothing a little," she assured him. "Really – it took me and two other people to get into all of those layers. He had no idea what he was up against," she smiled crookedly.
Neji looked her over appreciatively. "No idea whom, either."
"That is true," she shrugged a shoulder. "Although he had seen enough of what Tomoe could do to not take her lightly."
"Then he would have been flat out terrified of you," Neji's lips quirked in amusement. "And he would have known better than to assume you were unarmed."
"He knew I was armed," Tenten reached over to pour him more tea. "He took my decorative dagger and my fan. He just didn't know anything about the real fan, the sword, the shuriken, the rope, the-"
"You always need rope," she shrugged topping up her own cup. She looked just beyond him to the window and smiled. Taking her cup, she crossed, and widened the gap between the curtains. "It's really snowing now," she said happily. "Come see."
Neji crossed and stood behind her. The snow was quickly blanketing the village, turning the mountainous landscape into a serene and picturesque view. "So it is," he said mildly. "You would think that you had seen enough snow on this mission."
"True," she wrapped her fingers around her mug, eyes on the thickening snow. "But this time it means we got the main part of the mission done in time. The General thinks that the mines were well stocked for the winter, and those supplies will keep the villagers going until the spring. If we had waited, it could've been a lot messier."
"Also," she continued "the snow is really pretty from here, and I am warm. That makes it much more enjoyable." She took a large gulp of her tea, savoring the heat and the aroma as it slid down her throat and warmed her. "Better go get my scroll," the murmured, pushing away from the window, and returned to the table. She put down the empty cup, and rummaged in her bag.
"What are you looking for?" Neji asked.
"My supplies," she yawned. "Have a futon in here somewhere."
Neji wrapped his fingers around her wrist, and tugged her after him. Surprised, she dumbly followed, leaving behind her supplies. His room was smaller than hers, but it was still a solid three strides before they had crossed to the bed.
"You need your sleep," he said simply. "I'll get the lights."
"Neji, that isn't necessary. I can just-"
He arched an eyebrow and interrupted her, holding out his fists. "Right or left?"
Tenten stared at him a moment, before flushing. "Oh, have it your way," she grumbled. "I am too tired to bicker."
She pulled back the covers on "her" side of the bed, and slid into place. Neji checked all of the seals and locks, turned out the lights, and joined her. He felt the mattress dip as she shifted onto her side just as he felt her eyes on him in the dim light of the fire.
"I didn't get a chance to tell you earlier," she offered, and he turned his head toward her, listening. "But I'm glad that you're not the one who disappeared." She hesitated before reaching out and lightly resting a hand on his arm. "Thank you for coming back," she murmured.
Neji put a hand over hers.
"I promised, didn't I?"
"Guess you did," she smiled gently. "Not that I thought you'd abandon your comrades."
"That isn't the promise I made," he reminded her, leaning up on his elbow. "I promised I'd always come back to you," he gently tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear.
His fingertips trailed along her jawline, drawing her toward him - and she followed.
His lips found hers, tenderly – still mindful of all she had been through, and the weariness lingering in her veins. The way her fingers involuntarily curled in the front of his pajamas sent a surge of something lancing through him, and he knew it would be altogether too easy to move ahead. Instead, he drew back to place a kiss on her forehead.
"Rest, now," he murmured thumbing over her lips. "You've had a trying day, and need to sleep."
"But I'm not tired," Tenten pouted while yawning.
"Clearly," Neji returned.
"Okay, fine," she muttered, defeated. She curled into his side, her eyelids heavy with the need for sleep. "But you'd better be here in the morning." She tucked her head into his shoulder, and burrowed into his warmth.
"I'll be here, Tenten," he promised, winding his arms around her as she wriggled into place.
He felt her smile against his throat. "Good," she sighed, and with a contented yawn, was soon very much asleep.
Neji chuckled to himself.
"Told you you were tired," he murmured into her hair. Pressing a simple kiss to the top of her head, he relished the quiet joy of holding her close and knowing she was safe. They still had the journey back to the citadel and the Konoha, a maniac to find, and probably a few bets more to make, but for now he was content.
She was with him - back where she belonged - and his heart was full.
Everything else was just details.
And details would wait until morning.
What happened with the two Takayukis?
Did Neji and Tenten go back to Konoha to stay, or did they get assigned on more missions?
What was Hinata thinking of when she asked Neji about the techniques Tenten was learning?
Will Neji ever live down wearing the Team Gai uniform?
Answers to those questions and more in the upcoming sequel 'Underneath the Underneath.'
I hope you'll join me for the adventure!
Thank you so much for reading, friends. Keep an eye on my profile and tumblr page for updates and previews. I'll probably post a preview for the sequel next week.