Disclaimer: I'm just a fan, I don't own anything.
Author's Notes: Set after the failed attempt to rescue Sasuke and during the three month time lapse in the manga. Everyone's a little older, a little wiser. Enjoy!
Dedicated to Ami Yuy for her birthday. :)
It was raining out and the sound of it hitting the roof of the inn was somehow loud in his ears, perhaps a side effect of the local beer they were serving. The low rumbling sound of lightning and thunder drowned the small snatches of conversation around him, leaving him in a muffled world of weary muscles and aching eyes. It was a measure of his exhaustion that he didn't really mind, content to sit at the bar and drink slowly, smoothing out the wrinkles of his mind.
The past couple of days had been difficult. He, Lee and Tenten had been assigned to escort a young family to their new home on the edges of the Fire Country, a place where a person could walk for miles and see nothing but rocks and trees. It was not uninhabitable, but the terrain was tough and the mission had taken a week to complete. The three of them had started back for Konoha two days ago and they were still a couple more days away, his team moving slowly despite that they were now unsaddled with extra charges. The mission was over but the long trek had taken its toll.
Not to mention the weather.
It had rained every single day, the clouds parting sometimes in the morning for a few, feeble rays of yellowish light before the sun disappeared and the deluge began anew. Neji was sure that this, along with the less than comfortable surroundings, had lowered their moral enough until it was impossible to travel with speed.
Neji shook his head slightly and took another drink, grimacing mentally as the stuff burned all the way down. Well, despite the slow going, they had fulfilled their contract and nothing pressing was waiting for them at home. If they took their time getting back it would be alright, though Gai-sensei would probably be upset with their lack of "youthful vigor".
Scoffing silently at the thought, he turned in his chair to regard his two teammates, both of which were seated not far away and playing cards. Lee was hunkered over the table, elbows pulled together as he studied his hand with the seriousness of one contemplating his death. He was perhaps more reserved than usual, but Neji was sure that if Lee won the game he'd be ready to run a marathon. That was how he worked. Even at the far end of fatigue, Lee could always bounce back if given the right encouragement. It was a trait that had driven Neji and Tenten to frustration in their early years together.
Tenten, herself, was leaning back in her chair, one leg crossed over the other. It would have been a delicately feminine pose on an ordinary girl, but she only looked relaxed, at ease, reclining with the self-assurance of a woman who had seen and done things most men would never experience. He almost smiled, seeing her like that, but then he noticed the extra shadows around her eyes and the way her right arm lay still in her lap and his expression stilled again. She had broken that arm on their last mission and it had only recently healed well enough for her use the katana strapped to her back. Lately, because of the damp, he knew it had been bothering her with a constant ache that she never mentioned. He might never have known if he hadn't accidentally glanced at her while his Byakugan was activated, his eyes picking up the irritated scar tissue around the newly sealed bone. Still, she had performed her other duties without a hitch and he knew her well enough not to confront her about what she was obviously trying to hide. If he looked out for her a bit more than usual, well, it was only natural.
Lee suddenly spread his cards, a wide grin on his face as Tenten accepted her defeat with a slight smile and a graceful one-shouldered shrug. Neji arched an eyebrow at that, noticing that she quickly slipped her cards back in the stack, Lee too busy beaming to notice he hadn't seen them. Tenten, too, knew Lee very well. Once again he was bursting with energy, his mouth moving a mile a minute though Neji had no idea what he was saying. The rain was still ringing in his ears.
Neji drained the last of his glass and rose, dropping a few coins on the tabletop before glancing back at his teammates' table, preparing to order them to their beds since they would have a long day of traveling in the morning. Unfortunately, in the seconds that he hadn't been watching, Lee had vanished somewhere and two guys approached Tenten, their faces hidden from view since their backs were to him. It didn't matter though, since Neji was very competent at reading body language. His eyes narrowed and he looked to Tenten, waiting to see what she would do. After all, it was really none of his affair what she did with her free time, or who she spent it with.
Unconsciously, his hands curled into fists and he took a few steps closer despite himself. The movement brought him within range of Tenten words.
"I'm really not in the mood for company right now, thank you."
"Not in the mood, she says," one of them, the taller one, slurred. He was obviously drunk and a expression of distaste crossed Tenten's features. "How polite!"
But then suddenly Tenten was spinning a kunai in her hand, flipping it up in the air and catching it again idly, with a certain laziness that spoke of talent. The two men followed the sharp edge of the weapon before hastily making their escape, looking for easier game.
Neji's fingers relaxed and he went to her, standing next to her as she put the kunai away. "Showing off?" he asked calmly. She stood, uncrossing her legs and pushing back her chair. A small smirk played on her lips.
"Maybe a little."
He turned his head, scanning the room. "Where is Lee?"
"I sent him outside to run laps around the inn. He was getting too antsy and I figured it was the best way to get him calmed down enough to sleep. He'll be fine by morning."
"Your card trick worked," he commented and was rewarded with a certain sparkle in her amber eyes.
"You'd think he would catch on, after all the times we've used it on him." She shook her head, amused, and then suddenly yawned, raising a hand to cover it. "Sorry."
Neji gazed at her for a moment. "It's been a long day," he said quietly. "You should get some rest." She nodded and turned towards the stairs, her foot on the first one before his voice caught her again, halting her. "You used your left hand."
She tensed but didn't turn. "What?"
"The kunai. You used you're left hand." His jaw tightened as he felt that string of worry worm its way into his heart. "Wrap your arm tightly tonight. It's going to rain till morning."
He breathed again when her body relaxed and she glanced over her shoulder at him, flashing a warm smile in his direction. "Good night, Neji."
He watched her ascend until she was out of sight before shaking off whatever spell had fallen over him and heading out to drag Lee in out of the rain. If he didn't, the fool would just keep running laps until he collapsed.
"Here!" the idiot answered, as if Neji were calling roll in the Academy. The Hyuuga genius crossed his arms impatiently.
"Quit running. We're calling it a night."
Lee came to stand before the doorway of the inn, completely drenched and somehow not bothered by it at all. Wondering why he had been cursed with such a teammate, Neji turned to step back inside and paused, eyes widening as he caught sight of Tenten in the common room talking with someone. What was she doing up? Hadn't she gone to bed? And then he saw she had her rain cloak thrown over one arm and realized she had come back down to get it.
Neji and Lee had only take a single step forward when the man who was talking to her suddenly reached out and grabbed her arm roughly, pulling her off balance. A cry left her lips as the guy's massive fist squeezed her already tender arm and Neji felt himself tremble with hot anger. Bolting into sudden action, he rushed forward, slamming the flat of his hand against the man's stomach, sending him flying to the far wall. Tenten would have been pulled with him if Neji hadn't then turned, his arm catching her around the waist and steadying her against him.
"What happened?" he asked sternly, looking down at her as she held her arm to her chest. There were bright tears of pain in the corner of her eyes though they didn't fall. They never did.
"I guess he didn't like my answer," she said, and for the first time Neji realized the man was the same drunken one Tenten had intimidated earlier. Lee was standing over him with a fiery expression, the stranger babbling apologies. Neji scoffed, irritated.
"Come on." He turned and led the way up to the room they had reserved, knowing Lee had things under control downstairs. He pointed towards the single, large bed and Tenten sat down with a sigh as he got out a roll of bandages. Kneeling down before her, he began winding the cloth around her arm methodically, trying not to notice as she winced. The bindings had to be tight or they wouldn't provide enough stability.
When he was finished, he glanced up at her to find a peculiar look on her face which disappeared when she noticed him watching. "Thank you," she said, somewhat breathlessly. He nodded once, still staring at her as she rose and went to stand before the smudged mirror in the corner, her hands rising to unbind her hair for the night.
Lee came in a moment later like a small whirlwind. "Tenten! Are you alright?" he asked, anxiously. Neji noticed that his arm wrappings had loosened.
Tenten glanced over her shoulder to smile at him. "Thanks, Lee. I'm alright."
Neji spoke up. "You didn't cause too much damage, did you?" Lee folded his arms over his chest.
"Not much," he admitted after a moment, somewhat sheepishly. Neji smirked and got up to bolt the door. No need asking for trouble.
The next few minutes were spent in their usual nightly routine. Tenten finger-combed her hair and washed her face with cold water while Lee took the weights off his legs and checked his own bandages. Neji took off his forehead protector, the only time he ever did so in front of other people, and withdrew his hair band. In moments, Tenten came to him, untangling his hair with gentle fingers. The motion was soothing to him and his eyes drifted closed briefly as she worked. He would never admit it, especially to himself, but he sometimes missed their ritual habits when they weren't on missions. There was something about them that was… comforting.
Because of the foul weather keeping them from sleeping outside and the lack of extra rooms at the inn, they would all be sharing a room as well as a bed that evening. Fortunately, they had done so before and it was not a cause for extra concern. Lee clamored in first, then Tenten, and then himself. Neji usually slept on his side, facing away from his teammates while Tenten lay on her back, her shoulder square against his spine. Lee slept every which way, arms and legs akimbo and earning himself smacks and nudges whenever he accidentally poked Tenten in the ribs or elbowed her in the side.
After about half an hour they would settle, each of them slipping off into dreamland. Neji, however, did not that night. There was a thought turning in his mind, taking on different shapes as he added to it. Finally, when he was sure he knew what it meant, he turned over, his milky eyes finding her shape in the darkness.
She was asleep, her head tilted slightly towards him, her long hair falling in gentle waves around her. She was different in the moonlight, like silk that turned to steel with the sun and then grew soft again at twilight. It was strange, but recently every time he looked at her she changed, morphing from fiery kunoichi to loyal teammate to… to a girl, a pretty one that other men seemed to want and yet would never know the value of.
It seemed that she had been with him forever, always visible from the corner of his eye. She never took the spotlight, standing behind him like a strong wall to his back, sometimes supporting, sometimes pushing. The wayward idea crystallizing in his mind was that she was important to him. She was… necessary to Hyuuga Neji, a man who needed very little.
A surprising revelation but not unwelcome.
He was a little unsure of what to do with this knowledge, but he had a feeling it would come in time. Until then, he would continue to fight by her side, to protect her even as she protected him.
A perfect partnership.
Slowly, and almost without breathing, he reached over to brush a stray lock of hair away from her face, his touch so feather light it couldn't possibly wake her. Instead, she made a small, endearing sound in her sleep and snuggled closer to him, her head against his shoulder.
Neji smiled slightly, something he was finding to be easier and easier to do these days. Closing his eyes, he fell asleep facing her for the first time, the rain no longer so loud in his ears.
In the morning, Lee woke to find Tenten tucked against Neji's side, both of them sound asleep and dreaming. Grinning to himself, he gave a mental thanks to the rain and happily dived back under the covers.
They weren't going to be leaving anytime soon.