Disclaimer: Nope, don't own Naruto. Dang it.
Author's Notes: This one turned out quite different but I really like it. Somewhat dark, I suppose, and futuristic. I've also taken the current manga arc and thrown it on its head.
Dedication: To MoonLightWolf, who is so supportive it's probably illegal. :)
Italics represent flashbacks. Everything else is in the present.
He stood stoically in the midst of the battlefield, a bared katana in his hand, the blade clean and pristine, flashing light with every move of his wrist. Cold, white eyes were fixed on the approaching enemies, the veins around them straining to make out a figure among the fog.
It was morning and the grass was heavy with dew, the air full of wet mist and the tingling awareness that blood would soon be shed. Behind him, arrayed in their places, stood his team, wary of the approaching ninjas and none too sure of him either. He felt their gazes like glass weights on his shoulders, wondering if he would break and shatter, if he would actually go through it. He was irritated with their worry. They should know he had vast experience in feeling trapped.
Across from him, the shinobi were halting, shifting on their feet as they prepared to bring out their bargaining chip. Behind his painted mask, Neji's expression tightened and he took a step forward along the invisible path he had paved for himself.
"What the hell are you talking about?" Naruto exclaimed, jumping to his feet. His face registered his shock. "That's impossible, isn't it?" He looked to Sakura for confirmation. "Isn't it?"
Sakura glanced at him, her green eyes full of doubts, and none of them about herself. "For an ordinary person it would be, but with Neji's Byakugan…" She trailed off as if unwilling to pin their hope on one person, only to succumb to the conclusions of her training. "Supposing he did it, I could then fix the damage. But I still think there are other ways we might…"
"I'll do it," Tenten said suddenly, drawing all eyes to her. Her own gaze found Neji's and held it as something ached inside his chest. Of all of them, he hadn't wanted…
Sakura pressed her hands together worriedly. "Tenten-chan, it's going to be difficult. Are you sure you…"
Tenten made a dismissive motion with one hand and smiled slightly. "I've trained with Neji since we were twelve. It has to be me. Besides, who else is there? You're the medic, Lee's our backup, and Naruto's the bait." Her voice lowered as she repeated, "It has to be me."
Uchiha Itachi met him in the middle, red eyes meeting white briefly before Neji adjusted his vision downwards towards the man's feet, as Gai had long ago taught him.
"Where is she?" he asked, his voice brittle in the pre-morning twilight. There was movement in the ranks of Uchiha's ninjas and she was pushed forward, falling even with Itachi. Neji drank in the sight of her like a man dying of thirst.
She was bruised and battered but there were no wounds on her, no blood. Her hair was down and tangled, her face drawn, her eyes ringed by black circles as if she had looked into the face of a nightmare. He knew the horrors of the Sharingan and he wondered what she had seen within that crimson prison. Her blank gaze told him nothing. His jaw tightened.
She had never looked at him and not seen him before.
"He's going to use it on you," he told her as they stood together under an ancient tree, its drooping branches shielding their private moment from prying eyes. He wanted to hold her but couldn't allow himself to until he made sure she understood what was going to happen.
"He can destroy your mind, and the others could do worse." His throat closed at the possibilities. She only smiled calmly.
He did hold her then, harshly, strongly. She wound her arms around him and buried her face in his shirt, silent and still, as if she weren't facing torture in the next few hours. His mouth moved in her hair, his voice hollow.
"You must make them keep you alive. No matter what, when I see you next, you will be breathing."
She laughed lightly, oddly. "So that you can kill me?"
His arms tightened and he closed his eyes bitterly. "Do you understand?"
She kissed his jaw. "I understand."
"What do you want?" Neji asked flatly, though he already knew the answer. His voice seemed to echo oddly inside the mask. He didn't like not being able to look the Uchiha in the face.
Neji scoffed. "Did you think we would hand him over for only one ninja?" Behind him, he could almost feel Naruto's anger growing. The loud mouth ninja had despised their plan from the beginning, but then, he never wanted others getting hurt in his place.
"I think you will. I've seen inside her mind, after all."
Neji struggled to show no reaction, his fingers tightening around the hilt of the sword in his hands. Raising his head slightly, he looked into Tenten's face, searching for any sign that some part of herself still resided there.
Her eyes flickered, and her right hand slowly made the shape of a special signal. Ready.
Something uncoiled inside of him and he exhaled silently. "Give her to me."
Even without seeing his expression, Neji understood that Itachi was amused, thinking it was all a little game with powerless pawns. He meant to take Naruto no matter what. It didn't matter about Tenten, or even any of the others. The Akatsuki had come for one thing and one thing only. The rest of them would be dead within the hour.
"And the Kyuubi boy?"
Neji smirked, knowing Itachi couldn't see it. "Try to take him."
With a shove, Itachi flung Tenten towards him carelessly, already dismissing her importance with Naruto so close by. However, he did not count on the fact they might have prepared themselves for this confrontation, for the eventuality that war was inevitable. Neji knew the limits of his team's powers against the ruby wheels of Itachi's Sharingan.
And so he did not catch Tenten as she stumbled towards him. Instead, he lifted the katana and stabbed it smoothly through her abdomen, feeling the long blade emerge from her back to impale Itachi in the same way.
Tenten's eyes were no longer blank.
"Use this," she said, unsheathing one of two katanas strapped to her back. She flipped the hilt in her hands and handed it to him by gripping the blade. "I made it myself. It's one of my favorites and it has never failed me." The corner of her mouth lifted a little. "It will serve you well."
He took it from her carefully, seeing the smooth lines, the steel folded so perfectly he would have known it was hers even if she hadn't said so. It was slim and perfectly balanced and way too heavy. In his mind's eye, it was already stained with her blood.
He stabbed it point down into the ground at his feet, suddenly angry at the serenity she showed him, raging against her simple acceptance of fate. "I don't want you to do this."
She corrected him gently. "You don't want to do this." He pressed his lips together and averted his gaze, his body stiff and breakable. She took a step towards him and tangled her fingers in a lock of his hair, bringing it to her lips to kiss in loyalty. "I trust you, Neji. Everything will be fine."
He gazed at her fiercely and surrendered himself. "If you die, I will not be 'fine'."
A softness marred her pretty features and her eyes sparkled just for him. "Then I won't die."
He pulled the sword from her, catching her quickly as she crumbled with his free hand. As she moved out of his line of vision, Neji saw Itachi look down at the deep, bleeding wound in his stomach as if he wasn't quite sure what it was. He took a single, hesitant step backwards and the Akatsuki jumped into action, finally realizing what had happened.
Gritting his teeth, Neji turned and fled, vaguely aware of his teammates engaging in battle with the Uchiha's companions as he held Tenten firmly to his side. He didn't even see Shikamaru's team descend out of the trees but he could hear them calling out techniques as they appeared. His sole focus, however, was getting to Sakura and when he did, he cast aside the katana and lifted Tenten's now unconscious body in a silent plea.
"Did you…?" Sakura asked tentatively, her fingers edging the wound in the other kunoichi's abdomen. There was surprisingly little blood.
"It worked," he said shortly, bending to lay Tenten carefully on the ground, his lungs constricting at how pale she was, how lifeless. He knew he had been precise, stabbing her in such a way that the blade had not touched any of her vital organs. That had been the plan from the beginning, to use his Byakugan and her as a shield to wound Uchiha Itachi. She had gone in knowing what was going to happen, but he still felt angry, unbalanced, that they had had to take such a risk. That it had worked was little comfort. She could not open her eyes and reassure him that she was alright.
He swallowed, wanting nothing more than to stay by her side even though the battle called to him. "Sakura…"
The medic gave him a hard smile, one he had seen long ago in the face of three Sound-nins intent on killing Sasuke. It was a promise in and of itself. "I'll look after her. She'll be here when you get back."
Almost, he couldn't speak. "Thank you."
A surprised look flitted across Sakura's face but he was already gone, picking up his borrowed katana as he went, one face clear in his mind.
And it wasn't Itachi's.
He sat with her that night, in the makeshift tent Naruto had erected for her out of some misplaced sense of guilt. The Akatsuki had retreated, probably to have a medic look at the wound he had given Itachi. It was because of the difference in height between the Uchiha and Tenten that Itachi's condition was more serious. Neji had purposefully guided the katana through Tenten's body with his Byakugan, but since the matching places were not at the same level on Itachi, who was taller, the other man had received a grave blow.
Sitting beside her, watching her breathe, he hated the Byakugan which had made it all possible. Probably in somewhat of the same way that Naruto sometimes hated the Kyuubi.
At midnight, Tenten saved him by opening her eyes.
"Neji?" Her voice was almost a croak and he tilted her head up slightly so she could take a small sip of water. Sakura had warned him not to let her drink too much.
"I'm here," he said, setting the cup aside after a moment, moonlit eyes watching her steadily. She blinked in the darkness, disorientated, and he reached out to grasp her hand firmly.
"I didn't die," she said with a wisp of humor. Immediately, he broke at the cheerfulness she offered him and hunched over her hand, his long hair shielding his face as he struggled with himself. He wanted to howl. Everything inside of him was building, like a storm on the horizon. He recognized the symptoms, he had felt them before when he fought Hinata during the Chuunin exams. Unreasonable anger and the horrible feeling that he couldn't escape something strangled him, closed in around him in the darkness.
Then she whispered his name, "Neji."
The storm vanished.
It was so sudden that he actually jerked, his head coming up in surprise at the utter exhaustion that took its place. He looked into her face and wondered that she had such power.
She was gazing at him with gentle confidence, something she had never failed to have in him. Her fingers squeezed his weakly. "You saved me."
His body actually shook as he bent to give her the lightest of kisses. "No," he muttered against her lips, "you saved me."
"Neji," she murmured as he pushed her back against the tree, kissing her with all the carefully caged emotions required of two lovers who were also teammates. There was something wild in him, something that said it might be their last night. He couldn't stop himself from touching her, no matter what the others thought. They were not the ones letting themselves be caught by the Akatsuki.
"Neji," she whispered again, somewhat more urgently this time as he kissed the curve of her neck and shoulder. It took him a moment to realize she as pushing at him, trying to get him to look at her. He straightened enough to show her moon-silver eyes.
She lifted a hand to his cheek. "When I come back, I want to come here again, with you." She leaned into him, resting her head beneath his chin, quieting him with a touch. His arms slowly rose to hold her as he realized what she was saying. Not "if", but "when".
"When you return, we'll come here again. It's a promise."
Tenten never broke her promises.