Author's Notes: This is a prequel to "Crossing the Acheron", meant to explain events I only hinted at in that particular story. As such, I heavily suggest you read that first if you haven't, as it will give you a greater understanding of what's happening. Of course, you don't have to, seeing how this is a prequel, but since I wrote "Acheron" first it will make reading this a lot easier. NejiTen as always and a bit of one sided Lee/Sakura. I don't expect this story to be any longer than "Acheron" so please keep that in mind.
The Bridge to Mnemosyne
Spring in Konoha was one of Lee's favorite things. The leaves were brilliantly green, the morning air was crisp, and Gai-sensei had initiated his Springtime of Youth! exercises that could not fail to help him finally beat Neji. The village itself seemed to be blooming, flowers dripping from crawling vines and cherry blossoms littering the sidewalks and streets. Even the people seemed happier in the bright rays of the sun, the children laughing and playing, girls wearing ribbons in their hair. Only Sakura-san needed no decoration. She was a flower unto herself.
He had seen her that morning, a brief flash of pink hair and bright eyes as she entered the Academy alongside Ino. She had mentioned something the other day about demonstrating jutsus to Iruka's class and Lee secretly thought those children were very lucky. He was sure Sakura-san's natural warmth would lead them to become great ninja!
With her in mind, he clenched a determined fist and quickened his pace, suddenly excited about the upcoming mission. All he had to do was pick up Neji and they would be meeting the others by the perimeter gates, where all serious missions began. 'A' ranked missions were certainly nothing to scoff at.
Surprisingly, it turned out Lee was saved from a trip to the stuffy Hyuuga compound by Neji himself. His longtime teammate came down a flight of apartment stairs, zipping his jacket as he went, obviously not quite together that morning. His long hair had yet to be tied back and there was something about his face that Lee couldn't read. However, he didn't need to.
He knew whose apartment it was.
"Neji," he exclaimed, stopping short, eyes going wide. He glanced up at Tenten's apartment and back down to his disheveled partner in shock. Neji halted upon seeing him there, his expression finally settling back into the self-assured look of the Hyuuga prodigy.
"Lee," he returned calmly, as if it was not obvious he had spent the night with the only girl who meant something to both of them, if in different ways. Lee's distinctive eyebrows drew together at Neji's tone. He would not allow him to brush this off as if it were nothing. Lee and Tenten had long had an affectionate relationship, almost like that of brother and sister. Although, he was pretty sure that Tenten regarded herself as an older sister, and he the young boy that needed to be shaken back into reality every once in awhile. The three of them had trained together for years before the separation that came with achieving higher shinobi levels, and they still did whenever time allowed. For Neji to treat their very close friend in such a relaxed manner…
Lee closed the gap between them with a frown. "Do you know what you're doing?"
It was Neji's turn to frown. "What?"
"Don't hurt her, Neji," he said, perfectly serious. "If you do, I'll never forg-"
"Good," Neji interrupted him, a surprising lack of anger in his voice. Instead, he seemed to be seeing Lee in a different light, his head tilted slightly to one side as if an idea had occurred to him. "I want you to promise me something, Lee."
Thrown off the track of what would have been a fiery and beautiful speech, Lee watched the other man carefully. "What?"
"The three of us have relied on each other many times." Neji looked away, that odd expression crossing his face again. Lee wondered what it meant. "If something were to happen, promise me you won't let her be alone."
The taijutsu master didn't like where this was going. "You think something's going to happen? Why?" He shouldn't have worried through, because in the next instant, Neji flashed him his trademark smirk.
"I defied fate."
Lee felt his expression fall into solemnity as something like a chill ran up his spine. He couldn't really understand what was happening and his mind fumbled for the serenity he had felt earlier. Neji's words rang with the sound of something mysterious and Lee had never liked secrets. They always had a way of coming out and changing people's lives at the worst times. He supposed he was also a little disappointed. For years, it had just been the three of them. Even when they weren't assigned to the same teams, he had always felt there would be an underlying bond between himself, Neji, and Tenten. Now it seemed like he was the odd man out and he wondered if Neji or Tenten would have told him about their relationship. Tenten might have, but he had a feeling Neji would never have mentioned it and had only vaguely done so after being caught.
Still, he shouldn't be so surprised. He had known for years that Tenten had had somewhat of a crush on Neji, no matter how much she liked to deny it. She buried herself in missions and training practices, but he always saw them for what they were: distractions. He was not as oblivious as some liked to think he was.
Neji being one of them.
Straightening his spine, Lee looked his friend in the eye, still unsure but knowing that taking care of Tenten was something he would have done anyway. "I promise." Strangely, the lines of Neji's shoulders visibly relaxed, but Lee still had more to say. "I also promise to protect her from you." Neji glared at him but he stood his ground until finally the Hyuuga genius nodded once.
"Fine." Neji turned on his heel. "Now let's go. We're going to be late."
Glancing up at Tenten's apartment one last time, Lee hurried to catch up to his teammate, hoping he would never have reason to fulfill his strange oath.
The wind turned cold around midnight. Standing in the moon-cast shadow of a tree, Lee rubbed his arms briskly and mourned the loss of his favorite springtime weather. Clouds raced along the starlight sky, giving the jounin team lots of cover but obscuring their vision at the same time. The only one that wasn't hampered by the flickering dark was Neji and he was close to the front of their group, eyeing the terrain with a silver gaze.
They had not spoken of what had happened that morning, too caught up in traveling with the wind-bred speed of elite ninja. In fact, Neji appeared as if he had forgotten the whole thing, as focused and as serious as ever when it came to the mission. Instead it was Lee who was off balance, wondering what was going on in his friend's head. He had seemed true enough that morning, but was Neji really just using Tenten? Did he have any true feelings for her? Lee liked to think he understood Neji well enough to know that the man wouldn't use their childhood teammate in such a way. If nothing else, Neji never hid the truth. So, did that mean he was in love with her? Had he told her that?
A few feet away, Neji exhaled in irritation. "Shut up, Lee," he said quietly, still peering into the forest. "I can't concentrate."
"I didn't say anything!" Lee answered indignantly, frowning at Neji's back. The Hyuuga didn't move.
"I can hear you thinking clear over here." One white eye glanced back at him briefly. "If you want to ask me something, just do it."
Lee crossed his arms. "Fine." He paused, hesitating slightly before plunging ahead. "Did you tell her?"
Neji twitched. "What?"
"You told her, right? How you feel." The air went still and Neji presented him only with silence. Lee's fingers curled into a fist. "You didn't tell her!"
"I didn't have time," Neji shot back, turning his head to the left as something moved in the bushes. It was only a pheasant.
"She's never going to know the burning fire of your love if you don't tell her, Neji!" Lee exclaimed in a whisper. A thought popped into his head then and he stopped, suddenly wondering if he had made a mistake. "You do love her, don't you?"
For a moment there was nothing, no reaction, and Lee felt his stomach clench at the notion that he had misjudged the situation. But then Neji's head dropped a little and Lee caught a brief glimpse of raw emotion on his friend's face.
A kunai came whistling out of the dark and Neji flung himself to one side, letting the weapon embed itself in the tree behind him. Instantly, Lee lifted a hand and their team surged into motion, black shapes against blacker backgrounds as they flitted through shadow, engaging the newly come enemies swiftly.
As they battled, Lee tried to keep an eye on Neji, knowing that getting separated might mean death with such limited visibility, at least on his part. His friend's fight only came to him as glimmers of steal and chakra though, and soon Lee had lost track of his position, too busy dealing with his own opponent to worry about anyone else.
He would regret that decision later, of course. Tormenting himself with 'what ifs' until Gai-sensei finally punched him halfway across the room in an effort to knock some sense into him. For the moment, however, the goal was to survive the night. It would take the sun rising on four ninja instead of five to make him realize that something was wrong.
They found evidence of Neji's battle by the riverside, footprints and splatters of blood a sign that someone had been wounded there, possibly severely. Lee knelt in the dirt, brows drawn together, his usual enthusiasm dampened by what he read in the traces left behind.
"He might have holed up somewhere, especially if he was injured," Shikamaru said from behind him, the flat tones of his voice showing he was confident that Neji was alive. "That guy would not be defeated so easily."
"That's right," Naruto added, pumping a fist into the air, "There's no way he would lose!" Naruto had gained a lot of faith in Neji over the years, after fighting with him in the first Chuunin exam and then after their failed mission to retrieve Sasuke. His surety was enough to give Lee back some of his energy.
Shikamaru just sighed. "Let's spread out and look for him. Meet back in this spot by sundown."
Unfortunately, it turned out that sundown wasn't long enough. They searched for twenty-four hours, scouring the landscape for any sign that Neji had passed that way. During that time, Lee rarely slept, pushed onward by the promise he had made, plagued by the thought that Neji had known all along he wasn't coming back from this mission. Just to prove the Hyuuga wrong, Lee was bound and determined to find him.
Instead, he found Neji's forehead protector in the mud of the riverbank. It was scratched and dented but surprisingly clean, as if the river had washed it up like some forgotten token, one of those coins people threw in fountains in exchange for wishes. Lee lifted it carefully, bandaged fingers tracing the leaf symbol. Exhaling, he looked out over the river, a certain emptiness settling in his chest with a finality that almost hurt.
"I was supposed to beat you," he told the water. Ripples sparkled merrily back, mocking him.
Neji didn't answer.
The Hokage ordered them back to Konoha that night. The trip was a quiet one, each of them absorbed in their own thoughts. Naruto seemed angry, growling under his breath, his blue eyes flashing at whatever was running through his mind. Shikamaru looked rather resigned and frustrated at the same time. He had been the leader of their mission and to lose a team member under his watch was a hard thing to deal with. Lee had nothing to say to him, however. He was too stricken to do much more than mindlessly follow his friends back to the gates of the village, only vaguely hearing them say their goodbyes with downcast eyes. When they had left him, he turned slowly and began walking, arms limp at his sides, head down. Upon reaching his destination, Lee looked up at the lights burning in Tenten's apartment and swallowed, his eyes stinging with tears.
…promise me you won't let her be alone.
He rang the doorbell and listened as he heard her footsteps pad across the floor inside, the chain rattling as she opened the door. She was wearing pajama pants and a tank top, her hair let down in concession to the warm evening weather. Her face lit up upon seeing him and his heart ached at the happiness he saw in her eyes, the happiness Neji had put there.
And Lee was about to take it away.
"Hey, you're back!" she said cheerfully, leaning against the doorframe. Her expression fell slightly when he didn't reply. "Lee, are you alright?" She shifted then, her breath quickening as she realized something was wrong. Her voice grew quiet. "Lee, where's Neji?"
He brought his hand up slowly, lifting his fallen teammate's forehead protector as if it were almost too heavy for him, tears finally running down his cheeks as he saw her pale, brown eyes widening at what he offered her.
"Tenten," he said miserably, "Neji is…is.."
But he never got to finish because she suddenly collapsed, falling forward into him in a dead faint, Neji's forehead protector clattering to the steps as he used both hands to catch her. Kneeling down, he cradled her carefully, wishing Gai-sensei was there to tell him what to do.
Death could not be fixed by hard work.
To be continued.
1. Mnemosyne: River of Memory in Greek mythology.