Author's Notes: The end at last. A big, heartfelt thanks to everyone who's stayed with me this far. This chapter is for you.
The Bridge to Mnemosyne
For the next several months, Tenten immersed herself in the solemn, ivory-painted world of the Hyuugas. She rose with the pale rays of the sun and ate the morning meal with the Branch members, sipping tea from fine porcelain and exchanging polite words with men and woman whose eyes, for all their power, never really saw her. She learned when to bow and when to only incline her head, which titles should be addressed to whom, even how to walk through the corridors as if she were floating, the shining wooden floorboards like water beneath her feet.
She wore her hair down more, perfectly combed and heavy in her hands. It was getting quite long and gave her headaches if she wore it in buns too long. With it down, she felt more like one of her adopted family, who all seemed to have unusually long hair, at least those of whom she saw everyday.
Hinata, though, never grew hers.
Instead, the two of them picked flowers in the garden, childishly making blossom necklaces and crowns and giggling like schoolgirls. Then put flowers in vases too and left them around the compound, dripping color in their footsteps where before there had been none. The two girls had become quite close as Tenten's pregnancy progressed into its final stages, the older kunoichi's throaty laugh a balm to Hinata's own worries. Tenten had also, almost unknowingly, stepped into Neji's shoes, fulfilling the role he had never wanted. She glared at Hanabi if the girl said something biting to her sister and was quick to defend Hinata if she was being teased about her shyness. In Tenten, Hinata had found a friend, an ally who was, perhaps, just as alienated as she was.
"It's my eyes," Tenten had said once, half-teasing. "Change makes them uncomfortable."
And it might have been that, but there was also the baby and that made them nervous as well. Neji's child made them nervous. Tenten found that rather amusing, that she could be the mother of a child whose very birth might collapse the Hyuuga's careful world of rules and seals like a house of cards. It was her son's power they feared, and Tenten used that fear to protect herself and Hinata. She wasn't ashamed to do so either.
At the beginning of her ninth month, she had no qualms in taking advantage of whatever she could to make her life easier. She was constantly fatigued and still could not sleep much, haunted at night by phantoms of remembered moments by his side. She was a bit restless as well, something Sakura had told her was natural. She was close to her time and with each passing day she walked with the weight of her growing child, a sorrowful wish in her heart that Neji might be watching her, wherever he was.
As the time for her son's birth grew closer, Lee became a nervous wreck, annoying her with his constant presence until she all but snapped at him to run laps around the village. To be fair though, Lee was trying to fill both pairs of shoes, his own and Neji's, hovering over her, ready to fulfill her every whim and scolding her if she so much as lifted a reading book. His heart was in the right place but she could never tell him that, no matter what he did, she would always yearn for Neji. She was having his child, what else could she do?
"I'm not strong enough to do this," she whispered to Lee that night. She was sitting in a rocking chair Hinata had bought for her, for when the baby was born, and Lee was kneeling before her, his ear pressed against the hard mound of her stomach. He liked listening to her son's heartbeat, amazed that she had created such an "exuberant promise of life", as he put it.
Upon hearing her words, he lifted his head slightly, enough to look her in the eye. Surprisingly, he smiled at her gently. "But there is no one else."
His words were meant to be blunt, and not because he wanted to hurt her, but because it was the truth and Lee, if nothing else, always reacted honestly. Tenten looked away, her shoulders dropping as she exhaled in an attempt to keep tears at bay.
"I'm tired of being strong."
They sat together in silence for several more minutes, various expressions running across Lee's face as he listened to her son. Outside, the sun was setting and lanterns were being lit within the compound, fragrant smoke filling the air. It was a typical evening in the Hyuuga household, the addition of Lee being nothing remarkable. They had grown used to his presence since she had moved in and let him come and go as he wished, evening allowing him to eat the evening meal with them, sometimes. Before… Before, that might have seemed strange, but now it was like everything else, routine.
Until Lee jerked back suddenly, clearly surprised.
Tenten blinked. "What is it…?" But then her eyes widened and she paled.
"Tenten…" Lee's eyes were the size of saucers.
She licked her lips, wondering why they were suddenly dry. "Lee, I think my water just broke."
Sakura jumped, startled, as Lee burst into the waiting room of the hospital, running to her side upon seeing her and tugging on her arm. "Quickly! You must come with me! There' s not a lot of time!"
"Wa…Wait! Lee!" He was pulling her out the double doors, her feet skidding against the smooth tiles. "What's going on? What's wrong with you?"
"Not me," he said, breathless, "It's Tenten! She's having the baby!"
"She's having the…" Sakura's eyes widened and she did some quick calculations in her head. "Where is she?"
"At the Hyuuga compound. It all happened so fast and Hinata doesn't think there's time to move her. You have to come with me!"
She nodded, running with him. "Of course!"
By the time they reached the compound, white-eyed Hyuugas had gathered in the courtyard outside Tenten's room, surprisingly calm but with a charged air around them that spoke of subdued excitement. Lee plowed through them with more nerve than she would ever have had on her own and they reached the rice-paper doors where Maito Gai was pacing, looking every bit like a nervous uncle. When he saw her, he threw his arms around her dramatically, almost knocking her backwards.
"Sakura! Thanks goodness you've come! My little buttercup, she's… she's…" But he burst into tears before he could finish and Sakura struggled out of his grip, transferring the distraught man to Lee.
"It's alright. I'll take care of her," she told him reassuringly, before sliding back the door and stepping inside quickly, closing it again behind her.
Tenten lay on her bed, her long hair unbound, her skin shining with sweat. Her dark eyes were filled with pain but lightened a bit when they saw her standing there. Standing by the laboring woman's bedside, Hinata breathed a quiet sigh of relief.
"Sakura-san, I'm so glad to see you. The contractions started so quickly, I… I'm not sure what to do."
Sakura went to the bed, reaching out to squeeze Tenten's hand and giving Hinata a calming smile.
"That's alright, Hinata-chan. Everything's going to be fine. Just fine." She looked down at Tenten. "Let's see about making you more comfortable, shall we?"
Hours past as the two girls fetched hot water and blankets, Sakura monitoring and helping Tenten through each contraction, the older girl groaning with each new wave of pain. Hinata spoke soothingly to her, her soft voice singing a gentle melody in between contractions.
After nine hours, Tenten's will collapsed and she burst into tears, almost hiccupping with exhaustion, physical pain, and grief. They knew without speaking why she wept, and so Sakura and Hinata leaned over to hug her, murmuring encouragingly while she got herself under control again.
Another hour and Hyuuga Keiki was born, crying gustily and so beautiful that Hinata felt tears in her own eyes as she passed him to his mother. Sakura sat back, almost as tired as Tenten was, and smiled wearily at mother and son. Tenten laughed softly as Keiki's tiny fingers curled around one of hers reflexively and he stopped wailing, watching her as if he knew exactly who she was.
Glancing over at the two girls witnessing this, she conveyed her gratitude with a look. "Thank you," she said hoarsely.
Hinata blushed and Sakura's smile widened. "I think there are two very worried uncles waiting outside, Hinata and I will go and reassure them," she said, rising slowly and sending Hinata a silent message that they should let Tenten have a moment alone. The Hyuuga heir nodded minutely and paused only to touch her cousin's small head softly before following Sakura out, closing the door behind her as Gai and Lee prepared to rush inside. Sakura held her hands up, palms out.
"Everything's alright," she said kindly, her eyes sparkling at the anxious looks on their faces. "Tenten did wonderfully and she's resting for a moment." She touched Lee on the arm. "It's a healthy baby boy."
Lee's grin almost blinded her and he turned to his old teacher. "Did you hear that, Gai-sensei?"
"I DID INDEED, LEE!" Gai crowed. "Our Tenten has completed her most important mission with burning rays of determination!"
Lee's eyes filled with tears. "GAI-SENSEI!"
Sakura turned away before she started twitching as Gai and Lee embraced dramatically, seemingly unaware of anyone else. Beyond them, the Hyuugas were talking amongst themselves but Sakura could see that most of them looked pleased, even proud, as if they had delivered the child themselves. Deciding to draw attention away from Lee and Gai's emotional display, she directed her next words at them.
"She's decided to name him Keiki, Hyuuga Keiki."
"Keiki," a voice repeated and she looked to the side, blinking as she realized Hyuuga Hiashi was standing there, looking as stern and polished as ever. She nodded to him hesitantly and felt her heart almost stop when he gave her a half-smile. "It means 'happy child'."
Sakura nodded again, shocked that he appeared almost happy. "It does."
"A fine name, I think," and he looked out over his clan, somehow stilling them with only a look. "Let us welcome Hyuuga Keiki, a child born from happiness."
Instantly, a low hum was taken up and the Hyuugas began to sing, their voices rising in a gentle, traditional song whose words Sakura couldn't really understand but which she found almost more touching in her lack of comprehension.
Inside her bedroom, Tenten heard the song meant for her son and smiled tearfully, looking upwards to the ceiling. "Do you see him, Neji?" she said softly. "He's ours, yours and mine." Glancing down at the child in her arms, she kissed his forehead, right where a curse seal might one day be.
"I love you," she whispered, and it no longer mattered to whom she was speaking.
The knife slipped from his hands before he realized what was happening, hitting the floor at his feet almost soundlessly. He stared at it a moment, his mind struck numb, his hands shaking as he struggled to hold on to the fishing net in his hands. In his head, he heard a voice, both loud and soft at the same time until he wanted to clamp his hands over his ears in frustration. And there was an image, the first one he could label as a true memory, her face somehow as familiar to him as his own.
He made a sound in his throat and dropped the net, one hand going to his forehead where that strange marking was, as if by touching it he might understand what he was seeing.
Sitting across from him, Seichiro watching him calmly. "You remembered something."
He lifted his head to look at the old fisherman, his pale silver eyes almost shadowed. "There was a girl."
Seichiro laughed, the sound almost a croak. "There always is." He watched him thoughtfully for a moment. "It says something that you recalled her first, even before your own name."
Seichiro's craggy face simply looked at him. "I don't know."
He looked down at the floor again, his colorless eyes focusing on the razor edge of the knife blade, watching the light flicker along it and reflect back. The mirrored surface showed him a young man with a strange gaze and long dark hair, a smooth, flawless face unused to the creases that happiness brings.
But he thought he might have known it, once.
"Tenten," he murmured and Seichiro shifted in his chair.
"What was that?"
"That was her name," said the nameless man quietly, picking up the fallen weapon and going back to work on the nets, "Tenten, and I think I loved her."
The story is continued in "Crossing the Acheron".