Author's Notes: I wrote this a long time ago, actually, and let it lay half finished for months until I finally finished it this week. I wanted to explore the idea of team dynamics a little, and hopefully the contrast between Team 7 and Team Gai is intriguing. If nothing else, it's a good backdrop for a little romance. ;)
Dedicated to SxStrngSamurai13 for being possibly the most loyal reviewer ever. Your words are most appreciated.
Let Nothing Come Between
Neji dropped down onto the tree limb with a heavy grace, breathing raggedly as he gazed about the clearing below with his Byakugan, taking in everyone's battle simultaneously and gauging their progress. The two teams were spread out, locked in individual combat. He was surprised to see the rookie genins holding their own with Naruto and Sasuke fighting two Rain-nin together while Sakura ranged in-between, helping where she could. Both Sasuke and Naruto were bleeding freely, defensive wounds on their arms and legs. Neji's eyes revealed that Sakura barely had a scratch, something that could be attributed to her teammate's protectiveness and her own superior chakra control.
In contrast, not far from them, Tenten stood within a ring of discarded weapons, fighting one of the enemy ninja head on with a katana. She had used Soushouryu a few minutes ago and he could see it had taken something out of her despite the fact that another ninja lay unconscious at her feet as a sign of her victory. Her chakra reserve was low but she was still battling with the same fever he had become accustomed to. Unlike Sakura, she was splattered with blood, some of it her own. To Neji it was the proper state of things. This was a battle, not child's play.
Turning his head slightly, Neji caught the edges of Lee's super fast moves against his opponent and nodded to himself in approval. It was not surprising his team was bearing the brunt of the attack. Though Naruto and Sasuke were strong, Neji and his team had trained longer together and were older, more experienced. Hence the reason he had taken a moment to assess everyone's situation. Because of their hard-earned prowess, Neji had stepped into the role of unofficial leader, and that meant that Team 7 was now his responsibility as well.
However, it looked as if the whole skirmish would soon be over. Deactivating his Byakugan, he made ready to jump down into the fray again when a flash of pink caught his eye. Glancing back, he saw Sakura drive a kunai into a ninja's thigh, forcing him to his knees. She pivoted, bringing another kunai around, ready to stab him through the heart, when she hesitated, green eyes flickering as she realized she was about to take a life.
Mentally cursing, Neji dropped from the trees as the wounded ninja pulled a kunai from the sheath on his thigh, flipping it up through his fingers with a bloody grin.
Somewhere in the clearing, Naruto cried out, "Sakura-chan!"
But the pink-haired kunoichi remained frozen as the ninja lunged at her, his weapon ready to slit her throat. Just before it would have grazed her skin, the enemy shinobi jerked and halted, some sort of croak issuing from his mouth as he collapsed, revealing Tenten's katana embedded in his back. Tenten herself stood there, panting, fingers still curled around the hilt as she looked to Sakura who was watching her with wide eyes.
Tenten opened her mouth to say something but was overridden as Naruto came running up, his face scrunched together in seriousness. "Sakura-chan! Are you alright?"
Neji heard her answer something but he ignored it as he focused on his own teammate, watching her closely as she pulled her sword free, flicking blood from the blade before sheathing it with a smooth click. In seconds, Lee joined them, the battle clearly over. He looked over at their teammate worriedly.
She made a dismissive motion with one hand. "I'm alright, Lee," she said, but Neji felt himself stiffen. There was no half-smile on her face, no light in her eyes. There was just… nothing.
Suddenly, he was furious. The full force of his glare found Sakura who jerked backwards in surprise. His words, when he spoke, were bitten off in his struggle to control himself.
"Make camp. We're staying here tonight."
They settled in for the night with little fanfare, the darkness like a thick blanket that muffled their emotions and curbed their thoughts. Perhaps sensing the undercurrents, Sasuke made a separate fire for himself and his teammates a safe distance away from Neji's. Neji let him do as he wished, uncaring since they were still well within the range of his divination.
Instead, his attention was on Tenten, who was kneeling by Lee's side and re-bandaging his arms. She had been quiet all evening, refraining even from teasing Lee as she worked; that odd, flat expression still gracing her features. She had done nothing about her own wounds, and so he was not surprised when she rose a few moments later and disappeared towards the river. He waited a full minute before standing and following her, entering the forest without a sound.
The river was laced with starlight when he arrived, gentle ripples distorting the moon's reflection as Tenten swam, washing the blood off her body as she did so. He stood on the bank and watched her, knowing that she knew he was there.
This wasn't the first time she had scrubbed death-stained hands in a river.
When she was finished, she swam to the edge, damp strands of unbound hair sticking to her skin as he held open her cloak for her, wrapping it around her shoulders as she stepped into him. With a gentle sigh, she rested her forehead against his chest and he let his arms loosen and drop to her waist. They stood like that for awhile, silent and together as mist began to rise from the water. When Tenten finally lifted her head to look him in the eye, he was relieved to see his reflection in her amber irises.
"I didn't mind killing him," she whispered, "I don't mind taking someone's life to protect a teammate."
"It shouldn't have been necessary," he replied, his voice hard. She smiled slightly, that strange, flat expression gone from her face.
"But it was, and I can bear it." Her head titled and her hair brushed his arm as her lips curved. "You worry too much."
He pressed his lips together. There was nothing he could say to that.
But he could say something to Sakura.
Tenten should have expected him to do something. He didn't like weakness, especially if it caused trouble for those close to him. Still, it was a complete surprise when she was awakened near midnight by the sound of strong voices reined in just shy of outright anger. It was an argument, albeit a tightly leashed one, and she sat up from her blankets to find Neji and Sasuke staring each other down across a dying fire.
Sasuke's eyes were flat chips of onyx glittering with annoyance, his face fixed with a tight expression, chin tilted downwards as he glared at Neji. For his part, the Hyuuga stood stiffly, hands fisted at his sides, brows drawn together, his white gaze cold and unyielding. Both of them radiated agitation but something about the set of Neji's shoulders said he wasn't going to go easy on other boy. If it came to blows, Tenten was blindingly confident in Neji's abilities, but she was concerned he might take it too far and injury Uchiha in a way that might be disadvantageous to their team.
She wasn't sure if it was her place to interrupt though. From his expression, Neji was not about to be pacified by any amount of words on her part. Turning her head towards Team 7's campfire, she saw the glimmer of wide green eyes fixed on Sasuke's back and sighed wearily. If Tenten had to guess, she would say the two boys were arguing over what had happened with Sakura earlier and it appeared that the girl knew it. Still, she wasn't trying to stop them, and so Tenten stayed where she was, only readying a kunai as she waited to see what would happen.
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the climax of the scene was cut short by the whistle of tagged kunai and Lee's shout of warning from the far side of the camp even as the night exploded in orange-red fire. Jagged chunks of tree splinters fell around her as Tenten jumped to her feet, her ears bringing her the sound of confusion through the dust and dirt. She had only a moment's notice, that tiny voice in the back of her mind telling her to move, before a Rain-nin came out of the darkness with a handful of senbon for her. She had no time to assess her teammates' situations and was forced upwards into the surviving tree limbs, her hands flinging invisible wire outwards. At the last moment, she turned and engaged her pursuer, unraveling a scroll from her waist pouch and slapping the ancient parchment, her fingers curling around the star-shaped blades of a handful of shuriken. She threw them almost absently, aware that they would, of course, hit their target, and jumped backwards, letting the ninja crash into wiry trap. More shuriken left her hands and the wires snapped, springing back around the ninja and holding him prisoner as he fell to the forest floor.
Tenten didn't watch his descent, her gaze already turned towards the center of the clearing where the hardest fighting seemed to be taking place. The dust from the explosion had cleared a bit, and the cloudy moonlight showed her the green and gold flash of Neji's Kaiten as he defended himself against two enemy shinobi. Lee was near him, a tangle of kicks and punches and chops to the neck. Team 7 had closed around their campfire, forming a protective ring to their backs, the circle lined with Naruto's shadow-clones, Sakura's kunai, and the large inky blades of Sasuke's fuuma shuriken. Despite the effectiveness of their formation, the Rain-nin were overwhelming them, breaking down the perimeter of their defense with sheer numbers. A circle could be held by a limited number of shinobi, but it also limited mobility, something Team 7 was quickly finding out.
Tenten dropped through the forest trees soundlessly, throwing her scroll out before her as she went. She felt Neji's pearl-white gaze find her before she began the rotation, twisting in mid-air until her image was all but lost in the blur of motion. The Hyuuga called out for their teams to duck but the order was unnecessary. Tenten's chakra allowed her to have perfect control of when and where her weapons fell and not one of them so much as scratched a Konoha ninja. The raining hail of steel caught their attackers off guard and many of them fell, struck suddenly by a kunai in the leg, or a shuriken in the shoulder. Even more unfortunate were those hit by spinning fuuma shuriken or the terrible spikes of the makibishi.
The scroll slithered to the ground before she hit it, dropping to one knee, hand out as she caught the last katana for herself, raising it defensively as they engaged the last of the Rain-nin. Those last moments were a blur, all muscle and force and breath in the flaring light of Sasuke's Goukakyuu no Jutsu. The only thing Tenten could say for certain was that she never saw the hand that reached out, clamped around her throat and threw her backwards with such force that her back hit a nearby tree hard enough to make her cough blood as she staggered, hunching forward and blurrily trying to make out her attacker. A solid punch to her stomach stopped that effort and she folded around the fist, drawing her katana up and over, the downward slash stopped by a hand on her wrist. There was a brief struggle of strength wherein Tenten found she could breathe again and she saw the Rain-nin for the first time, the mask over his mouth twisting as he snarled silently at her.
Knowing she didn't have the physical ability to defeat him, she let go of the katana, letting it bury itself into the earth behind her point first even as she dropped, swinging out a leg to sweep the ninja off his feet. He was good though, and he turned his fall into a roll, springing up and turning to drive a kunai in her unprotected back, her body still moving towards the space he should have been in had he not rolled. She had only seconds to adjust to his new position, to see the weapon in his hand and know she had no time to avoid it and nothing to counter it with. Her body tensed in anticipation of the blow…
… but it never came.
The Rain-nin dropped to his knees, eyes wide and unseeing, gurgling his last breath as the fall of his body revealed Sakura with a bloody kunai in her hand, her eyes hard and glittering. Tenten looked at her in shock and Sakura replied with a grim smile.
"Now we're even."
And in that moment they had an understanding, an exchange of experiences. The life of a kunoichi is this, their unspoken words said, and there was no need for Sakura to apologize for her earlier hesitation. They both understood, and that was the reason they had chosen the path of ninja. They were more.
After that, the battle ended swiftly, Neji somehow finding his way to her side, the set of his mouth revealing that he had seen what had transpired and was struggling with his pride as well as a particularly slippery Rain-nin. In the end, they stood together amidst fallen warriors, exhausted, and surveyed the damage.
Lee had taken only minor injuries, mostly reopening his previous wounds. He would be fine with some fresh bandages. Naruto was grinning and slapping "Fuzzy Eyebrows" on the back and so Tenten deduced he was perfectly alright. It took her a moment, but she at last found Saskue and Sakura at the edge of the clearing, bathed in starlight and speaking quietly, standing close but not touching. Tenten thought she saw Sakura smile.
"She did well," Neji said, having followed the direction of her gaze, his eyes almost luminescent in the dark. There was no inflection in his voice, just the flat announcement of simple fact. Still, she knew it was as close to an admission of misjudgment as he would ever get. She smiled slightly and turned, taking in his ruffled exterior, the line of blood on his cheek. She reached up and brushed her fingers down the side of his face lightly, the most she could do until they were alone. The muscles in his jaw eased at her touch.
"I'm just glad everyone is mostly unhurt," she said quietly, letting her shoulders drop, the tension leaking out of her.
"Did you say someone was hurt?" Sakura asked, Sasuke by her side as they stopped a few feet away. Neji glanced at the pair but it was Tenten who answered.
"No, we're all a little ragged, but we're alright."
"It's time to be away," Neji said, "before others find us."
Sakura nodded and Neji's eyes flickered to her before settling on Sasuke. There was a small silence and then the Hyuuga spoke again, his tone as formal as Tenten had ever heard it. "Take point?"
Sasuke nodded once, but it wasn't a curt motion, and Tenten knew that they, too, had reached an understanding. Their new found peace was shattered though, as Naruto came bounding up, still as irrepressible as ever.
"What's going on? What're we doing? Huh? Huh? Sakura-chan?"
A hard punch to the jaw sent him flying. "Knock it off, Naruto!" an irate Sakura shouted. Sasuke turned on his heel, ignoring the antics of his teammates.
"We're going," he said calmly. Sakura immediately hurried after him and Naruto jumped up as if the Uchiha's words had been a direct insult.
"Wait up, Sasuke-bastard! Who put you in charge? Wait, Sakura-chaaaaaan…!"
Tenten shook her head. And she thought Lee was bad.
Speaking of Lee…
"Are we following?" he asked, joining them. He'd bandaged his arms again himself, his usual enthusiasm leaking through his voice. Tenten smiled.
"Yeah, we're going." She glanced at Neji and found him watching her, waiting. Stepping in beside him, she linked her arm threw his and Lee's.
"We're going," she reiterated, firmly, "All of us, together."