Title: Fighting Fate
Rating: PG-13-ish. Probably less.
Word Count: 3,779
Summary/Description: If anything at all, Neji always defied the odds; he always fought fate.
Warning/Spoilers: Sap, I think. A lot of it. And OMG, angst. And maybe some OOC. And yay, violence. No spoilers.
A/N: So! It has been WAAAAAAAAAAAYYYY too long since I've written one of these. I've been off on a SasuSaku/Team Seven trip. :woe: But I'm getting back on the bandwagon, now. I've got a few vague ideas for more one-shots breeding in the back of my head. Please keep in mind that it's been quite a long time since I wrote for this pairing, so rustiness is to be expected.
Dedication: For Goldberry-san. :-)
Disclaimer: Not mine. Stop gloating, Kishimoto.
He left her with a promise and a kiss.
The kiss lingered on for days, an imprint on her lips that she would caress in times when loneliness reared its head, and pretend that she could feel his warmth. She remembered cloudy white eyes that never closed, never fluttered, never stopped boring into hers as soft, soft lips gently ravaged her mouth.
The promise lodged itself in her heart, and she clutched it in times of despair, when the perfect steel of her resolve tarnished. I will come back, had been his solemn vow, and Neji had yet to break a promise to her.
For six weeks, and four days, Tenten waited.
In the mission briefing, Neji and his platoon had been told that they had a fifteen percent chance of successfully completing the mission. Even less were the odds of all of them surviving.
When he told his wife, it only further pushed her to believe that he would indeed come back. If anything at all, Neji always defied the odds; he always fought fate.
Tenten's days were a monotonous blur; doing simple missions, running errands, teaching a stray class or two at the Academy. She did not want to take any missions that would require her leaving the village for more than a day, for fear that she would not be there when he returned. Tsunade, sympathising with her, did not assign her anything higher than a C-class.
Everyday, after completing her duties, the kunoichi would head down to the Gates. Positioning herself on a tree branch from where she could see five miles in each direction, she would clean her weapons, polish them, sharpen them, and wait.
The mission would take them far into the recesses of Cloud, to search out a string of missing-nin, all famous in the Bingo Book. They had recently gone on a rampage through their home village, the Hidden Stone, and relieved each member of the Feudal Lord's family of their money, their assets, and their lives.
Neji's platoon had been hired to take out the whole group, no questions asked, and leave the bodies for the Hidden Stone hunter-nin, who were trailing them by a few kilometres, to take care of. The platoon leader, Kira, was forcedly optimistic about their chances of success. The night before they were due to ambush, he gave a hearty, inspiring speech about the faith that he had in his underlings and their unending courage and skill. Neji half expected to rip off the stylised mask and plain brown hood, and find a pitch-black bowl cut and a toothpaste perfect smile.
Having already memorised the details of the area when he read the mission report, the Hyuuga did not listen when Kira described the topography of the land later that night. Instead, he reclined in a tree, and rested. He did not permit himself sleep. Honey-eyed phantoms had been the denizens of his dreams for the past week.
She missed the arrogance that would always pervade his inflection every time she went on a mission. He would flatly inform her of what time she would be back, and the fact that she would come back unharmed.
Uncannily enough, she always came back from those missions early, with nary but a scratch. She would huff, play at being dubious, and say it was a fluke. He would smirk, and say it was because he had said so, and he never lied.
The next morning yawned into being lazily, with streams of orange light beaming out of the horizon. Fresh and alert, Neji, Kira, the other two members of the platoon and the specially assigned medic made ready to head towards the makeshift encampment where the missing-nin had holed themselves up.
Flipping his hood over his head, Kira proposed that they make a quick trip back to the Stone-nin, to verify that they were on track. Neji was about to suggest that he simply use his Byakugan, when chakra flared to the left of the clearing, an ugly, prevalent intent to kill searing through it. Instinctively, all five shinobi leapt up into the trees, just as the forest floor beneath them caved into a pit of earth and forestry.
Four masked nin melted into the clearing in fluid movements, stepping just clear of the rubble of earth. They looked up in the direction of Neji's platoon, and beside him, Neji felt Kira stiffen as he took in the symbol etched into the foreheads of the masks; the mark of the Hidden Stone.
"Bastards," he growled, curling a hand around a kunai. "What did you do to the hunter-nin?"
A harsh, barking laugh sounded, cruel and jarring as it wafted up to meet the ears of the Konoha-nin.
"We are the hunter-nin," a female voice informed him, divesting herself of the sneering cat-mask to showcase a derisive smirk set in a thin drawn face. Kira palled, and Neji blinked; it was the commander of the Stone hunter-nin. One of her companions whistled, and almost instantaneously, a dozen plus shinobi materialised out of the surrounding forest. The Konoha-nin grimly noted that most of them were the faces of their very targets for the mission.
As the Stone-nin and their companions advanced, the Hyuuga thought of his wife, and of his promise. His spirits took an indistinct dip.
When, after three weeks – the allotted time for the mission – Neji and the others did not return, Tenten began to keep night-long vigils.
Nestling herself in the crook of branch and trunk, a small armoury tucked into the crevices of her shinobi suit, she reclined, slept fitfully, and waited.
He has yet to lie to me, was the mantra of her dreams.
For the third time, Neji spun into his Hakkeshou Kaiten, and the blue barrier surged around him, became his protector. The rock projectiles that his opponent flung glanced off of its energy-charged surface. Just beyond the azure wall, the brunet saw a Stone-nin fall at Kira's hands, even as the Konoha medic took another hit to the leg. She managed to throw her attacker off with the descent of her kodachi that scythed through the musty air of the clearing like a ship's prow through dense waters. The missing-nin collected a gash to the arm, and the medic-nin used the chance to dart off into the leaves.
Neji noticed the concentric partition of chakra begin to flux, and knew he had to stop, before his chakra reserves were depleted. He came to a gradual stop, and without missing a beat, fell into stance for the Divination Field. A quartet of Stone-nin approached, and in the corner of his eye, Neji saw a fuuma shuriken lance through the body of one of his comrades. Blood spurted, and splattered over the grinning missing-nin's clothes.
Several shinobi bypassed the gate per day, and saw her sitting in her tree. They sometimes gave her odd looks, but never said anything. Others, who recognised her, and knew who she was waiting for, muttered quick greetings, and did not allow her to see the pity in their eyes.
Sakura visited her whenever she had a spare moment. They chatted quietly, and the medic never brought up Neji, or the fact of the other kunoichi's vigil. But Tenten could tell; she understood.
There were too many of them, and they came too fast, and too thick for the Konoha-nin to handle. Neji watched another one of his companions slump to the forest floor in death, an arrow protruding from the back of his head.
The Hyuuga did a quick head count. There were nine more Stone-nin, as opposed to the three remaining Leaf shinobi. Easy odds to beat, under normal circumstances, but the situation had long gone beyond the norm. Neji hadn't seen Chie, the medic, in ages, and wasn't even sure if she was alive. Kira was going at it as best as he could with the three ninja that had cornered him, but Neji could see that the cell leader had sustained many injuries; one in particular that made him favour his left leg, and subsequently made him slower on his feet.
Neji himself wasn't in prime condition either. Scores of lesions from the stone projectiles seared and burned every time his arms pistoned out to block an attack or to execute one of the kata of the Jyuuken. His eyes ached dully with the strain of having the Byakugan activated for so long, and he was down to the last of his chakra.
To boot, the missing-nin were all Jounin-class, and were cunning and swift. They hurled jutsu after jutsu at them, and their Doton techniques were largely unknown to the Leaf-nin Neji found himself being barraged by a slew of mud missiles that burned like acid when it came into contact with the skin. He dodged as best as he could, and shot like a pale bullet towards his attackers, trying to make it a close-range battle. They retreated slyly, however, and kept up the relentless hail of projectiles, assuring that the Hyuuga was perpetually on the defensive.
Chie resurfaced just when he needed her. She flew out of the foliage, her mask cracked in many places, sporting a deep gash along her thigh. Her kodachi made nigh a whisper as it sliced through the air, slashing through one of Neji's assailers. As quickly and furtively as she had come, she was gone, disappearing into the trees once again to regroup.
However, Neji noted dishearteningly, the Earth shinobi were getting smarter. This time, they sent a man after her, who grinned savagely as he gave chase.
Neji had his hands full dealing with the remaining four nin. As such, he didn't see when Kira took a makibishi to the jaw that swept him clear off his feet, and sailing into a tree trunk thirty feet away, the lower half of his face reduced to a pulpy mess of bones, flesh and blood.
Hinata came and waited with her sometimes. Unlike the others, she never tried to pull Tenten into conversation, but only sat, knees pulled to her chest, arms hugging her legs, chin buried in the valley of her knees. The weapons specialist appreciated the silent company.
The only time the indigo-haired girl spoke was to inform her that Hiashi-sama wished to see her. When the brunette asked why, Hinata hesitantly replied,
"To make arrangements."
Tenten did not ask what for. Nor did she go to see the Hyuuga clan head that night, or return to the Hyuuga compound. She stayed rooted to the spot long after her in-law had said her goodbyes.
Neji wasn't sure, but by the looks of it, Chie had killed her pursuer. He came to this conclusion after a scythe swung down from the trees and severed a hunter-nin's head from his neck. The Byakugan-user took the chance to catch one of the others with a surprise attack to the flank, sending him spinning into a tree trunk. A volley of kunai swiftly followed, pinning the nin to the wooden surface. The last one planted itself in the middle of his forehead, buried to the hilt.
The Hyuuga genius counted again. Five more. Gritting his teeth, he threw himself against the wall of their strength.
Tenten was dozing lightly when she felt some presence jounce the limb she was reclining on. Before she was even fully conscious, she was on her feet, holding a kunai to the intruder's throat, her other hand reaching into her waist holster to clasp a few shuriken.
The warm hand that clasped her wrist gently brought her to her senses. The kunoichi blinked, rubbed her eyes savagely, and saw green. Slowly, she lowered the weapon. Looking up, she was greeted with unblinking black eyes set in a solemn face.
"Oh. Hello, Lee." She stepped back. "I'm sorry."
He shook his head.
The two old friends soaked in the silence of the early morning for a while.
"Tenten, I think…"
She cut him off in a slightly raspy voice.
"Don't say it Lee." She looked up at him, almost pleadingly. "Not you too."
The taijutsu master's hands were fists at his sides. They trembled sporadically as he regarded the brunette seriously.
"It was a hard mission to begin with. Two platoons should have gone, but as of Orochimaru's resurfacing, the shinobi have been stretched thin; you know that."
"So you believe it then?" Her tone was hard and flat. "That he's dead? That he's not coming back?"
"I'm not saying that," he hastened to reassure her. "We cannot be sure of anything right now. And besides, with his youthful power, my eternal rival will not go down that easily!" Fire burned in the black-haired ninja's eyes, and his companion was almost coaxed into smiling. "What I am saying," he went on, tempering his voice, laying a hand to rest on her shoulder, "is that maybe you should go home for now; get some rest."
Tenten blinked at the bandaged palm on her shoulder for a few moments before taking it into her own, giving it a light pat, and returning it to its owner.
"I'm sorry, Lee. I can't do that." Her golden brown eyes wandered to the horizon. "He's expecting me to be here."
In the end, it was Chie who saved Neji. The brunet was being forced to back up against a tree by the two remaining missing-nin who advanced menacingly. Crimson life dripped steadily from a chest wound he had sustained, and his breathing was harsh and short. His right ankle had been subject to a crushing blow from a mace; he suspected it was fractured. He felt around his holster with a hand that felt numb and sore; empty. Grimacing slightly behind the white metal of the mask, he bent, swiped a kunai off the ground, and continued to back away.
He very much doubted that he had enough chakra left to perform any substantial techniques. This was looking worse each minute. To boot, the Stone shinobi looked gratingly confident, grinning wolfishly. One of them was the female commander of the Hunters, and she sneered at him mockingly as she swung her mace threateningly.
Neji was trying to work out a plan of action when a flash of white in the background caught his eye. It was Chie, moving as silently and swiftly as a whisper among the fallen corpses. Her cracked mask had given way, and her short, shaggy locks fell free. She had a bow tucked beneath her arm, and was in the process of dislodging an arrow from one of her fallen team-mate's heads. Neji couldn't be sure, but he thought he saw her smile minutely at him before she let fly the stained projectile.
It hit the commander square in the neck, cutting through cleanly so that the head of the arrow was visible from the front. Blood gushed like a newborn geyser as she fell face forward into the dust.
Neji was jerking into movement, even as the woman's comrade swivelled around, snarling, "Bitch!" A fuuma shuriken revolved around its centre in his hand, unfurled and wicked-looking. A scant second after it left his hand, a dagger was slipping into his back, a pale hand stilling his death convulsions.
The morning's exertions proved to be too much for the young medic, and she found herself unable to move from the spot, even with her team-mate's warning shout ringing in her ears. The shuriken, deadly in its speed and the lethal accuracy of its thrower, cleaved her clean in two. She wasn't even given time to scream.
Neji let the body in his arms slump to the floor. Blood spattered on his chest plate, the bright red stark and almost shocking against the dull grey. His eyes closed briefly behind the mask; weariness threatened to set in.
In that instant, Neji realised that it had been a little over four weeks since he and the rest of the platoon had set out on the mission. Right then, he wanted nothing more than to go home.
Everyone – Lee, Gai, Hinata, Sakura, even Tsunade, who'd paid her a visit once – soon gave up on trying to coax her out of her tree. It was futile, anyway. Tenten would not be deterred from her belief. He was alive, and he was coming back.
Somehow, the Byakugan-user managed to drag all of the Stone-nin's bodies into one large heap, grunting softly in pain that he did not want to acknowledge. There, he made a roaring fire to dispose of them. He did the same for Kira, Chie, and the other two platoon members, and buried the ashes.
Leaning against a tall oak, watching the carcasses burn in the dancing, yellow-orange conflagration, Neji briefly pondered his options. He could head towards the Hidden Cloud, and try to get medical attention there, but he was not sure if all of there targets were accounted for, and could not be sure of what awaited him if he took that path. Going to the Hidden Stone was not the brightest idea either, as he wasn't sure if he would be greeted as friend or foe there. Konoha was allied with the Mist, but that was too far out of the way.
He had no choice but to try and make his way home. Between the Leaf and himself was the Hidden Sound. With Orochimaru rebuilding his forces, and his henchmen patrolling the countryside, it would be damn near next to impossible to get through the village. But that was an obstacle he would just have to try to overcome; or rather, slip around.
As he began limping back the long way home, Neji wondered if his wife had given up on him as yet.
As the six week mark approached, and passed, Tenten found herself touching her lips nostalgically, and pressing her hand to her heart more often. Curled up on the branch that had become her home, she tried to dispel the phoenix-like sense of hopelessness and doubt that was blossoming in her heart; every time she stamped down on it, it was born again, burning a little brighter each time.
He moved slowly, his usual grace and fluidity lost to his many injuries. Travelling by the trees put too much strain on his limbs, a possible complication that he could not afford, so he was forced to travel by ground. There was hardly a place on his body where he didn't ache fiercely. He had seen to his ankle and other important lesions as best as he could, using the Byakugan, some cleaning agents, and bandages.
Passing through the Hidden Sound unnoticed was difficult, but he managed it. He travelled by night, and slept, sparingly, in boughs and branches by day. Enemy shinobi abounded, and he sometimes found himself having to dash around corners or into brushes to avoid being discovered. For consumption, he stole what he could from what few fruit trees grew in the barren, desolate land.
It was the sweetest relief to pass into the Fire Country; to see the familiar sights, and hear those sounds that all spoke of home. The Forest bubbled with life, and energy, and it recharged him with a bit of extra strength. Anytime he felt himself about to crumble to fate, he pictured laughing honey-brown eyes, a teasing smile, and glossy chestnut hair. It spurred him on.
It rained the night before he returned; a short, light downpour. Tenten curled up in the blanket she had brought, slumbering restlessly. The day before, Hinata had told her that Hiashi-sama was getting impatient, and would only allow her one more day of dissidence before he forced her to return home, and face 'the truth'. Tenten had said nothing to her in-law; only smiled, and told her to go home to her husband.
The sun awoke her, beaming down on her face, drying the moisture that lay there. She stretched out on the thick, sturdy branch, enjoyed the play of the sun's warmth on her skin. Eventually, she sat up, throwing the blanket off, pleased to see that it had kept her more or less dry throughout the night. Standing, she brought up a hand to act as a visor to the sun. She looked off into the horizon, and saw him.
For a moment, she couldn't move, couldn't breathe, couldn't do anything but stand there on shaky appendages, and mutter stumbling, nonsensical words of thanks. Seconds later, she was dashing off towards him, the wind that brushed her face swiping away the tears that accumulated in her eyes of amber-brown. Her sandaled feet thumped harshly against the bark of the branches she travelled on, the leaves rustled noisily, the wind was a tornado in her ears, but all she could hear was the frantic beats of her heart, reverberating throughout her moving body.
Tenten dropped to the damp ground from the trees, slid down an incline, and continued running. Around trees, along vague footpaths, through brushes, to him. Happiness and hope lent strength to her fatigued limbs, and she ran.
He almost thought he had lapsed into a state of delusion when he saw her, running towards him as if an unseen flame licked at her heels. Her hair had become undone, and its chestnut length flew behind her, a reckless curtain of curls.
Neji felt something cool and slick easing into his heart as he limped forward, one arm rising, fingers flexing weakly. It was a resounding sense of relief that slowly sparked, brightened and spread. For weeks, he had made the arduous journey home, a song of determination and quiet, undying fortitude thrumming in his mind. Now, he fell down a note to the realisation that she had always been there, waiting for him. A few staggering steps later, he fell onto his knees, and into her arms.
She clasped him to her body, pressing her warmth into his chill, enveloping her arms around him. Burrowing her face into the slick dampness of his chocolate hair, she held him tightly, not allowing even one sliver of morning sunshine to slip betwixt them; it would be too much.
"You came back," Tenten managed to choke out, pressing a kiss into his tresses. Tears she only vaguely noticed slid down her cheeks and dripped into his hair. She felt an arm snake round her side to rest on the small of her back lightly.
"Of course I did," he said hoarsely, and it was like the sweetest ambrosia, to hear that cool, steady voice again. He lifted his head as best as he could manage, looking into his wife's eyes. "I never lie."
A/N: So! Do I still have my NejiTen mojo, or have I lost it? Gimme teh concrit. :-)