Author's Notes: Entry for a themed contest at LJ's NejiTen Community. Gratuitous use of odd sequencing. This particular story skips around within about a 72 hour period meaning that you are not going to read in a linear fashion. To give an example, the very first scene tasks place in the middle of the story, if that makes any sense. (I promise it's actually much easier to read then for me to explain.)
Disclaimer: I own nothing.
For everyone who still reads these things I write.
The Third Day
She stood on the cliff like a silent sentinel, her amber gaze resting here and there over the valley below as mist rose from the dewy grass and the sun started to peak over the horizon. Trees ringed the clear meadow beneath her, birds taking wing from an unseen predator, flashes of white against the quiet, blue-gray scenery.
Slowly, she reached over her shoulder and took a long arrow from the quiver strapped to her back, the movement careful and easy so as not to draw attention. Her thumb found the vanes in the wooden shaft as she fit it to her bow but did not draw, the ivory fletching smooth against still fingers.
She waited, only her breathing uneven, until the first shout echoed up the canyon side.
"He needs a medic, Neji," she told him as she pressed a cool cloth to Lee's forehead, watching her teammate's distinctive eyebrows draw together in agitation and fever. He had not opened his eyes in the last two hours, having relented to the poison making its way through his system. She could only guess but she was sure he would not make it through the night untreated.
When no answer was forthcoming from her other teammate, she turned her head to find him looking out of their small shelter of raised tree roots and canopy leaves and into the pitch darkness of the nightmare outside. The skipping firelight of their small hearth cast ragged shadows over the straight lines of his shoulder and spine. He did not glance at her.
"Neji," she said again, her tone a little stronger. "He must have the antidote."
"They will not give up the spring without a fight," he answered rapidly, startling her. "We are two when we should be three, and our mission has been compromised." His voice darkened. "They will be waiting for us."
Secrecy, their mission had relied upon it. That thin veil of concealment had been shed though the moment Lee had fallen, a tainted arrow in his thigh, and Neji had crushed the archer's windpipe with a hard strike to his neck. The renegade ninja were aware now that someone had come into their territory.
Secrecy was no longer an option.
It was a small miracle they had not already been discovered. Tenten had laid intricate traps around the dead tree that sheltered them, promising pain to anyone who approached, but she could not smother the light of their campfire, nor Lee's low moans of agony. Only Neji's ceaseless watching guarded them now.
Reaching over, she drew a small metal cup from the fire heart with one of Lee's damp cloths. Steam heated her cheeks as the boiling water calmed and she cast a handful of wide leaves into it, wishing not for the first time that she knew how to make miracles instead of wounds.
"Then we must give them what they do not expect," she offered, sounding more optimistic than she really was. The leaves grew soft in the heated water and started to separate along the veins. She focused on them, avoiding Neji's eyes as he finally looked at her.
"They'll be able to cure it," he told her, following her hands as she took the ringed end of one of her kunai and began to crush the leaves into a watery paste. She would boil it down yet again before the night was over.
"They'll need to be quick," she replied softly and met his pearly gaze at last. "They won't be able to fight you if they're dying."
In the growing light, Tenten saw the first movement in the meadow below. Dark shapes were in pursuit of a figure headed in a unerring line towards a still, clear pool at the south end. She hefted her bow - five feet of bamboo, wood and leather - and drew back her first arrow. The tint of green-yellow paste on the arrowhead grew visible as she raised her arms, aiming into the sky in accordance with the distance.
The bow string snapped back and the arrow flew and fell, diving into the shoulder of the first of Neji's pursuers. Ahead of him, other shadows emerged from around the spring, waiting.
She raised her bow again.
"We cannot do this as Konoha ninja."
"I know," she murmured, and gently reached up to untie his hitai-ate.
They had been told the guardians of the spring were taught long ago by a missing-nin. They fought like ninja but had no loyalties, no rules to govern them. They lived only to protect that which had saved them, the clear waters that could heal poisoning. To furnish their wish, they fought using the very thing they could cure, their weapons tipped with invisible toxins.
The Godaime had sent them to retrieve a sample of the miracle water for her to study, to divine what nutrients it carried that would help her and her medics create better antidotes. They were to go silently and swiftly and were not to divulge their presence. Get in, get out, and get back, had been Tsunade's order. Konoha ninja could not be seen stealing from renegades.
Invisible, the Hokage ordered, and so they were.
Until Lee cried out as the thick shaft of an arrow slammed into his leg, bringing him down instantly.
Tenten fell into a crouch a second later, kunai between her teeth. From her vantage point on a tree limb, she traced the arrow's flight backwards in her mind, noting where the archer must be hidden. Lee was below her about thirty feet away, hidden by high grass and a quick wind that made the open meadow look like a rolling sea of green. If he stayed down and quiet, he might be safe for… But no, ninja were converging on the point they'd last seen him, weapons drawn.
With a well-practiced motion, she unfurled a scroll, revealing parchment and ink and hidden steel. A dense hail of senbon and shuriken forced the renegades back, needles falling so closely that they were impossible to avoid. Flying forward from tree branch to tree branch, she dropped next to Lee, scrawled characters on paper gracing her shoulders as she pulled him up.
"Lee, we've got to go. They know our position," she whispered hurriedly. Already she was looking out over the field, feeling a wild pulse of Neji's chakra she knew meant he had found Lee's archer.
"Forgive me, Tenten, my leg feels strange," he said as he half fell against her. There was sweat on his face. "I have failed us. You and Neji must-"
"We must retreat for now," she finished firmly, launching them both into the trees. "We can regroup and come back tonight."
They found Neji about a mile from the clearing, blood-stained but unhurt. By the time the sun set, Lee was unconscious with fever and they stopped, realizing it was no normal wound he had received. Upon closer examination, they found the puncture had bruised and turned a horrid purple, with lines of the same color expanding outwards as the toxins entered his blood stream.
The veins around Neji's eyes relaxed as he deactivated the Byakugan and met her worried gaze. She knew what he would say before spoke.
"It's slow moving but if it reaches his heart, he will die."
After the first two arrows, she fired off three in rapid succession and felt something pull in her shoulder as the bow string twanged and ninjas fell below her. Gripping her shoulder with her free hand, she let her bow drop, the end digging into the soft earth at her feet as she watched the battle below.
It was eerie to view it without sound. Except for the first cry, she had heard no other echoes though she knew the ones she had poisoned would be in extreme pain. Unlike them, she had not used something slow and steady, but a precise poison whose effects they would feel immediately. It created crippling pain in a person's limbs and affected their eyesight. It was not fatal but it could cause permanent injury if the antidote was not administered immediately. She, of course, knew how to make the antidote incase she ever cut herself while working with the poison, but the renegades had a very easy way to heal themselves if they could make it there. And she had no illusions that they would not. The goal was to gain time for Neji to take some of the water for their own. Killing guardians would serve no purpose unless Neji's life was in danger.
As it was, she had cleared a path for him though she could see two more trailing figures bent on catching up with the Hyuuga as he neared the spring. Another she thought was drinking from the water in a hasty attempt to save himself. He might be trouble if the miracle qualities of the water worked quickly.
She nocked another arrow and pulled it back. Fire burned a line down her shoulder to her elbow and she relaxed the string quickly, tears of pain in the corner of her eyes. In the valley, the first of the remaining ninja caught up with Neji and received the green-gold glare of the Kaiten as a welcome.
"No," she said between gritted teeth. Taking a breath, she pulled the arrow back for a second time, a strangled sob escaping her as she held the tension, took aim, and loosed it. A guardian fell but it was not the one fighting Neji. At such a great distance, she was not sure she could risk firing so close to her teammate.
The one at the pool was up, though. She couldn't be sure but she thought he might be taking water to his fallen comrades. She drew another arrow back, the coppery taste of blood in her mouth as she bit her lip to distance the pain in her shoulder.
Just as she released the bow string she heard a step behind her and turned, arm half-raised against an attack. Something hard slammed against her already wounded shoulder and she shouted in surprise and pain. A second blow came down on her head seconds later and she knew nothing more.
They propped Lee up a little, keeping his heart above the wound before Tenten left their tiny haven to find the specific plant she needed. As she rose, already more than a little weary, Neji stopped her with a touch, eyes almost luminescent in the darkness.
"Stay within my divination," he said, his voice low. His expression was impassive but she smiled slightly, reassuringly, and nodded.
Cripplefoot, a plant whose leaves were safe to touch but poisonous if ingested. She knew how to make a poison from them and, though it would be almost useless against these enemies, it would definitely slow them down until they could drink some of the spring water.
For, although Neji had not yet said, she understood they would be going back.
There was more than a just a mission at stake.
"No one is coming for me," she told them again, her voice sounding hoarse and scratchy. She could not remember the last time she'd had something to drink.
"That is a lie," they said. "The one we fought, the one by the spring, he was your partner. He will come back for you."
"He got what he wanted. He will not come back."
When they did not contradict her, she almost smiled in victory. Neji had gotten some of the spring water then. The Hyuuga would return to where they had hidden Lee, for their teammate would not be able to last long without its healing.
Yes, Neji would have no choice.
He could not come back.
"Are you ready?"
Neji's voice was quiet in the silence that came upon everyone when up before the sun. She looked up at him from her place beside Lee, tendrils of hair misplaced from her usually tidy buns, circles under her eyes. Neither of them had slept, Neji keeping watch while Tenten breathed every breath with Lee. He was weak and still had a fever, but it was clear he was fighting with everything he had, just like always.
"Yes," she answered, and took Neji's hand when he offered his, allowing him to pull her to her feet. For a brief, cherished moment, they stood together, hands clasped as the first birdsong of the day drifted past. Then Tenten stepped back, glancing once more down on Lee who slept on, oblivious.
She hated to leave him there alone, but there was no other way to save him.
"Hang on, Lee," she told him, "We'll be back for you soon."
Then Neji drew leafy tree limbs over their makeshift shelter and Lee disappeared.
They did not know she was a kunoichi.
She and Neji had both left their hitai-ate with Lee, unable to involve Konoha if they were caught. Her captors thought her some sort of mercenary come to steal the secrets of their spring. The Spring of Well Wishes, they called it, and for someone not of their "clan" to drink from it was apparently a very great defilement.
They wanted to know where Neji was. She professed her ignorance and was thrown into a windowless room until they thought enough time had passed and asked again. Where was the warrior with the strange eyes? Why had he taken the sacred water?
It was then she learned they thought Lee was dead and she began to worry Neji might not have made it back to his side in time. The guardians seemed proud of their invisible poison for which there was no known antidote but a drink from the Spring of Well Wishes. Her own poison, they scoffed, had been much too easy to neutralize.
She did not tell them she had counted on that.
Instead, she tended to herself with perhaps more feebleness than she felt and made no effort to fight back when they questioned her. It was not so difficult to deceive them. They had been ninja-trained but there was no pride behind their eyes, no drive to make them continue their training. They were village-less but she thought, perhaps, she saw the makings of a new one in their small huts and well-worn paths.
They took her to the river one morning and, looking up at the filtered sunlight, she could not tell if it had been one or six days since she had been captured. They curtly told her to drink and wash herself, the first of which she did greedily. The second she did only with difficulty as she had no wish to bathe in front of them and could not easily move her right arm at any rate.
Leaning over the bank, she started to splash water on her face and then paused, her entire body stilling as she gazed fiercely into the water for what she had thought it had shown her. Inside her chest, her heart lurched and her breathing grew shallow.
And then, before she could think too much about it, she threw herself head first into the river.
Cold water enveloped her, bringing all of her cuts and bruises to life as she surfaced, sputtering in shock. There were cries along the riverbank and the whistle of arrows through water. Realizing that she could not allow herself to be wounded, and subsequently poisoned, she took a breath and went under again.
The current dragged her along the bottom, her body slamming against rocks until she was forced to surface again, lungs aching. There were still shouts behind her and she dove down once more, blind to where she was being pulled.
The third time she rose for air she heard nothing, but to be safe, she took one more breath and traveled further downstream. The fourth time all was silent except for birds and the sound of the water rushing past.
Shakily, she swam for the bank, panting with pain and exertion. When she could finally reach out and touch soft grass she was by far too exhausted to pull herself out of the water. Miserable, she lay there soaked, cold, and wondering if she would be able to hide herself before the guardians finally found her.
The quick cadence of his voice and the hand that gripped hers told her who it was. Opening her eyes, she managed a small smile for him, sharp relief rising within her until she thought she might disgrace herself and cry right in front of him.
"Neji, I saw your face in the river."
Something happened to his face then, his features rearranging themselves into either a grimace or a worried frown, or maybe both as she was feeling rather sleepy and couldn't see properly.
"I've been waiting for them to bring you out for a full day. I followed you to the river but I did not expect…" He never told her what he did not expect as he promptly leaned over and pulled her from the water, drawing her right arm around his neck as he did so. Immediately, she hissed as pain shot through her shoulder and she drew her arm back quickly.
"Not that one," she told him, her face white. His expression tightened but he said nothing. Instead, he simply bent and hefted her up into his arms, leaving her to wind an arm around his neck, fingers gripping his shirt for balance.
"Now," he said, "before they find us."
He leapt into the trees with a chakra-enhanced jump, his feet barely touching the branches as they flew through the canopy and away from the river. Tenten must have fallen asleep at some point for when she woke it was night and she was wrapped in a warm blanket by a small fire with Neji watching her from across the flames.
Upon seeing her awake, he rose and brought her water, helping her sit up and lean against him so she could drink. She felt as weak as a day old kitten but the fresh air was already reviving her and she found she could think clearly again.
"Lee?" she questioned as he capped the water container and put it aside. He did not seem to mind that she was still leaning against him so she stayed there, tilting her head back against his shoulder to look into his face. "They let it slip you took water from the spring. Is he…?"
"He's almost back to normal." He looked as if he wasn't sure that was a good thing. "He wanted to come with me but I convinced him to stay and wait for us."
She arched an eyebrow at that, knowing that "convinced" probably translated to "sealed all his tenketsu". She didn't question it, however. "How long have I been gone?"
"This is the third day," he answered, and she felt his voice reverberate through his chest, a thread of something unidentifiable in his words, some unvoiced grief he would never share. She was moved suddenly to apologize.
"I'm sorry." He glanced down at her, surprised, and she elaborated, "I wasn't paying attention to my surroundings. I should have-" The arm around her waist tightened, silencing her.
"There was nothing you could have done differently," he said flatly. "Because of you, I was able to save Lee and complete our mission. That is all that matters." His tone left no room for argument, so she didn't.
She simply closed her eyes and rested her head against the slope of his neck, knowing she was at last utterly safe.
"Lee! I don't care what you say, you are not doing three hundred push-ups," Tenten said irritably. "I'm sure Sakura will understand that you didn't have time to visit her before our report to Tsunade."
"But, Tenten!" Lee's eyes were watering. "If I can't do three hundred push-ups then I must run four hundred laps and if I can't do those-"
He grinned suddenly and hugged her on impulse, careful of her sore shoulder. "Oh, Tenten! It's so wonderful to have your shining, youthful presence back!" He pulled away enough to look her in the eye. "You must promise not to leave us like that again! Neji was beside himself with worry and I know Gai-sensei would be most-"
She cut him off again, startled. "Neji was worried?"
Lee paused, blinking. "Didn't he tell you? After he brought me the water from the spring, he wanted to go back and look for you. He was sure you'd been taken and he wanted to pick up your trail but it was dark and I could not have defended myself in my condition. When I started feeling better, he went out and came back with your bow. It had been snapped in two and Neji's face…" He tried to imitate the Hyuuga's expression but it just made him look as if he were about to be sick. He ended with a heartfelt, "He was very worried."
To know that Neji had been concerned about their mission was one thing. That in itself was not unusual. For him to openly show worry about her…
She smiled and hooked her arm through Lee's. "Come on, Neji wants to train this afternoon." Lee pumped a fist and she added teasingly, "He might even let you do a sit-up or two."
Rock Lee beamed.
"I'm going to find her."
Lee looked up, solemn. "I have never doubted it."
"Tsunade-sama is starting an investigation into the guardians of the Spring of Well Wishes, and into the spring itself, of course," Sakura told her as they walked together to take a look at the last of Lee's blood work. "She wants to know who taught them to fight." She glanced at Tenten. "I heard you were held captive by them for a little while?"
Sakura tilted her head curiously. "What happened on the third day?"
Tenten smiled. "He came back for me."