A/N: Set in the future. Fortunately, I think this is much better than the last NejiTen I wrote, but I'll let you guys judge. I'm happy I got it done in time as a send-off to Goldberry before she leaves for Otakon!
Dedicated to AmazingSensation for the support I am not worthy of!
It was an unusual mission. First of all, this was not the type of assignment that Team Gai specialized in. Theirs was not a group known for its delicacy; Neji's enhanced abilities with both his Byakugan and the Kaiten made it difficult for him to stay conspicuous. Tenten's expertise was in offense, with her weapons mastery. And Lee…Lee, though good at being quiet when duty required him to, was most certainly not good at being quiet for long.
And the Godaime had insisted that this mission required near-silence.
Rain threatened the skies with gray clouds that darkened by the minute. The sun had long been lost to the gloomy day and would be setting in an hour. Neji had estimated that they had exactly three hours before it was too dark to properly carry out the mission. With that kind of time limit, they had to be fast as well as…
Imperceptible. That was the word that Tsunade-sama had used when outlining the mission for Tenten. She had used the same word to describe their orders to Neji and Lee. Both had responded with similar dubiousness, although Lee had been expectedly more vocal about it.
As for Neji, he had done has he always did. Accepted it and made plans to make it work. Tenten always wished for the same confidence he had.
Maybe if she had it, she would have seen the way Neji had watched her worry – with narrowed silver eyes and clenched fists. With the look a man who did not like seeing his partner doubt herself.
The woman reputed as Tsunade-hime and honored as the Fifth Hokage currently looked every bit like both a princess and a leader. From behind the expansive cherry-wood desk that her four predecessors had worked at in their time, she looked over an array of information; thick leather books containing records meant only for her eyes, files straight from Shizune, data gathered by Anbu. Scarlet fingernails marked her reading place while the ends of blond hair gently caressed papers as it spilled over the surface, near her healing hands.
Tenten waited patiently until at last eyes as brown as hers, gleaming with focus abnormal for this woman, rose from the ink-lined pages to regard the young kunoichi. "Thank you for coming so swiftly. In payment, I won't beat around the bush with you, Tenten."
The Chinese girl smiled gratefully. "That's all I ever want from people," she replied honestly.
"Well, what I want from you is something I wish I didn't. I need you and your team to leave within the next thirty minutes for the Land of Grass. I expect you're surprised."
Tenten blinked. She wasn't surprised so much as curious. "Konoha just haven't had much to do with them before, right?"
"Precisely." Tsunade leaned forward and steepled her fingers together, balancing her weight on her elbows. "And from what I've heard from the Jounin who were present at your first Chuunin exam, they don't have the nicest villagers there. Though I have made many requests to their daimyos that Konoha scholars be allowed access to certain parts of the country for data-gathering purposes, they have so far been completely uncooperative. So I've resorted to sending shinobi, despite myself."
Tenten nodded, but she had served this person long enough that she knew better than to think that Tsunade's fascination with the Land of Grass rested only in scholars' records. Or that she felt the least bit remorseful for it. "What interests you, Tsunade-sama?"
Tsunade's red lips spread in a knowing smile, then parted as amused sound floated up from her chest. The blue diamond on her forehead seemed to tremble as the Godaime laughed. "I can see I can't trick you. I do have an interest, Tenten." She grew serious again as she saw the thoughtfulness bloom in the younger woman's face. "Because of our limited contact with the Land of Grass, we know very little about their trademark jutsu, aside from the fact that it has to do with flora and plant life. It is know that many vaccines and other medicines used today were first discovered through the use of herbs by Grass-nin.
However, I'm not interested in what is known already. A couple of weeks ago, Sakura received a letter from the Kazekage, Gaara of the Sand, concerning records he had that mentioned a technique of the Grass." Tenten took a scroll from Tsunade's outstretched, manicured hand. "Apparently there's a certain type of pollen that could prove useful in healing a variation of ailments. It is the only ingredient required for healing even internal injuries." The medical ninja sat up straighter, notions of experimentation dancing through her head. "Combined with chakra, it could be monumental in the saving of lives."
Giving a brief study toward the illustration the scroll Tsunade had given her, Tenten registered the unique look of a flower obviously unique to the Land of Grass. It had spiky blue-white petals upon a thorny stem. The center was a bud of odd, brown pollen. "And you want Lee, Neji, and I to procure a sample for you?"
"Exactly." Pleased with her initiative, Tsunade nodded approvingly. "Now, the Land of Grass is just west of the Land of Fire, but even so it would be best if you could go and return as quickly as possible. You must be imperceptible. I don't need to tell you that if you are discovered it could mean some serious trouble between the two countries."
She bowed to show her understanding. "We'll stick to the unpopulated areas, Tsunade-sama." Tenten turned to go, sliding the mission scroll into her back pocket.
"Tenten, wait." The Godaime's voice stopped her departure in its tracks. "There's something else you should know about the Grass-nin…"
At least the speed necessary wasn't the problem. They were making record time due to the fact that the Land of Grass had several well-charted roads leading to it from Konoha. Though the country was not welcoming to surrounding people, it was necessary to travel through it in order to reach other nations.
Tenten let her thoughts become deep ones as she jumped on chakra-powered legs from tree to tree, Neji in front of her and Lee behind. They were both steady companions and guardians and she knew with them there she currently had time to allow her mind to wander.
Why her team? Even though the three of them had repetitively proved themselves on missions, that didn't mean they could just up and change their techniques. While it may have been just a retrieval assignment, the secrecy and silence involved automatically made it at least a B-rank Mission.
It was a fact that it would have been better to send Shino, Hinata, and Kiba. Shino's insect manipulation might have been able to have the desired flower brought to him without anyone on his team actually crossing the border. It could be found, of course, with Hinata's Byakugan. And if it did become necessary for them to physically enter the Land of Grass, Kiba and Akamaru could always retrieve it with both of them in dog forms. It was an easily thought-out plan. And it was very likely that Tsunade-sama had considered the same thing, but Team Kurenai had already been sent out on a mission and would not return for several days yet.
It was more than obvious that Tsunade's eagerness to study the new flower, risk of war or not, was not to be held back for so long. The Godaime apparently trusted in the abilities Team Gai had now.
Tenten normally would agree just as readily. But ever since Tsunade had told her of the Grass ninjas…
"The Village Hidden in the Grass do not have what are considered elite ninjas. Even if you are spotted, it is probable that you could outrun them without being identified. They specialize in fighting with their knowledge about the life that comes from the ground." Tsunade paused to sip from a steaming cup of tea. Tenten waited in anticipation. "They use the pollen to enhance their senses, particularly hearing. And the most unusual effect is what they hear."
Tenten felt her shoulders go tense. Tsunade's forehead was now marked by several lines; she was clearly concerned. And when the Hokage had cause to worry…everyone did.
"They can practically feel another person's breathing."
The concept still had all three Team Gai members perplexed. Tenten had questioned Tsunade without everything she could think of on the spot.
"Would breathing apparatus, such as underwater equipment, not work to confuse them?"
"No, because you would still breathing. The pollen absorbs the energy used by your lungs to locate you."
And apparently the pollen was hyper-sensitive to human breathing. Tenten wished she had sent Naruto, as incompetent as he was, but he had been on a training-based mission with both Kakashi and Jiraiya – all three Konoha Kuchiyose jutsu-users were away. Tsunade herself, with her slug summoning, could not leave the village and may not have even been useful.
Cool rain dropped sharply onto her face as a gentle shower began to fall. She stole a glance at Neji's profile in front of her. His jaw was set and his mind was undoubtedly clear. She tried to be like him, tried to be self-assured, tried to believe that failure was not an illness that she, Tenten, suffered from.
But unlike Neji, Tenten knew that she had failed many times. And not just in her life as a kunoichi but as a woman. When was the last time Neji had looked at her with any sort of special regard? There were flickers of possibility, here and there when he either wasn't guarding himself or Tenten simply allowed her own heart to fool her. Most of the time she tried to convince her heart to let it go, let him go…but she never completely succeeded.
Now was not the time for such musing. Looking behind her, she caught Lee's bright smile that seemed to cut through the gray of the approaching evening. He shot her a thumbs-up, and she smiled back although hers did not affect that day at all.
Within the next forty minutes, they arrived on the border of the Land of Grass. The plan was for Neji to use Byakugan and seek out a flower like the one in the illustration. The Hyuuga took a couple of minutes to study the picture, but it was such an unusual specimen in appearance alone that he did not need to look long. Passing the scroll to the Lee, Neji planted his feet and rested his arms against his sides.
Tenten held her breath for a moment, thinking of the enormous ability needed for this bloodline trick. A thrill of excitement raced up her spine just before—
"Byakugan!" The veins around Neji's eyes protruded from his skin as his jutsu did its work. He scanned the area in silence while Lee said something to Tenten about how he had never before seen such an unusual flower.
"Do you think Sakura-san would like these flowers?" asked Lee eagerly, pointing to the picture on the scroll.
Tenten nodded thoughtfully. "I think so, Lee. As both a medical kunoichi and a female, I think she would like them a lot." Lee beamed in response to her pep talk.
They were in luck. Though it took several minutes with all of the different flowers the Land of Grass was blessed with, Neji spotted a small cluster of the rare flower, containing no more than six or seven blossoms, and it was at the very edge of his 800-meter divination.
"We have to enter the country, then," Lee murmured determinedly. He punched a fist in the air. "Right! Neji and I shall go to retrieve the—"
"Have you forgotten?" interrupted Neji sharply. "We have to be careful about breathing. There are definitely other presences here; people used to being in this country. They could be shinobi. I think if we stay on the road, any nearby Grass-nin will perceive us as simple travelers." His eyebrows lowered as he pushed some damp black hair away from his face. "But the flowers aren't anywhere near the road. The cluster is about 450 meters away from it, and that will take at least six minutes to get to from the road even if we run, not to mention the time it will take to get the flower and get back."
Lee, even with his damp bowl cut hanging low over his forehead, still managed to look optimistic. "The rain may cause the pollen's malfunction," he proposed with a grin.
Tenten shrugged but her eyes shone with focus. "Or it could make it stronger. We really don't know anything about it; that's why we're here."
After several minutes of putting their heads together, they managed to come up with a suitable course of action. While they were limited, they did have Lee's speed, which would cut Neji's predicted retrieval time nearly in half. But it was still doubtful that Lee could run and hold his breath for over six minutes. In a breath-holding contest with Naruto, the louder boy dutifully reported, he had only been able to manage four and a half minutes at the most.
Neji growled – his version of a frustrated sigh. "It's all we've got," he said at last. "When you reach the target, I want you to flash your forehead protector this way as you run back. If we see it coming near us, we know you're fine. If the point of the flash stays the same, we'll take it as a signal to come help you. Tenten and I are more than enough backup for any enemies."
Tenten's eyebrows shot up. Did Neji just raise her to the same level as him for just a moment? Surely not.
Lee agreed to this idea right away. Tenten patted his back and voiced her truest belief in her friend's talent. "I'll hold your leg weights for you," she offered with a grin. Lee laughed and set the heavy appendages down near her feet.
"Well," Lee told them, his posture straightening with an obligatory Nice Guy pose, "I'm going then." And without another word, he shot off the road toward the area Neji had pointed out.
Tenten released a breath she hadn't realized she had been holding. With her and Neji on the road, they were free to use the air as they pleased, but she worried about Lee. "I've never really considered the importance of constant oxygen before," she muttered absently to Neji.
"All people take such a thing for granted," he replied. "Even the people of this country no doubt."
They waited for three tense minutes and then searched for a flashing signal. Tenten lifted a hand to her eyes. "Is it because of all the clouds?" she wondered aloud.
The Hyuuga activated Byakugen and searched for Lee. "I don't see him." His voice was as hard as steel.
"Was he captured!" She disliked the frantic note in her tone, but Tenten was sure that her status as an emotional ninja was not in question right now.
"No." But Neji seemed to answer more out of habit than out of certainty. "Damn! I should have opened more of his tenketsu. Why didn't I think of that?" Immediate rage came out, and he was directing toward himself.
"Perhaps he's just concealing all of his chakra, and that's why you can't see him," suggested Tenten with her fists clenching nervously.
"It's already been five minutes."
She bit her lip. She felt Neji eyes on her, but her attention was on the emerald fields that stretched out around them on both sides. Many different types of flora sprang up around them, some that Tenten did and didn't recognize. The Land of Grass had much to boast about in terms of a visually appealing country.
"Take a breath," Neji said after a few tense seconds. She turned her head to look at him, and she admired the sense of duty he had in him. They would not leave Lee behind. "And follow me."
Tenten felt her diaphragm stretched as she inhaled – it could have been the most important breath she would ever draw in life. Neji breathed in strongly, too and darted off the road. Tenten was after him at once, but they were not as fast as Lee. The 450 meters were taking their toll. Tenten felt her eyes water with desperation as she tried furiously to fight down the instinctive urge to first exhale so she could get new, fresh air. Her fast-paced running only fueled the pain of keeping her lungs still.
An involuntary sound of protest came from her throat, and she saw Neji move oddly out of the corner of her eye. He grabbed her, and they stopped together, two frozen forms in the middle of a dark green field. But she wasn't fully shocked until Neji pressed his lips firmly against hers.
Everything inside of her went still.
Her lips parted automatically, which seemed to be just want Neji wanted to happen, and then there was a rush of air. She was confused at first by the lessening of the burn in her throat, until instinct kicked in and she exhaled the breath again. Into Neji's mouth.
Her fingers dug into the cloth-covered flesh of his shoulders as she realized what was happening. Eyes drifting shut (because the colorless gaze of the Hyuuga at that proximity was somewhat startling), she breathed in carefully, then breathed out.
She and Neji were sharing the same portion of their mingled leftover air. Sharing the same breath. And if the thunderous pound she felt from the chest pressed against hers was any indication…the same heartbeat.
This way, Neji and Tenten were not suffocating, but since the air was not actually leaving them, the Grass-nin couldn't locate them using their mysterious jutsu. They were saved…by nothing more than what was really a kiss.
Tenten mentally scolded herself for the wayward though. It's not a kiss when you're trying to not get attacked.
And for her, kissing Neji was not at all like the proverbial electric jolt. She felt more like a wave crashing against the shore and fighting to stay there, in that place where all was still and sturdy, instead of being swept away again. She wanted to be kept. She wanted to be…
She was distracted at once by a flash of light bright enough to be seen through her eyelids. Opening one eye, she spotted in her peripheral vision a sparkle in the night. The dark clouds had parted enough for slivers of moonlight to fall in scattered beams over the field. Reflected in the light was the gleam of a forehead protector – and the flash was moving toward them.
Keeping the rhythm of his breathing in time with hers, Neji pulled Tenten even more tightly against him and took several chakra-enhanced leaps back the way the had come. When they finally reached the road, they parted at once, both gasping for air.
Tenten's hand still clung to his shirt.
Neji own fingers fell over hers. "Are you alright?" he asked with a tone that sounded troubled.
Tenten met the silver discs of his eyes, but before she could form a reply, Lee was on the road again and lying down on his back.
"I'm…sorry," the green-clad boy gasped earnestly. "The flower…rooted deep in the ground…had to use taijutsu…"
"Do you have it?" demanded Neji, seeing only the scroll in his hand.
Lee smiled. "Of course." He opened the scroll, revealing in the rolled the paper one thorn-stemmed blossom with white-blue spiky petals. The brown pollen was thick in the center, some smearing on the scroll. Lee grinned with sparkling teeth and a Nice Guy pose.
"Very good." Neji, already recovered, did a quick sweep of the area using his doujutsu to see if any enemies were around. "It seems we're safe."
"Why did you take so long, Lee?" Tenten set her hands on her knees to peer down at the boy on the ground. "I thought you could only last four and a half minutes when holding your breath."
"Naruto-san must have counted wrong when we competed. It turns out that I can actually hold my breath for a surprising amount of time! It must be from all of my hard work and dedication."
Tenten's eyes widened. Naruto cheated…
The veins around Neji's eyes relaxed as he turned in the direction of Konoha. "Our mission is complete. We should go home now. Tsunade-sama will be wanting her flower right away."
"YES!" cried Lee, bounding up with energy but keeping a careful hold on the scroll. "I am eager to show this to Sakura-san! All of my youthful spirit says she was like it very much!" He began running with energy back to their home. "Sakura-saaaaaan!"
Tenten stared. Lee was so weird sometimes, but she found herself smiling. At least she could understand feelings like his, even if she didn't show hers as easily. "Thank you, Neji," she heard herself saying.
Neji's expression didn't change as they started walking after Lee. "For what?"
"For…" Tenten paused, then shook her head. "Never mind." Crossing her arms, she walked on, trying to recall that feeling of security she'd felt in the moment their lips had touched. Would she ever have the chance to feel that again?
"Tenten." She stopped at her name in his voice and turned. There was something in his eyes that made her heart thud at a swift pace, and her blood rushed in her ears as he came toward her. Neji reached out and took one of her hands out of its locked position to pull her to him. Everything, both the blood at the heart, stopped when Neji's mouth fell upon hers again.
It was a short, really no more than a brushing of lips, but it was enough to send Tenten's head spinning. When her fingers brushed over the inside of his wrist, she was astounded to realize that his pulse was as out of control as hers.
"That's all," the Hyuuga said when he released her. Stepping back, he went around her and waited until she was by his side. Tenten had to try hard not to smile. "Let's go."
They ran into the trees together, thinking of home and thinking of each other.
Tenten allowed herself a quiet little laugh when she was sure that the wind rushing past their ears made Neji unable to hear it.
Who needed air?