Author's Notes: Contest entry. Written some time ago and I just realized it hadn't been posted here. A look at Tenten through Neji's POV, mostly a Tenten characterization piece. Not written in linear form as it jumps back and forth in time, but you all should be used to that after reading "The Third Day". ;D

Disclaimer: I own nothing, yadda yadda yadda.

The Dark

"Out of the dark we came, into the dark we go. Like a storm-driven bird at night we fly out of the Nowhere; for a moment our wings are seen in the light of the fire, and, lo! we are gone again into the Nowhere." --- H. Rider Haggard, King Solomon's Mines

Tenten learned Soushouyu when she was twelve years old.

It had been a cloudless day, Neji remembered, hot and humid in the depths of summer. It was the season when ordinary children went swimming in the river and drank lemonade under the awnings of street-side buildings. For the younglings bent on becoming ninja, it was the time for walking across water and flash fights in the dark, thick forests that provided shade - if not wind - to cool them.

The clearing where they practiced, filled with training dummies and large multi-colored targets, was where he found her. She was laying flat on her back in a tangle of scrolls, string, and discarded weaponry, her face smudged with dirt and sweat. He remembered the dry grass crinkling under his feet as he came to stand by her, his shadow sliding over her as she blinked up at him. She lifted a hand slightly, a languid gesture to block out the sun rising over his shoulder.

Neji lifted an eyebrow and Tenten smiled.

"I flew," she said.

And that was their beginning.

The air was cold above the canopy, sapped of warmth by the rising moon and the building thunderstorm just over the horizon. Every now and then Neji saw lightning in the dark - silent and ominous - the clouds eating the stars as they built in power. He was not concerned about the weather however. His eyes told him it would not rain until after everything was finished.

Turning his head slightly, he looked away from the storm and out over the tree tops. From his vantage point on the highest limb of an old oak, he could see for miles, the land's secrets laid out before him like so many pages in a book. Even restricted by the painted white mask he wore, there was nothing safe from his gaze. Nothing.

To the right, something flashed through the tree leaves, barely disturbing them in its passing. He didn't have to look to know it was Tenten stringing traps on the forest floor, a terrible layer of steel waiting to fall on anyone foolish enough to approach him. Standing as he was, silhouetted by the waxing moon, he was an easy target. His very stance - smooth and confidant - was a lure to their enemies.

Come. I am waiting and I am not afraid.

And, of course, they did come and, as soundless lightning flashed, Neji descended into the trees to greet them. He and Tenten fought long and hard that night, Tenten flying through the branches as Neji spun within the Kaiten's green and silver. It was a dance they had perfected long ago in the agelessness of their childhood, before katanas were strapped to their backs and tattoos imprinted on their shoulders. Neji knew that he never had to spare a thought for his blind spot, that Tenten watched his back. And Tenten knew that when she dropped into his protective circle, nothing would ever harm her.

In the end they stood in the center of a battle zone, covered in blood and holding clean blades and neither of them had to say a word.

Once, in their first year as teammates, Tenten broke her arm while sparring with Lee. It had been an accident - Lee's enthusiasm being what it was - and Tenten had reacted as a ninji should. She had turned white as a sheet and immediately sat down to avoid passing out, but she hadn't cried. Oddly enough, this seemed to upset Lee who wailed and cried buckets next to her, apologies tumbling out of him.

Gai-sensei had almost the same reaction but Neji later blotted that particular memory from his mind.

As for himself, Neji remember being irritated. It was at a time when Tenten was becoming his faithful training partner, especially with her new technique. The idea that she would now be unable to train with him due to Lee's over exuberance was especially annoying. As satisfying as beating Lee into a bloody pulp would have been, however, Neji knew that if Tenten could hold in her obvious pain without making a sound, so could he.

That day he'd stood quietly by Tenten's shoulder, arms folded over his chest until the medic arrived. Afterwards, with Gai about to take her home, Tenten had paused and turned back to him, favoring him with a gentle smile.

"Thank you," she said, and years later Hyuuga Neji still wondered what she had been grateful for.

That night they made camp near a waterfall, the distant sound of it somehow soothing to nerves worn thin after the deeds of the night. Neji had found them an outcropping of stone, shelter enough from the upcoming storm that electrified the air. With Tenten's help they pulled dead branches around the entrance, forming a sort of nook for the two of them. Neji then, with a good long glance around the countryside, decided that it was safe enough for a small fire and built one, burning that which would make only pale, thin smoke.

Tenten settled at once, clearly exhausted and at the limits of her chakra. As per her usual bedtime ritual, she immediately took out her various weaponry, cleaning them in her lap quietly as he took time to meditate across from her. Grumbling rolls of thunder punctuated the silence and by the time he had finished, he wasn't sure he felt any more focused. Tenten glanced up at him as he opened his eyes.

"It's going to rain soon," she remarked, putting aside the last of her kunai. "It'll be miserable tomorrow."

He nodded, leaning back slightly to view the dark world outside. They would be joining up with Lee and Gai approximately 30 miles south of where their campsite was. It would be a long day traveling made even longer by bad weather. Neji did not relish the thought.

At least they would be going home.

"First watch?" Tenten asked after a moment. She said it with a bright tone but he had been her partner long enough to know when she was trying too hard.

"No," he told her, "Get some sleep. I'm not tired yet."

Tenten smiled but said nothing, simply unraveled her hair and set their masks aside lest she roll over them in her sleep. Five minutes later she was lost in dreams and the first of the rain started to fall.

After his fight with Kidoumaru, during Konoha's failed attempt to retrieve Uchiha Sasuke, Lee told him that he and Tenten had stayed by his side religiously. Neji, of course, had no recollection immediately following his surgery but he did remember opening his eyes for the first time and seeing white hospital walls and Tenten's surprised face.

"You're awake!"

Later, he would realize it had not always been certain that he would wake up.

The following moments were fuzzy and filled with Tenten's excited voice. She told him what had happened and explained why he was missing several inches of hair. She also explained that, in the end, Naruto had not been able to bring Sasuke back and that several members of the team were in bad condition.

"I don't know why," she told him, as he lay there listening to her with his eyes closed, "but it feels like something has changed now." There was a note of something sad, perhaps, in her voice but he never got a chance to say anything for Lee came charging into the room, all flashing teeth and happy tears.

After a full minute of Lee's energy, Neji was ready to go back to unconsciousness. Tenten must have noticed for she threw Lee out of the room and admonished him to be quiet, they were in a hospital for heaven's sake. When the door finally closed, she turned back to him and Neji tilted his head towards her, showing her a flicker of moon-colored eyes at last.

"Thank you," he said, and he knew exactly what he was grateful for.

The attack came as a surprise. Tenten's cry of alarm woke him from a dead sleep just in time for someone to physically grab his foot and drag him out of their hidden campsite. Neji raised his arms in defense and kicked out with his other foot, catching his captor in the gut. Abruptly free, Neji sprang to his feet only to realize that his katana was back by the waterfall and so was his mask.

White eyes narrowing, he sent a chakra push through the chest of his would-be attacker and watched him collapse with a satisfying thump.

A moment later he turned towards the forest to see smoke dragons spiraling above the tree tops.

His expression hardened. "Byakugan."

Following the shadows of dragons, he hurried into the night, relentless in his pursuit of any who stood in his way. When he got close enough, he saw Tenten flit in and out of sight, throwing needles at one enemy, impaling another. She was like a ghost, always on the edge of the unseen, death flying at her direction. Their attackers were confused by this and often became victims to the chakra strings that let her weapons rise and move more than once.

The end came when Neji found the last - the leader - and closed all his tenketsu while nearby a bomb exploded, a bright flare of orange and red painting the night sky. Gai and Lee would see it and would know to come.

Neji breathed out his exhaustion.

And then realized he could not see Tenten.

There had never been a time in his life, he realized, when she had not shown him what it was like to be free.
He found her kneeling just over the hill, out of breath and almost unconscious from lack of chakra. There was blood on the side of her face but his eyes told him it wasn't hers. She managed a victorious grin as he came to stand before her, offering her his hand. She took it after a brief moment but made no move to get up, simply keeping their fingers clasped together in a way that made his heart beat faster.

"I flew," she said, and he felt suddenly as if no time had passed between them at all. They were still children playing with steel and looking down at the river under their feet and wondering how deep it went. And she was still offering everything, giving freely when all his life everything had had a price.

Years ago, he hadn't understood how she could live that way.

Now, he thought, he might be able to learn that sort of strength.

His hand closed over hers.

"Me, too," he replied.

"How many birds are there, Neji?"

He was so used to this question, he hardly thought about it. "Seven."

"Wrong!" she said, impishly. He blinked and she pointed to the bird mask at his hip, a sign of his new ANBU rank. Her smile softened. "You forgot one."

Something winged fluttered in his chest.

Tenten's hand found his.

"You're free now too, aren't you?"

The End.