Despite a lack of training in the arts of a medic-nin, Tenten was very well accomplished at basic field medicine, having had to patch up Neji and Lee's wounds on more than one occasion. This she put to use making a rough bandage for Neji's wounds, stopping the blood flow, and then a sling for her broken arm. Touketsu had been really rough with the three of them.

Naruto didn't have a scratch, though he was soaked in blood.

It was he who remembered the Scroll of Sealing, and he nearly went over the cliff-edge to go retrieve it when Neji remembered Touketsu's pack, which he'd removed at the beginning of their fight. To the relief of all three genin, the pack contained the Scroll of Sealing. It was safe.

"We lost both swords though," said Naruto glumly. "The Hyuuga's are gonna be mad."

Neji winced at the though, holding his stomach where the blade had passed through. "They'll be glad to be rid of Uchiha's Crescent... nothing but bad memories with that. And Hyuuga's Edge... well... we'll take the pieces back." He patted the pack at his side, where the fragments, including the broken hilt, remained. Then he held out his hand. "Maybe it can be repaired," he said with doubt in his voice.

"Give me the Scroll, Naruto. I'll take care of that."

Naruto, completely naïve, handed it over without a second thought. "Sure thing, Neji. Here."

Tenten, however, wasn't quite so innocent to the ways of the world. Or the ways of her teammates, and her brow furrowed as she watched. Her mouth opened as if to say something, but then it snapped shut. She wasn't going to say a word.

Good. Neji didn't want to hear it.

As one, the three of them down Tenten's soldier pills and limped back to Konoha, their mission complete.

--

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

--

They weren't the only ones with a completed mission.

Down, down, down below at the bottom of the cliffside lay a narrow crevice, barely big enough for two men to walk through side-by-side. Especially when one of them was as big as an ogre and twice as ugly. So it was that the black-cloaked figures walked single-file down the crevice, until the first signaled to his larger partner to wait and proceeded on alone.

He came upon the body of the snow-thief Touketsu, stained in his own blood, covered in snow and frozen solid. He paid it barely a backward glance. He had served his purpose. This was the same figures who had spoken in the tavern, so many days ago, when Touketsu had overheard them talking about the Hyuuga's Scroll of Sealing. These were the masterminds behind today's events.

As the smaller figure stepped forward and out of the shadows, the light illuminated his features.

Dark gray hair, not gray with age, for his face was smooth and unlined, saved for deep furrows under his eyes that came from many long, sleepless nights. His eyes were the most prominent feature he bore, being burning crimson despite his calm expression. His cloak was not merely black, but dotted with crimson clouds.

Uchiha Itachi. Genius. Renegade. Member of Akatsuki.

Barely even glancing up, he waited instead for a gust of wind, and held up his hand, fingers open as if to catch...

... and the Uchiha's Crescent dropped lightly into his hand.

It had hung suspended on some rocks above when Touketsu had fallen, and now the winds had shaken it loose, to be returned properly to it's rightful owner. Or at least, temporary rightful owner, for Itachi had no desire to keep it. Leaving the blade unsheathed, he made his way back to rejoin Kisame, his gargantuan Akatsuki partner, and together the two of them turned to depart. One side-mission achieved, they still had much to do in order to further their goals within Akatsuki.

Something that puzzled Kisame, as he glanced sidelong at his partner's newfound weapon. "What is with the new sword?" he asked respectfully.

"This blade belongs to the Uchiha Clan," replied Itachi quietly. "It is the legacy of that clan, not the Hyuuga's. It belongs in their safekeeping."

"So you're going to keep it?"

"Mmm," replied Itachi thoughtfully. "For now. But it will be returned to the Uchiha Clan when it is ready to receive it." That statement puzzled Kisame. The Uchiha's were almost all dead, everyone knew that. Only Itachi and his little brother Sasuke were still alive. The Clan was gone.

He shrugged, following after his senior partner. None of his business.

--

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

--

Even with Tenten's soldier pills at their disposal, going was slow back to Konoha, with the weapon mistress with a broken arm and Neji still weak from bloodloss. Of them all, virtually only Naruto was uninjured (though not unharmed) and with energy to spare. He'd offered to carry them the rest of the way with some Kage Bunshin but Neji had coldly refused, giving the impression he'd rather crawl back through the gates than allow himself to be carried like a sack of potatoes through them. Reluctantly, they'd set up a camp midway back to Konoha so they could rest. They'd be back tomorrow.

Tenten and Naruto were already fast asleep, lying sprawled out on the snow or propped up against a tree, and Neji sat on a log before the fire they'd prepared, pondering the rolled up piece of parchment in his hands. Such a small, simple thing, yet it held untold power. For good, for evil. He didn't know. And he'd been thinking long and hard on the matter ever since he'd taken it back from Touketsu.

As Hiashi had feared, Neji was contemplating destroying the Hyuuga Scroll of Sealing.

If he did, it would certainly mean his death. Maybe. Naruto and the others would do their best to protect him. The Hokage wouldn't be concerned, she didn't approve of the Hyuuga's methods any more than the Third had. But it had been an internal matter, a Clan matter, and they couldn't become involved. Nor would they now. Maybe he'd survive. Maybe he'd live to see the next generation, where there would be no division between Branch and Main families, where they would all be just Hyuuga's. To destroy the Scroll would mean a lot of ancient secrets would be lost, but it would take with it the curse that was the seal on his forehead with it. Others wouldn't have to suffer as he did.

His hands trembled, and angrily he caught himself.

What terrified him most was that he wasn't sure if he was trembling from the cold, from anger, or from excitement.

If it was anger... anger had come dangerously close to ruining a lot of good things in his life. He'd nearly killed his cousin out of anger, and come close to doing the same to Naruto as well. Naruto had opened his eyes. Really opened his eyes.

He has better eyes than me, Neji had realized. No Byakugan could see into the human heart the way Naruto's blue orbs could.

Glancing over at his sleeping comrade, Neji murmured to himself, "maybe it's time I tried a look."

So he did, he looked at the Scroll from a new angle, and thought of the consequences of his actions. If he did destroy the Scroll, he'd be consigned to death, and then he wouldn't be able to protect his family. Or his teammates. Or his friends. They needed him, he realized. Not just because he was strong, but because of who he was. The curse seal hadn't been created out of malice, it was made to protect the family as much as the secrets of the Hyuuga clan. Perhaps it had been used maliciously in the past... but it hadn't forced Neji's father to die needlessly, as he'd believed for many years.

Hizashi had chosen to walk that path willingly.

Neji held up the scroll, and nodded to himself. He knew what to do.

"I think I understand now. Thank you... father."

--

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

--

Four hours later, the small team was met near Konoha's gates by a team of dispatched medic-nin to bring them in, and were rushed to the hospital to be given proper treatment. Naruto, despite strongly protesting he was fine, was given a thorough inspection for injuries he might've missed. Forced to conclude he was alright (to say nothing of annoying) the nurses discharged him. He was standing in the lobby when the doors burst open.

Hiashi strolled into the hospital with a hurried pace and an anxious expression, his white Hyuuga robes billowing behind him as he moved swiftly down the hallway, deftly dipping past patients and attending medic-nin. Hinata and Hanabi, as well as two Hyuuga Elders, followed behind him. Naruto quickly joined them, anxious to tell them all of what happened, but Hiashi barely paid him a backward glance, and Naruto decided to wait so he wouldn't have to repeat it later. Hiashi didn't even stop until he'd reached the room in question and slammed open the door in his haste.

"Neji…!"

Neji lay on the hospital bed nearest the door, propped up on his pillow and giving a dip of his head to the Head of the Hyuuga Clan… unable to manage a full bow with his abdomen so heavily bandaged. Tenten rested in the bed beside his in the middle of the room, her arm still in a sling, though now properly bandaged and set so the bone would heal properly. It turned out it had just been a fracture, not a full-blown breaking as she'd initially feared. She'd be out in a few days. Neji maybe a week more.

Hyuuga Hiashi breathed a sigh of welcome relief, resting one hand against the frame of the door to support himself. Then, aware of his dignity and position as head of the Clan, he straightened his posture and attempted to look indifferent to the fate of his young nephew and his teammate. Nonetheless, a smile was present on his face. Similar smiles lit up Hanabi and Hinata's face as they saw their cousin alive and well, and only the Hyuuga Elders continued to look dour.

"I see you survived," said Hiashi diplomatically.

Neji nodded. "Our mission was a partial success, Hiashi-sama. But we lost the Uchiha's Crescent. I apologize for my failure."

"Damn the sword to Hell," hissed Katsuro, pushing his way forward. Hiashi sternly flung out an arm to block his progress. "What about the Scroll? Do you have the Scroll of Sealing?"

Neji's expression darkened as he turned to face the Elder, who seemed to embody at that moment all he hated about his own clan. Greedy, self-centered, concerned only for preserving a genetic deformity rather than the family who held it.

His gaze softened however, as past him, he saw Hinata and Hanabi, his cousins. Those who embodied everything else. Courage, flexibility, inner strength, compassion, and family loyalty.

Delibertly ignoring the Elder, turning to face and speak to Hiashi alone, Neji spoke clearly and concisely. "The Scroll is safe, Hiashi-sama," and lifted up his pack, laying it on the bed before him and unfolding it. The Scroll of Sealing lay there amidst the shattered remains of Hyuuga's Edge. "I fear, however, Hyuuga's Edge broke in the ensuing fight."

Hiashi's mouth drew into a thin line of disappointment, but it quickly faded. "It was a relic of our past," he stated at last. "Our concern should be for the future." Neji nodded, in full agreement with this. He handed the Scroll to Hiashi, who accepted it with the grace of a caring uncle, not a stern head of the Clan.

"I think, perhaps," said Hiashi thoughtfully. "That the future of Hyuuga is looking very bright indeed."

Neji smiled at that, then grimaced as his wound acted up. Picking up on this, Hiashi quickly ordered everyone out of the room to leave the members of team Gai to recuperate from their ordeal, pocketing the Scroll on his way out. Within moments, it was just Neji and Tenten. Down the hall, they could vaguely hear as Naruto described their mission to Hinata, and remarked on how he'd gotten caught up coming over to offer her dinner. Neji smiled. After today, likely Naruto would be the one invited over for dinner with the Hyuuga's.

"He's right you know," Tenten remarked in an off-handed manner. "You did a very brave thing, Neji."

"I did a very stupid thing," he replied, his tone equally light. "And maybe that's why it'll turn out to be a good thing." Something puzzled him though, and he said as much. "How were you able to remove the Edge from it's sheath? According to legend, only the Hyuuga bloodline could do that."

She shrugged lightly with her good shoulder. "Lucky?"

"Mmmm… or maybe the legend was wrong,"

Neji would ponder this thought much more in the future as time went on. If the legend had been inaccurate, why had Touketsu been unable to draw the sword, while Tenten had been? She wasn't Hyuuga... Clan records were immaculately kept, every single member of the family documented (and sealed, if necessary) for the good of the Clan. Neji had never seen Tenten's name anywhere near it, nor anyone from her family. Maybe the legend was only meant that a Hyuuga could -wield- the blade (which had certainly proved true) and drawing it had been a mistranslation over the ages.

"I guess I shouldn't complain…" he ultimately settled on. "You helped save our lives."

"Anytime."

Pale white eyes met warm brown, and for a moment, a connection was there. A connection beyond the comfortable friendship of good teammates. Something more. Something deeper.

The connection was shattered, however, along with the silence, as the curtains from the far end of the room slid aside, and a third occupant was revealed on the far bed.

"Oooh Neji! Tenten! It is soo good to see you again! I am most sorry I was unable to participate in your thrilling adventure! Surely, you fought with the passion of youth and soundedly defeated the thief! Please tell me of your trip!"

Neji and Tenten, as one, slapped a hand to their foreheads and fell back in their beds. They'd been roomed with Rock Lee! Both suddenly had the same thought as they lay their groaning in agony. No torture Morino Ibiki could devise could ever come close to being locked in a room with a hyperactive Rock Lee.

--

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

--

Author's Notes:

So now we find out the masterminds behind it all. Akatsuki! Muwahaha.