Tenten decided to go that night, because she knew he wouldn't be there.
He was gone. He had followed the path to Orochimaru years ago, allured, hungry for the power that he so desperately wanted- the power that the Sannin said he could give him. But while Uchiha Sasuke had returned, Hyuuga Neji had not been retrieved. He couldn't be retrieved, Tenten knew. She knew him better than anyone- she knew what he could do; she knew what he could achieve. He was a genius. And yet, he had flaws. Neji had always had a dangerous desire to prove himself, to rise above: ever since they were genin. Just being a prodigy, just being the best- it wasn't enough. Neji needed to be invincible.
Tenten wasn't bitter as she remembered this. She understood. But she was hollow. Empty. And scared. She was scared of him. Not Orochimaru- Tenten didn't fear Orochimaru, she just hated him. Despised him. No, she was scared of Neji. When Sasuke had come back to Konoha, he was almost impossibly strong. He was damaged and broken, but he was so advanced. And Neji-- Neji had always been stronger than Sasuke. She was scared that Neji would become too strong. She was scared that the levels of strength and power Orochimaru could force him to would destroy him. Neji was always at the top, even in their genin days: but they weren't genin anymore.
Now they were all elite: jounin, ANBU. Tenten could remember when they were all struggling to become chuunin- they were young and had a lot to learn. Only Shikamaru had become a chuunin the first time around. The rest of the rookies had become chuunin during the following year. The year after that Neji became a jounin at 15. That was the year he left.
Now, 8 years after the first chuunin exam, the rest of them were all brilliant jounin. Exceptional shinobi. They often went on missions together, and they were almost always successful. But they could never bring Neji back.
On 'Neji-Retrieval' missions, there was none of the drama that had accompanied the attempts to recover Sasuke. There were no long battles and Neji never tried to kill any of the other rookies. But the missions were never successful. Never even close. They would never attack Neji if they came upon him.
Tenten remembered the first time she had seen him since he left- it was two years ago. Their mission squad- consisting of Ino, Kiba, Shikamaru, Hinata, Naruto, and herself- had been trailing him for days. Tenten wasn't surprised at the shinobi that made up the squad. The Lady Hokage had assigned them to the mission not only because they were undoubtedly the most capable, but also because Neji was their friend. So they were all even more determined to find him, pushing their limits as they searched.
And when they did finally see him, they were silent. They couldn't make themselves do anything. There were no weapons drawn. They just stood in a clearing in the forest: they on one side, Neji on the other. Tenten could only look at him. He was already even more damaged than Sasuke had been. He looked like he hadn't slept for days. And he was pale, almost as pale as those Hyuuga eyes which had haunted Tenten's dreams for years. But he was stronger. They could feel his chakra radiating with force. No one said anything for a long time.
Kiba, the squad leader for this mission, looked at Neji with calculating eyes for a long while. Then his breath hitched a bit, and he slowly opened his mouth.
"Come back to us." He had spoken in no more than a whisper, but the sound carried, and Neji undoubtedly heard. Neji blinked slowly. Everyone in the clearing knew that they were not there as shinobi, for that moment, searching for one of Konoha's best. They were there as friends. They were there to pull their friend out of a shadow that would destroy him.
"Brother…" Hinata spoke even more softly than Kiba had, but each ninja's trained ears heard it perfectly. Neji's gaze had shifted from Kiba to Hinata, catching the unspoken pleading in her eyes even without his Byakugan activated. The pleading that was now almost imperceptibly evident on the whole squad's faces. Neji looked slowly from person to person, apologizing with his eyes, but not regretting. Hyuuga Neji regretted nothing. As he looked from Ino to Naruto, he was only imagining other outcomes, other ways things could have been. And as his eyes drifted from Naruto to Shikamaru, maybe he wished for other paths he could have taken. But he did not regret, because he knew that what was done, was done. His gaze stopped at Tenten.
"Neji." She had said his name in a way that only he could hear- with her eyes. He had stared at her. And she hadn't known what to do. She hadn't looked away. Everyone was quiet as she and Neji had looked at each other. She didn't cry as she wanted to, but she drew in a long, shaky breath, never taking her gaze from Neji. He heard it. He showed no response, but they all knew he'd heard that breath. And she had slowly, slowly closed her eyes. She couldn't keep looking at him- it might have destroyed her. She opened her eyes again, and he was still looking. And then he gradually took his glance away, and looked at the rest of the squad one more time. But what was done, was done. Neji performed a single hand sign- and vanished.
The squad stayed quiet. Nobody moved a millimeter. Eventually, Kiba had quietly said, "Let's go home." And they had. They had returned to Konoha, and gone to see Tsunade to give their mission report. She didn't need one- she understood everything the minute they returned without him. So she sent them all home. They walked in silence until they reached the point where they all had to go their separate ways. Each ninja had looked at the ground, and then at Tenten. Tenten saw them all looking at her, and she sighed.
"It's okay," she had whispered. They had all nodded and gone off. Tenten knew why they had waited. Each person missed Neji for a reason, but they were worried about Tenten. Because Tenten had loved him.
Oh, had she loved him. And he'd felt the same. They were never public or showy in their relationship- they weren't like that. But she had loved Neji like the moon. So she had understood when he left. And she had hoped.