Author's Notes: Written for the AU Contest at the Neji x Tenten FC. This one is long and kinda dark. I wanted to try out another AU setting, this time adding danger and even a bit of bad to Neji and Tenten. So you may find this to be quite different from previous works of mine, but I hope you'll give it a chance.

Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto and am making no profit from this fan fiction.

Warning: Language, sexuality, crime. Recommended age is 16 and up.

Dedicated to Skyscape. I'm so glad to be your patron!

"I would rather live and love where death is king than have eternal life where love is not." – Robert G. Ingersoll

Where Death Is King

By Nessie

When she had imagined a piano bar in Chicago at the end of September, she had envisioned some cheery little scene with smiling waitresses, a chatterbox bartender, blindingly bright lights, and some black-tie gentleman over sixty poking away at "Mack the Knife."

This was no piano bar. She guessed it was actually a type of end-of-day hideout for husbands trying to stay away from home, for the men who needed to down a glass in the praise of surviving another twenty-four hours. She saw plenty of middle-aged guys come in, nurse a beer, leave a shabby tip and then leave – not before letting an appreciate glance slide her way, naturally.

Tenten stood out. For starters, this was no girl's night out site, even if there wasn't a boys-only sign anywhere. Long legs poorly hidden in a pair of black slacks, a curve in the blue of her silk sleeveless shirt, a narrowing at the waist of her black leather jacket and a coat of lip gloss made her a dead giveaway; she might as well have had a neon sign reading Female nailed to her forehead.

She didn't look girly. If anything, she was womanly professional. But if she had her way, she wouldn't look even this feminine. Jeans and a hoodie would've gotten the job done, but her superiors were convinced that she required a better esthetic approach. Hence eyeliner and nail polish, hence perfume and high heels. A French twist atop her head gleamed dark as chocolate and just as rich.

At least they'd had the sense to put her in a real bar. There were no waitresses, just seat-yourself-and-wait. The bar she sat at was long and scarred with age, the man behind it looking like the farthest thing from a chatterbox. And the shallow stage at the head of the room was currently empty but for a grand piano in unexpectedly good condition. The whole place was – thankfully – badly lighted. Tenten wanted to remain as invisible as possible for the next hour.

Not easy, seeing as she was the only woman in the place. There wasn't so much as a transvestite to detract attention from her, but she kept carefully detached, moving only to sip from her squat glass of gin and tonic. Her eyes stayed on the darkened stage, though several pairs stayed right on her. What they saw, she knew, was only a woman spending the evening alone. She looked the part of a well-paid businesswoman, one who probably ditched the friends for a solitary drink in a man's world.

Well, she was well-paid. The diamonds at her ears had come out of her own pocket, and they were the only jewelry she wore other than a thin band of silver on her right hand, decorated by a tiny hawk with its wings spread. It was a unique ring – and yet it wasn't. There were at least two hundred men and women in Chicago who wore rings exactly like this.

Bored, she finished off her drink and signaled to the bartender for another, if only to have something to hold in her hand. She knew she probably wouldn't drink it. Tenten believed in constant sobriety, though she held nothing against an occasional buzz. The thing that amused her the most about all the men trying to act as though they weren't staring at her was that none of them, not a one, would suspect that she kept a twenty-two caliber in the right-hand pocket of her jacket.

And at twenty-four years old, she never left home without it.

The stage lit up without ceremony. A few of those gazes finally shifted away from her as two men stepped out into the glow of soft purple light that changed to blue after a few seconds, then green. The color-changing lighting on the stage was about the only sense of joviality the whole bar had.

But her attention wasn't on the lights nearly as much as the men. One of them, his hair bright yellow, sat on the bench at the piano, cracked his knuckles, and keyed out a few chords at random. Warm-up. Some of the patrons lost interest and went back to dreaming in their drinks. Tenten's eyes only switched to the piano-player's companion. And he was not old nor did he look like a gentleman.

He was tall, and lowered himself onto a rickety stool that needed a replacement. Balanced against his knee was a long brown case, and from it he removed a gleaming saxophone. Old, she noted, but no doubt treated with utmost care.

His hands were what Tenten noticed first; long-fingered and pale. From this distance, she couldn't see any scars but somehow she knew there was some marring the flesh. She let her gaze travel up his wrist, up the lean line of his arm dressed in a button-up shirt. She cast a brief glance at a chest she knew would be toned beneath the shirt and felt a dull satisfaction that she hadn't lost her ability to respond to a physically attractive man. He wore his hair long, and the black of it fell carelessly over the stark white of his shirt. The contrast was appealing to her.

She saw him lift the saxophone and was about to look at his face, to see how the instrument met his lips, to see how he first responded to the undoubtedly familiar feeling of beginning to play.

The lights went red. Her eyes narrowed slightly.

The tint was too dark for her to make out any features, but his body language – slow, precise – told her that he met the saxophone like he would meet the body of a lover. He cradled the golden curve against his elbow, one knee propped up on a bar of the stool to rest the heavy end. Those long fingers closed over the tabs as his partner's arms extended over the piano's keys.

Someone lit a match to start on a cigarette, and the momentary glow was like a herald to the music that the two onstage began.

The saxophonist went first; drawn-out notes that immediately grabbed at the heartstrings and yanked hard. Tenten had never been a jazz lover, but the opening of this song gave her some insight to those that were. The pianist joined in, his backup accentuating the low, achy melody on the horn. She watched as the man on the stool bent to the will of the music, leaning to the side on the height of the tune. Tenten didn't notice it when her head lilted in the same direction.

Cigarette smoke drifted over her head, shimmering coils enhanced by the lights from the stage. Memories dared to flit through her mind, and she closed her eyes just for a second. Pain, hurt, and longing. Those were the ingredients of which this song was made. She thought if she could see the saxophonist's eyes, it was what she would find within them.

The piano released a river of notes on which the gritty sax music sailed, the rhythm washing over Tenten as they concluded on an echoing harmony. Music like that…if she was any softer, she would have wondered if she still looked the same. As a rule, she didn't find beauty in song. This was the closest she had ever come.

The one at the piano stood as the lights went to white and restored the colors to normal. Blue eyes looking just a little too mischievous glittered out at the unresponsive crowd. Then the one on the stool unfolded the length of his legs and stood as well, the black hair Tenten had noticed before falling away from his face.

She was almost surprised to find his eyes already on her. And his look was white; plain, pure white – like clouds, without the softness. Or snow, with all the cold.

She didn't move, not a muscle. Only the ice in her glass shifted, but the man smiled down at her as though she had broken into overzealous applause rather than pierce him with an emotionless stare. After a moment that felt like a minute, he picked up his case and walked off the stage.

Casually, as though she was just another customer that had lost interest in the entertainment, Tenten pulled a bill from her jacket and left it under her glass before stepping down from the barstool and striding off as well. Outside, she cut around the side of the brick building the bar was hosted by and shoved her hands in her pockets. Night had fallen while she'd been kicking back with the gin, and the beginning of an autumn chill had permeated the air.

She leaned against the brick wall in the alley. Tilting her head back, she looked beyond the glow of a flickering street lamp that was perilously close to going out – to look in vain for any sign of stars. Chicago wasn't alive tonight. Tenten was.

As estimated, it wasn't long before the rusting metal door at the side of the building opened, and Tenten straightened. Saxophone case in hand, out came the black-haired musician, now decked in a long dark jacket. Just as his eyes slid over to her, she lifted her hands from her pockets.

And aimed her gun straight at the center of his forehead.

The man didn't react. The only sign that he even acknowledged her apparent hostility was the way his white eyes turned up only the slightest bit at the corners. "I never had a fan wait at the stage door before," he said. His voice was smooth.

"You're right," Tenten replied, her tone just as steady. Her arm did not shake. "I liked that song. Thought I'd tell you in person."

The smile he'd granted her earlier now returned, a faint curve of lips that spoke of secrets without making a sound. "Your approach is one I've not seen before."

"I like to be different." He took a step forward, completely unfazed by his current position, and Tenten released the safety on her weapon. "I was told to look for a man here. A guy who plays the saxophone. Strange eyes."

"And you think you've found him."

"I know I have." She wasn't used to this. Men, even brave men, usually began to break when facing the combination of her gun and her eyes for this long.

"And were you supposed to kill him?"

"Just find him."

He hefted his saxophone case up and over his shoulder, carrying it as though it weighed absolutely nothing. "So you've found me. Now what?"

"I need you to prove that you're the one I was supposed to find." Tenten kept her voice even, uninflected. She had done this before, if in different scenarios. Too many things had displeased her about this mission, but she was beginning to find satisfaction that at least the man she was threatening had a brain between his ears. "I think you'll know how."

The white eyes flicked to the hand of hers that held the gun. "Nice ring," he murmured. Reaching, not cautiously but slowly, under the neckline of his shirt, he pulled up a long chain bearing a silver ring exactly like the one Tenten wore on her finger.

She lowered her gun a little reluctantly. "Neji Hyuuga. Isn't that your name?"

"That isn't what my card says, but otherwise, yes." Dropping the chain back into his shirt, Neji shifted his weight. "And yours?"

Stowing the gun into her jacket again, she gave him the barest hint of a smile. "Tenten."

"That's all you have?"

"That's all you get."

He nodded. "Fair enough. So what'd the Argent want with me that they sent their top girl over here?"

Her smile was swept away by the words. "You know—"

"Who doesn't know Tenten?" he queried, a hint of sarcastic drawl running through as a kind of sharp amusement entered his gaze. "Give her a gun, she'll never miss. That's what I keep hearing ever since you joined…six months ago, wasn't it?"

She didn't reply to that question but instead backpedaled to his first. "Your uncle's been displeased with your career choice. Apparently, playing the saxophone isn't nearly as suitable a career as that of an assassin."

It was his turn to frown. Tenten thought she rather liked this serious expression of focus better than the insincere smile he kept tossing at her. "You can't trust rumors, Miss Tenten. Wrong information can get you killed."

"I'm aware that the only reason you haven't been killed is that you're too valuable to the Argent to die." Smirking, she added nonchalantly, "At this time."

He budged. Except she knew he had to move more than just that because in a span of five seconds she was the target of a gun more elaborate than hers, and there was a compartment she hadn't noticed hanging open on his saxophone case. Something ran through her blood – not cold, nothing akin to fear. It was thrill…thrill at facing death, a thing she was well acquainted with.

It was like greeting a very old friend. And Neji's startling eyes only enhanced the experience for her.

"You're very sure of yourself," he murmured. "And perhaps you have a right to be. Your reputation within the organization is practically failure-proof. But my uncle has a weakness for good résumés rather than live tests. I wonder how you actually perform?"

"I've been tested." If he had been in the Argent longer than she had and still lived to whisper about it, then Tenten knew that Neji had been through the same kind of raging hell she had.

He took a step forward, then a second. On the third, Tenten had an absurd notion that if she looked at the pavement, she would see steam rising from his footprints, like a demon. "So," he continued, his voice now uninflected, "if I shot you right now – in this place, at this hour, where nobody would ever bear witness – you would not show pain?"

Tenten thought that pain would be by far one of the lesser things she could be forced to suffer. "Are you going to do it?" she asked, not in concern but in curiosity. Neji advanced until the barrel of his gun was brushing the exposed skin of her left collar bone – a bullet right through the lung, she thought, would be a unique kill indeed.

His eyes glinted down at her as the streetlamp finally gave up its fight for life, and both Neji and Tenten were plunged into darkness. For several moments, they just existed, with an instrument of torment between them; Tenten felt the heat of his breath ghost over her cheek, and she let her eyes fall shut as her heart leapt into an unanticipated sprint. The excitement she felt was like that which she'd had the very first time she had fired a weapon…the difference was that there was a physical element to this reaction, an unexpected pressure inside that had her tensing every muscle she had.

"Now," came Neji's voice in the dark that smelled of smoke and the city, "what use would there be if I were to kill my new partner?"

Her eyes flew open, adjusted, and found his. "That's not right. I was told that you deserted but that they don't want you dead…that I had to bring you back, force you to return to the Argent."

"And who did you hear that from, exactly? Like I said." He stepped back, and she was suddenly reminded that she could, in fact, breathe. Neji retrieved his saxophone case and replaced his gun inside the compartment. "You can't trust rumors."

Tenten had a foreign feeling she understood to be humiliation. "You never deserted," she tried to catch up. "You're still with the Argent."

"I've been on leave. My uncle personally phoned me last night, and named a place I would meet my new partner. He said to look for a woman with a steady arm and too-quick passion." His smile had gone, fled away with the rest of his act from before. She was now gifted with only a smirk. "Although I wasn't quite expecting Tenten."

She accepted the information the same way Tenten did everything else; methodically, with reason, with a mentality directed toward progress. "Partners in the crime syndicate," she said, her words meeting only him and the night. "You and I."

"You and I," he nodded. Joining her at her side, Neji gestured for her to lead the way out of the alley. "It will be interesting to work with you."

"Cut a hard right at this next turn!"

"It's a one-way!"

"Since when did that ever stop you?"

Tenten grinned. One thing she had liked right away about Neji – he didn't mind letting her drive. In fact, he preferred it. Neji liked to be hands-on, to throw himself right into the midst of the biggest trouble, and when it came to an assignment he was at the very top of his game.

They developed a strategy; Tenten was the actress. Despite her complete and utter disdain for high heeled shoes, she and Neji always got the jobs that required her to serve as a distraction for a man – or woman, as the case may have been – that was on the Argent syndicate's hit list. She played a part, always in goddamn heels as though that actually contributed to the work, and then Neji did his thing; which usually involved a special way of making the hit…he did a fancy turn of his wrist just before shooting, something Tenten had never seen before meeting him. Just after, they always high-tailed it together, Tenten throwing herself behind the wheel while Neji came down from his adrenaline high.

Now, she twisted the wheel, hand-over-hand, and screeched in front of a semi into the one-way lane, thinking a half-hearted prayer that Neji's daring wouldn't make her get them killed. Not that she'd mind all that much. If she had to go a certain way, she'd want it to be her doing, and in a driver's seat was fitting.

It was the moments like this one, while the frigid wind screamed through the sunroof of the car, while conversation was totally unnecessary, that Tenten truly remembered she liked her partner and loved her job. It wasn't the money – although that had been her initial reason for joining the Argent – it was the rush. It was the feeling of life and death having no difference whatsoever. Full control of her destiny was something she had always wanted, and though she wasn't quite there yet, she knew it was only a matter of years, or even months if she kept rising as steadily as she currently was. Being the partner of the boss's nephew had its benefits.

She stopped at Neji's apartment, having never seen it and curious because his was bound to be about ten times more luxurious than hers. Tenten raced up the stairs and past the guard with him, laughing when he grinned the way she grinned, laughing because she knew that he was pleased with the way things had gone tonight. Seeing Neji that happy was enough to make her feel it was worth enduring the heels.

He pulled her into an empty elevator, and the second the doors slid shut he had her between his arms, pinned to the back of the car as his lips pressed to the side of her neck. She held back, fisting the material of his shirt and wrapping a bare leg behind his knee as his hand found the hem of her short skirt – torture in January, but just right for this moment.

They had been partners for four months, and this was the first time they had given into any physical desire despite the fact that she had known it had been there since day one. Tenten wasn't surprised by Neji or by herself. She had known it was coming for weeks. And maybe she had known that it would happen when they went to his place.

When his seeking mouth met hers, everything stilled, and she knew nothing.

It was a wonder to her that they made it further than the elevator. Her heart pounded erratically as he kept her close and brought her into the apartment with him. The second the door shut he shoved her against, made his frantic desire known by hands, teeth, tongue, and the soft, low sounds in the back of his throat that made her want to rip off every stitch of clothing he wore and take him on the carpet.

Neji, it turned out, managed to be considerate even when he was turned on. He reached down and removed her shoes himself, saw her wince on the first few steps, and wordlessly took her up into his arms. It was romantic even though Tenten knew it was really strategic. It was sex on their minds, not Gone With The Wind.

He left the lights off, carried her straight to his bed, and Tenten instantly forgot the pain in her feet. Silver and gold illumination poured in from the wide glass windows as her back met satin sheets the color of honey. She groped out for him, heard him laugh on an exhale, and heat blazed as he kissed her in the dark. His skilled fingers were scarred as she had suspected upon first seeing them, and they discarded first her clothes, then his own.

She didn't bother telling him that she was a virgin. Neji would know.

When he finally released her hair from the tight French twist she always wore – he had never seen her hair styled another way – thick curls of rich brown rained down and over his skin. Neji lingered over it as though hypnotized by the luster brought out by the city lights outside. "Damn it, Tenten," he cursed, running his fingers through it in awe. "Why don't you ever let it down?"

She couldn't help smiling. "You just did."

He slowed after that, as though the sight of her loosed hair had sparked the thought that perhaps this wasn't just sex…although Tenten saw with satisfaction that the hunger in his eyes never waned. He caressed her like he would stoke a fire, and sensations she had never experienced before crashed down on her until she pleaded with him, his name no more than a gasp between his mouth and hers. Neji held her to him, cradling her the same way she had seen him cradle his saxophone. But she was more precious to him than that, and when her back arched off the bed and he buried his face in her shoulder, Tenten felt that no music he could ever play would come close to comparing with this.

Afterward, his embrace was tight as they panted together, legs entwined, his lips sampling the sweat at her temple. Her eyes found his in the dark, words hanging unvoiced between them. On their interlocked right hands, identical rings featuring silver hawks gleamed. They could not forget who they were, even now. Some things were taboo for members of the Argent syndicate.

Falling in love was at the top of the list.

When she moved in, Neji became possessive. Not outwardly so, but little indications proved his protectiveness of her. He always flung an arm around her waist the instant she crawled into bed each night. When they went out in public, whether it was a formal function of the organization's or a casual affair preceding an assignment, he always found significant moments to keep a palm at her back or direct a shiver-inducing stare at another man.

Tenten didn't mind. Truth be told, she rather enjoyed the idea that someone wanted her enough to become a little jealous of harmless flirts. More truth be told, she acted the same way with Neji.

When spring returned and they had been partners for eight months and lovers for half that time, Neji and Tenten were given an order straight from Hiashi Hyuuga's mouth. Word crawled down the syndicate grapevine that Neji's uncle had been keeping an eye on the Argent's leading pair of agents for a while, and he was impressed enough to give them responsibility on the latest sting. Tenten felt honored, especially since the Argent didn't deal in drugs often and when they did, it required the most elite of members. Neji was immediately suspicious.

"He's your uncle," she said when they were readying for the evening of the mission. She was sitting on the side of their bed, clad so far in only a bra and matching underwear, her hair and makeup already finished. "Why would he send you on a death trip? He knows we can get the job done."

"I talked to him in person yesterday afternoon. He was too serious."

Tenten raised an eyebrow toward his place at the bathroom sink where he shaved. The mirrored door leading into the bathroom gave her an excellent view of his naked, toned back over the pair of boxer shorts he wore, but she was more concentrated on his words than his physique at the moment. "I've met him twice, Neji. But each of those times he was pretty serious. And I hear he's that way all the time."

"You don't get it. He looked me in the eye." Tapping his razor on the edge of the faucet, he dabbed at his face with a fresh towel and spun to face his partner. "He doesn't do that if he can help it. It felt like a fucking goodbye."

"That's unfashionably paranoid of you," she retorted to his bitter tone. "Can your family really be that screwed up?"

"More." Crossing his arms, Neji leaned against the doorjamb and observed her as she rolled a sheer black thigh-high up her right calf and over her knee. "Do you have to wear those?" he asked as she hooked the pantyhose onto a rhinestone-studded garter. Irritation confronted lust in his gaze.

Tenten tossed her head back and slanted him a what-are-you-talking-about look. "I have to keep his attention for you, that…what's his name, that Kabuto guy." Starting on the other thigh-high, she continued, "What's gotten into you tonight? I'll put on some lipstick and blow him a kiss or two. Like always."

"How do you know he'll fall for the usual treatment?"

She felt an incredibly strong urge to roll her eyes. "How do I know he's not gay? Then we'd really be fucked."

He glowered. "Tenten."

"Neji, put some clothes on. I can't talk to you seriously when I know I could have you in bed at a moment's notice." But she stood up and walked over to him, slipping her arms around his neck and letting him feel the soft curves of her body against the hard planes of his. The moment was intimate in their partial nudity but comfortable, and Tenten wondered if this was the part where they would finally go far enough to destroy each other. She kept her cheek pressed to his shoulder, deliberately refrained from meeting his eyes.

If she did, she was certain that he would do absolutely anything he wanted for the rest of her life.

Neji's hands went automatically to her waist, and she permitted herself to briefly delight in the way he held her. "I'm not going to sleep with him," she murmured. "You know that."

She felt his grip tighten on her and knew the gesture for what it was: defensive, branding, a marking of territory. "We do it the same way as always," stated Neji with flat finality. "Fast. I'll find his stash in Buena Park, take down his best, send in some boys, and we're out of there."

"You'll finish the job?" She moved away, taking an ostentatious dress from her side of the closet and stepping into it. The garters were effectively covered by a hem that fell down to two inches above her knees. She felt a pearly stare burning into her profile even though Tenten could hear him dressing.

"If midnight goes by and I haven't put a bullet in his head, you do it. I'll meet you at the Howard stop on the El. Tenten." When she faced him, Neji regarded her with an expression she had never seen him wear before. "I want you to be there. I want us in bed by one a.m."

His eyes contradicted the optimism of his words, and it was at that moment that Tenten realized he was worried; Neji was never optimistic. He had always left the positive outlook to her, and the fact that he had taken one on now made her feel a twinge of disconcertion. "Neji…" She found that things she wanted to say wouldn't come, because those things were forbidden, banished from their relationship and their lives by their silver rings. To keep from gaping at him speechlessly, Tenten managed a smile and then showed him her back. "Zip me up?"

Yakushi Kabuto was the man almost solely responsible for the drug distribution at large in Chicago and most of the Midwest. He backed various business ventures, from small-scale meth labs in Indiana to big-time corporate investments in Michigan. To the public eye, he was a shareholder in Chicago's more prestigious operations; he anonymously owned sixty percent of the Magnificent Mile and gave a heart-stopping sum to both the theatre community and AIDS research each year. He had a lifelong subscription to both the Tribune and the Sun-Times, attended the hit play of the season, and dined at Leona's every other weekend. He was practically immune to law enforcement.

On this warm April evening, Kabuto had rented out all of Navy Pier for a private event marking his fifth year as top business consultant for Marshall Field's. Though purist Chicagoans blamed him for the famous department store's recent conversion to Macy's, he was still largely well-received by the city's high society, and the party guest list contained names of big architects, actors, and businessmen from all over the country.

Of course, the Argent syndicate was better informed than the rest of the city. Hiashi Hyuuga's organization knew from sources inside Kabuto's circle of influence that the bash at Navy Pier was actually a front for a drug sting at Buena Park – and the group had no intention of missing the chance to reap the profits. The best agents in the syndicate had been dispatched for the occasion, and Neji and Tenten were heading the assignment from both sites of operation; Neji at Buena Park, Tenten at Navy Pier.

Tenten couldn't help feeling that she wished their roles were reversed tonight. Kabuto's guest were free to roam the Pier as they liked, but Kabuto himself stayed on a party boat docked near the enormous trademark Ferris wheel. Tenten too stayed on the boat, going for what would seem a relaxing stroll along the deck, her hand trailing carelessly on the rail.

Here were her stars, she couldn't help noticing. A waxing moon stared down from among them, as though bearing witness to what she was about to do. To anyone present, she was just a woman fancied up for a party. The dress she wore was dark blue, the same color as tonight's sky. Short and sleeveless, it had sheer scarves flowing down her back in a Grecian style. Her hair she had worn in her customary French twist, though tendrils of brown hair hung in her face attractively. The picture she made was intended to be eye-catching.

And when Yakushi Kabuto came to stand by her on the deck, Tenten knew she had met her goal.

"It's disheartening to see a woman spend a night out by herself," the party host told her, foregoing a greeting. "Especially one who, I imagine, is very rarely without someone to obey her every whim."

Tenten allowed herself to smile, but it was in amusement rather than flattery. Though she had never seen Kabuto in person, she found it remarkable that he managed to stay so far below the government's heat sensors. Everything he wore, from his shoes to his glasses to – she suspected – the tie that held back his shoulder-length hair, was designer. His fashionable suit shouted of wealth, and the way he looked at her hinted that his money was earned less than honestly. The Argent syndicate's methods of staying under radar were the exact opposite of his; they feigned incompetence and humbleness.

"You're Mr. Kabuto, aren't you?" she murmured in false uncertainty. "The one who invited me here?"

"Well," Kabuto replied, his confidence unshaken, "I'm afraid I don't personally organize these good times. So I honestly have no idea who you are – no offense of course. Would you mind—no," he halted, "don't tell me your name. I'd rather not know. Call me a romantic, but here's something so amazingly attractive about a sexy mystery woman."

Tenten decided she wouldn't call him a romantic in a thousand years. Maybe a womanizing ass.

"I'm glad you ran into me," Tenten told him, though she knew that not to be the case. "To be frank, Mr. Kabuto, I've always wanted to meet you."

"Many have." He did not look flattered, and Tenten was faintly annoyed. A ringleader that wasn't incredibly egotistical would make her job harder, but not impossible. "And I, in turn, am delighted to meet you." He placed an arm around her waist without reservation, his fingers curling around the curve of her hip. She suppressed her distaste and poured on the charm.

"I heard of the charity work you did last year. I was involved in several of those organizations, and I'm happy that I have the chance to thank you." She kept her voice warm and low, as though anything she said was meant for him and no one else. "You're generous."

"Do you think so?" Kabuto seemed more than happy to take advantage of her gratitude, and his fingers edge further to the top of her thigh. She never took her eyes from his and, though disdainful, lifted her leg so that his hand went a few inches lower until his touch grazed the hose-covered flesh at the hem of her skirt. "You seem quite generous yourself."

She would generously kill him and spare Chicago a few more decades of his arrogance if Neji didn't turn up soon. "I try my best," she smiled, not missing a beat.

He kissed her, as she had known he would. His power rendered them invisible to any passersby, and his hand left her thigh in favor of her breast. Tenten was at once thankful that she was on a ship, so that as soon as it was possible she could vomit over the side. He was violent, his tongue invading, his grip too tight. She pulled her head away at one point just get some breath in her lungs. Kabuto only took his teeth to her throat.

A large clock on the Pier gonged out a notice: it was midnight. Remembering Neji's plan, her hand went to the thigh she hadn't offered Kabuto and pulled a pistol no longer than the width of her palm from the garter there. It would be practically harmless at a distance, but at this proximity Kabuto would be dead before he even realized she'd stashed a gun.

"I take it that's not your phone number," Kabuto murmured against the side of her throat. She held the end of the pistol to the underside of his jaw. Her victim's self-satisfied smile had vanished, replaced by a glow of increasing rage in his eyes.

Tenten, however, could not smile more widely. "Yakushi Kabuto dead at Navy Pier. That'll be your headline…then the Tribune will cover your Buena Park operation - busted."

He practically snarled at her, and any trace of attractiveness he had possessed was lost. "You syndie bitch." He twitched, and Tenten's mouth opened though no sound came out. Her right leg felt as though it had been burned, though the wetness trickling down to her ankle told her she'd just been cut. Kabuto, she found out, wasn't wholly untalented. She uttered something unladylike as he spun her around and held her to his chest, the pocket knife in his hand (again, a damn designer item) coming up to rest against her collar bone.

She found some amusement in that she had been threatened in a similar fashion before. "You put a run in my hose," she mocked, "and tore my dress." Tenten stared out at the lights of Chicago across the lake and focused on anything but the pain. "I suppose there's no higher degradation to you, huh?"

"I can tear a hell of a lot more," Kabuto seethed. "What's another dead syndie when all your guys at Buena Park are probably bleeding all over Lakeshore Drive right now?"

"Actually," chimed in another voice, "Lakeshore's spotless. Unless you count your favorite squad. Then we're talking about a bit of a mess."

Kabuto twisted around, pulling Tenten with him. She grinned when she saw Neji, suit-clad and armed. She'd always liked him best that way. The Hyuuga's own gun, a model far more powerful than hers, was already digging into the side of Kabuto's scalp.

Kabuto's eyes were crazy in the light coming from inside the ship. "I guess you want me to let her go."

"Your call," Neji said, his voice as steady as his weapon. "Though I'm going to shoot you anyway."

Kabuto kept his grip on Tenten and gave a short laugh. "Don't you two make a team? I have to admit, I rather enjoyed your partner here. She's a change from the drones I get nowadays."

Neji's stare intensified. "Tenten, how angry are you going to be at me if I get blood in your hair?"

She braced herself, not bothering to keep the mischief out of her voice. "Not at all, if you promise to shower me later."

"Promise." He had thoughtfully fixed a silencer on his gun, assuring that only a muffled popping sound emitted from the shot he buried in Kabuto's skull. Tenten felt liquid, warm and thick, splatter over the back of her head, droplets landing on her cheek.

She was released from Kabuto's hold when he shot out his knife-holding hand, but a gasp escaped her lips when the edge of the blade ran over her stomach just before he tumbled over the side of the ship, Gucci glasses and all.

"Tenten!" Arms wrapped around her. She felt heavier, and Tenten could not tell if she was warm or cold. She heard Neji call her name, over and over, but the sound was low – it was like hearing things from underwater. Light burst behind her eyes before dark clouds blocked it out.

Her mouth formed words, but she couldn't be sure that her voice came out. And Tenten wondered, just before the entire world went away, if it was raining.

"I'm getting us out."

Not exactly cheering words, but it was the first thing Neji said to her when he saw that she was awake. Tenten's brain managed to come out of the fog enough to tell her that the blood, both Kabuto's and her own, had been washed from her, the cut on her leg was bandaged, and the gash seven inches long across her abdomen was stitched.

She stared at her lover from beneath the thick sheets of the bed she shared with him, her head resting against three pillows piled high. Even in such comfort, she was uneasy because of Neji's solemn statement. "Come on," she urged. Her voice was croaky from the painkiller that must have been given in her unconsciousness. "You can't. Your uncle—"

"Can go to hell," he interrupted. Neji sat on the bed, and she kept her face straight when the shifted mattress jarred her body. "Buena Park killed three of our best, and you—"

"Neji, your arm!" she exclaimed. He was shirtless, and a thick bandage dressed his right bicep. She remembered how strongly he had held the heavy gun at Navy Pier, and her chest ached.

His tone was filled with irritation. "Yeah. I got shot. I would've been the fourth one dead if Naruto hadn't kicked one of Kabuto's guys down."

Tenten remembered the blond piano player from the day she had met Neji and bit her lip. "Are you okay?"

"Don't ask stupid questions." He wasn't trying to be hurtful, she knew. Annoyance was how Neji dealt with concern. "He cut up your stomach. I thought I would have to watch you spill out all over the deck of his fucking ship."

She held out her arms, and when he gingerly moved to embrace her, she threaded her fingers through the hair at his neck. She felt his eyelashes brush her cheek when he closed his eyes. "Still," she murmured, trying to get her point across. "You know how the Argent operates, Neji, better than anyone. The organization doesn't let deserters go."

"Hiashi can keep his organization. He's not keeping me." Looking up, Neji met her eyes. The things Tenten saw in his robbed her of breath. "Or you." His hand came up to stroke over her jawline.

She turned her head and kissed his palm. "They'll kill us. They'll find us and kill us." He scoffed in obvious doubt, and she caught at his shoulder. "Neji, why all of a sudden? We've both seen people die before. And both of us have been hurt before tonight."

"You almost died…"

"So did you." And the thought made her heart run several beats ahead. "But we're both still alive. So why, just now, do you think we can leave and keep on living?"

A quiet fell over them, but not calm. Tenten was sure Neji knew the speed of her pulse, as she knew his. Neji's mouth tightened at the corners before he answered.

"I decided months ago that if you ever told me you loved me, I would do everything I could to get us out of the syndicate. All we have here is death. Nothing else, Tenten."

Her mind raced, trying to recall everything she had ever said to him, each whisper, each murmur at night. She knew she had not said those words she had always wanted to say…had she? "When did I—"

"At the Pier, just before you passed out. You meant it, I know you meant it." He held her hands now, both of them between his. The complex emotions coming through his voice made her feel both weak and strong at the simultaneously. "And I meant this, Tenten. We'll leave and go live somewhere."

Unbidden, tears sprung to her eyes and fell before she could stop them. They fell like brilliant crystals on their joined hands. "We'll die, Neji." She felt his thumb brush over her cheek, remembered the blood that had stained her there only hours ago.

"Are you going to tell me," he asked, "that you would rather we die apart – like we almost did tonight – or together, at least trying?"

She looked up. It was the mistake she had refused to make before she had gone to Navy Pier. It was like a foundation being shaken, or perhaps a final rooting taking place. She didn't know.

She did know that she nodded, nodded frantically, and he kissed her in a way he never had before. There was a promise hovering between them, but neither Neji nor Tenten dared to utter the word that they would either live or die for:


The End