Disclaimer: I don't own anything of Naruto.
Destined to Love
By: Chigiri Sasaki
Summary: He was a prodigy, with a damaged past and no future. She was a commoner, with a hidden secret. Strung together by fate, it was only a matter of time before she changed his life forever. [AU, NejiTen]
Chapter Twenty Five
"Many years ago, there was a ninja called Masaru. His name meant 'victory', and it fitted him quite well; he was loved by everybody, he came from a strong clan, he was smart, he was handsome, he was strong… everybody thought his life was perfect. But for Masaru, there was always something missing. He felt empty, especially whenever he saw a couple holding hands or kiss, but he couldn't figure out what it was."
Amaya, a little girl who had fallen ill due to the strange epidemic, laughed. "Silly Masaru. Of course it's love!"
"Silly Masaru," Tenten agreed, smilingly. "But he was determined to find out what this empty feeling was and how he could get rid of it. So he left Konoha and went into another village—the land of lightning. And even though he had permission to leave Konoha for a little while, he knew that he wasn't welcomed at the land of lightning because they weren't allied. So he went undercover, as a person who claimed to have lived in a rural area all his life.
"But then he met the lord's daughter. She was beyond beautiful, with porcelain skin and soft brown eyes that were so enchanting it cast spells on the men around her. Her name was Sora, legend says, and her name meant 'sky'. That was what Masaru described her beauty as—boundless as the sky and deep as the sea. Masaru and Sora soon fell in love, and Masaru finally discovered the true feeling of love.
"And then the Sora's father—the lord—found out about their relationship. He was angry at Sora—angry that she chose a commoner over the suitable candidate from the bird country, who could have offered an alliance along with his proposal. Of course, at that time, the lord didn't know that Masaru was part of a noble clan in Konoha. But nevertheless he still wished for his daughter's happiness, so he told Sora that his spies would follow her for the next few days to ensure her happiness and safety. He told her if Masaru harmed her in any way, then the relationship would instantly end. Sora quickly agreed to the compromise. She had no idea what would happen next.
"The day after, while Sora and Masaru were walking alone at night, a group of unknown ninjas attacked them. Of course, Masaru used his ninja abilities and fought them off, despite knowing that he had blown his cover. That night, Sora found out that Masaru was actually supposed to be an enemy. And if that wasn't horrible enough, she realised that her father's spies must have seen everything, too."
The hospital background suddenly faded out and Amaya disappeared. Suddenly, Tenten felt like she was shrinking—it was either that or everything else was growing. She found herself looking at two pairs of feet. "What happened next?" she asked eagerly, looking up and gazing at two giant figures. Her voice was a lot more high-pitched than usual.
"Well, I loved Masaru even though I knew he was an enemy. At first, I lied to my father whenever he inquired about Masaru's background but then he found out eventually, thanks to his spies. He wanted to punish me severely for lying. And then he wanted to kill Masaru—not for being a commoner but for being an enemy." The woman sighed, smiling slightly. "Masaru didn't fight back, though."
"I escaped," continued the man, who was evidently Masaru. "I didn't want to make a big deal out of it. I loved Sora too much and I respected the Raikage. So I left."
"But a year later, my father died of old age," Sora said, smiling tightly. "Then I was able to choose whoever I wanted to marry. So I chose Masaru."
"That's so romantic!" Tenten cooed, clasping her hands together and smiling dreamily. "I hope I'll meet my soul mate soon."
"Honey," the woman laughed, "you're only seven."
Tenten opened her eyes to a dark room. Lying on her side, she stared out into the darkness. After a few moments, she finally got up, fumbled for her slippers and pulled the curtains back. It made no difference whether the curtains were pulled back or not; everything seemed to be coloured in a dark shade of grey since thick clouds covered the sky like a blanket. Sighing, she opened her closet, took out her usual attire, and hopped into the shower.
Today was possibly one of the most important days of her life. She was assigned her first official mission yesterday and she was heading out today. She had slept earlier last night to rest properly, but as usual, her sleeping was cut short due to another flashback.
She frowned and stood still, letting hot water spray against her face. Her dream was a strange one. It started off as a memory of telling Amaya a story. A few weeks back, the little blonde had complained about fairytales, saying that they were cliché and no longer interesting. So the sixteen year old offered to tell a story that happened to a citizen of Konoha. Then the dream took a turn and suddenly, Masaru and Sora were personally telling their story. What did that mean? Weren't Masaru and Sora dead by now? Tenten had always thought that they had lived a long time ago. Yet it felt oddly realistic, but so dreamlike at the same time. Was it a flashback or a simple figment of her imagination? She couldn't tell.
She pushed it aside and decided to focus on her mission. The survival of Konoha depended on this very sole mission; the simple thought of it boggled her mind. Despite being slightly deprived of sleep she felt tingly all over. This was her first mission. This was an opportunity to prove herself as a kunoichi. She wanted to prove that even though she was just a commoner that had never attended the academy, she was still a good fighter.
She frowned slightly when she realised that there were no more towels on the rack. Ever since the epidemic had started, there were fewer and fewer maids serving in the Hyuuga manor. It was understandable, since Hiashi wanted to limit every chance of contracting the disease. It was a cautious move but it did make things a little harder.
So Tenten dried herself using her sleeping gown instead and slipped on her battling outfit. Her attire that consisted of red pants and a white, long-sleeved shirt was her signature outfit. She carefully tied her hair into buns and secured it with extra pins.
By the time she walked back into her room, she noticed that it was slightly brighter. The sun had risen and was peeking through from the horizon. The next thing she noticed was Neji's shirt, folded neatly on her desk. He had lent her it the other day when she had fallen into the lake near the waterfall. Since there were no more maids coming around to clean her room, there was no one to take it away from her. It was strange, how she liked having his shirt in her room. It wasn't particularly well made or clean—in fact, it was still dirty from the time they went to the waterfall. But… she liked having it. It's not like Neji would notice anyway; he had at least ten of the same shirts.
Her eyes travelled to the corner of her desk, where a green box laid. She gingerly opened it and glanced at the necklace it contained. It was beautiful; the silver chain suspended the prettiest emerald pendant. Hiro had given this to her as a present.
The instant she thought of the Hyuuga, she felt a pang of guilt. He had spent so much money on her, yet she couldn't even accept his feelings. How could she, if he was engaged? It wouldn't be right. If there was only some way for him to be happy…
She had to give him back the necklace, she decided. It was way too expensive and a tomboyish commoner like her could never do it justice. So she closed the box, left her room and headed towards Hiro's. He answered almost immediately when she knocked on his door.
"Hi," he said rather gruffly, gazing down at her. He roughly ran a hand through his hair but there were still a few strands that stuck out. "Why are you up so early?"
"Sorry," the brunette said after realisation had dawned on her. She had been so deep in thought that she never looked to see what time it was. "I was just thinking… and here. This is rightfully yours."
"What's this?" Hiro asked, glancing down at the green velvet box. He opened to see the necklace that he had specially chosen for her. A frown immediately marred the straight line of his lips. "This is the necklace I gave you."
"Yes. I know it was expensive, and it's gorgeous and I love it but I won't ever do it justice. I haven't done anything to deserve something this nice, really. And every time I look at it I keep feeling guilty because you spent so much money on it—"
She watched as he placed the box back into her hands. "What?"
"Didn't I tell you last time to keep it?"
"You clearly don't know how to accept gifts."
"Yes, I do, but this is so beautiful," Tenten protested softly, knowing that there were others sleeping in the neighbouring rooms. "And knowing that you're engaged just makes it feel… wrong. I can't take this. If it's a card, or something, then fine—"
"Look. I bought you the necklace"—he lowered his voice—"because I like you. Think of it as a token of appreciation."
"For what? I didn't do anything particularly nice to you."
"You being here is good enough."
"I'm not doing anything—"
"Just take it, alright?"
Despite his rugged look, there was nothing but sincerity surfacing in his eyes. Tenten sighed softly, managed a soft smile and said, "Fine. Thank you."
"Now can I sleep?" Hiro asked and grinned when Tenten began to apologise. "I was only kidding."
"You do need the sleep, though."
"We all do." He looked at either ends of the hallway. "Where's Neji?"
"I don't know. Why would he be here?"
"He's always where you are," Hiro replied seriously. "And he's an early riser as well."
"Then he's probably training outside."
"Right," the Hyuuga chuckled, stepping back into his room. He glanced at her with a small smile. "Good luck."
"For what, the mission?"
There was unexplainable look in his pools of ivory. "Sure, if that's what we're talking about."
The head of the Hyuuga clan stood outside in the training grounds, observing his surroundings. He lifted his gaze heavenwards, pressing his lips into a thin line when he caught sight of the grey sky. Spring seemed years away. There were tiny buds on the trees, but even those were rare. Although it never snowed anymore, the crisp winter air never really went away.
Hyuuga Hiashi had been looking for his nephew—hence the activated Byakuugan—but to no avail. It was rare that Neji wasn't here—there was hardly ever a day where he wouldn't get up early in the morning to train. Was he at the hospital? That was very probable, considering that Tenten had recently managed to get him to volunteer at the hospital. Even after Tsunade had dismissed all the ninjas to prevent them from contracting the disease, Neji still went.
Hiashi would've been ecstatic for this drastic change if it weren't for the fact that the disease was more contagious than ever; despite staying prudent, Hinata and a handful of Hyuugas were hospitalised at the moment. Most of the maids and guards were sent home as well. Neji could easily catch the disease even if he was working in the cleaner areas. The prodigy couldn't afford to be sick, as he had an important mission to go on today. On top of that, he was the future leader.
That was particularly the reason as to why Hiashi had come out here today. He wanted to discuss with his nephew about his future as the head of the clan. He wanted to firstly inform him of the contract, the responsibilities that came with being a leader, and lastly, when he was going to have the curse mark removed.
Hiashi spun around to see a brunette emerging from the bushes; so he wasn't the only one looking for Neji. "Hello, Tenten."
"Oh, hi Hiashi-sama. I thought Neji would be here."
"I did as well."
"So he left? But it's still six in the morning."
"I thought he would be with you at the hospital."
"Well… I guess that's where I'm going to head next, then."
"You should tell him to come back as soon as possible," the older man advised solemnly. "I don't want him to fall ill."
Tenten nodded understandingly. "Okay."
"Make sure Neji doesn't get too reckless in general. You know him; he doesn't know his limits."
"Yeah," she replied with a soft chuckle.
"I'm counting on you to keep an eye out for him. He may not know it, but he is very important to the clan."
Tenten didn't quite know what Hiashi meant by that, but agreed anyway.
"Also," Hiashi added just before she swerved around to leave, "if I don't see you again today, good luck on your mission."
Tenten returned his gentle smile, thanked him and then left for the hospital. When she arrived there, she was slightly stunned by the state of Konoha's beloved hospital. What used to be the safest and cleanest place was now a deserted mess. There was only one receptionist at the front desk, who greeted her with an emotionless nod. The chairs in the lobby were near empty. Whoever sat there was quiet and simply stared at her as she walked by. There were no more doctors or nurses running around; had they given up? Or were they all sick?
She suppressed the urge to gag at the blood and vomit residue that stained the walls and floors. She held her breath until she reached the elevator, but to her dismay, she saw more blood on the handles. She really hoped that the extra pill she consumed today would protect her. She couldn't afford to get sick—she had a mission today. Why on Earth was Neji here? He out of everybody would want to stay healthy. Was he talking to Tsunade about the mission? Or worse, was he trying to convince Tsunade to pull her out of the team?
To her great surprise, she found Neji in Amaya's room. Both he and Amaya didn't notice her as she peeked through the blinds that were partially closed. The edges of her eyes softened. Amaya was talking animatedly—faintly but excitedly nonetheless—and Neji patiently listened. There was something awfully endearing about the two and Tenten unknowingly began staring. She wished she could hear what they were talking about.
All of a sudden, Neji stood up with a book and small trucks in his hand and opened the door. He was already outside before Tenten could find a spot to hide. "You're a terrible spy," he said simply.
"I didn't want to intrude," she protested, blushing slightly. "What are you holding?"
"Amaya's toys. She's giving them away."
He stared at her for a moment. "You should go inside and ask her," he said and left.
Once alone, Tenten inhaled deeply and walked into the room. She managed a big smile even when she saw how pale and frail looking Amaya was. "Hi Amaya!"
"Hi nee-chan," the little blonde cried, grinning. Her two front teeth were starting to grow in. "How are you today?"
"I'm fine. How are you feeling?"
"Well, I'm okay. I didn't sleep because I had a really bad headache but I'm okay now. You know I saw my mommy last night? I'm not sure if she was real or not, but it didn't feel like a dream."
All Tenten could manage was, "which mommy?"
"Both! And I was happy because they were holding hands and both my daddies were talking about business. It was so cool."
"And what were you doing?"
"I was playing with my friends!" Amaya's smile faltered slightly. "But it's just all in my head, right?"
"No it's not. Once you're healthy again you can do whatever you want."
"Nee-chan, do you really think everything will be okay?"
"Of course I do."
"Good. Neji-nii-san said that too, so it must be true."
Tenten smiled. "So what else did he say to you?"
"Lots of things," gushed the eight year old. "He told me about the academy, and his first tournament, and how he fought even when he thought everything was over. He told me to do the same—to be strong no matter what. He says that it'll make you sad if I die, but I don't want to make nee-chan sad so I promised him that I would stay alive until you guys bring back the cure."
Tenten remained wordless, but she felt herself choke up and her heart suddenly grew heavy. Neji came here before the crack of dawn to say this?
"Then I asked him to do me a favour," Amaya continued softly. "I know a lot of kids who are sick now but they have nothing to play with. So I asked Neji-nii-san to give my toys away. I don't play with a lot of them and they were all given to me by my friends at the academy. Now that they're sick, I want to give these presents back. And you know what, nee-chan? It feels so good to give back. Neji-nee-san said the kids all said 'thank you' and smiled a lot after they got the toys."
"That's wonderful, Amaya, really." The door opened and her gaze aligned with Neji's. The sole sight of him made her heart swell like no other. Could there be anyone more perfect than he was? Smiling softly, she mouthed to him, "thank you."
He nodded back and then turned to Amaya. "Fuji said that he'll protect the trucks forever."
Amaya giggled. "He would always come in here to play with them. Now that he's in bed like me…" She shook her head slightly. "Is there anyone else in the hallway?"
"There's a girl two doors down."
"Well, can you give her this doll anyways?"
The Hyuuga prodigy wordlessly took the brand new doll from her shelf and left.
Tenten, eyebrows raised, asked, "how long has this been going on?"
"For about half an hour. I would give them the toys myself, but I can't really move my legs. Sakura-chan said that it's a side effect from the tumours in my head. She said that I'm lucky that I can even talk." She smiled a toothy grin and gestured towards her near empty shelf. There was only one book left. "Can you give me that please?"
"It's the book I told you I didn't like when you first came to visit me," she explained, showing Tenten the familiar cover. "I don't know. At that time, I didn't like the story because I thought the happy ending was so stupid."
"I want to be the one living happily ever after."
Tenten smiled tenderly and sat by the frail little girl. "You will. It just takes a while. There are real life fairytales."
"But that story you told me last time isn't a fairytale. Masaru and Sora ended up separating."
Remembering her dream, Tenten replied, "actually, I think I got the story wrong. I think… Masaru and Sora might still be alive."
"Really? But you told me that their story took place back when the first Hokage ruled Konoha! And you told me that Masaru left Sora because he didn't want to make anybody suffer. That is why it was bittersweet."
"Well, do you want to hear the story again? Except this time, there will be a happy ending."
"So, a few decades back, there was a boy named Masaru. His name meant 'victory' and it fitted him quite well. Everybody loved him, he was super funny and he worked hard and always did well on missions…"
Outside, the Hyuuga prodigy eavesdropped through the door that had been left ajar. He had already given the little girl two doors down—who introduced herself as Mioko—the doll and was about to return when he heard Tenten and Amaya talking about Masaru. Any sort of talk or gossip concerning Suzuki Masaru was considered taboo nowadays, especially amongst the Hyuuga clan. Suzuki Masaru was the Raikage. He was the one who demanded for Hiashi's body years ago and he was the one killing Konoha right now.
Why was Tenten talking about him? Unless…
"He never understood the concept of love," Tenten was saying. "He thought there was a composition and formula for love, just like how there are steps to performing a jutsu."
"Silly Masaru," Amaya said, laughing. "Love just happens!"
"Right you are. But one day…"
Suzuki Masaru used to be part of the Suzuki clan, which was rather noble and known in all of Konoha. Masaru was known as a prodigy, even, but he one day decided to betray Konoha by suddenly running away. He tried coming back once but he was shunned by his own people. Shortly after, everybody in the Suzuki clan was assassinated. Everyone assumed that it was Masaru who had done the horrible act, since he was the only one strong enough and he was also considered a traitor at the time. Then he miraculously became the Raikage.
Many thought he had left in the first place because he wanted to learn more techniques. Others assumed that he had a rebellious streak. However, nobody knew exactly why Masaru had decided to betray his clan and his home.
"But then he met the lord's daughter. She was beyond beautiful, with porcelain skin and soft brown eyes that were so enchanting it cast spells on the men around her. Her name was Sora and her name meant 'sky'. That was what Masaru described her beauty as—boundless as the sky and deep as the sea. Masaru and Sora soon fell in love, and Masaru finally discovered the true feeling of love.
"And then the Sora's father—the lord—found out about their relationship. He was angry at Sora—angry that she chose a commoner over the suitable candidate from the bird country, who could have offered an alliance along with his proposal. Of course, at that time, the lord didn't know that Masaru was part of a noble clan in Konoha. But nevertheless he still wished for his daughter's happiness, so he told Sora that his spies would follow her for the next few days to ensure her happiness and safety. He told her if Masaru harmed her in any way, then the relationship would instantly end. Sora quickly agreed to the compromise. She had no idea what would happen next."
Neji narrowed his eyes. How did Tenten know all of this?
He knew what he knew because he was a Hyuuga, but even his knowledge was limited. On the other hand, Tenten was practically reciting his life as if she was reading out of a book. This could only mean that—
"Neji?" Tenten suddenly called out. "Why are you standing outside?"
He walked into the room with an emotionless face. Tenten promptly continued, "So like I was saying, Sora's father was furious. Not only had Masaru lied—he was also supposed to be an enemy!"
Neji sat quietly in the corner with his lips pressed together. So his suspicions were confirmed. Tenten really was the Raikage's daughter.
Yesterday, while they were sparring, he had noticed something strange. She had attacked him using a technique that had been unique to the Suzuki clan; he had recognised the chant from an ancient scroll that he came across one day. At first, it didn't make sense to him because there was no way Tenten could've learned that. The scrolls were locked away, the members of the Suzuki clan have been long dead and she had never received proper training.
This morning realisation finally dawned upon him. There was one remaining Suzuki member—Masaru. Tenten must have learned the technique from him when she was younger. It made sense now, because she had always told him that she knew some techniques naturally, which her body probably remembered after losing her memory.
At first, he wasn't certain because it was only a possibility. She could've been a pupil of Masaru, but what were the chances? She did bear a close resemblance to Akira, who was his daughter, and Tenten knew his whole story. It was reasonable that a daughter would know the story of how her parents met.
Tenten was the Raikage's daughter. She was the sister of Akira and the daughter of the man that all Hyuugas were supposed to hate.
He was supposed to hate Tenten, he realised as he gazed upon the animated brunette.
The question was: how could he?
It was impossible to hate her. Out of everybody, he knew what it was like to shun her. He had wanted to get rid of her so he insulted her and made the crudest remarks. Yet he actually ended up feeling guilty for insulting such a genuine person; he initially let her stay because he felt like he owed it to her. It wasn't like he minded her presence that much anyway. So he dealt with her for a little while.
Now, he actually found himself enjoying his time with her. There was something about her that made living a little more bearable. With her, each day seemed a little different, with different conversations and feelings. Back then, he would get up every morning with the sole objective to train. Every day was like a photocopy of another; he didn't like it but he didn't mind it either. Now, there was more to look forward to when he woke up now. Tenten was outspoken, intelligent and she wasn't that bad of a sparring partner either.
He had come today for her. He knew how much Amaya meant to Tenten, and he would never admit it but the little blonde had grown on him as well.
"That was a way better ending," Amaya cried after Tenten had finished the rest of the story. "I'm happy for Masaru and Sora!"
"I'm glad you liked it," the brunette replied with a smile. "See? There are real life fairytales!"
The eight year old clapped, and unknowingly Neji smiled when he saw Tenten smiling. Who cared if she was the Raikage's daughter? There would be a point in the future where things would unravel and she would probably have to leave, but until then, he didn't mind spending time with her.
Amaya, who noticed Neji gazing tenderly at Tenten, giggled softly. "Neji-nii-san, what about you?"
The Hyuuga prodigy snapped out of his reverie, looking rather dazed, which made Amaya laugh even more. "I asked you," she repeated, "if you liked the story."
"It was alright."
The little girl's eyes sparkled. "Are you grumpy because you don't have your prince?"
This made Tenten laugh wholeheartedly while Neji flatly stated, "that's stupid."
"It's okay. I'm sure Neji-nii-san has a lot of girls going after him." Her cerulean eyes twinkled as it was Tenten's turn to frown and watch Neji's reaction.
"We should get going," the Hyuuga said. "Tsunade-sama expects us to be out by eight."
"Okay," Amaya cheerfully replied, nodding understandingly. Even though she couldn't move her legs, she put her hands together and bowed her head. "Thank you so much."
"For helping me today, Neji-nii-san. I had a lot of stuff to bring."
Neji shook his head slightly. "It was no problem."
"And thank you, Tenten-nee-chan, for everything." She smiled faintly. "I'm just a little girl. No one ever really cares about someone like me."
"You're wrong. There are so many people who care about you. Your foster parents are here for you, always. And so am I, your fairy godmother," Tenten said gently.
"You really are like my fairy godmother, Tenten-nee-chan. Thank you. Sometimes I'm really bratty and I think that I have the worst life ever and then I cry a lot. But that's just because I forget how lucky I am—how lucky am I to have really nice foster parents that treat me like I'm their own kid. When I became sick and couldn't go to school, I threw a lot of tantrums because I hated being in the hospital because it was the most boring thing ever.
"But then I got so many presents and Sakura-chan and all the nurses are always so nice to me. Plus, Neji-nii-san and Tenten-nee-chan also come to visit me! And then I have the best time ever, so it's not so bad after all. I think I'm very lucky, but sometimes I just can't help but cry. I really am grateful so don't think badly of me, okay?" Suddenly, she began to cough uncontrollably but seemed unfazed even she saw the blood on her hands. She quickly wiped them on the bedspread and told Tenten to sit down when she insisted to go find a doctor. "I'm okay, really."
"Are you sure?"
"I cough all the time and it's not like doctors can make it stop. Besides, everyone has to go through this. I'm not going to be the weak one that needs the most help. I will be strong. Then, once I'm all better I can train super duper hard and then I'll be strong just like Neji-nii-san!"
"Then you defeat him in battle," Tenten added, partially laughing and blinking back tears.
"That would be so cool," Amaya gushed, clapping but her hands were too weak to make an audible noise. "What do you say, Neji-nii-san?"
"I gladly accept that challenge," the Hyuuga replied, one corner of his lips rising. "I won't go easy on you."
"Neither will I," giggled Amaya. She yawned and laid back into her bed.
"You're tired," Tenten stated, pulling the covers over the little eight year old. "And it's still so early in the morning."
"But I'm not tired! I just"—she yawned again—"didn't sleep well last night."
"Sleep well now, okay? And before you know it, we'll be back with the cure, okay?"
Amaya peered at Tenten with her big, bright cerulean eyes. "What do nee-chan and nii-san want? I just realised I gave away all my books and toys without asking if you guys wanted something."
"It's alright, Amaya. You don't have to give us anything."
"I wish I could repay you. You're always nice to me and you help me and you tell me stories… I wish I had the nicest things to give you. You too, Neji-kun. One day, I will own a sword shop and make the nicest katana for you!"
The Hyuuga prodigy gave her a tiny smile. "That would be greatly appreciated."
"You're going to grow up to be such a generous person," Tenten said softly, petting the little blonde's hair. "Now, we're really going to go, okay?"
"Okay, promise to stay safe!"
"We'll try to be," Tenten laughed. "Don't forget, I still owe you that third wish. I promise you that I will get the cure and you're going to live."
The eight year old shook her head and smiled faintly. "Tenten-nee-chan?" she whispered before they turned around to leave. "Can I change my wish? I finally have one that I'm happy with."
The brunette stopped, slightly confused, but nodded nonetheless. "Sure."
"Okay," Amaya said, clasping her hands together and closing her eyes. A little, innocent smile graced her lips. In a voice that drifted off, she mumbled, "I wish that…"
Tenten smiled tenderly when she heard Amaya's soft snores. She gently removed Amaya's bangs from her face. Then she finally looked up, glanced at her companion and inhaled deeply. Her heart seemed to be aching in all sorts of ways. "Let's do this," she breathed.
They left the room together. Their shoulders brushed as they walked side by side and for a long while, Tenten couldn't speak. Her thoughts were jumbled and the emotions were almost too overwhelming to handle. There was so much counting on this mission. She had to succeed, but she honestly didn't know if she could. So many things could happen and she would have to overcome every obstacle—failure was not a possibility. Amaya, and Fuji, and Hinata, and Shikamaru, and Chouji and everybody else had to live. If this mission were to fail, then Konoha would be finished.
Tenten inhaled deeply in an attempt to lessen the load on her shoulders. Finally, she asked, "so what time did you get here?"
"You woke up especially early to see her?"
"I couldn't sleep anyway."
"But you could've gotten sick and everything—"
Neji shrugged. "I could get sick anywhere."
Her voice wavered slightly. "Thank you."
"I know how much she means to you. Besides, she needs to stay alive. If she dies, then you're going to mourn and I don't want to deal with your tears again."
She managed a quiet laugh. "You're such a typical boy."
Neji suddenly stepped in front of her, causing them to both stand still in the middle of the hallway. His eyes seemed to explore the depths of hers. "Are you sure you want to do this?"
"W-what do you mean? Of course I want to do this."
"You can stay here with Amaya."
"No way. I chose to go on this mission."
"There's something—" He paused and turned around. She didn't need to know the truth just yet. "Never mind, let's go."
"Wait, Neji! What were you going to say?"
"It's nothing important."
The meeting area before a mission was typically at Konoha's entrance, and today was no exception. All eight assigned ninjas were to meet here to discuss their plans before heading out. Hiro was the first to arrive and promptly noticed the absence of the two usual guards; they must have fallen sick, as Kakashi and Gai were now supervising the gates. By the time Neji and Tenten arrived, Lee was already chattering away excitedly with Gai, and the rest of the team—which consisted of Kiba, Hiro, Shino and Sasuke—simply watched with raised eyebrows. Naruto was the only one missing.
"That idiot," muttered Uchiha Sasuke, shoving his hands in his pockets. "We all slept early last night for a reason."
"Sasuke," Kakashi said airily, reading a very questionable book, "you're too hard on Naruto."
"No I'm not. He's always the reason why we're late."
Lee turned away from Gai momentarily. "Naruto-kun will show up eventually!"
As if on cue, a loud yell resounded in the otherwise quiet air. "Sorry guys, I'm running as fast as I can!"
They all turned to see the constantly energetic blond running—and surprisingly enough Sakura was running beside him. They were both carrying small backpacks but Naruto had an additional bag; anybody who knew Naruto at all would know that it contained cups of instant noodles.
"Sakura!" Tenten greeted with a large smile. "I thought Tsunade-sama needed you to take care of patients."
"She knew I wanted a breath of fresh air," replied the pink-haired kunoichi. Her eyes were noticeably sunken in. "Besides, it's not like people are going to get better just because I stay. She finally realised that there's no way to heal them without the cure. She figured that it would be way more beneficial if I joined you guys, since I'm medically trained and all." She stifled a yawn. "So, did you guys appoint a leader yet?"
Normally the leader would be a Jounin. Out of the nine ninjas present, Neji and Hiro were the only ones that possessed the title; they glanced at each other. "No, we didn't," Hiro said.
"Well, I spoke to Tsunade-sama and she said that Hiro should be the leader, since he's the oldest and therefore the most experienced. Also, she wanted me to remind you guys that we have to rest well, stay alert, dress warmly, that kind of stuff."
"The old granny," Naruto sighed. "She keeps treating us like little kids."
"Shut up Naruto," Sakura retorted. "This is really important. If we get sick, then it's the end of Konoha. Do you want that?"
Shino cleared his throat. "Sakura-san, has Tsunade-sama figured out how the bacteria enters the human body?"
"Yes, I was actually getting to that." Her eyes were uncharacteristically lifeless and she eerily resembled a doctor who had been dealing with patients all her life. "For the past month, we had been focusing more on the cure than anything else. How the bacteria were able to spread so quickly was always a little vague. We had dismissed it, thinking it was simply airborne and only noticed that people who were weaker would fall ill faster than those who were healthy. That's why Tsunade-sama made those pills; they are only pills that contain vitamins and minerals to hopefully strengthen the immune system.
"Last night, Tsunade-sama finally saw the bacteria in its true form outside the body—they're actually little bugs that are so tiny they are almost invisible to the naked eye. They crawl into your pores and use either your chakra flow or your blood to propel itself to your brain. If your body manages to fight it off before it gets there, then you're safe. If even a little bug invades your brain, then it starts growing and results in that moving blob that we see in our x-rays.
"The bacteria can also survive outside the body—the ones we captured and put into little capsules are still alive." She put out her hand and faintly expelled a bit of chakra from her palm. "This is how we can prevent the bugs from entering. If you release chakra from your pores, they can't go in. Also, make sure your toes and hands aren't exposed because they are easily accessible and therefore susceptible to the disease."
Shino seemed a little disturbed by this information. As a bug user, he was accustomed to having bugs crawling about in his body. "Should I be extra cautious?"
"Yeah," Naruto agreed, "what if he lets in a bunch of those bacteria thingies by mistake?"
"Then… I don't know," Sakura replied, smiling tightly. "We have to be extra careful when we're fighting. They can release bugs anytime and we don't want to come in contact with them."
This information was valid, Sakura thought. Or, at least, this is what all the remaining doctors agreed on last night. She stared pointedly at Naruto, who was now rummaging through his bag for a snack. He was the only one that had ever gone on a mission related to this issue and had come back unaffected by the disease. He was injured from fighting Akira, but he didn't fall ill like everybody else. Everybody else was hospitalised by now; why was Naruto still healthy and energetic as ever? Did he possess something special that nobody else did?
"Sakura-chan?" Naruto inquired, swiping at his cheeks. "Is there something on my face?"
"No, it's nothing."
"Okay," Naruto cheerfully replied. "Let's go!"
"Yes, but we need to plan first," Hiro said. "We have to travel strategically. The strongest will be in the front and back. Since I'm the leader and know the way, I will head first. Shino and Kiba will go after me. Lee, Sakura and Tenten will go in the third row, with Sakura in the middle. She's our only medically trained ninja, and she's the most sleep deprived, so she'll be in he middle. Naruto and Sasuke will go behind the three. Neji will be the last one and he has to stay on the lookout." He glanced at the other Hyuuga. "I'll use my Byakuugan to scan the front; you can use yours to see everything behind us."
"Fine," was Neji's curt reply.
And once everybody confirmed that they were ready, they went into their positions and sprang off, leaving behind a cloud of dust, smoke and sand. Gai and Kakashi watched as their students sped off. There was a certain nostalgic sadness that came with watching them go; they used to be young children who needed adult supervision. After a while of reminiscing, Gai asked his long-time companion, "Kakashi, do you think they'll come back safely?"
"These kids are strong," the grey-haired man said, peering up from his book, "but I don't know."
The team consisting of nine skilled ninjas went from tree to tree at a relatively fast speed; they couldn't go too fast, simply because they needed to conserve their energy, Tenten wasn't accustomed to the amount of running and Sakura was exhausted from the lack of sleep. Furthermore, they were running against the current of the wind. This could prove to be a disadvantage in the long run, but it also allowed Neji to hear Naruto especially clearly.
"Neji," Naruto said, still looking ahead. "Hey, can you hear me?"
"Yes. What is it?"
"Hinata," Naruto started off boldly, but then trailed off. "Uh… she's sick right now."
"I'm aware of that."
The prodigy who trailed the blond raised an eyebrow but didn't say anything else.
"Well, I visited her this morning."
Neji pressed his lips together, pensive. Naruto was often considered as Konoha's loud and obnoxious fool, but he was also genuine and had nothing but good intentions. Despite the fact that outsiders were generally frowned upon by the Hyuuga clan, Neji could see the blond and Hinata being together. After all, Naruto seemed to have taken a liking to her and she had always been infatuated with him.
Naruto wasn't sure as to whether he should continue or not. "She was really scared because she started to hallucinate. I couldn't leave her until she fell asleep, which is why I was late."
Neji could see Sasuke turning his head in surprise.
"And," Naruto continued when he received no answer, "I was just wondering if… maybe… she likes me back?"
Sasuke made a sound that resembled both a snort and a scoff but quickly masked it with an impassive expression. Meanwhile, Neji shook his head, muttering, "Naruto, you are incredibly dense."
"What do you mean?" Naruto turned his head, subconsciously watching the branches as they continued from tree to tree. "Does that mean that she possibly…"
"Yes!" Tenten exclaimed before she could help herself. Seeing that everybody had now focused their attention on her, she laughed meekly and waved it off. "Eh, I'm a bit loud sometimes."
Lee, who noticed the conversation going on behind him, exclaimed, "Gai-sensei always says that we have to be alert when we're on missions! But what are we talking about?"
"Naruto's wondering if Hinata likes him back," Sakura explained, hiding a smile.
Naruto suddenly felt sweaty and embarrassed—his cheeks flamed up and he scratched his head awkwardly. "Hey wait!" he exclaimed suddenly. "How come everybody knows but I don't?"
"Cause you're an idiot," Sasuke replied instantly.
"Stop calling me that!"
"But you are."
"Why you, I'm going to kick your butt!"
"You never actually carry out your threats. Actually, I believe you can't."
Their bantering meandered on until Hiro ordered them to quiet down. After everyone settled down, they wordlessly continued passing through the forest. Naruto briefly turned to look at Neji. Quietly, he asked, "do you think her father will approve of me?"
"No." Then, as if realising the harshness of his tone, he added, "Hiashi-sama won't mind as much as the elders."
"So I don't stand a chance."
"Haven't you two already been sneaking around in the morning?"
"How did you know?"
"I know everything."
Naruto's eyes widened. "Wait, so you told your uncle?"
"No. It's none of my business."
"But aren't you supposed to be responsible and super protective of your cousin?"
"You're already protecting her," Neji said, "and I'm not particularly fond of being the bad guy."
And that was the end of this conversation. Tenten, who had been eavesdropping the entire time, smiled to herself.
They eventually reached an area of the forest where there were trees that seemed to be unaffected by the winter season. There was an increasing amount of green leaves everywhere, which didn't go by unnoticed by the teens. "I haven't seen leaves in the longest time," Naruto wondered aloud.
"There are leaves because the land of lightning is located south of Konoha," Kiba explained, and Akamaru barked in accordance. "But even so, I have no idea why our winter is so long this year."
"At least it's raining instead of snowing," Sakura added half-heartedly.
"Maybe it's all in our head," Sasuke said. "It seems longer because we naturally associate spring with growth and rebirth—"
"And right now everyone's sick," the pink-haired kunoichi finished bluntly.
The nine ninjas, looking rather wistful, continued along silently until the skies began to darken. Tenten prayed that they were going to stop soon—not that she was physically tired, but she was getting mentally tired after six straight hours of nothingness. She glanced at Sakura, who then turned and smiled, but both didn't end up saying anything. The brunette inwardly sighed and continued along. Neji was running behind her, so she couldn't exactly turn around and talk to him and still maintain her speed. She had to focus, and eventually, they would take a rest. They were advised to do so anyway.
Finally, Hiro, who was at the front of the pack, raised his arm and called out, "It's time to stop."
The entire team stopped promptly and Naruto was the first to speak after they landed on the ground. "Whew, that was a long journey! I'm starving!"
Sakura dropped her bag on the dirt and rotated her shoulders. "I guess we'll start eating."
"How much did we pack?" Shino asked. "We could consider hunting."
"No, that would require starting a fire to cook the meats," Hiro said. "A fire emits smoke and it makes it easy for any enemy to track us down. We'll cook only if we have to. Until then, we can eat the packaged food. Lee-san? Kiba-san? Can we gather all the food?"
"I brought ramen!" Naruto cried with a sunny smile, proceeding to dump approximately ten cups of instant noodles in the pile of food.
"I brought lots of food as well!" Lee exclaimed, pulling out various cartons of all sizes. "I brought cookies and water and dried fruit and—"
Before he could finish, Naruto grabbed three cartons and ran behind a tree to eat.
"Idiot," Sasuke muttered and then proceeded to get whatever he wanted.
The night continued on as the hungry ninjas ate their meal. Almost all instantly gobbled down their foods, except for the two prodigies who ate neatly and Shino who barely ate at all.
"Shino, aren't you hungry?" Tenten had asked during their dinner.
"Shino doesn't eat a lot in general," Kiba responded for his companion, and beside him Akamaru greedily chewed on some dog food that Kiba had brought on the side. The boy messily wiped his mouth with his sleeve. "I have no idea how he manages to feed all those bugs."
By the end of the hour, they had devoured everything that was edible. They were all leaned against trees with their legs crossed, and their bags were high up in the trees to avoid attracting bears and whatnot. Hiro glanced at the team and sighed when he saw that more than half of them were already falling asleep. "I'll stay on the lookout tonight," he stated.
"Thank you," Sakura said gratefully. Out of everybody, she needed the sleep the most.
"I'll stay up too!" Lee exclaimed immediately.
The pink-haired kunoichi smiled tenderly at the green-clad boy, who then beamed. Sasuke let out a barely audible sigh; Tenten, who caught all three ninjas' expressions, suppressed a smile.
"Lee, you should sleep. Everybody needs to rest properly," the leader of the team said. "We have another day of travelling tomorrow."
So the rest of the team readjusted their bodies into the most comfortable position and closed their eyes, ready to receive their well needed sleep. Tenten sat next to Neji; he was so still she wasn't sure whether he was alive or not. Eventually she felt her lids lowering themselves and drifted off to sleep. Well, she wasn't sure whether she was sleeping or not because her dream was oddly realistic. She was basically running through the forest again with the rest of her team. Neji was beside her this time, and the rest of the gang was behind them.
All of a sudden, the branch snapped under her foot.
Tenten's head jerked and she woke up with an aching back—hard ground wasn't the most comfortable surface to sleep on. It was dark and still. Soft pale moonlight lit up her surroundings; everyone was fast asleep, except for Hiro who remained awake. He immediately noticed her. "Can't sleep?" he whispered. His eyes were exceptionally light in comparison to the dark.
"It's kind of hard to," she whispered back.
There was a quiet chuckle. "You'll get used to it."
Crickets were faintly heard in the background but were interrupted by Naruto's obnoxious snoring. Tenten smiled softly. "It's a beautiful night."
"You are far more beautiful," he replied, looking directly at her.
Tenten immediately ducked her head down and held her breath. She didn't like where this conversation was going. Maybe, if she just pretended to fall asleep—
"I tried," he said, seemingly unaware of the seven other sleeping figures. "I just can't help but wonder what life would be like without the engagement."
He was met with silence yet again, but he stayed persistent. "And I keep thinking of you."
"Why?" Tenten demanded quietly, looking up.
"I know it's crazy, and I don't know why, but I just do. You're something different, and knowing that I can't have you makes me wonder even more."
"You're not supposed to want someone just because they're unobtainable."
"But I do. It has always been believed that we should follow our hearts." He paused and stared straight into her eyes; even though he was sitting a good ten feet away from her, she felt slightly intimidated. "You told me to fight for what I want."
"You have it all wrong!" Tenten placed as much emphasis on her words as possible without waking up the others. "You don't want me. What you want is the idealised version of me. You think I'm so great but I'm really not. I'm just human; I have lots of faults. You haven't seen me in my weakest times, when I'm crying or when I really need help—"
"And what, Neji has?"
The brunette's eyes immediately flickered over to Neji and sighed in relief when she saw that his eyes were still closed. "Neji has nothing to do with this," she replied quietly. "Why can't you just drop this?"
"Because," he replied, standing up, "I feel like there is hope. I am a man with pride and honour, so it's rather difficult for me to say this." He carefully stepped over the others' legs and went down on his knees when he was in front of her. "You may call me mad, peculiar or maybe even plain desperate, but please, just hear me out. I'm considered one of the most honourable Hyuugas out there. I'm part of the main family and I might even be considered to take Hiashi's spot once he gets too old. To others, I have a lot to look forward to in life but I can't help but feel that I need freedom more than anything else. I can give up everything for it." He reached over to her hands and held them in his large ones. "I see both of us together, in the near future—"
Upon impulse, Tenten broke free of his grip and slapped him. The sharp sound echoed in the still night. "Get a hold of yourself!"
Her unintentionally loud yell caused everyone to spring awake. They all expected an intruder and were ready to fight, but had instead opened their eyes to a rather peculiar situation; Tenten was in her original spot, looking rather annoyed and embarrassed, but more guilty than anything else. In front of her was Hiro in a kneeling position, and his head was turned to the right due to the impact of the slap.
"What happened?" Kiba inquired, dropping his hands.
"Yeah," Sakura said, "I thought we were being assaulted."
"Well, someone was being assaulted," Neji muttered, so quietly that only Tenten could hear. She tensed; did he hear everything?
"Nothing happened," Hiro finally said, recovering from the shock. He stood up, dusted his pants off and walked back to where his bags were. "Everybody, go back to bed."
"If I can," Naruto grumbled, plopping back to the ground. "I thought there was an attacker, but it's just Tenten and Hiro."
Lee's eyes widened in realisation. "Oh no! What if they were—"
"No they weren't," Neji interposed curtly. "However, someone doesn't seem to know how to take a hint."
"Someone's in denial," Hiro retorted instantly.
The boy with the bowl cut hair looked back and forth between Tenten, Neji, and Hiro. "I sense so much tension!"
Tenten laughed as casually as she could but made sure to avoid both Hyuugas' gazes. She sat back down. "So let's go back to sleep!"
"I hope so," Shino said quietly, crossing his legs again. His shades were still on despite the fact that the sun had long gone down; when asked why, he simply replied, "I wear them so people can't tell whether I'm awake or asleep."
Everyone but Hiro attempted to sleep again to regain their energy. Their energy and immune system had to be in tiptop condition; after all, their own survival was instrumental to the survival of Konoha. So they slept for an extra hour—they were going for two more, but it was suddenly interrupted by Hiro's yell. His tone was rarely ever frantic, but this time it was surprisingly full of panic. "Everyone, wake up!"
They all woke up to see a sheet of black covering the floor—after a moment, to their horror, they realised that it actually consisted of many bugs. They were microscopic; if it weren't for the fact that they were moving, they would've simply looked like ashes. They came from one side and began to engulf Akamaru and Shino's foot.
Sakura snapped out of her reverie and cried urgently, "everyone, expel chakra immediately from your body and run south!"
Both Hyuugas had already expertly released chakra from every pore of their body, as they specialised in doing so. Tenten grabbed her bag from the trees—where the bugs had not reached yet—and sprang off, trying her best to expel chakra but wasn't sure how successful she was at it. Everybody else had been taught to control their chakra since they were in the academy. However, while most of them escaped, the bugs had come from one direction and they briefly came in contact with Shino and Akamaru.
"Akamaru!" Kiba exclaimed, and the dog jumped into his arms.
Despite having been in contact with the bugs, everyone sprinted southwards. They were now completely alert and their bodies were tense, ready to fight if anything else were to happen. Hiro, whose Byakuugan was activated, was keeping an eye on the bugs that they had left behind. The creatures remained in the same spot but then disappeared in a moment when a figure suddenly appeared with a large jar. The seventeen year old Hyuuga frowned. "Someone was there to release the bugs."
"How did you not see him?" Kiba demanded, hugging Akamaru as they continued running.
"So much for the Byakuugan," Sasuke muttered.
"That person knew Hiro was watching," Neji stated. "He or she must have used gengjutsu and put us all in an illusion. We didn't know we had to escape until the bugs reached us."
Lee's eyes were wide. "Could it be Akira?"
"I don't know."
"The bugs," Sakura intoned, her face paling. "They came in contact with us."
Hiro turned to the pink-haired kunoichi and grimly asked, "How long?"
She knew he meant the incubation period of the disease. "If these bugs are the same ones that had been released in Konoha, then those infected will have approximately three to four hours until they start showing symptoms."
"Is it contagious?"
"No. The bugs need to physically enter your body." Sakura's tone was worried. "Should some of us head back?"
"No. We don't know exactly who had contracted the disease."
"I think I did," Shino spoke up, eyes troubled.
"Akamaru was covered in them," Kiba added, his brows knitted together.
Hiro's eyes lowered. "We can't possibly sit and wait for three hours. If anyone turns out to be sick, then they'll return home on their own. Until then, we have to continue." And the Hyuuga sped up, causing all the others to follow suit. The sun was starting to peek from the horizon.
It was raining hard that morning in Konoha. Leiko sat under the porch at the entrance of the Hyuuga manor; through the main gates, she could see a few people scurrying down the streets, desperately shielding their eyes and heads with their bare hands. The heavy rainfall hadn't been mentioned in the daily weather forecast; the vicious sheets that came down suddenly had everybody drenched within moments.
The loud showers had begun during the middle of the night. Once she heard the rain, Leiko woke up and wasn't able to fall back asleep afterwards. So she came out instead to get some fresh air. She inhaled deeply. There was something calming about the scent of rain.
Due to the epidemic, she noticed absentmindedly, there were no more guards guarding the Hyuuga gates. Frankly, Leiko did not understand why such a prestigious clan needed security in the first place—every clan member was perfectly capable of putting up a fight.
The violet-haired beauty sighed softly, cupping her chin in her hands. Neji was gone. Her future fiancé was sent on a mission with the woman he probably loved. There was everything wrong about that situation, and as Hanabi had repeatedly suggested, Leiko should feel threatened. However, she couldn't bring herself to feel jealous. There was something very likeable about Neji and Tenten. Their relationship was simple yet sweet. Whether they admitted it or not, it was apparent that they liked each other.
Truth to be told, Leiko felt happier than anything else. If Neji liked Tenten enough, then he wouldn't agree to an engagement with some other girl. Then she would have the perfect excuse to return back to her own country and marry the man she truly loved.
If it were only that easy.
Leiko wouldn't know what to say to her father if she failed at such an easy task. Marrying Neji wasn't life threatening, nor was it unappealing—if anything, having Hyuuga Neji as a husband would be an honour. Then she would be referred to as "Hyuuga Leiko". She would have the money, the honour and the respect, and ultimately her father would be satisfied. Everything about her marriage to Neji was perfect. She would only have to sacrifice her happiness—and Neji's, and Tenten's, and Izanami's.
She wanted to yell in frustration. Was she really going to be that selfish and be the source of everyone's unhappiness? Or was she going to dishonour her family name and a father who did everything in his power to make her happy?
She felt her vision blurring and tears slowly fell from the corner of her eyes. She didn't bother to swipe at them, as she was already wet from the rain anyway. She clamped her eyes tightly. If she could only wish for a miracle…
Leiko smiled slightly at Izanami's voice. She was hearing things now, but at this point she didn't even care because she missed him so much.
"Leiko! It's me!"
Said girl finally opened her eyes, and she suddenly had the urge to cry when she saw the man she loved standing behind the Hyuuga gates.
The tall brunet was completely drenched, but he didn't seem to pay any attention to that. "Leiko, why are you ignoring my letters?"
She was hallucinating; that was it. Her heart wanted to see him so badly that this—this perfect man was conjured but he was nothing more than a figment of her imagination. What were the chances that he would be here the day she decided to sit outside? What were the chances that there wasn't a guard to stop him? What were the chances that he was let into Konoha when Tsunade strictly limited the amount of visitors?
"Leiko, I love you. I love you so much. Please don't leave me."
She was probably sick—she felt feverish now that she thought about it. Despite being under the porch, there was a considerable amount of rain that hit her. She probably needed a hot bath, and some sleep, and then she would fully wake up when the sun was shining bright again. She would feel better then.
She glanced once more at the figure at the gates, took a deep breath and entered the Hyuuga mansion.
For the nine teenage ninjas, running was very unnerving. There was the constant knowledge that they could be attacked at any moment, so everyone had to stay wide awake even though they had not slept very well. It was even more unsettling knowing that in a few hours, they would find out whether or not they had contracted the disease that threatened the very core of Konoha. There was a chance that they had all survived—after all, they had all remained healthy back in Konoha. Sakura had also mentioned that white blood cells could fight off the bugs.
Tenten bit her lip, trying to imagine a good outcome. This mission was already hard enough as it was, hence the many assigned ninjas. If the team lost a few members, then the task of retrieving the antidote would be that much harder. For the first time, she fully realised the graveness of their predicament. When she was younger, she had always assumed that missions would be hard but they would all turn out fine because there would be an adult to help them. If anything, she thought that missions were there to prove one's strength and abilities. Succeeding at a mission meant victory, glory, and respect from others.
This time, there was no adult or protector. It was just the team, and some of them were going to fall sick. Then the rest had to face the enemies by themselves. Mistakes weren't acceptable; failure was intolerable. There were no more words of reassurance or encouragement between the members because it was like they had all silently accepted the truth: they were most likely going to fail.
Without noticing, she started to trail behind the rest. She didn't realise when Neji slowed down to run next to her.
"Are you tired?"
The inquiry made her notice the gap between her and the others. She was tired, but she wasn't going to admit that. She sped up.
"The bugs didn't touch you, did they?"
Tenten craned her neck to look at him. Was there actually a hint of worry in his tone? "I don't think they did."
Their steps were synchronised; when she jumped off a branch, he jumped off a branch. Although the two were behind the rest of the group, the distance between them never changed. From time to time, Tenten would look all around her to make sure that there was no attacker. The third time she did this, she met eyes with Neji. She smiled timidly and swallowed the lump in her throat. "I'm scared."
"It's only natural."
"Are you scared?"
"I would be lying if I said I wasn't," he answered in a quiet voice, "but it's part of being a ninja. You can't let fear hinder your performance or get in the way of accepting future missions. There is no such thing as a safe mission with a secured outcome. Your life is constantly on the line and you simply have to fight for it."
"What if one of us dies?"
"You act as if you've never thought about this before."
"I have," Tenten protested. "I mean, it's an honour to die in battle and it's always right to fight for what you believe in. But when I really think about dying at sixteen… I don't know."
"I won't let you die," he murmured. His arms were tingling; he had this strange instinct to hold her. He ignored it and looked up ahead. "You're naïve and often clueless, but you can fight."
Tenten felt a strange sense of relief when she looked deep into his eyes. "Thank you," she whispered.
He didn't say anything then and she found herself trying to find something else to say. She felt calmer and safer when she heard his voice. Quickly, after remember last night, she blurted out, "Why do you hate Hiro so much?"
There was a pause and Neji's eyes suddenly grew cold. "He acts like he's free to do whatever he wants when there are clearly boundaries."
"He told me he liked me last night," Tenten stated stiffly.
"What do you mean, you heard?"
"I heard the conversation."
"Why didn't you interrupt?"
"I've tried before, but to no avail. I figured it was best if you stood up for yourself." He smirked slightly, recalling the sharp slap. "It was funny."
Tenten gawked at the incredulity of the situation and circumstances; she couldn't bring herself to believe that Neji had eavesdropped on her conversation and was actually finding humour in it all. "Yeah, well, I have my dignity and I do consider myself to be an ethical person. I could never accept his advances."
"One more question. Why do you call him "Hiro-sama"?"
"I don't call him that anymore," Neji replied shortly. "I have lost the little respect that I have for him. However, in the presence of the elders, I will have to properly address him."
"Does he have some sort of special status?" Suddenly remembering the Hyuuga heiress as well, Tenten added, "You also add the termination to Hinata's name."
"They are both part of the main household."
"The Hyuuga clan is split into two families?" Tenten asked, surprise flickering in her eyes.
Neji raised an eyebrow, for he had thought that she would've known something like this. On his own, he would never bring up a topic like this, but surely Hinata or Hiro or even Hiashi would've explained this to her. He briefly looked ahead; the others were well out of earshot. "I'm part of the branch family. They have priority over me. My job is to protect them no matter what."
Tenten found this hard to digest. "What determines your status?"
"Nothing. My father was Hiashi-sama's twin. However, he was born second and was therefore put into the branch family."
"So, that means your father died protecting Hiashi-sama because he's a member of the main household."
His eyes were distant but they were no longer cold. "No, he sacrificed himself because Hiashi is his brother. My father opted for his own death." After a pause, he added, "I didn't know until recently."
Tenten's voice was soft. "How old were you?"
So Neji's mother left him at the age of four, and then later that year his father died. She felt her eyes mist over; she couldn't imagine the pain and trauma he had to go through at such a young age. She was beginning to see why Neji had grown to be so cold. Who wouldn't after a childhood without parents? It didn't seem likely that the other Hyuugas would take Neji under their wing despite being in the same clan.
"Is something wrong?" Neji asked.
"No, nothing's wrong," she replied, realising that she was being more sentimental than he was over his own affairs. "Well, being in the branch family doesn't make you any less of a person."
"Thank you," he replied with a slight smile.
Tenten felt something fluttering in her stomach when she saw his smile; he was impossibly handsome. There was something about his light eyes, and dark hair and sharp profile that made her knees feel weak. She wished that this moment could've lasted longer, but then there was a sudden cry from Kiba, who was all the way in the front. "Akamaru isn't acting normal!"
They all came to a stop and gathered around Kiba and his dog. "Akamaru! Hey buddy, are you okay?"
Akamaru had his eyes closed; instead of barking back in response to its owner, it remained silent and began to shiver instead. "Akamaru—" Kiba stopped halfway and started to cough. Specks of blood appeared on his arm and he groaned. "Crap."
"I can't see too well," Shino muttered almost angrily. Despite his sunglasses, the strain was apparent on his face as he clutched his forehead.
"Kiba and Shino," Hiro directed, "you two will head back to Konoha. You can't fight in this state."
"Should someone accompany them?" Sakura asked. "Kiba and Shino can lose their sense of orientation due to the massive headaches. I've treated a couple of patients that also became partially paralyzed from the disease. In the worst case scenario, Shino and Kiba could lose the ability to run and then they'll die in the middle of nowhere."
Hiro's eyes were emotionless. "We can't give up another member. We're already at enough of a disadvantage with them gone."
Before someone could say something else, Sasuke fell to his knees and began coughing uncontrollably. By now, Sakura had gotten used to the sound of a dry and hollow cough but somehow, hearing it from Sasuke's mouth made her blood run cold. She felt tears springing up to her eyes. Sasuke couldn't be sick. He was always healthy, always training, always…
"Sasuke's going too then," Hiro said, sounding rather irked. Sasuke was undoubtedly one of the stronger ninjas.
"I'm going to accompany them," Sakura announced. "I'm not letting them go on their own."
Naruto had a feeling that Sakura was going solely for the Uchiha prodigy, but didn't voice that thought aloud. "You shouldn't go. We need a medically trained ninja."
"There is no way that we can complete this mission with only five ninjas," Hiro added solemnly.
"I should go instead," Tenten offered. "I'm the weakest out of us all."
"Tenten-chan!" Lee exclaimed, shaking his head. "Don't ever degrade yourself like that. If Sakura-san wants to go, then she should go. Sasuke-san, Shino-san and Kiba-san will need her help."
"I'm honestly really tired," added Sakura, and the exhaustion was apparent in her eyes. "I doubt I can fight in this state. I'm only here to heal you guys… Tenten, Tsunade-sama chose you for a reason. She wasn't sure at first, but she's never wrong."
"Are you sure? Because I can—"
"Just stay," Neji said.
Hiro seemed rather irritated and swerved around. "Fine. Sakura, you can bring the three back to Konoha. If you encounter an enemy of any sort, good luck."
Sakura smiled slightly, putting her arm around Sasuke's shoulders. "We're only going back home. No one is going to oppose against that."
"Whatever you say," the older Hyuuga said. His tone remained curt, even after the four jumped off to return home. "Now, since we're only five, we are going to travel one after another. I will lead the way. Lee goes second, Tenten is in the middle, Naruto follows her, and Neji is last. This is going to be a lot harder now that we're only five. We have to stay alert at all times. Understand?"
"Yes," the remaining four said in unison, and started to run again.
It was a festive night in the land of lightning. There were few clouds and the moon hung low in the sky. Down below, the streets were illuminated by various lanterns of all different sizes and colours. Fellow citizens flooded the streets; everybody was celebrating this annual event despite the chilly weather. Restaurants remained open and so did all the stores and boutiques. The streets were filled with sounds of laughter and animated chatter.
Located somewhere far away was the Raikage's sombre tower. The area was much quieter up north, as the aging man hated loud commotions and preferred to live in a quiet region. He had cleared out the neighbouring houses a while back. At the moment, he was in his usual office and his daughter and three other ninjas were surrounding him.
The Raikage, who also went by Suzuki Masaru, was staring at a capsule the size of his hand. His eyes glimmered with satisfaction. "It's about time that I used this creation."
Akira's exterior bore no emotion but inwardly wanted to gag staring at the jar of dark and slimy bugs. They were very small in circumference—to fit into pores—but were also long enough to cover her foot. There were at least hundreds of them trapped in the glass capsule.
She wished her father would change his mind. He had been working on this particular bug for as long as she could remember. It was the ultimate weapon—no person would be able to repel it. The ones they had previously released were harmless compared to this… this thing. It was far too dangerous; even though she personally was immune to them she still didn't want to be near the capsule. Anyone who came into contact with the bug would die within three days flat.
"Sir, are we going to attack again?" asked a burly man in a gruff voice.
"Why, of course. There are still unwanted people on the squad."
"Isn't this a little rash?" Akira asked, a little hesitantly. "Father, Tenten is in this group. You might kill her if this bug is released."
"Tenten won't be harmed, no matter what." He sighed somewhat nonchalantly and satisfyingly. "The strong spirit that you and she both possess will easily repel any foreign and harmful objects—bugs included."
"What about Neji? I thought you wanted him alive."
"We will simply release them when he's slightly farther away from the rest. If the bugs choose to attack him, then… oh well." He smiled rather spitefully. "He won't die instantly, anyway. I'll simply get the secret from him and then leave him to suffer."
"We don't have to necessarily attack with the bugs," Akira countered. "I can easily stop the remaining ninjas once they reach the border."
"I'm sure you can, but I've worked on this for such a long time," the Raikage said, smiling sadistically. "I have to test out my lovely creations."
"But… this is the bug. It obliterates the mind."
"Let's not be so melodramatic. These bugs will only start nibbling at the brain after a few days," said the Raikage, chuckling maliciously. "Until then, the victim will suffer terribly from splitting headaches and hallucinations and constant vomiting of blood and food. Eventually, the bug paralyses the body. Then the bug will ruin the body's natural defence, making it impossible to fight off the tiniest bacteria. Then those petty little ninjas from Konoha will know not to meddle. No one dares to defy me or my power!"
"No one does, Father."
"I'm reinforcing that!" Masaru roared. "Those idiots need to know where they stand."
"They're only trying to fight for their country." In a quieter voice, she added, "They don't deserve to die like that."
"Are you letting your past relations affect your performance?" Standing up, the Raikage approached her daughter and grabbed her by the chin. "Akira, what do I always say?"
"I don't care about my teammates. I left them, didn't I?" Akira cried, her voice rising. "But this isn't about knowing them! I think you're going too far. Konoha is clearly suffering enough as it is. They deceived you so many years ago! You got a body back, didn't you? Why are you—"
A sharp slap resounded in the air.
For a long while, no one in the room spoke and simply stared at the two; first at the infuriated Raikage, and then at the shocked daughter.
"Do not lecture me," Masaru warned in his raspy voice. "I will release these bugs and you cannot—no, you do not have the right to overturn my decision. You will obediently do as I say and follow these men and bring Neji and Tenten back to me, unharmed. Understand?"
Akira stared at her father squarely in the eye, clenching her teeth as hard as she could to prevent lashing out and strangling her own father. He did not treat her like a daughter. He didn't love her—he only wanted her for her powers. Years ago, he took her in because she possessed the Suzuki bloodline limit. She and Tenten both possessed it, and her father only wanted them because he was selfish, avaricious and addicted to power.
"You are my precious daughter, and I don't want you to be in the dark all the time. So I will work hard to find a jutsu that will break that seal."
He said that to her many years ago when she first met him after her memory loss. Yet he didn't carry through with what he promised. Until recently, she didn't even know that Tenten—the target her father told her to find—was her own sister. She felt her fists clenching.
"In return, can you stay here? I will take you under my wing and make you as strong as possible. Do you accept this offer?"
She wished she had declined. She wished she hadn't left her teammates and her sensei. At the time, she believed that it was the right thing to do because she thought she needed to be with her father. She thought she belonged here because she didn't have a last name or an identity back in Konoha, whereas she was recognised as the Raikage's daughter in the land of lightning. She thought she had a place.
He spent hours every day teaching her new techniques and honing her skills. At the age of fourteen, she was able to defeat any Jounin; that made her so happy she believed it was only right to return any favour. She carried out every mission without a word, and soon she was known as the youngest but most ruthless and powerful Jounin. She was honoured by that title. She was sent on every difficult mission and she thought it was because she was her father's favourite.
She had thought nothing of his absence at home. He was the leader and therefore had a lot of work to do; she had convinced herself this when she had to sit with a nanny every night to eat. Yet there were countless times where she found out that her father had come home drunk. There were also many other times when he wouldn't let her go out. He also didn't bother to acknowledge her unless they were training.
She thought her father loved her but she was only his puppet. She was taught new techniques to become stronger to ultimately benefit him.
The seventeen year old clamped her eyes shut, fully aware of the stinging in her left cheek.
She hated him.
Was this why her mother had run away in the first place?
Of course it was, she realised. Her mother ran away because she wanted to get away from him, and she had sealed her daughters' memories altogether to give them a new life.
But here she was, back again under the control of her father—a father who did nothing but mocked her mother and used his daughters for power.
When she opened her eyes, her father was looking at her with narrowed eyes. "I said, do you understand?" he repeated lowly.
"No. I've done enough killing for you."
"I'm not going to obey your orders," she said, but more firmly. "I don't agree with what you're doing. You're taking innocent lives just because you want to feel like you're the most powerful thing in the world. Well, you know what? You're not strong. You use me and everyone else to get what you want. You don't even treat me like a daughter. You don't care about me, so why should I care about what you say?"
The Raikage's lips pursed and pure fury surfaced in his dark brown eyes. "Repeat?"
"I don't need to repeat anything. You heard exactly what I said."
He inhaled so deeply out of anger his chest began to tremble. "Don't test my patience."
"I've done enough killing for you." She knew she was crossing the line but didn't care at this point. "You're a terrible father and an even more terrible leader. You have done nothing good for the land of lightning—"
Even the passersby outside the tower could hear the piercing scream that followed.
"I believe it is time for us to sleep!" Lee announced. "It is dark! We must recharge our energy and rejuvenate our bodies!"
"I agree with bushy brows," Naruto said, slowing down. "We arrive there tomorrow. We have to put up a good fight."
"And it looks like it's going to rain," Tenten added. "We don't want to get caught in it."
"Right," Hiro agreed. He skidded to a stop on a thick branch belonging to a sturdy tree. "Let us rest here."
"We're not going to sleep on the ground again, are we?"
"We're going to sleep in the trees," Hiro answered after a moment of thinking. "Our presences will be less detectable and the leaves can also provide shelter if it starts to rain."
"Is everyone sleeping in the same tree?"
"No. We'll partner up. It'll be safer that way."
"I'm with Naruto!" Lee cried loudly, looping his arm around the blond's neck. "He and I have known each other for years!"
"Bushy brows, you've known Neji for even longer."
"But the dear Tenten has already claimed Neji!"
"I did?" Tenten asked instantly. She glanced at the Hyuuga prodigy. "If you don't want to—"
"I don't mind," Neji interposed, staring pointedly at the older Hyuuga. "That leaves our leader by himself."
"I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself. I don't need another person with me."
"You can't handle having someone else near you."
"And why is that?"
"You will take advantage of them."
"Stop," Tenten cut in. "We're a team—"
"Exactly," Neji murmured, eyes still fixated upon the other Hyuuga. "Team members respect each other."
"You better watch—"
"I'm hungry," Naruto said suddenly to break up the awkward tension. "Let's go fishing!"
Hiro inhaled deeply and willed himself to keep his cool demeanour. He looked at the rest of the team. "That's a good idea. Tenten, Lee, find wood and start a fire. The rest of the team and I will catch some fish."
Tenten and Lee ran off in opposite directions to find fallen branches. The others sprinted eastwards, where a river was located. It wasn't particularly hard for Tenten to find suitable branches and twigs; the forest was very dense and contained many different species of trees. When she collected what she needed, she headed back to the site where Lee was waiting. He nodded satisfyingly when he spotted the variety of branches and bark in Tenten's arms.
"I already cleared the site. All our bags are in that tree over there," Lee said. "Now, give me all the tinder—shredded bark, dry pine needles and dry grasses."
"Sure," Tenten said, secretly glad that she had experience in building fires. "Do we have enough twigs?"
"I found lots."
The two worked efficiently, as if they had been teammates all their lives. Tenten had grown to be particularly fond of the green-clad boy; he was often too energetic and was a little too enthusiastic about the littlest things, but he was truly a nice and good person. He was also very honest about everything—from his fears to his feelings.
"And for a long while, I believed that Sakura-san was my soul mate," Lee was saying while arranging the firewood. "Even though she never accepted me, I always proclaimed my love for her every time I saw her."
"I think that's really sweet," Tenten replied genuinely. "It's great that you go after what you want."
"I never knew when to quit. I'm not much of a quitter!"
"I can see that," the kunoichi laughed, "but when was the turning point?"
"Her fourteenth birthday."
"I had saved up my money to buy her a ring and, being the gracious person that she is, she accepted it and gave me a hug. However, Sasuke-kun only gave her a card and it made her cry. When I saw how she looked at him then, I realised she could never love me back." Lee looked down for a moment, but there was a tender smile gracing his lips. "I wasn't as hurt as I thought I would be. Then I realised that I never loved her; I never got the chance to know her. I only knew that she was smart and beautiful.
"I'll always think highly of Sakura-san and I'll always love her, in a way. But now I know the difference between puppy love and the real thing. I can't wait until I meet the right person, because then I can proclaim my love as loud as I want and let the world know how much passion and love I'm capable of having!"
"Whoever the girl is, she's very lucky," Tenten said honestly, smiling. "You want to know something, Lee? I never realised that ninjas could be so loving. I always thought that they were always training, cold and emotionless."
"That's your impression because you met Neji-kun first," Lee corrected. "We ninjas are still human. Even though we were taught to be emotionless during battle, we still possess a heart. I can still feel love and know it when I see a connection between two lovebirds. For example, I know that you and Neji-kun have something going on."
A tinge of pink surfaced on the kunoichi's cheeks. "What makes you say that?"
"Everyone thinks that."
There was a slight shrill to her voice. "Everyone?"
"Sure. You do like him, don't you?"
Tenten first considered denying it, but realised that she could never lie to someone as honest and kind as Lee. She paused—had she just admitted to herself that she liked Neji? "I think I do," she replied finally. "I don't know—I just like being around him. He's nice, he's smart, he's driven, and he even smells good—" She smiled meekly. "So that pretty much equals to a 'yes'."
"Good. You two go well together."
She glanced up and smiled. "You think so?"
"Of course! I've known him for as long as I can remember and I've never seen him like this—close to someone, I mean." He chuckled slightly. "I didn't think it was even possible. He always kept to himself. He never talked to people unless he was training or studying with them. That's the only reason why he put up with me at all."
Tenten laughed. "That's not true. You're very likeable, Lee."
"So are you, Tenten! That's why I approve of you and Neji being together!" He gave her a thumbs up and flashed her the biggest, most brilliant and blinding grin ever.
The brunette grinned back and they both went off to find more wood. However, even after they had gotten the fire going, Tenten found it incredibly hard to not beam or giggle at the thought of being a couple with Neji; she had to bite her lips to prevent a grin from spreading widely across her face. The urge to smile was even harder to resist when she saw the prodigy himself coming back. He was unbelievably attractive, even with no shoes on and his sleeves and pants rolled up. He brought back three fish, Hiro brought four, and Naruto seven.
"I like to catch fish on my spare time," Naruto explained as they were cooking their meal. "It's so fun to see them flopping when they're out of the water."
It was no surprise to anyone when Lee challenged Naruto to a fishing contest. "This will be an excellent training technique!"
"It's great for your reflexes!"
"I can't wait to tell Gai-sensei of this great challenge!"
The hopeful and energetic shouts and cries meandered on, until Hiro decided to end it by discussing the mission. "We don't know what to expect tomorrow," the leader of the pack said gravely. "The Raikage wants revenge after being deceived, but he might also want to target me since I have the Byakuugan."
"He might want to kill us both simply because he hates the Hyuuga clan," Neji said.
"He might want to kill us all because he hates Konoha," Lee said.
"Regardless," Hiro said, "there is one thing that we value, and that is the survival of Konoha. They have a disease that we aren't immune to. We were lucky last time; Sasuke, Shino and Kiba weren't as fortunate. We don't know what kept us healthy, but we do know that expelling chakra from every pore in our body will prevent the bugs from entering. We must be extremely prudent, especially now that we're nearing the land of lightning.
"It is likely that they will try to ambush us tomorrow. They know we're coming. Whether they want to kidnap or kill us, I don't know. However, at all costs, we must retrieve the antidote. If we are surrounded, we have to fight our hardest to let at least one person escape. We must always carry on, even it means abandoning an injured teammate. Is this clear?"
"Negative," Lee responded, eyes wide and determined. "We should never abandon a teammate if they're still alive."
"We must succeed. Ninjas die all the time."
"I agree with Lee," Tenten said softly. "Dying because your teammates abandoned you is not the same as in dying in battle."
"No matter what, someone is going to die. It's either us or all of Konoha." Hiro's eyes were cold and hard. "It's your choice."
"Then we just have to beat them all," Naruto concluded, punching his fist into his other hand. "Then we get the cure and no one has to die."
"If it were that easy," Neji said, his eyes solemn. "Tsunade-sama didn't send nine of us for no reason."
"She sent each of us for a reason, and that's because we kick ass!"
"Naruto is right!" Lee cried. "We all have sheer determination and perseverance and more! Tsunade-sama chose Sakura for her medical knowledge, Kiba and Shino for their abilities to track down people, Neji, Hiro, Sasuke, Naruto and I for our fighting abilities, and Tenten for her"—it took Lee a good moment or two—"for her loveliness!"
The brunette tried to smile kindly but inwardly felt more embarrassed than anything else. She knew what they were all thinking—why was she assigned this mission? Sure, there was a shortage of ninjas—that was the initial excuse. But then Sakura was sent, so there was no need for her to be there.
Neji must have noticed her crestfallen expression because then he said, "At least she's not a hindrance."
"Good," Hiro replied shortly.
"Maybe Tsunade-sama will hire Tenten officially as a ninja after this mission," Lee added encouragingly.
"If I make it out alive," the brunette said, managing a small smile. She almost wanted an assault to happen sooner because she wanted to prove that she was a worthy kunoichi. She wanted to be like the Hokage—strong, beautiful and respected.
"We all will," Naruto said cheerfully. "I believe that good things happen to good people."
"That is very true!" Lee insisted. "Now, who wants to stay awake this time?"
"I will," Neji said. "I don't mind."
No one protested against him, as they were all tired from a full day of travelling. They needed the sleep; last time they barely got any rest due to the invasion of bugs. Furthermore, it was a known fact that Neji slept extremely late and woke up before the crack of dawn. Not sleeping wasn't a big deal for the sixteen year old.
"Alert us if you see or hear something," Hiro ordered.
The leader of the pack stood up. "Now it's time to sleep. Neji, put out the fire."
"That won't be necessary," the younger Hyuuga replied. "I'm staying down here on the ground."
"You are?" Tenten asked, puzzled.
"You're not," Hiro said at the same time. "You're going to watch from the trees."
"No, I'm not. I'm staying on the lookout."
"That doesn't require you to be down here. Put out the fire. It will attract unnecessary attention."
"The fire keeps me warm."
Hiro exhaled sharply. "You're not staying down here. Your being here will only make it easier for the enemy to track us all down."
"It'll be easier for me to see the enemy from down here. If the bugs try to attack again, then I'll know firsthand and can alert the team. It'll be too late if we're all 'sleeping in the trees'." The corners of Neji's mouth uplifted when he saw Hiro looking baffled at the mockery.
"You have the Byakuugan," Hiro retorted. "Use it."
"You don't expect me to keep it activated throughout the night?"
Hiro pursed his lips. "Put out the fire."
"The fire keeps me warm. Besides, it will die out eventually."
"I am the leader. Do as I say."
"The leader is not always right."
Hiro's eyes narrowed. "Don't think for a moment that you can beat me, Hyuuga Neji."
"Having the upper hand means nothing. In fact, it will make victory for me that much more satisfying."
"Fine. If you're staying here, then Tenten sleeps with me," Hiro said triumphantly. "You won't mind, right—"
"I'm sleeping alone," Tenten announced instantly.
Neji smirked; Naruto snorted. "What a rejection!"
Hiro swerved around, grumbling, facing his back to the rest of the team. "Fine, do as you wish." He muttered something incoherent before disappearing into a nearby tree.
"Well, it's time to go bushy brows!" Naruto cried cheerfully. "Goodnight, you guys!"
"Goodnight my fellow youthful teammates!"
"Goodnight," Tenten replied, smiling.
All three ninjas dispersed, leaving the Hyuuga prodigy to gaze into the crackling fire.
The fifth Hokage watched the heavy rainfall from her window. As usual, she was in her office located in the right wing of Konoha's largest hospital; she couldn't remember the last time she had left the hospital to go home. Ever since the epidemic had broken out, she had never received more than three hours of sleep a night—and that was considered one of the better days. Lately she hadn't been sleeping at all. There were already very few doctors and nurses that were available to take care of the patients, but even they had fallen sick. Even some ninjas who were in tiptop shape had contracted the disease.
Tsunade sighed softly, bringing a bottle of sake to her lips. She had been coping with the stress by drinking alcohol, hence the many broken glass bottles in her garbage can. However, no matter how much alcohol she consumed, she could never fully escape the reality. No matter what, the fact still remained: she couldn't find a cure.
She could break her desk, smash bottles, or scream out of frustration, but she had already done all of that weeks ago. Was it really impossible to figure out this cure? She was Tsunade—she was known for her medical knowledge and ability to heal patients regardless of the injury or disease. Why was this particular problem so hard to solve?
There was a part of her that knew she was powerless in this situation. That was the only reason as to why she had resorted to risking a bunch of teenagers' lives; she could've sent her strongest men but she needed them at the moment because it was a known fact that Konoha was targeted by many countries. The older ninjas had to protect the weak population of Konoha, and the young ninjas had to find the cure to bring the population back to health.
At this point, she could only wait.
As the most influential person in Konoha, it was unnerving to simply wait for an antidote from a bunch of teenagers—or rather, Tenten. She knew that Tenten wasn't just an ordinary commoner. She had no last name and had no memories of her past, but she still had the ability to summon weapons. Most people weren't able to summon weapons until they were older and taught by specialists. Even at a young age, Tenten knew how to deal with weapons—that ability was unique to the Suzuki clan, which used to be a clan in Konoha. It was one of the more powerful clans until Suzuki Masaru decided to kill everyone in it. Since it happened over twenty years ago, Tenten, a sixteen year old, could only be the daughter of Masaru, the man who betrayed Konoha and became Raikage.
That was the only reason why Tenten was assigned the mission. She was in no way more qualified than any other ninja but she was the daughter of the Raikage. Tsunade had no idea as to how things would turn out, but she prayed that Tenten would somehow obtain the cure.
The fifty something year old woman eyed the sake once again, deciding she needed another drink. However, before she could drain the bottle of its contents, she felt a strange burning and itchy sensation in her throat—something that wasn't induced by the alcohol. She hunched over and began to cough uncontrollably.
Tsunade then threw her head backwards, inhaling and exhaling deeply. Her body could not take much more. With every passing moment her skin was growing noticeably more translucent and wrinkly and her veins were more prominent than ever. Her hands were shaking, her head was pounding but most of all her pants were stained with flecks of blood.
"Tenten, you're a natural with weapons!"
"Thanks, nee-chan! I learn from the best!" She cocked her head sideways and grinned at her sister, who was standing in the shade. "Nee-chan, when are we going to eat? I'm starting to get hungry."
"I'm hungry too, but Father says that we can only eat after we train for six hours. He says that we must train very hard to become the strongest. And then, when we inherit the power from our clan, we will be invincible!"
The sky went from a light blue to a dark purple; clouds grew darker and murkier. Immediately, lightning splintered across the sky. Tenten could faintly make out the outline of a dragon in the lightning bolt. Then, a deep, raspy voice resounded in the air, echoing all around her. "Because I will gain ultimate power!"
"Masaru," a woman pleaded, "please, don't be like this."
"Sora, why are you trying to stop me? I'm doing this for us!"
"Our daughters are not just some tools! They—"
There was a deafening crack—both resembling a whip and thunder—and then a piercing scream.
Tenten's snapped wide open. She was breathing heavily, her heart was pounding against her chest and her thoughts were completely jumbled.
It took her a moment to be fully aware of her surroundings. There was the faint sound of crickets in the background. It was quite windy and the cold winter air was a little too chilly for her liking. She was currently perched on a branch, which wasn't the most comfortable thing she had ever sat on, and her back was against the tree trunk. Above her was nothing but leaves and branches, and there was a bit of moonlight peeking through.
She took in deep and long breaths, willing herself to stay calm and relaxed. There had to be a reason as to why she was having such frequent flashbacks; was the seal completely wearing off? Or was she nearing the place she came from? And why did she dream of Masaru and Sora? Weren't they just characters from a fairytale? Or was Masaru her—
That couldn't be it.
It hurt her head to piece things together, so she stopped thinking about her past altogether. The truth would come up eventually.
She glanced downwards and smiled at the sight of Neji. His back was facing her but he was clearly awake; no sleeping person would be sitting so upright. The fire was still going on. It must have provided warmth, she thought, and she suddenly longed to be near the flames. She wanted to go down, because that also meant being closer to Neji. She almost wished that the prodigy wasn't on the lookout, so she could share the same tree as him. Having him next to her would make her predicament a lot more comfortable. She didn't know why, but he just made her feel at ease. She would be able to talk to him, she would feel safer…
She smiled softly as she gazed down at the Hyuuga prodigy. She never realised how much she liked being around him. Did he like having her around? Probably not. He had made that very clear from the beginning, she remembered with a frown. Why would he like her, anyways? She wasn't half as strong or smart or even good-looking as he was.
"Is something wrong, Tenten?"
If it weren't for her quick reflexes, Tenten would've fallen straight from the tree. Did he know that she had been staring at him? Was he using his Byakuugan? Despite her attempt to maintain a calm demeanour, she could only manage a meek grin and a shrug of the shoulders. How long had she been staring? More importantly, how long did Neji wait before asking her?
"You had a nightmare."
"How did you know?" Tenten replied quietly, in fear of waking the others.
"You made sounds of discomfort. I figured it wouldn't be long until you woke up."
Tenten suppressed a scoff. Was there something that he didn't know?
"Would you like to come down?"
Wordlessly, Tenten expertly undid the knot that tied her to the tree. She jumped and landed gracefully. "So what have you been doing the entire time?"
"Scanning the area," he replied. And sure enough, when he turned to look at her, his Byakuugan was activated. The veins shortly disappeared and he closed his eyes. "There isn't anyone within a thousand metre radius."
"Your Byakuugan has that kind of range?"
"It's improved. When I was thirteen, I only had a fifty metre range."
Was there something that he couldn't do? Smiling slightly, she sat next to him, leaning against the tree. She brought her knees up to chest, hugging them and appreciating that Neji had fought to keep the fire going. Despite the fact that the seasons were starting to change, it was still a cold winter night. "So tomorrow's the big day," she said casually.
"You sound almost excited," Neji said, an eyebrow elevated.
"Well, it's best to stay positive."
"Not everything is going to run smoothly."
"Like reuniting with your former teammate?"
"She's nothing more than a stranger," he said in a lower voice, turning his head to look at the fire. The flames grew and shrunk in accordance with the wind, but the warmth remained unaffected. "I won't hesitate to kill her."
"That's not true," Tenten said.
"How can you assume that?"
"You're not heartless," she replied gently. "Tell me about her."
Neji's eyes flickered, but they remained fixated upon the fire. "Why are you interested?"
"I heard you and Lee mentioning her this morning." She shrugged lightly. "It's not like there's anything else to do."
"Go ask Lee."
"You should be too."
"What about you?"
"I'm on the lookout."
"Well, so am I as of this moment." Tenten smiled triumphantly when Neji didn't reply. "I know that she was your and Lee's former teammate."
"We were on a mission and she abandoned us."
"Do you feel betrayed now?"
Neji raised an eyebrow questioningly.
"Knowing that she's behind the epidemic," the brunette clarified. "Akira also pretended to be Mikya and tried to kill you—"
"Then why do you pretend like you don't care about her?"
"I'm not pretending."
"You said that she's like a stranger to you, but that's impossible if you feel betrayed. You do care."
Neji frowned, unable to respond.
"You don't entirely hate her either," Tenten stated gently, smiling slightly. "You miss her."
"I don't," Neji replied. His eyes were hard. "There is nothing I loathe more than betrayers."
"You hate that she betrayed you."
His eyes flickered and he looked away. "I considered her a friend."
The edges of Tenten's eyes softened. "Why did you consider her as a friend?"
His eyes were distant as he stared at the dying fire. The flames were barely alive. "She was the only other sane person on the team. She and I trained together whenever Lee and Gai-sensei were off on their insane quest to run around Konoha twenty times." He turned to glance at her. "She was the one that helped me perfect the Kaiten."
"She dealt with weapons."
Tenten didn't quite know why his tone had suddenly changed.
"She had the ability to create an illusion so realistic I couldn't see through it, even with the Byakuugan."
"What did this illusion do?"
"It makes you think that there are millions of weapons being launched at once when in reality, there are only a few headed towards your head and heart. I was rather frightened when she first developed that kind of genjutsu," he admitted. "The illusion itself was very subtle and hard to detect—I never knew when I was trapped in it. Every weapon seemed real."
"That's why you ended up using the Kaiten—"
"It deflects everything," Neji finished, nodding. "She was a good partner when it came to sparring. She had uncanny accuracy and she never quit." Now that he thought about it, Tenten and Akira were eerily similar. "She was very much like you. She was stubborn."
Tenten smiled awkwardly. She didn't know whether that was a compliment or not.
"We were sent on a mission to escort an ambassador from Konoha to the land of lightning. Due to the political power of this man, various people were after him. Our mission was to escort him to the land of lightning, get a treaty signed and then take him back to Konoha safely.
"The Raikage was particularly opposed to the signing of this treaty, but he didn't have complete control over political affairs."
"So in order to prevent the ambassador from signing the treaty," Tenten deduced, "the Raikage decided to kill him."
Neji nodded. "He had sent out his men to attack us somewhere near the border of his country. Lee, Gai-sensei and I were fighting the men off—Akira was protecting the ambassador and trying to find an alternate route. She ran off with the ambassador on her back, yet two men escaped and followed her shortly.
"Gai-sensei and Lee told me to help Akira because there was no way she could outrun them with a man on her back. So I entered the land of lightning to find Akira, despite not knowing her or the ambassador's whereabouts. I feared that she was facing a group of ninjas by herself." He gave one short laugh. "I ended up finding her and the ambassador in the Raikage's office. I had gone up there because I wanted to see if the Raikage could send out a search party. Isn't that ironic?"
Tenten simply nodded slightly.
His eyes had a rough edge to them. "I didn't know that the Raikage was after the ambassador until I saw him personally snapping the man's neck."
"Did anybody else know?"
"Nobody knew that he wanted the ambassador dead. If the Hokage had known that in the first place, he would've sent out ANBU members. We thought that only minor interest groups would be protesting against this treaty."
"So what happened next?"
"The Raikage ordered Akira to kill me."
Tenten's eyes widened. "Why?"
"I had witnessed the murder and he didn't want anybody to know that he had killed the important ambassador."
"And she actually carried out his orders?"
"Yes," he replied, expressionless face lit by the warm, flickering fire.
Tenten remained silent for a while, and she was suddenly aware of the sleeping figures around them. Were they awake but secretly eavesdropping? The entire forest seemed still. In a quieter voice, she asked, "do you know why she suddenly changed sides?"
"The Raikage is her father."
Tenten gaped slightly. "Wait… but that doesn't make sense. Why would she be in Konoha if her father was the Raikage?"
"She never knew her parents—or rather, she had no recollection of them. At the age of ten, she found herself in Konoha. She started her own life but she wanted nothing more than to know her parents, her family. The Raikage must have used this to his advantage when he captured her."
The kunoichi narrowed her eyes slightly. Was there something else that she should know?
"She left our team that night. She had never contacted us since. However, she did come back a few months ago as an imposter."
"She was following her father's orders," Tenten said slowly. "It's understandable."
"That she decided to betray Konoha once more?" His fists tightened. "To think that she was previously my teammate."
Tenten was still not quite fully processing the information. It felt so much more than someone else's story; she felt like she had a place in this all, or she was at least related to the situation. There was something about Neji's tone, something about the way he described Akira… Why was the mentioning of the Raikage so odd and unusually peculiar? It felt like it struck a nerve, or a deep chamber of her brain… It suddenly hit her.
Was she related to Akira?
She blinked quickly, unable to fully grasp that concept because her head began to pound. Did that mean that her father was the Raikage? Suddenly, a vision flashed in her mind, briefly but vividly.
"But daddy, you're the Raikage! You have all the power in the world!"
"Not yet, Tenten…"
As quickly as the voices appeared, they disappeared. There wasn't much to decipher, but it was enough to piece things together.
"Impossible," Tenten inaudibly whispered.
"She tried to kill me again. Next time I see her, I will return the favour." Finally, he stopped and looked at the brunette next to him. He hadn't planned to confront her like this; he didn't know how the conversation had swerved from the topic of Akira to Tenten's identity. However, at this point, the truth was clear as day. He knew and she knew and there was nothing more to it.
There was a long, uncomfortable silence. Finally, Tenten said, "you knew."
"I realised a few days ago. You used a technique on me that was unique to the Suzuki clan." When he was met with silence yet again, he said, "I thought you knew."
"I would tell you, wouldn't I?"
There was a momentary pause before Neji conducted an answer. "I wouldn't expect you to tell me."
"Why not?" Tenten demanded.
"Because you are the daughter of Konoha's enemy."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Tenten didn't know whether to be happy that she finally knew who she was, or sad that she was the sister and daughter of the people that Neji despised. In fact, she didn't know why the truth hadn't hit her any harder—she thought that her entire life had always revolved around her mission to find her parents. It was almost as if she was bracing for the biggest fall of her life only to realise that there was no cliff at all. She had been living her entire life without her identity; in a way, knowing her family all of a sudden didn't affect her life. She honestly didn't care about the fact that she was basically on her way to meet her family; she could only focus on the way Neji looked and talked about Akira and Masaru. What were his intentions when he started the conversation? What was he saying about her? He said that she and Akira were similar. And he hated Akira.
Tenten shut her eyes, swallowing hard.
"Does this mean that you hate me?" she asked softly.
The fire in the middle had long died out. There was no warmth anymore and for some reason her throat felt thick and tight—clenched even. She heard the rustling of clothing and a bit of shuffling. She opened her eyes to see Neji sitting in front of her. His pearly eyes bored intensely into hers.
"No," he said, a strange sort of fierceness lacing his voice. "Why would you even think that?"
"You said that I was similar to her, and—"
"I decided that it didn't matter who you're related to."
Tenten didn't know what to say; her breath was caught simply hearing his voice.
"You and Akira physically look alike, as do all siblings. You have the same techniques and you are both stubborn. However, Akira didn't talk much. You, on the other hand…" Neji chuckled slightly. "You never seem to shut up, no matter how many times I tell you to."
Tenten didn't know whether to cry or laugh in relief. "You're such a—I don't even know what to classify you as anymore, Hyuuga Neji."
"Verbosity is not a bad thing," he said quickly when she smacked him lightly on the arm. "It's not like I don't enjoy your company."
The brunette was ready to retort and fire a clever comeback when she registered his words. She felt evasive heat spreading through her cheeks, but was secretly thankful that it was undetectable in the dark. She then closed her eyes, sighed and said, "I'm hurt that you didn't tell me right away."
"That was a lack of judgment on my part," Neji replied, somewhat apologetically. "I should've told you before you agreed to the mission."
"Why, because you think that I would've changed my mind about the mission? I don't care if the enemy is my biological father. It's not like I'm any different just because I know who I'm related to—I'll still fight for the cure. I won't betray the team and run off to be with my father." The edges of Tenten's eyes softened. "I could never leave you. That's another difference between me and Akira."
Neji's mouth opened slightly, as if he was going to say something, but nothing came out.
"I hope you know that, Neji." Tenten smiled. "I care too much about you."
A gentle breeze blew against the trees, and for a long while Tenten stared at the moon. She remembered comparing the moon to Neji's eyes once, long ago when she had first met him. She had thought that like the moon, Neji's eyes were extremely beautiful but still had craters. He was rude, cynical, and he always had a bitter look on his face.
She realised she couldn't see those flaws anymore.
Had she really fallen for him? She was so convinced all along that she cared for him like any other friend, but she wasn't attracted to her friends in the same way she was to Neji. In fact, she couldn't imagine not being attracted to him. There was something incredibly irresistible about his cool demeanour, his sharp movements, the way he woke up every day to train…
She almost laughed at herself. She sounded just like a silly girl who adored him for his good looks. Not that he wasn't good-looking, but there was so much more to him. He also had a heart, despite his cold, exterior self. He was capable of saying the rudest, most hurtful insults yet he was also capable of uplifting her spirits. Previous experiences have left him untrusting and the wall he put up was understandable. If only he could see how truly amazing he was.
"Tenten," he said suddenly, quietly.
Said brunette turned to stare into the most beautiful pair of lavender eyes. "Hm?"
"I care about you as well."
He looked so genuine and earnest that the brunette was suddenly at loss for words. Her heart was swelling indescribably and the corners of her mouth were magically uplifted. She was more aware of their proximity than ever; their shoulders were barely brushing but she felt her entire body tingling. She never broke their gaze—she couldn't, rather, because she was so gravitated towards him. She couldn't stop staring at his eyes, and then back at his lips; he had enticing lips. Tenten felt an unbelievably strong urge to simply pounce on him and run her hands through his hair—
"GOOD MORNING MY YOUTHFUL TEAMMATES!"
The cry from an overly energetic Lee made them spring apart. Tenten felt her face growing beet red from embarrassment; had Lee been spying on them? Meanwhile, Neji looked away from everyone, shuffling his hands uncomfortably and slightly grumbling from annoyance. "Lee, shut the hell up."
"BUT I WANT TO WAKE UP BEFORE DAWN!"
"Are you kidding me?" Hiro muttered, rubbing his eyes. It was still dark out. "It's been five hours."
"And that is sufficient," Lee cried, a little less loud. "Tsunade-sama told us that we must hurry."
"She also told us to rest properly. People who are deprived of sleep are more prone to catching this highly contagious disease."
"We just have to be extra careful," Tenten said finally. "We can rest after we get the antidote. Let's go."
"That is the spirit, my beautiful Tenten! Now, are we men inferior to such the beautifully strong spirit that is Tenten?"
"Shut up," Neji muttered, standing up. He walked over Naruto, who was the only one sleeping. The blond was still curled up on the ground. "Someone wake this idiot up."
"I'll do that," Lee offered. He carried Naruto off the ground and promptly threw him into a bush. Naruto recovered instantly, poking his head through a pile of leaves. "Hey! Why was our nap so short?"
"We have to leave instantly! Today is the day we enter the land of lightning." Lee pumped his fist into the air. "We can do this! Now everyone, let's get ready! Put your hands in the middle! We shall do a hearty cheer to pump us up!"
"No," Tenten answered immediately.
"Idiot," Hiro and Neji muttered.
"Bushy brows!" Naruto finally shouted. "Let's just go!"
A/N: Honestly, I don't like how this chapter ended but I figured it's been waaaaay too long since I last updated. (My sincere apologies!) Originally, I had wanted this chapter to cover the entire mission but as you can see, that was a big fail haha. Anyhow, school starts for me tomorrow (any advice for an eleventh grader?) and I still haven't finished my summer reading. Okay, well, in my defence, it's pretty damn hard to read four classics when you're on vacation. I do love reading and all but come on… now I have to go and speed read. Yay.
But before I go, I would like to say a big THANK YOU to all my readers, especially to those who review and/or message me. It's really heart-warming to know that you take time out of your day to read and review my story—you guys have no idea how much that means to me. So thank you, really. :)