Author's Notes: Written for the contest at the NejiTen Livejournal community, as one fic of four in a team consisting of myself, Goldberry, Chariel, and Sahara Storm. My prompt, of the FOIL challenge, was "Inner."
Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto and am making no profit from this fan fiction.
The shinobi who brought him the initial report that Tenten had not returned from her solo mission on time was no more than a young Chuunin. Apparently, the unfortunate youth had never had the duty of relaying bad news to a dangerous person, and of all dangerous persons in Konoha, the Hyuuga was his addressee.
Neji did nothing to him once the message had been spoken at the field in which he trained ("Tenten-san has not checked in with the Hokage, and she hasn't been found within the village. She is believed to have been captured at the Sound/Fire border"). His response, however – he way he splintered a wooden post into so many, many bits, followed by perhaps the deepest crater his Kaiten had ever formed – was enough to send the Chuunin off at a sprint.
Hyuuga knew the rules, the requirements. And Neji was a prodigy, the epitome of what a Hyuuga was expected to be. He did not respond emotionally. He did not reveal his innermost reactions.
But he would be damnedbefore he failed to act and let others see to the disappearance of the woman who was his partner andbest friend.
The Fifth gave the present members of Team Gai permission to look for their lost kunoichi, not because they were her first picks for a search party, but because they would accept no other answer. Gai himself was taking the loss of his only female student poorly; while he was a seasoned shinobi, he had always been especially fond and protective of Tenten. Inuzuka Kiba offered his services, but they refused on the grounds that, for now, this was a team matter.
Before he could exit her office, Tsunade addressed Neji personally. For all of her slacker tendencies, the female Sannin could be frustratingly perceptive. "Neji, I don't want you to be so closely involved with Tenten's circumstances that any negative outcomes of this search will affect your performance as a servant of this village." It was a cold thing to say, and from behind her master's chair Shizune uttered an exasperated reprimand, but Tsunade was only bringing the bigger picture into scope. "If she can't be located or Tenten is—"
"Please do not concern yourself." Neji made a solemn bow, letting his hair spill forward to partially conceal his tightened jaw. His leader continued to pierce him with a measuring stare. "I have no intention of allowing the better of me to be overtaken by my personal thoughts."
As he left, Tsunade propped her chin on her hands and stared at the place where he had stood. It was not thoughts that worried her. A rational mind was no match for an impassioned heart.
Hinata came to him that night, bravely suggesting that he allow her to accompany Team Gai. "Two Byakugans would surely be better than one," she reasoned, the nervous stammer of her younger years gone and replaced by subtle conviction.
Neji was fractionally moved by her willingness to help, especially now that Hiashi was grooming her to head their clan. He knew that Tenten was one of the few women who had sincerely befriended his cousin, and Hinata's worry that she was in peril was painful to see. But, in his role as her protector, he assured her that Gai and Lee would be all the assistance he needed. Hinata reluctantly watched him go the next morning.
Both Lee and Gai were uncharacteristically quiet as they set out, speaking only enough to plan a course toward Sound. Otherwise, the exigency of the situation kept silent. Neji could admire his teacher in these moments – that he could tone himself down in respect of the current events – but his focus lay solely in the tracking of Tenten's whereabouts.
"I do not understand," Lee ventured soon after they had crossed the Fire border. "What was the mission our Tenten was given?"
"She did not tell me of it," Gai replied sadly. Technically, after they had all become Jounin, the four ninja were no longer official grouped and the three youths did not answer to their sensei. Tenten had been under no obligation to inform Gai of her assignment. "What about you, Neji?"
Neji, though disinclined to speak at the moment, comprehended the potential advantage in telling them what he knew. They were insane, yes, but they were also reliable. "She was deployed to the Sound border for an assassination of a man reported to be financially backing research done for Orochimaru." He had barely slept, instead turning over every scenario in his mind of how she, she, could have been taken. In the moments he had drifted, he had only fretfully dozed, seeing golden skin bleeding and deft fingers robbed of their weapons.
"Why send her alone?" wondered Lee.
Gai furthered, "Why send her at all? Tenten isn't in ANBU, and that organization normally sees to—"
"No one in ANBU has her record. Her accuracy is perfect, her battle intellect is ranked first among her age group of kunoichi." Neji's voice changed as he spoke, from factually informative to reminiscent. "All we can do is find her – in whatever way we must." In his advanced periphery, Neji saw Lee and Gai exchange a worried look. He didn't care.
Tenten was missing. And he meant to retrieve her.
The border of Sound was lined with villages not affiliated with shinobi villages, and were not therefore concerned with matters concerning shinobi villages. Most of the residents were farmers and neutral in their stance between alliances and enemies, but they were friendly and willing to help a pair of smiling shinobi and their white-eyed traveling partner. A plump mother of three told them a Sound caravan had stopped for water at their well without their consent and had continued toward the Land of Rain.
The information might have suggested a move by either Orochimaru or Akatsuki but as the Konoha traitor was no longer affiliated with the Jinchuuriki hunters, the three men opted to rule out both of those suspects.
"Did you see a young woman with them?" Gai queried, voice ripe with eager concern.
"Oh, yes." The mother spoke between round, red cheeks, a gurgling infant against her cocked left hip. "A pretty, athletic-looking thing. Blond. Green eyes."
Thus their lead came to an abrupt halt. Neji spoke less and less the more people they talked to, many claiming to have seen parties from Sound traveling to Rain, but there were no reports of a girl fitting Tenten's description.
"Should we proceed to Rain?" suggested Lee when they woke after an unhappy night spent at an inn. "Even if she was not seen, she could have been taken."
"We do not have the authorization," Gai told him with a shake of his bowl-haired head. "The situation regarding Akatsuki is still too delicate and uncertain. If we were to ask Hokage-sama—"
"She would say no." Neji's interposition was spoken calmly, but the faint line between his eyebrows clued in the other men to his enduring consternation. "So why bother asking her?"
Startled, Gai set a hand on the Hyuuga's tense shoulder. "Neji! You know better than that. Normally, I would concur with your idea in the interest of our important Tenten, but we've not even the slightest hint of evidence to support us when we do face Tsunade-sama."
"You're afraid of her temper?"
"It isn't that!" exclaimed Lee, shocked at his chosen rival's unanticipated behavior. "Konoha, as you know, is not built upon the actions of an individual, but upon the work of many acting as a whole. We cannot potentially ruin another's strategy for Akatsuki by going there and—"
"Finding Tenten?" Neji demanded icily. "She's gone, Lee. I understand the necessity of tradition and protocol, but there have been shinobi before us who have sacrificed missions for comrades." It was rational to him. Not only that, it was all they could do. Why did Gai and Lee look at him as though he had proposed the destruction of Konoha itself?
"And they have known the betrayal of their villages," finished Gai, his tone deep with solemnity. "For the world, Neji, I will not see you alienated by everyone after you have worked so hard and long for your place of respect within your family alone. Tenten would not desire that."
Anger began to work its first poisonous coils through Neji's usually cool mind. He was not a hostile man by nature. Though he was not a strategist, he preferred calculation prior to and during any battle so that he could glean knowledge and store it for future bouts. At twenty-three, it was more than a decade since Neji had first learned that Maitou Gai was not the sort of man to be challenged in a matter regarding those he cared about. Yet it seemed his desperation only served to heighten his daring.
"Am I the only one," Neji murmured challengingly, "who is willing to take risks in order to save Tenten?"
Gai's shoulders straightened. He looked like he wanted to say something tremendous to the one who, despite success, had perhaps been his most difficult student. Instead, the Beautiful Green Beast appeared to check himself, not speaking until the line of his jaw loosened its immobile hold. "No, Neji. You are merely the only one who has lost sight of the ideals you shared with Tenten now that she is no longer here to help you keep them."
The words struck him like a blow to the central nerve of his chakra system. Neji returned with Gai and Lee to the village grudgingly, entirely forgetting Tsunade's warning.
Upon hearing the report of their failed mission, the Fifth arranged the dispatch of a high-level ANBU platoon. When Neji requested permission to accompany them, her response came as predicted: "Absolutely freaking not."
Neji, while not given to arguing, did not hesitate to make a point. "You did not deny Uzumaki Naruto his wish to pursue Uchiha Sasuke."
"Jeez, you Hyuuga! It's been eleven years, and you choose that to work with?" Cradling her chin in her hand, Tsunade shot him a baleful look and held firm. "We were operating under the notion that, as Sasuke left by his own free will, he could be persuaded to come back by the same. The circumstances with Tenten are completely different. And frankly, Neji, you are too valuable to be sent. ANBU will—"
"She's my teammate."
His voice was low, but the underlying blend of plead and temper was not lost on the Sannin. "And I am your Hokage. Expect a mission soon, but do not expect to be sent out to look for Tenten."
Neji took to training at the compound because he could not bear to be at the empty field he had shared with the weapon-wielding kunoichi. Those who knew him began to walk on eggshells in his presence. When he entered rooms at home or public places, people stopped talking only to begin a new subject several tense moments later.
Two months after the ANBU squad's deployment, no positive word regarding the search had yet reached the village. Neji's anxiety progressed so that his release of it eventually manifested in a verbal argument that became a physical match with Lee, who lost as usual. It took Gai, Hatake Kakashi, and Nara Shikamaru's shadow-binding technique to separate the two livid shinobi.
After that, the Hokage ordered the Hyuuga on temporary inactivity under the pretense that Lee's strong kick had fractured his arm. Of course, as Tsunade was the most skillful medic-nin in all shinobi countries, everyone knew that he was being suspended for his unpredictability, and the filed reason was (for lack of a better word) bullshit.
It was one month after his infuriating grounding that Neji's dreams began. Perhaps it should not have come as a surprise that he thought of her even when asleep. Neji was a seasoned ninja and was aware of the psychological effects a change in routine or a crack in established order could have on a person. But the vividness of his dreams was intense, catching him off-guard.
They were harmless enough, more memories than subconscious projections – he and Tenten training as children, her blades meeting his chakra, their chase after Deidara, her match with Temari of the Sand…it was both comforting and frustrating to see her in his mind, as he was only reminded, harshly, that she was not truly in his life.
These memory-dreams went on for two more months, during which Tenten was not retrieved. Only two reports the designated ANBU group sent in contained their current location and nothing else. After the eighth such letter, Neji's sleeping visions became far less innocent.
The first was like a previous one – Team Gai's fight against Hoshigaki Kisame – except that it was only Neji and Tenten in combat, and it was deep night rather than day. The result of the battle was the same, but when Tenten fell from the water prison and into his arms, the simple catch became a full embrace. And then she was kissing him, and he was responding until his body was on fire and in the shadows it could not be told whose limbs were whose, and she was calling his name over and over…
Neji jolted up in bed, his ebony hair damp and pale skin slick with sweat, his powerful eyes bulged as his panted, so acutely aware of himself that he was almost in pain. He tried to reason, however unclearly, that his mind was reacting to stress, and this meant nothing, nothing because he had hardly ever touched Tenten outside of training. The only occasion when this held untrue was one brief meeting of lips just before she had left the last time and he couldn't help himself. He had abruptly apologized, and Tenten had laughed it off, but for an instant Neji had been sure he had felt a return of pressure.
It had not felt like a goodbye then, but a welcoming. It had turned out to be their only chance at farewell, or anything else.
Pressing a hand to his marked forehead, Neji commanded himself to shake off the feeling of lips he had only barely kissed and the feeling of a body he did not know, getting up to train three hours before dawn.
The…dreams, fantasies, whatever they were, did not end. Neji saw things he had experienced twisted into things he hadn't. He began to overexert himself, hoping that exhaustion would block out unwanted scenes. Sometimes he did not eat so that he would sleep restlessly. The Hyuuga clan took note of their branch house prodigy's abnormal behavior, but it went unmentioned. Most treated Neji as one would a time bomb. All were wary of an explosion.
The dreams were tolerable, explained by emotional trauma, interruption of daily life, lack of work, or – at the very least – hormones ignored and repressed for an unhealthy number of years. No one could have known of the dreams, and Neji did not tell a soul. He began to look the worse for wear, circles darkening his colorless eyes and an odd gauntness infiltration his often immaculate posture, but that was all.
Then one day, nearly six months after Tenten's initial disappearance (Tsunade had already sent the third squad), Neji spotted a lithely-built brunette in the street, her hair bound in two buns, a large scroll strapped over clothes of cream and crimson.
The fact that he ran forward was understandable, as was the most desperate way he reached out. Yet it was unfathomable that his hand closed on empty air, winding him, as his eyes widened and his throat tightened in shock. Several pairs of eyes turned to him, but none were hers. None were hers because she was not there.
The haste with which he abandoned the street alerted many, and Neji did not make his exit unnoticed. This alone was suspicious; the Hyuuga, and Neji in particular, were well-known for their stealth. Not only that, but Neji was perhaps the most mysterious of all Jounin, as far as the civilian residents of the village were concerned, and they were unaccustomed to any random show of passion from the stoic man.
After that, she was everywhere, not only in his subconscious viewings of things that had not occurred. Tsunade sent him on a tentative C-rank mission, and Tenten was on the stairs after he had given his satisfying report. She was smiling.
She trained with him, but not really. He swore he could smell her blossom scent, could feel the breeze of nonexistent blades whizzing past his cheek. Neji heard her laugh when he rose, and he heard her say his name in his ear when he retired each evening.
The worst was one evening three months after his illusion began. Tenten had been reported as missing in March; it was now December. He sat in the bath to alleviate the winter chill that had pervaded Konoha, and there were footfalls on the tile floor, echoing against the acoustic walls. Neji turned to announce the room's occupied status, only for the words to die in his tongue when Tenten stood before him.
Her rich hair tumbled dark and unruly over her bare shoulders as she stared down at him, her eyes twin oceans of feelings he had once depended upon through his personal struggles. Her body was perfect, flawless, which alone should have been enough to break Neji's self-cast spell, for a user of sharp-edged tools would not be without scars.
He raised a hand for her anyway, heart racing and fingers shaking in anticipation of cool, golden skin…and then he blinked, and she was steam from the bath, she was wind from the icy night, she was his own ragged breathing – but Tenten was not real.
Neji almost went mad right then. It was certain he would have dissolved into insanity if he had not met Hyuuga Hiashi in the corridor as he rushed out of the bath. Hiashi, with an appropriate degree of leashed alarm, took in his nephew's wild eyes and frantic whispering ("Tenten") before personally confining him to his quarters with the sharp-eyed Hanabi as his guard.
He was summoned to the hospital the very next day. Neji had expected to meet Tsunade or maybe Shizune. Who he did meet was Haruno Sakura. Nothing could have been more humiliating, he determined, than an examination performed by a mild-manner kunoichi he was senior to. But Sakura was professional and straightforward, something Neji appreciated.
"Your uncle is concerned you'll hurt yourself," the pink-haired girl explained calmly. "And my master believes you're fed up with her."
"That is true." He lay in bed only because the combination of so many nights with so little sleep and a monstrous headache were too fierce to allow him the fight of the siren call of a soft pillow. Sakura sat in a wooden chair beside him, her spine straight and her voice businesslike but not unkind. She was poised to take notes.
"Has Tsunade-sama upset you?"
"She has hindered me," Neji replied. "And now, I am sure, she has appointed you to evaluate whether or not I am still as 'valuable' to her and the village as I was at that time."
"You resent her refusal to let you search for Tenten-san." It was not a question, and Neji's muscles flexed uncomfortably. It had been such a long time since anyone had felt secure enough to say her name around him. He answered in the affirmative.
"You are the one who was closest to her, Neji-san. This isn't news to anyone. What I wonder is how you have coped with her absence?"
Sakura's tone was incredibly relaxing, and as tension began to flow out of him, uncertainty and embarrassment began to fill the empty space. "We both know I have not coped with it in any way that should be considered acceptable. I am aware of my abhorrent behavior, Sakura. I do not expect to be pitied, nor do I wish it." Prim formality served as his only defense.
"I don't want to pity you, Neji-san, but to sympathize with you. I was once in your place." White eyes met green, and she gave him a soft smile. "I could not go after Sasuke-kun. I just don't know whether to feel better or worse that Tenten didn't leave us because she wanted to."
Neji, too, held mixed feelings on that point. Perhaps this, or how she dropped the honorific on Tenten's name, was why he began to talk to Sakura; everything came out, from the short kiss he had shared with Tenten in reality, to the disconcerting content of his dreams, to how she appeared to him in waking hours as naturally as though she had truly been at his side. Sakura did not react to any of this apart from the strokes of her pen on her notebook, and after he had finished his unanticipated narrative, she folded her hands in her lap with a serious expression on her face.
"Despite what you may think and what others may think, Neji-san, there is no madness in any part of what you've told me. Your response to Tenten not being here is permissible, because your visions and dreams are only reflections of what you would wish if she were here." At this, Neji's eyes widened. Sakura continued. "Your feelings for her are stronger than what you ever let on. I believe, had she remained in Konoha, you would have gone on with life, possibly to never show her what you honestly felt. If you are in love with her, or at least want her physically, the healthiest thing would be to let her know and see the results regardless of acceptance or rejection." The emerald eyes turned down at the corners. "Unfortunately, that is not a possibility right now. So the only diagnosis I can make is misery, Neji-san, and nothing else."
He took several long moments to process all of this before Neji said, very softly, "And the treatment?"
Sakura searched his face, as though she waited to find something there that would permit her to proceed. At last she answered, "I can think of only one, something I know my master would agree with. But it's…controversial. Can you stay here for a while?"
Neji agreed, and he was allowed to rest in the hospital room. Dozing, he was blissfully dreamless, as though the difference in location afforded him a pitying reprieve of his inner torment from the last many months. When the door opened again, he opened his eyes to Sakura and a newcomer; Yuuhi Kurenai.
He began to sit up, but Kurenai gestured for him to stay still, taking the seat Sakura and vacated in order to meet him scarlet eye for pearl. "Neji, I know we have not been associated much in our work. But I did know you as a Genin, and I'm sure you know enough of me to be aware of my skills in genjutsu."
Neji thought this a strange conversational gambit but kept it to himself, staring at the gracefully-aging kunoichi to bid her continue.
"Sakura's told me about your unhappiness about Tenten. I don't even know if I have any right to be involved in the matter, but I'm glad you're hearing me out." She showed him a soft smile. "It seems all three of us know what it's like to lose someone. I really do understand exactly how you feel."
Empathy was not one of the greater emotions Neji was accustomed to, and he was starting to feel more disquieted the more understanding he received. "What have you come for, Kurenai-sensei?"
Her curiously-colored eyes narrowed in absolute solemnity. "If you believe it necessary enough – and let me make this perfectly clear – if you think it is totally vital that you undergo this, Neji…I can use a technique that would allow you to forget every memory you have of Tenten."
Each nerve Hyuuga Neji possessed was all of a sudden alight with pulsing, churning energy. The idea was so unimagined that it at first seemed incomprehensible. In trying to picture himself without his memories of Tenten, the memories that had both consoled and haunted him for months, he only succeeded and recalling her with better accuracy.
"You would be the same man you are today," Kurenai went on. "But the influence Tenten had on you over the years would seemingly be the cause of another; Gai, perhaps, or your cousins. Moments in your life in which Tenten played a part would stay intact but for her; it would be as though she had never been there. For example, you will believe you achieved your strength by training on your own or with Lee for twelve years. Tenten will not exist for you. The Fifth can mandate that she not be mentioned in your presence. You can continue your life without the pain of having lost her."
It was absurd; it had to be. He couldn't possibly just forget about her, could he? Could the woman who had helped shaped him into a shinobi of integrity, and not just arrogance, be abandoned in his mind? It was as though he carried his thoughts in a bag, like rice, and Tenten would be but one grain fallen on the trail.
"I must consider this carefully," Neji said finally to Kurenai.
"Yes, Neji, I would never perform the technique without making sure you have."
When he left the hospital, it was snowing outside. He learned from Hinata later that day that it was supposed to be a very white week for Konoha. She expressed poorly-veiled concern for Naruto, who was being sent with Chouji, Shino, and Kiba to investigate a small uprising in the Land of Earth. Apparently the blond loudmouth did not take well to snow.
Neji did very little training for the first time since his Genin years. Instead he rented a room at the same tavern Tsunade herself preferred and rested his body as well as his mind. He wished he had thought of it earlier. Unfamiliarity assisted in easing him at least half the time compared to when he had stayed at the compound.
One week after his meeting with Kurenai, he stood upon the covered wraparound porch at the main component of the Hyuuga housing, the future clan leader at his side as they took in the snowing scene. Hinata's hands were folded prettily in front, the pale, callouse fingers lovely against the ice-blue of the kimono she wore. Neji saw the skin blanch as she pressed them tightly together. "Neji-nii-san." Her voice met his ears gently, much like the snowfall they watched together. "Have you…have you…have you considered that Tenten-san…that she might not be alive?"
Jarred, Neji whipped around to face the heiress with all the speed of the Kaiten's first twirl. Of those who might have presented death as a result of his long wait, he had not counted on Hinata. Tsunade had tried, Hiashi had made insinuations, but Neji's defenses were not built for Hinata's tender suggestion. His eyes were narrowed when they landed on her identical ones, so sad, and then he had to get out of there before his cousin's caring heart sliced right through him.
He ran. Ignoring Hinata's shocked expression, he vaulted over the compound's high stone wall, catapulting through trees in the woods to stay away from the path in the village – he hated the streets, where he had first seen her incorporeal face. Snow fell like millions of miniscule bits of truth, pelting him in the viciously cold air, and he moved swiftly in an inward hope that they would somehow not touch him. But they did, and he was cold, and he had been cold ever since that foolish Chuunin had first said that Tenten had not come back.
He stopped when he was a mile or two out of Konoha, alighting on a thick, bare branch that tossed crystal flakes to the ground when it trembled under his weight. Breathing hard, he realized he had come to the main road at any rate, his shinobi sense of direction unbeatable even for himself. His gaze pierced the landscape below, as though something there could prevent his every mental fiber from self-destructing in his pain.
Neji knew he was suffering – gods, it felt like he was dying – but he didn't care because he was burning, boiling in the dead of winter. A distant figure with mahogany eyes and hair, scars on her hands and despair on her face; Neji ignored her. He knew the image on the road, knew the messy buns and the olive flesh beneath the grime that smeared it, but he also recognized it as his head's last desperate attempt to keep his inner peace enslaved.
Even when she called to him, as real as it sounded—
He did not try to touch the vision this time but immediately turned and fled.
The last reserve of strength he had been fighting to keep now gave out, and he didn't look back. He had to lose her. If she really was dead, he had to…
Ten minutes later, he burst into the Hokage's office and was greeted by the crowd of Tsunade, Hiashi, Hinata, Kurenai, Gai, Lee and Sakura. No doubt they had been speaking of him, but that didn't matter. Half-staggering forward, he pounded both fists on the surface of the Fifth's desk. Shizune rushed in frantically.
"Tell me," he managed, skewering Tsunade with a colorless glower, "why you sent her on that mission."
Tsunade afforded him the same measuring look he had been given just before leaving for that first search mission. It hurt all the more because her eyes were the same shade and shape as Tenten's and he couldn't bear seeing them in another face. "Because she wanted to, Neji."
The answer intensified his lack of control. Whirling, he grabbed Kurenai by the shoulder. "Do it."
The red eyes (and Tenten had worn red) stared in surprise at the strain in his voice. "Neji, what have you—"
Kurenai looked to the Fifth, who nodded, and all but she and the young Hyuuga retreated to the walls of the office. Both of them kneeled, facing each other. Kurenai explained that he would have to relax for the procedure to succeed, so they would meditate for a few minutes. Kurenai would open his eyes and begin without warning him so that he could not instinctively defend against her genjutsu.
"Kurenai-sensei," he murmured before she shut her eyes, "how is your daughter?"
Kurenai seemed taken somewhat aback by the seemingly random question, but she smiled lightly at the thought of her child. "She's well, Neji, she's…beautiful. Thank you." She did not inquire why he asked.
All those present must have been informed of the options Neji had been given, for no one asked what was happening. Gai and Lee surely had objections but did not voice them aloud. Hinata and her father looked on with the serenity they had been bred with, and Tsunade studied the scene with Shizune and Sakura at her side. The office was silent.
Silent until the door shot open, followed by a resounding crack as it hit the wall. Neji opened his eyes and saw that Kurenai's hands were positioned at either side of his head as was necessary for the jutsu. All other eyes were staring, huge, at the sudden arrival. A few mouths, including Gai's and Lee, hung open, although Hinata had covered hers with both hands.
When Neji turned to look, he saw the latest vision of Tenten, even more haggard than she had been in the woods. Her chest heaved, and there was snow melting in her hair. Sakura's voice cut through the nearly tangible wordlessness, and it was not until then Neji realized that he was not the only one capable of seeing this kunoichi: "Tenten?"
Without hesitation, she strode on long, tired legs and fell beside Neji, grabbing him by the shirt front and gritting out, "What. The. Hell."
He couldn't breathe. She sounded like Tenten. And apart from a general scent of travel, she carried Tenten's scent.
"You just saw me, you idiot! I can hardly stand. Chasing you took the rest of my chakra!
And she became furious with him the way Tenten did.
"…just stood there, then ran off! What is the matter with you?" Brown eyes shone beneath a new scar high on her forehead. For a moment, her temper spent, she was still. Slowly, Neji's hands rose to encircle her wrists, and he felt the coolness of her skin beneath his fevered own.
Speaking came with difficulty. He had to swallow twice before he could emit so much as a syllable. "I – thought you were…"
"Idiot," Tenten repeated, her arms beginning to shake. "You heard of the uprising in Earth?" At his almost imperceptible nod, she added, "I couldn't secure an opening for my escape until the rebels were distracted enough to take their eyes off me."
He could hardly wrap his head around the truth that she was alive, real, let alone that she hadn't been kidnapped by Sound but by Earth, who had been entirely removed from her original mission.
"When I was going after Orochimaru's money guy, I ran into a fight with an assassin from the Land of Earth, working for a rebellious organization." Her expression soured. "I won against him, but the group as a whole ganged up on me and took me back to Earth. When they found out I was from Konoha, they decided to keep me around as a bargaining chip for their rebellion in case Fire decided to help out the government over there." A smirk now crossed her face, something she had picked up from him in their years together. "Did you think I was gonna let that happen, Neji?"
A dizzy, bubbly laugh seemed about to float from her until Neji pulled Tenten hard against him and kissed her. This was not the brushing of lips he had indulged in the last time he had seen her; nine months of terror and grief was pouring out through an inch points of contact. She responded by tightening her grip and sagging fully against his toned, shocked-chilled form. When they broke for air, Neji was holding her face by his fingertips, as though he feared he would break her, and Tenten was trembling, her forced cheer gone.
Neji's hair fell over the high collar of her old, tattered shirt, shielding them from the onlookers. "I thought you were…" Throat closing, he couldn't finish.
Her tears ran from her eyes, down her cheeks, and over his fingers. "I thought I would."
Beside them, Gai burst into an absurd series of sobs. Lee, unable to restrain himself any longer, bounded forward and gathered Tenten in a crushing, elated hug. Tsunade jumped up, immediately objecting to the physical exertion and shouting for the office to be evacuated so Tenten could receive some proper rest. Indeed, she was holding onto one of Neji's arms when Hiashi and his oldest child walked by them, each welcoming her with a formal bow, Hinata bearing a reserved smile that showed her sincere gladness at Tenten's return.
Neji was the last to leave. Parting with her felt like another step toward depression. But he could feel her hand in his, and he could see the flecks of color in her eyes as he had been unable to in dreams and visions. Everything seemed so vital now. "I never told you," he began, but the weapons mistress hushed him with a hand to his cheek, her thumb ghosting over his lips.
"Don't tell me it all at once," she insisted, her smile weary. "I want to save some of this for later." Pressing herself to him, she whispered into the material at his shoulder: "Has it been so long since spring?"
Pulse galloping, he only nodded before realizing she could not hear a nod. "A lifetime."
Tsunade informed the Hyuuga that she would stay at the hospital until her health was assured and a formal report of her captivity could be taken. He was forbidden from entering her room for the rest of the day, but Sakura promised to give Tenten her undivided attention until Neji was permitted access.
The next morning, after she persuaded him to sit on the bed beside her instead of in the stiff wooden chair, Neji told Tenten that he had loved her for five years, since they were eighteen – the "springtime of their youth," as Gai would have called it.
Her only reaction was to slip her hand beneath his and link their fingers together. In only three months the winter would end, and it would be one entire year since Tenten's kidnapping.
"I know," she said, letting her own innermost emotions out in the kiss they then shared.
No more springs would be spent apart.