Title: At Last
Characters/Pairing: Team Gai; Neji/Tenten
Word Count: 2,515
Summary/Description: What happens when a chain loses two of its links. The breaking down; the healing process.
Warning/Spoilers: Angst. Character death. D:
A/N: Written for the 2007 FOIL (First, Inner, Outer, Last) challenge at the NejiTen comm. on LJ, as part of a collaboration with Goldberry, Ariel32, and NessieGG. I got the 'Last' theme. The narrative switches between the past and the present, but it's not hard to figure out, I promise. :P I do urge you to visit the above authors' profiles and read their instalments; they were all excellent.
Disclaimer: Insert witty denial of ownership here.
Tenten took the stairs two at a time. She'd gotten word that Tsunade wanted her in her office about fifteen minutes ago, but she'd been waylaid by a gaggle of villagers who'd wanted to offer their sympathies and condolences. Again. She appreciated it, more than anything, but it was tiring. Perhaps even as tiring as they themselves had been.
She felt herself tearing up, and bit her lip. She ran faster.
At the top of the stairs, she stopped in her tracks. Someone was already waiting outside the Hokage's office.
Neji didn't look at her as he motioned to the door.
She stared at him for a couple moments before nodding curtly.
"Thank you," she said, and slipped past.
It was the first time they had spoken in two weeks.
The irony was (because there's always something ironical about horrible things like these) that Gai had simply gone along on the mission because they were going to be passing by Takigakure, and he wanted to visit an old friend there. Lee, not wanting to be left out of the 'glorious reunion' of their team, had begged to accompany them, even though he was technically on vacation. Neji, already a bit miffed that he would be spending three days getting reacquainted with every single one of Gai's poses, anecdotes, and blinding smiles, replied with a flat out 'no'. Lee, being Lee, had tagged along anyway.
Tenten would never admit it to Neji, but as much as she loved their missions together (Tsunade had quickly noticed their compatibility as a two-man cell, and had not wasted time in taking advantage of it) she was happy that Gai and Lee would be accompanying them. True, sometimes the pair of them made her tired just looking at them, they were so full of vim and verve; and true, they could be more than a little taxing on the nerves. But it had been too long since they'd been together, all four of them, and she missed them.
That first night of the mission, as they'd set up camp, it had been just like old times. Neji secured the perimeter with wide sweeps of his veined eyes. Lee and Tenten set up camp and got a fire going, while Gai set about preparing a meal that only he and Lee would be able to stomach.
Some things were different, though, like the grey streaks in Gai's hair, only visible when he tilted his head just so; the nature of their conversation, strained and constrained with all the adult things that Tenten had once hoped to avoid; the knowing looks that Gai flicked between her and Neji. Tenten was grateful for these discrepancies as much as she loathed them; they showed her how much the four of them had changed and evolved, while assuring her that things would never be the same again.
Lee and Gai managed to keep her heart light, though, especially as they relentlessly ribbed Neji about when he was finally going to do the gentlemanly thing and ask Tenten out on a proper date. Tenten didn't mind; it was fun to see her partner fidget and scowl under the playful interrogation. Her heart didn't flutter and seize like it would have five, ten, or even fifteen years ago; she'd come to realise that she was comfortable with their relationship as it was; even if it was an imperfect limbo: best friends, yet closer than that; not lovers, but intimate in their own way.
Tenten had taken the first watch. It was soothing, to watch them all fall asleep almost immediately, knowing that they would be up and moving long before the sun arose, and knowing that they could trust her to watch over them in the interim.
Neji closed the door softly behind him.
They stood abreast, and bowed to the Hokage, and Tenten's heart lurched at how seemingly easy it was for them to simply fall back into routine. Such a mockery.
The Godaime swivelled in her chair.
"Neji. Tenten." She looked at them appraisingly, clear honey eyes giving away nothing of her thoughts. "You are both well, I trust?"
They knew what she was talking about, and what she was further implying. Tenten chanced a quick glance at Neji, but he was looking straight ahead as he nodded sharply. Tsunade seemed to take that as answer for them both, and again, Tenten's heart skipped unpleasantly.
"The time off has…" Tsunade trailed off, and looked to them to finish the sentence.
Tenten cleared her throat, and forced herself to look at her leader as she spoke.
"It has helped, Tsunade-sama. I recuperated, and… I took the time to…"
To her horror, she felt wetness on her cheeks. She ducked her head and dashed the tears away before Neji noticed.
"…I relaxed. I took the time to relax."
Tsunade wasn't fooled, but she nodded anyway.
"And you, Neji?"
The clear eyes stared right ahead.
"I am well."
A few strained moments passed while Tsunade observed them critically. Tenten looked at her toes, and wished she wasn't so aware of Neji next to her.
"Alright," said the Hokage decisively, pressing her palms to her desk. "Good. Because I have a mission for you."
Lee had the last shift; Tenten awoke to his hand on her shoulder, shaking her gently. It was dark and misty and cool, and the forest trees loomed above them like dark sentinels.
She got up immediately, and began packing her things; they would have to leave as soon as possible. As she packed her bag, secured her weapons, and helped Lee destroy the campsite, she noticed Gai and Neji in a corner of the clearing, conversing in soft tones. Or rather, Gai was speaking at what would be a normal level for the average person, and Neji was blinking at the ground. A fatherly hand was pressed to his shoulder, but he seemed to be ignoring it. She wondered what they were talking about.
She and Lee were getting rid of the last traces of the fire when their other two companions rejoined them. Gai was as cheerful as ever, and Neji didn't seem any different from his tacit self either. Nevertheless, Tenten felt… strange. As if a moment of great import had passed, and she had forgotten to take note of it. And now it was niggling persistently at the back of her mind.
To the east, a flock of birds lurched into the sky with an almost thunderous flapping of wings and angry squawks.
Four heads turned.
"I wonder what could have startled them," Lee mused as he adjusted his weights. The birds were heading north; another anomaly, especially for this time of year.
"It could not hurt to check!" Gai clapped his prodigy on the shoulder, and they shared a grin. "Nature tries to speak to us in many ways; we should always heed!"
"Ossu!" Lee cried, and even in the dark, Tenten could see that he was brimming with enthusiasm. She smiled fondly.
"Well, I don't see why not, since we'll be heading in that direction anyway. Why don't you two go ahead, and Neji and I will catch up in a little bit?"
A large thumb was thrust into their faces, and Tenten grinned exasperatedly even as Neji stifled a groan.
"See you soon!" Gai suffixed the statement with a large, barely disguised wink at Neji, which was summarily ignored.
"Okay, Gai-sensei." Tenten followed them with their eyes as they bounded out of the clearing, quick as silver, the wind turning their hair.
She and Neji continued cleaning up swiftly.
"What was that all about?" she asked a moment later, nodding her head over to the spot where he and Gai had stood earlier. She didn't bother to mask the amusement in her voice, which elicited a quick glare in her direction.
"Nothing," he said a bit archly, and that was the end of that. Tenten giggled into her hand as she disabled the minor traps that she had set.
The next time they saw Gai and Lee, it was an hour later, after forty five minutes of searching. The only thing recognisable on them were their hitai-ate.
Tsunade shuffled the papers on her desks, one eye on the time and the other on them.
"Will there be any problems? Questions, inquiries, anything?"
Tenten felt her throat close in on itself. The mission that they'd been assigned was a simple assassination, clean and clear-cut. She had handled more complicated things when she was half her thirty years; the one thing that made it A-rank was the terrain that they would be crossing to get to the target, and possibly the target's henchmen. Otherwise, she could probably do it in her sleep.
She glanced at Neji, and caught him looking at her. They turned away simultaneously, rapidly, as if it burned.
She didn't say it, but she couldn't stand the thought of killing someone. Not now. She was pretty sure whatever the hell was wrong with her would be dealt with by the time of the mission, which was later in the afternoon, but at present, thinking about it made her stomach turn over.
She steeled her features, and assured Tsunade-sama that they would be alright.
"Very good." She handed over the scrolls with the necessary information, and nodded sharply to let them know that they were dismissed.
Neji stepped back again, to let Tenten pass out before him, but Tsunade's voice stopped them both.
"Wait a minute, Tenten. I'd like to speak with you."
What destroyed them the most, perhaps, was that they had no idea who did it.
They could count on one hand the number of people they thought capable of doing it, and most of them were from Konoha or already dead.
Neji had stared at the bodies for a full five minutes, turned on the Byakugan, and disappeared. When he returned fifteen minutes later, there had been nothing alive with a mile's radius. The true culprits were not among the dead.
Tenten had not spoken for hours. She'd not trusted herself to. She set out on another search with Neji, and together they had looked for hours, silently and vigilantly, not a word passing between, their hands hard and their expressions steel. When, hours later, they found nothing and no one, they were still silent.
In her mind, Tenten was screaming.
The sound of the door closing echoed in her ears.
"Tsunade-sama?" she inquired, sounding a bit more than confused. She couldn't imagine what else the Hokage would want her for.
The blonde woman sat down heavily in her chair, and pressed the tips of her fingers to her temple. She did not say anything for a very long time.
"Tenten," she began, and sighed. "I lost my teacher and my team-mate; not as early as you have, but nonetheless. I can tell you, right now, that pushing your other team-mate away will only make things worse. Wait," she said, holding up a hand when Tenten looked as if she wanted to interject. "Yes, you are pushing him away; not relying on each other is just as good as that. And it will not help. At all." Her honey eyes were hard and serious and imploring all at the same time.
Tenten swallowed, not sure what to say. A hoarse 'thank you, Hokage-sama' forced its way out of her throat. The Godaime appraised her for moments more before turning her attention back to her desk and waving her away.
Tenten wasn't much for parallels, but when she vacated the Hokage's office, she leaned against the door for a few minutes, eyes closed and body tense, and she thought.
Minutes later, she opened her eyes just in time to see Neji disappearing around the corner. Jiraiya was leaning against the wall, looking after him.
Tenten hated funerals. Theirs was no exception.
Neji had been asked to say a few words; he declined. She'd prepared something, but when the time came she… couldn't. Just couldn't. Couldn't condense their meaning and their worth into a ceremony that did nothing, nothing to commemorate the beautiful thing that had been their life as a collective whole. Couldn't find the words that would adequately describe them. Couldn't stand before her village and pretend to be strong, because a chain is nothing without the other links, nothing.
Sakura and Kakashi stood in for her, and Tenten stood in the crowd, crying into her hands where she would have normally cried on Lee's shoulder; leaning against a wall where she would have normally leaned on Gai.
Neji was nowhere in sight.
She knew better than to think she would find him at the cenotaph, where their names had been freshly carved into the cold, hard stone monument. Instead, she headed straight for the top of the Hokage tower.
He was sitting on the couch, head thrown back to the clear midday sky. He didn't stir, not when Tenten appeared, not when she approached, not when she sat at his feet, back propped up against the couch. The only sound was his even, smooth breathing.
Tenten didn't know where to start.
She wanted to tell him so much, and at the same time, she wanted to maintain this silence so as to give him a little more time to discern that all she really wanted was for him to give her some sort of sign that he…
"Jiraiya-sama spoke to me."
Tenten whipped her head around in shock. He was looking down at her now. Lines around his silvery eyes showed his exhaustion and fatigue.
Tenten's voice felt scratchy and strange.
"…Yeah? About what?"
"A lot of things," he said shortly. Tenten thought he was going to leave it at that when he continued: "I've heard a lot of them before. I didn't listen. I was… foolish."
We were both stupid, she wanted to say, but all she could do was look up at him, look, feed off of the worlds of strength in his eyes that were translucent and beautiful and mirroring all those tears she wanted to shed; not physically, but in their depths. She wanted to say a lot, but she could only look at him, and think of the one simple thing that she could not yet say; the one thing that ripped at her heart and her head and her throat.
Tentatively, she lifted a hand, let it rest on his knee. It was a few seconds before he covered it with his own, and her heart broke with relief. She could feel her throat clogging up.
"I—I miss them so much," she rasped, and tightened her hold on his knee.
"…Yes," he said simply, and Tenten shattered. Blindly, she reached for him, and he was there, awkward and strong and warm and there when she needed him the most, because sometimes later was better than sooner. He slid to the floor, held her while she cried, and together, they mourned their team-mates.
A/N: :D Feel free to call me a bastard and tell me how much I made you cry.