Author's note: This is a sad one. Lee/Tenten friendship, and a character death. Please review, as I would love to know what you think.
ANBU brings them back to the village one rainy Thursday morning. Rock Lee stands soaking wet at Konoha's main gate and watches in disbelief as they carry his teammate in. Of the twenty or so ninja that had left on a secret mission nearly a week ago, only two are returned as evidence of the Village Hidden in the Leaves' greatest military blunder.
They hand the white-clad Neji over to the two deathly pale but dry-eyed Hyuga sisters. Behind them, their father has tears silently streaming down his stern face, mixing in with the falling rain. It is then that Lee actually realizes his friend is dead.
Hard work can beat out natural talent.
"Hey! You! Get out of the way!"
Lee whirls around and has to leap quickly to the side of the muddy road as two field medics run past carrying a stretcher. It takes his numbed mind a very long time-- too long-- to realize that it is Tenten they are rushing to the hospital. He hurries after, knowing as a shinobi does that his duty is with the living.
Lee waits for hours outside of the operating room. Outside the pouring rain stops and the unseen sun goes down and still there is no news. All Lee can think of are his friends; the one who is dead, and the one who is likely dying. Why them? Neither had deserved such a fate.
Finally, a pink-haired medical kunoichi slips from the room and, not noticing him, leans back against the beige wall and closes her tired green eyes.
"Sakura?" he questions quietly. Once, he would have been awed even to be here speaking to her, but that is in the past. Now, he just desperately needs some-- any-- news.
"Oh, Lee." Surprised, Sakura wipes her misting eyes and struggles to become professional again. It is very hard. "She's going to live, we think. Lady Tsunade is finishing up with her now."
He does not know what to say. Grief and elation war within him, blending into a feeling unlike anything he has ever experienced.
Sakura comes over slowly and takes the folding chair next to him. For a long time, they simply stare at the closed doors of the surgery together.
"Lee, I don't really know how to tell you this," Sakura begins, trailing off as the words become too difficult. This has always been the hardest part of her job. She sighs wearily, then starts again. "There's a good chance Tenten won't be the same. They-- they did some horrible things to her." Another pause, as she tries-- and fails-- to delicately frame a hard question. "And Neji's dead, isn't he?"
Her voice is gentle, but it cuts like a knife just the same. Lee looks away, unable to face both his friend and the reality of it all. He does not want to hear Neji's fate put into words, and he does not want to reply to her query. In the end, he just nods.
Sakura's hands fist into her bloody smock, and she hangs her head, dejected. Another of her childhood acquaintances dead, fallen in the line of duty. And she knows, perhaps better than anyone else, what Tenten's pain will be like.
"I will take care of her," Lee pronounces suddenly and with whatever confidence he can muster.
Sakura believes him.
They bury Neji on Saturday in a small grave at their favorite old training field. A tiny headstone bearing his name is the only testament to one of the village's most talented ninja. "This is what he would have wanted," Hinata says, smiling sadly. She knows that he was happiest with his team.
After the funeral, the heiress heads to the hospital and presses her cousin's dull, scratched forehead protector into an unconscious Tenten's palm. It is still there a week later when she wakes for the first time.
Lee visits Tenten every afternoon, and he always brings a gift. Sometimes it is a juicy orange and at other times it is a blooming flower, but it is always something hand-picked and designed to make her smile. She never does, but that fact does not deter Lee in the least. This is Tenten, his teammate, and he will save her no matter what.
The wounds knit, the fever leaves, and the weight begins to come slowly back. Tenten is on the road to recovery, her young body healing remarkably well. Her mind, though, is an entirely different matter. Since that is not something Sakura can fix, she is discharged after three months.
Lee, knowing Tenten is unable to care for herself, locks up her apartment and places her in the small spare room of his own home, where he can look after her properly.
At first, Tenten does nothing. For days on end she lays in bed and sometimes, but rarely, eats whatever Lee prepares for her in an attempt to coax her back to life. And then, one day in late spring, he suddenly finds her sitting in a rocking chair next to the window. Still silent, she begins watching the sky.
Her behavior is so odd and constant that a visiting Shikamaru is heard to comment, "Okay, the cloud's aren't that interesting."
Lee says nothing, just turns away. Like Tenten, he has seen the two wrens building a nest in the huge tree outside the window.
She will never have that.
Another month passes, and Tenten's scarred body is fully healed. She can now carry herself to the restroom, and safely bathe, clothe, and feed herself, although Lee still has to remind her to complete these simple tasks. Her broken mind does not allow her to care about things like hygiene.
And so, one sunny summer morning, Lee comes to see her as she sits in the customary rocking chair, watching the baby birds. He hugs her gently and tells her to take good care of herself. "There's a bowl of fruit salad in the refrigerator if you get hungry. And, never fear, I will bring home the most delicious curry you have ever eaten! Not too hot of course."
There is no response, as usual.
Staring down at her, Lee feels almost sick. How can he leave Tenten when she will not even look at him? The answer is painfully simple; Tsunade had decreed that he go back to his duties as a shinobi. For once, Lee thinks that being a ninja-- even a splendid one-- is a waste of time. It does not save your friends.
"I must be off to passionately train and attempt to regain my vigorous youth!" The words sound forced and hollow, even to his ears.
But as Lee turns to go, Tenten nods once, showing she has understood him. His heart rises a little at that.
When he returns home after a few hours, Tenten is gone. Panicking, Lee looks everywhere, only to discover that she is not in the house.
Desperate, Lee takes to the streets, rushing headlong down the alleys and calling her name, careless of the curious looks he gets from passerby. He checks everywhere, the length and breadth of Konoha: Tenten's old apartment, the Hyuga estate, the Academy, Ichiraku, even the hospital and the morgue. Anywhere she might have gone.
Despair clutching his aching heart, Lee stumbles into their childhood training grounds, and-- miraculously-- there Tenten is, leaning against Neji's tombstone in the late afternoon sun. She appears to be dozing, her chocolate eyes closed. In her frail hand is Neji's forehead protector, her thumb running lightly across its battered metal surface.
The tears come then; relief at finding his friend safe mixes with grief that has been pushed aside for too long, and Rock Lee kneels in the dust next to her and cries. After what feels like forever, he chokes back a racking sob and whispers hoarsely. "Tenten, what are you doing here?"
For the first time in a long time, she turns to face up towards his, and he catches his breath. Her eyes are clear, shining the way they used to. "Neji never did like to be without this," she whispers, holding the fading headgear out to him.
Lee grabs her smaller hand, the protector squeezed between their palms, and helps her up. "Do not worry," he sniffs. "We shall bring it to him every afternoon. Now, let us go home."
As he leads her away, Tenten retreats into herself once more.
The season drifts slowly by, and Tenten's mental state begins to improve. Every afternoon, after Lee finishes training, they go together and visit with Neji. Sometimes Lee leaves Tenten alone; there are, after all, some things she can only say to the Hyuga. Mostly though, they just sit together in the warm sunshine and talk quietly about the days when they were young and carefree.
Although it pains them both, each day at dinner time they say goodbye to their oldest friend and walk slowly home.
And when they get there, Tenten still manages to talk to him.
As they leave the lonely grave one fall evening, Tenten stops and lays Neji's worn forehead protector gently onto his tombstone. She pauses like that and sheds a few tears, while the sun dies away behind her. Then, after a few heartbeats, she turns resolutely away.
Lee's ebony eyes go wide at the sacrificial gesture, and his voice is awed. "Tenten, are you sure?"
She does not say anything, simply nods, and he takes her hand and leads her back home.
That night as Lee prepares to climb into bed there is a creak on the floorboards behind him. He turns to see Tenten there, looking lonely and small and a more than a little afraid. He can tell she is missing Neji and the protection she felt when she held onto his headband. He opens his mouth to speak, to tell her that she will be okay, when outside the wind picks up and a window shutter bangs loudly against the wall.
Tenten's reaction is instantaneous. She drops into a crouch and wraps her arms around herself, wide-eyed and shaking. To Lee's horror, she begins to hyperventilate.
They did some horrible things to her.
His heart breaking, Rock Lee gathers her into his arms and whispers words of friendship and love. He lays her on the bed and curls up with her the way they used to do when they were genin, back when the world was a simpler place and there was a third person sharing the futon, albeit somewhat unwillingly. After a long time, her trembling stops and her breathing returns to normal. They drift off to sleep.
Outside, it begins to rain.
Lee wakes just before midnight to the sounds of a thunderstorm and a cold, empty bed. His heart pounding, he begins another frantic search, only to realize that it is as before. After seeking Tenten inside the small house itself, he hurries out into the chilly deluge.
Lee finds her lying on the worn forest path, halfway to their training ground. Tenten is soaked through, her clothes clinging to her thin frame, and shivering. A strange mist covers her dark eyes and Lee can tell she has one foot in the grave already. Clutched in her white hand is Neji's scratched forehead protector.
Lee wants to yell and scream and curse and cry, but none of those things will do him any good, and so he lifts Tenten's limp body and goes running full speed for the hospital. And all the while he wonders if he has lost to his rival once more.
Later, as he sits dripping in the featureless beige hallway, Sakura comes to him. This time she stands before him in an official manner, her spine straight and her shoulders back, but she still looks incredibly sad. "I'm sorry, Lee. I know you said you would save her, that it was your promise of a lifetime, but--" She stops as her voice breaks.
Lee does not like where this conversation is going.
"Maybe you can't. Tenten needs watching, constant attention. She needs more care than you can give. Lady Tsunade says we should move her to another room here in the hospital and--"
"No!" Lee shouts. He is on his feet now, pacing carelessly through the puddle that has formed around him. "I will not let you! I made a mistake and I am sorry, but you cannot put Tenten in there." He is thinking of another wing of the hospital, where the mentally unstable patients are kept and monitored. The image of Tenten, scared and locked up, comes to mind. "No, you cannot. She will die if you do. She hates the hospital as it is!"
Tsunade steps out of Tenten's room and pulls the door shut behind her. Her red lips are pursed and her whole manner suggests anger. She fixes Lee with a cold stare. "She might die anyway, and you are of no use to the village as a babysitter. You've missed too many missions already."
Tsunade walks past him, and as she does, her face softens and becomes beautiful again. She places a gentle, manicured hand on his shoulder, but he shrugs it off. "Lee, I am sorry."
Her word is final.
In the ninja world, those who violate rules and disobey orders are considered scum. But those who abandon their comrades are even lower than that. What good is being a shinobi if you cannot protect the people you care most for?
Lee steals Tenten away that very night, right from the cheerless confines of the hospital, and flees Konoha with her. He knows that they will be declared missing-nin, placed in the Bingo Book and probably hunted, but all of that matters very little. Not when compared to the freedom of his best friend.
As he rushes along under the pale stars of the recently cleared sky, Tenten stirs upon his strong back. She is still very weak and her voice, when it comes, is little more than a croak. "Did Neji's forehead protector rust?"
"No," Lee says reassuringly, shifting her negligible weight. He feels her curl closer to his skin, seeking warmth and comfort. "It is fine, Tenten, undamaged. I have it safe in my pack. Now, please try to get some rest."
Tenten's short, murmured reply is lost to his ears.
As she drifts back to sleep, Lee allows himself the smallest of smiles. He has saved Tenten before, and he will again.
And that is his promise of a lifetime.