Author's Notes: In my defense, I did say at the end of An Everlasting Vow that something sad and dark would be coming along. And this is SAD and DARK. So do not say I didn't warn you
Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto and am making no profit from this fan fiction.
The day could not have been more beautiful. It was so ill-fitting that she would later wring herself mentally dry trying to remember every groove in the trees, each wisp of cloud in the soft sky that bore a jeweled sun.
Lee was following them from nearly a mile behind, covering the clues of travel that Tenten and Neji left in their wake as Team Gai raced back to the border of Fire, where they could not be detained nor their mission target (formerly kidnapped, seven year-old son of the daimyo's chief advisor) confiscated from their possession by the Grass-nin that had pursued them for almost half a week.
The border crossed, Neji called to her that a fight was inevitable now that the enemy had gained so much and Konoha was still so far out of range. The most reasonable thing to do had their full team been present would be to stay and battle while one person continued on with the advisor's son.
Unfortunately, Lee had yet to meet up with them even when using the advantage of his superior speed, and this scenario left the Hyuuga and weapons mistress in a rather crippling scenario. There was no way only one of then could remain; six Grass Jounin were approaching their two-person cell. Reduced, that left them in the same position as three against one. Cutting their current number in half was out of the question.
Tenten's eyes, like wood lacquered with her frustration, flitted to her partner. "Neji?"
Neji had lowered himself to bent knee and spoke into the ear of the boy he had been toting for the last several miles. Reading the shifting emotions on his face, Tenten saw that the child barely of age to enter the Academy was first shaken by fear, then planted with the resolve only a young creature can claim. Before Tenten could inquire into the plan, the boy was fleeing, his bird-like legs carrying him down the row of bushes that would become a thick clump of trees angled like pointing fingers toward Konoha.
"What are you," she began, but Neji shook his head. Tenten noted that he had activated Byakugan.
"There's no time to explain," he said, already slipping into a combat stance although the Grass-nin were not within her normal sight. "The boy will return safely. You must trust me, Tenten."
It was just a subtle reminder from a comrade before a battle. That Tenten did, of course, trust Neji was not an issue in question.
"How long until they're here?"
"Two minutes. A little less."
Her gloved fists clenched at the news, the fabric groaning from the tension. Preparing, Tenten placed a hand on the scroll at her back, ready to unroll it at a moment's notice. With taut mind but loose body, she reviewed the pre-battle mental checks learned from Gai years ago. Steady breath, even footing...
Neji interrupted the flow, and she looked at him. His eyes, veined at the edges and steely with chakra, locked onto hers. "It's going to be very difficult without Lee."
He didn't intend to startle her, she knew, but the confession was unsettling nonetheless. Hyuugas were raised to resist weakness. It was the one family lesson Neji had always taken to heart, and the fact that he was now communicating doubt, however tersely, came as a surprise even to the woman who possibly knew him better than anyone else.
A reasonable question would have been to ask what were the odds of victory, but Tenten quickly decided she didn't want to know. Instead, she unstrapped the scroll from its place, untied it so that it could be thrown open. They had taken the best route available to them. Whether the road led to failure or not was beyond their control.
"Neji," she said. "I think you should know something." She had a bad feeling, and her eyebrows drew together above her frown. There was a force inside, coiling, demanding relief. "I should tell you—"
"Later," he murmured, because he had to.
The Grass-nin came, a half dozen armed with fists that could cut wind, their kunai like lethal birds shining in unwavering lines at them. Tenten darted into the sky, landing on a tree branch for a fraction of a second before offering herself to open space and setting her scroll swirling around her. A volley of her steel rendered theirs utterly useless. Below, Neji had started the Kaiten, drawing one Grass shinobi into the cyclone and killing him in seconds. In the ten years since their initiation into Team Gai, he had refined the defensive move into an assault as well.
Their synchronized method of fighting was the reason they made a perfect partnership, but Lee was still away, and thus they were only two-thirds of a perfect team. And the team was needed now.
Tenten managed to take out one, and another she incapacitated with a winding chain that wrapped around his body. She knocked him unconscious with a small iron ball.
After Neji canceled the heartbeat of a ninja wielding a scythe, there were only two left. But they were two that had not fought at all for the better part of the last hour, allowing their four team members to take on the Konoha ninja without their help.
There was a reason for it.
Neji and Tenten were considered among the Konoha elite, but even they could not stave off four enemies of their own rank and not suffer physical repercussions. Neji's movements had slowed, his fist attacks coming with less strength. And the shinobi he had dispatched had been fast, enough so that Byakugan was actually draining him of chakra more swiftly than it normally did.
Now, Tenten was running out of weapons. Shoshuryu, improved from her Genin days to be more powerful and also more costly in terms of strength, was something she saved for a final blow. In the narrow woods, its use was presently out of the question, and she was then forced to enter into close combat with the Grass shinobi who came at her with only a standard, long-bladed katana. Tenten allowed herself a small smile. Even in her weakened state, she could do better than that.
She summoned a fistful of smoke bombs, disorienting the shinobi and giving Neji a moment to breathe before taking on the vicious-eyed kunoichi who oddly seemed to lead with her feet during a fight. The battle raged, but sweat coated Konoha skin more thickly than Grass, and Neji and Tenten lacked the upper hand.
"Tenten!" She heard Neji's call when she threw the shinobi off balance while Neji stunned the kunoichi, although both would right themselves only too soon. "Plan Stem!"
Tenten took the second needed to gather her memory. The code he demanded called for a joined attack in which Neji aligned their opponents for Tenten's aiming of a pointed spike on a cable, a weapon that was foolish to use in most battles but perfect for Plan Stem, named for the straightness into which the enemies were lured.
Nodding vigorously as she saw the large-jawed shinobi straighten himself, noticeably angrier, "All right!" she agreed.
Neji spent an extra spurt of chakra to run up to the kunoichi, goading her with the proximity, then dashing away toward Tenten's opponent. The kunoichi chased after.
Tenten landed on another tree branch, forming the necessary hand seal, and then the called-upon weapon was in her grip. Crouching, she waited for Neji's signal.
The Hyuuga cornered both Grass ninja by aiming streams of chakra in a way that they had to back up to avoid, then lifted his right hand, fingers together, palm facing Tenten. That was it. Tenten jumped up from the branch just as Neji leaped away. She brought the long rod out to her side, aiming the deadly point in a way that would spear both of them to the adjacent tree trunk.
The kunoichi of Grass, eyes flashing murderously, sent a hand diving into her hip pouch. Neji moved faster than Tenten's eyes could so much as widen, and the rest was a blur; characters in black ink, the chime of metal through metal, a spray of blood, a flash of light, heat, and smoke.
The Grass ninja were dead in an instant. Hyuuga Neji, on the other hand, had been thrown eight feet to the left, and he lay on his stomach in the foot-flattened path. From her point of safety in the tree, Tenten stood momentarily shell-shocked. When the paralysis subsided, nothing on earth or elsewhere could have prevented her from reaching Neji's side.
Tenten had seen the exploding tag, but Neji had seen it sooner with his doujutsu and had reacted by racing forward and grabbing the kunoichi's wrist before it could be thrown at her bun-haired enemy. The jostle had set off the tag, right after Neji had stepped wittingly into the path of her blade – which, judging by the hole in the left of his torso, had gone right through him and through the two others, who had received the brunt of the explosion.
Tenten saw immediately that everything on Neji's right side from the shoulder down was charred. His night-colored hair was still steaming. The pale shirt of the Hyuuga clan was a mottled mess of black dirt and red blood blooming through the fabric.
She was afraid to touch him, his chakra signature so faint. Tenten did not realize he was even conscious before his somehow still-commanding voice said, "Turn me over."
"Y-you're hurt, Neji, " she stammered, feeling too many things to keep her voice straight. "Moving you could—"
She could never have denied him the wish. His bruised but mostly undamaged head was balanced on her thigh, the rest of him remaining as still as possible on the ground.
"What were you saying before?" he murmured through a dry throat.
She had nearly forgotten but not really. She never truly could forget. "Neji..." And neither, it seemed, could she speak. "Oh gods, Neji."
His hand, cracked and bleeding, rose just slightly to touch her arm. "Tell me." His eyes were open, if drooping, on hers. They asked what he could not quite manage to.
"I love you." Why did it have to sound so bitter and misplaced and wrong and guilty?
But he smiled, the smile he wore when they took tea in quiet spring mornings or came away alive from a difficult battle. Which hurt. "I know, Tenten." The fingers on her arm tightened a little. "You know," he said between a sudden bout of coughing, "things like this, they...happen...the tag..."
What he was trying to say, she realized amid rising tears, was that her weapon had not been the tool for his assassination. The Grass kunoichi's exploding tag carried the guilt. In a moment of wild insanity, Tenten wished that woman were still alive so she could kill her in a fouler way.
The pallid eyes appeared to dim a little as he said, "Tenten...I..." The eyes closed just as his fingers fell from her arm. All around them, the heat of the day set the air trembling. It shimmered like a tribute for the fallen shinobi. Her body crumpled forward so that her forehead gently touched his, Neji's blood mingling with Tenten's sweat.
Lee found them five minutes later. An hour after, Tsunade would accept the body Lee carried and perform an autopsy, confirming the truth of Neji's words to his broken team. Tenten would barely hear her.
In the moment Tenten blamed herself for killing Hyuuga Neji, the day could not have been more beautiful.