Notes: Er. Hi. Anyone remember this?

Yeah. No excuse, I know. Enjoy? It's the end?


CHAPTER SIX - In which Neji discovers (most of) the truth

"Hey there, Silver Eyes," she said, smiling. There was a very large knife in her hand.

"Hello," he said, watching his footwork as he stepped in a circle around her.

"You need to understand," she said. "This isn't personal."

"For you it isn't," he said, and she lunged.


Outside of Ayame's, Hokage Avenue was silent. Four in the morning was a lull time; Ayame's more rowdy visitors had just left, and the workaholic businessmen who went to trade and sign contracts in the brick buildings on Seventeenth were still snug in their beds. His revolver heavy in his holster, Neji wondered yet again why exactly he was stumbling behind a very graceful Tenten as she crept down the alley towards the alcove behind the trash cans.

Sakura Haruno had threatened to tie him to her kitchen table if he didn't stay, but Sasuke and Naruto had seen his side of things – not to mention that he'd had the support of Shikamaru Nara, who was probably hoping he would get shot – and coerced her into letting him come.

Sakura, despite throwing a fit of biblical proportions, was back at the office, under the somewhat dubious guard of their boss and landlord, Sarutobi.

Naruto and Sasuke were within Ayame's itself, subduing the guards and Ayame and staking out the staircase. They didn't anticipate having much trouble. From the sounds of the phone call that Lee and Neji had interrupted – it had been that morning, he realized suddenly, less than twenty-four hours ago, but it felt like ages – she wasn't exactly happy under Tsunade's heavy hand.

Tenten held up a hand to halt his movement, and she slithered her body, in a pair of wide-legged woolen slacks and a Chinese-style silk shirt that didn't hamper her movements, around the trashcans. From the alleyway, Neji heard her tap the melody she had been humming earlier against the wood.

"Neji," she hissed. "Get over here." He crossed the corner, and found Tenten holding her first above the open door with a curious look on her face. "It was unlocked," she whispered. "Stay close, this is odd."

Tenten shut the door behind him, and he anticipated the all-encompassing darkness of his previous visit. It was a little lighter this time, and he realized that there was the scattered outline of a door somewhere before them.

He felt Tenten's small hands on his arms, and they slid down quickly, finding the buckle on his belt. She hooked a finger through one of the belt loops of his pants and tugged, guiding him swiftly. He could only see her body when the dark block of its presence dampened the lighted outline of the door.

"Shh," whispered Tenten right against his ear, her lips brushing the hair behind it.

She was pulling him to the right of the glowing door, and let go of his belt loop to pull at some handle. The door opened, the rush of light blinding them for a second, revealing the room where Tsunade had been hours earlier. She was still there, alone, behind the desk. She was writing something, but stopped upon seeing them.

"Tenten," she said, smiling. "Come back, have you?"

The presence of her former employer wasn't expected, but Tenten appeared unperturbed as she stepped into the room. Neji followed behind her, not quite sure what to do. "No," replied Tenten a little cheerfully. "You took my friend, I believe."

"Ah," said Tsunade. "So you're still persisting in being high-minded, are you?"

"If you mean that I still think you're an immoral cow, then yes, I am still high-minded," said Tenten. "What you're doing is wrong."

"The Americans dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima," hissed Tsunade. "You know that they destroyed my entire hometown. I doubt any of my family is alive anymore, and you think that I am the immoral one?" Her hands twitched, tightening on her pen.

"Biological weapons are not moral," said Tenten firmly. "I deal in steel and iron, as should you. I won't sully my designs with toxins, no matter what you tell me to do."

"Too bad," replied Tsunade, mouth twisted. "I would have welcomed you back, you know."

"I doubt it," said Tenten, and she dropped out of the way a second before a gunshot barreled through where her head had been. She used her momentum to drop her behind a bookshelf to her right, and Neji followed her with a dive a half-second later.

"Predictable," muttered Tenten, and she slid one of her knives out of a holster under her shirt. "Neji, can you head on?"

He nodded, more because his ribs were throbbing than out of any monosyllabic tendencies. He was at the other end of the bookshelf, scouting around the corner when he heard her mutter, "Might as well," and her small hand was tugging on the back of his shirt. He turned and she pressed her body against his and kissed him quickly, her fingers tapping his chest and staying there instead of wandering.

Kissing her took most of his breath, and he had to take in an audible gasp of air when they finished. She smiled sleepily, her lips as red as her shirt, and scurried back to the other end of the bookshelf.

Reminding himself of his objective, Neji turned and peeked down the thin passage between the ends of the bookshelves and the wall itself. There was a break, about two feet down, where an archway was cut into the wall. He didn't take his eyes off of it, straining past the blood in his ears to hear the signal.

There was a thud and then a staccato of gunfire. Neji threw himself into the archway, making sure to skid on his knees and save his ribs most of the pain. The archway led, exactly as Tenten had said, into a small room where Ino Yamanaka sat, trussed up like a Christmas goose.

Crossing the small room in two strides, Neji sliced Ino's bonds and handed her the smaller of his two revolvers. As he recovered his breath, she expertly checked the rounds and practiced releasing the safety. "Shika taught me," she explained quietly.

"You won't need to use it," said Neji. "We don't want a gunfight, and Tsunade's people seem to be gone. When you get out of this room, turn to the left, stay low, and hurry until the end. There's a door there, and when Tsunade's distracted, leave. Sasuke and Naruto are upstairs in Ayame's, and Shikamaru is in the building next door with a rifle on the third landing. Wave your hand like this so he doesn't shoot" and he showed her "and then make for the corner entrance. Join him."

Ino nodded, face serious, and then half-grinned. "I think that's the most I've ever heard you say in one breath, Hyuuga," she said.

"Hn," replied Neji. At the archway, he pushed Ino to the left and stayed in the nearest row of bookshelves. Titles like Biological Diseases and Their Origins sat next to The JANE 1914-1934 List of Military Aircraft. Despite his best attempts at cushioning, his ribs ached something fierce. He waited, counting slowly, the time that Shikamaru had estimated it would take her to reach the door. When there were no cries or gunshots after sixty seconds of strained counting, he knew that she had made it out.

There was no noise, in fact. No voices. No footsteps. Not even the whisper of Tenten's silk shirt. Utter silence.

His only excuse was that pain made him criminally stupid. He turned the corner and stepped into the central aisle. Tsunade's desk was empty, her papers mussed. There was no sign of either Tsunade or Tenten, except that most of Tenten's holster of knives appeared to be lying on the floor.

"Hey there, Silver Eyes," she said from behind him.

He turned, and Tsunade stood between him and the exit. He could see Ino's back as she scrambled through the door into the alley. "Hello," he said.

"You need to understand," she said almost apologetically, moving the knife from her left hand to her right. "This isn't personal."

Neji couldn't tell if the red dancing along the edge of her knife was blood or simply a reflection of her dress. "For you it isn't," he replied. She lunged.

As it was, fighting Tsunade with a half dozen sprained ribs and a minor concussion turned out not to be one of the greatest decisions Neji Hyuuga ever made. Dancing away from her knife, Neji twisted and dove for one of the bookshelves. He grabbed a handful of books and threw them at her, but she dodged easily.

"Where's Tenten?" he asked, wheezing.

"She's resting," replied Tsunade. "Why don't you join her?" Neji wasn't usually the type to hit a woman, but when she was aiming to take his head off he found that he could make an exception. The first hit glanced, and before he could collect enough equilibrium to hazard a second, Tsunade found an opening and thrust.

The slash opened the front of his shirt and sliced his tie in half. He stumbled backwards and the momentum pushed her in the opposite direction. Naruto, who had apparently finally decided to join the party downstairs, caught her mid-flail. "Hello, Tsunade," he said. "Are you the bitch who murdered my friend Hinata?"

"Don't kill her," said Neji, stumbling over the words. He was staring, a little uncomprehending, at the gash through the gauze that Sakura had used to bind his ribs. "Give her to the Hyuugas."

"Gladly," said Naruto, smiling unpleasantly.

The butt of a pistol to her temple knocked her unconscious. As they disarmed her and tied her with a bit of rope that was in her desk, Naruto explained that the club upstairs, too, was empty. More concerned with their personal safety than the mystery, Neji didn't ask questions. Shikamaru would have sent Ino to the Hyuuga compound by now, and they could expect a full infantry of Hyuuga goons within a few minutes. Not wanting to be there when it happened, Sasuke left a clearly printed note – written and signed by Neji, self-exiled former member of the Hyuuga family – pinned to the alley door.

Tenten, unharmed except for a few nasty scratches, was unconscious behind Tsunade's desk, slumped over the chair. They loaded her – breathing, but still knocked out – into the backseat of Ayame's car and left quickly. Sakura, found holed up with a tome in Neji's office, bit her lower lip and said that no trip to the hospital was necessary. Many of the scratches had already stopped bleeding, and Tsunade apparently kept her weapons clean enough that infection wasn't a concern.

He was half-asleep, slumped in a desk chair by the ratty couch in the lobby of the building, when Tenten awoke. "Hey, cowboy," she said in a raspy voice. "How'd we pull?"

"Fine," he said, straightening up and wincing at the tug in his ribs. "We left Tsunade with a note for the Hyuugas. Shikamaru made sure no one downtown asks any questions. Ino is fine."

"What about you?" she croaked.

"Uchiha and Uzumaki came at an opportune moment," he said, grimacing. She laughed, wincing a second later. Neji sympathized.

"How long have I been out?"

"Not long. A few hours."

"Is it bad?"

"You'll scar."

She snorted. "If that's the worst of it, I'll live."

Neji waited as she settled back into the couch. Unusually impatient, he decided to take their short conversation as invitation to ask the questions that were still left unanswered. "What did you do as Tsunade's apprentice?" he asked.

"Design, mostly," she said, shrugging minutely. Again she winced, breathing heavily. She waited a few minutes and then began again. "Shizune took care of the paperwork, but I helped Tsunade create the new goods, particular only to her specially-produced Orochimaru line. Knives, pistols, occasionally long-distance weapons. When she started talking about bringing biological weapons into production – and let me tell you, those things are a bitch to contain – I tried to talk her out of it. When that didn't work, I left. Mind you, I left with most of her production specs in my head, but that wasn't something I could leave behind." She had paused for frequent breaths, but was now finished.

"So, annoyed with your defection, she kidnapped Hinata and threatened to kill her unless you returned?"

"No," said Tenten. "Well, in a way. She said she would hand Hinata over to Akatsuki."

Neji paused in the act of stretching his muscles. "Does that sound like Tsunade to you?"

She looked at him curiously. "Well, no. It never did – not quite her style. She's more the type to keep Hinata around as long as she was useful. But the message came straight from Ayame, so I never questioned it."

"Curious, is it not?"

Tenten's eyes flew to a spot over Neji's shoulder. He twisted carefully, and there was a figure in a familiar black trench coat in the doorway. Neji wondered how he'd gotten past Sarutobi and Shikamaru in the first room. "Yes," said Tenten. "Why did Ayame give me that misleading message?"

The newcomer did not smile, but there was amusement in his black eyes. He was an almost twin physically to Sasuke, with the same eyes and hair. His was long, like Neji's, and held back in a neat tail. There were deep lines carved under his eyes – exhaustion, maybe, or stress from having murdered all but one of his family.

"Hmm," he said, standing almost unnaturally still. "I had more faith in the detecting skills of my foolish little brother." His gaze flickered from Tenten's body, battered on the couch, to Neji. "And yours, Hyuuga. After all, you grew up with Hiashi Hyuuga. Surely you are aware of what motivates him."

Tenten's look of irritable confusion faded quickly. "Grew up?" she asked, but Neji was already thinking. Neither emotions nor money nor care for his family motivated a man like Hiashi. Power, really, was what drove him, and in the Hyuuga family power was almost directly related to honor. It wouldn't have been honorable to ambush Akatsuki under the flag of truce – he would have lost standing with the other families outside of the city.

He didn't know why he hadn't noticed it before, except he'd been blinded by old hatred for his uncle and a mellowing knock on the head.

And if Hiashi didn't truly mean to ambush Akatsuki, why would he have agreed with Tsunade to do it . . . why would Ayame send the threat . . . unless . . .

"Allies."

Itachi Uchiha's lips twitched. It might have been the beginning of a smirk.

"You and Hiashi were allying against Tsunade, and Ayame was your inside." Tenten looked confused again.

"Nicely done," said Itachi.

"Why?" Neji asked. He wasn't sure if he was asking why they allied or why Itachi felt the need to taunt his brother and come and tell Neji and Tenten about it personally.

"Tsunade is going mad. Her family's death during Hiroshima was only the beginning. Her people left her. Her lieutenants fled – Ayame to Akatsuki, Shizune to the Hyuugas." His voice was inflectionless, the words flat. "I cannot upset Hyuuga rule with an insane weapons dealer."

Behind Itachi were two men, both extremely tall. The left was missing half the collar of his trench; the other had a familiar head of closely cut platinum blond hair. The blond raised his hand and gave a half-wave in Neji's direction. The other radiated surliness.

"Why are you here?" asked Tenten. Her voice petered off at the end of her sentence.

Itachi smiled, although it was more of a baring of teeth. "You were Tsunade's apprentice. Will you take the position?"

Tenten's eyes widened and then narrowed. "I'll want contracts, of course. Signed, by both Akatsuki and the Hyuuga family."

"Of course," said Itachi mildly. "I'll pass the news onto Hiashi. Get better, Tenten." He and his men left.

Neji looked at Tenten, who appeared to be a bit shocked. "You knew this would happen eventually," he said, his voice taking on the flat tone of Itachi Uchiha.

"Not since I left," she replied, looking at her feet.

"Will you take it?"

Her toes curled. "Yes."

"Hn," he said, and waited.

"Aren't you going to leave?" she finally asked. "I'm going to be a dangerous person to be around pretty soon, Mr. Hyuuga."

"I'll manage," he said. In the silence of the room, he could hear Sasuke and Naruto bicker in the next room over.

"Speaking of dangerous people," she continued, picking at the knit of the blanket draped over her. "You grew up with Hiashi Hyuuga? I thought you weren't related."

"We are no longer," Neji told her. "I was once his nephew. He killed my father five years ago, and I exiled myself from the family."

"So Hinata was your cousin?"

"Yes."

"I'm sorry." She hesitated. "I guess Hinata mentioned you, sometimes. Her favorite cousin. She said – you used to protect her?"

"From her father, yes."

"Hmm. I guess both of us were liars, weren't we?" Tenten pulled her gaze from her blanket. "You know," she said, and her eyes crinkled in amusement, "I told you I was a damsel in distress. That, at least, was true."

He raised an eyebrow. "You weren't in distress."

"I was a little."

"Not quite."

Tenten laughed suddenly, hard enough that she had to clutch her chest and wheeze. "Oh, Mr. Hyuuga, I do hope that you continue to stay around. Itachi and Hiashi don't seem to have a very good sense of humor."

"Call me Neji," he said.


. . . and thus it ends. Surprise? Horror? Stupefaction? Confusion? How about general thoughts?