Author's Notes: So, I wanted to write something apocalyptic. Literally. This a venture into an alternate universe where, in the future, Sasuke and his new team finally invade Konoha and are WINNING. Lots of depressing angst and hopelessness. Just what we like, right? Obviously it's spoilerific for manga chapters up to 405. End of the world as we know it, folks. Have fun. Disclaimer: I own nothing. Make nothing. Know nothing. I'm not even here.
Author's Notes: So, I wanted to write something apocalyptic. Literally. This a venture into an alternate universe where, in the future, Sasuke and his new team finally invade Konoha and are WINNING. Lots of depressing angst and hopelessness. Just what we like, right? Obviously it's spoilerific for manga chapters up to 405. End of the world as we know it, folks. Have fun.
Disclaimer: I own nothing. Make nothing. Know nothing. I'm not even here.
AFTER SUNDOWN COMES THE NIGHT
"Neji, can you see it?"
She hates to ask but in that city of dust and debris, she can't see beyond the rubble of the nearest building. Coughing quietly, she waits at the base of a collapsed wall as Neji climbs the fallen stones, gravel skittering down with his every step. At the top, he pants and lifts two fingers.
The effort it takes is momentous, Tenten can see it in the way his shoulders tense and his jaw sets. He uses it for only a minute but by the time he slides back down his face is as white as his eyes, his skin almost translucent with exhaustion. They are all suffering from chakra depletion but Neji's case is the most dangerous. He is going to fall unconscious soon and she is not too proud to admit that the idea scares her. With Lee sprawled on her back, his arms hanging loose over her shoulders, she has only Neji to keep her moving. She can't carry both of them and they know from experience that nightfall is a bad time to be caught out in the open. She still bears the bruises from their last flight to safety.
"We're headed in the right direction," he tells her, the distinct hollowness of his voice greater than usual. "It's about two miles west of us." He pauses and she feels the ominous presence of more bad news in the silence. "There are Sound ninja between us and the Forest."
She closes her aching eyes briefly, tiredly. "Of course there are."
After Lee had fallen, she and Neji had mostly managed to avoid tangling with the teams of Sound-nin roaming the battered streets. With their wounds and low chakra, they were ripe targets and so had they had traveled quietly, stopping only to check that the Forest of Death still lay ahead of them. It is ironic, really, that the place that had tested their mettle as Genin is now the only safe haven left to them - at least until the Kyuubi or that giant snake smashed it into timber.
They continue on, the sun starting to set before them. They move from shadow to shadow, Neji in the lead with Tenten carrying Lee behind him. Though Tenten's stamina has never been exceptional, she is the one with the most chakra now, enough to lend a thread of support to her legs and arms. Neji could ill afford to spend any more energy than he already was.
The sky is almost completely dark when Neji suddenly stops and she has to sidestep to avoid running into him, her calves aching from bearing Lee's weight. He turns his head to look at her and she feels her stomach drop at the oddly apologetic look on his face.
He manages her name before he collapses and she feels a pang of guilt that she has no free arms with which to catch him. With careful movements, she kneels in the darkness beneath a sign that has fallen against the remains of a building, making a sort of lean-to. She props Lee up against the battered wall and checks his pulse with smudged fingers before going back for Neji. Without help, she's forced to drag him under the arms, his shoes making puffs of white dust in the dirt. When he's safely on his back under the lean-to, she drops to the ground beside him, breathing heavily, the edges of her vision blurring. After a moment, she tilts her head back to ease the stressed muscles in her neck and blinks at the black symbols above them.
Something lodges in her throat and she looks away, out into the vast destruction and toppled monoliths that have become her home.
Night comes too swiftly and with it, the explosions.
The first of them begin just as the stars come out, great pillars of orange and red searing the sky and shaking the earth enough to send pebbles raining down on her as debris shifts. The light casts strange, bold shadows over the city and far away Tenten hears an unearthly roar. It's the fox this time, she thinks, and hurriedly strings more wire over the shattered ramen stand where Neji and Lee are resting. She's buried makibishi in the ground but for a small path leading away from their campsite and laid trip wires that would dump a pile of rocks just in front of their shelter. She's got hand bombs and explosive tags and, of course, her personal arsenal of weaponry but she hopes she won't need to use any of them. Securing their safety had drained most of the remaining energy she had and there was still a long night to survive. With no one to relieve her, she would have to stay awake.
Neji is resting easily when she returns, his breathing soft and steady. His skin is still pale, making the halo of his dark hair that much darker by comparison, but the wound over his chest looks better and she sends a silent thanks to Hinata, wherever she may be. The Hyuuga heir had bumped up the healing process with her medical skills when they had run into her…three days ago? Had it only been three days? That Hinata had disappeared directly afterwards hadn't sat well with Neji but Tenten understood her reasons. Naruto was out there somewhere and, for once, Hinata knew exactly what she wanted to say to him.
Tenten rewraps Neji's chest with their dwindling medical supplies and gets a little of their precious water down him before turning to Lee. She'd moved him so he could lie side by side with Neji but the difference between the two of them is apparent. Lee's breathing is slightly labored and his temperature is a little higher than it should be, his eyebrows drawn together as if he is upset about something. The worse symptom, however, is the one that cannot be seen. Lee's chakra has not recovered at all since their last battle and she wonders if it's because he had to open too many Gates too quickly, the crazy guy, Suigetsu, hounding their every step. Whatever is wrong with him, it's not something she can fix. She's not a medic like Hinata or Sakura. She can't heal wounds, only make them.
Luckily, Lee still drinks when she coaxes him and she wishes she could make a fire and try to get him to swallow some warm broth but fire is not safe. Another lesson they had learned in the very first days, when they still thought they were winning.
She wonders who is out there fighting. Naruto? And who is his opponent? Sasuke? The reborn Orochimaru? Madara? The name gives her a chill. Of all of them, she fears and hates him the most, for as her weapons dance on her strings, so did Sasuke dance on his. She knew the moment she'd looked into that whirling red eye that he would not stop until Konoha was destroyed down to the very last stone, its people utterly crushed. After that, of course, she had not known anything for quite some time. The nightmare world Madara had sent her to could be very convincing.
With three so very powerful enemies converging on the same place, it was no wonder Konoha had fallen.
Something bursts close by and Tenten stiffens. It's not the epic battle being played out elsewhere, it's one of her tags. Carefully, she takes a handful of poisoned senbon from their sealed pouch and slips them between her fingers until she has a fist of deadly spines. Another tag goes off, this one close enough for her hear the hissing of the paper as it burns. She jumped up and away from her hiding place, blearily trying to keep her footing on a rooftop whose eastern half has been blown clear away. Down below she can see a shadow of a man paused just on the edge of her makibishi field, obviously sensing something amiss.
One. She can't sense any others. If it's one, she can do it.
She flies down at him like a stooping hawk and he lifts his head, the starlight dimly illuminating the musical note on his forehead protector. He reaches his hand back for the sword hilt rising over his shoulder but she's already too close now, his heart is within range—
His fist hits the side of her face and agony flares instantly, arching up behind her left eye. For a deadly second, she's completely stunned. Hadn't he been reaching for his weapon? Had she guessed wrong?
It doesn't matter.
Her head turns with the force of his blow but she angles her upper body in the opposite direction and slams her fistful of needles directly into his abdomen. He staggers back, choking, and she stands there and watches as her poison does her work for her. It's fast-acting and brutal and his death takes mere minutes. She leaves the needles and takes her weary body and bruised face back to the ramen stand, finding Neji and Lee just as she left them.
She sighs. It's going to be a long night.
Anxiety strikes her immediately and she chastises herself for falling asleep even as she looks to make sure her teammates are safe. They are. Lee is still out but Neji is sitting up, his long hair falling loose over his shoulders. In the dim light of pre-dawn it's hard to see but she thinks he looks better, the strain around his eyes less pronounced. His skin is its natural ivory and not the deathly white of yesterday. It was Neji who had called her.
"Neji," she says, and winces as the left side of her face pulls sorely. She picks up the water canteen and moves to his side to hand it to him. "How are you feeling?"
He takes a careful drink. "Better." Even without the Byakugan, he looks at her as if he knows exactly what's happened. "Who did you fight?"
Tenten shrugs. "A Sound-nin. He was alone."
"Did he give you that?" She blinks in confusion and he nodded towards her face, lifting his fingers to trace her left cheek. "You've got a black eye."
She gives him a rueful smile. "A lucky punch."
Neji's hand falls away from her and he turns his head to look at Lee, both of them silently watching their teammate's chest rise and fall for a moment.
"He hasn't woken since?" Neji asks and Tenten shakes her head.
"No. I think there's something wrong with his chakra system."
Neji's eyes narrow but, surprisingly, he doesn't use the Byakugan. "It might be safer to leave him depleted," the Hyuuga says instead, his voice carefully flat. He looks away from Lee and Tenten nods after a moment. With no chakra signature, Lee will not be a target for their enemies. However, transporting him has become difficult and with little rest, she will not get far carrying him. Having Neji take him is not an option. Of the two of them, it is more important for Neji to keep his hands free.
"You'll have to rework me," she says, folding her legs beneath her and straightening her spine. When he frowns at her, she shakes her head to forestall his objections. "We don't have time for me to recover any more energy. It's the only way I'll be of any use."
"That's not true," he answers, surprising her, but he turns his body to fully face her and she knows she's won. He activates the Byakugan and she keeps her eyes on his as he looks into her, mentally noting the sinuous paths of her chakra circuits. Then he lifts both hands and she braces herself out of reflex.
The Gentle Fist is aptly named. She barely feels him touch her but she can certainly tell when he starts shutting down certain tenketsu, redirecting her remaining chakra so that it runs only down a short, direct path – straight from her vital organs to her hands and feet. He blocks off the longer, less important routes, those to her eyes and intestines and spinal cord. She won't need them. With less places to travel, her limited chakra converges into main pathways, making her system more efficient though it has less fuel.
She breathes out when he finishes and tries not to notice the way Neji is watching her. He's never liked using that particular technique on her and she's well aware of the reason why. With her highly physical techniques, working with a tighter chakra system could be dangerous if she were to have to fight. Only a medic, with their pinpoint chakra precision, might make it intact.
"The Forest," she says, purposefully distracting him. "What do you see out there?"
He doesn't bother turning his head. "There's still a squad at the perimeter." She tenses but he makes a negative motion with one hand. "It doesn't appear they know about the relief route. One of their supply stations is there. The shinobi posted there are guards."
"A supply station…"
Neji cut her off before the idea had fully formed. "No, Tenten."
She frowns. "Why not? Most of our supply lines from the outlying villages have been cut. Our forces could use—"
Neji got to his feet. "You know as well as I do we can't manage it," he says but all Tenten hears is can't. It reminds her of who he was before Naruto came into their lives and when she looks closer, she can see it in the line of Neji's shoulders. The weight she thought was gone forever is there again, pressing down on him.
Her heart hurts a little but she rises awkwardly and follows him. It's all she knows how to do in that moment.
The supply station is manned by four ninja, one on all four sides. Neji describes this to her as they wait for the cover of night nearly a mile away, sheltered in an old bunker Tenten vaguely remembers from their Chuunin exam. One side has collapsed but the other walls seem sound and Tenten sits against one, Lee's head in her lap.
She feels light-headed and a little confused, her breathing sounding loud to her ears. She feels Neji's gaze settle on her and she looks up, brows furrowing.
"How many?" she asks. Something flickers in Neji's eyes.
"Four," he says again. He pauses for a moment and then continues, "They won't see us. We're too far away."
"Of course not," she agrees, "Gai-sensei will take care of them." He'd said as much to her earlier. Whatever is in your way, I will clear it!
Her teammate stills. "Tenten," he says, pronouncing each syllable in her name very clearly, slowly, "Gai-sensei is not here."
She blinks. "Oh." Oh.
After a moment, something wet trickles down her cheek and she touches it thoughtfully with a fingertip. How strange. She's crying but she can't remember why.
The sun has been down for an hour when she wakes up, crawls over to the corner and is horribly sick. Her fingers dig into the earth floor as her stomach cramps and then Neji is there, one cool hand on the back of her neck as she retches painfully. When finally it passes and she can breathe again, she looks at him out of the corner of her eye and she knows.
"We have to go now. I can't take anymore."
He nods and that single instant of clarity fades as he leaves her to gather their things. When he returns, she is surprised to see him.
"I thought you didn't want to see Tsunade-sama," she tells him, tilting her head slightly. He looks at her for a long moment and then very carefully takes her hand, helping her to her feet.
"I changed my mind," he replies.
She doesn't recall crossing into the Forest of Death or of their passage into the rebel camp, Konoha's secret base in the heart of the woods. She has no recollection of her chakra burning out, of collapsing under Lee's weight.
She does know that Neji's whole body relaxes when she finally opens her eyes and he leans back as if a vigil has ended.
"Good morning," she says, blearily, and his fingers tighten over hers.
"Good morning," he answers.
She and Lee are in the makeshift hospital that Sakura is in charge of. The pink-haired medic looks haggard and heartsick but she tends to the both of them with diligent hands. Lee has recovered under her watchful eye and sleeps with boneless grace as his chakra recovers. Tenten, herself, feels better with every hour that passes but Sakura admonishes her to stay in bed overnight.
That's when Tenten thinks to question her. "How long have I been out?"
Tsunade's apprentice glances at Neji briefly before answering. "Two days." She frowns abruptly. "You over did it. Any more toil on your system and you would not have woken up at all."
Tenten nods, unrepentant. They'd only done what they'd had to. All of them. She turns her head towards Neji, remembering. "I was confused, wasn't I?"
"We've seen it happen before," he reminds her, his voice almost careless. She recognizes it as his attempt to reassure her, and possibly himself. "All that matters is that we made it."
And she hears the rest, the thing he does not say – for so many others did not.
That night there is a storm without rain. The black sky rumbles and lightning arcs within the clouds, flashing terrible shadows along the ground and in between the trees. Tenten thinks she hears the roar of a great beast once but then dismisses it as thunder. She rests on the grassy bank beside the river while Neji takes a swim that is really a bath, the water as dark as the sky it mirrors.
"I caught Lee doing push-ups today," she tells him idly, watching electricity dance silently overhead. "I made him stop at one hundred but I think he will be ready soon."
She didn't have to say for what. It was a given that they would be going back out into the field. As long as there was a single person still bearing the leaf sigil on their forehead, Konoha was alive and fighting.
"Tomorrow." Neji's voice echoes oddly across the water. Tenten nods.
"Tomorrow," she agrees.
A moment later he swims to the bank and dresses in the dark. He stands over her afterwards and she smiles up at him.
"You're dripping on me."
Wordlessly, he holds out his hand and she takes it, letting him draw her to her feet. The kiss is slow and steady, like Neji's heart under her palm, and she tastes river and feels lightning.
And if there are tears on her cheeks afterward, she doesn't want to remember why.