Naruto © Masashi Kishimoto.

Author's notes: I have no idea where this came from, but wow, is it dark. Hopefully, they are in character. Thoughts?

A Night to Die

It is dusk when Neji Hyuga opens his heavy pearlescent eyes, the pale and failing light drifting weakly down through the darkened treetops high above him. Lying upon his aching back on the loamy forest floor, he is surrounded by enemies-- Cloud ninja, near as he can tell-- and yet utterly alone, for these bodies have no life left in them, courtesy of his now chakra-less system and one very worried, very angry Tenten.

The thought of his female teammate-- and only partner for this brief patrol-- leaves him worried. Where is she? Had she perhaps been captured? Or worse? If she were alive, would she not be nearby? He tries to call her name, but even his voice is gone, having been lost in the ferocious heat of battle. His addled mind struggles to focus. How long ago was that, anyway? Hours? Days?

Within his narrowed line of sight, a body resembling a pincushion gives one final, agonized throe, and Neji realizes that some of their opponents are still dying. That, combined with the fact that his tired body seems to have replenished not a bit of his energy, leads him to realizes that his moment of unconsciousness had been shockingly brief, perhaps only minutes.

So where is Tenten?

A heavy thud sounds somewhere behind him, the noise that of something falling unchecked from a great height. Belatedly, Neji remembers that Tenten had taken to the trees to provide him with cover and rain death in the form of cold steel upon their ambushing foes. Unable to use Byakugan, and yet desperate-- and afraid-- to see, he forces his weary head to turn the pitiful fractions necessary for a clear line of vision.

And there she is, lying crumpled and unmoving at the base of a huge pine, belly down in the thick carpet of ancient needles. One sad streamer of light filters through the spiny canopy above her, highlighting the visible half of her tan face, dark eyelashes closed upon her smooth cheek. She could almost be a slumbering forest sprite, resting there with the sunlight turning her hair the color of rich mahogany, were it not for the grisly glint of metal sticking from her lower back.

Neji recognizes the object immediately-- how could he not, after so many years as a shinobi?-- and with that horrible realization goes all reserves of hope. One long senbon, most likely poisoned, has found its deadly mark in a physical spot that will almost undoubtedly paralyze Tenten from the waist down, leaving her to suffer a long, slow, and probably painful demise in this ever darkening forest. If she is not already dead, and she is too far away for him to be able to tell, Tenten will be soon.

How could this have happened? How can he lose his best friend?

Anger takes hold of him then, righteous and burning, raging unchecked throughout his wounded and aggrieved mind and doing nothing for his exhausted, depleted body. For a few long moments, the longest that he ever remembers, Neji hates everything and everyone and this whole violent, stupid, worthless life that they had chosen as irresponsible, unaware children.

He now hates the Cloud ninja even more malice than he had ever thought possible, even after the kidnapping of his helpless younger cousin and the untimely and unfair death of his father. How many people would they have to take from him, have to murder, before they would be satisfied? Would it ever end? Who would be next? Did it even matter? He is glad that those lying around him are dead, but upset also. He would like to kill them again.

He hates his superiors, the iron-willed Hokage and the stubborn elders of the village, the ones that sent them so carelessly on this supposedly easy but foolhardy mission. He hates the civilian populace too, people he had long ago sworn to protect, people who will not notice Tenten's absence nor understand what he has lost here today. Why should the red blood of his teammate be the price of their freedom?

He hates Rock Lee, although none of this was the younger man's fault, for not being here to help. Why did Lee ever leave them, becoming a teacher to a group of genin? Could he not see that he was still needed? Could he not save them, provide one last ditch, miraculous effort, just one more time? He hates Gai for much the same reason.

He even hates Tenten. Poor, average Tenten, with no bloodline limit and no special powers and no real way to protect herself besides steel, and in the end she had not even proved impervious to that. Why did she choose this life, make it a point to always come along and throw herself into danger? What good had that dream-- to be the best-- been?

And he mostly hates himself, loathes himself with an unbelievable passion. As Tenten's commander, as her best friend, as her… Well, Neji cannot really put their relationship into words, even now, but he should have been strong enough to protect her, and not the other way around. This-- her lying dead so far from him, and him unable to do a damn thing-- should never, ever have happened. It is all wrong, and he is wrong, and…

What a waste this all is! Glancing again toward her fallen body, he grits his teeth, feeling one angry vein beating a furious tempo inside his forehead. Perhaps, if he is lucky enough, it will burst and he will die, never have to feel this emotionally taxing pain again. He hopes so, wishes for that kind of death, but doubts that Fate will be so compassionate to him.

The sound of movement startles him, and he looks over in amazement as Tenten begins to stir. Her head comes up first, rising slowly from the dirt and twisting around to face forward. Dazed chocolate eyes sweep the area, taking in the ever darkening forest, the bodies of their attackers, and the numerous weapons littering the ground. As she pulls herself up onto her forearms, lifting her torso, those eyes meet his own, and she smiles reflexively, the action causing her face to light up and his heart to flip over. "Neji," she breathes, and her quiet voice is the most beautiful thing he has ever heard.

Neji wants to shout, wants to thank someone that she is alive, at least for now, wants to say so many, many things to her. He wants to promise that they will be okay, that someone will come for them. He wants to ask if she has indeed been poisoned. He wants to tell her something, this incredibly strange and wonderful feeling-- relief, only not-- being beaten out by his heart. But his voice is still gone, and the words most likely would not come out right, and anyway, he is simply too busy watching her.

Eyes commit it all to memory, the way Tenten's smile fades after a time, the way her eyes darken and then her face goes carefully blank. The small biting of the lip, signifying some sort of internal battle, followed by the dreaded and dawning realization that her legs are not working. Panic then, as her arms scramble for frantic purchase in the dirt, and she tries to pull her body, force it into motion. Finally, a pain-filled grimace and a buildup of tears as muscles that are not yet dead squeeze around the senbon in her back.

"Neji? I can't feel my legs." One tear appears at the corner of her confused, frightened eyes, and it glistens in the ever shrinking beam of daylight, sparkling like a multi-faceted diamond. Slowly, inexorably, it rolls down her dark cheek, washing a clean line in the dirt covered side of her face that had earlier lain upon the ground. It falls unceremoniously to the ground, vanishing between the pine needles, and still he cannot answer her. And, oh, how he wants to.

The sun disappears then, falling behind the trees and throwing their world into shadow. With the loss of the light, and the ever increasing pain that soon fades away into cool numbness, into death, Tenten becomes more and more unstable. Although she never cries again, never screams or rails against her fate as he wishes she would, the still frozen Neji can see the flurry of deep emotions behind her dark eyes, and it haunts him.

The moon rises above them, providing the barest illumination, and it is then that Neji realizes something has changed. In the silvery light, Tenten looks like a ghost, and yet she is suddenly very alive. Eyes hard, face set and determined, she begins to pull herself torturously across the cool ground toward him, moving by sheer willpower alone. Around them, the night is eerily quiet. The only noises are the sound of her broken body sliding slowly through the leaves, and now and again the sound of a hitched breath. As Tenten passes from his sight, the sound of those agonizing inhalations is music to Neji's ears, for it means she is still alive, still with him.

Neji finds the strength to turn his head-- getting better, perhaps?-- just in time to see her encounter the first of the makibishi. The tiny weapons had been thrown at him by an enemy early on in the fight, and he had carelessly used his Rotation to bat them away. Now they lay in a circle all around him, like a field of clay mines, half concealed by the carpet of dead leaves. He can only watch in horror as Tenten's right hand, groping for purchase against the ground, impales itself upon the spiny little things.

The involuntary gasp that rips itself from Tenten's throat is loud in the darkness, but the words she mumbles afterward are not, and it takes Neji a long time to realize she is telling him that the makibishi are coated in a slow acting poison. Knowing that the weapons had been meant for him, that the Cloud had probably been trying to kidnap once again, he assumes that the toxin's primary purpose is incapacitation, and yet… Neji has never been very interested in potions, but he imagines that one poison laced over another can never be good.

Stay still, he begs inside his mind, willing Tenten to stop and rest and maybe live just a little bit longer. To his dismay, she keeps coming, crawling across the points and cutting herself in one hundred places. She is tearing herself into pieces for him, killing herself, and although his panic is building, some subconscious part of Neji's mind realizes that hindsight is always twenty/twenty, and perhaps she has always done so. That makes it no easier to watch, and he finally finds the strength to cry out, "Tenten! Stop!"

Because it is his voice, his order, and Tenten has long been conditioned to obey it without question, she pauses. Heartbeats pass, his frightened and racing, hers ever slowing, and then a need stronger even than his command comes over her, and she gives him one sad smile-- like a sick mockery of her usual cheerful one, and yet every bit as real-- before dragging herself desperately forward once more. The small trails of blood she leaves in her wake reflect the light of the full moon above.

Time has little meaning as Tenten closes the gap between them. On the one hand, it seems to move oh so slowly, and Neji worries that perhaps she will never reach him, that her muscles will give out long before that, that she will die just out of reach of his fingertips. And yet, if it would keep her miraculously alive, he wishes she would stay out of contact with him forever. Either way, he has the sense that the world is about to change irrevocably, and in that sense, the time flies.

Suddenly, Tenten is next to him, her ruined but definitely not average body pressed close against the side of his immobile torso. She murmurs his name, and Neji likes the way it sounds-- why hadn't he noticed before? Supporting herself with one forearm, she bends gently over him and places her freezing lips against his warm ones. The emotions of the evening, of their years together, come to a head then, and he leans up as far as he can and kisses her back. That kiss is many things; their first, their last, a greeting and a parting, an apology, and finally a promise.

When they break reluctantly for air, Tenten leans back and looks down on him, committing his moonlit visage to her memory. There are tears in her eyes again, but she bravely refuses to let them fall. Perhaps she knows that this-- her impending death, as she is finally ready to call it-- is killing him as well. "I've always wanted to do that," she whispers, sounding remarkably calm. "I'm glad that I got the chance."

"There will be other chances," Neji lies to her, trying with fervor to believe his own words. They sound hollow though, even to himself, and Tenten wearily shakes her head to refute the statement. How can she be so damned complacent? He manages to move one arm to her shoulder, feeling the chill of her skin even through her tattered sleeve. "Someone will rescue us soon."

In an effort to comfort him, Tenten does not deny it this time. As the numbness in her body spreads, as her mind becomes dull and sleepy, she leans back down and rests her dark head upon his white-clad chest, listening to the slightly erratic thumping of his heartbeat, feeling the steady rise and fall as he breathes. One hand, fingers still mobile, curls into the fabric of his shirt. "You're so warm."

Neji says nothing-- what can he say?-- simply does his best to cling tighter to her, unconsciously trying to will life into her body. The stars twinkle high above, through a gap in the trees, and he watches them, idly wondering if Tenten's fate is written there. Not that it matters, inescapable as it is. Suddenly though, it dawns on him, something that he wants to say-- needs to, really-- something she needs to hear. "Tenten, I… Tenten?"

There is no movement, no reassuring reply from his teammate. Fearing the worst, Neji lifts his head as far as he can, peers intently at her face. It is composed, much like earlier, though different in the cold light of the moon. Almost as though she is sleeping again, but that does not make him feel better. The hand on her shoulder falls to her breast, seeking desperately, but he feels no heartbeat. Tenten, his Tenten, is gone, has moved on to a place that he cannot follow.

Pearl eyes that have seen far too much that day glance down to the small, calloused hand now lying loose upon his chest. Something is glinting from her palm, bright in the night, and he recognizes that first awful makibishi, the one that had jabbed deep into her hand. Apparently, she had never managed to shake it off, and he remembers her words, warning him of poison. An idea forms then, one that some would call wrong, but one that the newly shattered Neji just finds inviting.

"I love you," Neji whispers, taking her colder, smaller hand in his own. He holds them so they are nearly palm to palm and squeezes hard, ignoring the lancing pain that shoots through him. What does a little sting matter now? Nothing could ever hurt the way his broken-- dead-- heart does. He takes comfort in the fact that, without chakra to fight the toxin now flooding his system, this should not take too long. He grips Tenten tighter, and waits.

The night, and Death, closes in around them.