Author's Notes: The last part of the trilogy. Spoilers up to manga chapter 410. Obviously, I have no idea how the series will end so forgive me for skimming over the finer details. Enjoy the APOCALYPTICNESS.
AND MORNING SO VERY FAR AWAY
They travel through the early twilight hours, one with the mist that curls around the skeletons of buildings, the broken husks of homes. They don't speak, communicating only by glances and hand signals. They don't have much to say anyway. Their destination is the stadium, where once Tenten had watched Neji and Naruto fight as part of their Chuunin exam, and they all know what they will do once they get there.
The empty streets are a little eerie and Tenten wonders if all the people have fled and if they made it safely to the countryside. There had been civilian casualties in the beginning but Tsunade had had the foresight to plan evacuation routes and most everyone had fled by the time Madara and Sasuke had appeared at the perimeter walls. Tenten is sure that only ninja survive in the village now. At least, she hopes that's the case.
Up ahead she catches a glimpse of the mountainside, strong, chiseled faces looking out over the destruction of Konoha. It lifts her heart a little to see the Hokages still there, one of the few things not crumbling to dust. It's a little sad as well for they might be all that is left if the tides of war do not change soon.
Her team slows as they reach the stadium and Neji whispers, "Byakugan" to the fog, halting on top of a leaning telephone pole as his eyes see far ahead. Lee lands steadily on a nearby roof top that is surprisingly intact while Tenten remains on the ground near him. She checks her weapons as she waits, reaching back to touch the ties on the large scroll strapped to her back.
Above them, Neji's head turns towards her and she catches the movement with a frown, following his gaze past her shoulder into the house Lee is standing on. She can see only darkness inside and crooked shutters. She pushes the hilt of her katana up with a thumb, baring an inch of steel.
"Wait," Neji says, and he's looking the other way now, towards the stadium—
Something monstrous slams down onto the street and Neji jumps backwards off the pole to avoid being crushed. Tenten barely has a moment to see that it's the thick tail of a snake that's slithering across the road when a coil loops suddenly, taking out the corner of the house and sending her flying inside. She hits the back wall hard enough to knock the wind out of her and she gasps and coughs at once. She's covered with dust and wood splinters and she can hear a hissing voice from outside.
She draws her katana completely and digs the point into the ground, using it as leverage to get to her feet. And that's when she sees them.
Two children are huddled in the corner, still as stone and with eyes so wide they gleam in the dim light. They're ragged and dirty and terrified and much too young to be all alone in an abandoned village. For a moment, Tenten doesn't know what to do.
Then Lee gives a battle cry out on the street and it's very clear.
Tenten feels her expression set, a mask of war and battle. The children are meaningless, their lives two tiny flames beside the bonfires of Konoha – of her teammates. The last hour has come.
She doesn't look back.
Outside, the landscape has completely changed. The serpent's thick body has leveled most of the street. The noise of it slithering over rubble is so loud she has to stop herself from putting her hands over her ears. It hisses, too – high and long off to her right. A moment later she feels a silent impact and Lee's voice sounds through the mist.
She turns in that direction and runs, katana leveled before her as shapes resolve from the white. The snake is enormous and it's not the one Orochimaru had used to crush the perimeter gates of the village. This one is black in color with a mottled head and bright yellow eyes that glow even in the dimness of early morning. She knows instantly who it belongs to and the thought is confirmed when she hears the chirping.
Blue electricity arcs in the fog and the sound of a thousand birds makes every muscle in her body draw taut. She pivots, the fine hairs on the back of her neck standing on end as her blade cuts through the air, driving towards Sasuke's chest as he comes up behind her. Her katana cuts through the sleeve of his cloak and hits skin but the wound barely slows him. He claps a sizzling hand down on the steel and Tenten drops the hilt immediately to keep from being electrocuted.
She flips backwards to put some distance between them but Sasuke follows, relentless as the hunter he has become. He gives her no room to unfurl the scroll on her back or to summon any of her other weapons. He has seen her fight before, she realizes, and knows all of her moves. His Sharingan has recorded it all, every technique laid out like pictures in a book. There's nothing she can do that will surprise him.
Not unless it's something new. Something he's never seen before.
Instead of retreating, she shifts her momentum and pushes forward, the change so smooth that Sasuke is a second too late to respond. She slides by him, half-turning so she has a view of his back, and reaches behind her for her scroll. She pulls it around with one hand and lets it fly, the heavy end speeding through the air as it unravels. Sasuke has already turned and dodges the scroll itself but the thick paper still ripples between them, the black ink stark against the parchment.
Tenten's fingers move and she slaps the end of the scroll.
A forest of senbon emerge, bristling like porcupine quills, and she sends them straight towards Sasuke, the sheer number of them creating a low, eerie whistle as they go.
Tenten pulls back on the invisible strings tied to her weapons and the storm cloud of senbon are moving back towards her when Sasuke's katana stabs through her thigh and down into the ground, effectively pinning her. The white hot pain of it sears everything from her mind and it's only when the shadows of her own weapons fall over her that she realizes Sasuke is gone and she can't move and oh heaven—
Long familiar chakra encompasses her and she bows her head as her needles rain down harmlessly, spinning out in every direction as they hit Neji's defensive shield. He spins to a stop a moment later and drops to one knee before her, the veins around his eyes extended with the strain of the Byakugan.
"Is your leg broken?" Neji's voice is quick and low but his eyes are on her and she knows that Sasuke has truly left the vicinity or he would not have had time for questions. Especially ones he knew the answer to. She shakes her head, hearing Lee's voice faintly in the distance. It seems he is still battling Sasuke's snake.
"No, it's not broken." She pales suddenly as a small movement makes the katana shift inside her leg. She takes a breath. "Can you pull it out?"
He stands, his hand hovering over the hilt. His eyes travel down the length of the blade and then back up to her face. She is watching him anxiously.
"Hold on to me," he suggests, and she reaches out to grip his forearm. Neji pulls the sword up as vertically straight as he can but the pain of it still pulses through her entire right leg. She grits her teeth and is faintly proud that she makes only a very small sound.
The wound is surprisingly clean and the muscle damage is less than she would have thought. She binds her thigh with bandages and, though she limps, finds she can still walk fairly well. Frowning, she turns to Neji only to see he is thinking the same thing.
"He didn't want to kill me," she says. Her teammate nods.
"He's delaying us." Neji turns his head, looking into the distance. "The beast is merely baiting Lee." He pauses then and she can almost feel him stretching out his senses, vision expanding. She speaks into his silence.
"I don't understand. He's never hesitated to kill before."
"It's generational," Neji replies, still looking ahead. "He only eliminates adults past a certain age. Anyone that is old enough to have given council to the Fourth."
A popping sound echoes through the fog and Lee appears a moment later, a rather puzzled expression on his face. He doesn't seem to be injured and there is no sign of the giant snake.
"It disappeared," he explains, coming to a stop before them.
Tenten is still thinking about Neji's reply. "That would explain Hiashi," she murmurs and Lee gives her an odd look but Neji nods once. Tenten watches him a moment before changing the subject. "Where is Sasuke headed?"
Neji frowns briefly but Tenten marks the expression, feeling a tendril of dread creep around her heart though she couldn't say why.
"He's left the village," he answers, releasing the Byakugan. "I think he's going to the Valley of the End."
Mist curls around their feet in eddies as the three of them stand there, struck still by the implications. The place was aptly named. Nothing ever began there. The only reason Sasuke would go there would be because he planned on facing Naruto for the last time, to finish his scourge of Konoha.
Tenten suddenly feels very tired. Their gray, ruined world is turning for the final time. If Sasuke kills Naruto, everything will be over and the village would never recover, not really. And if Naruto kills Sasuke, he would never recover. To kill a teammate, a friend, a brother – Naruto's light would die out and it would be the same as if he, himself, had died.
"What can we do?" Lee asks. He's calm and somewhat somber, a mood Tenten sees more and more of, ever since Gai-sensei died. She misses his enthusiasm and feels a little sad that she can't quite remember what it looked like.
"Madara and Orochimaru are still inside the village," she points out. Sasuke is not their affair. Only Naruto and Sakura have the right to deal with him. Neji knows this, too. They've talked about it before, in the darkness around a dying campfire, but she can never quite tell if he understands. His pride as a Hyuuga is strong and she feels, sometimes, that he would like to match himself against one of the last Uchiha. Tenten had stepped in the way of his last encounter with Madara and she knew he would not let that happen again.
"The rest of Sasuke's team is here, too," Lee adds, but Neji is still looking in the direction of the Valley, too distracted to really hear them.
"I was supposed to bring him back," he says quietly, and it takes Tenten a moment to realize what he means. Neji had been on that emergency team formed to retrieve Sasuke when he'd first disappeared with Orochimaru's henchmen. Ultimately, the mission had been a failure – Sasuke had defeated Naruto in the end and escaped while Neji returned to Konoha very near death. Tenten had not known he still thought about that mission.
And perhaps he didn't used to, she amends silently, but things are different now. There is no bright and shining future ahead of them, filled with higher ranks and titles. There is only survival.
Unsure of what to say in the face of Neji's regret – something he would never have voiced before the war – Tenten puts a light hand on his arm. It is not to comfort him, it's just a reminder. She and Lee are still there. Of all the former Genin teams of Konoha, only theirs can still claim to have all three original members.
Her touch seems to pull him from his thoughts and he glances over at her, coming back to himself. She smiles a little and drops her hand.
"There were children in that house," he says suddenly, and she remembers him looking past her when they arrived. The Byakugan had shown him what lay behind the walls.
Tenten doesn't wait to explain herself. She hobbles back to the half-demolished home, her teammates close at her side, but the place is empty. There's no sign those two ragged children had ever been there.
"They must have escaped," she murmurs, and tries to tell herself that they'll be fine. They'll make it out of the village alive. Neji and Lee are quiet.
They want to believe the lie as well.
It rains that night.
The drops are fat and cold and they take cover from them in the bottom floor of a crumbling apartment complex. It's too dangerous to have a fire so Tenten scours the high floors for bedding. She has to break in several doors but finds everything that they need – food, medical supplies, blankets. The empty apartments are eerie memorials to the people who had lived there. Most of them are in good shape, looking as if their owners had simply gone out for a walk. It makes her feel a little awkward to be essentially stealing from them, but not enough for her to turn back empty-handed. Her team is fighting for Konoha itself. They need all the help they can get.
By the time she returns to the bottom floor, Neji has secured it against intruders. That was usually her task but she can tell that Neji needs some time to himself. She recruits Lee to help her bring down a mattress and the two of them make a bed in the corner, piling it with the bedding Tenten had found.
Lee immediately flops on it, weary from the constant tension that comes with trying to stay alive in what has become enemy territory. Neji is still working on their protective traps and guards so Tenten goes back upstairs. She slips into the first open apartment she comes to and rifles through the kitchen for a big bowl and some hand towels. Then she sits by a broken window and lets the bowl fill with rainwater while she cleans her face and hands. She hasn't had a proper bath in days, ever since they'd left the Forest of Death, and the cold water feels good.
She's just about finished when Neji finds her. There's little light in the building with no electricity and the storm outside but he picks his way over tumbled furniture easily, coming to stand by the window with her. His fingers trace the side of her face briefly and she tilts her head back as he leans down to kiss her.
"You're freezing," Neji whispers a moment later, pulling back enough to frown at her.
"It's alright," she says, tugging him down again. "You're warm."
They stay upstairs for only a few more minutes, neither of them feeling comfortable leaving Lee alone. They needn't have worried, however. Lee is snoring lightly when they arrive back on the first floor and Tenten affectionately nudges him over a bit so she can lie down beside him.
Neji stays awake for a little while, sitting across the room on an old wooden stool, listening to the thunder overhead and the water dripping from the ceiling. Tenten knows she should probably eat something but she is warm under the blankets with Lee and doesn't think she could summon the strength to get up again.
She's dozing when Neji finally decides its okay to sleep. He slips under the covers on her other side and when he's settled, she shifts closer to him, resting her forehead between his shoulder blades. Snuggled up against his back, she forgets for awhile that everything is falling apart.
Neji never does.
The knowledge is with him when he falls asleep till he opens in his eyes in the morning to find them all still alive.
Neji stitches the wound in Tenten's thigh together. Only eight stitches and he knows Sasuke meant it to be that way. The Uchiha could have maimed her, shattered the bones in her leg with the pure force of the Chidori. He hadn't though and that makes Neji uneasy. Sasuke is the enemy. Mercy from an enemy not usually prone to being merciful is something to be suspicious of.
They move out from the abandoned apartment complex mid-morning. Neji leads them, subtly proud of the way they've learned to move as a unit, to use corners and shadow and the leftovers of destruction itself. They head silently towards the stadium again, bent on fulfilling the purpose they had set out with. Tenten glances at him occasionally, as if worried he still plans on going to join Naruto in his fight with Sasuke. He does not. Neji does not have to be there to know what will happen. The Byakugan will show him, when it's time.
The south side of the arena is nothing but dust and mortar but the rest of the oval structure is unbroken, it's seats empty. Wind-blown trash covers the grounds, an eerie reminder that no one has watched a match there in a long time. There's a definite air of neglect about the place and Neji activates the Byakugan.
"Our scouts said he was using this place as a base," Tenten murmurs. Lee is frowning to himself. "Has he gone underground, Neji?"
"I can't see him," Neji replies, a bit frustrated himself. The sub-level locker rooms appear to be empty and he can sense no other chakra signatures. Frowning, he nods towards the underground entrance. "Let's check it out."
The passage leading to the locker rooms is dank and dreary and smells of mildew. Tenten draws a small flashlight from the pouch at her waist and has to slap it against her palm before it flickers on. In silent agreement, they stay together, using Neji's eyes and Tenten's light to search. What they find is both more and less than they had hoped for.
The men's locker room is full of bodies. Decomposing bodies. The smell is so horrid that Neji feels his shoulders tense and Lee coughs while Tenten claps her free hand over her ear to drown out the buzzing sounds of hundreds of flies.
In the women's locker room they find a large snake.
Its tongue flickers out as they enter but it seems unconcerned with their presence, probably because of the strangely human-shaped bulge in its middle. Tenten gasps and Neji's gaze narrows but even without the Byakugan he knows what he's seeing. He only wonders why he didn't recognize it sooner.
"That..Is that..?" Lee's eyes are round in the darkness.
"Yes," Neji replies grimly and Tenten makes a sickly sound in her throat. Neji is unmoved. It's only fitting that the reborn Orochimaru, once Kabuto, should be consumed by his own summoning.
Neji keeps them moving even after the sun sets. Tenten says nothing about it as first, still preoccupied with what they had seen at the arena. The corpses of all those killed by Kabuto and then re-animated with his gruesome techniques, left to rot underground. A giant snake, lethargic after having devoured its master. Before they'd left, Tenten had thrown a hand bomb into both locker rooms.
Some things could only be cleansed with fire.
The same cannot be said of her memory. She would see those bodies for quite some time and wonder how many of them she had known in life. Kabuto's odd death makes her uneasy as well. Had that snake really belonged to him, or had the youngest Uchiha been there?
She thinks, looking at the line of Neji's back, that maybe Neji suspects that, too. Especially when she realizes where he is leading them.
She's surprised when he actually slows and stops, turning his head slightly to glance at her with one pearl-gray eye. She tilts her head, trying to read him, but in these last days it's like trying to read the water's surface. He's clear and dark both at once.
"What are we doing?" she asks softly. She feels Lee's attention shift to them and, when Neji doesn't reply, his eyebrows draw together in puzzlement.
"What's going on?" He looks over at her. "Tenten?"
She's watching Neji and feels her heart start to sink as what he's silently telling her. She shakes her head at him. "I thought we agreed. That's not our fight." There's a high note of dismay in her voice but she can't help herself. "Let Naruto handle Sasuke. We need to find whatever's left of his team…"
She trails off because Neji is looking away and something in his posture changes, silencing her.
"They're all dead but one," he tells them after a moment, "and she will not last very long."
Something lodges itself in Tenten's throat and she has to swallow several times before she can speak. "Was any of ours…?" That sort of victory would come with a price. It always did. Neji recites it to her without inflection.
"There are ANBU members down. Shikamaru & Gaara are heavily injured. Kiba can stand but Akamaru is dead." Tenten closes her eyes briefly. "Sakura is hurt as well but she has gone on."
Lee's voice is tense. "Gone on? To where, Neji?"
But they all know where Sakura has gone.
"I'm going," Lee announces, and his fists are clenched with a spirit Tenten had thought lost with Gai.
And it's decided.
Sasuke and Madara Uchiha die on a cool, cloudless morning while black flames eat the landscape and their unearthly crackle makes Tenten's vision waver. And it's on that same, crisp morning that Haruno Sakura leans over the body of her lost teammate and makes him breathe again, makes his heart beat.
He opens his eyes and something in his expression makes Sakura smile tremulously.
"Welcome back," she whispers.
They stay in that valley a long time.
The war was all they thought about and to have it end so abruptly left everyone feeling somewhat shell-shocked. Neji could see it in the slightly bewildered looks of his own teammates and the way Sakura and Naruto could not stop looking at Sasuke, as if some wish had come true but they weren't quite sure it was real.
They all have injuries and that seems to ground them for awhile. Tenten had pulled her stitches and the stab wound in her thigh reopened, painting her leg a bright crimson. Hinata sees to her though his cousin's pale eyes return to Naruto whenever they can. Uzumaki is on his feet only by the grace of fate. Neji's tired eyes tell him even the Fox has nothing left.
Lee's broken wrists rest in a sling around his neck. He wears a pensive look on his face that seems odd with his arms crossed in front of his chest as they are. Neji watches him for awhile and exhales when Tenten calls to him and Lee perks up, coming to stand by her side. Neji joins them, gritting his teeth against the pain of his broken ribs.
"Stop, Neji-nii-san, before you…" Hinata trails off, already working on him.
Tenten's fingers curl slowly into his and she smiles wearily, freely. Next to her, Lee is calm, watching the mist rise from the waterfall. None of them want to say it out loud but they all know what the others are thinking.
They've made it. It's over.
"It really is the Valley of the End," Tenten comments, a wry note in her voice, and the hope that one day they might laugh again blooms beneath Neji's heart. He squeezes her hand briefly. Lee's expression eases and his eyes shine.
"It really is," he agrees, and together they look to the north, to where their village lies, to where their beginning lies.
Somewhere, a bird sings.