Neji kills the first Iwa-nin blind. He can vaguely gauge the enemies' movements despite the collapse of his vision; in the darkness his other senses sharpen like blades, and he moves instinctively to slight tremors in the ground, to the sound of heavy breathing. The first one had lunged in overconfidently, sensing his incapacitation, and Neji had managed to close two of his tenketsu before slashing his windpipe. He had felt the blood spatter onto his ANBU mask and neck, hot and viscous.
The remaining two are warier now. They circle him like vultures, excited by the prospect of taking down an ANBU captain: one of Leaf's finest. He can hear their soft footsteps ghosting in arcs around him, drawing closer, but his hearing is not precise enough to allow him to attack. He refrains from calling for his partner on the radio. Daichi is too far away to help him now, hunting in the northeast direction for Tenten and her partner.
Tenten. A sudden fear momentarily paralyses him, cold fingers sliding around his heart and contracting. Three hours and fifty-three minutes since her signal had disappeared. Either her radio has been damaged, or she has moved too far away for reception. Perhaps she had to run from an attack and became lost in the unfamiliar terrain.
Perhaps she is dead.
Focus. He snaps smoothly back to attention with a mental discipline that is slightly marred by tightly-coiled heartache. He can hear the unsheathing of a katana to his right, and a few metres to his left foreign chakra is gathering in the earth, pulsing and thick. Abruptly the ground beneath him cracks open in a carefully controlled earthquake, coarse slabs of granite buckling and shattering into a heaving, roiling cacophony of razor-edged boulders and crackling dust. Chakra licks at his feet, hot and chafing, like the rough surface of a cat's tongue. Neji leaps out of the way blindly, hoping he will find solid ground beneath him when he lands.
He doesn't. His ankle is caught in between the jagged edges of two boulders that still thrum with the initial surge of chakra, and he slips, falls forwards. He is already spinning away by the time the katana whips through the air toward his face; he shifts his weight to his hands for support and kicks out toward the hiss of steel slicing through the air. His foot connects with a bandaged calf, hard. He hears the dull crack of a fracture, a harsh expulsion of air: "Shit, he got me." The Iwa-nin tries to dart away but Neji is too quick for him, closing the space between them in between inhalation and exhalation, elbows unbending and fingers punching through the air; he closes three tenketsu on his opponent's left side with a blind rapidity, a practiced familiarity with anatomy that remains even when his vision has deserted him. The ground is throbbing again, the rock beneath his feet beginning to crumble into a fine, hard dust. The veins around his eyes are stinging and a dizzying wave of pain washes through his head. Focus. He throws a barrage of kunai in the direction of the shinobi casting the jutsu, aiming to delay the onslaught of the next earthquake.
The katana wielder is getting audibly desperate. Neji hears the blade whistling toward his throat and ducks fluidly, listening for the man's increasingly ragged breathing. Chakra slowly concentrates into his fingers, bleeding warmth. The blade is coming down from directly above him now, slicing down toward his head. He can't feel the man's body heat; he is attacking from a height. Where?
Neji shifts to the left, allowing the falling blade to scrape against his shoulder, drawing blood. The connection immediately betrays the Iwa-nin's location, and the man realises too late that he has lost when Neji's hands snake up and stop his heart.
Two down. Neji wavers on his feet almost imperceptibly, the only outward sign of exhaustion that betrays his rapidly diminishing chakra. Tenten, he thinks, wait for me. Then the ground rips apart with a sickening peal of subterranean thunder, a chasm opening up beneath him like a ravenous mouth, and Neji is falling, falling, down and down and down.
Tenten grasps the blade with shaking fingers, staring at the inked character painted onto the steel. Stop.
But it's too late. The enemy-nin will be here in a matter of minutes; she can feel their chakra growing stronger in the earth beneath her, scorching her skin. She is going to die. Better her blade than whatever horror their jutsu will inflict upon her.
Suddenly she remembers the first time Neji had kissed her, out in the vast darkness of the wheat field, the triumph of their first A-class mission still thrumming in their blood. They had been so young. She remembers stroking the veins around his eyes, asking: Does it still hurt? She remembers the way he had looked at her, as if to say: Not when you touch it. She remembers his request: Let down your hair.
Do it for me.
Her hands come up to trace the ribbons tying up her hair. They had been a present from Neji. Abruptly she tugs them loose, a sound escaping her throat that is half laugh, half sob.
She never had been able to deny the bastard anything.
The twin buns fall into tangled brown curls halfway down her back, matted with dirt and blood. She grabs them with one hand and, with one reckless, fierce swipe, cuts them all away with the blade she had intended for her own throat, leaving choppy strands of hair swinging just below her chin. The thick length of hair is surprisingly heavy in her hand.
She uses one ribbon to knot the strands together, the other to tie the whole thing into the hook of the last kunai she has remaining on her. She can hear footsteps in the distance, muted in the terracotta dust. The Iwa-nin are closing in on her.
Closing her eyes, she grasps tightly onto the knot of hair in her hands, feeding chakra into each strand with such force that she crumples forward. She knows this is her last chance at survival. With her broken ankle a fight with the Iwa-nin is out of the question.
Voices, now. The Iwa-nin are not even bothering with stealth; they know she has nothing left. Gasping with the effort, she intensifies the flow of chakra from her fingers into her hair, feeling herself weaken as the chakra pumps out of her body. She does not stop until she is nearly fully depleted. The strands of hair are starting to singe with the overload of intensively concentrated chakra, scalding her fingers as they ripple with molten energy.
Tenten looks up into the early morning sky, finding her vision blurred by exhausted tears. She twists herself onto her knees, ignoring the brittle pain in her ankle. With the last of her chakra she flings the knot of burning hair high, high up into the sky. Burn marks blacken the inside of her hands.
I'll be waiting, Neji.
The knot of hair crackles and flares, spitting condensed energy as it arcs through the air. Tenten bites her thumb, breaking the skin, and marks the ground with blood calligraphy.
The explosion is small but intensely bright, an orb of blinding white light burning a hole into the sky near the pale remnant of last night's moon.
Tenten collapses onto her back, watching dazedly as her chakra slowly disintegrates, the knot of hair loosening and scattering, thousands of blazing strands of light floating momentarily in the grey morning sky before drifting slowly back down. She has nothing left. The pain from her wounds settles heavily in her limbs, pulling her into the earth.
Shadows appear in the crest of the slope above her. There are five of them, perhaps, or six, but she can't be sure. Her body is failing her. She hears muted voices in the background as she drifts softly into unconsciousness.
"They will come for her now. Her teammates."
" Is the Hyuuga still alive?"
"I don't know."
"Hn. Arata will want him. To study his eyes."
"Will she be enough? To bait him?"
Neji stares at the sky from the deeply cratered earth, his back bleeding, cut open by the shrapnel beneath him. He can hear the Iwa-nin approaching. His vision is still gone, but suddenly there is a pinprick of light in the darkness, as if an explosion had gone off somewhere in the far distance. He guesses that it is coming from the north. It burns intensely for a few seconds, growing in size, before slowly fading away, leaving the memory of light imprinted in his blindness.
Tenten. He knows it must be her doing, somehow. He simply knows. Tenten is alive.
The Iwa-nin is close now, and then suddenly there are two: a clone. Neji can hear the faint crunch of their sandals on the broken ground. His chakra is low, too low, but he has no choice. He rises to his feet with a swiftness and grace that makes his enemies pause momentarily. By the time the Iwa-nin and his clone have collected themselves sufficiently to begin their jutsu Neji has already slid into position, knees bent, arms raised. His eyes stare unseeingly forwards but his expression is unsettlingly calm. "Hakkeshou Kaiten."
When it is all over, the Iwa-nin is crumpled into the side of the crater, body shredded by the shrapnel caught up and flung out by the swirling chakra. Neji had had to cut the Kaiten short, panting and wincing behind his mask, but the man is dead all the same and he can finally move on now, keep going, find Tenten, because Tenten hadn't used that blade, thank god, and suddenly he falls to his hands and knees, gasping, because there is no energy left in him and he is tired, so tired, so tired.
In the end, it is Lee who finds and rescues Tenten. He had been supposed to run back to Konoha with the scroll in case the others ran into trouble, but Lee being Lee, he had seen the explosion set off by Tenten and ran off into enemy terrain instead, meeting Daichi along the way and sending him back to Konoha in his place with the scroll.
He helps Tenten limp out of the Iwa-nin's ravaged campsite, past the corpses that lie with their faces smashed in.
"Thanks, Lee," she says, smiling faintly at him through the bruises on her face. "You're the best."
Lee only grins back at her with his ANBU mask pushed up over his head, silently thankful that he had intervened before the Iwa-nin had gone too far in their interrogation.
"Where is Neji?" One of her ribs is broken, making talking difficult and painful.
Lee shakes his head. "I don't know."
"Is he – " Tenten bites her lip.
His hand is comforting on her back. "We'll find him."
Three days later they find Neji walking slowly through a shaded valley, a hand trailing along the rock walls to guide his way. His gait is steady and he is not badly injured, but there is something in the way he holds his head that tells them he is not seeing. Tenten limps towards him as fast as her broken ankle and rib will allow.
"Neji," she calls out as she nears, "it's me. Tenten. And Lee. Neji, we found you."
Neji had known who they were the moment he heard their voices in the distance. He stands very still as they make their way toward him, moving only to take off his bloodied ANBU mask. He feels the midday sun on his face. "Tenten," he says quietly, voice cracking in a way that only his teammates can perceive. "Lee."
"I am glad to see you alive, Neji." Lee's own voice is wobbly. He shakes himself, places a hand firmly on Neji's shoulder. "Let's go home."
Tenten wraps her arms around Neji with a carefulness and fragility that makes their hearts ache. Neji slides a hand to the curve of her back, raising the other to her face. His expression softens.
"Your hair –"
"Your eyes – "
They break off simultaneously, hesitant. Tenten suddenly finds that her cheek is wet. "How long have you been blind?"
"Four days. My byakugan burned out a few hours after you went missing." He had travelled blind for four days, heading north, guided by the memory of the light that had briefly seeped through the darkness. "But I saw the – the explosion." A pause. He lowers his voice. "I knew it was you."
A loud sniff. Tenten turns to find Lee watching them with huge, fat tears rolling down his face. "Oh, the springtime of youth!" he wails, spinning on his heels and running off bawling. Neji finds himself chuckling at Lee's idea of a tactful exit, and the familiarity of it is such a relief that it is almost painful.
Tenten smiles and Neji is startled when she pushes something gingerly into his hand. He rolls it around between his fingers. It is a small blade, coated on one side with dried ink. His breath hitches. He feels her fingers gently stroking the side of his face, the veins around his eyes. He leans into her touch, allowing relief to roll through his body like warmth.
"Does it still hurt?" she asks him softly.
He closes his eyes. In his mind he can still see the light in the sky, burning like a white star. "No," he says. He brings his hand to the back of her neck blindly, pulling her gently in to kiss her mouth. "Please don't cry, Tenten."
When he opens his eyes he finds unexpectedly that a few soft lines are emerging from the darkness before him, pale glimpses of the curve of a cheek, the gleam of wet lashes. He blinks. The lines solidify further. He breathes in slowly, exhales. Closes his eyes. Opens them again.
He can faintly make out most of Tenten's face now, the dip of her shoulders. She is smiling at him, sensing the change. Neji thinks that she has never looked more beautiful to him.
"Are you ready, Neji?"
He nods, unable to stop staring at her face. He had missed being able to see. He had missed being able to see her face.
She threads her fingers through his. "Let's go home."