Disclaimer – I don't own Naruto

-X-

Neji Gaiden – Part 4 Continued

-X-

Neji stared at the figure ahead of him – a perfect clone of himself.

"A shinobi squad is always small in number... a team of either three or four," Gai said over the radio.

"But at least five people are required in order to seal a five seal barrier," Neji pointed out, carefully surveying the clone in front of him. It hadn't moved, not yet, but had adopted the same fighting stance as he had.

"Which means a basic squad is never going to cut it! All you can do is wait for another team to show up," Tenten pointed out, her voice muffled over the radio.

"The barrier has slowed us down considerably," Lee's voice said, "That alone was enough to delay us."

"And on top of that, they rigged the barrier with a trap, should anyone succeed," Gai continued.

"A replica of the person who removes the tag," Neji spoke into his mike, eyes narrow.

This would be a tricky fight. And unlike with Kisame, this time he was alone. Though it was somewhat reassuring having his teammates on the radio, and being able to hear their voices – this enemy was his and his alone.

He hadn't fought completely solo since the fight with Kidomaru when he was genin.

"Take that!" Tenten's voice was heard amidst a clash of metal.

Her fight had begun, Neji surmised. She'd taken out her weapons.

"So they've appeared to stop us now that the barrier is down," she added, and Neji could hear more clangs of metal and splashes of water from her end.

"In other words we can't offer Naruto and the others support – unless we defeat ourselves... is that the situation?" Lee was asking.

"Exactly right, Lee," Gai's voice boomed.

"They split up a four-man squad with their barrier and made sure we'd be tied up here indefinitely. Very smart of them," Neji mused aloud, now circling his clone, who was doing the same.

"Maybe," Tenten's voice agreed, "But we can't just sit here admiring their work!"

"Come!" Lee shouted enthusiastically over the mike, "Let us fight!"

Neji sprang forward, attacking his clone with a few palm strikes. The clone retaliated impressively, batting away every single one.

Damn, he's as fast as me, Neji realised, as he spun around, kicking the clone, who blocked the kick, leapt over his leg, and jabbed forward with his hand.

It's like he can predict my every move!

They continued for a while, and from his earphones, Neji could hear Gai's loud shouting, and the ring of metal from Tenten's battle. Lee was yelling as well.

"Huh?" Gai breathed loudly, "Well, I'd expect no less from a copy of me. He's good."

Neji dodged another palm strike from his clone, lashing out and spinning around.

"They don't just look the same," he muttered, "They possess the same abilities."

"Aaargh!" he heard Tenten cry, accompanied by more clinks of metal, "So they're armed the same as we are too, huh?"

"So everything - about them – is the same then! That – makes them even more – of a worthy opponent!" Lee panted, though Neji could hear the determination in his voice.

They fell silent after that, each one focusing on his or her battle.

Neji was comforted by the intermittent shouts from Lee and Gai's end as they attacked, and the incessant clashing and scraping sounds of metal. It meant that his teammates were still fighting, and it bolstered his confidence as he fought his own clone.

-X-

Neji didn't know how long the fight dragged on for, but he had never been so evenly matched.

Every palm strike was deflected, and chakra bursts were intercepted. His clone dodged most of his attacks, moving with the same fluid grace as he did.

"Gai? Do you read me?" Kakashi's voice buzzed over the radio, sounding faint, "The enemy has split up. We're gonna need a hand. Return immediately."

Gai's heavy breathing could be heard clearly through the earphones.

"Hah...hah... I don't think we can – hah...hah... we've been caught...hah... in an enemy trap..."

Damnit, Neji cursed mentally as his clones fingers connected with a chakra point, sending a sudden jolt of pain up his arm, and then numbness.

"We need a little more time Kakashi," Gai heaved, speaking quickly, "Sign off..."

"Kaiten!" Neji shouted finally, being forced to rely on his heavier jutsu.

When he spun into his Kaiten, his opponent surprisingly did the same, and it was infuriating. He spun and spun and spun, ejecting chakra, feeling almost stupid, as he heard the abrasive sound of whirring chakra melding into whirring chakra, as two Kaiten spheres collided.

When he finally stopped, he realised with a sinking feeling, that he had wasted his chakra for no reason.

His clone hadn't even been charred.

Same appearance. Same chakra. Same jutsu. Damnit, this is difficult.

"This is almost as if we're fighting a mirror image of ourselves here!" Tenten's voice cried.

There was a loud ripping crash after that, and Neji felt a bolt of panic. Lee's voice flooded his ears thereafter, quelling his doubts.

"If it were a mirror, we could just shatter it!" Lee shouted, "Yah! Leaf hurricaaane!"

There were loud thumps from Lee's end, followed by a screeching metallic sound from Tenten's. Neji's clone charged at him again, and he had to flip backwards to avoid the blow, instinctively spinning into the Kaiten again.

"I do not believe this will be easy," Lee was saying.

Really? Neji wondered sarcastically, attempting an air palm attack. He succeeded in smashin a rock, and cursed, as his clone dodged, yet again.

-X-

The battle persisted, and Neji was growing tired, his breaths coming shorter. His chakra was being steadily used up – and yet, his clone seemed as alert and as fast as before.

The ground was littered with at least ten Kaiten spheres – mass wastages of chakra, but the clone had pushed Neji till he'd had no choice.

He panted heavily, pausing for a reprise. His clone's white eyes gazed coldly at him from across the field, its face blank. Neji knew he rarely displayed emotion – but he never had such an utterly blank expression. The clone's face was lifeless, and yet it moved and attacked with a deadly precision and skill. It was chilling.

"Neji!" Gai's voice crackled over the radio, "Neji, can you hear me? What's going on in the enemy hideout?"

Neji shifted his gaze away from the clone, but the moment he did so, it sprang forward, an arm thrust out. Neji realised too late, and flew back, as a palm connected with his chest.

"Hang on," he gasped, scrambling back up, "Just give me a minute – I'll check!"

He air-palmed the clone once, and then twice. A huge boulder shattered; still he'd manage to hold him off.

Neji quickly scanned over the hideout – it was littered with large cracks, and what looked like broken puppets. His eyes finally found Sakura and Chiyo – standing, thankfully, scratched but alive.

"It looks like it's been settled, the fights over," he relayed quickly, his eyes shifting to where Tenten was fighting.

He could hear the clash of metal, and whirring sounds, and with his Byakugan he saw that both Tenten and her clone had taken to the air, and had unfurled their scrolls.

He whipped his eyes back to his own battle, where his clone was charging yet again. He ducked down, avoiding a kick, and spun his leg out from under, trying to trip his clone.

More palm strikes, and hits.

"Aaaaah!" Tenten's voice suddenly shrieked, and there was a loud explosion from her end.

Damnit, Tenten! Neji called out mentally, panicking and losing focus.

SLAM!

His clone managed another hit, closing off three chakra points, and sending him flying yet again.

Still, Neji didn't care, his heart thumping painfully against his chest, his fists clenched.

"Did you say the fight's over?" Tenten's voice cracked through the radio, and Neji felt immensely relieved, feeling oddly light-headed. That had scared him.

"Well who won?" Tenten was asking, and Neji leapt back to his feet, charging at his clone.

"Is Sakura – ugh! – Sa-Sakura?" Lee attempted, his voice punctuated by gasps, "Is she okay?"

"Sakura's alright. I see her and Chiyo-sama walking out," Neji assured him, rolling out of the way to avoid a blast of air sent in his direction.

"Excellent," Gai rasped, "That means they beat the Akatsuki swine."

"I would expect no less from Sakura-san," Lee said proudly, and Neji suspected he was either crying or striking a pose mid-battle.

"Unfortunately," Neji felt deemed to tell his teammates as he ducked yet another blow, retaliating with a flurry of fingers, "That doesn't mean our problems are over."

"Whaddya mean?" Gai grunted, and Neji heard a series of loud thumps from his end.

"There were two Akatsuki in the cave," Neji said, "Even though one of them has been defeated this jutsu is still in effect – ugh," he choked when his clone managed to land yet another hit on him, and fought back hand to hand.

The clone was beating him back, and he found it difficult to speak.

"Which means - ugh – or else... which means..." he tried to say, his arms burning with the impact of the strikes.

"The jutsu can't be broken even if the one who cast it is beaten!" Tenten finished for him.

"It's a definite possibility," Neji gasped, managing to force his clone to retreat with a well-placed kick.

"Huh?" Tenten asked, sounding preoccupied.

BOOM! BOOM!

"Ah!" her voice cried out, and Neji's heart clenched again, relaxing slightly only once he heard her labored, but steady breaths over his radio.

"That just means we'll have to defeat these clones – on our own!" Lee declared, "Aaaaargh! Uh! Yeah!"

Neji could hear the hits from Lee's end, and hoped that it was Lee who was doing the attacking. Gai was breathing heavily.

Neji straightened up, falling back into his Hyuuga fighting stance, as his clone regarded him coldly.

Just as I feared...

"Ugh," Tenten panted, "How can this be? How can these – guys be even – stronger than they were before?"

There were more shouts from Lee, before the boy responded, his voice fatigued.

"It's true – if anything... his blows – have even more force – than they did before!"

"No," Gai croaked, "Our enemies aren't getting stronger. That's not it."

"Yes," Neji said, comprehension dawning on him, "The fact is – that we're getting weaker."

"We've gotten weaker?" Tenten's voice was frantic, "But why would that happen, Neji? Why?"

"Yes!" Lee asked, sounding just as panicked, "Why do we grow weaker and they do not?"

"It makes sense when you think of it," Neji explained, his chest heaving, "It was that jutsu. By breaking those seals, we created clones of ourselves. Not only identical to us in appearance, but possessing all the physical abilities that we possessed at the moment the seals were broken. That's why defeating them is so difficult. Of course we are only made of flesh and blood, unlike them, and we grow weaker as the fight continues. We get less precise in our movements and in executing our jutsu."

"And the weaker we get, the stronger they seem," Lee said quietly.

"We get tired and they don't. So basically, the stronger this fight drags on, the bigger our disadvantage is!" Tenten concluded, sounding extremely worried.

"That's about it," Neji replied gravely.

"No way!" Tenten cried, distressed.

Neji wanted to reassure her – but he had no words to say. He was equally worried himself. This fight didn't seem to be going their way at all, for any of them.

"Well – if that is the case – the only thing to do is not let this fight drag on!" Lee affirmed, "We must beat them now!"

There was a sound of breaking rocks, followed by Gai's shout.

Momentarily distracted, Neji found himself being pushed through the air, and being slammed into a rock with full force.

"Aaaargh!" he cried out, pain shooting through his limbs.

"No!" he heard Tenten shriek, followed be a scraping metallic sound.

She shrieked again, and then there was a loud splash.

"Aaaaah!" Lee was groaning, sounding as if he were in pain, "Ugh..."

Tenten! Lee! Neji wondered frantically, resisting the urge to look over them with his Byakugan.

His clone approached him menacingly, standing over him as he struggled to stand.

"Ugh," Gai grunted, "Damn yooou!"

There was an odd, gurgling sound from Tenten's end, garbling up the sound in the radio.

Damnit! Tenten? Neji's heart sank – she hadn't fallen into the water, had she?

"Ugh – Sakura – oh!" Lee was choking.

"Lee – are you – what's going on down there?" Gai's voice asked.

"Tenten!" Neji called, worried, "Tenten, are you okay?"

There was no sound, expect for that rushing gurgle.

Then Lee laughed, sounding immensely relieved about something.

What the hell is up with him? Neji wondered, And damnit, Tenten, why aren't you answering?

"The answer is so simple," Lee cried out joyously, still laughing.

"What do you mean?" Neji asked, standing up as his clone rushed at him.

He heard Tenten exhale, and more gurgling noises, till there was a loud splash, and the gushing sound stopped.

She's alright, then?

"I know how to defeat them!" Lee crowed, "It is so obvious!"

"It is?" Gai sounded disbelieving for once, "Really?"

Neji flipped backwards to avoid what could have been a fatal blow from his clone.

"Ugh! Alright, let's hear it then!" he snapped impatiently.

"You really mean it?" Tenten's voice asked, sounding uncertain, "You're not just trying to keep our spirits up?"

Thank Kami, she is okay.

Neji heaved a sigh of relief. Hearing her voice, had gotten his spirits up, if just a bit.

"No!" Lee persisted, "I have a sure-fire method! Aaargh – we just need – to make ourselves - stronger – then we were – when our clones were created!"

Neji gasped, and he could hear Gai and Tenten's similar reactions.

It made perfect sense – but how?

"These clones have the same strength level that we had at the moment we removed the seals! Now do you get it?" Lee insisted, "If we increase our strength levels from what they at that last point in time, it is reasonable to think that we will defeat them!"

"Brilliant deduction, Lee," Gai complimented, sounding more like his old cheery self, "Then again, you're my student."

"Tch," Neji rolled his eyes. He could hear the glinting of teeth, he swore he could.

"Hold it!" Tenten shouted, and her voice had that similar, incredulous edge that made him smile – as if Lee had just suggested they try scaling the Hokage Monuments without chakra .

"I guess that makes sense but – how are we supposed to make ourselves stronger all of a sudden?" Tenten asked logically.

"Tenten!" Lee shouted exuberantly, "Have you forgotten? The motto we learnt during our training?"

Tenten gasped, and Neji felt as if he'd been struck by lightning.

"Stronger than we were yesterday!" Lee cried dramatically, "Remember? Yeah! It was those words in our hearts – that kept us going – that got us through our darkest hours!"

It made perfect sense, Neji realised, as memories flooded his mind.

It had been the most gruelling training session ever.

Laps, push-ups, sit-ups, tree-climbing, sparring – continuously for ten hours at a stretch.

Neji was on the ground on his fours, coughing, choking and panting heavily. Beside him, Lee and Tenten and Lee were in a similar state.

"What's the matter?" Gai asked, almost mockingly, "Are you giving up already? The three of you got no further than you did yesterday!"

Neji froze at his words, and struggled up. Lee and Tenten did as well.

"Give up?" Lee sounded shocked, "No!"

"We're not going to stop yet!" Neji said decisively, "Not till we beat yesterday's mark!"

"That's right! We all have to get stronger!" Tenten added emphatically.

"Stronger than we were yesterday!" Lee swore, punching the air.

"Stronger than we were yesterday!" Neji vowed, mimicking his actions.

"Stronger than we were yesterday!" Tenten affirmed, punching the air as well.

"Stronger than we were yesterday!" the three of them chanted together – one of the few times Neji and Tenten ever engaged in any form of team moral-boosting – but they had been young, and they were inspired.

Gai beamed at them, flashing them his trademark 'good guy pose'.

That had been the day Tenten first mastered her Shadow Shuriken jutsu.

The day when Lee finished his Leaf Whirlwind attack.

The day when Neji managed to double the speed of his Eight Trigram attack.

"Thanks to that training, Tenten, you and I became Chuunin!" Lee declared, his voice full of passion.

Jounin-in-training, Neji corrected mentally.

"And Neji became a Jounin!" he went on, "All because we worked hard every day and became better than we were the day before! But are we satisfied with how far we have come? Do we stop now? No! No! NO! That day will never come, when I don't strive to be better than I was – yeah – yesterday! Better than I was an hour ago! Better than I was a minute ago!"

Lee's voice was full of passion, and his passion was contagious.

Neji somehow found the strength returning to his limbs, and he felt his remaining reserves of chakra surge forward.

"Yes, making Jounin meant a lot to me," he admitted, remembering the day, remembering Tenten's reaction and how she'd kissed him on the cheek.

"But I never believed it was my final goal!" he avouched.

Tenten's still Chuunin. And after she and Lee make Jounin, we have to be an ANBU squad together...

"And I've no intention of retiring," Gai agreed, "At least not anytime soon!"

"And it's not like I'm ready to give up!" Tenten added, "Not by a long shot! Take that!"

Clink! Clink! Clink!

Neji could hear the weapons deflecting each other.

"Yaaaah!" Lee yelled, "Feel this! Feel the full power of youth! Leaf spinning wind!"

Neji whirled around, kicking his clone, slid down and kicked again, quickly getting up and leaping back, sticking a palm out.

"Eight Trigrams, Palm Strike!" he shouted.

"Weapon control – tensasai!" Tenten cried.

"Great leaf flaaash!" Gai roared.

For the next few seconds, Gai and Lee's voices were drowned out from the overwhelming noise that came from Tenten's side. The sound of thousands and thousands of metal weapons, whizzing through the air at lightning speed.

It was the first time she'd used the jutsu, Neji realised, and he could almost picture her in his mind, flying through the air, her scroll unfurled before her and fluttering in the wind.

Neji's own clone was finally hit by the air attack, and crashed into the boulder, before falling face-flat onto the grass.

The whirring and clattering sound gradually faded away, and Neji could hear Gai and Lee panting loudly.

"Alright!" Lee cheered.

"Yes!" Tenten cried happily, and Neji smiled as well as he surveyed his fallen clone.

They had succeeded.

And they had gotten stronger.

-X-

"Congratulations, Team Gai!" Gai's voice was shaking, but whether from pride or exhaustion, Neji couldn't tell. "Now back to the base! Run with the full power of youth!"

He leapt away as once, grass melting into a green blur under him as he sped towards the base. He was tempted to find Tenten, who he could see running parallel to him, just over 200 meters away, but restrained himself. He'd see her soon enough.

Team Gai finally reunited, outside the large rock, which had been shattered, revealing a large cave.

Tenten, Lee and Gai had already reached a few seconds before Neji arrived, and Tenten and Lee seemed to be bickering over something.

"Neji!" Tenten shrieked, her brown eyes lighting up when she caught side of him, and she practically threw herself at him, her arms tight around his waist, burying her head into his chest.

"Tenten," Neji said, feeling stunned at this greeting, as a warm feeling spread through his chest. He allowed her to hug him for a few seconds, his hands patting her back, feeling extremely awkward as Gai and Lee gawked at them.

Tenten had never been the hugging type, and though it had been quite a pleasurable surprise for Neji, he cringed at their expressions.

There would be some form of 'youthful interrogation' after the mission, he was sure of that. And if they found out, all hell would break loose.

Tenten quickly let go of him however, flushing, and Gai clapped him on the back, shooting him a dazzling smile.

"As I was just saying to Lee and Tenten, Neji," Gai boomed, "I am proud of you three. You've grown incredibly from one fight itself, and that was a most youthful display!"

"Yes! Now we must find that other Akatsuki member!" Lee cried, and Neji nodded, his Byakugan sweeping their surroundings for a few seconds.

"Found him," Neji said, nodding at his teammates, and a second later, they were flying through the trees again.

-X-

They landed in a small clearing, where the man's legs were just visible, peeking outside a large bush.

They landed, quickly taking formation – Gai, Lee, Neji and Tenten, all bent in their fighting stances.

The man stood up rather elegantly, and Neji was shocked to see he had no arms. His red and black Akatsuki cloak was tattered and torn, and ended abruptly where his arms should have been. He had blonde hair tied in a high ponytail, and grey-blue eyes, one of which was almost entirely covered by his bangs.

He regarded them calmly, not looking the least worried.

Then again, he was Akatsuki, and if experience with Kisame had taught them anything, it was that the Akatsuki were insanely powerful.

"Good work, Neji," Gai compliment.

Neji smirked.

"Heh. Child's play, actually," he said easily, and he saw Tenten roll her eyes.

'Show off,' she mouthed at him, and he glared at her, before turning back to the Akatsuki man, who was surveying him with interest.

"I get it," the man said conversationally, "Byakugan. One of the kekkai genkai of the Leaf. Just like the Sharingan, yeah?"

Better than the Sharingan, Neji thought immediately.

"You used those eyes of yours to sneak up from my blind spot, hm?" the Akatsuki drawled, and Neji winced at the mention of the word 'blind spot'.

"This is my first time seeing it in person, yeah," the man continued, "I'd be curious to see how it differs from Itachi's Sharingan. But escaping takes precedence at the moment, hm."

"Hah," Gai scoffed, "You're looking at Team Gai here my friend, the number one squad in the Lead. You're not going anywhere!"

He grinned at the Akatsuki, teeth glinting, and the pride in his voice was blatant.

Neji liked it though – the number one squad in the Leaf – it was true, to an extent. All four of them were very powerful, and they had excellent teamwork.

"That is a promise!" Lee asserted, raising his arm, the back of his palm facing the man.

"I hope you're ready," Tenten added challengingly, her hand moving to her scroll, and Neji slid into his fighting stance as well.

The blonde leapt up, and all four of them followed suit.

"Attach formation twenty-three!" Gai yelled, and the four members of Team Gai zipped to trees, spreading out in four different directions.

They'd learnt to coordinate and synchronize their attacks well, and had over thirty 'formations' to use while fighting enemies. It was essential, especially when Tenten used long-range weapons.

Though her aim was perfect, it was essential that Neji, Lee and Gai were out of the way when she chucked her projectiles, so not to hamper her attacks, and to avoid unnecessary injuries.

Neji, Tenten and Lee all zoomed towards Deidara, attacking him alternately with taijutsu.

A kick. A palm thrust. Another kick. A punch. A smack. A slash with a kunai.

They'd jump at him one by one, and in pairs, in threes, and even in fours when Gai joined in, managing to land a few hits.

Yet the Akatsuki was very good, and very fast. He managed to dodge or block most of the attacks, and even when Tenten whipped in a few kunai and shuriken to the mix, he impressively managed to parry them using a kunai clutched between his teeth.

Gai signalled to them, before leaping behind a large tree. Understanding, Neji met Tenten and Lee's eyes across the clearing. They nodded.

Neji charged forward first, hitting the blonde with a palm strike.

He dodged by ducking down, but Tenten was ready for him, sliding to the ground and throwing a kunai, which he deflected with the one in his mouth.

This was merely a distraction, however, from Lee, he jumped out from above, smashing his foot downwards.

The Akatsuki just managed to dodge, but this put him in Tenten's range again, and she flung a giant fuuma shuriken at him. It split into four smaller shuriken, and the Akatsuki was forced to climb up a tree to dodge them, and the weapons buried themselves into the trunk, marking the path he had taken.

They'd drawn blood, but hadn't pierced his flesh – of course, that hadn't even been Tenten's intention.

"Severe leaf hurricane!" Gai bellowed, his foot lashing out and he kicked the tree Tenten had lured the man onto.

The man was forced to drop to the ground, and began running again, blood streaming from his mouth where the kunai had cut into his skin.

Lee landed in front of him, in battle pose.

"Here I come!" Lee warned, charging at him, with a flurry of punches and kicks. "Yeah! Ugh! Uh! Yeah!" he shouted, punctuating each blow with a cry, pushing the man into Neji's range.

"Eight Trigrams, Air Palm!" Neji shouted, sending out a blast of air towards the flying Akatsuki and the man was hurled back until he crashed against a tree.

Tenten immediately followed by a barrage of weapons.

Yet, impressively, despite being hammered by the lot of them in turn, the Akatsuki finally managed to gain some leverage, leaping up and fleeing, despite his injuries.

Team Gai were hot in his pursuit, racing after him.

Suddenly, Neji spotted a large white lump, in the clearing below them. The Akatsuki man began to descend.

"He's dropping," Tenten stated.

"We don't know what he's planning. Stay on your guard," Gai warned.

They landed, crouched before him – Lee, then Gai, then Neji and Tenten, slowly standing up.

The man had attached his mouth to the white lump, pulling and tearing at it with his teeth.

He then stood up, and jumped in front of the white lump.

Team Gai immediately took their fighting stances.

The man began chewing on something.

"I think it's about time," he stated, his voice thick, "I revealed my ultimate work of art."

He suddenly started bloating, his body expanding almost comically.

Neji focused on him with his Byakugan, startled when he saw the chakra patterns.

"He's concentrating all of his chakra into one single point!" Neji cried, as the man grew larger and larger. He looked ready to explode. Neji was quite sure he would – literally.

"EVERYONE GET OUT OF HERE! IMMEDIATELY!" Neji commanded, before leaping up.

He grabbed Tenten's hand – but she had taken off immediately, and her fingers slipped past his. Lee and Gai had jumped as well, and the four of them sped through the trees.

"ART IS AN EXPLOSION!" the Akatsuki man shouted.

There was a loud boom – and then blazing heat.

Neji could see a gargantuan, blazing fireball behind them. The blast.

He could see four small figures ahead – he identified them as Kakashi, Naruto, Sakura and Chiyo.

Team Gai ran, faster than they ever had. Neji pumped chakra to his legs, feeling the heat increase.

It was futile.

He looked over at Tenten, whose brown eyes were wide in fear. Even Lee and Gai looked terrified.

"We're never going to make it!" Neji shouted, and there was barely even time to think, or to react.

Thoughts flashed through his mind, and he was reminded of being trapped in the water prison. Ironically enough, it was water then, and fire now.

But he barely had time to be scared, as the four of them made their last and final leap together, soaring through the air – for suddenly there came a loud, rushing, whirring noise, along with the noise of a loud explosion and the roaring of flames.

Neji fell to the ground, expected the explosion, wondering how what the hell he should do, and where the hell was Tenten, and how was he supposed to protect her – but it never came.

There was a sucking noise, and Neji struggled up, wiping the dust from his face, looking around frantically for Tenten.

His eyes locked with hers through the smoke and the dust, and Neji heaved a sigh of relief.

They were safe – but how?

He then turned to the source of the noise, and his eyes widened.

The scenery in front of them was convoluted, twisting and spiralling as if it were being sucked into some kind of a vortex.

And then finally, the noise stopped, and the scene shimmered back to normal. There was a large circular crater, and an area of burnt grass – but the explosion had been contained somehow – that fireball had been large enough to blow at least a diameter of three or four miles of the forest! But it had disappeared, and aside from smoke and dust, everyone and everything was unharmed.

Neji blinked.

What the hell was that!

He then heard Kakashi mutter something - and then he saw Sakura, supporting Chiyo, and Naruto. Lee and Tenten slowly stood up, followed by Gai.

Kakashi was panting heavily. Suddenly, he toppled over. Naruto caught him.

"Kakashi sensei!" Naruto asked concerned, "Are you alright?"

"I don't get it!" Sakura's voice was high-pitched, "What did you do?"

Kakashi breathed heavily for a few moments before answering, his voice soft.

"Sent – the explosion – off into – a different – dimension."

To say Neji was stunned at hearing this was an understatement. The rest of the ninja seemed to share his bewilderment.

"You – sent it somewhere?" Sakura asked, confused.

The Sharingan's ocular jutsu, Neji realised, I never knew it was that powerful!

"I'm not sure I understand really," Lee was saying, bemused, "But it seems to me that the enemy has been defeated..."

He turned to Tenten as if to clarify his doubts.

"Tenten do you agree?"

"What the - ?" Tenten protested, as astonished and clueless as the rest of them, "What the hell are you asking me for?"

Kakashi chuckled weakly.

"More importantly - is everybody okay?" he asked.

Two clones of Naruto suddenly appeared, supporting another body – a limp body.

Neji recognized it from the bright red hair and the gourd strapped to the back.

It was Gaara's body.

"Sakura," one of the clones croaked, it's voice quavering, "Can you-"

Sakura nodded, understanding.

But it was pointless, Neji realised, his throat drying as he surveyed the body.

There was no chakra. The Kazekage – Gaara – was dead.

-X-

The next few minutes – or hours – seemed to pass by in a blur to Neji.

He had been exhausted, and he could only remember it in flashes, as he stood with Tenten and Lee, a respectful distance away from the others, as they mourned over Gaara's body.

Neji had never particularly liked the Kazekage – or his sister for that instance.

Though Lee bore him no grudges, Neji did, and had never truly forgiven him for what he'd done during the Chuunin exam. He hadn't been too fond of Gaara's sister Temari, for similar reasons.

When he found out that Gaara had saved Lee, during the disastrous mission to rescue Sasuke, his dislike had decreased. Temari had saved Shikamaru as well, and Leaf and Sand were now strong allies.

Neji's view of Sand was a neutral one however – he wasn't too fond of them due to past history with his teammates, but he didn't dislike them either.

Still, Gaara's death was a remorseful occasion. Neji, Tenten and Lee didn't shed tears like Naruto and Sakura. They didn't have reason to. But they stood, in solemn silence together, watching the events unfold.

Naruto had been the most upset, sobbing and screaming about injustice.

Neji had been too jarred by the previous events to comprehend much, but felt pity for the boy. He had always liked Naruto, and held him in high regard since the Chuunin exams.

And then suddenly, Chiyo had been standing over Gaara, and attempting some sort of insane jutsu which Neji had never considered possible – Kisho Tensei – and Neji had seen chakra flowing from Chiyo into Gaara's dead body.

Not just chakra, but life.

And then Naruto had joined, and then suddenly the places were reversed, and Chiyo was dead, and Gaara was alive, and the Sand siblings had arrived along with other Sand villagers, and it was Sakura who was clutching Chiyo's dead body and sobbing.

It was all rather confusing, and overwhelming – it took some time to sink in, but when it did, Neji found he admired the old lady Chiyo-sama from the Sand quite a lot.

He, Tenten and Lee had been silent most of the time, just watching, but then they walked back to the sand, Gaara supported by Naruto and Kankuro.

Neji stuck to his teammates.

The entire Sand village had gathered awaiting Gaara's return and there was cheering, clapping and celebration.

They didn't join the celebrations, however.

They'd held a funeral for Chiyo, and had been escorted to their rooms, in the Kazekage's tower, where they'd been provided with food.

They all ate together – Team Gai and Team Kakashi and the Sand Siblings – but there wasn't much conversation amongst them, including Lee, which was surprising. They were too tired, too exhausted, and instead focused on wolfing down as much food as was possible.

They soon retired to their respective rooms.

Neji had wanted to say goodnight to Tenten, or at least speak to her – but there was no time. They were all like zombies, and desperately needed rest, and some proper sleep. They had been fighting for at least four days, without proper rest (excepting the four hours nap in the forest) – Team Gai hadn't even rested from their previous mission when Tsunade had sent them out on this one.

So Neji went into the room he shared with Naruto and Lee, and Tenten left with Sakura.

The moment entered, he hit the bed and collapsed, Lee doing the exact same thing on his left.

There'd be time to talk to Tenten... tomorrow...

RIght now he just needed sleep. It had been the most fatiguing – and yet the most thrilling mission in his life.

-X-

Neji awoke at six o clock sharp the next morning, feeling fresher and better rested than he had in over a week. He quickly got ready, revelling in the fact that he could finally have a much-needed shower (he'd been to exhausted the previous night) and relished the hot water as it washed away the grime and soothed the aches in his muscles.

Once he was ready, he sat to meditate, though for once, he found it difficult to focus, his thoughts wandering to the kunoichi on his team.

Tenten...

Their feelings were out in the open now, and Neji felt a sense of relief. But also wondered what the next step was – was it a one-time thing? Neji's heart constricted at the thought – to him, Tenten meant much more than that, and he had a feeling it was the same for her. Still, if they became – intimate – on a regular basis, would that disrupt the team equilibrium? Most likely not, he reasoned, and then wondered if he should ask her out. Should he ask her on a date? Should has ask her if he could court her? Did he need Hiashi's permission first.

No, Neji thought viciously, I do not need the clan's permission. I will do this of my own free will.

Besides, Hiashi seemed to approve of Tenten anyhow, despite the fact that she possessed no clan of her own.

But what about Gai and Lee? They'd reached an unspoken agreement not to tell the Green Beasts, but if they entered a serious relationship, would they want to keep up that deception? Would they want to fool their mentor and best friend about their feelings for one another? Would they want to pretend to the rest of Konoha as well?

Neji's mind rapidly went over all the shinobi rules and regulations. Though shinobi were told not to show emotion during battle or during a mission, nothing was stated about emotion outside a mission. There were no rules forbidding intimacy or love between teammates, and many Jounin and ANBU, and three of the five Hokage had married and had children.

I'll ask Tenten, he resolved, feeling his stomach flutter, after he considered the matter thoroughly, before resuming his 'meditation'.

He was interrupted, nearly half an hour later, by the loud and rambunctious awakening of both Naruto Uzumaki and Rock Lee, who could prove to be a quite a devastating combination in the morning, when Neji desired nothing but peace and quiet.

"YOSH! I AM FULLY AWAKE NOW! I FEEL REFRESHED AND THE FLAMES OF YOUTH HAVE REKINDLED WITHIN ME!" Lee announced, stretching himself and bouncing out of the bed.

"OH YEAH! ME TOO!" Naruto declared, just as passionately, spurred by Lee's ebullience, "BUT MAN AM I STARVING! I WANT SOME RAMEN, DATTEBAYO!"

"NARUTO, YOU IDIOT!" a grumpy female voice screeched from outside, "SHUT UP! WE'RE TRYING TO SLEEP, DAMNIT!"

Neji smirked slightly, his spirits rising.

At least the morons had managed to wake Sakura, which meant that Tenten would be awake soon as well.

And though the notion was ridiculous, Neji's heart raced at the prospect of seeing her again.

-X-

Neji did meet her, at breakfast, which was a far more cheerful affair than the previous day's dinner. Gai was showing off about his team's achievements in a booming voice to Kakashi, who looked drowsy and utterly disinterested. Lee and Naruto were arguing in boastful tones about something to Sakura, obviously attempting to impress her. The pink-haired girl, who was sandwiched between the two shinobi, looked torn in the middle of wanting to pummel them both to the ground, or escape the situation she was trapped him. Gaara surveyed them with mild amusement, while Kankuro fiddled with his puppet. Tenten sat on Neji's right, chatting with Temari, something which irked the Hyuuga prodigy, who wanted her to talk to him.

"No, I haven't seen Team Asuma recently," Tenten was replying to Temari's query, and feeling rather sulky after her nonchalant behaviour (she had wished him a cheerful good morning, but that was about it) Neji decided to take matters into his own hands.

It was barely anything, just his leg brushing hers under the table. It might have been an accident, but it happened again, and Neji smirked slightly, seeing a rising blush on Tenten's face.

Accidents like that never happened with him, and she knew it as well as he did.

A few moments later, Neji felt cool fingers slide through his own from under the table, and suddenly felt a lot more content.

-X-

They left for Konoha just after breakfast, after a solemn visit to Chiyo's grave.

They hit the road – or rather the seemingly endless stretch of sand – almost immediately, giving Neji and Tenten no private time together.

Neji knew they needed to talk – to sort out everything that happened during the mission, to converse properly without the fear of being clobbered to death by a clone or ripped to pieces by the Akatsuki.

It would have to wait till they were back in Konoha, and considering the sluggish pace they were travelling at (due to Kakashi's prolonged exhaustion after the use of his Sharingan techniques) that would take quite a while.

The group trudged on through the sand, not in the best mood, as the harsh rays of the sun beat unrelentingly on their backs. Neji felt the sweat beading off his forehead – it made his loose clothes stick to his skin, and his dark locks damp with sweat – and he hated it.

Naruto and Lee were making a racket as usual, Sakura was griping at them, and he and Tenten followed the trio in silence. Gai lagged a few feet behind, supporting a staggering Kakashi and looking excruciatingly irritated.

Neji almost missed the breakneck pace Gai usually had them travelling at.

Tenten seemed to as well. A few hours into the journey, she finally turned her head over her shoulder, and yelled across at Gai.

"Sensei! Hurry up," Tenten called, "What's taking you so long?"

She turned to Neji, winking, and he smirked back.

If anything, that might just work on Maito Gai, who was now shaking slightly, his large eyebrow twitching.

"GAH!" Gai shouted out in frustration, fuelled by his student's comment (one which the man would not let pass, at least by Neji's knowledge of him).

He suddenly grabbed Kakashi and flung him high into the air, to the shock of both the flailing man and their respective students. Gai then quickly rearranged his and Kakashi's pack onto his front, before catching the limp man on his back, hooking spandex-covered arms through Kakashi's knees.

"What?" Neji couldn't help but utter, his face shifting into one of disgust.

"That's kinda gross," Naruto commented, his voice sounding equally disgusted.

"Old dudes giving piggyback rides?" Sakura grumbled, "It's even worse than it sounds..."

"Yuck!" Tenten added for emphasis, scrunching her nose.

Lee, however, had an annoyingly familiar expression on his face.

"I see!" Lee gasped, round eyes widening, "You're training aren't you?"

Neji and Tenten exchanged a horrified glance.

Don't get ideas, Lee, Neji urged the boy mentally.

"It'll be faster this way!" Gai boomed, guffawing.

Tenten rolled her eyes expressively.

Gai suddenly bent down, and began to charge towards them, Kakashi dangling from his grasp.

"Aaaaaaaaaahhhhhh!" Gai screamed maniacally, "Move, move, move, move, move!"

The group immediately jumped away, as Gai raced past them, kicking up clouds of sand.

They all coughed for a few moments, before Sakura finally spoke up, sounding sick.

"Running only makes it worse," she muttered.

Lee, however, walked up to Neji, squatting in front of him.

"Neji?" he said meaningfully, and Neji's face twitched.

Tenten made a face beside him, and Neji wanted to air-palm Lee hard.

"Oh, hell no!" Neji finally choked out, enraged at the proposition.

"Come on," Lee persisted, and Neji gave him the full force of an ice cold Byakugan glare.

Lee turned towards Tenten, who gasped, but Neji interjected angrily.

"Don't even think about it," he said firmly, and Lee looked desolate for a moment, before brightening up.

"Could I have your scroll then, Tenten? And your pack? You too, Neji, Sakura-chan, Naruto!"

This the shinobi complied with willingly, though Tenten seemed reluctant to give up her large scroll.

"I'll take care of it," Lee promised, shooting her a thumbs up and a wink, his teeth glinting in the scorching sun, as he hoisted Neji's own bag onto his back, along with the four others already there.

Tenten finally agreed, handing it over, and Lee placed it below Neji's pack.

"Be careful," she warned, but Lee had already sped off, shrieking something about youth and competitions.

That left Sakura, Naruto, Tenten and Neji, the former of which were looking rather dazed.

"Don't worry," Tenten assured them, "That was quite normal behaviour."

"I see," Sakura nodded unsurely.

Tenten then turned to Neji.

"Well, we may as well..." she conceded, and Neji nodded.

"It's not like we have a choice," he grunted.

Tenten's eyes twinkled, and she smiled mischievously.

"C'mon, I'll race you!" she suggested.

"That's a great idea!" Naruto cut in, blue eyes shining, "Last one to the village buys me raaamen!" he sang, speeding off as well.

Sakura looked livid.

"Naruto, you baka!" she screeched, "No one is buying you anything! Get back here!"

She sped off after him, leaving only Neji and Tenten.

Neji reached out towards her, relieved to finally get a chance to be alone with her.

"Tenten," he began, but she just grinned at him, before scampering off as well.

"We can outrun them, right Neji?" she called over her shoulder, "Come on!"

Shaking his head, Neji allowed a small smile to grace his face as he regarded her diminishing figure.

You're not getting away from me, Tenten, he thought, pumping chakra to his legs.

And then he was off, his feet pounding on the sun-baked sand.

-X-

By the time they reached the village, panting and slowing down to catch their breaths (Tenten and Neji had, of course, overtaken Sakura and Naruto and sped through the Konoha gates seconds before), Gai and Lee had already reached.

Neji wasn't surprised to seem them engaged in some asinine nonsense.

"You came in third!" Gai was saying menacingly, and Lee winced, obviously shocked.

"Ah!" Lee yelled theatrically, "Wh-what?"

"Kakashi came in second because I was carrying him!" Gai boomed, spinning around to reveal an unconscious Kakashi, "Ahahahahaha! Your'e a lucky guy, Kakashi! No need to thank me!"

Lee then whipped out a notebook, scribbling furiously in it, as tears gushed down his face.

"Ooooooh!" he moaned, "Sensei just gave an important tip! I can feel it!"

Sakura, Naruto, and the two guards at the gate just looked on in utter astonishment.

"And as usual, I have no idea why they're in such an inappropriate mood," Neji snorted, shaking his head.

"But you kinda got into the race back to the village, didn't you?" Tenten teased.

"Don't be ridiculous," Neji scoffed, glaring at her before turning his head away.

Tenten giggled beside him, and he had to admit, she was correct.

With her around, he could enjoy almost any situation; somehow, her presence just made it all more bearable.

"Okay!" Gai said, suddenly snapping back to seriousness, "We're all here now, right? Let's hurry up and report to Tsunade-sama!"

"Um," Sakura hesitated before speaking up, sounding worried, "Gai-sensei..."

"Yes?" Gai asked.

"Kakashi-sensei – is..." Sakura gestured at the man, who was slumped across Gai's shoulders.

"Whoops!" Gai exclaimed, just noticing Kakashi's state of unconsciousness.

Neji and Tenten exchanged equally exasperated looks.

"Maybe we should take him to the hospital before we give our report," Gai decided.

Damnit, Neji cursed mentally.

He really wanted to get over with this mission so he and Tenten could finally – talk...

-X-

He finally managed to catch Tenten alone that evening, just an hour before the scheduled Team Dinner which Gai had insisted on.

It had taken an annoyingly long time – at the hospital (fortunately Tsunade was there so they could deliver their mission report without having to head to the Hokage Tower), then at the compound, meeting with Hiashi and Hinata and relaying the mission - he and Tenten had agreed to meet at their usual training ground.

It would be empty – and if anyone found them there, they could assume they were simply sparring.

Neji waited in silence for a few moments, watching the sun set, casting an orange glow on the trees in the forest.

He sensed her arrival since his Byakugan wasn't activated – by hearing her steady footfalls and her soft breathing.

Tenten was wearing a light blue Chinese top and white capris, and she smelt of something heavenly – like honey – and her brown bangs brushed her forehead, her hair damp and gloriously loose, spilling over her shoulders like a chocolate waterfall.

Neji found that he couldn't control himself, or his hormones.

With the speed and grace of a trained ninja, he was in front of her almost immediately, pinning her back to a nearby tree.

Tenten gasped, and Neji smirked, placing one hand on the target secured to the tree, right next to her head – and the other on her waist – encaging her with his body.

She hadn't expected it, but Neji didn't care, and dipped his head down so he could kiss her. His body nearly exploded with the pleasure of it – damn, he'd been longing to kiss her again – and his mouth moved almost frantically against hers, his hands moving to play with the damp curls of her unbound hair.

He cupped her neck, pulling her closer to him, as he deepened the kiss. Tenten looped her arms around his own neck, and kissed him back with equal fervour, until they both pulled away, gasping for breath.

"I – impatient, hm?" Tenten asked, her eyes sparkling.

Neji smiled at her, caressing her cheek with a finger.

"You have no idea," he admitted softly, his nose brushing hers.

"So – um – what now?" Tenten whispered, and though her question was vague, Neji understood.

He gulped, feeling uncharacteristically shy, as he pulled away from her.

"I care for you a lot, Tenten," Neji said in a low voice, his cheeks flaming.

Tenten blushed as well, beaming at him, and it gave him confidence.

"You've always – been my closest friend and teammate," Neji went on, "But – if I may ask – I would like to – court you..." he trailed off.

"Neji!" Tenten squealed, looking utterly delighted, her eyes shining.

"Would you be willing, Tenten?" Neji entreated, taking her hand between both of his.

From the expression on her face, he realised, he'd made the right decision in asking her.

"Oh, Neji," Tenten said breathlessly, as he ran his fingers over the skin of her hand, "You know I'd love to!"

Neji's heart skipped a beat, and seemed to inflate with happiness. He never remembered feeling this happy in his life.

"Excellent," Neji murmured, lifting her hand to his lips and kissing it.

For some reason, this action made Tenten go starry-eyed, and Neji pulled her to his chest.

"What about Gai and Lee?" Tenten asked, her breath tickling his neck, "Are we telling them?"

Neji rested his hands on her lower back, her lips brushing her ear.

"Do you want to?" he asked.

"I – don't want to lie to them," Tenten admitted, "But I don't feel up to it just yet, if you get what I mean. They'll be pretty – overwhelming once they find out – and I don't think I can deal with that yet! I mean – it's already – overwhelming – being with you Neji..."

Neji felt a pleasant leaping sensation in his stomach at this admission, and smiled, lifting her chin so that he could meet her lips again in a tender kiss.

"Later then," he agreed, gazing into her warm cinnamon eyes after pulling away.

"Later," Tenten nodded, "We'll have to keep it a secret then, at least for a while..."

"Hn," Neji shrugged, not particularly caring anymore.

He just wanted to kiss her again.

And that's exactly what he did.

-X-

~*Omake*~

-X-

"Hello viewers, and welcome to Naruto Uzumaki's Swirl Radio!" a peppy, blue-eyed blonde shinobi announced, beaming.

"Today, dickless and I will be answering some letters sent by fans," a pale, dark-haired boy next to him continued with fake cheer.

"Sai!" Naruto growled, twitching, "You take that back!"

"Anyways," Sai went on, ignoring Naruto's wrath, "I'm going to read out the first question."

He waved a white envelope which Naruto immediately snatched.

"Hey!" Naruto snapped, "I'm the main character, dattebayo! Stop stealing my thunder!"

"I cannot steal your 'thunder' Naruto-kun," Sai said, glancing at Naruto's crotch and completely misinterpreting the idiom, "As you have none."

"Grr," Naruto growled, "Just shut up! Anyways, I'm gonna read the first letter!"

He ripped a piece of blue paper out of the envelope, and proceeded to read out the contents.

"Dear Neji, it says," Naruto read, "Are you in a relationship with – hey! Why is it addressed to Nej?"

Naruto was suddenly indignant.

"Obviously as he's more popular than you, dickless," Sai replied.

"B-b-but!" Naruto flailed madly, "I'm the main character! What gives, guys! I mean, I'm the one who beat sense into him!"

"Just answer the question," Sai said tonelessly.

"Well how would I know!" Naruto protested, "I don't know about Neji's – relationships!"

"I suppose they mean a romantic relationship," Sai mused, "In which case I would assume the answer is the bun-haired kunoichi with weapon fetishes on his team-"

"Tenten?" Naruto asked incredulously, "Why would you think Neji likes Tenten? I mean, they're friends and all, but how would you know?"

"Well," Sai said wisely, whipping out a bright pink book, "In this book it says that if a man is in love with a woman he will spend all of his time with her. He will try to woo her by taking her on dates which cater to her interest. He will act in a manner that she appreciates-"

"Wait, wait, wait," Naruto cut him off, waving his hands wildly, "I know they spend all their time together – but that could be because they're just teammates!"

"Well they spend time alone," Sai pointed out, "Without that hyperactive bushy-browed friend of theirs."

"But dates? Come on! Neji's never taken any girl on a date!"

"I believe he has," Sai said solemnly, "All those times they go alone to the forest-"

"That's for sparring practice, Sai!" Naruto yelled, "They're sparring partners! Geez..."

"But the book says that the dates should cater to her interest. Tenten is a kunoichi who likes sparring with weapons. Hence, Neji takes her for one-on-one sparring practices. It's the ideal date," Sai argued calmly, "Not to mention, after rescuing her from Kisame's water prison he caught her in his arms lovingly, and held on for quite a while. I'd say he was groping her..."

"You're a pervert," Naruto grumbled, "But I suppose you're right. Those two are always together – but what the hell, dattebayo! How could that frigid, icy Hyuuga get a girlfriend before me! This is injustice!"

"Maybe it's because you lack certain vital masculine features," Sai suggested helpfully.

"Noooo!" Naruto cried, tears streaming down his face, "That's not it! Why? Why can't I get a girl!"

"Or maybe it's because you're so obsessed with Sasuke-kun that the girls have decided that you are in love with him, and therefore gay," Sai concluded.

"What? NO!" Naruto screeched, blanching, "No no no! Don't say that! Don't say that! Ugh! Just you wait Neji – I'll get a girlfriend one day! If Kishimoto would just – aaaargh!"

-X-

Author's Note – Meh. Done. Couldn't think of an omake, sorry =P

Anyways, hope you enjoyed, and please review.

Practically all the manga NejiTen is over... they barely make appearances from now on, so I'm not sure what to write since I don't want to divert from canon too much... maybe I'll wait a few chapters... but in the meanwhile, you guys could read my NejiTen Oneshot Collection =3 (insert shameless self-promotion)

Don't worry, this isn't over, though I can't promise another update soon. I have university applications and tons of work – and there's no Neji or Tenten in the manga, really, so I'll have to wait... but in the meanwhile, review, please!

And a special thanks to my reviewers for the last chapter – irukandji, DarkAnonymous324, MuSiCxcDj, Midnight Insomniac, Fake Bliss, Faraway Dawn, ninjapirate, Dali-chan510, Chibi-Tenshi Sama, ayumwu, Monkeyheart, BlueWolfAngel2, Inner Demons and nakimina

Really appreciated your kind words =D Thanks a ton!

And the rest of you, please review... if it's not asking for to much I'd like to hit 100 reviews for this fic... please... =3

Much fanfic love,

HQ