Neji stalked into the ANBU break room temper barely held in check after his last mission. He could not understand why the Hokage insisted that he be teamed up with new recruits to help weed out those who ultimately couldn't handle the work. The latest torture test was a blonde kunoichi who specialized in chakra tracking. Her skills in that area were admirable but her ability to shut up and stay hidden left much to be desired.
Their simple tracking mission had resulted in an assassination because she hadn't been able to stop twittering about her luck in being paired up with Hyuuga Neji ultimately giving away their position. As of tomorrow her stupidity would land her right back in the academy teaching the brats their basics. Now he'd come to relax before returning to the compound only to find the room swarming with other ninja. None of the tables were open and he didn't see any familiar faces to be able to barge in on. His eyes scanned the room and he sighed when his gaze landed on a brunette sitting quietly by herself appearing to write a mission report. Thinking she was his best option he started toward her table.
"Excuse me, I noticed you were alone and there's nowhere else to sit, would you mind?"
She glanced up giving him a clear view of her features. Hazel eyes studied him in slight surprise before shifting to guarded apprehension. Her full mouth turned down into a slight frown. Her brown hair was cut short accentuating her oriental features, styled carelessly – or not at all as it was haphazard. She shifted to lean back in her chair instead of hunched over the table showing off a lean figure through the standard ANBU-issue turtleneck. Her arms were toned and littered with differing scars that trailed to her hands. He suspected she was a combat specialist and thus in the assassination division which would explain why she seemed unfamiliar to him.
"Surprise, surprise, Hyuuga Neji does have manners," she quipped her voice low for a woman but still fitting. She didn't seem overly feminine and the low sultry quality suited a woman trained to use her body as a weapon.
"Do I know you?"
"You don't recognize me?"
Genuine surprise showed on her face as her frown deepened before a sly look took over her expression. "No, I don't suppose you would; I'm not worth remembering."
"Have we met before?"
"We did a few missions together."
"Remind me of your name?"
She grinned ready to reply when Kiba jogged up to the table, "I'm glad I caught you," he panted, nodding to acknowledge Neji but focusing on the female. "Hinata wanted me to ask you if you could forge her a katana. She detailed everything she thought you would need on this," he explained holding out a folded sheaf of paper.
She unfurled it, studying the information provided. "Is it for combat or dress?"
"Tell her I'll have it for her soon." She refolded the paper placing it in a pouch on her hip.
"Thanks, I'll let her know," he exclaimed before jogging off.
The female stood, collecting her scroll from the table before turning to Neji. "It's all yours. It was nice seeing you again Hyuuga-san."
She slipped off before he could reply leaving him confused as to who she even was. He didn't remember ever working with a combat specialist who wore a tiger mask like the one she had attached to her hip. But then he'd been given so many recruits to test there was no way to remember them all.
"Tenten-san," Sai murmured, appearing at her side. "Was Hyuuga-san bothering you," he questioned looking at where Neji stood watching her walking away in interest.
"No, he was just looking for somewhere to sit."
"He didn't say anything else?"
Sai seemed genuinely surprised considering their history. They'd once been model teammates, half of the exceptional Team Gai until Konoha had gone to war against Uchiha Madra and the remainder of his Akatsuki. Tenten, Gai and Neji had come home.
Lee hadn't been so lucky.
In an effort to keep the eldest Uchiha from aiding Sasuke in his fight against Naruto Lee had opened too many gates when the task proved to be too much. Team Gai had lost their Handsome Devil and soon after the funeral the team dissolved. Gai had returned to ANBU and Neji had soon been accepted into their ranks as well. The former team members quit training together and soon stopped seeing each other at all. In the five years since Lee's death the three survivors hadn't met…until now. Tenten had travelled to train until last year, returning to become Sai's partner in ANBU. Now the two were top of their division when it came to their success percentage and execution of policies.
Said had come to consider his teammate a friend as well and was concerned that this first meeting had been detrimental to her but that didn't seem to be the case. If anything she seemed thoughtful and amused.
"No, he didn't say anything else," she finally responded. "He didn't even recognize me."
"I know your panda buns are gone but you don't look that much different without them. Maybe it's the weight you lost. A lot of it was in your face."
She ground her teeth in annoyance. "Thanks Sai; I appreciate that. It's not like it matters why he didn't though. We've both moved on in our lives now, there's no going back.
The without Lee went without saying.
"I'll see you later, Sai. I've got some things to do. I'll have my mission report to Hokage-sama by the end of the evening." Tenten assured as they reached the entrance to the ANBU facility.
"I know you will. I will see you for our training session tomorrow morning?"
"I'll be there."
He nodded before heading back into the building. He doubted the Hyuuga would be having an epiphany on Tenten's identity but in case it did occur he didn't want the man seeking her out. As steady as she seemed the weapon's mistress was still grieving and not just for Lee. She had lost more than a man she had considered a brother, she'd lost her team and ultimately the men she considered family as well. In her world she hadn't been able to remove the proverbial knife that had been driven into her back when her family had left her in her time of need. Tenten spent a lot of time in places that she felt a connection to her past. She had only been at headquarters today because Sai was sick of hunting across the village for her and had requested that she start spending more time in areas he could expect to find her.
Tenten walked away from the ANBU headquarters and toward the Yamanaka flower shop. She had someone she needed to visit and she never went without a gift. Ino was running the store today and when she saw Tenten enter she offered a sad smile.
"What will it be for Lee-kun today?" She questioned as Tenten never took the same thing with her often deciding on her mood more than what Lee might have liked not that there was much Lee hadn't liked.
Thoughtfully trailing her fingers over an orchid Tenten considered her options. "Daisies," she decided. "Orange daisies if you have them. Lee needs something pretty."
"Of course I have them. How many would you like?"
"Kami, Tenten, does ANBU really pay that much? That'll be ¥6000."
She shrugged. "They do for me, I don't know if they do everyone else."
"Knew I should have joined when they asked me to," Ino grumbled going about collecting the flowers as asked. When she was done she turned to Tenten. "Do you need a vase? Any other flowers? Roses and lilies are good additions."
"No thank you. To both actually. Daisies suit Lee the most; roses are Sakura and lilies are Hinata-chan. If you could tie the flowers up in two separate bundles though that would be great."
"And what are you?" She questioned softly, studying the brunette across the counter as she went about completing the request.
"Iceplant. Columbine," Tenten suggested with a hint of disdain.
"Dahlias," she corrected. "Lady's Tresses. Lee had it right with the lotus too."
"I don't want to talk about this." She dropped the money on the counter, retrieving the flowers before rushing out the door before Ino could get started again. When she felt she was a respectable distance away she sighed in relief. She was a full-fledged ANBU operative able to carry out her assassinations with ease but even the possibility of disagreement from Ino and she turned into a quivering mess.
She went to what had been their training grounds first, studying the newest genin group that had taken over there. It was something she was still torn on; she would have wanted it left empty for longer in memory of what their team had been but she knew she should be happy that they were here since Lee would have wanted it that way.
"We should remember the fallen by continuing to train. It is the youthful way to protect what was important to them. To be stronger than the me of yesterday is that not what we promised?" He would say.
She often considered the possibility that she hated their being here so much because she saw parallels between the genin and Team Gai. The standard structure of two males and one female had been maintained though that was becoming typical. One boy was extremely arrogant and that caused friction between he and the other boy who fully believed that with perseverance and determination everyone could reach the same level. The female was annoyed with both boys' antics and swore to be a strong kunoichi like the Godaime Mizukage – her former leader before her immigration to Konoha – ironic in its stunning similarity to Tenten's admiration for the Godaime Hokage. Ebisu was a lot less…eccentric than Gai but he was still quirky and while his training style was less than traditional he taught necessary lessons in efforts to protect his newest team.
Content with studying the team for a few minutes to further that thought she settled onto a tree branch. In the middle of an explosion from an exploding tag she slipped to the ground, placing one bundle of the daisies between the roots of the tree her team had carved their initials into. Before she could be detected again she leapt back into the trees and onward to the memorial stone. It was there that she crossed her ankles and lowered herself to the ground.
"I'm sorry I haven't been here lately. I'm a horrible friend. There's no forgivable excuse for it but I was sent on a mission by Hokage-sama and it took longer than expected, apparently all those tracking missions we had came in slightly handy or I'd probably still be out there," she stated dryly.
"I brought you flowers – daisies to be exact. They're orange. I figured you'd like them since they match your leg warmers though I don't know why I'm describing them to you like you can't see them for yourself. You're not blind just…I just can't see you anymore but you're still here, right? You wouldn't really leave us; leave me, right? Anyway, people wish on them by pulling the petals off sometimes. I doubt you'd ever desecrate nature like that since it would be 'unyouthful' but there are a lot of flowers here and that's lot of wishes for you. And Naruto too since he liked orange so much. Maybe you can share the wishes? You both worked so hard, I think you've earned an easy way.
"I saw Neji today," she chirped. "He didn't recognize me but I've changed or so Sai tells me. I guess I forget that I have changed. I still want it to be the three of us and Gai-sensei so I still picture myself as the panda haired chunin." She gave a humorless chuckle. "I guess that's a pipedream, huh? I guess I'm disappointed too and that's why I wanted so much to have something nice for you. I wanted him to remember me. I've been so alone, Lee-kun, since you left us. I just wanted some piece of that life back and I don't think it's going to happen.
"I just miss you so much. I miss all of you so much but you the most. You were the most like family to me, like a brother and I don't think I'll ever trust someone the way I trusted you. You knew all my secrets, you still do. I can't talk to anyone the way I talk to you. You never judged anyone; you were just such a kind person. I don't know why you had to go, I wish you hadn't."
She sighed, placing the flowers she had been fiddling with at the base of the stone before she traced her fingers gently along her teammate's name. "I wish you were here," she murmured sadly. After a moment of silence where she still touched the stone she relayed the latest information explaining that Konohamaru and Hanabi had hooked up and in crazy Hyuuga fashion a race was on to see which of Hiashi's daughters could produce an heir first. Whoever did would become the clan head and the second would be banished to the branch house. Hiashi hadn't caught on to the fact yet that both girls were using every preventative measure that existed to foil the plan.
"I'm glad to see them getting along. I thought all the craziness and plotting would pit them against each other. They'll change that clan together. I just know it."
She regaled him with stories of the newest genin and of her missions. With laughter and frustration she told him of how she struggled to deal with Sai on a daily basis comparing his emotional challenges to those of their past brooding teammate.
"Neji was much easier to handle," she assured. "Sai is incredibly stupid."
Eventually she ran out of things to say, she traced his name once more before standing. Just before she leapt back into the trees to return to her home she turned back to the monument. "Lee, wherever you are know that I can never forget anything that we've been through. I'll never forget you and as long as that's true you're still partially alive right? If you're in my memory then a piece of you is still here. So I'll keep remembering and I'll keep training to be stronger than the me of yesterday so that you can keep living even if just for a little while longer in me."
A week later Tenten stood at the gates of the Hyuuga compound with Hinata's commission strapped to her back. At that current moment she was less than pleased. There was once a time when she was allowed to walk through these gates with nothing more than a wave when she went to visit Neji or Hinata. Now she was being mercilessly questioned and threatened to leave.
"I'm not leaving. Hinata-sama requested that I forge a blade for her, I have done just that and am here to deliver it to her for her inspection."
"Then we will deliver it to her." One of the guards insisted.
"She is my client and I must speak with her to make sure that the blade meets her specifications. I have to physically judge that the length is suited to her stature. Escort me to her if you're that concerned but you will not be taking my work from me."
The three guards glanced warily at each other before the one who seemed to be in charge nodded. "Hachi will escort you. But understand if you try to harm Hinata-sama we will be forced to retaliate."
"Kami, I'm not going to hurt her," she cried.
"Very well, you may enter."
Now even more annoyed she followed the youngest of the guards to an interior courtyard where Kiba sat beneath a large tree with Hinata between his legs. Tenten was glad to see the other woman laughing unabashedly at something her husband had said; Kiba always managed to bring out the best in Hinata and while she knew Hiashi was less than thrilled with her choice it was the best option for her.
When the laughing Hyuuga looked up and caught sight of her friend her face brightened even more. "Tenten-chan," she called, "hello. I didn't expect you."
"I finished your sword," she explained, drawing it and another from her back. "I wanted to bring it to you and make sure that it was what you were looking for."
"Why are there two?" Hinata questioned when both were passed to her.
"A gift. Katanas are typically carried with a smaller sword known as a wakizashi in the event that the katana is lost or broken. It's a backup weapon and I thought it would be nice for you to have even inside the village for protection. It's small enough to be used as a utility knife as well."
"You really didn't need to do that. I'll pay you for it."
"No, that's not necessary. Your last purchase for Hanabi has already promoted my business as a smith by a substantial amount, it's the least I can do for you after you passed my name on. Really it's a gift, please take it."
"I'm still paying you for the katana," she insisted with a pout. Even if her confidence had skyrocketed since her relationship with Kiba began there were still some people that she naturally caved to, Tenten being one of them.
"I'll accept payment for that. Try it out," she encouraged. "I want to make sure that the length is right for your stature."
Tenten surveyed as Hinata withdrew the sword, passing the scabbard to her husband before moving slowly through some of her basic katas. Pleased with what she saw Tenten nodded. "If it feels right to you then I'm willing to turn it over to your possession. It looks like it fits."
"It's very well balanced, very sharp," Hinata commented. "Your work always is the best. I couldn't have asked for more. If you'll just give me a moment I'll get your payment." She hurried off leaving Kiba with her swords in his lap and Tenten standing over him.
"So," he began unsheathing the wakizashi and studying it, "I can't use a sword for shit but if you've got a schedule lined up to make some kunai I'd be willing to buy a couple hundred off of you. No rush though if you're not."
"They're on the list for next week. I'll just add yours to my orders. It won't be a problem."
"Anytime, you know that."
"Have you ever considered leaving ANBU to focus on just making weapons?"
Her lips turned up into a quick, amused smile. "Once or twice but I've always wanted to be a kunoichi and if I chose to focus on the smithy it would be a full-time job; I wouldn't be able to be a ninja anymore, not even a sensei. I like doing it on the side though, especially for myself, but it just comes out better if I'm still treating it like an art where I only make swords for specific people instead of producing them in mass to supply the shinobi. I can still do both and that's what I plan to do."
He opened his mouth to ask another question but was kept from doing so when Hinata returned and pressed a pouch toward Tenten.
"This should be enough," she explained. "Thank you so much for making these for me, I really didn't expect you to do two."
Tenten shrugged. "It gave me something to do and I enjoyed it. I don't get a lot of orders for katanas anymore and I wanted to make sure I still had the skill to forge the set. You just benefited from my practice."
"I can assure you the skill is still there," Kiba informed still studying the smaller blade.
Tenten smiled again. "Well I better go, Sai and I have training soon and he freaks out if I'm not on time. I think that vivid imagination of his that allows him to do his paintings has corrupted his brain when it comes to logical solutions. He always thinks I've been kidnapped or killed in a dark alley or some other such nonsense."
Hinata giggled, "He's just concerned for you. He's always cared for his teammates after all."
"Well he needs to care a little less," she groused before sighing, waving to her friends and disappearing over the compound's roof.
"Hinata-sama," Neji called emerging from the inside of the compound seconds after Tenten had leapt away, "I heard you had an armed visitor. I wanted to make sure you were okay."
"I'm fine, nii-san. I commissioned a sword and it was delivered today," she informed, gesturing to the weapons that were still with Kiba.
"Yes I know; I was there when Kiba-san informed your associate of the order. Just please be more careful next time you do something like that, you had the guards very concerned."
"I apologize but I didn't expect Tenten-san to have completed them so quickly otherwise I would have warned them. They should have known though that she would never hurt me, she was always here visiting us before and there were never any incidents." Hinata continued explaining, missing the fact that her cousin had blanched when his former teammate's name had been mentioned.
"Tenten made that sword for you?" He choked out in question.
Puzzled Hinata could only nod. "Kiba-kun said you were talking to her when he walked up. Of course she would be the one to make the weapon for me."
"I thought she was dead," he defended.
"Of course not!" She cried out. "Tenten-san is very strong. If something had happened to her I can assure you that you would have known."
"But I looked for her and couldn't find any trace of her for years. I gave up eventually because I thought she'd died."
"She left the village," Kiba explained, "travelling through the different nations to train so she could reach the ANBU level like you and Gai. Last year she returned and Hokage-sama instated her in the assassination division of ANBU with Sai as her partner. She wasn't dead, she just felt like she wasn't needed anymore so she went to make something of herself. You and Gai left her when you both went into ANBU and she felt abandoned."
"I didn't abandon her," Neji attempted to defend. "I went where I was needed. She knew our team would dissolve eventually.
Kiba gave the man a blank stare. "Yes," he said firmly, "you did. It was understandable that your team would one day dissolve but it was expected to do so when someone was promoted not when you lost one of your own. She needed the men in her life that she considered family to help her through that experience. Instead she lost her sensei and her sparring partner to ANBU without a backward glance from either of them and then on top of that they stop speaking to her. You didn't even know where she was and it's been five years, Neji!"
"I looked for her! Given it might not have been as soon as it should have been but I was grieving too. I went to the academy and contacted Umino Iruka in hopes that she was there or he knew if she had taken on a team to train. She hadn't done either. When I went to her apartment I found it completely empty. With no one living there I could only assume she'd been killed on a mission."
"And you never thought to check the stone?"
"I couldn't bring myself to see one more person I'd cared about with their name on that rock. I couldn't bear to see her name on it."
"Well it's not, dumbass, but I don't see you moving. I can almost get not recognizing her face because hell we've all grown and she's changed her appearance but you didn't even know her voice. Hina-chan just told you who the hell she was and you're still standing here talking to us. You going to let her walk right out of your life again, Hyuuga? Because that's what it's looking like."
"Kiba-kun," Hinata murmured softly in admonishment, her fist pressed to her mouth as she watched her cousin with worry. She'd never seen Neji look so….overwhelmed. It just didn't suit his demeanor especially when he strived so hard to keep everyone else at a distance. Tenten had always been special though.
"Listen here, mutt," Neji snarled, "you have no idea what I've been through. Just imagine losing one of your teammates then imagine losing both and you still won't even come close to what I've been through. I left a brother on the battlefield and then lost all trace of the only person I could still care for. You have no idea what that's like. Now you're telling me she's been alive all this time and she didn't try to contact me. That changes everything I thought I knew not just about the situation but about her."
"She did look for you, nii-san," Hinata interjected cutting her husband off before he could launch an attack on the Hyuuga male again. "When she came back from training that was the first thing she did was to go straight to the Hokage and ask about you. She knew you were safe and while she didn't end up contacting you she struggled with the decision for weeks. Ultimately she decided that you both had moved on and that you had made your decision after we lost Lee-kun and you stopped training with her. Tenten-san was content with the knowledge that you were alive at least. She wasn't going to ask for more."
"Why didn't you say anything to her then? She obviously was talking with you but you never encouraged her to make the step in contacting me. You never told me that she was alive and here."
Kiba and Hinata glanced at each other before Hinata spoke. "You're right on that we didn't tell you but we did encourage her. She wouldn't be swayed and that led to our decision not to tell you. She did not want to interfere with your life or make things awkward for you. We respected that decision to protect her. Tenten-san is still hurting. She visits the stone frequently to see Lee-kun and we thought having to face you would not be the best thing for her to deal with as well. We weren't sure how you would react because we didn't even know you were looking for her; you kept it to yourself completely. If I had known you were looking for her and wanting to reconnect then maybe I would have pushed her a little harder but the past is the past and I can't change it. You have to decide what you're going to do now and you have to take into consideration how it's going to affect her."
Neji sighed, "Is she happy at least?"
"No," Kiba answered, "she's existing but she's not living because she's incredibly unhappy. She wants to let go of the past so bad she can't stand it but that option doesn't seem available to her. I can't blame her though. If everything I loved and my happiness was taken away from me then I'd want to go back to that time too. It ain't healthy but I haven't found much in our lifestyles so far that is," he stated with a shrug.
Neji turned and walked away without looking back.
"He's pissed," Kiba muttered, chuckling softly.
"Kiba-kun," Hinata chided, "this is a lot to handle. Even Neji gets overwhelmed sometimes. If you thought I was dead and suddenly found out I wasn't then wouldn't you have problems assimilating it too."
He thought for a moment before shaking his head. "Nah, if something happened to you I wouldn't be around long after."
"I need a missing-nin eliminated," Kakashi slurred out. He absolutely hated this position. After they had lost Naruto and Lee Tsunade had stepped down as Hokage and Kakashi in all his amazing good luck glory had been selected as her replacement.
"All right," Tenten prompted. She didn't see Sai anywhere nearby and Kakashi didn't seem to be waiting for him. If this was a mission then where the hell was her partner? And was she really supposed to go off of 'need a missing-nin eliminated'? There was a freakin' book of all the missing-nin, did he really intend for her to go after all of them!
"Technically," he drawled out, "I'm supposed to send an assassin and a tracker but well, my tracking division is a little short thanks to somebody demoting all my recruits so I was thinking you worked with a tracking team as a genin," he explained trailing off in hopes that she would pick up on his train of thought before he had to continue.
"Uh, no I didn't. Neji was the only tracker that's why Kurenai-san's team was sent out instead of ours."
"Really?" He looked up from his book in surprise his face – or what was visible of it – falling when he frowned. "Shit." Immediately cheering up he found a solution, "Well I guess I can spare the Hyuuga for the mission, maybe then some of my recruits will pass."
"What?" Tenten yelled. "No! Please, Hokage-sama, anyone else but Neji. Sai can track with his ink. He's better at using his techniques for that over assassination missions. Please, please just let me stay with my partner."
"Sai is already on a mission so that won't be possible. You are the best assassin that I have; I don't trust anyone else to take this nin down."
"But Neji?" She whined.
"He's one of the best at what he does. And he needs to be out on a mission that refreshes his tracking skills; he's been supervising for too long."
She was ready to object against the admittedly weak argument again but she could see the annoyance showing in the Hokage's eye and ultimately thought better of it. Resigned she nodded her agreement, "Whatever needs to be done, Hokage-sama."
"Good. Now you and Neji will be leaving by tonight. Your information is in these scrolls. Destroy them once you've read them," he commanded holding two out for her to accept. "Neji should be at the headquarters writing up his report concerning his latest demotion victim."
Fighting back tears Tenten nodded in acknowledgement before taking the scrolls, bowing in respect, and shunshining away.
Neji didn't admit to being startled often, in fact he'd deny it with every breath he had but he wasn't sure he could plausibly claim as such in this moment. Having been so deep in his thoughts over the information he had received last week about his former teammate and sparring partner he didn't notice the figure that appeared beside him until a scroll was dropped unceremoniously in front of him.
His gaze quickly traveled up to the figure that had appeared catching another curveball to the head when he realized it was the woman who had been occupying his thoughts.
"We have a mission," she said with less strength behind her voice as she would have liked. "The information is in the scroll. We're to destroy them once we have the information then leave tonight. I'll meet you here in two hours if that's suitable."
He absently nodded too busy looking at her in a new light now that he knew who she was. They were twenty-two now so he couldn't really expect to still see her panda buns but he had expected them to always be there as a prideful symbol of her oriental heritage. Now they were gone along with her traditional clothing, replaced by a short asymmetrical cut and the mandatory attire of the ANBU. He was shocked when she abruptly turned and walked off leaving him to watch her back. She'd grown another few inches keeping her height close to his own stature and had thinned down finally losing the last dregs of baby fat that had stubbornly clung to her at seventeen. He'd always been aware that she was female – she never let anyone forget it – but being shown an image he had forgotten wrapped up in a skintight package forcibly reminded him of that very lovely fact.
"Ten," he called, standing quickly from the table before grabbing her. "I see you've improved your speed," he commented calmly when her ninjato was suddenly pressed to his throat. He was honestly impressed with what she'd accomplished in five years as she never would have gotten that close to him before but that didn't mean he appreciated it.
"Don't call me that," she snarled. "If you must address me then call me 'Tora'. You're my partner for this mission unfortunately so you can call me what the rest of my partners call me. But when it's over so are we. Don't make the mistake of thinking this is anything more than temporary."
"I wouldn't dream of it," he snapped in reply. "After all we always were just a means to an end for each other, right? As a team we used each other to get exactly what we wanted."
Without hesitation her hand streaked through the air connecting soundly with his cheek. "How dare you, you arrogant son of a bitch, if anyone used their teammates then it was you. You were the one who demanded we constantly work on your techniques, who demanded we were nothing more than pitiful practice for your noble Hyuuga arts. Day in and day out you condemned him and his beliefs; you made Lee suffer so don't you dare try to accuse me of being the bad egg in the bunch. Your head was so big I swear Rikudō Sennin could have made another moon. I didn't use anyone, I loved you both in my own way and I never would have done anything to take advantage of you so don't you dare even try putting me down. Meet me at the gates but so help me Kami I never even want to hear about you ever again. You should have taken Lee's place at least then there would still be someone worth fighting for in this world instead of the abundance of negativity and degradation that you seem so willing to provide."
"You bitch, you think you're better but you're the one fucking telling me I should be dead! He's not coming back, you stupid whore; wishing me in his place won't bring your lover back."
"No it won't bring him back," she agreed her voice suddenly soft and calm. "You're right on that and I shouldn't have said that it should have been you but you have no idea what my situation was when I lost him. My family died when I was a small child up until we became a team I didn't have anyone important in my life for so long. When we became a team I finally had a family again even if they were a little eccentric. He was my best friend and he was the brother I never had. When I lost him it was like losing my family all over again especially when you and Gai left me as well. It was bad enough knowing the Lee would never be here again but the only people I had left in the world had left me behind. I didn't love him the way you're insinuating, that was reserved for someone else in my life but I did love him and that's all you need to know."
She wrenched her wrist free of his grip before walking off without looking back leaving Neji to drop back into his chair and reach for the scroll she had delivered. He'd be damned if he failed a mission or withdrew from one just because he didn't want to deal with her. She blew up on him it wasn't as if he had originally provoked her. He understood loss, she wasn't the only one who had experienced it; she wasn't the only one to lose a teammate. She hadn't been acting like a teammate though when remembering Lee she'd been overly emotional and prone to sudden mood swings. It only seemed logical that she had romantic feelings for him.
Turning the thoughts over and over in his head he ultimately decided that this wouldn't be the last of it.
Tenten stalked into town heading directly for Ino's shop. Miraculously the blonde was once again manning the counter causing the ANBU to make a mental note to check the Yamanaka's mission log to see if she was still even on active duty.
"I need magnolias today." She informed the florist.
"Pick one," Tenten snarled. "I'm not picky."
Ino nodded moving to retrieve the requested flora in the color of her choice. She carefully selected the best she had to offer in a snowy white. With an experienced hand she grouped them together, wrapping their steams in pristine white silk. "Tell Lee-san I said hello and happy early birthday. I'll be out to visit him in a few days."
Tenten offered a small but genuine smile; just knowing that there were other people who had cared for Lee and still missed him was terribly reassuring. Ino might have been a little flighty and somewhat airheaded but she was loyal and anyone who she came in contact with earned her consideration. Those who cared for her in return earned a special place in her heart; it was something she and Lee had in common. It was a special brand of innocence all their own.
"Thanks, Ino, I'll let him know."
Slightly happier the brunette left the shop travelling to the stone and sitting before it. "Forgive me?" She murmured, placing the flowers at the base as she did every time. "I shouldn't have said what I did. I was just surprised and overwhelmed; I never thought we'd be together again and when Kakashi told me that I had to work with him it just took the ground out from beneath me. I'd finally accepted that I had to start moving on with my life because no one was coming back to me but that didn't mean I was prepared to face him. I knew I had to start living again but I thought I would do that without having to face my past because I wasn't yet ready to do that; wasn't ready and still had to face it anyway. It takes a lot to hurt me," she murmured pensively. "And very few can even do so because I don't much care for anyone's opinions. I cared for the team's opinion of me though and Neji always did have the easiest means to hurt me. I think subconsciously I was afraid and therefore trying to protect myself by lashing out before he could. Neji has never been kind and I didn't expect him to be now."
She started fiddling with her pants' leg. "I denied that I loved you and I wanted you to know that it isn't that I didn't love you at all it's just that I couldn't love you in that way. You knew my secret, you knew that for better or worse I loved him the way a woman loved a man and that because of it I only had so much of my heart left to give. You were and always will be my family that's the truth. What is also true is I will move on for both of us. I'll take this mission and finish it and then I will accept the mission Kakashi has been pushing me to accept in alliance with Suna. It will keep me from the village just long enough for me to finally give up my ridiculous wish for the past to come back. When I do return I'll be stronger and I'll be able to look him in the eye without wondering how many pieces my heart will break into this time. If you can hear me, can you find a kami to bless my journey, to help me find the strength to make it through? I want to be strong for both of us."
"You are strong," an apparently male voice announced from behind her. "Stronger than anyone else I've ever known." She turned to face Neji, shocked and appalled that he had heard words she had thought were private. "We ran away from our problems and we left you alone because we were scared. Gai couldn't lose another student and I couldn't watch something happen to you. I looked for you when I came to my senses but when I couldn't find you I just assumed that I'd lost you as well. I just gave up looking and then Hinata tells me that I'd talked to you without realizing it. It was disorienting and I needed time to assimilate it. That's what I was thinking about when you….got overwhelmed today; about what I should do. I wanted you back in my life, I have since I realized how stupid I was to walk away, I just didn't want to disrupt yours. It looked like you had moved on and I didn't want to drag up bad memories and make you suffer if you had. I shouldn't have provoked you further though. I'm sorry that I did. Honestly I'm sorry for a lot of things."
"I think we're both sorry for more than we can ever express. We seem to be great at screwing things up," she mumbled, turning to face the stone again.
"I never meant to hurt you."
"No, I don't think you do. I would have given anything up for you that's part of the reason I left too. I figured if you didn't have someone to train with then maybe you'd just stop trying to advance. You could just teach genin and be happy since you'd always loved kids. If I went to ANBU then maybe you wouldn't and you'd be safe here in Konoha instead of out there on missions."
"So you planned to hold me back?"
"No, I planned on protecting you."
"By holding me back. It wasn't your decision to make, Neji. I didn't want anything to happen to you either but I never would have thought of keeping you from being what you are now. I was proud of you and always wanted you to achieve your best. It's insulting that you couldn't afford me the same consideration. I was always safest with you anyway; we were a team and a good one at that. You can't keep me from living just because you're afraid something will happen to me. That's not a reason to cut me off. Besides if I died tomorrow you would be person I'd want to spend today with. If I'd died on a mission then I'd be okay with it knowing that I'd been there with you. I fully believe Lee had no regrets when he passed because he gave his life for something he believed in; isn't that what it means to be a ninja? Naruto wasn't the only one to have a nindo, you know."
"Yes I know. That doesn't mean I'm going to stand here and let you die for yours like they did."
"Not your choice," she insisted. "I'm looking to live because Lee isn't anymore but that doesn't mean that I wouldn't die for something I really believed in. You have to accept that. We met as ninja when did you ever think I wouldn't be in danger? Even as a chunin I'd still be at risk. The Akatsuki won't be the last threat that we as a village face. Chunin were called to arms too and when the kyuubi attacked as well. Unfortunately there were chunin that were killed then. I've always wanted to be a ninja, Neji, I don't understand why you think you can keep me from being one or keep me from the risks of being one. I'm not going to be a doll on somebody's shelf to just sit and look pretty. You can't treat me like glass when that's not what I am."
"Maybe you're right and you're made of something sturdier but I don't know if I am. My father died for my family and before I knew the truth of what my clan did I loved him. I respected Naruto for his skill and because he taught me quite a bit about what it meant to be a Konoha ninja. I had a lot of respect for Lee and I did care for him like family as well. We don't spend the amount of time together as a team like we did and not come out without some form of trust for each other. I don't think I could stand to watch someone else leave my life like that, you know? Especially if it was you. Maybe I'm the one that's made of glass."
"What are you saying?" She demanded watching his expression carefully in hopes that he would betray something without words. Neji always did have a skill with speech and she didn't want him to say something in a way that he knew she would misinterpret so he could get out of answering.
"You've always been important to me. I thought I was clear on how much. Maybe I wasn't as clear as I thought if you're questioning me now." With a sigh he settled on the ground beside her, resting his elbows on his knees as he leaned in her direction. "I should have told you so that you understood but I guess it doesn't matter now. You love someone else, you said so yourself so we could never be more than what we were before. I wish we could be though. I hope it explains why I did what I did though. I care very deeply for you, more so than anyone else in my life and if it meant living without you for you to be able to keep living at all then no matter what that was what I was going to do."
"You're telling me you love me and that's why you left me?" She thought she did very well to keep the accusation and incredulousness from her voice instead leaving it completely even.
"In short, yes, that's exactly what I'm telling you."
"You are, by far, the most idiotic man I have ever met."Tenten said it slowly, enunciating each word to prove her point as her voice rose with annoyance. "You love me so you left me. Did it ever occur to you that maybe, just maybe I loved you too? That I would have wanted to risk everything for just a small fraction of time with you? That I did do such on a daily basis when it came to our ridiculous training sessions? Because guess what, Neji, it's all true; the person that I loved and for better or worse still do has always been you. When you made the decision to leave me, Neji, you wasted time, so much time and we as ninja don't have a lot of it to begin with. I don't know how I can forgive you for that." She suddenly cut off when he grabbed her arms and drew her into his lap.
"Give me the chance to make it up to you," he murmured, his face tucked into the side of her neck. "I've already made a huge mistake that I regret every day but if I let you walk away from me again I know I won't be able to take it. You're right, I've wasted too much time as it is, what I have left I want to be yours as much as mine."
"We're ANBU now," she stated drawing away from him to study his face. "It's not exactly encouraged."
"We're not teammates anymore so it doesn't really matter. It's only frowned upon if it interferes with our missions which it won't. Give me a chance? Give us a chance?"
She sighed before pressing her cheek above his heart, her eyes trained on the memorial stone.
Lee, next time I'll bring you dark pink roses.
Amaryllis – splendid beauty
Chrysanthemum – cheerfulness, optimism, wonderful friend, with love
Dhalia – dignity, elegance
Gillyflower – lasting beauty
Hibiscus – delicate beauty
Lady's Tresses – bewitching grace
Calla Lily – magnificent beauty and purity
Lotus – purity, truth, mystery, estranged love
Magnolia – nobility, perseverance, love for nature
Oleander – beauty and grace
Orange Blossom – innocence, eternal love
Orchid – long lasting impressions, beautiful love