Title: Kill the Messenger
Characters: Tenten, Neji Hyuuga, Rock Lee
Summary: Years of training taught her that sacrificing one's life for the village is noble, and something that a ninja should be prepared to do. Yet all the while Tsunade was speaking, all she could think of was, she and Lee won't make it back to Konoha alive.
A/N: Please visit my profile for some important announcements!
Kill the Messenger
|Kill the messenger
I swear it's not me
It's just someone I used to know|
Tenten found herself running back toward the outskirts of the Konoha forest, half an hour after she had successfully delivered the scrolls to the Hokage, in order to catch up with her teammates, to provide support to them, as always. Behind her ran Kiba, Akamaru, Naruto and Hinata, and in front of them raced Gai, having just returned from his solo mission. Together they formed the reinforcements for Neji and Lee, five of the most reliable shinobi in the Village of the Leaf, the best trackers and powerhouses that Tenten could ever hope for.
Just hang on a little bit more, you two, she pleaded, hoping her silent message would reach her best friends' ears. We're coming. I'm coming back for you both.
Biting her lip so fiercely, so much that she drew blood, she chanted Neji's promise in her head, giving her the strength to push through, despite the fatigue she was feeling from racing back to the village for hours nonstop because of their disaster of a mission.
None of us are going to die. I won't allow it.
"I won't allow it either," she whispered, catching up with her sensei in a heartbeat.
|And get to church
'Cause you're a good girl
And he never told you that|
It was Akamaru who found the scent, about ten miles from the edge of the forest, and the reinforcements spent another ten minutes trying to locate the two shinobi, quietly following the clues that they hoped would point them in the right direction.
The trail got cold when they reached the nearest river, even when Kiba and Akamaru used their nose, and Hinata extended the range of her byakugan as far as her abilities would allow her. Even Naruto tried to be helpful, producing half a hundred kage bunshin to scour the immediate area for any sign of Neji or Lee.
Tenten tried to bite back a sob as she looked around helplessly, trying her best to be helpful even when she felt so useless, until Gai instructed her to remain calm, because surely Neji and Lee were all right, and it was his and Tenten's duty to believe in their strength and youthfulness.
But the evidence of a great battle was everywhere, and there was so much blood on the ground that Tenten didn't know if any (or all) of them belonged to her two friends.
Still, the kunoichi responded with a forced nod, before turning her back against her sensei so that he would not have to see how panicked her expression was. It was then that she spotted a small shrine, barely three square meters in area, and the sob she was trying to hold back finally escaped her lips, because there at the foot of the small icon lay a battered forehead protector with a Leaf symbol, smeared with dried blood.
|And all I need from you
Could be the thing that leaves us both up here forever|
"It's useless," Kiba announced after another half an hour, voicing out what no one else dared say since they got stumped in their search near the riverbed. "The trail's gone cold. We won't find them like this. We have to go back and form a team to do a proper search and retrieval."
Perhaps it was because he was the least close to the two missing shinobi that he could afford to be the voice of reason, to be the most objective one, and Tenten did not fault him for that. Yet, it took both Naruto and Hinata to stop her from throwing a kunai at the Inuzuka's direction, and even they were not able to prevent her from cursing Kiba out loud, yelling at him to try harder, damn it, couldn't he see that they needed to find Lee and Neji as quickly as they could?
It was the tone of Gai's voice that broke her, and the dam that held her tears finally crumbled down, together with her shaky knees and legs, forcing her to fall over, only to be caught by her sensei, who was quietly mourning together with her.
|I'm gonna send a little rain your way|
It was raining hard the day Konoha held the necrological service of Rock Lee and Hyuuga Neji, fourteen days and one failed retrieval mission later. Almost everyone in the village attended the funeral: Neji was more than just the prodigy of the Hyuuga clan after all—he was a well-respected shinobi and a beloved relative of Hinata and her family—and Lee had won the hearts of everyone who knew him because of his determination and perseverance and, most of all, his kind heart.
Tenten was nowhere to be found since that morning, even when several of the Konoha 11 had spent hours trying to locate her whereabouts, in an effort to make her say a few words, a eulogy, about the two men who played an important role in her life.
(In truth, Shikamaru had an idea where she was, but, having gone through a similar experience before, he chose not to tell the others what he knew, in respect of Tenten's wish to grieve alone.)
It was Gai who spoke on behalf of his team, the mourning mentor who remained proud of his students, of the way they lived their lives, of the legacy they left behind.
|I'm gonna send a little rain
I'm gonna send a little rain
I'm gonna send a little rain|
"Well, here I am."
Three hours after the last of the mourners have left Neji and Lee's graves—empty tombstones because no bodies were retrieved to bury—Tenten found herself standing in front of the marks, twirling a kunai around her left index finger. The rest of her fingers, together with her palms and knuckles, were bloodied and bruised, having spent the better part of the afternoon in a secluded area in the forest, one of her little team's favorite secret training spots that only a choice few knew about.
"Everyone says you're both dead, you know," she said conversationally, tossing the kunai and catching it with her right hand. "They've all given up, even Gai-sensei."
She flipped the kunai so that she was gripping the blade instead of the handle, but she remained unmindful of the sting, or the blood that began to drip from the cut the sharp edge of the weapon had left her skin.
"But you guys aren't dead, right?" she grinned, even when her vision started to get blurry from salty tears. "Because Neji promised that none of us will die. And you, Hyuuga, always keep your promises." The first tear fell, in sync with another droplet of blood from her palm. "And Lee, seriously, you're too stubborn to die anyway."
And then the tears were flowing down, and she tried to wipe them away, staining her cheeks with metallic blood in the process.
"What the hell am I supposed to do now that you're gone, you idiots?" she sobbed, dropping the kunai on the cold ground, her whole body shaking with grief.
A familiar voice spoke from behind, confusion mingling with his usual enthusiasm.
"Who's gone, youthful flower?"
"She's talking about us, fool."
A baritone monotone answered, exasperated.
"But where are we going? We just got here!"
Slowly, almost fearfully, Tenten turned around, only to find her two favorite boys standing a few feet away, both battered and worse for wear, but wearing tired, happy smiles on their faces.
"Really, Tenten, what are you doing here out in the rain by yourself? And at such a late hour at that!" A dramatic pause. "Perhaps you are training? How youthful!"
"Don't be stupid. She's obviously crying over something ridiculous."
Both boys smiled—well, one beamed and the other smirked—and Tenten found herself taking a shaky step forward, only for her knees to give way beneath her.
And then they were there, catching her on either side, Neji's arm automatically wrapping around her waist, Lee gripping both her arms, so that she wouldn't be able to tumble down the ground even if she wanted to.
"You are hurt, spring blossom!" Lee then exclaimed, examining her hands. "Has anything bad happened while Neji and I were having an adventure that proved the springtime of our youth?"
"We need to have you patched up," Neji added, intentionally ignoring Lee's last statement, and gently helping Tenten stand straight, arm never letting go of her waist. "Come on. We need to check in the hospital as well."
Lee nodded enthusiastically in support. "Sakura-san made us promise to hurry back, as soon as we found where you are." And then he was marching beside her, flashing Tenten a good guy pose, as if he wasn't limping on his right foot, and his chest did not bear a huge gash and several scratches besides.
"B-but . . . how . . ."
Still at a loss for words, Tenten turned to her other teammate, brown eyes shining with tears and a hundred and one questions she could not voice out.
Neji offered her one of his rare smiles before looking straight ahead, paying no heed to his bleeding temple and broken arm.
"I always keep my promises."
|I'm gonna send a little rain your way|
Tenten spent the next hour listening to Lee recount their little escapade after she had gone ahead to deliver the scrolls and prevented a catastrophe from happening between three neighboring countries, the Land of Fire included, all the while gripping her knees tightly with her fists.
Neji had reached Lee just as the taijutsu master was almost out of chakra, and together they finished off what was left of the rouge nins, who were then replaced by reinforcements from the enemy camp. By then Neji had exhausted his chakra from using his techniques too many times, and Lee lay unconscious near his feet, a side effect from opening too many gates at too short a period of time.
The prodigy lost his forehead protector in the following scuffle, but succeeded in bringing down at least half of the new arrivals, before his strength finally ran out as well.
It took them three days to regain their strength—what with nourishment and rest their captors provided them—and plan their escape. They spent another week sluggishly making their way back to their home, until finally a patrolling team found them near the border of Konoha, and carried them back to the village, only a few minutes after the villagers had finished the service intended for their eternal repose.
"And when Naruto-kun informed us that they could not find you anywhere, Neji and I knew it was up to us to locate you ourselves!"
Tenten nodded solemnly, still unable to speak. Beside her sat Neji, ever silent, as Shizune finished setting his arm in a cast. With instructions to rest and then report to the Hokage the following day, the older woman left the group alone, silently nodding at Gai on her way out, as if telling him that both his charges were all right.
Maito Gai flashed Shizune a blinding grin and a thumb's up, but the latter had already left before the pink unicorn could make an appearance.
"Why did you not attend our funeral, Tenten?" Lee's voice was not accusing in the least, but merely curious.
The kunoichi finally lifted her head and locked eyes with Lee, before turning to Neji, as if silently borrowing some of his strength. She was rewarded with another rare smile, and suddenly Tenten knew her answer, why she made a subconscious decision not to appear before anyone ever since Tsunade had announced that Neji and Lee were to be honored by a hero's funeral for their sacrifice for the sake of the village.
Across them, Gai stood, hands on either hips, teeth pinging left and right, but when Tenten met his eyes, she read pride in them, and maybe a bit of an apology, for not having as much faith in his students as Tenten had.
Placing a steady hand on Neji's good hand, and then reaching her other hand to hold Lee's, Tenten smiled for the first time ever since she got back to the village, one week after their last failed attempt to locate Lee and Neji's whereabouts.
"I believed in your promise."
Outside, the rain continued pouring, even as a slip of a rainbow forced its way across the cloudy sky.
|I'm gonna send a little rain
I'm gonna send a little rain|
Not the original ending (where Lee died), not even the second one (where Lee and Neji died), but ever since Neji died in the manga I couldn't bear to write a story where he (or anyone from Team Gai) would have to die.
And voila, this is what happens. /flashes everyone with a Good Guy pose
Anyway, thank you to everyone who stuck with me until the bitter end, even when it took me years to finish this short, five-chaptered story, even if the ending was a little disconnected from how I wanted it to end before (thus the very angsty beginning and the not-so-angsty ending).
And now, I only owe you guys one more unfinished story (Songs for a Dancer) and the requests in Rookie Roulette.
Reviews for the last time, loves?