Chapter 19: Aftermath

This time it is Tenten who catches Neji as he falls, pink snowflakes still in his hair. His gaze is unfocused and his frame is spent; he is clinging to consciousness by the very tips of his fingers. She is hardly better off, sinking to the rumbling floor under his weight. It is all she can do to hold onto him.

Shards of the towers hurtle down around them and Tenten feels like an ant in a monsoon. The rose raindrops shatter on contact with the earth and sprinkle them with a mist of crystal, like fine razors. She shields Neji the best she can, but she knows the gesture will only delay the inevitable. The sky – a colossal dome of heavy granite – has not fallen yet, but sunlight is already showing through the gray.

The ground heaves as a heavy cloud breaks free of the heavens and stabs into the terrain. There is a truer sky up there, a bluer sky, but it is far beyond Tenten's tired reach.

"Looks like this is the end," she says softly, managing a smile. It was the least she could do, to offer what little comfort she had left.

"No," Neji responds, and the lone word seems to wind him, "Bird."

Tenten almost laughs at the irony of it all. Of course a genius' last words would have to be metaphorical and poetic. Or did he mean to fly them away? But no, she doesn't have the energy for that. Barely has the energy to look up at the descending stone with their names on it. There's no flashback montage of her life, but at least it will be over quic–

"Arriving!"

Her would-be gravestone shatters, showering her with dust and pebbles. She coughs and wheezes, blinking away muddy tears. The snakes look equally unhappy, having just had their heads rammed through solid rock, but she has never been happier to see them.

Several of them loop around her and lift her – Neji and all – into the air, Higher and higher, above the rubble and above the false sky and into the waiting hands of Anko Mitarashi.

"Hang on, kiddos!" the woman exults, "And keep your hands and feet inside the ride at all times!"

The scaly coils deposit the two on soft feathers. Tenten isn't sure which question to ask first, but Anko answers before she can decide.

"Ran into your friend along the way," she beams, "Then we ran into some other friends. You sure did a number on all of us, but we decided to get you back, no pun intended. Though, can't speak for the others, but I am going to get you back for that one."

Another ink bird soars into view and Tenten spies a familiar flash of teeth. Perhaps it's giddiness from one too many near brushes with death, but she nearly bursts into giggles at the identical slings the two other riders sport.

"You owe me one!" is the growling response from Kiba, "You know how hard it is to track someone over an ocean?"

Tenten falls back and relishes the feel of sunlight on her skin. Finally, homeward bound.

【[_|[__§__]|_]】

"Spying on your superiors, disobeying orders, abandoning the village and attacking fellow ninjas!" the Lady Hokage booms, banging a fist on her desk with each charge, "You have a lot of nerve showing up back here!"

Tenten does not flinch. No mission has ever filled her with fire like the one that blazes in her soul now. She remembers the looks the guards gave her when she entered the village, though, and feels a pang of guilt. There was still much to atone for, but that will come in time.

"With all due respect, Lady Hokage," Neji begins, "I will take responsibi–"

"Like hell you will!" the windows rattle, "You've got your own list of crimes long enough to swing from!"

There is a long pause before the Lady Hokage steps around her voluminous desk. She towers over the two for a moment, glaring daggers at them before drawing them into a sudden embrace.

"Welcome home," she sighs.

Tenten glances at Neji and – is that a smile? – he returns the look.

Yes. They were home.

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