A/N: Well, we've finally reached the end of this piece. , It took longer than what I'd hoped for but, meh, summer. I'd really like to thank all of you that have stuck with me so far. You've all been greatly supportive. ^_^ It's been really fun writing this. I might do a sequel, but it'll have to wait. You can expect another Neji/Tenten fanfic with more romance, but again, not sure when.
Thank you all for reading. ^_^ Also, sorry if this is a bit rushed. .,
Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto.
Chapter Ten – In Peace we Rest
Fall was fast approaching the Village Hidden in the Leaf. The lush green leaves of the summer season had already turned a soft golden. A few trees bore their last golden fruit, while small flowers peeked through the carpet of leaves that had settled on the grassy floor of the clearing.
Hyuuga Neji sat quietly near the edge of it, directly in front of one of a simple tombstone that had been erected underneath a sturdy tree. Though all Konoha-nin were remembered at the common monument, each shinobi also had their own personal grave site, where family and friends could mourn in peace. This particular grave had been erected in the first ever clearing Team Gai had trained in, under the very tree Tenten used as target practice all those years ago. As the Hyuuga watched, a golden leaf drifted down to rest on the slab of rock.
The green beast of Konoha
Always believe in the Power of Youth
Neji smiled slightly as his fingers traced the words that had been carved in the slab. In his mind, they fell well short of encompassing everything that Lee had meant to them all; the second most stubborn ninja in all of Konoha, the hardiest, the believer. Still, they would do, he decided. They'd never forget what wasn't said on this solitary tomb. The past few weeks had taught him to remember, but not dwell, to miss, but not to grieve over.
Those weeks had been hard on them both, him and Tenten. This time, however, they had worked as a team. In his guilt, he had forgotten what good work they achieved together. Having someone who understood him, and whom, in turn, he understood back, had allowed them to pull each other up back onto their feet.
First, they had talked, all those weeks ago on her tatami mat, after she had run out of tears to shed.
"Neji?" she had asked him eventually, still leaned against his chest with his arms securely around her shoulders.
"Sh." he had answered, stroking her hair. "You don't have to say anything. I... I'm sorry, Tenten. For everything. Sorry for letting you carry both of our burdens. Sorry for not thinking how you were feeling about all of this. Sorry for saying all that crap..."
Silence had hung over the pair as they sat cosied up together, digesting what his words met. Neji had held his breath while he waited for her answer. Eventually, the kunoichi had drawn back out of his arms gently, looking up at him. She had met his eyes with soft, compassionate ones and, ever so gently, reached up to cup his cheek with a watery smile.
"Thank you." she had said softly. They sat like that, a hair's breadth apart, before she had pulled away fully and sat down by his side. "I'm sorry, too... If... if I hadn't been so weak you wouldn't have had to save me and we would have been able to help Lee..." her voice had been small and, by the hunch in her shoulders, Neji had been sure she was going to break into tears again. Worried, he had reached for her and brought her into his arms again. His movement had startled them both, but neither protested.
"Don't say that." he told her softly, his soft voice whispering in her ear. His arms clenched around her waist, pulling her flush against his chest. "You're not weak, Tenten. You were outnumbered and they had the element of surprise. Heck, you were even wounded. What happened was an accident."
The young woman had sniffled, but had leaned in closer. It felt strange, yet soothing, being comforted by Neji. Mostly, she was glad that he had let go of his guilt. Now, she only wished she could do the same herself.
"Tenten..." Neji had said softly and loosened his grip around her just enough to turn her face to him. "Sometimes, things just happen, no matter how much we wish they didn't." he had begu, rubbing soothing circles into the small of her back. "A wise friend told me that feeling guilt was pointless in these situations. Lee's death wasn't our fault, Tenten. We only blame ourselves because we think we should. A survivor's complex isn't healthy, Tenten. Do you think Lee was weak?" he had asked suddenly, making the kunoichi's eyes widen in surprise.
"N-no.." she had answered in a soft voice.
"Thought not. The truth is, Tenten, that, if we blame ourselves, we're saying that lee was our responsibility." he had told her, trying to remember Shikamaru's words. "Lee was no one's responsibility, Tenten. He was a skilled shinobi and, as such, we trusted him to take care of himself when we couldn't be there. The same goes for both me and you, Naruto, Hinata, every shinobi in the village."
Tenten nodded slowly, blinking back the tears that were threatening to surface again. What he was saying had made sense, but she had had difficulty accepting them. Neji had noticed and simply pulled her into another tight hug, trying to lessen the pain he knew she felt.
Then, they had helped each other heal. Second by second, minute by minute, hour by hour and day by day, they stood there to help pick the other up every time they fell. At first, they had continued to spar with each other then, instead of parting ways for the rest of the day, headed out to lunch together. Often, they sat with their other comrades, seeking company other than their own to take their mind off their loss. Even more often, they sat together with Gai sensei . In the beginning, they hadn't talked about Lee, but about their every day lives, Neji and Tenten's spars, Gai's challenges with kakashi-sensei and other inconsequential things. As the weeks went by, however, they began to reminisce fondly. Only then did they realize how to truly keep Lee's memory alive in them; by sharing stories and memories they had of him, things that made them laugh, groan and, even occasionally, cry.
It was the primary reason why the remaining members of Team Gai had began to visit Lee's gravestone every evening, sitting by it and talking before going their own separate ways for the night. As before, neji always walked Tenten part of the way. Nowadays, however, he took her to her doorstep, lingering a while before grudgingly parting for his own place.
Finally, they had bonded.
One evening, the two were returning from a nearby festival where they had gone with the remainder of the Konoha 11- now Konoha 10. Neji had walked Tenten to her place as usual, a motion that neither even noticed anymore. The young woman was holding a stuffed animal shed won at the festival and Neji a little goldfish in a plastic bag. As they reached her door, he held out the little animal.
"Here." he had said softly, smirking slightly as she raised an eyebrow. "I'd never remember to take care of it. Besides, I'm unsure as to whether Hiashi-sama would allow it." he had reasoned. In truth, he had seen how she had gazed at the little fish in the pond, but had had no luck in catching one.
"Oh!" she said, smiling widely. "Come in."she said, leaving the stuffed hippo on a chair and leading him into the kitchen. There, she took out a large bowl and filled it with water. "This should be fine for now, right?" she asked him, looking at the white and gold goldfish tenderly. Neji had to suppress another smirk, but nodded.
"Yes. I think it'll be fine indefinitely, actually. You probably don't need to buy him another bowl."
"I'll name him Hyuuga." she said, grinning at the surrised and slightly annoyed look on his face. "What?" she asked innocently. Neji, however, had jut shaken his head, smiling slightly.
"Just don't let anyone catch you trying to change my water." he had told her mock-seriously.
"Why?" Tenten had challenged teasingly, crossing her arms. "You always take the bait."
neji had stared at her for a moment, then growled slightly and reached for her. Tenten squealed and ran, giggling as he chased her around the small apartment. In the end, he had caught her by leaping on top of her, sending them both crashing down on top of a fuuton. Soon, she had been screaming his name as she tried to pry his tickling fingers off her badomen.
For a second, Neji had stopped, looking down at the flush-faced girl beneath him. Tears of laughter had streaked down her cheeks while her buns had begun to unravel. They're eyes had met and he had become enthralled by the cheeky, mirthful gleam in her eyes. Next thing he'd known, their eyes were closed and he was leaning in further, closing the distance that separated their lips.
"So you see," Neji said with a slight grin, sitting opposite the gravestone, "things have been rough the past few weeks. But... I think... I think we're going to be fine." he smiled, looking up as he heard footsteps on the other side of the clearing.
"Neji! Come on! We're going to be late meeting the others!" Tenten called softly, smiling widely at him.
Neji smiled back and waved, then got slowly to his feet. "Like I said, you don't have to worry about us anymore, Lee." he told his old friend, looking down at the leaves that had begun to cover the earth. "We'll make it." he promised him. "Goodbye, my friend."
Then, turning his back slowly to the grave, he began to walk over the golden leaves towards where Tenten was – and always would be – waiting for him.