Neji Hyuuga winced slightly as he spun his way out of his Kaiten, its effects having taken down at least another six Zetsu clones. His chakra level was depleting at a dangerously fast level once again, and his Byakugan had spied a new wave of White Zetsus approaching from below the ground's surface. He cursed inwardly as he wondered how both he and Hinata's activated Byakugan could have missed such a stupendous number of enemy soldiers surrounding their flanks.
As he sent his right palm into a Zetu's abdomen before crushing its neck with a well-placed elbow smash, the sinking feeling in Neji's stomach grew more pronounced. Division 2 had been instructed to proceed quickly to where Naruto was, the actual Naruto that they were all fighting to protect and not the Naruto Kage Bushin clone that had finally vanished in a puff of white smoke a half-hour ago. This diversion was yet another setback to the dwindling troops of his division, as many had already been taken down by the White Zetsu clones impersonating as their fellow soldiers.
He heard Kiba's ecstatic cry as he slashed his way through the enemy together with Akamaru. Shino's bugs were all over the place, and Neji could sense the awkward teen actually smiling beneath the mask covering the lower half of his face. A quick glance to the right saw Hinata's Gentle Twin Lion Fists creating havoc among the enemy, their bluish orb a blurry motion of destructive beauty.
Team 8. All members fighting alongside one another in one of the most heated battles of their lives. Neji had never been known to be a being of sentiment, but ever since he'd almost lost his life the previous day due to immense chakra loss, the images swirling in his mind had been of a particular person.
Once again, he tried to rationalise his thoughts as he leapt out of harm's way from another two menacing Zetsus determined to drain his chakra. He knew for certain that Guy Sensei was in the same division with Lee, and Kakashi Sensei and Sakura would ensure that those knuckle-heads he called team-mates would not get into too much trouble. He knew also that Guy and Lee would have been tremendous assets to Division 3, with their speed, agility and raw taijutsu strength. And while Neji was also separated from the rest of Team Guy, he was now in the company of his comrades in Team 8, secure in the knowledge that his Konoha peers would keep one another safe, just like how Kiba had grudgingly become his attendant the night before.
That left Tenten. Alone. In division 1.
That's it, he scowled to himself again, oblivious to the pained expression on the Zetsu that he had just sent flying into a jagged rock in the vicinity. That must be it. The reason why Tenten had been registering in his mind so much in the past two days must be because he was worried for her being alone without the company of any of the rest of the Konoha peers. Granted that his uncle Hiashi and Chouji's father Chouza were veteran warriors and were in the same Mid-Range division as Tenten, she was still pretty much a lone wolf in the absence of the rest of her Konoha peers.
"I'll be fine, Neji."
He remembered the day that they had all been separated into the 5 divisions, and the slight grimace on Tenten's face when she'd realised she would be 'all alone'. Just as he'd approached her and placed his hand on her shoulder, Tenten had turned around, wearing her usual grin and assured him that she would be all right. The words had caught in his throat and he'd merely nodded, keeping his eyes on the scroll in her holster.
He'd raised his head only to find her eyes glistening with obvious tears. Didn't she say she'd be fine? Was her words just a front to hide her inner fears, the occasional complaints and whines about her not being as strong as her comrades in Team Guy and (that was always a painful admission for her) the rest of their peers? Before he could respond, she'd wrapped her arms over his shoulders in an awkward hug... awkward only because Neji did not know where to place his own hands or how to react.
"Please take care of yourself. I won't be able to support you with my weapons during this war."
With that, Tenten had turned away and, with the excuse of the need to sharpen her blades one last time, left the group in muted silence.
No one had dared to look at Neji's blank expression, nor mention about this exchange, until the previous night, when Kiba had insisted that Neji rest instead of joining Hinata and Shino on the lookout for the enemy.
Kiba had turned to look at Neji when he muttered her name, expecting to find Neji asleep and that he had whispered her name in his dreams. Neji was awake actually but had muttered the name of the comrade he'd been training and fighting together with the past few years out of the blue. Stunned but not totally taken aback, Kiba gave a rueful smile and, quite unexpectedly out of his character, did not turn this into a teasing exchange.
"What did she mean, Neji? When she said she wouldn't be able to support you in the war?"
Neji closed his eyes momentarily, his mind swirling with memories of their past training sessions and battles. With a slight cough, he went on a lengthy description of the dynamics in Team Guy and the crucial role that each and every one of them played, but how Tenten was the one who'd been keeping the male members of the team in check. Kiba, playing the role of an attentive audience, had listened, nodded and whistled at appropriate moments, enjoying this side of the cool and collected Neji that he had never thought existed.
"She sent an Akatsuki member fleeing? With her weapons?" Kiba's eyes widened considerably. "Well to be honest, I already thought she was pretty bad-ass when we were providing support to Shizune and Kakashi when they tried to seal the Three-Tails, but it was during our fight with Hiroku and that damned Chimera beast when I realised how amazing Tenten's capabilities are. I mean, was she kidding? Summoning all those explosive kunai? There must have been thousands of them!"
Neji had swelled with pride, even when he knew Kiba had dutifully and purposely exaggerated his reactions in order to keep him talking about Tenten, so that he would recuperate and not insist on joining Hinata and Shino on guard duty. In the preceding hours, he'd recognised his own weaknesses and mortality, and realised that Tenten must have felt the same way he did for a very long time. Though she was a determined and fierce combatant capable of holding her own, due to Team Guy's dynamics, she'd always been relegated into the supporting role of providing back-up in battle while the three of them took the fight to their adversaries.
He recalled how she'd once made her way through a group of ninja with nothing else but a wooden staff, and another time when she'd engaged in melee combat with just a pair of sai daggers. Neji had pretended not to have noticed how advanced she had become with the usage of melee weapons and not just kunai and shurikens, but had kept his admiration to himself. Now, regrettably, he wasn't certain if he'd make it out of this war alive to share with Tenten how he'd been feeling.
Hinata's startled cry sent his instincts reeling, as he rolled away from a potentially fatal blow. Before he could catch his breath, he felt a shadow right over him, and braced himself in preparation for another attack.
Neji's eyes flashed wide open as he heard Shikamaru's Shadow Technique rip a Zetsu clone apart. He quickly gathered his senses as he activated his Byakugan, noticing Chouji rampaging through another dozen clones. Had Division 4 been sent to aid Naruto as well, and had just happened to reach the area where Division 3 had been attacked?
With the arrival of back-up troops, there was evident renewed vigour amongst the rest of Division 3. Kiba's enthusiasm was verbalised much louder, while the red-haired, olive-skinned Karui was throwing expletives at every Zetsu clone she was slashing through. Even Shino could hardly contain his relief as he fought back to back with Shikamaru, both teens working in sync with their unique techniques.
"Shintensen no Jutsu!"
Ino's sharp voice broke Neji's thoughts. He spun around to see the blonde girl kneeling on the ground right behind Hinata, who was now hovering protectively over Ino's inert body. The Yamanaka teen had apparently taken over the body of two Zetsu clones just as they were about to hurt another ninja.
Team 10, thought Neji. They managed to meet up in the midst of battle as well, just like Team 8? Just like Shino and Kiba, Ino was supposed to have been part of Division 5, the Special Ops Team. She must have been sent to aid her comrades in Division 4 …
"Neji-San! I'm detecting more Zetsus underground!"
Hinata was right. His own Byakugan was now picking up the movement of at least another few hundred Zetsu clones right beneath them, making their way to the entrance of a cavern two hundred metres away. Once Shikamaru heard this news, his eyes flashed with annoyance.
"Curses! We can't keep getting delayed! We need to move towards Naruto as quickly as possible and provide back-up! Ino, Chouji, let's go look for Darui and let him know about this! We can't let the Zetsu clones come out from the cave!"
Darui? Neji's heart skipped a beat. Wasn't he supposed to be the general for Division 1? Before he could ask any more, Team 10 had leapt into action. Neji followed close behind as they made their way towards a white-haired man brandishing a gigantic sword, together with Team 8.
"We can get Kitsuchi and Kurotsuchi to seal the cavern! We can't let them leave the cavern. We don't have much time to lose!"
Shikamaru's suggestion was met with Darui shaking his head. In his deep baritone, he explained that the Division 2 general had already moved on ahead with his daughter and a significant number of troops from Division 1 and 2.
"Yeah, Dad and Hiashi-sama… Kotetsu and Izumo… they've moved on ahead as well," Chouji nodded.
Neji's heart sank, the exhilaration that Tenten might be in the vicinity now quickly dashed. He really wanted to ask Shikamaru or Ino if they'd seen Tenten, now that it was clear these few divisions had somehow provided back-up for one another. On the other hand, he'd found it weird that Tenten was not together with her Konaha peers, and the renewed fear that she'd met her demise almost caused Neji's knees to buckle.
As usual, Kiba was quick to provide support for his friend. The stricken look on Neji's face caused his own startled expression to soften, as their conversation the previous night replayed in his head.
"I've… I look upon her more than a teammate."
"Not a teammate? Then…a… hmmm… A sister?" Kiba had managed a wry smile, and he almost laughed out aloud as Neji's brows furrowed.
"I… I think I've fallen for Tenten, Kiba."
Neji's slackened body against his own caused a fire to burn from within. Just as he was about to bark at Shikamaru to tell Neji more about Tenten's whereabouts, Hinata exclaimed, "The Zetsus! They're almost breaking through!"
The cavern lay another hundred-odd metres away. Just as the group was about to move forward, a sudden commotion caused them to stop abruptly in their tracks. Out of nowhere, a gigantic spiked ball had appeared in the air, hovering just outside the entrance of the cave. Neji's strangled cry of Tenten's name almost went unheard as everyone kept their eyes fixated on the uncanny scene ahead of them.
"Tenten… Tenten's Jidanda…" Neji was almost delirious with glee as he recognised the unorthodox weapon that Tenten had managed to acquire the last time they visited Io's ninja tool lab. True enough, from what they could see, the spikes on the ball extended outwards. Neji knew that explosive tags were hidden in them, and in the next few seconds, Tenten would command them to detonate.
"The White Zetsus! They're about to…"
The resounding boom silenced Hinata's warning. Before the rest of the group could gather their wits, Neji rushed forward, his heart thumping wildly as wave after wave of delight set his body aflame. The sight of Tenten wearing her hair in her signature buns, coughing slightly at the smoke that had surrounded the area with Jidanda's explosion, was one for sore eyes. Just as he was about to yell her name, he saw Tenten's eyes widened in obvious terror. Neji gritted his teeth as he spun round, and with a roar, went into a spinning frenzy, creating a rotating shield of chakra around him.
Kiba froze in his tracks as he marveled at the scene twenty metres ahead of him. Neji's Eight Trigrams Palms Revolving Heaven move had sent the ten-odd stray Zetsu clones that had tried to ambush him flying. Each and every single one of them was tossed in a myriad of directions, yet each and every one of Tenten's explosive kunai had managed to zone in and find its way to each clone, detonating upon contact and blowing the body up into smithereens. The others were as taken aback by the fantastic display of teamwork and chemistry, but the girls were reduced to excited giggles and the boys all had something in their throats almost immediately after.
Kiba was the only one to react more enthusiastically among the teens. He gave a piercing wolf whistle and punched the air above him, once he saw Neji lock lips with the utterly confused but very willing Tenten, whose body soon melted into a tight embrace with her love.
"Well, it's about time!"