Disclaimer: Do not own. That is all.
"To Team Gai."
'To coming out alive.'
Tenten's toast was a silent one, but she raised her glass anyway, smiling at her teammates, two of whom were grinning like madmen and adding ever more ridiculous toasts to the proffered ones. Her other teammate, ever the stoic, just smirked slightly as he put his glass to his lips and did his dead-level best to pretend that he didn't know the two men in green jumpsuits sitting across from him, who by this time had managed to attract the attention of half the restaurant with their exclamations of youth.
Tenten watched their exuberant display with quiet amusement, wishing –not for the first time—that she could feed off the energy and confidence of Lee and Gai, and perhaps not feel so hollow. Even if she could just absorb some of Neji's composure, she thought, that might be enough to quell the storm raging inside of her, the one that tossed up all the debris of her soul that she worked so diligently to keep buried.
In the soft lamplight of Team Gai's favorite restaurant, Tenten could feel safe, surrounded as she was by familiar sights and smells of home and the glowing warmth that her best friends exuded. But out there, in the cold of night, waited a deep void, a suspension between the safety of home and the uncertainty of battle.
And at this very moment, Tenten didn't have the first clue about how to bridge the gap.
It was all well and good to say they were going to war tomorrow, and she knew all the ramifications. Still, an insistence that she would never be prepared, not like Lee and Gai and certainly not Neji, ate at her gut like a voracious parasite, cleaning her of every ounce of confidence she'd built up since she was a Genin.
It wasn't just that her parents had died as casualties of the last Great War. She had been well aware of the commitment she was making when she decided to become a shinobi of Konoha; she'd never wanted to do anything else with her life.
But now everything was suspended on a spider's thread, growing more transparent by the second.
The thoughts had consumed her so entirely that it took a gentle touch of Neji's hand on her arm to draw her back to the present, where she realized Lee and Gai had finished their exclamations and paid for the meal. Three pairs of eyes stared at her, waiting for confirmation to leave.
She smiled blushingly, making some excuse about being tired and gesturing toward the door. It was an acceptable excuse for two of her teammates, who immediately jumped up and moved toward the exit, babbling about training, but the third regarded her for an instant longer, his eyes narrowing just the slightest bit in concern. But she didn't notice and he didn't say anything, so the four members of Team Gai left the restaurant the same way they had come: together, fears unvoiced.
Out in the street, they stopped, turned to face one another, and their sensei regarded his three pupils seriously, smiling with only the tiniest hint of sadness seeping through.
"Neji." He moved to the Hyuuga boy first, for once not trying to pull him into an unwanted hug. Instead he placed a hand on his shoulder, which Neji accepted solemnly. "Even though I know your genius will get you far, do not forget the importance of hard work, and the power of youth."
At any other time, Neji would have smirked at the mention of his teacher's favorite phrase, but for once, it was meant with all seriousness, and Neji took it as such. He nodded.
He turned to Lee next.
They were starting to get ridiculous, and Tenten could see this going on for a long time, so she stepped in, putting a hand on both of their shoulders.
"Lee. Gai-sensei. You'll see one another tomorrow. You're in the same division." She heard Neji snicker appreciatively behind her, and Tenten couldn't help but crack a smile at the ridiculous antics of her teacher and teammate.
"Of course." Gai sniffled, dramatically brushing away tears from his eyes and ruffling Lee's hair affectionately. "But that is the power of youth!"
"Yosh!" Lee agreed, still somewhat tearfully.
"Tenten." Gai turned to his last student, and his expression changed entirely. It was now that of a devoted father, only now realizing that he was sending his children to the battlefield in less than a day.
"Our lovely flower of youth. Always maintain your fighting spirit and…" He tried to maintain his warm smile, but then it faltered and fell. Tears sprang to his eyes and he stopped speaking. Before Tenten could react, Gai pulled her into a rib-crushing bear hug, one that Lee quickly joined. Both of them were openly sobbing, and Tenten had to fight the lump rising in her throat.
"Guys…" She protested, laughing feebly. "I can't breathe…"
The two released her, and Tenten caught sight of Neji laughing silently over their shoulders, with an expression on his face that clearly said 'Glad I got away with just a pat on the shoulder.'
"I am sorry, my blossom." Gai wiped away the tears and folded his arms across his chest, looking at his students one last time.
None of them voiced what they were really thinking. What would happen, if they couldn't meet like this again.
Instead, Gai put a hand forward.
"Team Gai." Three voices echoed, one loud and enthusiastic, one calm and measured, one barely loud enough to be heard. Three hands moved to rest on top of one another. When they pulled apart, Tenten couldn't ignore the feeling of her heart wrenching in her chest.
At any other time, Lee would have offered to walk home with Neji and Tenten, but tonight he knew it would be different. When they parted ways, he bid them goodnight and followed his own separate path, recognizing that the sparring partners needed their own time to say their goodbyes.
Left on the path, Tenten didn't know what to do. She couldn't look at Neji, too afraid that the parting of Team Gai had left too much of an impact on her. The silence was heavy, and Tenten didn't have the strength to break it.
"I'll walk you home." Neji said. Tenten fell into step beside him, silently glad for the offer. She knew this night would be interminable, and the less time she had to spend with her own thoughts, the better.
A slight breeze picked up as they walked the path to her apartment, and Tenten edged closer to him, so close that her fingers brushed his, sending electric sparks up her arm, even though she felt completely numb.
When his palm closed around hers and their fingers intertwined, a little trace of warmth broke through, and the storm inside her quieted.
It wasn't the first time he'd taken her hand. Faced with the craziness of Gai and Lee as Genin, Neji and Tenten had naturally fallen together, training partners and, as the years passed by, the best of friends. She was virtually the only person to whom he showed any affection; in moments like this, when the words couldn't be spoken, a brief hug or a steadying hand were normally enough to keep her going, knowing that whatever the mission, despite how much worse things might get, he was there always, her foundation, her anchor. It had never strayed into the realm of the amatory – Neji was too focused for that, and Tenten knew that there were too many consequences, even if Neji had cared for her that way, a point on which she wasn't convinced. Regardless, his presence was enough.
But tomorrow, he would be separated from her.
The hand didn't feel quite as warm as it once had.
When they stopped outside her door, her hand slipped from his grip. She fumbled to find her key, hoping that the extra time she was taking might allow her to also find the words –any words, even if they weren't perfect—to let him know that she wasn't alright, that she needed him to stay, if only for a few more moments.
Her hand closed around the small piece of metal in her pocket, and she turned back to him managing a weak smile.
"Well…" The silence seemed to stretch for an eternity, and she was panicking, scrambling for some safe ground, because she wasn't sure she could stand it anymore. Still, her expression remained calm, even as everything inside of her was screaming.
She opened her mouth to form the word 'goodnight', but some god must have taken pity, because at that moment, the sky, which she had assumed before now to be almost cloudless, chose that moment to open its maw and let forth a torrent of rain.
Tenten chuckled nervously, and gestured at the downpour. "Want to come in for a little while?"
He followed her silently, and Tenten hit the light switch, which only served to remind her how empty her apartment really was. A couch, a coffee table, some books… a few scraps of paper littered on the table and counters, filled with diagrams of weapons that would never work and formations that she would never use. Neji took it all in with the trained grace of someone who was already highly familiar with the habits of the weapons mistress. He cleared away the papers, and when she offered to make tea, he steered her to the couch and made her sit, then went to the kitchen to do it himself.
Tenten listened from the living room; the quiet shuffle of his steps over the tile, the soft whistle of the kettle as it heated up… it was all so normal that it made her insides squirm, and she pulled her knees up to her chest like a child, as if that would make her safer.
She dropped the posture as soon as she heard Neji moving back toward the living room. She took the tea that he offered, failing to hide the shaking in her hands. Outside, the storm roared on.
They talked like nothing was different from any other day. She explained her diagrams to him, and he pointed out the flaws in her logic, and she told him to lighten up and have some imagination, and soon enough, the tea was all but forgotten, cold and still on the table. The hours wore on, and the rain stopped, and Tenten was sorry—sorrier than she had ever been—when they finally noticed.
Neji glanced at the window, where outside, the night was clearing to reveal the moon. Tenten watched him with bated breath, waiting for the inevitable. When he said nothing, she knew, little though she wanted to, that she would be the one to remind him.
"You probably need to be getting back, don't you?" Every word that came out of her mouth stung her tongue as she said it, and she could not bring herself to look at him. She stared instead at her hands, scarred and pale; they had stopped shaking for the short time they had been talking, but the slightest tremor ran through them now.
"Yes." Neji said plainly, but he didn't move.
Tenten was the first to stand; she cleared the cups away and put the papers back in their stack, steeling herself for the one goodbye for which she would never be prepared.
Neji moved to the door, and she followed him, gave a watery smile, embraced him briefly, kissed his cheek.
"Be careful." When she pulled away from him, she made sure to put two or three steps between them. Enough that she couldn't get back to the door before he would be out of it. Enough that she couldn't relapse.
He stared at her for a long time, and she didn't see her fears reflected in his eyes. She saw only silent contemplation.
"You as well. Goodnight, Tenten." He gave her one last lingering look, then opened the door, and closed it behind him. The click of the closed door echoed through the apartment.
Tenten wanted to throw herself against the door, wanted to sob, but she contained it. The hollow feeling inside of her swallowed it smoothly, and she walked quietly back to her bedroom, dimming the lights along the way. No light in the world could keep the coming darkness at bay.
She sat down cross-legged on the bed, not changing, not even pulling her hair down. She stared at the moon, at the way the window refracted its light and made the room glow. It made the room disproportionately large, and she felt infinitesimally small. She wondered if it would feel this way to die in battle: to be completely aware of how small and insignificant you are in the grand scheme of things. All alone, she could admit it to herself, the possibility that such a reality might be one she faced shortly.
She heard the click of the door, the soft footsteps. When the shadow rose behind her, she didn't turn. Couldn't turn, frozen as she was.
"Tenten." She let the sound wash over her, basking in the comfort of something warm, something familiar.
She bit her lip, the pain bringing her back to the present, and didn't look at him, afraid to say anything. Afraid to admit the one thing she had never been able to tell anyone, especially not him. Afraid to voice the one thing she'd felt every single day of her existence, when all the light of day was gone and she was left to her own thoughts.
"Neji… I'm terrified."
The words should have been the key that unleashed the flood, but she still felt numb. No tears came, but she was able to move again, and she turned back toward him, saw his silhouette against the door frame. He moved to sit on the edge of the bed, but thought better of it, instead sitting next to her, hands moving reflexively to find hers, and he pulled her to him. Tenten curled against him, her whole body wracked with tremors.
"You didn't say anything." He muttered quietly, and Tenten shook her head; the tears had started to form at the corners of her eyes. They ran in slow trails down the side of her nose and off her chin.
"I couldn't." She admitted, and he pulled her closer. They sat in the silence, staring at the untouchable abyss.
When the tears had run their course, Tenten took a steadying breath. It still came out shaky, but the warmth had begun to creep back in. Seeing that her crying had stopped, Neji reached a hand down to clear away the last stray tears. After that, now that she was collecting herself, Tenten expected him to disentangle himself from her, to distance himself. While he was always there when she needed it, prolonged contact was never something that Neji greatly valued.
This situation was different, however, and though Tenten didn't recognize it, Neji did. Smoothing her hair away from her forehead, he did the strangest thing Tenten could ever recall him having done in the many years they'd known one another.
He kissed her forehead.
Tenten moved to look up at him, her expression questioning.
"Tenten." He said again, gently, and he wrapped an arm securely around her torso.
Truth be told, she had never felt safer.
"Whatever your fears, you should be aware of one fact. You have been my partner for five years and I know how capable you are."
Tenten sighed softly. "But you're a genius, Neji. I'm just—"
"The one who has trained with the so-called genius every day since we were Genin? Without whom, I would never have been promoted to the level of Jounin?" He kissed the side of her head just above her ear, and she melted into him. The hand that still held hers clenched it tightly, and he leaned down to speak directly into her ear.
"I know you are afraid. We all are. Jounin, Chuunin or Genin, in the face of war, we are truly all still children, the products of a world of relative peace until now. But we have the will of fire in our blood. And apart or together, we have one another."
Tenten closed her eyes, listening to the steady pound of his heart in his chest. Achingly slowly, the tide of the storm inside of her was receding, leaving stillness behind it.
"Weren't you supposed to meet with Hiashi-sama before we leave tomorrow?" She inquired quietly, knowing the answer to the question and not really wanting to hear the response. Still, especially in times of war, Neji couldn't give up responsibilities just for her sake.
"In the morning. I'll do it tomorrow." He said with finality, and Tenten couldn't keep the smile off her face.
And on the night when she had most expected sleep to elude her, she drifted off in his arms.
Tenten was awake as soon as the first rays of sun broke over the window sill, casting the room into a strange amalgam of light and dark. Her gut clenched in fear, immediately knowing what that sun on the horizon meant, but it unclenched just as quickly when her gaze lighted on the figure next to her.
His face was relaxed and unguarded in sleep, and the bands of light that trickled across his pale skin only made it look that much more radiant. Tenten couldn't resist running a finger down his jawline, tracing the features of the man she trusted with everything, the one who had known her fears without her having to voice them.
In the stillness of that morning, watching him sleep, she would find the courage to move forward.
A/N: Second NejiTen fic in two days. Gah, I adore this pairing! Either I'm on a roll, or I have way too much time on my hands... possibly both. I suppose you could see this as being in kind of the same general universe as Stuck in the Clouds. Same idea of "last day before the war" certainly.
Well, hope you all enjoy, and if you like it and haven't already read some of my other stories, be sure to check out some of my other NejiTen stuff.
Thanks for reading and reviews are adored!