They met Gai-sensei at the gate the next day, where many hugs and gushing exclamations of youth were exchanged – or, in the case of Neji, forced upon him with much protest. Tenten didn't object to Gai-sensei's hugs quite as much as usual, and she actually found herself getting a little emotional as he gave his final goodbyes. Something that she couldn't quite put her finger on tugged at her guts, leaving her with a sense of overwhelming melancholy. In their last team chant, she found herself gripping their hands harder than usual.
By the time Gai-sensei finally left, they were mostly left to comfort Lee, who had been reduced to a mass of sobs, with the occasional mumbled cry about the loss of his youthful teacher. Even Neji was kinder than usual, handling Lee's emotional overflow with a surprising amount of patience. They managed to deliver him home and get him calmed down within a few hours, but Tenten was thoroughly exhausted from the effort, and Neji offered to take her home. For once, she couldn't even summon up the energy to stop him from supporting her as she walked. Her leg was growing stronger every day, but a little help now and then didn't hurt.
Back in her living room, she settled into Neji's arms, more than willing to let herself drift off to sleep. However, that didn't appear to be in the plan, as Neji began talking almost immediately.
"We have a mission."
Wide awake, Tenten sat up.
"Lee and I have been assigned a new mission by Tsunade. Reconnaissance on one of our borders. We leave this evening."
"What?!" At this, Tenten almost flipped off the couch, unwrapping herself from the warm circle of Neji's arms. "And you're just telling me this now?"
"I only just found out this morning," Neji said regretfully. His pale eyes flickered from her face to his hands, and if she hadn't known better, Tenten could have sworn she saw a hint of regret in his face. "I would have informed you sooner, but with Lee…"
Tenten calmed slightly, sinking back against the couch. "Of course."
They sat in silence for a few moments, the only sound the burbling of the kettle that Neji had put on the stove when they came in. Tenten shifted her leg nervously.
"You don't think…"
"What?" Neji, perceptive as ever, caught the hint of uncertainty in her tone and laid a reassuring hand on her arm.
"It's just strange." She said. "Gai-sensei being sent as a delegate to the Hidden Cloud, you and Lee sent out on a mission to check our borders… it sounds like…"
She shook her head.
"No, that's silly. We'd know, wouldn't we?"
She didn't have to say it, but they both knew what she was gesturing toward. Even with Naruto gone, training with Jiraiya, the thought had been fresh on everyone's minds ever since the invasion of the agents of the Akatsuki.
The unspoken menace lay heavy on the air between them, neither of them wanting to say it:
"We would know. The…" Neji paused, an uncharacteristic hesitance in his voice. Tenten didn't like uncertainty to begin with, but coming from Neji, it was downright… terrifying.
"The Jonin would know, certainly. There is no way Tsunade wouldn't inform us if something… more sinister were at work."
Tenten nodded slowly.
"All the same…"
"All the same?"
Tenten frowned slightly, forcing her way back into his arms.
"Be careful, okay?"
She felt his lips move against her scalp, heard the smile in his voice.
"Of course. Only so long as my teammate makes an equal promise not to do anything reckless."
Tenten reeled back in mock horror.
"Me, do anything dangerous? I can't imagine why you would even suggest a thing!"
A devilish grin played around her lips, and she relished the mixed look of amusement and concern that crossed Neji's face.
Rather than responding, Neji gripped her arms and pulled her toward him, kissing her fiercely. The sensation made Tenten's head spin, and even when he stopped, her faculties still weren't quite fully restored.
"I mean it," He said quietly. "I have done many things that I regret in my career as a shinobi. I am trying to amend many of them. But if this is how I feel when you sustain an injury that I could not prevent, I cannot imagine what something worse would feel like."
He smiled slightly, stroking her cheek. "If only for my own selfish reasons, I must insist that you take only the best care of yourself in my absence. This experience is not one I would care to repeat."
Tenten chuckled, leaning forward to kiss him again.
"I suppose, if you insist." She said. "But, if you think that once my leg is healed, I will not do everything in my power to be back out in the field doing my job, you are sorely mistaken."
"I wouldn't dream of it."
"Good." She gave him another quick kiss. "Because as soon as I can, I plan to be back out there, watching my partner's back."
Neji couldn't suppress a grin.
"I can't wait."
The goodbye was the hardest Tenten had ever had to make, even worse than Gai-sensei's a week earlier. By the time Lee started crying, she had to bite very hard on the inside of her cheek to keep the tears from swelling up in her own throat. Lee pressed her into a bone-crushing hug, shouting practically unintelligible words of encouragement into her ear. Neji practically had to forcibly remove him from Tenten.
When it came time to say goodbye to Neji, Tenten had sufficiently steeled herself, but it was still almost impossible to extract herself from his arms.
"You'll correspond if you can?"
Neji nodded succinctly. "I don't know if it will be possible, but if we can, we will be in touch."
"You take good care of our favorite goofball," Tenten glanced over at the blubbering Lee with a warm smile. "Make sure he doesn't get lost this time."
"I…" Neji frowned, thinking about the nature of the promise he was about to make. "…will do my best to keep him from doing anything extremely reckless."
"That's all I can ask." Tenten giggled.
Then, even though they had not told Lee, she leaned up and kissed Neji, one deep, lasting kiss for the road. Feeling the tears threaten to surface again, she pulled away after a few seconds and composed herself, squeezing his hand.
Behind them, Lee had stopped sobbing, struck utterly speechless by the display he had just witnessed.
Giving her one last embrace, Neji grabbed the flabbergasted Lee by the collar and they set off down the road.
Tenten felt a pang of regret as she watched her team set off without her, but for the first time, the regret was overwhelmed by her desire to improve. As soon as possible, she would be back out there with the team that had supported her through so much, protecting them as they had protected her.
And though it might be long, she was finally prepared to make the journey down the road to recovery.
A/N: Before we get started, I am really, really sorry this took so long. Lots of fun things that I won't get into prevented this from getting done earlier, but... as I said, not worth getting into.
That being said, IT'S FINISHED. So, thoughts? Criticisms? (Hopefully nothing terrible?) Things you really enjoyed? I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Thank you all for your reviews on chapter 14: ButtercupandButch, Ami1010, Guest, marionne345, the sleepy queen, purpleprincess1147 and super thanks to videogamenerd101 for going back and reviewing every chapter. All of you guys are so awesome. I couldn't be more grateful for your support and encouragement.
Which brings me to another note: I have to say a special super huge thank you to my fellow NejiTen writer and friend pusa-is-me. I ought to dedicate this chapter to her, because she constantly encouraged me to work on it, even when I was ready to give up on the story, and I guarantee that this story would have suffered greatly were it not for her words of inspiration and the added encouragement of her awesome writing.
Finally, thank you to all my readers that I haven't heard from, for sticking with me through this long and sometimes arduous process. I hope you enjoyed it.
Best wishes to all you dearies.