Actions

Work Header

Effloresce

Work Text:

Lee tried not to put too much countenance into luck, but he thought that surely, today it was on his and his team’s side. A skinny runner was rocking on the back of their heels, watching Gai-sensei as he read a last minute missive. It was hard to tell the child’s gender, but it hardly mattered and Lee beamed when their giant blue-green eyes met his.

 

“I’th from the Hokage,” the child lisped, revealing that they were missing most of their front teeth. “Do you have a thuper thecret mission?”

 

“We’re a genin team,” Neji said, and Lee sent him a gently scolding look.

 

“Do not discourage inquisitiveness, my dear rival,” he said. “It is a key characteristic of a shinobi! You are an academy student, yes?”

 

He figured missing that many teeth was a pretty big clue, honestly, but the kid nodded eagerly, looking pleased with the guess. Gai-sensei would be proud! He often spoke of the importance of nurturing young minds.

 

“I’m in my thecond year,” they said, skinny face alight with pleasure. “I make thome extra money running to and from the gate with information from the Hokage or the dethk.”

 

“That’ll help with stamina,” Tenten said, smiling widely. “Any idea what this is? What’s your name?”

 

“Kimiko,” she said, “Thethsha Kimiko. And no,” she pouted, “I never know detailth. ‘m not allowed until I’m a shinobi.”

 

“Yours is a vital service, all the same,” Lee said and she giggled.

 

“Thankth shinobi-than,” she chirped, and Gai-sensei, returning, gave her a wide smile.

 

“And you’ve brought us most exciting news. My thanks, Kimiko-kun.” She blushed at his thanks, muttering that it was nothing. “Now, my note also says you should be off to class, now.” That made her wrinkle her nose, but she bobbed a bow and scurried off.

 

“She’s adorable,” Tenten said, watching her go. Lee nodded. Neji, naturally, did not.

 

“Hopefully she’s learned not to block with her face,” Neji said, and Tenten rolled her eyes. Gai-sensei clucked lightly.

 

“You must look to the positives, Neji-kun,” he said. “Obviously, she is ready and willing to work extra despite hardship!” Neji just gave Gai-sensei his Look and Lee shook his head fondly at his most ornery rival.

 

“Neji-kun is a different breed than us, Gai-sensei. We must lead by example!”

 

“Indeed Lee-kun!” he said. Tenten cut off anything else by speaking up.

 

“What was in the letter, Sensei?” she asked, leaning on her bō as if it were a walking stick. “New mission parameters?”

 

“We have received a new mission entirely,” Gai-sensei said. “We are being given the opportunity to travel to hitherto unvisited parts of Fire Country and beyond!” he said. “The Hokage has asked us to give up our humble mission, and rewarded our generosity of spirit with a C-rank!”

 

“Sweet,” Tenten said, and even Neji looked a little less put upon. C-ranks were not uncommon, but they had been stuck on D-ranks lately just for lack of availability. It was good to once again have a mission that promised to test their abilities – it would surely provide a growing experience! “We are going to kill the exams this year.”

 

“Yosh!” Lee said.

 

“Maybe we should find out what the mission is, first,” Neji said, and Tenten responded with her usual exuberance, swiping at his feet and head in rapid succession with her bō. Neji, proving his prowess, dodged both with grace. Lee’s teammates were going to be most ferocious shinobi, he rather thought. “See if it actually offers any true reward.”

 

“Stop being such a downer,” she said. “Would it kill you to-”

 

“You’re it, then?” a new voice said and they turned to see a man in a straw hat staring at them. “What the fuck was the Hokage thinking?”

 

For a moment, no one said anything, and then Gai-sensei stepped forward, smiling. “I assure you Tazuna-san, my team is a seasoned genin team. We will escort you past any brigands or threats we meet with the utmost professionalism.”

 

“I’m sure,” the man said, and then started toward the gate, ignoring them entirely and grumbling about how they hadn’t even met him at the mission’s desk. Lee caught a rather...fermented...smell as he walked by, but offered him a smile anyway, getting nothing in return. Gai-sensei took large steps to get ahead of him, motioning for them to fall into position – Lee and Tenten on the flanks, Neji to the rear.

 

“You were saying?” Neji asked Tenten as they fell in, and Lee couldn’t help but smile a bit at her responding scowl.

 

“Peace my friends, this will be an adventure!”

 


 

Their client Tazuna was, Tenten decided by their fifth hour together, a giant dick. After spending her whole schooling career with Neji, she wasn’t unused to that sort of person, but at least Neji was sober. And didn’t smell bad. And usually complained about specific things instead of everything under the sun. And was useful, even if it was kind of insulting that someone with such a bad attitude was good at things.

 

It just seemed unfair that the rude and the mean didn’t all naturally get punished with loserdom until they smartened up.

 

Ah well.

 

At the very least, they learned quickly that not reacting to Tazuna meant he mostly kept to himself and his bottle. Tenten tried her level best to ignore that, but she could feel the heated look of disgust Neji was drilling into their client’s back. Not that she blamed him, really. He was pretty awful. And it was funny to see Neji’s face morph from disdain into stoney indifference every time Tazuna turned around.

 

“How many of those do you have, Tazuna-san?” Lee asked as a third bottle was pulled out of seemingly nowhere. He didn’t clink at all, which almost made Tenten think he was a former shinobi or something. Except surely a shinobi, former or not, would at least wait until they were in a protected area to get drunk off his wrinkly old ass.

 

“None of your business,” Tazuna snapped. “You’re too young to drink, anyway.”

 

“Oh yes,” Lee agreed, bobbing his head vigorously, “I am far too young. I am simply admiring your packing abilities! Do you use seals?”

 

Tenten had to bite a her lip to stop from laughing at Tazuna’s face, and turning her head revealed Neji was smirking, watching his feet with sudden interest. For a long moment the man didn’t say anything, just staring at Lee as if looking for something. Then he snorted.

 

“No, none of those stupid magic tricks,” he said, making Tenten twitch even though she knew he was trying to rile them up. “I’m an engineer. Made my pack myself.”

 

“Amazing,” Neji said from the back, and Tenten covered her snicker with a cough. Tazuna turned, no doubt to chew him out, but ended up in a staring contest with her teammate. After all this time, Tenten was pretty immune to the Byakugan, even forgetting, sometimes, that it was at all unusual, but civvies almost always thought it was creepy. It didn’t help that Neji was pale as a ghost himself.

 

He met Tazuna’s eyes without so much as twitching, face as still as stone, and Tenten shook her head and turned quickly so Tazuna – already turning away – wouldn’t see her grin. Lee pursed his lips at her, but his eyes were dancing.

 

“And what are you engineering Tazuna-san?” he asked, reminding Tenten that he actually had a great poker face when he needed one.

 

“A bridge,” Tazuna said. “I’m the best bridge builder in the elemental nations.”

 

“Indeed?” Gai-sensei said, turning slightly. “Most impressive!”

 

It almost drowned out Neji’s dry words. “Not a common occupation, then?”

 

To his credit, Tazuna only twitched slightly.

 


 

 

Lee tried, valiantly, to look only on the bright side of this situation. No, walking through the Fire Country heat with a man who smelled greatly of alcohol and had the disposition of an alley cat was not the world’s greatest mission, but it was training! Training to put up with adverse conditions. And besides, it could be worse.

 

There could be two Tazuna-sans.

 

“He complains so much,” Tenten hissed to herself and Neji as they packed up lunch and covered their tracks. Gai-sensei was talking to Tazuna-san about the rest of their journey. Tazuna-san insisted on taking a private boat to Wave Country, and Gai-sensei was looking for the quickest way there. “I mean – this is the simplest walk in the world, even if he’s slow.”

 

“He’s a drunk,” Neji said the same time Lee said, “He’s unhappy.”

 

They traded looks and Neji gave a small shrug. “He’s an unhappy drunk,” he amended. “He’ll always have something to complain about. And he’s slow because he’s an old, civilian drunk.”

 

Lee shook his head, smoothing the dirt over the fire pit, arranging it as naturally as possible. “He drinks because he is unhappy! Perhaps he needs only understanding.”

 

Neji snorted and even Tenten looked unsure, but they didn’t say anything else because Sensei was coming over to them. Tazuna-san was waiting by the road.

 

“Tazuna-san has expressed a desire to see more of Fire country, budget permitting. As such we have agreed that instead of heading for the coast via the main road, we will be taking a river boat.”

 

Lee, who had never been on a river boat, perked up slightly. “That sounds most exciting!”

 

“It’s not,” Tenten said, “they go slow and you’re not allowed to do anything.”

 

Gai-sensei spoke again. “It will only be a few hours,” he said. “We will board in the morning, and making our way down the glorious Igi river, where we will depart in the afternoon!”

 

Lee pumped a fist in the air – and turned to his unimpressed team mates. “NEJI! This too is a new experience, don’t you feel joy at the thought?”

 

“No.”

 


 

 

Tenten didn’t know what was more surprising. The Lee didn’t burst into tears upon seeing “their wondrous transportation”, or that she knew the people currently docked. It was handy, at least. Old man Genji had been more than happy to give them a discount “anything for Konoha’s shinobi and old friends!”

 

She’d have to tell Aniki. It was probably related to him.

 

Because it was only for a few hours, they stayed on the deck. Neji immediately set himself up in the least busy area and crossed his legs. Lee set to asking the crew questions and Tenten decided to just watch the scenery go by.

 

“Times flies, doesn’t it girl?”

 

The head of the Kurosaka river boat company was a man so old he was probably an adult when the Hokage was born. He was bent over a gnarled cane made of some sort of stripped wood and one eye was cloudy.

 

“Yessir,” she said. She had not gone on any trips with Aniki and Aiko-nee since she was seven, but she remembered him all the same.

 

“And you became a shinobi after all,” he looked her up and down. “In a fashion.”

 

“I’ve only been a genin a year,” she said. “I’ll be a chūnin this time next year.”

 

“Oh?” he said, “so confident. Very like your brother.”

 

She had to smile despite that. “Thank you,” she said and he laughed, a hard gravely sound.

 


 

 

The river boat ride had been quite interesting in its own way. Lee had certainly learned a great deal about running a shipping business – and their ongoing feud with the Asajima company. It did not sound as youthful as Gai-sensei’s and Kakashi-sensei’s, but Lee did not know enough to to truly judge. Perhaps one day he would meet the Asajima and he could better understand!

 

For now, however, they were off the boat. It was a few hours yet until sundown, and Sensei had most widely divined that it was best to keep moving. First, however it was a team meeting! Tazuna sat under a tree, eyeing everything in a rather nervous manner. Perhaps he insisted on the river boat because he did not like forests?

 

“I just wanted to take a moment to assure you all you are doing me, and Konoha very proud!” Gai-sensei said.

 

“Thank you Gai-sensei, it has been our pleasure!” Lee said and Gai-sensei’s smile grew even larger.

 

“Ah to say that is proof of how gracious you are, my pupil. How gracious you have all been. Keep up the good work.” Lee nodded, and then Gai-sensei winked. “A bad client is a right of passage,” he said, and Tenten giggled.

 

“We’ve got this down, then,” she said. “Usual formation?”

 

“Indeed.” He looked to Neji. “I hope you do not feel abused, Neji.”

 

Neji gave him a familiar flat look – it meant he thought something stupid had been said but knew better than to say as much. “It’s what the Byakugan is for, Sensei,” he said.

 

“Of course! But you are not your Byakugan,” Sensei said. Neji rolled his eyes, and Lee grinned, ruffling his hair, knowing his rival was pleased.

 

Even if Neji punched him in the ribs as thanks.

 

“No punching on missions!” Gai-sensei said, voice booming as he headed back to Tazuna-san.

 

“Unless it’s the enemy,” the chorused as they took their positions. Tenten gave Lee a sneaky grin.

 

“Or unless we know we won’t get caught,” she said and Lee could not help but feel amused at Tazuna-san’s alarmed looking face, unkind though it may be.

 


 

 

Though his precious pupils were somewhat bored, and certainly not in the best of spirits thanks to Tazuna-san’s somewhat difficult personality, Gai was enjoying himself. He rarely came to the eastern parts of Fire country, and certainly had not done so since last year. Travelling was good the soul, and the mind, as it broadened one’s world view. That his genin were getting such broadened world views was a true treat.

 

He did not, however, remember Ōishimi-ku being a particularly poor prefecture. Indeed, the Sakamoto were an elevated merchant clan, whose hard work had earned them many rewards. That the roads were in such disrepair, less than a day’s walk from a fairly large village, was worrying.

 

“Tazuna-san,” he said, “has the lord Sakamoto been having trouble with his finances?”

 

Tazuna was quiet long enough Gai turned to look at him. He was glaring down at the ground. Tenten was still surveying the right side of the road, but Lee was looking rather expectantly at Tazuna. Neji’s Byakugan being active meant there was very little clue as to what he was focusing on. But his oldest pupil was very serious, and extremely focused and so Gai did not doubt their back was quite safe.

 

“How would I know?” Tazuna asked, looking up. His eyes were getting quite red rimmed – Gai sincerely wished that whatever drove him to this was something he could help with. Tazuna was not amendable to aid beyond what was being done currently, however. Gai knew how to let it lie. Tazuna’s eyes scythed away, back to the ground. “Fire country isn’t my problem, not since they cleared me to build my bridge. Heard there was a port fire up north, a few months back though.”

 

“Ah,” Gai said, “that could explain it. How unfortunate for the Sakamotos.”

 

“Yeah,” Tazuna said, and took another drink.

 


 

 

Leaving Fire country was kind of exciting, Neji was forced to admit. Not many genin teams did so, even if it was just to Wave which was tiny and probably less interesting than the capital. Or even Konoha itself. Konoha had a lot of corners.

 

The little boat that brought them over smelled like fish and the three civilians stared at him. It was annoying so he opted for watching the ocean. Tenten settled in at his side. Lee was back to asking the sailors what did what.

 

“Lee,” Neji said finally. “Just be quiet and let them work.”

 

“But my rival!” Lee said, coming over in a manner more subdued than his usual bounce. It rocked the boat too much. “It is most interesting!”

 

“More interesting than taijutsu?” Tenten asked. Lee shook his head, sliding in next to her.

 

“It is not! However, we cannot spar here,” Lee said. Neji looked around.

 

“Might be fun,” he said, smirking a little despite himself. Tenten giggled and Lee looked around again, considering.

 

“Until we had to pay them for a new boat,” Tenten said, creaking her part of the deck meaningfully.

 

“Ah, while your youthful exuberance is always appreciated, perhaps whatever it is you are planning can wait for landfall,” Gai-sensei said. He did not join them, so they had to turn to look at him. He was seated on the opposite side of the boat.

 

“Don’t think we can break Wave country, Gai-sensei?” Neji asked. One of the fishermen gave him an alarmed look and he let his smirk grow a little; showing teeth.

 

“Don’t scare the civilians,” Tenten said, poking his cheek.

 

“I am fully confident in both your destructive capabilities and the structural soundness of Wave country,” Gai-sensei said. “After all, they are home to a master engineer.”

 

The master engineer, Neji noted, was passed out and snoring. “How promising.”

 


 

 

Wave country was a lot like Fire country, but the trees were smaller and the air smelt like salt. Tenten felt a bit of a spring in her step as they made their way further in. “Tazuna-san,” she asked, “why didn’t they take us into the village’s port?”

 

Tazuna frowned. “Wasn’t on their path,” he said. “To get to the village from that port you need to go a certain way, they’re headed the opposite way.”

 

“Tazuna-san assures me it is only about two hours walk,” Gai-sensei said. Lee bounced on his toes, giving her a thumbs up.

 

“Easy!” he said.

 

In the back, Neji was looking around more than he usually did. She considered, briefly, asking if something was wrong but he wasn’t doing anything else weird, or raising an alarm. He didn’t even have his Byakugan on. She figured he was working on his blind sensing – and realized she should be doing the same. Taking a deep breath she curled her chakra close to her, centring it and then pushing it back out as far as she could.

 

Then she turned back to Neji. “Wishing you’d studied the Intel maps more?” she teased.

 

“It’s two kilometres at its widest point,” he said, “there was not much to study.”

 

“He’s right,” Tazuna said with a grunt, “this half’s forest, other half is open hills. Covered in sheep.”

 

“Oh, do you export wool?” Tenten asked.

 

“Not lately,” he said.

 

“Oh,” Tenten said. Tazuna was an even worse conversationalist than Neji – Neji being a teammate and not a client meant they could be rude back. Knowing she wasn’t going to get much else, Tenten set herself back to playing guard. Not that there was anything that was going to come into her line of sight quicker than Sensei’s or Neji’s.

 


 

 

Neji was actually working on his blind sensing. He’d been trying to do so on and off for most of the trip, but the Byakugan was comforting the further they got from home. He did not want to be overly reliant on it, however, especially just for walking around so he stubbornly kept it unactivated. At the edge of his senses was...nothing. But in the way that silence in a forest was nothing. It had been niggling him for about five minutes now, but he thought it was just nerves. But if it wasn’t...

 

He checked to make sure Tenten wasn’t watching and wordlessly activated his Byakugan.

 

Then, he hit the ground, aiming so he would come into Lee’s line of sight and rolling once to put more distance between him and the attackers. Across from him, he saw Tenten sweep Tazuna's feet from under him as she herself dropped, Lee and Gai doing the same at almost the same exact moment. Gai turned it into a perfect roll and bounced up into a combat pose. He’d barely touched the ground. The three genin followed suit, granted with less grace, each launching into motion. Lee dutifully hauled Tazuna up and away from the man standing on his blade, lodged into a tree only three feet away. Neji and Tenten took up spots behind Gai-sensei and ahead of Lee, watching as Gai quickly and subtly flicked his fingers.

 

Defend. Client.

 

Stay.

 

The last one was ominous, Neji thought, before the man started to speak.

 

“Should have known Konoha would stick its nose into Gatō's business eventually,” the man said, looking out over them. Neji, despite himself, had to grit his teeth against the chakra he felt from this man. It wasn't that Neji was unused to jōnin chakra – it was all over Konoha – but this chakra had a hungry, metallic edge Neji had never felt before. It was almost ragged, and it was heavy. No, dense. The disturbed look on Tenten's face suggested she felt it, too. Lee, for better or for worse, was spared the feeling. “But you're in my way. I'm here for the old man.”

 

Gai-sensei’s shoulders were tighter than Neji remembered ever seeing. “And we are tasked with protecting him, Zabuza of the Mist,” Gai said. Neji started to mentally flip through names of infamous Mist ninja, but Tenten cut him short with a stifled inhale of breath.

 

“Momochi Zabuza, one of the Seven swordsmen of the Mist,” she said, speaking out of the corner of her mouth. “He's a nuke-nin and has been ever since he tried to lead a coup against the Yondaime Mizukage. He failed, fled, and is now one of Kirigakure's most wanted Nuke-nin. Before that, he was known as the Devil of the Mist due to murdering an entire class of academy students when he was our age.” Neji chanced a look at Tenten, and noticed she'd swapped out her bō for the naginata she rarely used outside of practice. It had more reach, and was more obviously lethal, but she wasn't as practised with it yet, making it a gamble. She met Neji's gaze, and shifted into an attack-ready stance. “He's dangerous.”

 

“Why is he here?” Neji asked.

 

“Does it matter? Sensei can beat him,” Lee said, taking Tazuna's left.

 

Zabuza was mostly focused on Gai-sensei, at least, but seemed at least partly aware of what they were saying. “What’s this?” he asked, grinning widely. It was off putting. “You weren’t expecting me?”

 

“We were not expecting anyone, Zabuza-san,” Gai-sensei said. Neji spared a moment to stare disbelievingly at him. Honestly, you didn’t have to be polite to nuke-nin.

 

“Ouch,” Zabuza said, grin growing even more, somehow. “Well, don’t let anyone tell you I’m unreasonable. You hand Tazuna-san over me, and I let you and your ickle kidlettes leave in one piece.”

 

Obviously, they were missing something. Something big, and something Tazuna knew about given the look on his face. Gai-sensei must have been able to see him, but didn’t move. Tenten and Lee both shifted into even sturdier stances. Neji called his chakra up to his palms, letting it thrum just under the surface and pushed his Byakugan as far as it could go.

 

“Fine,” Zabuza said, and launched himself from the tree, yanking his sword after him in one smooth motion that ended with the sword cracking the ground where Gai-sensei had stood seconds before.

 


 

 

It was one thing to know that jōnin were a cut above the rest. It was another thing to actually know. To see two opponents throw everything they had at one another, moving faster than most eyes could see. Lee and Tenten found themselves trying to dispatch clones without getting Zabuza’s attention, or moving too far from Tazuna-san. Neji was standing resolutely in front of him, and Lee risked sending him a thumbs up.

 

And then Gai-sensei went flying.

 

Lee winced, turning back and then feeling an unfamiliar sensation of dread curl his stomach. Sensei did not immediately bounce back up – and Zabuza was staring right at them.

 

Lee made to lunge forward – but Tenten grabbed his sleeve. “We need to protect Tazuna,” she said. “Look, he’s up.”

 

Gai-sensei was up. Ringed by water clones but moving. Which meant they really only needed to survive until he got through. “Lee – keep him busy!” Tenten said as Zabuza turned to Neji – and more importantly Tazuna. Lee did not hesitate upon seeing that, throwing himself at Zabuza just as the man raised his sword. He did not make contact, but it did make Zabuza side step him. Which meant it was one step forward he was not making!

 

That was the closest thing to a hit they made, much to Lee disconcertion.

 

It was all the three of them could do to dodge him without leaving him an opening for Tazuna. Three different times Tenten and Lee were both forced too far away, and Lee watched as Neji was forced to turn the blade back with nothing but chakra and kunai.His teammate never flinched, however, not even when Zabuza laughed.

 

Lee braced one leg, and kicked himself forward once again.

 


 

 

Gai’s ears were ringing when he hit the tree, and the surprise combined with the pain promptly shoved a very unwelcome memory to the fore. For a moment, all he could do was watch himself, Ebisu and Genma freeze in terror. Watch his father appear from nowhere.

 

Then reality reasserted itself. He was a teacher, and his students and client were in grave peril. He bounced back to his feet, intending to launch himself right back in, only for the water clones to prove they could be very creative. They had him ringed around the tree, and Zabuza had no problem creating three for every one he took down.

 

Between them, he could see glimpses of his students – all were standing – and then he took a brief second to wish dearly he was water natured. Ah well, that was what the gates could make up for. He tore the first one open without a thought, vaporizing two clones and a roundhouse kick destroying five more.

 

Just as Tenten fell with a yelp. Neji went down harder but more quietly.

 


 

 

A particularly brutal strike forced Neji to duck while throwing himself back into Tazuna, sending them both head-over-heels. In the single movement between his back hitting the ground, and him rolling back into a stand several things happened. He heard Lee's cry as he dove to keep Zabuza from gaining ground on them. Then, he heard the familiar crunch of bone hitting bone.

 

He came to his feet just as there was a heavy thump.

 

When he looked up, Zabuza was on the ground at Gai-sensei's feet, and Lee was being kept off the ground in one of the Gai-sensei's hands, dangling wide eyed, a chilling rip in his suit showing his naval and a thin slice of blood. Tenten was sprawled a few feet away, looking like she’d gotten elbowed hard in the face, and was staring at Zabuza, face white, eyes bright with either fear or fury. Neji re-activated the Byakugan, embarrassed to have been shocked out of it even for a second.

 

It did make him very dizzy when he was tumbling about, though so maybe it was better not to have to situate himself.

 

There were senbon in Zabuza's neck, and a masked man in the trees above him. Neji looked up sharply, only for the man to jump down.

 

“Maito Gai,” a light voice said from behind the mask. “Kiri will take it from here.”

 

“Kiri is operating this far south, now?” Gai-sensei asked.

 

“Zabuza is a problem no matter how south he is,” the Hunter-nin said.

 

And with that, he and Zabuza's body were gone. Gai-sensei frowned and set Lee down carefully, and then wordlessly slumped against the nearest tree.

 

“Sensei!” Tenten and Lee both called out, lunging for him. Neji was quieter, but he did take a step forward. Gai-sensei held up a hand stopping them. He looked uncharacteristically stern in that moment.

 

“I am fine,” he said looking over them. “I should be looking after you right now.”

 

“We are fine,” Neji and Lee said in tandem. Neji shot Lee a startled look, who continued.

 

“It is us who should worry! Did you hurt your back?”

 

Neji immediately checked, but couldn’t see any cracks in any of the vertebrae. “His back is fine,” he said.

 

“I felt it was so,” Gai said, mustering a smile, “but it is good to know.” For a moment he said nothing else before he ruffled Lee’s hair. “You did very well,” he said, “not many genin can claim they survived against a swordsman of the mist!”

 

“Barely,” Tenten said. “Why was he even here?”

 

With that, the smile fell completely off Gai-sensei’s face. His gaze slid over to Tazuna, who was standing on shaky legs, face white.

 

“I didn’t think it would get this bad,” he said, looking between them. “I really didn’t.”

 


 

 

While Tazuna was explaining what was actually happening in Wave – and why they had really been hired – Tenten unpacked her medical supplies. Wordlessly she handed Lee bandages and a bottle of some of her best wound salve. It was a gift from Aiko-nee. Usually she used her cheaper stuff.

 

“I have my own,” Neji said, voice soft. As he unpacked his own supplies his eyes never left Tazuna. After that they were silent, though Lee was looking less severe by the second.

 

“Do you need butterfly bandages?” Tenten asked, looking at his stomach. Lee looked down, face twisted in consideration.

 

“I do not think so,” he said, “my sticky pads will be fine.” He looked over to Neji, who was carefully using some of his water to clean his palms. “I can wrap your hands.”

 

If Tenten couldn’t already tell he was shaken, the fact he agreed would seal the deal. Neji always insisted he could do everything himself. Then again, so did Lee. It was just he listened to Gai-sensei more.

 

Speaking of, she looked over to him. He too was looking less thunderous, face now a more neutral look. When he saw her looking at him, he smiled. It wasn’t his usual smile at all but it looked better than a scowl. Tazuna-san, still explaining, did not seem to notice.

 

“I was sure the Hokage was going to assign a chūnin squad,” Tazuna said. “I tried to explain this wasn’t a good teaching trip.”

 

“We’ve learned the value of interrogating clients,” was Neji’s rather snappish reply. It spoke volumes that Gai-sensei did not try and correct the behaviour. “Is that why you’ve been drunk this whole time?”

 

Tazuna squirmed under all their gazes and Neji made a noise that reminded her of an ally cat about to get in a fight.

 

“You are safe enough for now, Tazuna-san,” Gai-sensei said, “I think I need to speak with my genin.”

 

Tenten didn’t like to think of herself as a mean person, but she couldn’t help but think Tazuna scrambling over to a moss covered oak was the very picture of a coward’s retreat.

 


 

 

Gai-sensei took them over to the opposite side of the clearing. They could still see Tazuna-san from here, thought it was a bit of a toss up if they could reach him should another villain come upon them.

 

“I am sorry,” he said as they gathered. “I-”

 

“No sensei!” Lee said, not able to stop himself. “This is not your fault! You were most wonderful against Zabuza!”

 

Gai-sensei stared down at him a moment before smiling widely. Then he pulled them all into a hug. For three breaths it went uninterrupted and then Neji poked Sensei in the ribs.

 

“Get off me,” he said, wriggling away. Tenten giggled at it. Lee thought maybe it was not exactly a happy giggle. “We’re not going to make him walk back to the village alone, are we?”

 

“I do not know,” Gai-sensei said.

 

“We cannot!” Lee said. “It is true, that by lying Tazuna-san has presented himself most unfavourably -” Tenten snorted. “-however, Tazuna-san is trying to save a whole village! Surely we can see past our issues to help him.”

 

“Issues?” Tenten asked, “we almost got shiskababed by one of the most dangerous nuke-nin on the coast!”

 

In a surprising show of Youthful spirit, Neji shrugged. “I don’t know. We did alright, only one of us broke their face.”

 

“My face isn’t broken!” Tenten said. Then she gently touched just under the bruise. “Is it?”

 

Neji stared at her a moment and sighed, flicking his Byakugan on and then off again. “No.”

 

“I am glad to hear it!” Gai-sensei said, “and you are, in this case all correct. Tazuna-san’s goals are only admirable, even if his methods are not. And yes, Tenten, you were in grave danger but Neji is also right that you did remarkably well. Not many genin can say they have fought any swordsmen of the Mist and survived, even for thirty seconds.

 

“WHAT?”

 

Lee had to say, never before had he heard Tenten reach such youthful decibels. If only it was a happier occasion. Gai-sensei smiled at her.

 

“As you well know, spars move faster than we think,” he said, ruffling her hair gently. “That all said, we must decide what to do once our contract is finished. The village is close enough it is best we move forward. Once we do that, our contract is complete.”

 

“So we go home,” Neji said, “and send Tazuna-san the bill for a B-rank.”

 

“A-rank,” Tenten corrected. “This is definitely A-rank now.”

 

“Ah! My bright pupils, stealing all my talking points.” He looked them over. Lee thought he had more to say, but instead he just said, “you are all good to go, then?” They nodded. Lee found himself bouncing on his toes slightly. “Move out,” Gai-sensei said and they all finally picked up their bags. “Tenten, please join me at he front. Neji, please take her spot. Tazuna-san, stay between him and Lee.”

 

“Who will take the back?” Tenten asked. Gai-sensei gave them a bright grin which struck Lee as very fake.

 

“I think we will be fine with this for now, Tenten,” he said.

 


 

 

Tenten hadn’t really understood what was meant when they said Wave Country was poor until its only village came into sight. All the wood was worn, most of the paint was peeling or faded to greyish versions of its original colour. The few people who were out wore clothes that had been repaired several times over and she spotted more than one roof that needed to be fixed.

 

Almost idly, she wondered if Aniki would help them for a lower rate than usual. Then she pictured Aiko-nee’s face if Aniki came all the way to Wave for a job and left her alone, and had to stifle a giggle despite herself.

 

“Tenten?”

 

Tenten looked up at her teacher and smothered her smile into something more sheepish. “Sorry sensei, thinking of my sister.”

 

“Oh which one?” he asked.

 

“Aiko-nee,” she said and he nodded.

 

“A lovely woman,” he said, “would I get the joke?”

 

“Ah, probably not,” Tenten said.

 

“Shame,” Gai-sensei said, “I believe we could use a little levity.”

 

Tenten looked around at the people watching them, and then back at her team mates. “No kidding, sensei.”

 

He gave a chuckle that managed to sound like a version of his usual large laugh. Then he turned to Tazuna. “Well, Tazuna-san, we have returned you to your village unscathed. Do you require us to take you all the way home?”

 

“Um, no,” Tazuna said. “I was hoping to open my home to you, however. As thanks.”

 

Tenten frowned. “Aren’t we leaving?” she asked sensei.

 

“No one can get you back to the mainland until tomorrow,” Tazuna said, “they don’t go out at night.”

 

That...made sense. Sensei wasn’t giving anything away, either because he’d made up his mind or he was thinking. Lee was looking between Tazuna and Gai-sensei like he could maybe compel them to start thinking out loud. Neji met her eyes. She didn’t need narration to know what he was thinking, anyway.

 

Relax. She signed.

 

No. He signed back.

 

Despite herself she little out a single laugh. Neji gave her a haughty look before turning to a civilian who’d come near and proceeding to stare the poor bugger down. “You’re too short to actually be scary,” she said under her breath. His eyes narrowed, but he didn’t actually say anything back.

 

The civilian walked very quickly as he passed them.

 


 

 

Gai, despite his lingering bad feelings about the lie that lead to the ambush, was not willing to be ungracious. He accepted an offer to come for supper, but insisted they spend a little money at the struggling local inn. Besides, Tazuna-san’s admittance they only had three rooms in his family home meant it made more sense for the team to stay at the inn.

 

“Well, we’re the blue house at the end of here,” Tazuna said, gesturing down a street. “The inn’s easy to spot, stay on this street and look for the sign.”

 

“My thanks, Tazuna-san. We shall arrive for supper at the expected time,” Gai assured him. His genin were lingering a little further ahead, knowing better than to run around without permission but clearly very much wanting to be elsewhere. “I will see you in three hours.”

 

Tazuna nodded and without another word turned on his heel. Gai watched him for a moment, before turning to his students. “Onward!” He said. Lee took the front, looking around with much youthful enthusiasm. Tenten was more subdued but did wave at a small child who waved at them. Neji was even polite enough to turn his Byakugan off without being told.

 

The inn was indeed easy to spot, given it did have a sign and was the largest building on the street. Which did not make it large, Gai doubted it held more than ten rooms. Gesturing for his genin to go inside, Gai followed up, only to almost run into Tenten.

 

Inside there were about twenty people. A good amount of the tables were taken by people in worker’s clothing. Three people with similar features and all in aprons were serving them, a forth stood behind a counter that served as both a place to order and check in.

 

And every single last one of them was staring at them.

 

“Hello!” Gai said, rather used to this. In places were shinobi were rare, they were always spectacles. “I am Maito Gai, Konoha’s Sublime Green Beast of Prey! And these are my genin!”

 

Silence. Under her breath, he heard Tenten say really did you have to say that. Then the youngest person in an apron stepped forward. “Um. Are you...here for a room?”

 

“Rooms, yes,” Gai said, “we were accompanying Tazuna-san on his journey home.”

 

There was an immediate change in the atmosphere, to the point Neji visibly tensed. Everyone all at once was standing – however they were smiling. Several spoke over one another, it sounded like questions over how the journey went, were they attacked – and a deluge of thanks. The oldest woman wearing an apron was also looking more friendly. Ah! Such a passionate village! “Shoo,” she said, pushing her way past the people crowding around them. “Don’t you idiots know what happens when you make shinobi jumpy? Even the little ones.” She eyed his genin critically. “I figured he’d get some older ones.”

 

Gai could not see Neji’s face, but he was certain he was prepared to remark on that. For the continued harmony of their village relations, Gai set a hand on the little shoulder, squeezing very lightly, and responded instead. “Konoha has many people on deployment, currently,” he said, “there was an unforeseeable shuffling of missions.”

 

“Hmph,” she said, “well we know what it’s like to be short of hands these days.” She gestured them forward. “We’ll get you booked in – four singles, is it?”

 

They usually only got two, three if it was less of a hassle to put Tenten in her own room. Places more used to shinobi did not think anything of a whole genin team staying together, no matter the composition of the team. This woman looked very hopeful, however, and he doubted most of these people were staying here.

 

“Yes,” he found himself saying. She beamed at him. He took a moment to consider his mission funds left, and then another to be glad he always brought emergency money.

 


 

 

The outside of the inn was pretty shabby, but Tenten found her room, at least, was clean and though fairly plain, comfortable. There was even a fresh flower in a vase. Outside she could hear Gai-sensei assuring Machie-san they were fine. Eventually she heard the sound of someone going downstairs, and wasn’t surprised to hear a knock shortly after.


It was Lee, apparently having already showered off. His hair was hanging a little longer, bangs askew. Idly she reached forward to fix them.

 

“Thank you Tenten! And forgive me Tenten,” he said, “I did not realize you were still changing.”

 

She looked down, “nah, haven’t started at all.” She said, “did Neji just go in?” Some of Machie-san’s vaguer comments implied that the water pressure depended largely on how many faucets were running, so they’d agreed to go one at a time.

 

“No,” was the reply from the room across the hall.

 

“Well, then I’m going,” she said, gathering her cleaning supplies. Neji said something that sounded like fine and she paused only long enough to kick his door before heading to the floor’s bathroom. It was small but clean, like the rooms, and again there were flowers. She wondered if they put them out every day, even with no one else staying here.

 

The thought made her sad. Not wanting to be sad, she buried it under other thoughts. Which included entertaining the thought – and not for the first time – of just cutting her hair short. But then she had visions of looking like Lee and Gai-sensei which...no. Just no. Turning the water off long before she really wanted, Tenten was a little less quick about drying off and reapplying her bruise balm. Neji wasn’t going to die for want of a shower, and Gai-sensei was quick.

 

Three minutes later she exited, and she only knocked once on Neji’s door before he opened, his own supplies piled in his arms.

 

“Have fun!” she said. He didn’t respond, but whatever. “SENSEI!” she called. Gai-sensei stuck his head out from the door nearest the bathroom. “D’you have more detailed maps? Can I see them?”

 


 

 

The three hours did a lot for Lee’s own feelings about Tazuna-san. Yes, partly because he spoke with Gai-sensei who was most wise and forgiving, but just because there was time to think. He did not forgive Tazuna-san entirely, but he understood him. And you did not have to forgive people everything they did – Gai-sensei was most adamant about that. Not for the first time, Lee hoped he would be half as understanding as his sensei when he was an adult.

 

Gai-sensei also said shinobi often did good things in bad ways. Lee hoped that he would not have to do too many bad things himself.

 

Tazuna-san’s house was indeed easy to find. The paint was a bit newer than the other houses, and there was a garden in the front. It looked a little untended, but he imagined it was very stressful to have Tazuna-san as a loved one right now.

 

“Gai-sensei,” he said as they approached the door. “Should we have brought flowers?”

 

“Really?” Neji asked, arching an eyebrow. Lee nodded.

 

“There is no need to punish his family for his behaviour!” Lee said, “he is trying to revive the Flames of Youth of his village, even if he used unyouthful means! As Gai-sensei says, this is not unlike being a shinobi.”

 

If Neji, or Tenten for that matter, meant to say anything, they were stopped by the door opening. A woman about Gai-sensei’s age opened it.

 

“You must be Maito Gai and his students,” she said, smiling at them. “I am Tsunami, please allow me to welcome you into my home with my greatest thanks.”

 

Well! Lee rather thought that was a promising start.

 


 

 

Lee was a trained shinobi, and so he did not react when he felt Tenten’s sandal collide with his shin for the third time. He realized this time it was because he was holding his chopsticks a bit too hard and he looked up at her and gave a weak smile of thanks.

 

She gave her own tiny smile.

 

Inari-kun continued to speak. At first he had simply been a touch rude – nothing they could not combat with good cheer. Or really unlike Neji on a bad day – or even Tenten on a very bad day. Now, however, he was speaking most passionately about their future downfall. Gai-sensei was politely ignoring his statements, instead responding as appropriate to Tsunami-san’s questions, who kept giving her son disapproving looks but did not say anything. Tenten was silent, eyes darting between everyone at the table and Lee reminded himself not to stare at his food so hard. Tazuna-san looked a touch uncomfortable himself. Neji was eating slowly and methodically, eyes focused on nothing at all, focused vaguely in front of him.

 

“Do you even know anything about Gatō?” Inari was saying. “Probably not because why would you be so stupid-”

 

The hand that slapped down on the table was rather startling, to be honest. “Inari!” Tsunami-san said finally, “enough.”

 

“Mom-”

 

“No,” she said, eyes not at all Youthful in that moment, though certainly alight with flame. “If you can’t behave, go to your room.” For a moment the little boy stared at her, before he scowled and jumped down from his seat, stomping off to his room. The air that fell over the table was definitely not conducive to eating. Tenten slunk a little down in her seat, eyes now focused on her own bowl of nabe. Neji did not react at all. Tsunami-san laid one hand over her eyes, as if she had a head ache. Then she looked back up. “I’m sorry for Inari’s behaviour,” she said, “it has been...a rough few months.”

 

“It is no trouble, Tsunami-san,” Gai-sensei’s said. Lee tried to looked like he agreed as he nodded and Tenten looked up from her meal long enough to do the same.

 

“’s fine,” she said, “he doesn’t know anything about what a shinobi can do, obviously.”

 

“May I be excused?” Neji asked, as if he were unaware of what was happening around him. Lee looked over, as did Gai-sensei. His food was gone and he was still staring at nothing.

 

“If Tsunami-san does not mind.” She shook her head. “Do not go far,” he said and Neji’s lip curled ever so slightly.

 

“We’re on an island,” he said, evidentally in his own bad mood. “Where can I go?”

 

And then he was gone. Lee took another sip and shifted uncomfortably. Tenten met his eyes again – and it was her time to smile.

 

“So!” Tsunami-san said, “Gai-san was saying something about a cat?”

 

Lee blinked, and then realized of what she likely spoke. “Ah, Tora,” he said. Tenten winced, but she was smiling still.

 


 

 

Tenten wasn’t too surprised that Neji fled the table the moment he was done his food. The fact Lee slipped out the moment the Tora story was done was a little startling but he couldn’t have enjoyed supper at all. His feelings were all over his face. Twice she’d had to stop him from saying something he would regret – not that Inari didn’t deserve it. And just once because he’d have been embarrassed if he bent someone’s nice chopsticks.

 

Now though, it looked like they were getting ready to leave. Tsunami-san kept apologizing about Inari, and Gai-sensei kept saying it was fine. Finally they extricated themselves, Tenten being forced to accept the leftovers. She supposed they could have it for breakfast and return the pot before they left. Machie-san was going to be miffed they never ate her food though.

 

“It is pretty sad, about Inari-kun’s dad,” she said. Gai-sensei nodded, and she looked over to where she could just see Neji. She could feel Lee, past him. “Do you want me to go talk to them?” she asked and Gai-sensei shook his head.

 

“No, I believe Neji and Lee are both in need of a little space, and they are safe enough for now.”

 

“It’s not them I worried about,” Tenten muttered as she took another bite of her food. “What if some unsuspecting civilian tries to talk to Neji?”

 

Gai-sensei laughed. “Neji is more bark than bite, usually,” he said, “I think the good people of Wave country will survive a tongue lashing, and I can always make him go apologize later. And I do not think they will be tempted, anyway.”

 

True. Even in a good mood he didn’t exactly look approachable.

 

“If you say so,” Tenten said. Sometimes she thought Gai-sensei was a little too optimistic about things. “Is it okay if I do some reading and then practice, once we get back?”

 

“You needn’t practice tonight,” he said, walking slowly so they were step to step. She realized they didn’t usually do that. “You did very well today.”

 

Tenten looked down with a little flush, rubbing her neck with her free hand. “Sure,” she said. She didn’t want to admit in front of the client she didn’t feel like she’d done very well today. Not very well at all. Not dying wasn’t really a skill it was just what everyone was supposed to do.

 


 

 

The village was, in a word, depressed, both morale -wise and economically. Neji privately thought that it looked like a village ready to roll over and just let the man do what he wanted, but apparently Tazuna was single-handedly keeping them on all fours, if not on their feet.

 

Considering his grandson, it was amazing he hadn't just given up himself.

 

The dinner had been excruciating. Listening to that little brat run his mouth had been more than Neji could stomach, and even Lee had looked bothered by it. Neji took a brief moment to thank his family for training him to keep his tongue at the table. Who knew it would be a life skill?

 

He tried not to dwell on any of that. Not even Inari who obviously didn’t know anything – the reason Gatō was winning was because there wasn’t a single chakra user in this whole damn place, let alone a shinobi.

 

But Neji was not thinking about their awful client and his family. He was meditating. He could feel Lee making his way across the gentle surf, and Neji tried to just concentrate on the waves, and the wind. And then a familiar presence settled itself next to him.

 

For a long moment he just sat next to Neji on the dock, presumably watching the waves and Lee alike. Then, he spoke, voice quieter than usual. “I didn't expect you to be upset by Inari-kun,” Gai-sensei said.

 

“I wasn’t upset by him,” Neji said.

 

“No?” Gai-sensei asked.

 

“I wasn’t listening to him at all,” Neji said and opened one eye to look at him. “You should go talk to Lee, he was upset.” He did not add that he knew how to deal with uncomfortable dinners, it really was not a problem.

 

“I will,” Gai-sensei said. Then, they were quiet again. “Neji?” he said after a few moments, “we will need to redo your bandages.”

 

Neji looked down, surprised to find he’d picked at them at some point. They’d also bled through, slightly. “I’m fine, Sensei.”

 

Gai-sensei pat his shoulder, “it would make me feel better. Let Tenten do it, if you go back before I do.”

 

Neji bit back a sigh. “Yes Gai-sensei.”

 

Finally Gai-sensei stood, gently laying a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t stay out too long, it will get cold once its dark.”

 

“Yes Gai-sensei.”

 


 

 

Lee's talk with Gai-sensei was very similar to Neji's, though of course Lee had no way of knowing that. The only major difference was Lee admitting to everything Neji had denied. He walked back his sensei, a little surprised to see Tenten in the common room. She was pouring over a map of the region, it appeared. Machie-san smiled at them as they came in, looking curious.

 

“You’re missing one,” she said.

 

“Neji is a free spirit,” Gai-sensei said, “he needs his space after travelling in such close quarters for so long.”

 

At her seat Tenten snorted. Machie-san looked over to her, and she looked up and blushed, apparently not having meant to make the sound. “Sorry,” she said, “I just didn’t think free spirit was the word for Neji.”

 

Gai-sensei just laughed. “He hides it well. I will be returning for my own writing supplies, do you need yours Lee?” he asked.

 

“Can I look at those maps, actually?” Lee asked.

 

“Hm? Oh, sure.” Tenten gestured to the chair next to her. Lee took it happily, picking one that showed the water depths around them. Maps were not his forte, and so it was best that he become better at them. For a long while they were quiet, Gai-sensei working on his report, Tenten making some sort of notes for herself.

 

Then one Machie-san’s granddaughters set a tray down. Fumi-san, he thought. On it was four tea cups and a medium sized pot. She smiled at them. “On the house,” she said, “I thought you would want to know though, it’s been forty minutes.”

 

Gai-sensei frowned. “Thank you Fumi-san,” he said confirming Lee’s suspicions. He did not punch the air, as that would be inappropriate right this second. “I should fetch Neji,” he said. Lee saw the way he looked down at his report, however, and stood.

 

“I will do it Sensei!” he said, “and if I cannot convince him to returned I will do fifteen laps around the village!”

 

It did not get the smile he wanted, but it got one. “Thank you Lee! Your spirit never fails to warm my heart.”

 

Lee nodded, bowing his thanks to Fumi-san, and then headed out the door. If he were Neji, where would he go? Somewhere quiet, but probably not too far. He considered the trees, but Neji would know to stay within sensing distance for Tenten.

 

The bridge.

 

Neji was looking out over the water from the very end, so silent and still that he imagined anyone who wasn't looking for him wouldn't have noticed. It was a skill Lee yet hoped he would teach to him. So far, Neji had not been forthcoming on tips and so Lee was forced to try and mimic. It was not his forte.

 

“Neji, Gai-sensei wishes for you to return,” he called, jogging to his friend. For a minute, Neji was silent, and Lee slowed, unsure if he'd been heard. “Neji?”

 

“I'm coming,” Neji said, standing and twisting around to face him in one smooth move. Lee waited for him to match step before leaving back toward the inn.

 

“Dinner was unpleasant,” Lee said. Neji shrugged.

 

“It was not as bad as some I’ve had,” he said. It was not the first time Neji said something like that – Lee had to wonder if he realized he was doing it. Neji almost never spoke of his family or past on purpose.

 

“Ah my rival, always so prepared,” Lee said, rather than risk putting his friend in a worse mood. Neji could be touchy. “There is tea waiting for us!”

 


 

 

Gai breathed a sigh of relief he hadn’t fully realized he was holding when his students stepped through the front door. Neji was a bit damp, but Lee was not out long enough for much of an effect from the night mist. Wordlessly, Neji breezed past them. Lee’s eyes followed him, his question obvious on his face, but Gai gestured for him to sit.

 

“Enjoy your tea,” he said. “Then you can go get your report and work on that some.”

 

Tenten had moved on from her maps and was focused on seal work. Most of it was self assigned. Gai was set for a seminar to learn more fuinjutsu, he did not know that it would be enough to be helpful to her but he could at least share the resources he received from it. Now she looked up, blinking at Lee.

 

“Where’s Neji?” she asked, but her question was answered by him coming down the stairs. Again, without speaking, he set down his and Lee’s writing kits, as well as some new bandages.

 

“I washed my hands already,” he said without any preamble, taking a seat. There was a moment of silence and then Lee took up the bandages. Gai smiled at their display of camaraderie, then frowned back down at his report.

 

“Sensei-” Tenten said looking over at him, “is something wrong?”

 

He looked down at it. “Just wondering about wording,” he said. On the table he tapped out regroup. Plan. There was no need to alarm their onlookers. “And thinking we should go to bed within the half hour.”

 

They all looked at him – varying shades of mutiny on their little faces. They really were becoming quite good at acting, he thought. It almost looked real. Then Neji sighed. That would be a give away, if anyone knew them – Neji rarely gave in first.

 

“Alright,” he said, giving his left hand to Lee now that the right was wrapped.

 

“Yeah okay,” Tenten said, “I’ll be done in about twenty minutes anyway.”

 

Lee just nodded and the nearest server – Machie-san’s son, Tsubaki, chuckled, but did not comment. He winked at Gai when he looked over to him, though, and continued cleaning the bar. Gai smiled back.

 

“Good. Now when working on reports remember-”

 

“-make sure its legible,” they chorused and he had to laugh.

 

“Yes exactly!”

 

Lee was quick to assure him he was always working to better his hand writing – Gai just nodded even though Lee’s hand writing had always been acceptable. Tenten and Neji both grumbled about how they always wrote neatly and why did Sensei always imply otherwise?

 

This time they were not acting, and Gai was grinning as he returned to his letter.

 


 

 

It was pretty obvious something was very wrong, so when Gai-sensei ushered them into his room, all three of them shared a look before settling down on his bed. Sensei stood in front of the door, face serious. “I have made a grievous mistake,” Gai-sensei said. “Zabuza is not dead.”

 

Lee visibly jerked, as if stabbed. “But that Kiri nin-”

 

“Was an imposter. You are too young to be familiar with ANBU procedures, but they always destroy the body where they find it.”

 

“Don’t they usually do their own dirty work, anyway?” Tenten asked. “I’ve never heard of them poaching fights.”

 

Gai doubted Tenten was in a position to get most of the ANBU gossip, but she was correct this time. “Indeed, it’s too public. Many ANBU agents likely would have waited for a definitive end, one way or the other, and then slipped in.” He liked to think a Konoha agent would have intervened on their behalf, but was not entirely certain. “I realized the deception only while writing my report, I am most ashamed to say.”

 

The three of them were quiet for a moment. Then Neji said, “so he’ll be back.”

 

“It is likely. Especially if his payment requires Tazuna’s death.” Sensei looked between them. Tenten too looked at her team mates.

 

“Our mission is over,” she said. Lee frowned at her, Neji nodded. So did Gai-sensei.

 

“It is,” he said.

 

“But we cannot leave Tazuna-san and his family here unprotected,” Lee said. “They do not have the money to hire an ANBU team or a solo-agent of that skill.”

 

“One would be dispatched once we reported in,” Gai-sensei said. “An attack on a genin team by a well known nuke-nin will at least prompt investigation.”

 

“That could be the better part of a week, though.” Tenten said. “Depending on how long they take to mobilize.”

 

“It may well take Zabuza that long to heal,” he said. “I can think of a few techniques which would simulate death well enough to fool the Byakugan-” Neji scowled. That was his I’m embarrassed face and sensei obviously spotted it too. “-any Byakugan.” He stressed. “I’m sure there are many more, besides. I have never worked as an assassin.”

 

Silence again. It seemed everyone was thinking. “Our mission is over,” Tenten said again, because she felt it bore repeating. Not that she thought it really mattered – she knew her teacher and her teammates. She knew herself.

 

“Our mission was void before it started,” Neji said. “And we knew that when Zabuza arrived, but we fought.”

 

Another round of silence – she could count on two fingers how often she’d seen Lee this still and silent. Finally sensei took the chair from the desk in his room and pulled it over so he sat in front of them instead of standing over them.

 

Apparently they were agreed without actually saying it. Tenten settled in a bit further on the bed, resting her back against the wall. Lee followed suit, and then they both dragged Neji back with them when he continued to sit stiff backed on the edge. He scowled again and sensei watched them with some amusement.

 

“We’re ready,” Tenten said.

 

“I was ready before,” Neji muttered, crossing his arms. Lee reached across her and took Gai-sensei’s pillow, hugging it as he leaned forward slightly. And whacking Neji in the face with it as it passed him. Gai-sensei coughed into his fist before Neji could retaliate.

 

“Alright. As I stated before; the technique used to disable Zabuza is likely an assassin’s skill, but it could also be medical. What does that mean, Lee?”

 

“Familiarity with the body,” Lee said promptly. “We are to operate under the assumption they know how to disable an opponent quickly, until we have more information. They will be chūnin level, or more.”

 

Gai-sensei nodded.

 

“Lucky for us, we've been fighting Neji since before we were genin,” Tenten said, grinning. Lee nodded, and Gai offered a small smile of his own. “We know all about dodging.”

 

“Could have fooled me,” Neji said.

 

“Har har,” Tenten said. “Will you train with us tomorrow?”

 

“Yes, we’ll be working on your reaction times,” he said with a tiny grin. Tenten groaned.

 

“Could we perhaps seek Zabuza out, then?” Lee asked, and Gai-sensei’s gaze sharpened.

 

“No,” he said, voice brooking no argument. Tenten had never seen Gai-sensei like this, and traded looks with Neji. He raised an eyebrow as if simulating a shrug. Lee looked down, frowning. “Understand,” Sensei said, a little softer, “our mission is protecting Tazuna-san, and while it’s true the best defence is often an offence, in this case we cannot risk leaving him exposed. In searching for Zabuza, we may well just leave him an opening.”

 

The trio all nodded again, muttering their agreements, and slipped out of the room without a word. Outside the hall they stared at another for a long moment before finally heading to their own rooms.

 


 

 

By tactic agreement, in the morning they were all gathered outside the inn at 5:30AM sharp. Neji only waited about half an hour before Gai-sensei arrived. Lee and Tenten were the last to show up, Tenten still rubbing her eyes.

 

“We will hopefully catch Tazuna-san before he starts work for the morning,” Gai-sensei said. They just nodded. Lee was hugging the donabe which the inn keeper had stored for them over night.

 

“And do you think he’ll still want us to stay, now that he’s sober and it’s more than a night?” Neji asked as they walked down the road. Even though it was so early, a few people were already up. Mostly fishing families, getting ready, it looked like. The sun would be up in half an hour, and then he knew that much like Konoha, the village would spring to as much life as it had. Konoha wasn’t anywhere near so dead at night as Wave was, though.

 

“We will need to,” Gai-sensei said, not really answering the question.

 

Neji did not bother to push. Instead he tried to perform a little moving meditation, but they were back at Tazuna’s within three minutes so it was pretty much pointless. Inside he could sense two waking chakra signatures, small and untamed like most civilian signatures. Gai-sensei knocked only twice and then stepped back, taking the pot from Lee.

 

A moment later it swung open, Tsunami-san blinked at them all. “Oh, hello,” she said. Then she smacked her forehead, “of course, you’d want to return my dishes before leaving – you could have left it with Machie-san and slept in a bit more. The boats don’t go out until sunrise.”

 

“We are early risers,” Gai-sensei said. Tenten, who was leaning unhappily against Lee, grunted. Tsunami-san eyed her curiously but didn’t say anything more. Gai-sensei continued. “And as it is, we have something we need to discuss with both yourself and your father,” he said. Her eyebrows drew down in worry.

 

“I...alright,” she said, “come in, then.”

 

Neji took the back as he usually did, trailing Tenten and Lee. Tazuna was seated at the table cradling a cup of tea and looking...Neji thought the word was apprehensive. Sensei took the seat across from him, looking every inch like a shinobi about to give bad news. Neji took the seat at the far end, and tried to ignore Tsunami-san when she sat across from him and tried to make eye contact.

 


 

 

Tazuna-san and Tsunami-san took the news with grace, Lee thought. Even if Tsunami-san then hurried to her room and cried. Lee did not think it was healthy to cry alone if you had the option not to, but he knew better to impose so instead he helped Tazuna-san make more tea and made sure to pour one for her, leaving it outside her door after knocking once. Tazuna-san was just very quiet, right until the sun came up.

 

“Well,” he said. “I’m not dead, so the damn bridge is being built.” Gai-sensei stood, and they all mimicked him.

 

“Let me accompany you,” he said. Lee assumed he wished to speak with the bridge workers. Then he turned to them, “you, my darling genin, have a small mission! Find an appropriate place to train with clear sight lines to the bridge, and within hearing distance.”

 

“Hai!” they said, though Lee had to admit he did not think Neji or Tenten’s version was not as enthusiastic as it could have been. Mornings were not Tenten’s best moment, and Neji was not yet open to that particular facet of his Youth. Gai-sensei nodded to say they were dismissed, and Lee grabbed one arm from each of them.

 

“Come!” he said.

 

“It’s not going to be that hard,” Neji said.

 

“Maybe something down the cliff,” Tenten said. “There might be a shoal for water walking, and practising on sand might be good.”

 

“We shall start at the top and work our way down,” Lee said. “Be more joyful my friends, it is a beautiful day and we are doing real shinobi work!”

 

“We’re genin,” Neji said, “we’re barely real shinobi. And this is easy – there’s a nice enough place basically right next to the bridge.”

 

Lee wagged a finger at him. “There are only shinobi, and not shinobi,” he said, “you should have more pride in your work!”

 

“Neji has plenty of pride,” Tenten said, “don’t encourage him.”

 

“Even my dear rival needs encouragement,” Lee said. “It’s healthy.”

 

“If his ego gets any bigger, he’s going to explode. Does that sound healthy to you?” Tenten demanded.

 

“Don’t you usually say it’s too early to argue,” Neji asked her. Tenten did usually say that, Lee had to admit, which was probably why Neji sounded so annoyed.

 

Tenten did not appear to care, however. “I wouldn’t have to argue if you weren’t such a jerk,” she said.

 

“How am I responsible for the things you say?” he asked.

 

“Ah-” Lee said, ready to head them off, and then paused. This was just a small copse of trees, about a hundred meters from the bridge. They looked like a wind screen. The land beyond it was sloped steadily downward until it hit the ocean. About half way down it had a plateau of some size. “I believe we found a place, my friends!” he said.

 

“Excellent work my students!” Gai-sensei, appearing so suddenly that even Neji couldn’t hide his twitch. Lee beamed – both because his teacher approved, but again at seeing proof of his prowess not just at taijutsu but also stealth! “Now – stretches!”

 


 

 

Training went like usual, mostly. It was a constant battle to refine their taijutsu, one Neji almost, sometimes, thought they would never win. Gai-sensei was cheerful and silly, yes but he was also Konoha’s taijutsu master and utterly relentless. Today, with Neji banned from using his jyūken until his cuts were healed, he focused on his throws.

 

And landings.

 

More unusually, they spent a lot time ganging up on Tenten, as she was their only weapons user and so the closest thing they had to mid-range ninjutsu combined with kenjutsu. That meant dodging and rolling – and Neji being told specifically to practice not losing his Byakugan, and on situating himself after a roll even with the world in 360°. Tenten certainly gave it her all, making his job as hard as she could.

 

Some time just after lunch, Neji spotted Inari watching from afar, a small dog at his side, but he made no move to come beyond the edge of the trees.

 

“Perhaps he wants to apologize,” Lee theorized when Tenten finally mentioned it. “We were rather rude to him last night, ignoring him so much.”

 

“Oh yeah we were the rude ones,” Neji said.

 

Tenten snorted.

 

“Inari-kun has had a hard time,” Gai-sensei said, presumably so Neji wouldn’t say anything too mean.

 

“His mother mentioned as much,” Neji said, “it’s starting to sound like an excuse.”

 

“Neji,” Gai-sensei said, “try and be charitable. His step father was killed, recently, trying to oppose Gatō. It has left his confidence somewhat shaken.”

 

“Was his step dad a ninja?” Lee asked, simply curious.

 

“No,” Gai-sensei said.

 

Neji snorted. “Then he is simply an idiot brat, as stated. Why would he compare any civilian to a shinobi?”

 

“You know, Neji, some people actually look up to their loved ones,” Tenten said. Neji rolled his eyes, and said nothing.

 

“Kindness is never misplaced Neji,” Gai-sensei said. Neji braced for a lecture but none came. “I think, perhaps, if we have enough breath for talking, we’re not working hard enough,” Gai-sensei said. “Double time!”

 

“Ugh,” Tenten said, going to collect her kunai.

 

“Triple on the clean up!”

 

Tenten looked like she was going to sigh again. “Do not,” Neji said and she glared.

 

“I’m not stupid,” she said. Neji cocked an eyebrow. “You ass!”

 

“And ten laps!” Gai-sensei said happily. Lee gave him a thumbs up. His teammates gave him a glare.

 

“This is a challenge,” he told them. “Perk up!”

 


 

 

While his genin ran their laps, Gai made his return to the house, armed with Tenten’s scrolls. Tsunami-san was there, working on what appeared to be sewing.

 

“Do you require assistance?” he asked, setting the scrolls down carefully. He winced when she jumped and promptly stuck herself. “My most ardent apologies for startling you, Tsunami-san.”

 

“No no,” she said, “it’s black cloth, no one will know the difference.” She moved over slightly, “you don’t have to help, of course. I make a little extra this way.”

 

Gai took the seat she offered and carefully picked up what appeared to be a baby’s sweater. “I enjoy sewing,” he admitted. “It is calming.”

 

She nodded. His genin passed the very edge of his sensing ability in a ragged cluster. Inari-kun came in through his bedroom window, but did not come out though he did allow Pochi to leave. The little dog quickly dashed past and out the open door. Troubled as she was, Tsunami-san did not appear to notice.

 

“I know you are risking a lot, Gai-san, staying here to help my father. Your team is so young...” she stared a little harder at her sewing. “Father told me he lied to you.” She looked at him out of the corner of her eye, “thank you for helping us anyway.”

 

“Your father lied because he saw no other option,” Gai said. “It was not malicious.”

 

“Still,” she said. “We owe you...more than you can know.”

 

“Hmm,” Gai said. “It is well within my memory, of a time when Konoha was alone and greatly in need of her friends. I understand, some.”

 

She was quiet a moment. Then, “please pardon my bluntness, Gai-san, but how old are you?”

 

“Twenty six,” he said and she let out a surprised laugh.

 

“Ah, I’m sorry,” she said, “I wasn’t really laughing at you just.... You’re three years younger than me, but you’ve probably lived three lives more than I have, in practice. Even your students. I’ve never left Wave.”

 

Gai considered that a moment. “I think we all live exactly one life,” he said, “it is that some lifetimes are very busy. That is no mark against you, though, Tsunami-san.” She had not mentioned what happened to Inari-kun’s birth father. He could be dead, never been involved, left, or unwanted. But no matter, she had continued on and found love, for the first or second time, and then lost that. “I think your life has no doubt been very rich. Family is important.”

 

“Do you have a large family?” she asked.

 

“Mm,” he said. “It has grown larger, lately, but not very large.”

 

A moment later there was a burst of laughter – Lee’s – and he could hear the familiar sound of Tenten chiding her teammates. Tsunami-san looked to the door, and then at him and smiled. “What were they doing out there, anyway?” she asked and he paused.

 

“How is your family’s water situation, Tsunami-san?” he asked. She blinked.

 

“It’s alright,” she said. “Hot water lasts about fifteen minutes?”

 

Gai did not have a chance to respond, as his genin tumbled in. As he predicated, they were dirtier than he left them, though Neji was suspiciously clear of mud outside of splash marks. “You have five minutes each,” he said. Tenten scoffed.

 

“Neji can have three,” she said, and then dodged when he lazily flicked a palm at her. Then she seemed to recall he was on a no jyūken rule, and stuck her tongue out at him.

 

“No violence in the house,” Gai said.

 

“Unless a stranger starts it,” the three immediately said.

 

Tsunami-san giggled – as did someone in the hall. His genin appeared to have gone back to whatever the argument was about, making their way down the hall hissing at one another. “Room at the end,” Gai said knowing one of them would hear. Tsunami-san looked sadder than ever before.

 

It was a bit unfair, Gai knew. Asking his genin not to act like, well, themselves would probably be more comforting for their clients. It would not be good for them, however, and so he never asked such things of them.

 

Still the heart broken look on Tsunami-san’s face was not making him feel very Youthful.

 

Gai did not rub his forehead – there was currently no headache threatening him but he did take a moment to roll his shoulders back and look at the ceiling. He wished Kakashi were here, for advice, for support – and then he recalled that he was the one giving advice these days and had to smile.

 

Even not being here, his rival could cheer him up.

 

“This is not the sort of mission we generally send our genin on,” he admitted. “But all of my students have had their difficulties, this is not the first hurdle they’ve faced.”

 

Tsunami-san nodded in understanding. “You’re doing a good job on that sweater,” she said.

 

“Thank you!” he said, “I strive to do my best in all spheres! It is the only way to truly embrace your Springtime of Youth.”

 

“Ah, yes. Of course,” Tsunami-san said, a bemused look on her face. He was not to evangelize on missions, so he did not try and clear it up for her. Then she stood. “I assume they’ll be hungry, I’m going to start supper.” Her eyes drifted to her basket, “you-”

 

“Will continue here,” he said.

 

“I- thank you, Gai-san,” she said.

 


 

 

One thing about Tazuna’s family was they didn’t complain at all about having to rearrange their rooms with almost no notice. There were only three rooms, though, which meant Inari-kun had to share with his mom, and Tenten with her whole team.

 

Sharing a room with her teammates wasn't a problem for Tenten, though it was strange to a lot of people. Tsunami had asked her if it wasn't awkward, rooming with three men, and Tenten had laughed and told her it wasn't three men, it was Lee and Neji and Gai-sensei. Tsunami obviously still thought it must be uncomfortable, but at least hadn't started making noises about it being inappropriate.

 

Whatever that even meant - like Lee? Inappropriate? Hah.

 

Tonight, though it was hot and muggy, far more humid than Konoha. Her sheets were damp and she was just uncomfortable and feeling a little grumpy that Lee and Sensei were both dead to the world. Well, not Sensei – they needed him to be in his best form, but Lee had no excuses.

 

“Neji?” she whispered into the darkness, sensing his chakra and feeling it was too sharp-edged to be from a sleeping person.

 

For a moment he didn't say anything, then she saw him sit up.

 

“It's too hot to sleep,” she said, and he shifted again, and she felt him sit on the edge of her pallet, likely to keep their voices low.

 

“It is very unpleasant,” he said.

 

“I'm worried.”

 

She couldn't see his face, but his tone wasn't mocking when he spoke. “Understandable.”

 

She chewed her lip, wondering if she risked her next question. “Are you worried?”

 

A long silence. “Yes,” he said finally, and got back up. “Go to sleep, Tenten.”

 

I can't, she wanted to say, but she just sat up, quietly making for the door. “I'm just getting some air,” she said. “I'll be back, okay?”

 

A soft hum in the dark was her only answer, and she crept outside, trying her damnedest not to wake Sensei.

 

The living room and kitchen were much less stuffy, and Tenten was toying with the idea of going outside when she spotted a tiny silhouette on the pier, from the window. Frowning, she quietly made her way to the window, recognizing Inari under the waning moon. His dog – Pochi – was dozing on his lap.

 

“Inari-kun,” she called as she opened the door, “it's late.” Inari didn't answer and she huffed, stepping outside and closing the door. “Hey, I'm-”

 

“Why are you still here?” He said, interrupting her.

 

She blinked. “Well, it’s our job.” She said. “You know, your mom told Gai-sensei about your dad.” He stiffened. “And I know how you feel.”

 

He scoffed, “how could you?” he asked.

 

“When I was a baby,” she said, looking out over the water. “A monster attacked Konoha. It killed a lot of people. My parents went out and tried to help people, even though they weren’t shinobi and couldn’t protect themselves. My big brother was mad at them a long time, because he thought they should have stayed home. But they couldn’t, because they knew that if there was even a chance to help and they didn’t take it, they would never live with themselves. Neji’s mom died the same way, even though she was a shinobi.” She looked at him. “That’s why people become shinobi, and get in fights that are too big for them. It’s why people try to do things that seem impossible. Maybe it’s stupid – I don’t know.”

 

Inari looked away as she talked, and was silent for a very long time.

 

“I don’t think your parents are stupid,” he said finally. “I just don’t get why he left us. I try not to be angry or sad but...I don’t get it.”

 

“It’s okay. You might never feel it but, sometimes, something happens and it makes you act. But it’s not like your mom making you clean up. It’s inside you and you can’t ever get away from it. Like a fire.”

 

He looked at her, curious. “And that’s why you became a shinobi, the thing made you?”

 

“Mhm,” she said.

 

“Your friends too?”

 

“Yeah, definitely,” she said, thinking of Lee at the academy.

 

Inari looked...unconvinced. “But that Neji guy is a jerk.”

 

That made her laugh. “Neji's definitely a jerk,” Tenten agreed, “but he's got his good side, too. It's just really hard to find and he always hides it from people he doesn't know.”

 

“Hmph,” Inari said, “doesn't mean I have to like him.”

 

“No,” she agreed. “I felt like that for years, you know. I thought that he was snobby and Lee was silly.”

 

“Aren't they?” Inari asked, and she shook her head.

 

“Yes, but no. That's only small bits of who they are. Like being a brat is only a small bit of you.”

 

“Hey!” he said, and then promptly deflated, picking at the wood on the edge of the pier. “I just miss him a lot, all the time.”

 

“Yeah,” Tenten said. “Missing people sucks.” They sat in silence for a while and, eventually Inari's chin started to dip. “Come on. Bed,” she said, nudging him.

 

“’Kay Tenten-kun,” he said, gently prodding his dog into movement. Pochi growled softly, but did move. “G'night.”

 

“Good night Inari-kun.”

 

“Don't forget to lock the door,” he said.

 

“I won’t,” she said. Lee and Neji always did – but Tenten’s family were all civilians. She’d only ever made the mistake of sealing the door once. Though seeing a fuming Jun pick ice from her hair had been pretty funny.

 

When she came back into the room Neji’s chakra was a little calmer. He wasn’t really asleep, she could tell because his chakra fluctuated a little when she came in, but he was probably dozing. Lee and Gai-sensei were the same before, and so she almost jumped when Sensei’s soft voice broke the silence.

 

“Are you well, Tenten?” he asked and she took a steadying breath before replying.

 

“Yes,” she said. “Did I wake you up?”

 

“No no,” he said, chakra still feeling asleep. “Go to bed.”

 

“I am Sensei,” she said, slipping under her covers. After a few seconds she asked, “Sensei?”

 

“Yes Tenten?”

 

“Can you teach me that sleeping chakra trick?” she asked. There was a flash of white in the meagre moonlight – his teeth she thought.

 

“When we get home.”

 


 

 

Breakfast was probably the best Lee could recall in recent memory, and Tsunami-san practically glowed when he gave her the compliment. Tenten looked a little more tired than usual, and Neji had the very subtle signs of too many nights of poor sleep. Lee tried to remember if he’d slept well the night before the river boat, but he himself slept so soundly it was hard to be sure.

 

Tazuna-san seemed in good spirits, however.

 

“The bridge should be done in three days, five at the most,” he said. “It depends a lot on the weather but the piers are all in working order.” He eyed them all, “don’t suppose any of you know how to use a hammer?”

 

“I do,” Tenten said, but Neji and Lee both shook their heads.

 

“I had the opportunity to learn, some years ago,” Gai-sensei said. “It was a rewarding experience.”

 

“Yeah, sure,” Tazuna-san said. “Well bridges aren’t houses but there’s some easy things you could do...”

 

“After our training, perhaps,” Gai-sensei said. “Then we would be most happy to aid you in your endeavour!”

 

“YOSH!” Lee said, a new challenge! Even the spectre of Zabuza could not fully sully this trip, it seemed.

 

“Hey Gai-sensei,” Tenten said. “Looking at the maps last night I saw there used to be a village near here?”

 

Lee had never heard such a thing, but Neji was frowning as if trying to remember something. Gai-sensei nodded, but it was Tazuna-san who answered.

 

“Uzushiogakure,” he said. “They used to be kind of like our village, in a way. They were on the next island over. Don’t think I’ll ever forget waking up one morning to find a blanket of smoke covering the village, drifting over from Uzushiogakure. By the time we got over there, everyone was gone or dead. Never did learn what prompted that.”

 

“Uzushiogakure’s shinobi were formidable,” Gai-sensei said, “and great boons to Konoha. In the end, many of the other villages decided they were an intolerable threat. Many of the people escaped to Fire Country and beyond.”

 

“There’s a few settled here. It’s still such a tragic story,” Tsunami-san said. “Why were you asking, Tenten-kun?”

 

“Oh well. I was wondering if we could visit the city?” she asked Gai-sensei. “I know they’ve probably been picked over but I know they used to use seals in construction, and stuff.”

 

Gai-sensei nodded, obviously thinking. Tenten looked incredibly hopeful, however and finally he shot her a beaming grin. “After we complete our mission,” he said. “Is that agreeable!”

 

“Sure Sensei,” she said. “Thanks.”

 

“Ah Gai-sensei! What a wonderful solution!”

 

“Thank you Lee!”

 

“Not at the table,” Tenten said. “Honestly.”

 


 

 

Tazuna left to work on the bridge, and at Sensei’s insistence they stayed behind to do the dishes. He himself begged their leave to do some solo training for an hour. Neji was more than happy to agree, the longer they took to start, the less time they had to help with construction.

 

It did mean they were alone with Tsunami-san however – and Inari-kun.

 

It wasn't that Neji faulted his mindset entirely, no – he just took extreme exception to being compared to untrained civilians. He took even more offence at comparing Gai-sensei to them. As if he would tolerate a sub par teacher. Obviously, the root of the problem here was not that fate had decreed this village was unsalvageable; it was that the locals couldn't do it alone.

 

He did not say any of that, though, as he did not think Gai-sensei would appreciate it. He would just be told to be more charitable.

 

Inari-kun came in just as they started the dishes, rubbing his eyes and looking curious. “Good morning Inari-kun,” Tsunami said, swooping over to kiss his forehead. Inari blushed and fussed at her, but did not actually pull away. Neji focused on drying the bowl Tenten passed him.

 

“Did you sleep well, Inari-kun?” Tenten asked.

 

“Yeah,” Inari said. “Morning everyone.”

 

“And a most wonderful morning to you, Inari-kun!” Lee said.

 

“Good morning,” Neji said just because the fallout of bad manners on a mission was never going to be worth it.

 

There was silence for about five minutes as his mother set him up with food, broken only by slurps until finally he spoke. “Hey um, Lee-san?”

 

“Yes, Inari-kun?”

 

“Why’d you become a shinobi?”

 

Lee, who was in charge of putting things away, paused half way to grabbing another bowl from Neji. Then he perked up, and – yes. Neji, knowing what was about to happen, reached over and poked him the ribs. Lee jerked slightly. “My rival!” he said, “I was just-!”

 

“Just don’t do it at full volume,” Neji said. “And take the bowl.”

 

Lee did take the bowl, and unpuffed very slightly. “Well you see Inari-kun,” he said as he reached for where the bowls lived, “being a shinobi is both a great calling, and a challenge! And I wish to only do my best work, which means working hard to overcome all obstacles. Only this way can I follow both my soul, and the way of the Springtime of Youth!”

 

Tsunami-san appeared to be somewhat familiar with the phrase, since she was not entirely befuddled looking. Inari-kun just blinked at them. “Right,” he said. “Is that the same for you, Neji-kun?”

 

“No.” Neji said. Inari and Tsunami-san both continued to look at him expectantly. “Most of my clan is shinobi, and I’m good at the clan techniques. There was never any question of what I would become.”

 

“You make it sound so inspiring,” Tenten said, “you should do talks at the academy.”

 

“Neji is just a quieter soul,” Lee said, clapping his shoulder. “Do not fret Tsunami-san! Neji is a most enthusiastic shinobi!”

 

“That’s good?” she tried to say, though it was definitely a question. Inari was giggling into his natto and egg rice. Then she perked up – she always did that when she thought of a question to divert the topic with. “So what are you going to do until Gai-san’s hour is up?”

 

“Fuinjutsu practice.”

 

“Laps! On my hands!”

 

“Kata.”

 


 

 

Since they did not start until a little after 7, they did not join Tazuna until an hour after lunch. The crew was all very friendly, at least, though they teased a lot. One even tried to tug Neji’s hair, but after he got a chakra-laced smack for his efforts no one tried that again. Either Gai-sensei didn’t notice, which was unlikely, or he thought Neji wasn’t overreacting as he didn’t actually chide him for it. Tenten herself reminded him he wasn’t supposed to be using chakra, and he just levelled her with a glare and walked away.

 

Typical.

 

“Where’d you learn how to use a hammer?” one of the other women on the bridge crew asked. Her bright red hair was cut very short, and her skin was an explosion of freckles. She was very pretty, Tenten thought, with her grey-violet eyes sparkling in the bright sun.

 

“My big brother is a landscaper. Sometimes they build retaining walls,” she said. “And when he got married they basically knocked down all the walls in the house and rebuilt it.” She shuddered at the memory of sitting in the empty top floor, trying to do homework to the not so rhythmic sounds of construction three floors down.

 

“Exciting,” Mikki-san said. “I’ve been meaning to redo our house actually, but there’s just never time! Not to mention lack of supplies, you wouldn’t believe what we had to do to get everything for the bridge. Thanks be to the merciful Amida that Gomi-sama opened a mine on his own lands for stone.”

 

“Gomi-sama?” Lee asked from where he was dutifully helping to load rocks. It was not skilled labour but people were obviously impressed by how much he could lift. Neji had the slightly more fun job of escorting them to the lower levels of the bridge’s foundation, which meant dangling over a fairly far drop with a bunch of stones on plywood, held up by rope.

 

They were useless with a hammer.

 

“The feudal lord,” she said. “He’s been trying for years to create jobs and get money, but with no one willing to risk Gatō’s filthy pirates, we’ve just been treading water. A few years ago a few of us even got permission to head over to Uzushiogakure, see if we could find anything Konoha would want.” She sighed. “Of course none of us remember Uzushio, so we didn’t really know what we were looking for.”

 

“You’re from Uzushiogakure?” Tenten asked, doing a double take. Of course, she had no clue what people from there looked like – there were probably some in Konoha, too.

 

“My mom was, I was born after it’s destruction,” she said. “Wave wasn’t really the safest place to settle, there’s only three families in the village with blood ties to the place, and no one who remembers it will go back.”

 

She supposed that made sense, she wouldn’t want to go back to Konoha if it was destroyed and never rebuilt.

 

“Oh don’t look so glum,” Mikki-san said, “things are really looking up, in part thanks to you!”

 

“Yeah,” one of the head bridge builders said, “it’s a great feeling, having our asses saved by ten year olds.”

 

“We are thirteen,” Lee said very seriously, “do not fret.”

 

There was a ripple of laughter across the bridge. Not being raised by civilians, Lee and Neji probably didn’t get the joke, she realized.

 


 

Gai probably should have foreseen this particular scenario coming. Still, he could see the humour in Tazuna cowering from Machie-san as she railed at him for stealing her customers.

 

“Should we rescue him, sensei?” Lee asked, wandering over from his job. Many of the builders were snickering as they worked – or watching and not working at all. Rather like Gai himself.

 

“I do not think he is in real danger,” Gai said. “Though perhaps we owe Machie-san at least a meal, hm?”

 

At his back, Tenten giggled. “So it’s a little bit of a rescue,” she said, voice pitched just enough to carry.

 

“Perhaps a little,” he admitted.

 


 

 

They finished at the bridge as the sun was finally getting low, about half an hour after the boats all came in. Even being used to sparring and training so much, Neji had to admit it was tiring work. Tenten looked to have enjoyed herself anyway, if the way she was grinning said anything.

 

“You’re pretty good with blueprints, girl,” Tazuna said as they all trudged through the door. “Done a lot of work like that before?”

 

“No, not really. But it's not so different from weapons,” she said, stooping to remove her shoes. “You need geometry to throw a weapon. It's just a matter of applying the theory. You need trig, too. Sensei found me some extra classes I’ll be doing right before the chūnin exams. The academy doesn’t go too into it, and I like having other people to talk to while I learn stuff.” She looked at him and Lee. “They try to care but they don’t. Or Lee does.”

 

Tazuna chuckled. “Maths are an acquired taste. But take the compliment, I think I know a natural when I see one,” and Neji rolled his eyes, not even trying to dodge Tenten's smack to the back his head.

 

“Just because you don't have pupils doesn't mean I can't tell when you're being a jerk,” she said. Neji arched an eyebrow, but didn't get to say anything because Tsunami waved her drying cloth at them.

 

“No arguing until you’ve washed up,” she said. On the table was an array of sushi and other fish dishes. Inari was already seated, and so they all made quick work of washing their hands and faces before returning. Somehow, Neji found himself stuck between Tsunami-san and Gai-sensei, across from Tenten who was still grinning.

 

The table talk was, naturally, about the bridge, and every bit of gossip that had been exchanged throughout the day. Someone's wife just had a baby, someone’s daughter was having a baby, and someone else's son had suddenly become inspired to look for work abroad. The latter two were, Tsunami agreed with her father, likely related. Neji tuned it out as best he could, and made himself eat slowly and methodically, ignoring the urge to shove it all down and get excused as fast as possible.

 

That trick didn’t work on his grandfather, and only sometimes worked on Gai-sensei.

 

“Your boy over there needs some extra stuff to hit, I think,” Tazuna was saying as Neji was about three quarters to freedom from the dinner table. He looked up sharply, eyes narrowing at the fact a pair of chopsticks were pointed at him. “He was hammering those nails like he had a specific face in mind, till we gave him something less liable to break his thumbs.”

 

Neji's team gave dutiful chuckles, but the fact they pointedly didn't meet his gaze did not escape Neji.

 

“Oh, what was Neji-kun doing?” Tsunami-san said. Tazuna froze slightly.

 

“Ah. He was helping move the rocks to the lower layer,” he said. Tsunami-san was quiet for a moment and then she sat up.

 

“Father!”

 

“What? He’s a shinobi!”

 

“What if he fell and died?”

 

“He didn’t, obviously.”

 

A little bemused, Neji met Tenten and Lee’s eyes. Both were grinning in a way that said they were definitely laughing at you. Neji just sniffed, and ate a piece of sushi. Tenten’s smile grew wider.

 

“It was only about thirty feet,” Neji told her. “Not really anything to worry about.”

 


 

 

That night, Neji took up his usual position, staring at the ceiling and waiting on either sleep, or morning. “Neji?” Lee's voice came from the left, subdued so as to not wake Tenten and Gai-sensei. “Are you okay?”

 

Neji didn't bother answering, turning pointedly away from Lee.

 

“You can tell me,” Lee said, “if you ever want to.”

 

“Go to sleep, Lee,” Neji said. He heard Lee shift, but no other words came and Neji focused on listening for each person's breathing. He wasn't surprised to find no one's was as even as it should be.

 


 

 

Gai did not relax until he felt first Lee, and then finally Neji’s chakra smooth into something sleepy. He had gotten very good at mimicking the chakra of the unaware since getting his team – Neji and Tenten were both very good chakra sensors. He could fool them, for now at least though it would not work forever.

 

Kakashi always knew of course. And if he did teach Tenten like he promised, she would start to notice the differences.

 

Carefully, he got up just enough to ensure they were all tucked in and in positions they would not regret in the morning. Though, genin were like tiny rubber people, perfectly capable of sleeping on a tree branch with no issues when they awoke.

 

Neji still had his hitai-ate on, telling Gai he hadn’t thought he’d be sleeping tonight. Briefly he considered removing it, but he doubted he could step over Tenten without waking her, and he certainly couldn’t touch Neji without doing so.

 

Leaning back he tugged the sheets down over his feet. Outside, all he could hear was the waves on the nearby shore and he let the sound sooth him to sleep.

 


 

 

They tried their hardest to ignore the people watching them, but even Lee had to admit it was strange being the centre of attention for something as mundane as sparring. Of course, it was indeed a bit strange to see people sparring atop the waves, but surely they had seen shinobi before?

 

“Sensei,” he called, ducking Tenten's naginata and aiming a high kick at Neji's head. “Have they never seen shinobi before?”

 

“Not for a while. You now know about Uzushiogakure, so you understand that.” Gai-sensei said. He was standing nearby, calling out corrections and praise in equal measure. Proof indeed that Gai-sensei was a teacher beyond reproach! “The Feudal Lord inherited a great debt along with his leadership, from his father. It is part of the issues that allowed Gatō to do as he has done.”

 

That brought their spar to a premature end, all of them edging toward their sensei in interest. “Why's that?” Tenten asked, Gai-sensei looked up at the sky, and then nodded them toward the shore. As they approached, the civilians scattered. Lee waved as they left and Neji scowled at them.

 

“Don't encourage them,” he said.

 

“Don't be a bi – jerk,” Tenten caught herself at the last second, making Lee grin. Sensei had very strict no swearing rules, but Tenten was the only one who got tripped up by them.

 

“A bijerk?” Neji asked, feigning innocence.

 

“I hate you.”

 

Neji just gave her a smug smile as they settled around Sensei, stretching as he explained.

 

“Wave Country went deep into debt hiring shinobi to fend off pirates during the third war,” he explained. “Before this they had support from Uzushiogakure.”

 

“Why don't they have their own naval force, then?” Neji asked.

 

“They never had the chance. They couldn't afford to build them and pay foreign shinobi. Once the wars were done and piracy returned to normal levels, the damage was done. No one would give the Feudal Lord loans, and so he could build no boats. The economy sank lower and lower. Even though Konoha has a treaty offering them reduced rates, it will be at least a decade before they're remotely healthy again.”

 

“Wait,” Tenten said, “they couldn't even afford a reduced B-rank rate?”

 

“What's the treaty?” Neji asked, almost at the same time. Gai-sensei gave them both a pleased grin.

 

“Very good questions, both of you,” he said. “To you Neji, the treaty is quite simple. We offer them cheaper rates in return for their promise to only approach us for help. When we made the treaty, Kiri was still in shambles, and so it was actually a very good offer.”

 

“But now it cuts down on competition,” Tenten said, and Lee was reminded that her brother owned a company.

 

“Yes,” he said, “very good Tenten! The reason they cannot afford even these reduced rates may be the lack of competition, but it is also that revenue has trickled to a stream in the last few years – before now they could afford our ninja and rarely actually needed us.”

 

“So why have we not investigated Gatō sooner?” Lee asked. “If the whole country is essentially a client.” Gai smiled very widely.

 

“That is the question, Lee,” he said. “It is possible that somehow we didn't know, or that it was decided we were not to interfere.”

 

“Why would the Hokage decide that?” Tenten asked. Gai-sensei shook his head.

 

“Not our Hokage, our Daimyō.”

 

Lee felt Tenten stiffen next to him, and saw Neji's mildly alarmed look. “Sensei...you don't mean...” he gulped, “it's Political?”

 

Sensei nodded. “I'm afraid so, Lee.”

 

There was silence for a minute – even Lee was not sure what to say to that. Politics where, he found, not terribly good for ones good mood. Finally Neji spoke, “should we get ready for lunch?” he asked.

 

Gai-sensei straightened at the reminder. “Ah yes,” he said. Lee looked down. They were going to have to change.

 


 

 

Three days passed in a similar manner, though with the addition of Inari following on their heels when he was capable of doing so. Mostly he talked to Tenten, but he seemed fine with Lee. Neji was not interested in being his friend, and so just left him to do what he wanted. Much like he would like to do, if only that were possible. As it was, the team spent every waking and non-waking second together, training in the morning and evening, and helping with the bridge in the afternoon. The only alone time Neji got was early morning meditation, but even then, the village was already waking at that point and it was hard to find a completely uninhabited space that suited his needs.

 

People here really weren’t used to shinobi, and often they approached and asked if he wanted food, or a blanket or anything else. Just because it was well meaning didn’t mean it wasn’t annoying, and Neji had taken to hiding in the skinny local trees just for a few moments peace.

 

Today, however, something was different. Usually, Neji beat even Gai-sensei up, though not by much, and Tsunami was usually awake by the time he was ready to get out the door. Today, however, he woke to find Gai-sensei already at the table, Tsunami's face buried in her hands, Tazuna's own face drawn with worry.

 

“Please wake up Tenten and Lee,” Gai-sensei said, Neji nodded, feeling uncertain and hurried back to their room, only to almost collide with Inari, who was still rubbing sleep from his eyes. For a moment, they stared at one another.

 

“Move,” Neji said finally. Inari scoffed.

 

“Why should I?” he asked and Neji bit back a sigh before pointedly shoving the kid out of his way.

 

“Hey!” the kid grabbed at his shirt, surprising Neji a little. “You know, Tenten's pretty cool and she said you're not so bad, but I think...I think you're just a jerk.”

 

Neji arched an eyebrow at that. “So?”

 

Inari flushed, but didn't let go even when Neji's tugged. “You should try to live up to what people who like you think of you,” the boy said mulishly. Neji felt a flare of actual anger at that.

 

“I don't have to live up to what anyone thinks I should be,” Neji snapped, yanking away. “Certainly not someone with no real future.”

 

“Neji,” Tenten's voice came from the end of the hall, and she was standing cross armed, “you're being loud.”

 

Be nice, her tone said. Neji sneered.

 

“That's the point,” he said, turning on his heel. “Sensei wants to talk, stop lazing around.”

 

“It's 5AM,” she snapped back. “There’s nothing lazy about it.” Neji ignored her.

 


 

 

Neji's morning wake ups weren't usually so rude as that, but it really did set the tone for the day, Tenten thought as she stormed back inside and shook Lee awake.

 

“Wha?” he asked, flailing awake. “'re we under attack?”

 

“No. Neji's just...Neji.”

 

“Oh,” Lee said, still struggling awake. “Did you kill him?”

 

“What? No!”

 

“Good, good,” he said, sitting up, “'m very proud of you.”

 

Tenten stared at him. “Did you overdo it yesterday, or something?” she asked. “You're usually easier to wake up than this.”

 

“I had strange dreams,” Lee said, finally sitting up. Every inch of his body cracked as he stretched. “They woke me in the night.”

 

Immediately, Tenten's irritation vanished. “Strange, or bad?” She asked, bending to touch her toes. Her own back cracked from base to her neck.

 

“Simply strange,” he said, shucking off his sleep shirt and reminding Tenten she was still in hers. Quickly, she started changing. “Nothing upsetting, but thank you for your concern. You were in a fish costume at one point.”

 

“What else are teammates for? And was a I good fish like a koi?” she asked. She could actually feel Lee's happy smile in response. This was being a teammate, she thought grumpily. If only Neji would get the memo!

 

“You were a beautiful fish,” Lee said.

 


 

 

Konoha wasn't coming.

 

Well, the exact phrase from the missive was, back up from Konoha is not available in the immediate future. Which was the same as not coming at all because the bridge was likely to be finished by noon. If Zabuza was going to strike, it was going to be tomorrow at the latest.

 

“I’ll tell the bridge crew,” Tazuna said.

 

“We will stay close today,” Gai-sensei said. Tazuna nodded.

 

Breakfast was as bad as the first dinner, in its own way.

 


 

 

The good news, Tenten figured was, they finished the bridge despite the horrible conditions. Everyone was stressed out, and the visibility was awful. The bad news was, the fog that should have lifted an hour ago was thicker than ever. It was bad enough Tazuna-san sent his crew home with still a few finishing touches to put on the bridge. They argued about that, a lot but eventually agreed.

 

Now it was just a question of getting Tazuna to go home.

 

“I’m almost done,” he kept saying and Tenten resisted the urge to groan. It never did to show weakness in front of the client. It made them nervous. More nervous. And then they started questioning your choices and you couldn't do anything to make them stop. Client retention was a key part of being a shinobi, or so the mission’s desk lady said. You could not retain clients if you punched them.

 

Then she had a very brief moment of wishing she was the mission’s desk lady, that had to be so much less stressful.

 

Right now, though, that wasn’t her focus. Nope, Tenten had been charged with the protection of Tazuna’s house. Which meant seals, as many nasty ones as she could think of on windows, the roof, doors and around their house too.

 

Tsunami-san stood in the door way, dark eyes wide and worried. “Are Inari-kun and I liable to get caught in one of these?” she asked.

 

“No,” Tenten said, “just don’t use anything but the front door, and don’t use the handle. If you need to leave remember this stone,” she point to one, “has a seal on it that will stick you in place.” Then for extra measure she rammed a kunai down on its corner until it had a tiny chip, hopefully it was natural enough no shinobi were tipped off by it.

 

“Got it,” Tsunami-san said. Tenten nodded, surveying her work. The seals were designed to fade quickly, but she knew where they were. It was very irresponsible to lose your seals and she would have to undo them later. Luckily Neji was okay at spotting them even when she’d used all her know-how to make them as sneaky as possible. And then there were the traps, trip wires and the like which didn’t have any chakra tells at all.

 

Neither of those fool anyone like Zabuza, but it would have to be enough. Hopefully he only wanted Tazuna and wouldn’t care about his family.

 

“Tenten-kun,” Tsunami-san said. “I know we’re only civilians, but we’re pretty tough, here in Wave, and I think you’ve done all you can. Go.”

 

Tenten was, in that moment, starkly reminded of Aiko-nee, and after a moment she nodded. “Yes ma’am,” she said. “And seriously Inari-kun, do not try and leave through the windows!”

 


 

 

Gai stood at the base of bridge and took a deep breath. It was a little far from Tazuna-san, but he really did need a moment with them. They were on opposite sides of the bridge, probably sensing he wanted to talk to them. First, he headed to Lee.

 

“Sensei?” he said as Gai got close. “Are we really leaving Tsunami-san and Inari-kun with just seals?”

 

“I will ask Neji to keep an eye on them,” Gai said, silently thankful this was a small island. When he was older Neji’s range would be numbered in kilometres, not just metres but for now they had to make do. And he come very far in this last year! Lee and Tenten were good for him, and he was for them, Gai thought. “Are you ready?”

 

Lee nodded firmly and Gai didn’t sense any lies there. “Yes Gai-sensei! This will be our fiercest battle yet! We will not disappoint you.”

 

Gai smiled at that, wide and happy to have met this young man. “You could never, my dear pupil,” he said and Lee flushed in pleasure as Gai ruffled his hair. The issue was rather more him disappointing them.

 


 

 

Tenten, being perceptive, approached him with a rather shaky smile as he left Lee’s side. “Sensei,” she said, “I considered leaving my pole arm scroll with Tsunami-san, should I have?” she asked and he considered briefly.

 

“No, it may be useful for water clones,” he said and she nodded, putting it back in its spot before looking up at him shyly.

 

“You think we’ll be useful this time?” she asked and he smiled at her.

 

“You believe you weren’t, last time?” he asked and she blushed.

 

“Less than 30 seconds and my cheek was out to like here,” she put her hand a good six inches from her face. There was still the last traces of the bruise even with the bruise balm in place, but it did not seem to bother her.

 

Gai wished Tsunade-sama’s plans to have all teams bear a medic had come to fruition. Or that Tenten or Neji actually had any proclivity for it.

 

His students were very talented, but they were in no way destined to be medics.

 

“Believe me, please Tenten, when I say any seconds is very commendable.”

 


 

 

Neji was wrapping his hands rather slowly when Gai approached, looking out over the water with his Byakugan. “Gai-sensei,” he said, focus not shifting.

 

“Neji,” he said knowing his student did not respond overly well to overt concern. He was deeply suspicious of affection of any sort, really. “Remind me to buy you new tape when we get to Konoha.”

 

“You don’t think this is thick enough?” Neji asked, head turning to him and flexing his hand. Gai shook his head.

 

“No, it just doesn’t hold up as well to your chakra as some others would,” he said, “that brand is more suited for fighting styles which requires less yang chakra.”

 

“Oh,” Neji said. “Okay.” Gai risked squeezing his shoulder. Neji let him.

 


 

 

Patrol was probably the most stressful thing Neji had ever done, despite the fact it consisted of walking up and down and near the bridge, and desperately hoping Tazuna didn’t just randomly drop with some senbon in him.

 

So, it was a strange relief when Tazuna started walking toward them. The two figures who materialized out of the mist behind him.

 

Neji did not know if Tazuna was more startled by them, or the speed with which their team materialized around him. Neji made sure the man was at his back and then put all his focus on their opponents.

 

“Look at the little welcoming party,” Zabuza said, lip curled into a smirk as he stared them all down. “We've gone and got popular, Haku.”

 

“Anticipated, at the very least,” Haku agreed. Strangely the banter relaxed Neji, then he scowled at himself. Nothing about this was relaxing.

 


 

 

Battle was always a little weird, to be honest. It never seemed to flow in normal time, speeding up and slowing down with need, and it usually wasn't as dramatic from the inside as it looked from the outside.

 

This fight was an exception. Zabuza alone raised the stakes, but his friend – Haku – was a piece of work himself. He didn’t sound very old, but his extra years of practice showed and Tenten found herself almost admiring him.

 

“I want to be this guy when I grow up,” she said, dodging his very well-aimed senbon. “Except not evil. And better dressed.”

 

Neji snorted in amusement at her words, and Lee grinned as sweat trickled down his face, compounded by the fog making them very damp. It was cooling, at least. Haku didn't look any worse for wear, though he was wearing a mask so that probably helped. Maybe that's why Kakashi-sensei always wore his. Huh.

 

Tenten couldn't afford to let that thought distract her of course, not for more than 0.0000001 seconds, and she was on the move again, weaving a familiar dance with Lee and Neji full of feints and misdirection, trying to get a hit on their lightning-fast opponent.

 

Even with her naginata's extra reach – hidden under the most complex genjustu she’d ever cast – she seemed to never quite make it, though she'd almost done the very first time. Her genjutsu payed off, like she knew it would. Now he knew, though, and it was useless to keep it going. Even mixing her weapons up had no effect other than the one kunai, which had managed to cut a lock of hair off. The hunk was still sitting on the bridge, taunting her with the almost-hit.

 

That was ruined though by Neji stiffening next to her, a split second later she too felt the chakra from several of her seals going off.

 

“I-” Neji started saying.

 

“No,” Tenten said, “I’ll take Tazuna-san and go. You’re the best against ninjutsu, and I know my seals better.”

 

He paused, but nodded. Then he grabbed Tazuna-san’s arm. “Go,” he said, “and actually listen to her.”

 

Tazuna-san nodded, face white. “Follow me,” she said, “I’ll be going too fast for you to keep up, but you won’t be out of sight. Come on.”

 

Behind her, she felt Neji’s chakra surge in the semi-familiar pattern that was kawarimi, and she looked back just to make sure Tazuna-san was moving. He went pretty fast, for an old guy.

 


 

 

Lee was almost as surprised as Haku when Neji somehow managed to yank the other into Neji's spot, closer to Lee, leaving Neji in Haku's, but Lee recovered quicker. Kicking out he threw as much of himself into his attack as he could. And in that very moment Lee couldn't think of anything he'd ever done that felt better than his foot coming into contact with Haku's ribs. He did not think himself petty or cruel, but Haku was trying to help a man destroy a country, for no reason other than money. That deserved at least a kick in the ribs, Lee thought. Though it would have felt better if it made a lasting impact. He was fairly certain he'd at least fractured a rib, but shinobi fought through those all the time.

 

“Are you well, Neji?” he asked, using the small reprieve to check up on his teammate. He wasn't certain what prompted Tenten to take Tazuna back to the house, but it was a relief. This meant they did not have to focus on him too much.

 

“Yes,” Neji said, panting slightly. Kawarimi on a target who was actively resisting it was, from what Lee gathered, difficult, and it spoke to his rival's incredible strength that he'd managed it, even if only barely. “Three of Tenten’s seals went off” he added. Lee scowled.

 

“Attacking civilians,” he said, “unprovoked!”

 

“How dare they,” Neji deadpanned. Lee ignored his sarcasm, as he usually did.

 

“I think I may have to take my weights off, Neji.”

 

That at least did not get any smart remarks.

 


 

 

If nothing else, Neji thought rather darkly, ninja all thought alike. Divide and conquer was always a steady plan, but given the current make-up of the fights, it was hard to tell who was divided and who was conquered. With Tenten gone, it meant now he and Lee alone were keeping Haku distracted.

 

Or Haku was keeping them distracted. Hearing Lee admit he couldn't do this without his warmers was honestly a bit alarming, though Neji chided himself for the thought, keeping his focus on not letting Haku past him and Lee. They were screwed if these two got into the village proper, with no end of essentially defenceless villagers to use as distractions.

 

Oh, and the property damage would be pretty bad. Good thing this wasn’t a wooden bridge.

 


 

 

Tenten slid to a stop into a thankfully empty blind spot and gestured for Tazuna to stay behind her. He was breathing hard, but she focused on the house. A man had been caught at the front door – his foot was glued to the stone and his hand to the doorknob. Another was on the roof, his upper half frozen in place but he seemed to be melting the ice fast. A third signature was moving around, presumably trying to figure out one of her seals so they could get in.

 

“Is-”

 

“Shh,” she said, waving her hand at him. She could pretty easily get the two stationary men from here, she figured. Number three was an unknown, but if she didn’t tip them off she’d have the element of surprise.

 

Quietly, she took two of her kunai out. Taking a deep breath she centred herself, and focused. Her first target sagged immediately, held only kind of upright by his hand still stuck to the doorknob. The second jerked once, but didn’t scream or anything. His chakra sputtered and she took a deep breath -

 

And almost squeaked when someone popped over the other edge of the roof. “What the fuck?” the man asked. His chakra signature was totally silent, which meant he knew enough to suppress it. Instinct had her flinging another kunai. For a moment she couldn’t tell if she hit – but then he went limp.

 

Tenten let out another breath. And then there was a cry from the house.

 


 

 

Neji couldn’t see in the house, but Tenten and Tazuna were on the very edge of his vision so he saw the way Tazuna tried to dash for the house, and the way Tenten kept him in place.

 

“Neji?” Lee asked.

 

“There might be trouble at the house,” Neji said. Tenten knew exactly how far he could see – if she needed back up she knew to sign.

 

“Is Tenten...?”

 

“No,” Neji said, and then had to dodge a nasty looking barrage of ice. Lee somehow was now on the other end of the bridge, and he used his position to tackle Haku. Haku seemed a little surprised at least, and there was a brief moment of confusion before Lee let out an oof and jumped back to his feet, retreating.

 

“Go,” Lee said. “It is an unnecessary distraction, and I can do this all day!”

 

“It’s best not to be too cocky,” Haku said, “it’s bad for concentration and I’d hate for you do start doing poorly.”

 

Neji ground his teeth at the condescending tone, and turned.

 


 

 

Lee had Haku in hand, or so Gai thought, until one particular clash lead to Lee almost tumbling into the sea. Lee caught himself in time and managed to dodge the senbon, but it was alarming all the same.

 

There had been millimetres between him and the deadly weapons.

 

“Ah ah,” Zabuza said, almost taking Gai’s head off while he was distracted. “Focus on your own opponent.”

 

Gai responded by landing a solid fist in the man’s gut, sending him back with a grunt. “I do not take orders from nuke-nin,” he said and Zabuza’s eyes narrowed, presumably taking it as a challenge. Further up the bridge, Lee made another spectacular dodge and Gai swore, moving to reach him.

 

Four versus one was odds he would have preferred, though not the most honourable fight he could have gotten in. Not that seven on three was better, he thought a touch savagely.

 


 

 

Despite the fact he got into the house and definitely scared Tsunami-san and Inari-kun, Tenten’s fourth opponent wasn’t really a big problem, and she was just removing her kunai from his eye when Neji came careening into the house, Tazuna right behind him.

 

“I’m fine,” she said, “I would have signed.”

 

‘You’ve forgotten before,” was all he said, shoving Tazuna into the house. He immediately went over to his daughter and grandson. “Are you going to reseal everything?”

 

“No time,” she said, then she gave each of the people in the house a kunai. “Pointy end goes in the bad guys,” she said. They all looked a little wide eyed, but they nodded.

 

“Trigger a seal if you really need us,” Neji added.

 

And then they ran.

 

Returning to the fight with Neji was a lot fast than leaving with Tazuna, and Neji and Tenten were just in time to see a rather worrying exchange between Zabuza and Haku. They had regrouped and Tenten and he shared looks before they sped up, going as fast as they could. They both literally slid into the main area of the fight – the worn wood and slick stone, both wet from the fog and ocean alike offering little to no friction – just in time to see Zabuza throw himself between Gai-sensei and Lee. Tenten came to a stop mere centimetres from sensei’s side. Neji had aimed for Lee, so they were together and he gave her a nod when she looked over to him. Lee, who’s hair was sticking to his face with sweat and the moisture in the air around them, gave them a thumbs up.

 

Zabuza’s voice cut through the relief like a knife.

 

“Come now sensei, you're fighting me. I really don't think you want me and Haku to switch. Especially when you won't know which of your students I'm going for.” As he spoke, he multiplied, and Tenten smiled grimly, and unrolled her pole-arm scroll. Sensei was counting on her.

 


 

 

Sensei and Tenten both seemed more worried about him and Lee than the clones, which was, he thought, not the most advisable. Lee maybe agreed, because he sent them a double thumbs up.

 

“Do not worry about me,” he said, panting slightly, “Neji and I are quite capable together!” He then threw Neji a thumbs up, and Neji rolled his eyes, but did start toward Lee. As he moved, Haku started to form seals – one handed, and Neji felt the air around them grow colder. “Tenten, take care of sensei!”

 

“You know it,” she called back as Neji locked eyes with Haku.

 

“Lee,” he said lowly, watching chakra shift and form before his very eyes. The patterns were completely foreign – not genjutsu and he wasn’t an Uchiha, he couldn’t see much detail. He just knew it was happening and he doubted it was good. “Move.”

 

To his credit, Lee did. Just not fast enough and Neji had only a split second to consider his options before he grabbed Lee's arm and threw him with all the force he could muster. He couldn’t control exactly where, so he thought he might have thrown him into one of the clones, but didn’t get to investigate. Seconds later, the air solidified into ice, and Neji tensed to realize he was surrounded. Not an insurmountable problem, but never optimal, not even for Neji. He steadfastly refused to shiver at the sudden temperature drop, every inch of him tensing.

 

Across and around him, the masked boy cocked his head as if intrigued.

 

“That was very brave of you,” he said at last, voice coming from each mirror. “You should stand down, before I'm forced to finish this.”

 

Outside, Neji could see Lee circling. Trying to focus on him past the chakra laden ice was begging for a headache, though and Neji quickly refocused so he wasn’t doing that. “Neji?” Lee called.

 

“Stay outside, Lee,” Neji said as firmly as he knew how. It sounded angrier than he meant to. “Help Gai-sensei or Tenten. And you,” he returned his focus to Haku, “you haven't even started. Not with me.”

 

Haku shook his head. “You are too young,” he said, “but I cannot fail here.”

 

Neji sneered, summoning all his confidence. He was not in the habit of weakness, he wasn’t going to start now. “Too bad,” he said as Haku drew out a senbon.

 

Haku didn't respond, just let his senbon fly, and Neji watched, not all that surprised to see every other version follow suit. Focusing, he drew on the chakra deep inside him. Then he waited – waited – waited – and pushed.

 

The senbon clattered uselessly against Neji’s kaiten, some falling to the ground, some bouncing off with such force they got lodged into the ice mirrors. Neji came back to a stand, heartbeat pounding in his ears. He’d never used the kaiten in a combat scenario before, had only just done it right for the first time a week before they left for this mission. That it had worked now was a minor miracle.

 

And it was all he had.

 

Haku was looking at him now with keen interest and some shock. “Fascinating,” he said. “I was aware you were a Hyūga, of course, but I’ve never seen one in combat before. That is the kaiten, yes?” he asked.

 

Neji didn’t answer.

 

“It seems very chakra intensive,” Haku said, “not sustainable. I can’t imagine you can do it very much.”

 

Again, Neji didn’t answer, just took a deep breath as more senbon started to fly.

 


 

 

“Ooh, bad luck that,” Zabuza said as they momentarily stalled to watch the jutsu come into being. “Hope you weren’t too attached to that one.”

 

Tenten made an outraged sound, and Gai barely kept her in place.

 

“Do not let him taunt you,” he said, “can you sense Neji?”

 

“There’s too much chakra from the jutsu,” she said, looking up at him. Gai did not get a chance to say anything else, though, as Zabuza very nearly cut her in half. She dodged and threw a viciously spiked kunai at him which he naturally avoided.

 

“Asshole,” she muttered and Gai didn’t even bother telling her not to swear.

 

“Get his clones,” he said sternly, “make them feel it.”

 

“Hai!” she said, even managing a salute before she threw herself into the fray. Gai followed suit, driving through three clones before he hit Zabuza’s sword and had to push off or risk being cut.

 

“Ah, getting feisty,” the man said even as he switched with a nearby clone. “Is this about the kidlettes? I did tell you to go.”

 

Gai cut down another semi-circle of clones, kicking out so quickly they didn’t even have time to twitch. “You will not so much as touch my genin,” he said grimly.

 

A grand declaration, he knew, but he had always done best against insurmountable odds.

 


 

 

Haku was right, the kaiten was chakra intensive. Neji had never seen a clan mate do more than two in a row, and never more than once even in a spar. Three had him at the very bottom of his chakra pool, and his tenketsu screaming in pain. His ears even hurt, which meant it took all he had not to stagger. Struggling not to show this, Neji tried to keep track of Haku. Though he switched often, there was always one mirror with more chakra in it – that must have Haku in it. For all the good that did him, if he couldn’t get him out of the damn things.

 

At least the mirrors weren’t looking too good either having been buffeted by the rebounding senbon and the force of Neji’s chakra. Several had large cracks, and one was missing a corner.

 

“I miscalculated,” Haku said, presumably watching Neji. “It is never wise to assume you know your opponent,” he said, “and in doing so I have risked failing as Zabuza-sama's tool.”

 

Neji blinked, nonplussed at the words.

 

“What?” he asked before he could stop himself. Gods, he was tired.

 

Haku bobbed his head, face distorting strangely in some of the more broken mirrors. “I am an extension of Zabuza-sama's will,” he said. “I owe him my very being – my life. My skills. All are to be sacrificed in.”

 

The pounding of low chakra had faded as Haku spoke, a familiar chilled calm coming over him, stilling his core. In his palm, his chakra started to glow again. He had enough, he was certain, for the sixty four palms, and taking a gamble he launched himself at what he prayed was the right mirror. Neji had heard that before. “You’re pathetic,” he said, and Haku shook his head, not moving.

 

“No-” he said, and was cut off by the sharp crack of a chakra laden palm hitting chakra-infused ice.

 


 

 

Despite them being 'just clones’, this was a thousand times more deadly than her fight in the house. For every clone she took out, three converged on her, and she didn't have any time to worry about Lee and Neji and how Haku's strange jutsu had to be a kekkei genkai. No, it was just swing and dodge and roll. A few times she ended up back to back to sensei, and she almost cried to feel the comforting warmth and the hard back against her.

 

“You are doing very well, Tenten,” Gai-sensei said, breathing controlled despite how hard this was. “Do you have explosive tags with you?”

 

“Of course,” she said, “do you have a plan?”

 

“In a sense,” he said, and she was relieved to see his familiar smile still in place. “Just start throwing them.”

 

“Didn't you say not to do that, once?”

 

“There's an exception to every rule,” he said brightly. He was then cut off by the sound of something shattering and Tenten gasped despite herself, eyes wide as she watched Haku’s massive jutsu splinter. To her credit, she wasn't the only one surprised. Zabuza seemed genuinely thrown by the development, and sensei's eyes were wider than usual, scanning for Neji as the jutsu fell in shards to the ground and immediately melted upon hitting it.

 

Around her, more clones than ever sprang up and, frustrated, she started just throwing her weapons almost without aim, spinning her bō with more deadliness than most people would think a simple piece of wood capable of. A few times even, the 'clone' had to dodge, and sensei was always on that one quicker than Tenten even realized what had happened.

 

“Explosives!” Gai-sensei reminded her, clearing a wide circle around her.

 

“Right!” Tenten said, a little thankful for the reprieve and took out her least used and most favourite scroll.

 


 

 

“I. Cannot. Fail. Zabuza-sama,” Haku ground out as he swayed. In the end, it had taken not only the 64 palms, but the 32 as well, and Neji thanked his lucky stars that he’d already done damage to the mirrors beforehand. He could not have managed more, he didn’t think. He was down to nothing. The only consolation was Haku wasn’t doing much better – breaking the mirrors appeared to have cut him up somehow and it likely impacted his own chakra levels. “If I follow his will, I can-”

 

Pure rage kept him going, able to summon the chakra that should have refused to be summoned. His palm collided with the older boy's chest. Hard enough to push him back. Haku choked, lips still moving, voice whispering out.

 

“I must-”

 

“Shut. Up,” Neji hissed, lashing out again. His palm ached – the cuts from the first fight with Zabuza forced open by the chakra and the contact, every last one of his tenketsu felt like someone was stabbing them with a dozen senbon. Even his skin hurt, actually, but Neji ignored the pain.

 

“I cannot-” another hit.

 

“Shut up,” he spat, vision blurred and head pounding. His fingers were tingling ominously, speech slurred. “Just shut up. You're,” he panted, “you’re not...” He summoned the last of his chakra. “You're nothing.”

 

His palm didn't strike true however. Strong hands wrapped around his arm, jerking him away and Neji lacked the strength to counteract the movement, almost crumpling to the floor as his chakra dissipated harmlessly – Neji was so spent he didn’t even have the energy to pull it back into him.

 

“Neji,” a soft voice said. “Let him go, Neji.”

 

“Get off me, Lee,” Neji said, shaking in the attempt to dislodge the other boy. Or maybe just shaking.

 

“No, Neji,” Lee said seriously. “Let him go.”

 


 

 

Lee had been close to just beating down the jutsu with his bare fists, when it finally came undone. The noise of the ice splintering was enough to make him cover his ears, it was so high and sharp. At first he thought Neji and Haku were done – but they both got to their feet. Both were soaked through. The water that splashed Lee as the shards fell was ice cold and he winced in sympathy.

 

“Neji!” he called seeing his friend. Neji was paler than usual, a few thin cuts, presumably from the falling ice, on his arms. Neji didn't react to his name and Lee stilled, wondering what was going on.

 

His ears were still ringing but he could see Haku was speaking, obviously not in hugely better shape than Neji. Slowly, in case this was a trap or Haku was watching him, Lee approached. Behind him, sudden explosions rocked the bridge and he stumbled, risking a glance back.

 

Tenten was tossing explosive notes into the sea of clones, Gai-sensei at her back, and Lee had to smile at the scene before turning back to Neji.

 

Lee had never in his life seen his teammate like that. He'd seen him angry, of course, but not...not this. His pale eyes blazed and his snarl was almost like an angry animal's. He was shaking.

 

The booming did not help his ringing ears but he did catch what Neji was saying. He did not have any context for such things – but something in his gut told him it was very, very personal.

 

Neji was usually more articulate. The only other time Lee had ever heard him other was almost a year go. That had been bitter, disjointed because he and Lee were both panting after practising for several hours. He could recall it perfectly, on a day where Lee had been feeling low about being an orphan – jealous even of Neji having a family and a kekkei genkai and prestige.

 

At least you have a family.

 

Shut up – you don’t – my clan isn’t- just shut up. You don’t know anything.

 

He wasn’t certain, even now, Neji had fully realized he was talking at the time. Wasn’t certain Neji knew now, either. Lee watched, almost in slow motion, that short snippet of memory coming to the fore as Neji moved closer. Lee couldn’t feel his chakra, but he could see that Neji fully intended to kill Haku. Haku just swayed on the spot, mask gone to reveal a face not much older than theirs. Neji took another step forward.

 

Lee moved almost without thinking, locking his arms around his teammate and tugging him backward.

 

The way Neji just deflated told Lee he'd done the right thing. The Byakugan melted away and Neji was somehow both stiff and limp in arms, and was shaking slightly. He was very cold. “Neji, let him go,” he said, too softly for Haku to hear.

 

Neji struggled, weakly enough Lee did not have to hold harder to keep him still, and rasped out, “get off me, Lee.”

 

Lee shook his head. “No, Neji. Let him go.”

 

Neji made a sound like a wounded animal, a brief tiny scrap of strength coming from somewhere and he tried to surge away. Lee kept his arms locked, and just as quickly as he’d moved he went limp. Even more limp than before. Lee gently turned his friend's head, fingers seeking out his wrist for pulse. He did not look up at Haku until he had verified Neji was simply unconscious.

 

“You...” the older boy was frowning, forced to his knees by sheer exhaustion. Lee sympathized, or would have, except he was only tired because he had been trying very hard to kill Neji, and Tazuna-san. And him. “You saved my life.”

 

Lee blinked. It was true, but Lee was not sure that was really what had been doing. They stared at each other another moment before Lee cleared his throat and stood, gently setting Neji aside.

 

“I am going to tie you up now, Haku-san,” he said. Haku responded by face planting.

 


 

 

Gai’s senses were not good enough to check on Lee and Neji from here, and Tenten was not yet good enough to focus on what she was doing and sense at the same time, so he had to take it on faith that things were alright. Indeed, he had to just tune out Zabuza’s taunts, focusing on finding Zabuza and ending this.

 

At least he had the feeling he and Tenten had him on the ropes, so to speak, as there was now a small barrage of interesting water jutsu to dodge as well.

 

“Looks like we’re both down a fighter,” Zabuza said. “Haku must have taken your little Hyūga down with him,” he grinned widely. “Meaning we’re tied.”

 

“Not remotely,” Gai said.

 

“No, guess not,” Zabuza – this was definitely the real one – said. “I’ll need to get rid of her, too I think.”

 

“No,” was all Gai said.

 

Kaimon. Kyūmon. Shōmon.

 


 

 

To this day, if you asked Tenten exactly how the fight with Zabuza had ended, she'd have to answer truthfully and say she wasn't positive.

 

One minute she was rolling out of the way of a nasty water jutsu, the next Gai-sensei let out a roar that startled her so badly she ended up on her ass, gaping up at him as he kicked Zabuza with enough force that the nuke-nin flew across the bridge and into the side so hard he actually broke some of the stones there.

 

He was glowing.

 

While she sat there, blinking, the clones all vanished in a poof. Or a sploosh rather, because they were water clones, and if she hadn't been soaking before, she was now. Blinking water from her eyes, she watched sensei – who was still glowing – stand over Zabuza.

 

And then she blinked again, and Zabuza was still on the ground, and sensei was coming toward her. He was not glowing but he was steaming. And moving very slowly.

 

“Tenten, are you injured?” he asked, offering her his hand. She shook her head, slightly dazed.

 

“Nothing big,” she said. Sensei was warmer than usual, and the water was definitely steaming off his shoulders, but he was otherwise just sensei. “I think I scorched myself with one of my tags though. Are you hurt – what was that?”

 

“Ah,” he said, running a gentle hand over her head as if making sure there was nothing there. “Nothing to concern yourself with, for now. You did very well, Tenten. I am very proud of you.”

 

“Thank you sensei,” she said, leaning into the touch and refusing to feel ashamed of it. He was very warm. “Is Zabuza dead?”

 

“He is,” he said. Tenten nodded and pulled away.

 

“Good.”

 

Sensei gave her a complicated little smile. “You are well enough to walk?”

 

“Yeah. Yes. I think I'm just a little...shocked,” she admitted. “This was a big mission, Gai-sensei.”

 

“Indeed.” She hopped into a stand and they started toward the other end of the bridge. Sensei was definitely moving slower, so she ducked under his arm to help him. He smiled at her, wider and less weird. “This is bigger than you know, perhaps.”

 

“Oh?” she asked, and then got distracted because there were two bodies on this end of the bridge, laying unmoving. “Lee!” she yelled. Even though he was hurt, sensei sprinted the last few meters, Tenten trailing him slightly. He got there before her and was already on his knees before even fully came to a stop, eyes scanning for hints of what happened. Haku was laying further off, tied up expertly. Lee had Neji's head in his lap. “Haku's on the ground,” she said finally, mostly to make sure it was true.

 

“He has chakra exhaustion,” Lee said. “I tied him up.”

 

Tenten nodded, and Gai-sensei was gently removing Neji from Lee's arms, checking him over quickly.

 

“Neji's also on the ground,” she said. “He’s kinda blue.” She could see he was breathing, at least.

 

“He has chakra exhaustion,” Lee said again. “I did not tie him up.”

 

“Oh. Good,” Tenten said, and then sank down next to her teammates. Sensei was checking Neji very gently, but he didn’t look any more upset than he was when he knelt down. Gai-sensei would be very upset if Neji was dead, she was 99.99% positive.

 

Sensei finally he stopped, still frowning. “Tenten, do you have all your scrolls with you?” he asked.

 

“Always,” she said, already reaching for her medical ones. “Blankets?”

 

“Thermal ones, please, and split a soldier pill. We can give each of them half.” Tenten nodded, not asking why they were helping Haku. He had a weird jutsu, and he might know about Gatō, so of course they wanted him alive, if possible. All information was good information. Even information from information giving people who almost killed your teammates.

 

As she turned to rummage through her many supplies, she realized the fog was lifting. It made sense, if Zabuza had been the source, but she still had to blink a few times at what she saw.

 

“Uh, sensei,” she said, because there was a small army coming toward them.

 

Sensei looked up from Neji. Then his face did something very complicated and he did something so shocking she dropped her scroll.

 

“Fuck.”

 


 

 

Even though it made Gai-sensei swear, the end fight was ultimately quite simple. The only hard part had been containing Gatō, but once his bandits all broke rank rather than actually fight – which was just proof that criminals were utterly lacking in both the Flames and Springtime of Youth – even that wasn't that hard.

 

For a very feared man, Gatō could not take a punch.

 

“Huh,” Tenten said, watching with Lee as Gatō crumbled like tissue paper from one punch. To the jaw even, because they hadn’t wanted to risk bone splinters in his brain. Gai-sensei was very insistent Konoha would want to have a talk with him. “Do you think we were the first ones to try that, then?” she asked. Lee nodded.

 

“I believe so. Should I get Gai-sensei?” Currently, he was dispatching the few enterprising individuals who had managed to get past the vengeful Wave Country civilians. He was moving a little slowly but the criminals did not appear to notice.

 

“Hng,” Tenten said. “You go,” she shoved him slightly. “I need to do something. Over there.” She gestured vaguely toward the fleeing nuke-nin.

 

“What are you doing?”

 

“You'll see,” Tenten said, offering him a grin. “Go take care of Neji, or something. No, get rope! There’s more in my yellow scroll.”

 

Lee watched her run toward the end of the bridge, wondering. Then Gatō twitched. Rope it was.

 


 

 

Because of the fact two of their number were functionally dead in their usefulness, and the third was trussed up and terrible, they decided to take boats as far as they could. They did agree to stay the night however, because they were all exhausted.

 

“Take our beds,” Tsunami said, “I mean it. We’ll bunk with the neighbours for the night.”

 

“I don’t think that’s necessary,” Tenten said.

 

“Not at all,” Gai-sensei said, emerging from the room where they were keeping Neji. Haku was on the couch for now. Gatō was in a corner glaring hatefully at them. Once he woke up they found out he talked a lot. Tenten tried to ignore him, but finally Gai-sensei had walked over and tied a gag around his mouth. “Neji needs warmth, so us staying close is best. Tenten, Lee, whenever you need to, take a rest. You did well today.”

 

Tenten couldn’t help the surge of happiness at his words, even though he’d said as much several times already. She couldn’t nap yet though, sensei once got his ‘eternal rival’ to give her a lecture on leaving seals around.

 

Never again.

 

“I need to tidy up outside,” she said. Then she felt a pang – Neji couldn’t help her.

 

Gai-sensei clapped her shoulder. “I will assist, Lee, you are charged with looking after Neji and Haku in my stead.” To Tsunami-san he said, “chakra exhaustion can be very dangerous, and without a medic or sensing specialist we have no concrete way of confirming how low their levels are. I would ask you to also keep an eye on them – Lee can tell you what to look for.”

 

“Oh, of course,” Tsunami said, looking between them. Then she eyed Haku. “And is he...dangerous?”

 

“Not currently,” Gai-sensei said. “We will still keep a close watch on him, though.”

 

Tsunami nodded. “Of course,” she said. “You already mentioned keeping them warm. I was going to put together some little meals, for the people they’ve stationed on the bridge. Is there something I can make them?”

 

Even with Zabuza dead and his body confiscated to prevent arguements with the bounty office, it was cold and damp outside.

 

“Broth,” Lee said. Tenten and Gai-sensei both nodded. “I will help,” Lee said, to Gai-sensei he said, “I will check on Neji every five minutes! If I fail even once, then upon our return to Konoha I will jog the length of Konoha and up the Hokage’s mountain a hundred times, backwards!”

 

“Lee! Your spirit never fails to brighten even a somber moment!”

 

“Oh Gai-sensei! Thank you!”

 

Despite herself, Tenten laughed and Tsunami-san was smiling. “Are they like this at home?” she asked.

 

“Oh, we’ve been keeping them on their best behaviour,” Tenten said. Tsunami-san laughed into her fist and Gai-sensei managed to twinkle in their direction.

 

“Come Tenten!” He said, “those seals will not unseal themselves.” He gently squeezed her shoulder as he passed as if trying to again tell her he was proud. But Tenten knew that. It was actually pretty hard to doubt Gai-sensei after a year.

 


 

 

There wasn’t really a meal that night. Tsunami-san just made a giant pot of nabe and people took what they wanted, when they wanted. Gai found himself and his students leaving several times through the day, helping with clean up, mostly. Their fight had been quite contained, really but shinobi could put a dent in things and a few of Gatō’s criminals had made it into the village. Though the exceptionally irate villagers dealt with them, it was true their team had the best methods of dealing with the fall out.

 

Still, by 1900 that evening the last of the work was done. Inari-kun and Tazuna-san were returned from finalizing the bridge, and undoing some of the damage of the unexpected weight load. And the explosive tags. Indeed, Gai was the last person in, having taken it upon himself to do one last sweep of the village.

 

Tsunami-san was seated at her table, looking over Haku who was still under a small mountain of blankets.

 

“I think one day like this is enough for my lifetime, Gai-san,” she said to him once his shoes were off. He smiled.

 

“Hopefully it is the only time you will have such a day,” he said. “Has he stirred, at all?”

 

“No,” she said. “We roused him enough for half a bowl of broth but nothing before or since.” Her face creased with unhappiness. “He’s so young. They’re all so young.”

 

“They are,” he said. It was true. It was also true there were still people who remembered what it was to have their five year old brothers and sisters cut down in front of them. “We are not perfect,” he said, “but they are older than I was, when I went to war, and so I consider every day they are older than me without seeing that level of conflict to mean that Konoha is trying to become better.”

 

She smiled slightly. “I understand that. You know, my father and I were once even poorer than this? So poor. We had nothing, he was not even confident enough in his reading and writing to teach me. And then I got pregnant with Inari...and father decided it was enough. He taught himself to be a stronger reader, to do maths and about commerce and even engineering. And he helped people, who helped us, and it meant Inari has never had to wonder when the next meal is, never eaten days and days of noodles in salty water...” she trailed off.

 

“These things are their own victories, aren’t they?” he said and she nodded, finally looking at him.

 

“He’s asleep now. Father is with him,” she said. “I did not want to leave,” her eyes flicked back over to Haku. “Him.” Then she blinked. “Oh, right.” She dug around in her apron pocket, and produced three familiar kunai. His students all had their individual wrapping styles, which aided in clean up. “These are Tenten’s,” she said as he accepted them.

 

“She will be pleased you didn’t have to use them,” he said. He put them in his pouch for now, and sat down across from her. “But first, nabe. It smells most wonderful, Tsunami-san. Thank you.”

 

She smiled at him, but didn’t speak. She seemed very invested in her thoughts, and so Gai allowed her her silence. The only sound was Gatō’s occasional attempt to communicate, and Pochi growling at his feet in response to every noise.

 

It was true what Kakashi said. Dogs were generally good judges in character.

 


 

 

Tenten hadn’t meant to actually fall asleep when she came in to check on Neji. Lee probably hadn’t either, but the fact she jerked awake to find the sun going down told her she had. It took her a moment to realize what was happening, but she quickly deduced that the thing in the doorway was Gai-sensei bringing Haku in for the night.

 

“Gai-sensei, d’you need help?” she asked.

 

“No Tenten,” he said, voice very soft. “You can go back to sleep.”

 

It was tempting – the bed was warm and even though it was late April, the same could not be said for the world outside the bed. She was not exactly tired though, so she levered herself into a sitting position. “I’ll pack mine and Neji’s stuff,” she said. “Should we have carriers for the journey back home?”

 

“Yes, though we will not need them too much. Tsunami-san has arranged a boat to take us to Dōshokutsu in Iiriguchi tomorrow.” As he spoke he laid Haku down on Lee’s bed roll, and gestured for her to follow him. Gatō was set up on some pillows and seemed to be dozing. No one else was out here.

 

“Is he safe here?” she asked and Gai-sensei nodded.

 

“Tazuna-san assured me so,” he said. “It is good all the same we will not be overstaying our welcome.”

 

“I don’t think we could,” she said, “it’s his, really. And why Iiriguchi? That’s a long time to spend on a fishing boat, Gai-sensei,” she said, taking an armful of blankets for Haku. Gai-sensei grabbed the rest, though he was nice enough to drape one over Gatō. It added at least two days to the journey.

 

“Gatō has kindly informed me of some associates in Ōishimi-ku we would do to avoid, and this way we can get even closer to Konoha while sticking to boat travel. The Iiriguchi has a number of river companies we can contact out of Doushokutsu. Depending on where they leave us off, it will only be two or so days of walking, even if Haku-kun and Neji are not yet mobile. One if they are.”

 

“Oh,” she said, wondering how Gai-sensei got that information. She guessed it wasn’t torture. Probably just Gatō running his mouth.

 


 

 

Though it was not really a kind way to feel, Gai was glad to see Wave country disappear into the mists as they set off two days later. Haku and Neji were both still dead to the world, their chakra reserves low to the point of worry though Haku had woken once without prompting. Himself, Tenten and Lee all took turns keeping vigil over their prone Hyūga, and someone had to keep an eye on Gatō.

 

Mostly to ensure he survived this trip. The locals would have loved for him to leave the man in their clutches. If he wasn’t such a handy source of information, Gai may have been tempted.

 

“Gai-sensei,” Lee said, joining him on the deck. “How long is this boat ride?”

 

“About a day,” Gai said. “We will dock in the morning if the weather holds. Do you get sea sick?” He asked, ready to offer the multitude of anti-nausea tablets he had.

 

“No,” Lee said. “I just...really wish to return home.”

 

Ah. This had been a hard mission for everyone. His genin had never had such a dangerous or wild mission before, and Gai knew his tense approach had had its own effect on them. “I am sorry Lee,” he said finally. “I know I was not at my best, this mission and it upset all of you.”

 

“It is okay, Gai-sensei,” Lee said, “Zabuza was pretty scary.”

 

Gai had to laugh at that, looking down at his genin. Though they had all grown in this last year, they were still very small. “Indeed he was,” Gai said. “You all did very well in the face of that.”

 

“Thank you, Gai-sensei,” the boy said and they lapsed back into silence, Lee inching toward him but not touching. The sound of waves on wood was becoming quite familiar at this point, and it was about the only thing Gai thought he would miss. “Gai-sensei?”

 

“Yes Lee?”

 

“Can I have a hug?” Lee asked, sounding very young and Gai immediately turned and pulled him in close, careful not to squeeze him uncomfortably. Lee squeezed back, and they stayed like that a moment before Lee finally pulled away and offered a giant grin and a thumbs up. It was the first real one he’d seen in a while, he thought. “Much better. Thank you Gai-sensei!” he said.

 

“Thank you, Lee!” he said, summoning his own enthusiasm.

 

“Any time Gai-sensei!”

 


 

 

The trip to Iiriguchi took them one and a half days, which was a blessing because it had been cramped, and they’d lucked into a last minute placement on a river boat that would take them quite close to Konoha. Gai was rather pleased with it all.

 

The same could not be said for Tenten.

 

“I hate boats,” she said, draped across the railing and watching the lazy waters, “I hate bugs. I hate rivers.”

 

“Ah Tenten, that is not a Youthful way to approach our return home!” Gai said watching the girl swat fruitlessly at the many mosquitoes that plagued the gently running river. “Cheer up! In one day we will depart and it will be a lovely walk back to Konoha.”

 

“Yeah, one Neji gets to sleep through,” she said and Gai had to smile at her grouchiness.

 

“Ah, my young weapon’s master, you are not usually so dour,” he said, “what can your sensei do to cheer you up?”

 

“Do you have an anti-mosquito jutsu you can teach me?” she asked and he shook his head.

 

“No, I have more balm if you’d like,” he said and she sighed.

 

“It’s so sticky,” she said, “but fine. Otherwise they might carry me away.”

 

Gai studied the swarms – they were quite prodigious. “I believe in your ability to defend yourself from such a fate,” he said, “but I will return shortly with the best armour we have against it!”

 

“That’s great,” Tenten said, but Gai was fairly certain she smiled. Success! “Sensei?”

 

“Yes?” he asked. She looked unsure.

 

“We’re all gonna be okay, right?” she asked finally. He nodded and gently pat her head.

 

“Yes. We are almost home,” he said. She nodded, and this time her smile stayed, even if it was rather tiny.

 


 

 

Haku and Neji both woke up that night. For Haku, it was enough for him to actually drink, got to the bathroom and even hold a conversation.

 

“Zabuza-sama?” he asked once they lead him back to his bed. He was sharing with Neji – because they could do that when Neji was unconscious.

 

“He’s dead,” Tenten said, and only felt sort of bad when the boy flinched.

 

“Oh,” the boy said. “Why am I...?”

 

“Sensei thought Konoha might have use for you,” she said. He just nodded, looking at his hands. “Why’d you do it?” she asked when it became obvious he wasn’t going to fall back to sleep immediately.

 

“Do what?” he asked.

 

“Become a nuke-nin. Help Gatō try and kill Tazuna.” Any of it, really.

 

Haku stared at his hands long enough she thought he wasn’t going to answer. “Do you know about the Kekkei Genkai purges, in Kiri?” he asked and Tenten nodded. There was a ryōkan run by a family who had escaped them, in Konoha, and they had discussed them in history class before. “My mother...she had one. My ice jutsu. She hid and didn’t tell my father. When he found out he killed her.”

 

Tenten didn’t say anything, just bit her lip to keep from gasping.

 

“It was my fault,” Haku said. “I found out I could make the ice and didn’t know to hide it. He got all the villagers to form a mob and they killed her. I protected myself – I didn’t mean to – and they died. After that I had to...I had to do a lot, to survive.” He blinked back tears. “Zabuza-sama saved me. Saved my life. Taught me. I owe him everything.”

 

Tenten wanted to tell him that was all wrong, but he was grieving. Even if Zabuza was a bad person, Haku obviously loved him. “I can’t really leave you alone,” she said. “But I can just be quiet if you’d like.”

 

“Thank you,” Haku said. “I...I think I’d like to talk, though. Or a story.”

 

“A story, huh?” The first ones she thought of were of her siblings and nieces, but she rejected those. It might just make him feel worse. “Alright, let me tell you of the first time we met Gai-sensei’s eternal rival – the famous copy-nin Hatake Kakashi.”

 


 

 

Gai couldn’t pin point what exactly woke him up, but something did. It only took a second for his eyes to clear and for him to spot ANBU seated cross legged on the floor of the cabin. Right next to his sleeping genin.

 

“Good morning,” the woman said, her voice low and sotto.

 

“Good morning,” he said, though it was still black outside. “Are you our backup?”

 

“Not any more,” she said. “Momochi Zabuza is contained?”

 

“I killed him,” he said. “There will be Wave residents who can corroborate, as can my student.” The ANBU silently tilted her head toward Lee, and he shook his head. “My other genin, Tenten,” he said. “She is currently looking after our prisoner.”

 

“In the cabin with the Hyūga,” she said. “Yes. Gatō is safe in the hold.” It was not a question. “You did well, Maito Gai. My team will continue on to Wave, we will be coordinating searches for the missing criminals. Are you in need of further assistance?”

 

“I don’t suppose a full medical evac is possible?” he asked. She just stared at him. “We could use more medical supplies specific to chakra exhaustion,” he said.

 

“You will find it outside the Hyūga’s room in an hour,” she said. “Anything?”

 

Gai was about to say no – but stopped himself. “Let Konoha know our status, you can get a message to them faster than I can.”

 

“Understood,” she said, and promptly popped out of existence.

 

Lee continued to sleep soundly.

 

Gai did not even consider going back to sleep. Instead he stood and crossed the hall to where Tenten was guarding Haku. She was half asleep, head nodding, but she jerked awake when he came in.

 

“’s it shift change?” she asked.

 

“Yes,” he said though he honestly had no idea what time it was. “Go to bed, Tenten.”

 

“Kay,” she said. It wasn’t very far to the door, but it was still enough she woke up and apparently realized something was off. “You alright, sensei?”

 

“Yes,” he said, smiling a little ruefully. “Just thinking about some life choices.”

 

“Alright,” she said. “Night.”

 


 

 

By the time Neji woke up and stayed awake, the conscious team members – with their captives in tow – had apparently decided to head back to Konoha. Neji found himself nestled somewhere dark and smelling faintly of wet wood in a place he was fairly confident was not Tsunami’s hut.

 

“What do you have strapped to your back?” were the first words he spoke in almost four days, prompting Tenten to jump in surprise – despite sitting in a very low bunk – and Lee to pop up seemingly out of nowhere, armed with a water bottle.

 

“Oh my rival, finally you are awake!” he said, helping Neji sit up. The world was currently going through a gentle rocking motion, and it took Neji a moment to realize there was a roof very, very close to his head. Confused, he accepted the open bottle and sipped it carefully, using all his willpower not to chug. No, that wasn’t a roof, it was a mattress. Bunk beds? When he looked up, his whole team was beaming down at him.

 

“You look creepy,” he told them, draining the last of the water. All they did was thrust another bottle at him. “'re we still in Wave Country?”

 

“No, we are currently enjoying the hospitality of the IIiriguchi River Company. Drink all of that, it will aid the return of your Youthful Flames,” Gai-sensei said, immediately informing Neji this was not something he wanted to drink at all.

 

“Salt water and chakra pill,” Lee said helpfully.

 

Neji stared at it, slightly confused, but dutifully chugged the whole thing, not even caring if some spilled on him. When he finished that, they took his blanket away, wrapping him in a new one before he could protest and pushing another bottle into his hands. He eyed it suspiciously, focusing on that rather than the fact they were babying him so much.

 

“IIiriguchi's not in Ōishimi-ku,” he said finally, trying to ignore the foul taste now sitting on his tongue.

 

“Indeed not!” Gai-sensei said, far to excited for a simple conversation. “Gatō implied he had associates in Ōishimi, which prompted us to take an alternate route home. Though a longer route, we decided it was prudent to avoid more confrontation for now.”

 

“Oh,” Neji said. He did not want to admit most of that did not mean anything to him, right this second. “My mouth is gross.”

 

“That shall help; electrolyte water!” Gai-sensei said. “You need it. Drink up.”

 

This seemed to Neji like way too much water, but he didn't have the energy to argue and salt water was gross so he drank it as directed. He was half asleep by the time he got to the end, and he honestly couldn't recall, later, if he’d warned them he didn't think his bladder could hold three bottles of water for very long.

 


 

 

Leaving the river company was somewhat bittersweet. The women running it were very nice people, as were their children, and had been sad to see them go. Or their money. It also meant transporting Haku and Neji was a touch more problematic than it had been until this point. At least Haku was capable of walking in short bursts. And Neji had awoken just that morning – a good sign!

 

So, they were going. If slowly.

 

“Ah Gai-sama,” Haku said, “I am sorry but...”

 

They had been walking for almost an hour, which was the longest they had gone today in one spurt. Haku was not apparently one to complain, so if he was speaking now it must be quite urgent. He held his hand up, telling the others to stop. Tenten and Lee set Neji down, Tenten sounding audibly relieved.

 

“I can’t wait till he wakes up, I don’t care if we can only move for fifteen minutes at a time, after.”

 

Gai laughed. “Do not wish him awake too soon,” he said. “Given his temper will be joining him.”

 

“Ugh,” Tenten said. Then she reached for her pack. “We setting up?”

 

It was getting closer enough to sundown that was the best choice. If they were all in good shape, he would have pushed for another half our or so, but that was not the case. Of course, if they were all in good shape they would likely be in Konoha now. “Yes! Your initiative is noted, Tenten! You will put up the tent and start a fire, Lee is finding supper tonight. Tomorrow you trade off. I will secure Gatō and Haku-san.”

 

His two conscious genin nodded, and quickly got to work. Gai turned to his two captives. Gatō was still gagged. Haku was not. Gatō was also a flight risk, though so far the best he’d done was get the gag out. Lee had been very prompt in replacing it – after giving him water. Oh how it warmed a sensei’s heart to see such kindness in his students!

 

“I am afraid Haku-san you will have to join Gatō tonight. You will have shelter and blankets, do not worry.”

 

“I’m quite fine with anything,” Haku said. Gatō glared at him, and Haku just smiled placidly back. “Though, I do have something I wish to disclose.”

 

Disclose? Gai nodded encouragingly as he lead them to a tree opposit the tents. The shelter they had been using for Gatō was essentially an open faced tent, so the person on watch always had a clear line of sight. The point was not punishment, just prudence. As it was they only had the one proper tent, and very little room for three let alone five.

 

“I am able to perform seals one handed,” Haku said. Gai paused. It was standard to tie shinobi’s hands so they couldn’t form two handed seals – Haku’s was done in such a fashion, as was Gatō’s but that was only for reasons of blood flow. Gatō was not dangerous without back up or access to his network. It did mean Haku was still capable of moving his fingers to form one handed seals. “I will not be attempting to leave,” he said quickly. “But it seemed best I tell you.”

 

Gai considered. “I will inform Intel,” he said finally. “You have been a model prisoner. As for your seals, your chakra is still low. If Tenten and I gauge it gets high enough we may bind your hands further, but for now you have my trust.”

 

Gatō said something very muffled, and Gai opted to ignore him. It would come out for meal time, and he would say his piece. Haku stared at him for a very long moment.

 

Then he smiled, slightly. “Thank you, Gai-sama.”

 


 

 

The next time Neji woke, it was pitch black and he had no clue of knowing how long he'd been asleep, in total or since the last time. He could hear nighttime sounds all around them, and no water. There was a breeze at his head. And the unfamiliar feeling of someone touching his hair, and he puzzled through it for a moment before giving up.

 

“Sensei,” he guessed, since the hand was big, and rougher than his own or Lee's or Tenten's. And he wasn’t touching his own head. “Why're you petting me?”

 

For a minute the hand stopped and Neji would deny to his dying breath that that made him protest. When it resumed, Sensei spoke.

 

“It is affectionate,” he said finally. “And I'm doing it because I was very, very worried about you.”

 

“I see,” Neji said, feeling strangely detached from all this. “Sensei?”

 

“Yes Neji?”

 

“Tenten never told me what was on her back.” Gai-sensei laughed softly, and for the first time Neji registered there was pressure on either side of him. “Sensei, I'm being squished.”

 

“That is Lee and Tenten. They're keeping you warm. And it makes them feel better to be with you when they're sleeping.” Well. That didn't make any sense at all. When he informed Sensei of that, the man just laughed again.

 

“Sensei,” he whined, because he was being mocked, dammit.

 

“Ah Neji,” sensei said, “you are an integral part of our team, of course it makes sense.”

 

Neji peered up at him in the dark. It didn’t work. “My head hurts,” he said finally.

 

“Yes, that would be the chakra exhaustion.”

 

“And my fingers are cold.”

 

“Also chakra exhaustion.”

 

“And I still don't know what was on Tenten's back.”

 

Another chuckle. “My fault, Neji, forgive me. Tenten has claimed the right to Zabuza's property in the face of his defeat,” he explained, and Neji blinked.

 

“Tenten killed Zabuza?”

 

“Ah no, I did. She was instrumental in his defeat however, and given I am not a weapon's expert, I agreed that she should take his sword.”

 

“Ooooh,” Neji said, the pieces finally – slowly – falling into place. “Sensei?”

 

“Hmm?”

 

“Does chakra exhaustion make you stupid?”

 

“No, Neji. That may be the effects of the morphine you're feeling.”

 

“Oh. Okay.” That did explain it, actually. Neji had only ever been on morphine one other time, but he could vaguely recall being...floaty. And tired. “I'm going to sleep now, Sensei.”

 

“Very good Neji. I'll be here.”

 

“’Kay. Good.”

 


 

 

Tenten didn't dare speak up until Neji was asleep again.

 

“He's so cute,” she whispered, turning her head up to Gai-sensei, whose eyes were suspiciously bright. “Why can't he be more like this all the time?”

 

“Well then he would not be Neji,” was the all too sensible reply from Lee.

 

Tenten tried, briefly, to consider a rebuttal but failed. “I suppose if he was like this all the time it would be much less fun to tell him what they named the bridge, huh?”

 

Lee sat up. “There is nothing wrong with the bridge name,” he said. “It is youthful! It shows our bonds of friendship with Wave Country and-”

 

Tenten's giggling must have made him stop. “'m just teasing, Lee. It's a great name.”

 

“I like it,” Haku said from his little shelter.

 

“Thank you Haku-san,” Gai-sensei said. He was keeping the tent door open during his shift, she supposed it was so he could look after Neji. “Are you comfortable?”

 

“Yessir,” Haku said, apparently not bothered by Gatō next to him. “Goodnight everyone.”

 

There was a round of goodnights from everyone, and muffled probably-swearing from Gatō. Gagging him had been an awesome idea.

 


 

 

That seemed to be the turning point for Neji, who woke the next morning and stayed awake, even insisting on walking some. It made Gai decide more than ever to train Tenten and Neji’s chakra sensing to be as sharp as they were capable of. And to do work on his – he would never be a true sensor but he could probably be better. He would need to think up something for Lee to do as a parallel.

 

“Sensei,” Tenten said, “can we stop for lunch?”

 

She and Lee were currently carrying Neji, who was not taking this with any particular amount of grace.

 

“And can I walk, after?” he asked.

 

“It took me a while to get steady,” Haku-san said from where he was tied to Tenten. “You did very well going so far this morning, right after waking up too. I could only go half an hour at first.”

 

Neji completely and utterly ignored Haku, to no one’s surprise.

 

“Can you?” Tenten asked him and Neji responded by sitting up. “Fuck!” Tenten said, the shift in weight forcing her to drop him.

 

“Language,” Gai said. “Neji are you hurt?”

 

Neji’s response was to come to his feet with a dangerous looking waver and glare at everyone – except Haku.

 

“Lunch it is,” Gai said, knowing when he was beat. “Neji can skin the rabbits Tenten caught this morning.”

 


 

 

Lunch took longer than usual so Haku and Neji could rest. Gai-sensei thought if they pushed, they’d make Konoha by tonight, the morning at the latest. He hadn’t said it anywhere Neji could hear though, probably because Neji was an idiot and would push till he dropped. Of course a long lunch also meant they could catch up.

 

And she could show Neji her awesome score.

 

As she put away their supplies, she tried to list off everything Haku had told her about Kubikiribōchō. Since that first chat Haku had really opened up and Tenten privately thought he wasn't at all bad. She didn’t dare tell that to Neji who’s first reaction upon seeing him had been near homicidal rage. Now he just pretended he wasn’t there.

 

“It drinks blood, gives the wielder a healing factor,” she said and Neji raised an eyebrow. “Right? I'd love to know more about how they did that but Haku doesn't seem to know.” She ignored the flat look the name caused Neji to adopt. “I might have to go around to blacksmiths and stuff, see if they know. Can't let them take it apart to see, of course, but maybe I'll get lucky.”

 

Neji nodded, and she watched him, rather than finish putting stuff in the tents. Sensei was busy setting up Gatō for the night.

 

“Yes, Tenten?” he asked finally. “I've seen the way you've all been looking at me, these last few days.”

 

Silently, Tenten took a moment to thank her lucky stars he hadn't seen the way they looked even earlier than that. Somehow, she thought their fear and concern would have probably just pissed him off.

 

It makes them feel better to be with you when they're sleeping...

 

...Sensei, that doesn't make sense.”

 

Though, she realized belatedly, maybe it wasn’t so much he'd have been angry. He would have been confused. And Neji hated showing weakness; it always made him default to grumpy, so it would have looked like angry. It was all, she mused briefly, unnecessarily complicated.

 

“Haku said...something...” she said, because she realized she had to fill the silence somehow. Neji continued to stare at her. “We wanted to know how much chakra you'd used exactly, see, but you being the only one who could say that meant we needed to guess so we asked which jutsu you'd used...”

 

There. The flicker of unease, so fast she almost missed it. Was her teammate scared? Neji didn't get scared.

 

“And?” he asked, voice flat. "Do we believe everything Haku says now that he's told us the truth once or twice?"

 

Tenten scowled. “Don't be like that, even if me and Lee were that dumb Gai-sensei isn't. Just what he said...” the look he was giving her was so expectant that the words died in her throat. She spotted, too, the way his fingers curled around Kubikiribōchō's hilt, knuckles white.

 

“He described the kaiten.” Gai-sensei's voice was very quiet and calm, as if he were trying not to spook Neji. Still, she watched him flinch as if struck, and without being told, she lifted the giant sword.

 

“I need to go check Lee and Haku don’t have blisters,” she said, scurrying away as fast as Kubikiribōchō would allow. As fun as this was to flaunt, maybe she'd seal it away, at least until they got to Konoha's gates.

 


 

 

Neji wasn't panicking, exactly – he'd just not intended to reveal the kaiten to anyone so soon. He wasn’t certain he’d gotten it quite right, or at least wasn’t very good at it and so wanted to wait. That was all. He took a steadying breath, knowing better than to let anything show. Force his fingers to relax, forced his eyes to meet Gai-sensei’s. Insisted to himself there was no preemptive throbbing in his head for he knew they would do for this...whatever they decided to call it.

 

Insolence. Impudence. Treason.

 

“Neji,” Gai-sensei said.

 

“I'm fine,” he said. It was louder than he had intended, ringing through the camp and he didn't need to be able to see through his own skull to know that at least three of the four other people in the camp right now were staring at them.

 

“I am not going to tell your clan about this, Neji.”

 

The world stopped. His eyes remained locked on Gai-sensei's black-brown ones, and he couldn't look away. Not even when, to his horror, tears started to push at his eyes. He did not cry, and he beat it back with everything he had in him until finally he knew the threat was gone. His eyes ached with the effort, but he did not cry.

 

Never.

 

“I'm not going to tell your clan,” he said again, “and I won't tell the Hokage, if you ask me not to.”

 

“Am I still high?” he asked before he could censor himself. Gai-sensei smiled, teeth glinting.

 

“No you are not, my dear pupil,” he said, “but you are that. And as my pupil, part of my job is to protect you until you're no longer my charge. So I will.”

 

Neji just stared, not entirely sure how to react to that, and finally he just nodded. “What do I say in my report?” he asked, not having ever lied to an entire military structure before. At least not quite so officially, anyway.

 

“I believe Tenten already wrote that. She has quite the gift with penmanship you know.”

 

“She what?” Neji said, standing faster than he'd done anything since waking up 'fully’. “TENTEN!”

 


 

 

Tenten giggled at Neji’s face as he read over the report she’d written on his behalf. She’d worked hard on it – his writing wasn’t that hard to copy given it was so neat, but she couldn’t let it sound like her own report. Plus she’d had to get Lee to give her details. “I would get in trouble if I got caught too, dingus,” she said. “And you should be more thankful – now you owe me twice!”

 

“How – owe you for what?” he asked, scowling up at her. They were back on the move, which meant Tenten had to watch for roots or Neji would trip while reading.

 

“Rock,” she said. He stepped around it, and then kept talking.

 

“I didn’t ask you to do this.”

 

“No, I just did, because I’m nice and it’s a favour – watch the road dingus.”

 

“If it’s a favour I don’t owe you,” he said and she stifled a giggle. It was really good to have her teammate back in his right spirits – Sensei was right on that front.

 

“Alright, then you just owe me for making me miss Uzushio,” she said. She watched with no little delight as his face morphed from a scowl to genuine confusion.

 

“What?”

 

“Sensei promised we’d stop by Uzushiogakure before leaving, remember? But you had to go and almost die, you jerk.”

 

Neji, because he was Neji, immediately said, “I didn’t almost die.”

 

“Oh yes you did,” she said. “Trust me, we were all there.”

 

“So was I,” he said, and she laughed.

 

“Yeah – unconscious!” She tugged her report away from him. “If you don’t like it, write your own.”

 

For a moment he stared at her, chin raised ever so slightly. Then he sighed. “No, it’s fine.” He said, arms crossing. “Thank you.”

 

Gee, make it look hard why don’t you, she wanted to say. Instead she decided to be gracious, “you’re welcome. You can make a little back to me by getting on the carrier so we can go faster.”

 

Neji glared at her, but agreed.

 


 

 

Lee could not help, and did not try, to hide his elation when he saw the gates of Konoha peeking over the trees. “WE ARE ALMOST HOME,” he crowed, bouncing slightly and ignoring Neji's exasperated sigh.

 

“Gai-sensei told you that almost five minutes ago,” he said and Lee beamed at him.

 

“You did! But it is different, seeing our gates for myself!” he said. Tenten, unsealing her new sword, nodded in agreement.

 

“If you say so,” said Neji. Lee reasoned that as he was usually the first to see everything he likely did not understand. “Can you walk with that thing?” he asked Tenten.

 

“Yes! Better than you can walk at any rate. And it's an amazing unique sword, not a thing,” she shot back, struggling to fully pull it from her scroll.

 

Neji’s response was to shift, forcing Lee and Tenten to stop. Then he hopped off the carrier. “I can walk fine. And there is no way I am letting you carry me into Konoha.” He set about packing it away – which mostly meant rolling it up.

 

“I could give you a piggy-back,” Lee offered, almost hopeful. That was more 'dignified' than a stretcher, right? Neji just gave him a flat look, and Lee sighed. “Someday you will embrace the many facets of Youth, Neji,” he said. That made Tenten's head whip up eyes bright as she managed to get the sword into place without it dragging on the ground.

 

“Lee,” she said, “Lee. We forgot.” Lee did not recall forgetting anything, so cocked his head. “The news, Lee. We forgot to tell Neji the best most amazing news-” recognition dawned.

 

“The bridge!” he said. Ahead them there was a muffled noise – he did not understand why Gatō could not be polite, they would take the gag off if he was – and Neji was looking between them suspiciously.

 

“What about the bridge?” he asked.

 

“They didn't tell you the name, they've been very excited to do so, Neji-kun,” Haku-san said. He'd been very quiet for the most part, but was always polite. Naturally, Neji did not give any sign he even heard Haku-san, other than the tick in his jaw. Lee gave Haku an encouraging smile – Neji was just hard to get through to, was all – and turned back to Tenten who was looking as excited as he was.

 

“Tenten,” Lee said, “please. Please let me give Neji this most glorious news of the fruits of our labour.”

 

“Well....” Tenten tapped her chin. “If you insist.”

 

“YOSH!” Lee turned to Neji, whose eyes were narrowed almost to slits. “In light of the services we rendered to our allies in Wave, the village insisted we name the bridge. As such we agreed there could only be one name – the Bridge of the Youthful Flame!”

 

Neji just stared at him.

 

“I know,” Tenten said, smiling so Lee could see a great many of her teeth. Maybe she was finally embracing Gai-sensei’s philosophies. “Isn’t it great?”

 

Neji sniffed. “What’s great is we’re a genin team with an A-rank.”

 

“It’d been better if you didn’t spend the last half asleep,” Tenten teased. Neji glared at her, chin tilted. “Don’t be like that, we missed having you awake and grouchy.”

 

“I am not grouchy,” Neji said.

 

Lee watched the back and forth, a smile growing ever wider until they both turned to look at him.

 

“What?”

 

“TEAM GAI IS BACK!” he said, punching the air with pure exhilaration. In the front, Gai-sensei gave a booming laugh – and on the walls someone called out to them. “YOSH!”