Missions go wrong, even when they go right. (Futurefic, Naruto + Neji friendship, hints of yaoi if you want to see it that way.)
Neji walked the halls of the hospital silently. Without trying, he'd managed to scare a few nurses, and even a few med-nins simply by walking by. A couple of genins and their recovering teammate on the way to the cafeteria had shrunk back against the wall to watch him pass.
"Anbu..." he heard the murmurs as they continued on, and the mask that hung from his hip seemed to weigh more than usual. He knew it was less the mask and armour that caused reactions than the blood and mud that spattered his chest plate and arms.
At the top of the stairs to the fourth floor, he stopped briefly to stare at the sign. 'Surgery.'
Onward to the waiting room. Shikamaru was perched on the edge of one of the chairs, elbows on his knees, hands clenched in his hair as he stared at the floor. His mask had fallen off, Shikamaru no longer bothering to mold the miniscule amount of chakra it took to keep it clinging to him. Neji leaned down to pick it up. A lazy cat-face stared back at him, made menacing by the red swirls coming from the corners of the black eyes.
He placed it on the low table beside Shikamaru's chair, beside the other one. The grinning fox mask mocked his deep, aching worry and seemed to be ready to bite. The slitted eyes and red whisker-streaks demanded a reaction, but Neji couldn't find the will.
He dropped into the chair opposite Shikamaru's, staring at the top of the bowed head, and released the last bit of chakra he was molding, letting his own mask detach. The bird-beaked thing had eyes as black as his were white, and he couldn't stand looking at it right now. He threw it with a clatter onto the table next to the others.
"Quiet..." Shikamaru said tonelessly, to the floor. Neji couldn't muster the energy to reply, and settled for picking at a crust of dried blood on his glove. Shikamaru was dirtier than he was, dried mud caked his legs and arms, and streaks of dried blood ran down his chest plate, where Neji was only sprayed. The gentle blow technique did make less of a mess... It occurred to him that they should probably clean up. This was a hospital, after all.
The dried blood came free, and Neji crumbled it between his finger and thumb. He tilted his head in the direction of the surgical suite and briefly exerted himself, the skin tightening around his eyes, which narrowed in frustration. Damn Tsunade, blocking him. Nothing to see but a mess of swirling chakra field. If he really tried to see through... but her message was clear. Neji let the chakra dribble away and wondered if the tightness in his throat and chest would ever subside. He eyed the fox mask. 'Tell me something.' He demanded silently. 'tell me drowning and broken bones and kunai through the side aren't enough to kill him.' The mask just grinned.
When they'd finally found him in the pool, broken bodies had practically carpeted the area, the remains of the enemy, and the ground was soaked, trees stripped of bark where they faced the pool. Naruto had used the water with his Rasengan. Only about four or five inches of depth remained, a scummy, muddy puddle. But that was enough for someone to drown in, when they were face down and unconscious.
They pulled him out. He had the last of the stolen scrolls tucked into his empty shuriken holster. His mask lay half buried in mud. Blood leaked slowly from two kunai handle-deep in his side, and faster from the one in his thigh. Shikamaru's iron grip closed around Neji's wrist when he reached for them, and Neji was disgusted with himself for forgetting first aid protocol.
Shikamaru carefully and swiftly laid him on his back, and began to tourniquet the leg, and Neji looked. "Not breathing, no pulse," he said. Broken ribs... broken arm, clavicle, internal lacerations... rupture... more... too much. But first...
Shikamaru shoved his mask to the side and tilted Naruto's head back. He wiped the mud and slime from his face, dug the mud out of his mouth with two fingers, and began to breath for him. Neji straddled Naruto's hips, conscious of the embedded kunai, gathered chakra in his palms and used every bit of control he had to push Naruto's heart into motion without damaging the broken ribs further.
Seconds later, or hours... Suddenly Neji felt a push back. Naruto coughed, and heaved, and Shikamaru rolled him on his side as he vomited dirty water. He didn't wake up as they bound his wounds.
The run home was nightmarish, desperation gnawing at their concentration, both ninjas alert to perimeter and their teammate at once. Another attack from the enemy now could mean Naruto's life, but it was Naruto's heart and breathing that stopped twice on the way back. The second time, Neji's control was shattered, and Shikamaru had to perform the compressions instead, while Neji covered Naruto's slack mouth with his own, forcing air past cold lips.
Neji had never been as thankful for the demon in Naruto's belly as he was today. The vile red chakra had struggled frantically through Naruto's dying body, in a rare attempt at something other than destruction. And now, between the demon's efforts at self-preservation and the ministrations of a Sannin... he must live.
Footsteps on tile. Running. People had heard. They were coming. Sakura, from her shift on another floor of this very buliding. Iruka, and Lee, from their classes. Sakura looked close to tears, and Neji nodded to her, curtly, wishing briefly he had the ability to let go and look like he felt. Lee immediately took the chair next to Neji, gripped his shoulder in comfort, and then, for once, didn't say a word. Neji allowed himself a brief expression of pain, and Lee nodded in understanding. He assumed a determined air, and managed, somehow, to sit intensely, holding one of Sakura's hands tight in his lap. Iruka leaned against the wall, a silent worried statue.
A grey shadow caught his eye. Kakashi was leaning against the wall by Iruka, arms folded, eye hooded.
Neji looked back at Shikamaru. He'd slouched back in his chair, and actually managed a semblance of his normal irritated expression. It was half real, Neji knew, for he felt it too. These other people were intruding on 'their' anguish for 'their' Naruto. With Lee next to him, utterly supportive and equally distressed, Neji felt horrible guilt at his own selfishness. Then sharp anger curled around his center at how the order seemed to be falling apart in his head. When would he control his emotions again?
They waited. Shadows crawled across the floor. The glare of the hospital lights won out over the fading daylight.
More people arrived. Kiba and oversized Akamaru. Chouji, who kicked the big dog out of the chair next to Shikamaru to take it for his own. Sasuke, TenTen and Shino, armour still on, masks pushed aside, stood sentinel against a wall. Hinata curled quietly in a chair. Konohamaru and his teammates clustered together, crossed-legged, on the floor, looking and feeling out of place.
The silence had been broken at some point. Hinata and Sakura spoke in low tones. The three genins talked and even laughed weakly every so often, stopping that each time with a guilty glance at Shikamaru or Neji. Sasuke's clipped tones and Shino's monosyllables went back and forth every now and then. Chouji's food wrappers crackled and crinkled. To Neji's trained eye, Shikamaru had relaxed, just slightly, as Chouji sat by him. As much as either of them wanted to wallow in all-consuming worry and failure, it was hard to do when their friends were near. It was a little more difficult to torture himself with visions of Naruto, drowned, slack-faced and dead, when Lee was there, radiating support.
When the chakra field Tsunade had erected suddenly faded, heads turned. Everyone stood. Neji just looked, peripherally sensing Hinata doing the same. Through walls, through people... /there/. The familiar feel and shape of Naruto's chakra was like a panacea for all his roiled emotions. Red chakra still mingled with blue, but blue flowed evenly again, if weakly, and the hitches in the stream were now tolerable. They would heal.
Exhausted, he released, and exchanged knowing glances with Hinata. Her relief showed enough for both of them, he decided. She murmured something, and those next to her leaned in to hear her.
"He's alive." Neji said quietly, the smile in his voice only, but Lee and Shikamaru heard it just fine.
Tsunade came out to announce the good news. Cheers, smiles, barks, as people hugged and slapped backs and told everyone else, well of course he was fine. It was Naruto, after all. Neji and Shikamaru faded back from the crowd, and left the jubilant bunch in the hall. Neji glared down the nurse that looked at their filthy selves in understandable horror, and they entered the room where Naruto lay. The floor was smeared with blood, littered with towels, gloves, and other medical paraphernalia.
Shikamaru sighed, drained. Neji drank in the sight of Naruto, stitched, bandaged and breathing.
"I knew he might die when I made the plan." Shikamaru said, voice tightly controlled. Neji didn't react. "He was the only one that could have succeeded. Even if he was ultimately ki-defeated, he had an eighty per cent chance of taking them all down with him, if we took care of our targets." Neji heard the disgust leaking into Shikamaru's voice at his own cold, calculating words.
Neji frowned, and turned towards Shikamaru. There was a slight, nearly imperceptible, constant shiver running up and down his tense form. 'Troublesome' couldn't begin to encompass how Shikamaru must feel about this.
"I know." Neji said, his acceptance of the plan clear in his voice. Shikamaru twitched. The closest an Anbu got to a flinch. Neji looked back at their third member. "He knows." Naruto had acknowledged the command with a gleam in his eye, Neji recalled. That many opponents at once had excited him. He'd left in a cloud of kage-bunshin clones, Shikamaru's plan in motion.
As they stood there, Neji felt the tension slowly subside in his teammate. Even Shikamaru needed reassuring, every so often. Now he crossed his arms across his chest, beginning to pull dredge up his usual demeanor. The semi-annoyed set of his mouth was back. "This job is troublesome. No wonder there are hardly any Anbu over twenty-five."
Neji smiled slightly. "Six years to go, then." Shikamaru turned his third-best put-upon expression to Neji. Then they both turned as the nurse from before reappeared, an annoyed Tsunade pushing her along, along with a couple of orderlies.
They stood out of the way under the Godaime's disapproving look and watched Naruto be moved to the intensive care ward. He'd be out of there by morning, Neji was sure, and down in recovery by the next day. The fox would take care of that.
After the general hubbub of relief had died down, and everyone had looked at Naruto through the narrow window into intensive care, people dispersed. Kakashi exchanged a hug with Sakura, and then vanished. Iruka spoke earnestly with Konohamaru and the other two genin, shepherding them to the main doors. Lee forced a tight, earnest hug on Neji, and reminded him "If there's anything you need, let me know." He and Sakura headed home to their apartment. Chouji clamped a huge arm around Shikamaru's shoulders and hauled him off to get cleaned up, and, of course, to eat, and then to drink and to sleep, or at least to bed. Sasuke and Shino stood back a bit as TenTen clasped Neji's hand and reminded him to worry about himself as well, then the Anbu team left. Hinata bid her cousin farewell, and departed with Kiba who wrapped a reassuring arm around her small form, Akamaru trotting by their side.
Neji stood alone in the waiting room. The fox mask grinned smugly up at him from the table-top. Reattaching his own mask to his hip, he picked up Naruto's mask, and both their swords. He slung both weapons across his back on the run home. He held Naruto's mask in his hands.
A shower, a meal, and two hours later he was standing beside Naruto's bed again. Kyuubi had acted faster than expected-by the time Neji had returned to the hospital, Naruto was already in a recovery room. He'd expected only to drop off Naruto's gear and a change of clothing, but he found it impossible to leave for the same reason he'd hurried back so soon. The sight of Naruto's chest rising and falling. The irrational thought that it would stop if he left (because it had-they'd left him alone and he'd gone still, drowned... he'd died) drew Neji back and held him.
But Naruto breathed. Neji could hear it, each pull of air still rasping from the water damage. He could see it, Naruto's chest rising and falling. "Byakugan!" he whispered, overtaken by the urge to see it. Lungs worked, the heart pumped. Blood and chakra flowed. Even now, many of the snarls in the chakra flow were beginning to smoothen. Feeling oddly daring, for aside from sparring and combat and emergencies, Neji hardly touched anyone, he laid his hand lightly on Naruto's chest. The heart thudded reassuringly against his palm, dispelling some of the agonizing desperation that steeped the memory of the repeated resuscitations. No longer pressing rigidly controlled chakra into a motionless chest, instead he felt warm body heat through the bandages and hospital blanket, and slow, regular rising and falling.
When, some time later, the rhythm changed and a slight cough grated from Naruto's throat, Neji withdrew his hand, mildly embarrassed, and met Naruto's squinting eyes. Another cough, and his teammate managed, scratchily, "Neji?"
"They're safe." Shizune had retrieved them, flustered, wavering between intense relief and veiled but apparent guilt over the state of the team.
"Where'm'I?" He coughed again, and Neji poured a glass of water from the ubiquitous hospital pitcher, as he explained. Naruto's eyes widened at the recounting of events. Neji lifted Naruto's head, and tilted the glass for him to drink.
"Tsunade-sama worked on you for six hours," He finished.
"Ahh." Naruto's eyes were closing despite himself. He forced them open again. "Did anyone tell Iruka-sensei? He'll be worried. I was supposed to meet him for dinner."
"He was here, waiting." Neji told him. Naruto's characteristic inability to ever assume people would care about him always made Neji ache a little. "Everyone was. Until Tsunade came out and told us you were alright. Then she made us all leave, because it was late."
"Oh..." Naruto looked tiredly gratified to hear people had been worried. Later he'd appear unconcerned by any such thing, but now he seemed to be too worn out to put up the usual front. "Why're you here?"
"I brought your gear and some clothing back." Neji answered. "But I'm not supposed to be here. It's past visiting hours."
"Did you sneak in?" Naruto laughed a little, then coughed again.
"Yes." Neji smirked. Med-nins were brilliant, but not always strong in soldierly areas of expertise. At least, not compared to a local Anbu.
"Are you going to stay here?" Naruto asked, to Neji's surprise.
"Yes..." he replied, finding it easy to agree when he realized it was what he wanted to do.
"Thanks..." Naruto sighed a long, rasping sigh, and closed his eyes again, and Neji silently shifted a chair from the wall to the bedside, and settled in.
Life was dangerous. Their lives were especially so. It was conceivable, in fact probable, that the team would one day return a man short, or two, or not at all.
There would be more "successful" missions with horrible injuries, or worse, failures with horrible injuries. More sudden, nauseating realizations that the motionless body over there was a teammate's, more gut-twisting makeshift field triage. More plans that sent someone out to succeed first, survive second.
But they'd chosen it. They'd taken the offer. They'd had it branded on their shoulders.
Neji reached out, hooking a finger over the blanket and drawing it down to expose the black, curling tattoo on Naruto's shoulder, left uncovered by the cast on his arm, the tattoo that matched his own, and Shikamaru's, and TenTen's and all the elite jounin. Marks they'd all taken willingly, upon joining the Anbu, unlike the lines on Naruto's face, or the seal on Neji's forehead.
The mark meant they worked together. No one went into combat without total confidence in his teammates. Even Naruto, who couldn't quite grasp that people would be worried for him when he was on an operating table fighting for his life, looked at Neji and Shikamaru with total faith that they were in it with him. If any one of them died on a mission, it would not be with the belief that they'd been let down.
Neji traced the tattoo with one finger, then tugged the blanket back into place.
None of the fellowship that the mark of Anbu signified could banish the tightness in Neji's chest at the recall of the day's events. It didn't make the near-loss of Naruto something he could handle in a clear-minded or even stable fashion. But it made it something he could accept. Genin learned that kind of acceptance as they learned teamwork. Perhaps it was an understanding reserved for those who risked so much. To risk family, friends, life, love, constantly, and stay sane, you had to be prepared to lose it.
When you were prepared to lose something, its importance became incalculable.
It was somewhat staggering to understand that the compact, muscled form lying bandaged and weak in the bed in front of him owned such a significant portion of his heart. That was probably why it took emotional exhaustion and a dark, quiet room for the realization to surface.
Tomorrow, people would be swarming the room, encouraging Naruto in his recovery. Neji would lean silently against the wall and Shikamaru would slouch crankily in the corner chair, while Naruto unabashedly told the story of his amazing fight to his little fan club, with Lee rephrasing every other sentence for superior "youthful glory." Iruka would fuss over him. The girls would bring food, Kiba and Chouji would sneak in drinks. Sasuke and Shino, and possibly Kakashi would join Neji for a silent lean against the wall.
Tonight, Neji sat in the dark room and watched Naruto breathe.
(A/N This was the fic that ended up setting the stage for a whole saga of others, which are marked "Riskverse" and numbered in chronological order. It's the universe that won't leave my brain.)