“The defects and faults of the mind are like wounds of the body, after all imaginable care has been taken to heal them up, still there will be a scar left behind.” -Francoise D.
Hyuga Neji sat on the edge of her bed. He placed his sweaty palms upon his knees, feeling horribly restless. His eyes scanned his abandoned surroundings with a mixture of guilt and anxiety. Would he ever see life in here again?
The clock on her nightstand –his enemy of that dreadful day everything was set in motion—continued to glare at him with its green digits. Like before, he felt the sudden urge to break it, to shatter it into pieces as tiny as the shards of his heart must be at present.
He closed his eyes and breathed in profoundly. If he concentrated enough, he could hear her here, as if an imprint of her soul had been left behind within the confines of this room –their room. At that simple thought his vocals constricted and he hunched forward shutting his aching eyes even more tightly. In vain he tried to fight the annoying tears that wished to give testament of his pain.
If he didn’t get her he would— “No!” He seethed, standing up and moving towards the opened window. He would get her back, no other outcome was admissible!
He allowed himself a last glance of that beautiful room filled with memories, before he slipped on his mask –in a literal and a figurative way. The moment he stepped out of her room, closing the window behind him, Neji realized that for the first time in his life he could lose something far more precious than his life.
With a sigh, he turned his back upon her house and made his way towards Konoha’s gate. The time had come to get Tenten back, and Neji would be damned if he failed.
They were already there when he arrived, grim faces greeting him with silent nods. To his surprise and gratefulness, he realized that his team had increased in numbers, and he welcomed them with a slight bow of the head.
Kakashi, Gai, Ino, Shikamaru and Ibiki were assets added to their ranks, and Neji knew they would be of great help when the time to raid the Akatsuki’s base and rescue Tenten came.
Needing no signal, the group left as one, jumping from branch to branch in tight formation. The trek was uneventful for the most part. A morbid silence had fallen, broken only by Sai’s report upon the overall situation, getting them as ready as possible to face the problem ahead. Unfortunately, Tenten’s mission was still kept to a need-to-know-basis even when they already had a painfully clear idea of her suffering.
It ate at Neji to know Sai had been there for his koichii on her most needed time, while he hadn’t even the slightest clue of her suffering. It was immature of him, certainly also unfair and selfish, and yet the jealousy was there, adding to his worries.
When Sai finished his report, silence settled over them once more. After a while, conversations broke in hushed whispers, as if they were unconsciously afraid to tear the veil of grimness that banded them with a web of concern.
Neji blocked them all out, as introspection absorbed his entire concentration. Was she still alive? Was her spirit –that beautiful spirit he so admire, still intact? Cloud he save her? Had he failed her?
The questions piled by the second, making his confident nature wither under pessimistic speculation. Each thought, each ‘unknown’ was a claw ripping at his soul without respite or mercy.
Tenten was everything to him. If he lost her, he would have nothing left to die for and, most importantly, nothing else to live for. His father’s untimely death had already broken him once, but if something happened to his koichii… it would shatter him beyond repair. nEJI considered himself strong and independent, but he could only take so much pain.
He snorted in a rather undignified matter. Who was he kidding? He had long since forfeited his independence and clung to her like a limpet, not wishing to ever let her go. Even now he refused to do it. If he had to battle the hand of faith or the call of destiny, he would do it without hesitation and with all his might.
As his chaotic thoughts pressed upon his mind, sentiments he had never felt before –and which frankly he did not care to identify at the moment-- wrapped around him like a heavy cape that, instead of protecting him against the cold, made shivers run down his spine and turned his blood to ice.
By the time Kakashi suggested that they rest, it was already nightfall. Neji wanted to keep moving, but knew it would be stupid and reckless to arrive at their destination tired and sleepless. If Sai’s information was correct, what awaited them was an army that outnumbered them four or five to one, and that was being optimistic.
A makeshift camp was raised within the eye of the forest they were traversing. As everyone gathered near the bonfire, Neji chose to retreat back into his solitary thoughts by choosing to sit amidst the darkness of the night with only the moon and the stars as company.
Below that shiny ceiling of stunning beauty, he found no respite or peace. Instead, so much beauty in the face of his personal tragedy irritated him. As strange as it was, he couldn’t help but feel as if nature itself was mocking him; as if Kami-sama was disregarding the fact that this display did not go in accordance to his sour mood.
“It should be raining,” he murmured with a scowl he’d only ever used to indicate his aggravation towards a certain pair of spandex-clad individuals.
He’d never blamed, thanked or asked him for anything. He had never felt the need to or, at the very least, the inclination to consider him. More often than not, the prodigy had used his name in vain, but he’d never being truly conscious about it. He’d never given serious thought to the fact that he was an omnipotent God, who had the world at his feet and did with it as he pleased.
So… would he be able to help him? Was he even watching him right now? Studying how this once confident, unbreakable warrior was brought to his knees by a woman –or rather, the loss of one?
“There’s always a first time for everything, Neji!” Tenten’s voice echoed in his head, unbidden but not unwelcomed.
Neji chose to regard that as a sign of what he should do. So he cleared his throat and leaned forward on the elbows he’d placed on his knees. He was nervous and clearly desperate if he was turning to the heavens for help on earth. One of his hands fisted and the other one wrapped around it, as he tried to keep the frustration born from bad decisions mingled with impotence at bay.
“I’ve never asked you for anything,” he began, feeling slightly foolish for talking to an invincible force that may or may not be real. What would you think if you saw me now, Tenten? That made his lips quirk in a hollow smile. “To be frank, I am sure we both know I have been rather indifferent towards you… But she hasn’t, you know? She has always thank you for everything, never blamed or ask for anything in return. Her victories she offered to you and her losses she blamed upon herself.”
He paused, turning his ivory gaze towards the sky. The shiny sparkles of the dark ceiling blurred before him, and he rolled his eyes almost to the back of his head in an effort to keep his tears from falling.
Damn it! Crying would do him no good!
A tear rolled down. Before he could wipe it away, a gust of wind caressed his cheek and dried it. Neji just stared, eyes wide, not knowing whether the wind was a coincidence, the desire of his mind materializing or something –someone out there letting him know he was not alone. For the sake of his failing sanity, he chose to believe that it was the latter.
“I won’t make promises I cannot keep. I won’t promise you absolute devotion or constant prayers. But if you protect her, at least until I get there… I swear to you I will keep her safe forever. I swear to you that I will love her, cherish her and support her in whatever endeavor she chooses,” his voice was rough, the words difficult to utter. “I-… I can’t live without her. So if you are listening, Kami-sama, know that my love for one of your believers is all I can offer.”
Whether it was his active imagination playing tricks or his heart searching for hope –for signs within the nature around him, Neji could have sworn he felt a hand of wind caressing his cheek again. A symphony of crickets began to sing, the sound somehow giving some comfort to his ailing heart.
The shuffling of the bushes behind him made his back tense in expectation of his moping –yes, he guessed that is what he was doing—being interrupted. From within the screen of leaves and branches, Nara Shikamaru came out, a bowl of soup in his hand and a somber expression replacing his usual bored one.
“Here,” he said, handing him the plate and leaning against a nearby tree. His dark eyes trailed to look up at the stars. After a while, he said, “Indeed, rain would be more befitting.”
Neji scowled, letting him know he did not wish to speak about what he’d been doing. He knew the strategist had most probably listened to his one-way conversation… his desperate plea for help. Yet, one look at his face, showed Shikamaru wasn’t about to mock him for it. Instead, there was clear comprehension, empathy in a level obtained only by those who also had someone precious to lose.
Shikamaru shrugged after a pause and excused, “If you spill your secrets to the wind, do not get angry if they convey them to the trees, Hyuga.”
Neji sighed in a mixture of acceptance and defeat, retuning his attention back to the bowl in his hands he had yet to make use of. At least, the warmth of it spilled onto the hands that he hadn’t even noticed had been numbed by the crisp weather.
“How are you holding up?” Shikamaru enquired, his tone casual but his eyes indicated that he was truly worried.
A bitter laugh escaped Neji’s lips before he could stop it. Emotions seemed to be going awry inside of him. Dealing with his stress seemed to become more and more challenging as time tickled by.
Neji was far from fine, it was painfully evident to himself and he wondered if it was likewise obvious to everyone else. He seriously hoped it wasn’t, but he wouldn’t be surprised to find otherwise. After all, it was not everyday someone found the prodigy of the Hyuga Clan speaking to a God, or shedding tears like a frigging fountain. Still, if only for his pride alone, he would keep the pretence of being cool and collected about the nightmare he was living.
So Neji, in full capacity of his reason, decided to inform that he was fine. Yet, his damn mind betrayed him by confiding something even he himself had been unaware of in a conscious level. Because the harden warrior ended up answering, “I’m scared.”
Milky eyes widened as soon as the words left his lips. They echoed in his head for a while longer, as though to be sure his reluctant mind understood and accepted the truth of it. Something his heart had already done the moment he’d started this trip.
Shikamaru was speechless, most probably feeling twice as surprised to hear such a confession out of him. After all, he was more often than not regarded as a moving icicle, sharing that particular tag with the Uchiha avenger.
“I’m scared…?” he repeated to himself in a trembling whisper. And just like that, something snapped.
Neji gave a harsh bark of laughter that shook his entire frame. Through rumbling and strong, it was, nonetheless, low enough to be heard only by them. A hand shot towards his face, concealing the gaze that he knew was bared raw by the overwhelming pain filling him.
Kami, it hurt. It hurt so much he felt like crying in despair and laughing in distress. It hurt so damn much he could hardly breathe…
“Neji…” Shikamaru called, his tone softer than he’d ever heard it before. It was, of course, not helping him recover his sanity.
“I can’t do this,” he admitted in a whisper, realizing for the first time, that he was in too deep, that this mission was far too personal for him to lead it successfully. Because when the time came, Neji would not think about the Akatsuki. He would not think about trying to gather the group’s records or trying to capture the heads of the operation.
He would think foremost –no, he would only think about Tenten. And only after he found her, would he hunt those who did her harm and paint the ground red with their blood. If he didn’t find her, he would not stop until he killed them all and burned the cursed place that took her life from him to the ground.
Neji–bathed in the blood of those who had dared cross him, even if unknowingly-- would watch the ashes being scatter by the kiss of the wind, knowing, with baffling certainty, that he would feel absolutely nothing… but the deepest of pains.
So, no, he could not lead this mission when he had his own agenda to consider. Funny, how it was not until now that he finally understood Uchiha Sasuke and his reasons for doing what he did. Perhaps it took an avenger to accept an avenger…
“Hyuga, you need to pull yourself together. You are nee--”
“No.” He stood up and faced the confused shinobi. His dark eyes widened even more at whatever it was he saw in his milky gaze.
Perhaps his bloodlust was visible? Or maybe his despair? Whatever it was, Neji didn’t care. He had to get his point across. He was not that far gone to allow the mission Tenten had worked so hard on, to go to waste because of his selfish needs.
“I’ve never in my life asked for a favor, but I’ll ask one thing from you now, Shikamaru.”
Shikamaru nodded slowly after the shock had somewhat subsided, letting the Hyuga know he was listening.
“I need you to lead this operation.”
“But…why?” Dark eyes begged to understand the rash decision made in a moment of vulnerability. “I thought this was what you wanted!”
Neji shook his head, “I just want to find her, hold her and take her away. Everything else doesn’t matter to me. Never has, never will.”
“I’m not a shinobi of the Leaf right now, Shikamaru,” Neji pressed, gazing at the sky, wondering if Kami-sama was still watching. “A ninja is not supposed to show emotions, isn’t that correct? So no… I am not a ninja, at least not tonight.” He locked gazes with the new captain once more and acknowledge, “I am out for blood. If she’s alive I will be her guardian… if she’s dead, I’ll be her avenger.”
The strategist crossed his arms, understanding drawing, though the concern was far from vanishing. “Alright. You concentrate on finding Tenten and we’ll do the rest.”
Neji nodded in silent thanks before turning to the sky and repeating his mantra with unspoken fervor. I’m coming, Koichii... Just hang in there a little more.
~A day later~
Tenten smiled bitterly at the distorted reflection that greeted her from the surface of the water basin. She had been here for only a day, and already her entire reality had been altered. What she’d believed for the past month had been nothing short of a carefully fabricated scheme. She’d fell for it so easily, it made her sick.
Tenten had known something was wrong the moment she stepped inside the small fort. It was a village strategically built in the center of an almost impenetrable natural shield.
When Katsuro finally halted, they were already coming out of the deep forest they had traveled through. During the demanding trek, she’d lost count of how many hidden nin were watching them from their hiding spot.
“Come, Gin,” he ordered, as the small group that had traveled with them disbanded.
Tenten was about to follow him when she felt someone grabbing her arm and keeping her forcibly in place. The simple fact that she couldn’t fight the vice-like grip, prompted her to acknowledge how weak she’d physically become.
To be fair, though, it was to be expected given her constant maltreatment and the meager nourishment she’d received before being ‘bought’ by Katsuro. Still, she had been unprepared for such an event where strength was needed and there was none to be found.
Her vain attempts to dislodge the tight digits on her arm, elicited an evil chuckle from her captor. The sound –ruthlessly familiar—made her muscles tense and her skin pale a couple of shades. How stupid of her to believe she would have been rid of him!
“Perhaps we can have some fun while in here… What say you, Ginny?” Takeshi, the man who’d tortured her countless of times, whispered in her ear huskily. She’d never heard him use that tone filled not with malice, but with sexual hunger. It made her shiver with fright and disgust.
“Takeshi!” Katsuro’s eyes narrowed and Tenten felt her limb being languidly released after a final caress.
“Relax, Katsuro,” the burlier male advised nonchalantly, openly leering at Tenten, who had yet to make a sound.
The interrogator was walking past her owner, when Katsuro’s hand lashed out. In a blink, a kunai was pinching his jugular, threatening to draw out a river of blood if given the excuse.
This information was rich! So the Akatsuki’s members weren’t as close as she’d thought. Perhaps she could find a way to exploit this evident hatred?
“Don’t let me catch you manhandling my property again,” Katsuro seethed, pressing the blade slightly into the tender area of the interrogator’s neck, so that a bead of blood did rolled down after all.
Surprised and irritated, Takeshi stepped back and tsked angrily before he continued on his way, storming through the small group of lookouts who had, apparently, come out of their hiding places to watch.
Chuckles and some jeering were thrown at the retreating back of her tormentor, but Takeshi paid them no heed.
Tenten wondered again if she could somehow use this animosity to her advantage. If she could add wood to the fire that she had, by pure coincidence, started, then maybe…
“Come, Gin,” Katsuro called, his voice so mellow it was hard to believe it belonged to the same man who had threatened Takeshi a moment ago.
Tenten’s attention focused on him. As soon as her eyes locked with his, she felt a mixture of fear and gratefulness invading her. How could eyes that had been so hard, be able to warm up so easily? And why would they even warm up when she was supposed to be nothing but a tool? There was something wrong with the whole picture, she just couldn’t tell what it was! Just what was he trying to do by acting nice to her?
Wishing to stay on the man’s good graces, especially since she was –though it pained her to admit it—pretty much at his mercy, she went to him and allowed him to take her hand. He led her out of the forest, walking past the group that had yet to return to their jobs without a glance. As soon as they stepped out and into the glaring light, her breath caught in her throat… and then, she just felt like groaning.
The small village was an almost impenetrable fort, protected by shields erected by nature itself. On one side, there was a wide river with currents that looked so wild, only a rain nin of unimaginable skill would be able to cross it unharmed. On the other side, there was a mountain so steep and fragile, that to climb it would be close to suicidal. The final two sides were met by the ocean of greens she had just come out from, which she knew for a fact, was protected by a good number of ninjas.
Tenten begrudgingly allowed admiration for the sheer and undeniable beauty of the place to push despair aside. It didn’t last long before dismay popped its ugly head again.
How was she supposed to be rescued? Whichever team was sent to get her would be lucky not to lose half of their members before getting inside!
Trying not to think too much about it, she followed Katsuro. He led her towards an imposing compound. The sign atop the entrance indicated that it was his residence, the three petal flower being clue enough. Before they even reached the shogi --as if someone had been waiting all along-- it was opened by a woman wearing a kimono that, though elegant, was partly opened on the front to show a good amount of cleavage.
Something about her didn’t seem right, but Tenten was at a complete loss. To be frank, she was also surprised to find a woman moving around without chains keeping her in place. If this woman –who also bore a burnt mark on her bosom—had been bought, then why wasn’t she fighting? Why wasn’t she running? Surely, there must have been plenty of things inside the house to be used as makeshift weapons! So how were they controlling her?
The woman bowed low and, as soon as Katruso stepped in, she moved towards him still on her knees and kissed his free hand adoringly. She hadn’t been asked to, she had simply done it on pure and raw impulse…
“Katsuro-sama, welcome back,” she said, and it was only then Tenten understood what it all meant… and it scared the hell out of her. Because one gaze at the dark eyes of the older female showed it all.
The woman was broken, probably beyond repair. There was no spirit there, no sense of being. Instead, she was a shell, acting as she should and doing what she must. A hollow carcass, not living but simply striving. It struck her then and there, like a bolt of lightning in both intensity and strength, that it had not been the interrogator who had broken her.
“Amy, be a good girl and prepare Gin’s room,” Katruso said, running his hand through her hair tenderly. Yet, all Tenten could see, was his patronizing look. How many times had he given her that same look?
And there it was, staring her right in the face like it had always done. Only before, she had been too blinded by pain to see it…
It had been a farce. Everything had been fake!
It all made perfect sense now. How queer that it had been her savior the one that had attacked the throne room of her castle, while the interrogator –the one she had been concentrated upon—had only attacked the walls outside her fort, serving as a cunning distraction.
It was all easier now that she’d finally understood that which had been a mystery to her before. She had been right in feeling more frightened by Katsuro’s show of kindness than by the interrogator’s knives. Only she hadn’t understood the real reason for that fright. She’d attributed it to the fact that she had been presented with an unknown element, which she didn’t know how to interpret. When all along, the truth had been much simpler… and much crueler…
Indeed. She had been wrong about him all this time. But not anymore! Now she understood his reasons for doing what he did. Now, things were really what they were and not what they seemed.
The kindness she’d found so out of place, was revealed within the light of reason to be a manipulating force to behold. Katsuro had never looked at her like a person, but like an object to be broken before being altered and then glued together to become a new and different being.
It had never been a coincidence to have him appear every time she needed him. No, that had been planned. And by Kami, it was genius!
After all, they needed their sprits broken, not their bodies. While she had been concentrated in keeping the physical pain at bay, she had been blind to the fact that her mind was the one being attacked. The moment she had stopped thinking about having Neji rescuing her, her spirit –her sense of being-- had been mortally wounded! And Katsuro had been quick to take advantage of that.
Unfortunately for him, she was a survivor, and therefore she had not died.
So yes, she’d been broken, there was no question about that. The difference was that she still remembered who she used to be. So she’d gathered the pieces and put them back on as they should be. Sure, it was not a perfect replica. There were scars and missing pieces here and there, but overall she was still her. Tenten, weapon mistress of Konoha, Shinobi of the Leaf and the girl that never needed a last name to prove her worth.
Around her, the light started to dim as the sun commenced its retreat. Golden paint of nature bathed her skin and blanketed everything else in a last show of beauty and peace. The chakra channel of her back opened as Sai connected with her, signaling he was near.
Kunai-ichi, he sent, his words filled with a tingle of excitement, we are coming tonight.
Tenten’s breath caught, her heart hammered inside her ribcage. Excitement, relief, happiness and exhaustion kicked in at the same time, battling for control. Relief won. Finally, all would be over…
I’ll be waiting, she sent back, feeling the beginning of blissfulness enveloping her. She turned towards the window, admiring the sky that was now painted red. “Blood will be shed tonight,” she whispered, wishing she had a weapon with her to help when the raid started.
Just then the shogi door behind her opened to reveal Katsuro. Tenten’s eyes widened when she noticed the smoldering look in his darken orbs. She knew what this meant, and wondered what to do.
He gave a step towards her, like an impending storm.
If she fought him now, he would know she had not been broken.
Would Neji forgive her?
Did she even have the right to claim Neji as her own anymore? Would he care for broken goods?
Another step and he was now brushing against her.
His hands slipped inside her kimono through the opening in her front. He touched her shoulders, caressing them with his calloused palms, before he began to slip the garment off. Tenten closed her eyes. It was all for the mission.
When her body was stripped of the silky garment, she was left standing in nothing but her flimsy underwear, feeling completely exposed and positively disgusted.
It’s all for the mission, she repeated like a mantra.
When his lips descended upon hers, she could not keep the tears away. Nor could she, hard as she tried, return the kiss.
As if heeding her silent plea for help, an explosion was heard. Katruso broke the kiss abruptly, turning towards the window. The sun was down and, between the shadows outside, a serpent of fire began to spread. In a blink, the man was gone and Tenten fell to her knees not knowing whether to laugh or cry.
“Neji,” she whispered, wondering if he was part of the team coming. She selfishly hoped he was…
Before she could recover her composure, however, another figure slipped inside the room. Her head snapped in his direction, her eyes widened in shock as her throat dried and constricted.
“How?” she croaked.
The figure smiled, “Perhaps we can have some fun while in here. What say you… Ginny?”