Sharp-Bladed Spirit

The Rescue

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” -Helen Keller


Hyuga Neji knelt behind a broad tree and pulled his mask down to cover his ashen face. Beside him, Lee and Sasuke –the only two that Shikamaru had spared in order to help him with his mission—did the same.

Making sure they were as hidden within the foliage as possible, Neji activated his byakugan to better inspect their surroundings. As far as he could see, there were only five enemy nins hiding nearby, and he was thankful for that.

Though he was positive that the three of them could take a larger number with ease, he wanted to spend as less time as possible inside the forest. His main objective was not to destroy the Akatsuki, but to rescue Tenten and, for that, he wanted to reserve his energies for when he actually entered the menacing fort.

“How many?” Sasuke asked, squinting as though to see past the spreading shadows. The words were spoken so softly, that had his senses not been as keen as they were, Neji wouldn’t have heard him.

Sparing a glance in his direction, he noticed that the Uchiha’s hand was already closed on the hilt of his long katana, signaling he was more than ready to kick into action at the slightest hint of danger.

Reflecting a bit about this most unexpected companion, it struck Neji as odd how willingly the man had agreed to be parted from Sakura in order to help him with Tenten. Sasuke owed him nothing, and yet he had proven his usefulness in these uncertain times. Neji, however, was not as naïve as to simply accept this without questioning it at least once.

The cynical part of him, warned that there may be an ulterior motive to his Samaritan actions. But his idealistic side –that which had been born due to Tenten’s kindness and which, under her watchful eye, had been growing due to the goodness of her heart—gave him his thanks.

It takes an avenger to accept an avenger, the thought –that piece of wisdom he’d discovered only yesterday, echoed inside his head. Could it be that he had been right about that? Was Sasuke so keen on helping him because he already knew the pain of losing it all and its subsequent cost?

Could he, Hyuga Neji, become an avenger to be feared and questioned by his companions --his friends, few as those may be?

At his lack of an answer, the last of the Uchihas locked gazes with him and quirked an eyebrow in silent query. He opened his mouth, probably to repeat his question, but Neji interrupted with his answer.

“Five in total,” his eyes moved to gaze at the spots where the enemies that only he could see, lay in wait, “two ahead and three behind.”

Sasuke nodded, his eyes focusing on each place for a couple of seconds, as if still trying to see through the shadows of greens and browns. If the avenger was nervous or worried, he managed to hide it well.

Needless to say, Neji had also done an excellent job in hiding his own increasing apprehension. But then again, the fact that at present it was blanketed by drumming excitement –produced by the idea of finally seeing Tenten again-- had most probably helped in quelling it.

“Yosh! My youthful rival, should we show them the power of our youthful fists now?” Lee enquired, cracking his knuckles and smiling his shiny smile.

For a brief moment, the beast had completely slipped off his mind. But to know he was here, sharing in his wish to overcome the obstacles ahead, made Neji feel oddly at ease.

Aware that his team was waiting for an answer, he quickly filed through all their alternatives and decided against an early head-on attack. Instead, it would be best to wait for the main team to begin their ambush, since they could act as a distraction for some of the warriors nearby. If they were lucky, there would be no need to fight until after they entered the fort.

“Let’s wait and see what they do after Shikamaru gives the signal,” he voiced, his tone controlled and authoritative. He would accept no questioning of his orders, for this time what was at stake he could not—would not gamble. She was too important…

Sasuke, who seemed to have followed his train of thought, was swift to offer nonchalantly, “If it comes down to a fight, Lee and I can take them. There’s no need for you to waste your time here.”

“He’s right, Neji! You must only concentrate on getting back our blossoming flower of youth with all of her petals intact!” Lee agreed, giving him his famous thumbs up.

Though Lee still acted like his idiotic self, Neji detected a hollowness to his smile and an odd tension to his movements. It blatantly belied his confident facade. Rock Lee was worried sick about her, and Neji could not blame him. Quite the contrary, he empathized with him in a level he never thought possible. Hell, his own steely confidence seemed to have gone down the drain, and it surprised him to realize that he was taking comfort in his friend’s mere presence. He never thought the day would come when he would be glad to have Lee with him.

But were these thoughts –these unforeseen sentiments, truly that outlandish? After all, they were family. A rather dysfunctional and sometimes aggravating family, yes. But it was family no less.

It occurred to him then, that if something happened to his Koichii, he would not be the only one left with a broken heart. The thought made him feel jaded as it reminded him of his own selfishness. For the sake of his resolve, he decided to brush it aside for the time being. It would not help having demoralizing thoughts, when Tenten, the only woman –No! The only being he could not live without, was on the line.

Thus, building his confidence back and clinging to that cold, calculating part of him that always heeded to be careful, he gave Lee a look of reassurance and nodded curtly. Neji closed his eyes, concentrating on evening his breathing in order to lower the rhythm of his heartbeats. After that, he gave each of his comrades a long, thankful glance.

“I’ll leave it to you guys, then,” he spoke the words with ease, knowing deep down in his heart that they would be alright.

Even if Neji never admitted it, Lee and Sasuke were two of the strongest Shinobis Konoha had to offer. As such, they would not be going down anytime soon. If anything, he should be worried about his own part of the plan. After all, he was going to be lunging head first into the bowels of the Akatsuki’s safe haven. Neji would definitely be bound to have problems of his own.

A fight against destiny, fate and all that crap he’d always believed in so blindly was waiting ahead –taunting him and challenging him to change what had been written. But all be damned, he would do it! Even if he had to antagonize Kami-sama himself, he would not stop until his koichii was back in the protective circle of his arms. He would battle it all, he would battle them all… just to hold her again. But when he did, when at last he found her, he silently vowed, he would never ever let her go.

I will not fail you again… Tenten.

“As soon as we finish here, we’ll go back you up,” Sasuke’s voice broke through his self pet-talk. His words registered only when he placed a pale hand on his shoulder. Long digits tightened on his muscles not painfully, but firmly.

He turned to him, confused and yet –below that—a sense of understanding began to spread in him. Dark eyes gazed at him, and this was the first time he saw them filled with tumultuous emotions that were bared raw for his inspection. A silent confession Sasuke had never made before, was felt and seen by him instead of heard.

Neji understood it-- him. He understood why the survivor of the Uchiha massacre had left it all for the reward of revenge. He understood how empty Sasuke had felt after achieving his objective.

“Just remember that an avenger is never happy. Revenge may bring some sort of dark justice, but it never brings relief,” Sasuke admitted, his eyes trailing to the gap between the trees –their objective for the time being. “Do not become one until you are sure she is no more, Hyuga…”

The lines around those dark pools that were his eyes –the only thing he could still see underneath his ANBU mask-- signaled that even now, after having been forgiven, he still carried his demons, his guilt, his heavy cloak of regret.

“I failed to see it, but some things are much more important than revenge,” he whispered, idly checking the straps of his armor.

“I assure you, Tenten is my foremost concern,” Neji countered, relieved to know he was not lying.

Sasuke turned to him and his lips quirked in a smirk. “I can see that. In this, at least, you have proven superior.”

He was about to remark on that, when an explosion to the west of where they knelt, stole their complete attention. Shikamaru had finally given the signal!

Neji activated his byakugan and scanned the area. Two of the five enemy ninjas were already moving towards the explosion. One look in that direction showed that the curtain had been lifted and the players had all stepped into the stage. The darken space was painted orange as the flames raged on, licking up towards the ominous sky like dancing serpents.

The Akatsuki had declared war against them, and this was their response, sent quite fittingly with fire and steel!

He turned to his companions, asking them if they were ready with the ivory eyes that were lightened by inner strength born from their unity. They nodded in acknowledgement, in acceptance of their given role.

Five seconds later, they were on their feet and sprinting towards the clearing where the fort stood, moving through the forest like the dark current of a raging waterfall. Not long after, their remaining enemies jumped down and stood across their path, waiting with madden grins for them to accept the silent challenge.

But even the hardest of rocks could only stand so long intact against a current of water that moved with the force of an angry nature. Either they cleared the way, or they paid the consequence!

Beside him, Sasuke activated his sharingan and pressed his pace. He quickly chose two of them and took them out for a dance. Lee, also pressing his pace, was quick to engage the remaining man, jumping around him with outstanding speed and therefore distracting him from noticing Neji.

The Hyuga continued undeterred on his self-imposed journey, hoping that he would get to see his friend and rival again –if only to show them that he too had been successful when he brought Tenten back. Because he was going to do it. That was the end of the matter!

Just as he stepped out of the last line of trees, however, he was met by four men who seemed to have been hastily armed. The fact that they were still wearing kimonos almost made Neji smiled.

Now, how were they planning to fight with those clothes hindering their movements? Where they really so conceited as to think they would not need to get their hands dirty?

“You there!” One of them called angrily as soon as he zeroed on him. He spun his kunais with nimble fingers and bared his teeth in a snarl. “You’ll regret this, you insolent cod!”

“You sound oddly confident for someone who is already dead,” Neji taunted, with a smirk he knew would boil the blood of the already irritated man.

It worked. The man’s approach turned into a sprint, kunais outstretched and ready to bite on the tender skin of his neck. But the Hyuga had fallen into his gentle fists stance and was ready for him. His enemy jumped for the kill.

“Hakke Kūshō,” Neji yelled, throwing his palm out and skillfully connecting it with the man’s broad chest –in the spot right above his drumming heart.

The man stepped back, gasped –eyes widening, popping out of their sockets in pain and shock—and fell back. Before he even touched the ground, his heart had stopped beating and he lay dead, blood pouring out of the orifices of his mouth and nose.

Neji activated his byakugan and retook his fighting stance. He tilted his head in a taunt and signaled them to come to him with one finger. Do your worst, for I’ll do mine! His mind yelled; blood pumping quickly, sharpening his senses and increasing his reflexes as adrenaline took over.

He would finish them up quickly… and he would give them no mercy.

Tenten stared at the figure with shock and fright shining in her aching eyes. From all of her enemies, why did it have to be him? Why did he have to come now!

Slowly she regained her feet, making sure to maintain her actions as peaceful-looking as possible, while at the same time trying to come up with a way to take the demon out. Kami, if she still had half the strength she used to have, she would not be feeling as frightened as she was. Yet, truth remained that she was weak, and for the first time in her life, she doubted she would be able to take this enemy on and come out unharmed.

But she was Tenten, damn it! She was Konoha’s only weapon mistress. She was the ninja who had endured training at the hands of Ibiki. The only person capable of keeping pace with the Hyuga prodigy. The only one able to understand the two green beasts of Konoha, and spend time with them without harming them. The kunoichi who got tortured for weeks on end, simply to achieve a mission her pride demanded she finished! She was the woman who’d lost her family, and still managed to become someone to be respected and admired! And even if she wasn’t the bright, shiny blade of her former self, she still had her edge. In spite of the cracks running along the steel of her spirit, she could –she must still stand her ground. If she had to die, she would at least make sure it would not be by this man’s putrid hands!

Tenten’s resolve must have shown in the depths of her eyes, because the man’s face split in a broad, wolfish grin.

“Oh, you still have some fire, huh?” Takeshi’s tongue licked his lips as his eyes drank her quivering form. “You’re a feisty one,” he chuckled darkly. “We’re going to have so much ‘fun’.”

The male swept his dark gaze slowly down her body. Tenten fought the urge to try to cover as much of her skin as possible. It would not do to show him she was feeling vulnerable, her pride would never forgive her.

“Let’s get you out of those unbefitting clothes first, shall we?” Takeshi suggested, “They obstruct your beauty, after all.”

Against her will, she gave a step back as he came forward. She felt like prey against a deadly predator. Her eyes were glued to him and nothing else. The mocked foxtrot continued until, much to her dismay, she felt the wall pressing upon her back and knew she had just cornered herself.

Fear battled her confidence, clawing at it and threatening to shred it into tiny pieces. She felt like screaming for her mind and her body to make a decision and act together!

A chuckle from the demon made her shiver against her will. Takeshi was a step away, already intruding into her comfort zone, tainting it with his mere presence.

Fear struck and was now winning!

I’m a Kunoichi of the leaf! Confidence retaliated, pushed back up by raw pride.

He pressed his sweaty body to hers, his fingers hooking on the waistband of her underwear.

I’m ‘the’ weapon mistress of Konoha!

His hand began to slip inside the green garment as he bit her neck, traveling towards her naked shoulder.

Her heartbeat quickened and she began seeing red. Something powerful within her flared. Hate –primal and pulsating-- pushed her fear away and ordered her brain to release bouts of adrenaline.

She felt his hands slip inside of her, wishing to take away more than he already had. Bile rose in her throat, making her want to puke in his face. Her whole body began trembling with conflicting emotions that danced, lunged and exploded inside her.

Mustering all her strength, she tried pushing him away. But the man was a rock so firm, she wondered if he felt her pathetic attempts at fighting at all.

A fat, salty tear rolled down her cheek and she bit her lower lip in order to suppress the distressed wail building in her throat. Stop… stop touching me! Her mind scream, but her lips remained pressed and the demon did not hear…

No one did.


Hyuga Neji continued with his search, destroying everything and everyone that dared barred his path. He was a tornado of blacks and whites, leaving death and screams of pain on his wake.

But she was near. He could feel it in his very soul! She was calling him, asking for his help! The feeling had always been with him –a steadfast companion he had not taken the time to ponder about. Yet, what had felt so out of place then, was so evident and natural now that he felt like screaming. He wanted to demand that they take him to her, but she wasn’t Tenten here and perhaps that had been the only thing that had kept her alive…

Out of nowhere a redheaded man, practically dragging an unarmed woman by the wrist, crossed his path. The young girl stumbled, trying to maintain his pace despite her tight kimono. She was crying rivers, blood tainting part of her clothes.

They continued on their way undeterred, apparently not taking note of his presence, which wasn’t that farfetched since he was standing within the shadows of a nearby house. If he closed his eyes, he could pretend he too had not seen them…

The sound of the woman’s sobs increased, forcing him to acknowledge her plight. In Neji’s mind the situation was quite simple. The woman was a tool for the Akatsuki, and a victim to everyone else.

Still, part of him demanded that he ignored this and concentrated on finding his koichii. But the other part of him, --so damn adamant-- reminded him of his honor and of the fact that he would never forgive himself if he didn’t help her. Neither would Tenten, for that matter… After all, wouldn’t he have liked someone to help Tenten had she been in a similar situation?

That last argument finally pushed his reluctant mind to make a decision. Changing directions, he followed the couple and pressed his pace, so that, this time, he was the one who ended up intercepting their path. That done, Neji regarded them with apparent calmness, prompting the redheaded to immediately fall into action, bringing his sword up and taking a defensive position.

“I suggest you let her go,” he advised, switching to his fighting stance and getting ready to counterattack, should the man choose to make the first move.

Either way, it would serve him, since he was certain that the redheaded was not stupid enough to believe he would be able to continue fighting while dragging the woman along. He would have to let her go, and they both knew it.

The man shrugged nonchalantly and, without hesitation or some visual sign of irritation, he let the woman go. The distressed female –eyes wide, body shaking—stayed by the man’s side for a couple of seconds, probably unsure of how to proceed. Her captor turned to her and, whatever she saw in his dark eyes, made her run away.

Neji was glad he had helped someone else today. Perhaps his karma would balance itself out and he’ll be able to find Tenten next… Well, he could hope for that, at the very least.

­

“Let’s see what you’ve got, then,” the redheaded challenged drily, as he lunged forward with sword held firmly by his side.

Neji smiled behind his mask. He would show this demon that the shinobis of the Leaf were as much a force to behold as was the Akatsuki! Taking out a kunai, he met the attack midway.

For a while, they did nothing but use the steel of their weapons to attack. The blades slashed, sliced, clashed and parried again and again, creating a symphony of clinging sounds that gave testament to a fierce fight. Knowing that time was of the essence, Neji decided to change strategies. If he wanted this to be over, then he would have to use some of his chakra to end it.

The idea that while he was losing time with this man, Tenten was out there –probably in danger—did not bode well with him. Nor did it allowed him to think reasonably anymore. So, when they parted for what seemed to be the tenth time, Neji backed away from his opponent. He made it look as though he was hesitating whether to continue fighting or not, when the truth was, he was carefully planning his next move.

But his façade was executed so perfectly, that the redheaded easily fell for it. With a broad smile of arrogance, the man poured his chakra into his sword, making the weapon faster and more deadly. Neji overcame his initial surprise and activated his byakugan. He fell into a defensive stand, purposely ignoring the various wounds he’d sustained.

His opponent lunged forward with a growl. Unknown to him, he had just stepped inside his chakra diagram and therefore, within reach of his attack. As he continued onwards, Neji concentrated solely on the space between them, checking warily for the second in which he could use his Hakke Hyaku Nijūhachi Shō to close all of the man’s chakra points.

Everything else seemed to cease existing during those long, agonizing seconds. The only thing that he could hear was the tap tap tap of his opponent’s shoes connecting with the hard ground. The distance shrunk, the sword glinted with the luminescent rays of a full moon and the sound of hurrying steps continued until…

His lips parted in a smirk that his opponent would not be able to see. I have you know, you arrogant little bastard.

A meter was enough space. The redheaded prepared his sword to slash in a downward crescent arc, but Neji was faster.

“Hakke Hyaku Nijūhachi Shō,” he yelled, throwing his palms forward, connecting every thrust to one of the man’s chakra points. One hundred and twenty-eight palms later, and the Akatsuki warrior laid on his back, agonizing over the fact that he felt terribly weak now that his chakra paths had been closed.

Neji wasn’t fairing any better. He’d spent too much chakra in the attack and he still hadn’t even found Tenten yet. Knowing that he had to end it now, before reinforcements could come to help his grunting opponent; Neji took out a kunai and knelt beside the sprawled body.

“Good bye,” he murmured, ready to slash the man’s exposed neck. Except, just when he was about to do it, he felt a hostile presence approaching at a rapid pace.

Raw reflexes made him throw himself sideways just in time to avoid a deadly blow to the back of his head. The enemy blade somehow followed him, biting unmercifully into his upper arm.

Neji hissed when tendrils of hot, razor-sharp pain shot out from his wound. Regaining his feet, he spun around, ready to kill the bastard who had harmed him, only to be met by the woman he’d just ‘saved’.

“What the hell,” he mumbled incredulously, gawking at the now armed woman. Her message was crystal clear, but still incomprehensible.

“Leave Katsuro-sama alone!” she yelled, charging at him in a blind rage.

Neji did his best to avoid the blade that seemed to be thirsting for his blood, while he tried to make sense of the situation. When his energies began to deplete, however, he decided he had had enough. If the woman was attacking him, then in his mind she was no longer a victim that needed to be saved. She’d been broken, and as he at last retaliated, he idly wondered if he would find Tenten protecting the enemy too.

He shook his head, angry at himself for even believing such blasphemy. His koichii was not as weak as to be broken –no matter how much she’d suffer. That was one of the things he admired the most about her.

With a shriek reminiscent of a banshee, the woman came at him again. Neji spun out of the way, then twisted in order to end up behind her. With some remorse but no hesitation, he took a hold of her head and snapped her neck.

The sword fell out of her grasp, the sound ringing in his ears for longer than it should. Then, the broken female followed. It had been a quick death. That was the most mercy he could show her.

Panting with exhaustion, he turned towards the spot where he’d left that Katsuro guy, planning to finish him too. Only the spot was already empty and the man was nowhere to be found.

Cursing, he chose to ignore the fact that he ought to pursue him, and instead continued to look for the woman he was intent on finding no matter what. Slowly, as he charged into empty houses filled with shadows and silence, desperation began to make itself known. Nothing else mattered but Tenten… not even the Akatsuki. So if that was true, and he was putting so much effort into finding her, then why couldn’t he?

Where the hell are you, Tenten! He yelled inside his mind, pushing his strength to the limit as he continued with his raid. He had to find her. He just had to!

Tenten rolled her eyes almost to the back of her head. In vain, she sought to ignore what the man was doing to her. She’d tried squirming, pushing and yelling, but it was to no avail. The man did not even bulged an inch. Worst, her hostility only seemed to fuel him on.

Kami, it was disgusting –it was nastier than any nightmare she’d ever had! Still, she was required to endure it, so she was doing just that. That didn’t mean she was enjoying it. Far from it, in fact, it was becoming more difficult as he continued to fondle her, getting himself arouse as he did so.

Had she had been eating normally, she would have probably puked right there and then. But her stomach was pretty much empty. If anything, she would have puked nothing but water mixed with gastric juices.

The idea wasn’t that bad. If not for the fact that she needed to keep his attention on what he was doing right now –regardless of how disgusting it was. Once she was certain he was blind to everything around him, she decided it was time to act. Forcing the voice of reason to push aside her primal responses, she moved her hands slowly, softly around him, brushing, or rather, feeling his back. The man –the pig was too busy to notice what she was doing and she was thankful for that. As if the steel had called her in a language only she understood, she found a weapon. A small smile graced her features at this welcomed turn of events. She slipped her finger inside the hole of the hilt and took the kunai out gingerly.

Now that she was armed, Tenten resolved it was about time she stopped him… once and for all. She tensed in expectation. Her jaw clenched. Her eyes narrowed. She brought the blade above her head, hands trembling as they prepared for the blow. She was so weak, that the only way to damage him would be to use the momentum of her actions to her advantage. That and, of course, the element of surprise.

The man, who seemed to have finished with his foreplay, began to lower her undergarment.

This is it! She resolved and finally acted. Before he even got to bare her crotch, she had brought the weapon down on his back with all the strength she could muster. Hate, though dangerous, was capable of extracting strength from places unknown.

The man yelled in pain and anger as the kunai ripped through clothes, skin and muscles. But she was not done. She’d just started, and Tenten would make him suffer, perhaps not the same torture as her, but something close!

Grinding her teeth, she pulled the kunai out. The man struggled to get away. Before he could get some distance between them to attempt retaliation, she struck again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again…

He fell to the floor, blood pouring out of numerous wounds, eyes widened with shock, pain and denial. A pool below him spread like a flower amidst a smooth forest, and Tenten was oddly reminded of Katsuro’s clan banner. How fitting…

Strength depleted, Tenten fell to her knees beside the dying monster. She gazed at him with hollow eyes. For some reason, she had expected to feel some sense of halcyon –of earthly justice now that she’d done what she’d been dreaming of doing for the past days. Yet, there was nothing there. She felt nothing but aching muscles.

There was no bliss. No happiness. No cockiness. No relief. Nothing… but a staggering wave of exhaustion.

The man’s lips opened and a wheezing whisper came out. Against the small voice in her head that demanded she ended it all, she leaned towards him –curious and morbidly glad.

“I…broke…you,” he managed to get that last strike out, chuckling at his own cunning.

Tenten gazed at him with profound pity, a sense of pride overlapping some of her exhaustion. Her lips parted into a smile so honest, it rendered the man silent. Now that she’d gained his attention, she leaned even further down, knowing that this would be the last thing he would ever hear.

“Oh, but you never broke me, Takeshi,” she corrected, her tone firm and filled with laughter. It was a whisper, but to him it must have sounded like a clamorous scream of victory. “My name is not Gin. Never was… I managed to infiltrate your base. I managed to withstand the pain, to take everything you sent my way without giving in.”

The man’s eyes widened, asking if what she was speaking was true. But he had to know. He had to know she was behind the attack on his base. She was the one that had brought them all down! She smiled condescendingly down at the dying man, knowing she was going to destroy the only thing he thought was untouchable.

“Payback’s a bitch, isn’t it?” she chuckled, but the glassiness of her eyes was not produced by mirth, but by another thing –another feeling she wasn’t very inclined to start inspecting anytime soon.

Boldly, cruelly, she pressed one of her bloodied fingers to his lips. “Takeshi… I want you to know that the one who beat you in every one of your games,” she tapped his quivering mouth playfully, “…was me… Tenten.”

The man snarled, hate emanating from him like smoke from a fire. His trembling hand shot towards her, barely closing around her neck. But the grasp was too weak to do any damage or to even impose a threat. She allowed it, if only to let him see how weak he had become, and how strong she had remained.

A tear rolled down one of his eyes and then he was gone. The hate, the denial, the startling realization of her secret left his eyes as they became hollow pools of black.

Yet still no bliss overtook her. No happiness filled her. Pride abandoned her and, despite it all, she felt so very alone. And so damned exhausted…

Half naked and covered in the blood of one of those who had wronged her, she crawled towards the wall she had been pressed upon not too long ago. Idly, she inspected her arms. They were coated in a layer of thick red and, for a moment, she could have sworn she’d somehow slipped on two cherry gloves. But it wasn’t silk what turned her skin red.

It was blood.

Rusty, sticky, sickly-looking blood.

She flinched as she imagined what picture she must be presenting. But she was too tired to wash or cloth herself.

I’ll just stay like this for a moment, she decided, bringing her knees to her chest and hugging them to her.

Tenten wished she could fold into herself and never come out. Her spirit was so fragile at the moment, that she feared even a light gush of wind would break her. Kami… her head felt heavy, her eyes ached, her entire body was screaming in agony…

So, unable to fight it any longer, she placed her forehead on her knees and allowed the tears to flow –silent, thick and salty. Her soul was bleeding, and the wound pained her like nothing ever had.

And then a word. A single word that meant so much –that asked so much, escaped her dry lips. “Neji.”

What she had not expected, was for an answer to come, especially since she had neither heard nor felt anyone coming…

It was one word. One simple name. Yet, it also meant so much…

“Tenten...”

Hyuga Neji opened another shoji, ready to come out and just scream her name. He was so tired and he was so damned pissed! Why did this village have to be so frigging big!

What he had not anticipated, was to find her there. She was balled into herself, sitting in one corner of the room –bloodied and barely clothed. Though he could not see her face, he knew it was her. He would have been able to pick her out of a bunch of sitting girls with a first glance.

Slowly, silently he stepped inside, idly taking in his surroundings. There was a body nearby, covered in blood. A closer look displayed numerous wounds produced by a sharp object-- a kunai if the fallen object nearby was any indication.

A broken, trembling sob filled the room. The sound latch onto him like an eagle’s grip on its prey, threatening to crush his aching heart. It pained him beyond belief to see her like this, to hear her like this.

The last time Tenten had cried in front of him, had been the day she found out about his cursed mark. She cried for him that time, sharing in his suffering, letting him know that she cared for him.

Now though, she cried for herself. Cried for her own suffering.

And he hated it.

He closed the distance between them with measured movements. The image of the woman he’d killed not long ago flashed before his eyes. Will Tenten be frightened of him now? Would she cower at his touch?

With all his heart, he hoped she was not that far gone…

When he was but inches away from her, he knelt down, wondering how to address her. What could he possibly say to her? How could he begin to apologize for not being there for her when she needed him?!

Suddenly a whisper broke the silence. It was soft, but spoken with unmistakable fervor –with desire almost.

“Neji.”

A lump threatened to render him silent, his eyes welled with tears and his hands trembled with all the wayward emotions swirling inside of him. But one of these tumultuous sentiments was stronger than the rest. It was relief… blissful relief what ultimately filled him. After all she’d gone through, she still called for him. And he felt so honored…

“Tenten,” he whispered back, wrapping that word in all of his love, his unlimited devotion and his heartbreaking pain.

Her body became as stiff as a bow, and his did likewise. There was an awkwardness that had never been there before keeping them each in place. Damn, the distance seemed so hard to breach.

How could he tell her he missed her? How could he let her know how much pain he felt for having taken so long to find her? Would she be able to forgive him one day?

Neji closed his eyes, trying to bring some order into his chaotic thoughts. And then, his mind went blank. The only thing he could register was that her hands were touching his mask. Slowly, she pulled it off. Brown, tearful eyes gazed at him like an arrow going straight through his heart.

Her face wrinkled, in her eyes flashed relief and pain. Then she simply threw herself into his arms. His arms immediately wrapped around her, remembering instinctively that her presence was welcome and should always be protected. He held her, twisting so that his back was against the wall. His embrace, though firm, was still careful, not with hesitation, but with fear. Fear that if he held her with more strength, her fragile body would crumble.

“I’m here, Tenten,” he whispered, not noticing as his own tears left his eyes and rolled down to plunge into her mattered hair. He was far too gone –far too deep within her presence to even care.

And amidst the chaos of a battle, two bloodied warriors –wounded in different ways but in essence by the same thing—found at last, some measure of respite.
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