Sharp-Bladed Spirit

The Silence

“The most profound statements are often said in silence.” -Lynn Johnston

Tenten’s eyes fluttered open. Her mind was floating inside a groggy mess. She felt her body aching all over, her muscles screaming in protest and demanding to be moved with care. Tenten’s heart was thumping unmercifully inside her temples, the first sign of a painful headache coming to add to her discomfort. If she didn’t knew any better, she would’ve sworn she’d been squeezed by Sabaku no Gaara’s sand coffin.

Blinking a couple of time, she brought her surroundings slowly into focus. Her thin brows met on a frown upon noticing the grey ceiling glaring back at her in all its gloom glory. Where am I? With a grunt, Tenten tried to sit up, only to feel a gentle but firm hand on her shoulder pushing her down.

“You better rest for a bit longer,” a voice advised as the figure of Ibiki broke into her line of vision, looming above her somberly.

“Morino-se—,” she stopped, remembering who he’d become, “Ibiki-sensei?”

The man retrieved his hand and folded his arms across his chest, studying her intently. Silence -as Tenten had aptly learned- was, in itself, a rich and mystic language. Messages that where too awkward to be voiced, where instead sent and received in silence. Hell, she should know, since that was also Neji’s preferred language. And it had not been until after learning to interpret his silence that she’d begun to fully understand him.

So knowing that a message was coming, she turned to the man beside her, noticing that --despite his aloofness— he was posing his gaze quite tenderly on her. Ibiki was talking and she was listening with barely concealed eagerness. And in that brief second of absolute silence, he told her how relieved he was that she had woken up.

For the first time that day, Tenten wondered how long she’d been out. Though curious about the possible answer, that was not the question that was balanced precariously on the tip of her dry tongue. There was another question which was so important to her, that she dared not try to ask in silence in case she messed it up.

“Did I…?” she bit her lower lip and closed her eyes for a brief moment. Kami, she couldn’t remember if she’d given in before passing out. The pain does strange things to the mind and at that time, she’d been too welled up inside herself to notice what she was doing.

“Did I…,” she tried again. She shook her head, struggling to voice the rest of the question. Proving to be impossible, Tenten decided to reach for that alluring language few people used and even less people understood. Did I stood my ground or did I ‘disappoint’ you?

“I was wrong,” he said, his tone solemn but filled with emotions she was having trouble identifying. Was he disappointed, then? Had she been wrong in believing she could prove she could do this? She tried to read his body language, to translate that silence into words by processing the glint of his eyes. Yet, how was she to do that when she was uncertain as to what that brightness of his dark gaze meant?

Sometimes words were still needed. Sometimes words made a bigger impression than silence, burning a deeper memory into the hearts of those who –not heard- but listened to them.

Tenten was about to ask him to elaborate, when Ibiki admitted, “Though part of me hurts to accept it, you have proven why you were chosen for this mission.” His eyes glinted with admiration but also with caring sympathy –easily confused with pity by those who knew him not.

But she knew him, and because of that, she felt a warm feeling bursting out of her heart, weaving its way around her body like a thick cloak.

“I’m proud of your accomplishments but…,” Ibiki paused, piercing her with his dark gaze in order to communicate with both, eyes and mouth, the rest of his admission. “If I were to be frank, I would have preferred it if you’d failed… Tenten.”

She gasped softly when he said her name, identifying her as someone that was not just a face in the crowd, another kunoichi among the ranks with nothing to make her stand out. Brown eyes closed slightly as she felt tears –of happiness, of thankfulness, of pride and yes, even of sorrow. She could count with the fingers of one hand, how many people had bestowed her such a compliment.

“Ibiki-sensei…,” she called, her voice a fragile whisper that wished to be lost in communicative silence. It was a hybrid word of those two languages she had learned to use.

He smiled at her. It was the first time his lips didn’t quirk in a smug smirk or an evil smile. It was the first time it was real, directed at her, Tenten, and not at a nameless kunoichi with a mission.

“I never enjoyed hurting you,” he confided, tone rough with emotions. His dark eyes widened when she reached out to clasp his hand firmly in hers.

“I know,” Tenten said, smiling back despite the soreness hugging her every muscle. I bear you no ill feelings, Ibiki-sensei.

“I have taught you all I can… all I know,” he squeezed her hand. “You are a power to behold, Tenten.” The usual coldness in his eyes melted under fierce pride. Tenten felt her own chest swelling at his compliment. “And you shall prove that to us all by coming back… alive.”

She nodded, feeling him let go of her hand with forced casualness that tried to hide what was evident to them both. An unusual and unexpected relationship had bloomed between them, growing like a flower breaking a barrier of snow –fragile looking to the ones who passed it by, yet strong and unbreakable for those who witnessed it battle its way through.

It was love, yes. But it was the likes she had never felt before. It was a love born from mutual respect –like the one a parent would impart to his most precious child when she’d first learn to walk. Likewise, she gave him the love of a child that thanks her father for his patience and unwavering presence by her side. Like her, Ibiki accepted it in silent gratitude. But perhaps his gratitude was greater and deeper, for he had most probably expected her to hate him in the end, which would be the most logical outcome. To be given love from a person whom he’d hurt, even if unwillingly, was something he seemed to find extraordinary.

He broke the spell first. Ibiki Morino nodded curtly in parting, turned around and headed for the door. She noticed right then –by the insignia hanging on the door- that she was still in the ANBU interrogation building, in a room she had never been in before. Perhaps it was a room to care for tortured prisoners when they didn’t want them to die? How funny that the morose thought no longer made her shudder, when in the past she would have paled at least a shade.

He pulled the door open and she found herself saying, “I will come back.”

He didn’t turn, but she could hear the smirk in his voice, “I know.”

And with that, he left. His part in her training was over and now…Sai’s next.

Hyuga Neji knelt on a thin mat before the elders of his Clan. His uncle, Hiashi, was kneeling behind a small table a meter apart from him, in the center of the line of stern-looking males. Feeling the force of nine pairs of eyes, Neji’s hand twitched as he fought the urge to touch the long strip of cloth that was binding his chest below his gi. Tenten’s bandages were the only thing giving him reassurance as he waited for the meeting to commence.

So far, he’d been here for a week and yet, the issue that had brought them out of Konoha had not yet been addressed. It was a rather tedious process, truth be told. If not for the long years he’d had to build his patience inside the solemn household of the Hyugas, he would’ve already exploded with stress.

Perhaps that was the reason he preferred sleeping in Tenten’s apartment? Of course, the main reason was to be with her, but there was also that peaceful atmosphere surrounding everything that was hers that beckoned him. He was allowed, within the confines of her home and her presence, to act freely upon his wishes –knowing he was not expected to act a certain way, nor would he be subjected to judgment that he did not deserve. Yes, Tenten was his home in more ways than she would ever realize; more so than the Hyuga Compound.

Neji allowed a low sigh to escape his lips, relaxing his muscles in order to hide the anxiousness that was threatening to start gnawing at his resolve. The first few days of being in this solitary hot spring, they’d done little more than mediate and, in Neji’s case, exercise. Talk among them or to any outsider was strictly prohibited. Silence was supposed to help in calming the spirit and adjusting the chakra flow to maintain their bodies and souls balanced.

All the steps of this odd ritual were done with the purpose of preparing themselves for today, when finally talking was allowed and life-altering –again, in only Neji’s case- subject were about to be, not settled, but discussed. Yes, discussed because he was not about to let them dictate the changes in his life. This time, perhaps for the first time ever, he was about to break tradition and demand his ability to chose. He wanted to be given the right to control his own damn life for once and for all.

The sound of papers being shuffled made him look up. His uncle was scanning a bunch of papers that one of the servants must have placed before him –if the middle-aged woman standing close to him, her head tilted down and eyes half-lidded, was any indication.

After torturous minutes, Hiashi gathered the papers into five different piles which he then placed into five different folders. That done, he nodded curtly to his right. That was the signal the nearby servant was waiting for to comply with orders he may have given her earlier. Either that or she had assisted during this ritual for another young Hyuga male before Neji.

With nimble fingers, the woman took the folders in one careful but practiced sweep. Hugging the files to her body, almost as though her life depended on them, she bowed low before standing up. Giving short, constricted steps (due to her kimono) she went around the line of kneeling elders, careful to keep her eyes to the ground. When she passed the last elder, she changed direction, padding towards his kneeling form.

Neji studied her approach stoically. The woman weaved her way around the room with odd detachment. Neji couldn’t help thinking about the injustice of it all. The Compound’s servants, though dangerous to the Hyugas in their own way, were not marked by the curse of the caged bird or any other curse at all.

His lips quirked in a bittersweet smile when the woman knelt beside him. Her forehead was a clean and smooth shade of pearl, unadorned by the green runes of the main family’s mark of ownership. There was nothing there to remind her of what could happen if she were to betray the Hyugas, binding her tongue and her hands by nothing but a vow she’d made when she’d enter their services. Yet, he --who was one of the proudest members of his Clan, one of the brightest and strongest-- was constantly reminded of what would happen if he were to disobey. He was crippled, knowing that no matter how skillful he was, no matter his unblemished reputation, he would always be at the mercy of the main family. In a whim, he could be murdered and there was absolutely nothing he could do about it. Interesting how they believed he would be more prompt to betray his own flesh and blood than the servants who were bound by nothing but a fragile string of loyalty. One grudge would be all it took for one of them to attack them in their most vulnerable moments –while bathing, sleeping, eating…

How? How was it fair that Neji’s loyalty be rewarded by the constant reminder of the invisible hand around his brain, waiting for just one suspicious move to crush it into an unrecognizable mess?

“Neji-sama,” the woman’s voice snapped him off his dark thoughts, her brown eyes –much like Tenten’s yet not quite as beautiful- holding a glint of minor concern.

Neji shook his head curtly in dismissal, taking the folders with guarded curiosity. He didn’t have to look to know what was inside. The folders were, morbidly put, catalogues for women the elders had deemed worthy of belonging to their Clan. Women that, he was sure, were the opposite of Tenten: meek and made of porcelain skin that wasn’t marked by fighting or hardship, but with a strong enough Clan to back them up. He fought the urge to tear the papers to pieces. The childish display would only earn the elders’ scorn, and since right now he needed the opposite, his hands were rendered harmless.

He took a moment to calm down because he not only wanted, but needed the Elder’s respect. He needed them to see he was mature enough to know when limits over him were to be finally set and fiercely defended. Most of all, they needed to accept that there was only one woman for him, as they were soon to find out.

“Well, Neji,” his uncle’s cold voice made his eyes switch from the folders to his unblinking gaze. “What are you waiting for? Open them and chose. You are nearing your marring age and a proper bride must be chosen –if not by you, then by us.”

Neji maintained his face void of emotions. Neither the fright nor the excitement where allowed to be showcased inside his milky eyes. With deliberate slowness, he placed the files on the floor near his knees, his eyes never breaking off from Hiashi’s. Undaunted determination met wary curiosity inside the vast space of tensed silence, broken only by the sound of breathing that seemed to become louder with each second.

While the elders most probably found his action –or lack thereof rebellious, Neji regarded them as righteous. If destiny had provided him with a life, then wasn’t it his duty to live it as he wished? If destiny was the force that brought Tenten to him, using time to help him garner her love and vice versa, then wasn’t it his duty to fight for her? To keep her for the rest of his life until destiny decided that one had to go to a place the other was not yet fated to follow?

Till death do us part, Tenten …my koishii.

“Venerable elders,” he said, sweeping them with his glance before his glinting eyes locked with his uncles’ hooded ones, “I’ve already chosen the only one I will accept as my aisian.”

Murmurs broke all around, but Neji’s entire attention was stolen by the eyes of his uncle; the same man who’d sent his father to die in his place. Would he likewise destroy Neji’s life as he did his with his twin brother?

A strange glint assaulted the orbs of Hiashi, though. Neji could read intrigue and something else he couldn’t quite classify but, frankly, he didn’t care. The first step had been given, the first battle was about to be waged. Neji was ready, and he welcomed the startled gazes around him with unrivaled determination. At last, Neji Hyuga would stand his ground with his head held high.

Tenten woke up to the sound of— What the hell… She peeled her eyes opened, the drowsy spell of tiredness pushed aside by the unexpected sound. Snaking her hand below her pillow, she clutched the kunai she always hid there –at the ready in case someone were to attack her in the middle of the night. Since Sasuke’s ambush, she’d taken the precaution of always having a weapon nearby, especially while lying vulnerable in the realm of hazy dreams. She closed her eyes, trying to identify the sound without alerting the intruder that she was awake.

*thud-thud-thud thudthud*

She frowned when she realized that someone was right outside her window… knocking? Knowing that a hostile intruder would rather break her window than do something as polite as knocking, she threw the covers off of her pajama-clad body. Armed and ready, she turned to the source of the sound and--

“Sai?” she called, her voice heavy with incredulity. Her eyebrows arched upward at the sight of the grinning man --albeit it was his signature empty smile. Upon further examination, she realized that her visitor was currently perched on the outer edge of her windowsill, evidently waiting for her to lift the barrier separating them.

Feeling between curious and dubious, Tenten nonetheless ambled towards him. Biting her lower lip in one last moment of hesitation, she pulled the window open with a huff. A cold gust of wind came inside, pushing the tall figure in. Automatically, Tenten’s arms folded across her body in an attempt to keep warm. Or was it maybe because a not-quite-bad-looking male was standing inside her very personal and very private safe haven?

Noting her defensiveness, Sai pushed the window close before zeroing on her, the mask of casualness he had developed over time, right in place. “ANBU operative Tenten,” he greeted in that voice of his that always held a tingle of cheerfulness that sounded more like mock amusement; a fake one at that.

“Sai,” she greeted back, her initial shock at finding him there now replaced by rightful indignation at having a man –that was clearly not Neji—standing in her room. “What’re you doing here?”

Sai seemed not to take notice of her palpable discomfort, either that or he was ignoring it. Annoyed by his unreadable look, Tenten’s eyes darted around the room and out the window. It was early. She calculated it was little before five in the morning, a glance at the clock showed she was dead-on in her guess.

So training with you starts early, huh? She thought, slightly ruffled. Yet, even as the information sunk in, her agitation remained. What if someone had seen him crawling inside her bedroom? What if that someone told his acquaintances and so on, until the news where brought to her secret lover?

She flinched inwardly and suppressed a shudder at the thought. Sai was probably unaware of what Neji would do to him if he ever found out he’d been standing in their room alone with Tenten. While she would get a half-death glare --it had been long since he was able to pin her under his full death glare--, the Sasuke replacement would probably be at the receiving end of his gentle fist –his Eight Trigrams One Hundred Twenty-Eight Palms, to be exact.

“We need to start our training,” Sai informed, oblivious to the enraged-Hyuga filled thoughts that had encroached upon her mind since the moment he’d stepped inside.

“Huh?” she voiced stupidly, watching with a bit of interest as he knelt on the floor. Patiently, Sai began to take out some painting tools from the bag he’d un-slung from his shoulder. “What are you doing? Weren’t we supposed to meet somewhere else?!”

Dark, dull eyes moved to inspect her critically. “Our mission is top-secret, it would arise suspicion from the rest if we were seen training together instead of with our respective teams,” he explained, no beating around the bush.

Logic. That is what Sai’s whole training in root had been about. To create a perfect shinobi, one who was not influenced by emotions and whose mind was prone to act rationally in any situation. His every action was prompted by the single premise that was drilled into every ninja’s head: The end justifies the means.

If one life had to be sacrificed to save two or more, then that was a deal worth taking. No questions asked and no remorse to plague the one who’d chosen who lived and who died. Thinking about the root program made her stomach twist with disgust, even if her morose side applauded the brilliance of its theory.

She sighed in defeat. “Did anyone see you climbing into my window?”

Sai shook his head, his action somewhat reassuring. Of course, knowing that Neji was out of Konoha also helped quell her some of her discomfort.

“So,” she ungracefully plopped down beside him, eyeing the instrument of both his trade and hobby somewhat beguilingly. “What’s this new jutsu you’ve been working on?”

Sai tilted his head to look at her, a freaky smile splitting his face from ear to ear; dark eyes lost behind his lids. “Could you remove your shirt?”
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