“Of all the animals, men is the only one that is cruel. He is the only one that inflicts pain for the pleasure of doing it.” -Mark Twain
~Three days later~
Tenten’s eyes rolled to the back of her head. The pain was so strong that she was soon pushed into the dark and soothing depths of unconsciousness.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered with a tone of unbound regret. She had never heard him speak like this and that was saying a lot, since she’d been his teammate for so very long.
“N-Neji?” It was hard to hide the fact that she was taken aback. She bit back a moan of discomfort when she tried to prop herself up into a sitting position. She naturally only managed to stir the pain that had been dormant before her ‘clever’ move.
He was immediately on his feet and leaning over her. He grabbed her with surprisingly gentle hands and helped her get comfortable. The man even went to the trouble of propping up her pillows so she could ease into them.
The mission would have been a perfect success if not for the fact that, while they were returning to Konoha with the scroll the Hokage had sent them to retrieve, they had been attacked and she had been wounded –much to her chagrin.
How did that happen?
Well, she had just used her twin-dragons scroll attack, when a kunai had pierced her chest. At first she could not believe it as she stared at the alien object with confused eyes. It had been surreal. Heck, there hadn’t even been any pain, but when the blood began to flow, she knew things were bad. She lost consciousness then. The last she heard were her companions yelling her name, asking her to hold on.
When she’d woken up two days later, it was to the sight of the white walls of Konoha’s hospital and a tearful Gai looming above. He quickly explained to her that the kunai had barely missed her youthful heart by a fingernail, and that she’d been out for two whole, youthful days.
The following days had been hectic. Her team had made it a point –or rather, a rule-- not to leave her alone. So she was most of the times in the company of Neji and one of the green beasts. The Hyuga had, thankfully, prohibited Gai and Lee to stay with her at the same time. The strain, he explained, would be too much for her to handle right now, and she dared not disagree.
This, however, was the first time she was left ‘alone’ with Neji since Gai and Lee, now that she was better, had excused themselves to run their youthful laps around Konoha until sunset. Neji, much to her surprise, had curtly declined the offer to practice, explaining that he needed to get his training partner back first. That had been the best compliment he had ever given her, even if it was in an indirect way, and she felt truly honored.
Now, however, after finally being alone with Neji –a thing that rarely happened when not practicing-- he was using this time to apologize to her for ‘something’. But what was that something? It was not as if he was the one who’d hit her with the kunai!
Turning to face him, she noticed that, though his face was quite composed, his eyes were filled with tumultuous emotions she had never witnessed in their milky depths.
“I’m sorry,” he repeated once he was back in his seat, his eyes boring into hers –conveying how utterly helpless he felt.
This was one of the few times when she was allowed to see his vulnerability, when she was reminded that he was just as human –and thus just as viable to get hurt—as she was.
Not knowing what to do, she followed her instinct. She smiled and courageously took his hand in hers. Tenten was glad he didn’t pull away, though he did tense for a second before his muscles gave in. Only when she was sure he was fine with the human contact, did she squeezed his hand in reassurance.
“I’m fine! Nothing happened and it was –as much as it pains me to admit it—my fault. I let my guard down an--”
“I should have been there… I should have protected you,” his voice was strained, his sense of guilt quite obvious. Lines appeared in his smooth face, marking his losing battle against his emotional side. Because, hard as it was to believe, he really did have a heart, and vast array of sentiments to go with it. And even if he rarely showed them to the world, he still made use of them, most of the times silently.
“Neji-Kun… it’s fine. I’m fine. This is not the first time I get hurt and this will certainly not be the la—”
“No,” he interrupted briskly, determination written all over his face.
Tenten raised her eyebrows in between surprise and puzzlement. Neji squeezed her hand, holding onto it as though it was a lifeguard.
“You could have died, Tenten,” he declared, distress making him lean towards her, breaking his rule of keeping people at arm’s length in a literal way. “I thought I’d lost you back there. And I’ll be damned if I ever let you get hurt! I care for you too much to allow this! So, no, Tenten,” his voice was strong, unwavering and weaving promises he had never made before. “You’ll never get hurt as long as I’m around, you hear me?”
Her heart was pounding rapidly at everything that was happening. She was even hyperventilating at the fact that he was so close, his face a couple of inches away from hers. Was she dreaming?
No, that was not the question that she ought to ask. Rather, was Hyuga Neji confessing his feeling ‘for’ and ‘to’ her? But confessing to what exactly? Sure, he admitted he cared for her –even spoke quite possessively of it—but was that sentiment for a friend or maybe… No!
She’d always harbored the fantasy of meaning more to him than a mere companion, but she wasn’t willing to dream of such heights only to crash and burn the next instant. It would hurt too much and, contrary to popular belief, she was not a masochist.
Ha! Who was she even kidding! As if the Hyuga prodigy would ‘ever’ set his sights on a clan-less kunoichi, who wasn’t even that pretty to begin with. No, she wasn’t a brooding pessimist. She was simply a realist. A bird would never perch upon a kunai…
Her musings –doubts, fears, hopes and pain-- must have shown on her face. Either that or Neji could read minds, because, as if in answer to her piling questions, he elaborated on his unorthodox confession.
“I think…I love you, Tenten,” he said it quite boldly, but she could read the nervousness in his eyes.
This was a first for both of them. Love, that is. And, oh! The possibilities were unlimited…
She gasped when his words, the enormity of that short statement, sunk inside her mind. At long last, her most profound dream has become reality… Had she ever noticed how beautiful life was before?
Tenten didn’t know how best to respond to him, to let him know she felt the same. Just how was she supposed to act? She’d waited for five long years to hear him say that. She’d constructed so many different scenarios of this happening in her head before, but they seemed to have gone out the proverbial window, leaving her quite at a loss. Not that she ever thought it would be possible for them to become a reality to begin with.
So this left her…where?
Making up her mind after a couple of minutes of hesitation, Tenten did the only thing she could. She cried and laughed at the same time. Neji seemed between confused by her clashing emotions and downright anxious.
“Can you please say something already,” he grumbled, releasing her hand and starting to move away when he noticed how close he’d moved to her. Or maybe it was his defense mechanism kicking in? After all, for all he knew, she was making fun of him and the raw feelings he’d finally bared to her.
Before he could move further away –in both the literal and the figurative sense-- Tenten grabbed his shirt and pulled him towards her, doing what she’d only dared to do in dreams. At seventeen years of age, Tenten gave her first kiss. Well, not her ‘first’ kiss, since she’d given pecks before. Rather, her first ‘real’ loving kiss.
Yes, she kissed him full on the mouth. Feeling quite surprised to find his lips were fuller than they looked. Though that wasn’t all that strange if she considered that they were almost always pressed to convey his perpetual scowl.
To her delight, after what she guessed was shock subsiding, he kissed her back just as eagerly. It was long, soft --admittedly a bit clumsy, for it was a first for both— passionate exchange.
When they parted, she smiled at him and simply said, “I love you too. I’ve loved you since our Genin days, actually.”
He smiled broadly at her, his eyes lighting up and dissipating his previous anxiousness. This was also the first time she’d seen him exhibiting such an outward sign of happiness, and it truly melted her heart.
“I should have told you sooner, then,” he admitted, sitting on the edge of the bed and touching his forehead –he’d thankfully shed his head protector-- to hers.
“I’m just glad you finally did,” she smiled, trapping those succulent lips again. She’d waited for so long to do this, that she knew she wasn’t about to get tired of kissing him anytime soon. Neji would just have to deal with that as punishment. She smiled against his lips and hugged him closer. The simple fact that he allowed it, spoke volumes of his honesty and his caring towards her.
Kami, she’d waited for so long, that she knew she would never ‘ever’ be
able to let him go. In fact, she hoped she never had to…
Tenten gasped when a bucket of cold water was emptied on her, drenching her to the bone. She opened her eyes and groaned pitifully when dizziness gave way to a pounding headache.
Why the hell was it so bright? She closed her eyes, trying to grip again that soothing memory that, only seconds ago, had given her a respite from the fiery pain dancing on her muscles. To her dismay, it kept eluding her. Plus, there was the small fact that the man interrogating her didn’t seem keen on losing her to unconsciousness again. To make said desire evident, he slapped her across the face. Hard.
Tenten hissed, thankful that she’d relaxed her muscles enough so as to avoid getting her neck hurt. With resolution dancing in her eyes –or eye, since one of them was almost entirely closed by the swelling--, she turned to him, raising her chin in an act of silent defiance.
“I’ll ask again, what’s your name, kunoichi?” The man cracked his knuckles before taking a kunai and running a finger down its length. The blade was so sharp that the butterfly brush drew blood.
Spitting blood mixed with phlegm quite gracelessly, she responded for the fiftieth time since she’d been caught, “Gin Motou.”
To both her relief and suspicion, he smiled at her and placed the kunai back on the tray of sharp utensils. All of which had already been introduced to her skin in one way or another.
“I believe you now, Gin,” he announced, laughing and patting her bruised right side; rattling the three broken ribs therein. She bit back a yelp as electric waves of throbbing pain shot through her muscles, flaring up her body and making her eyes blur with obstinate tears.
She heard some shuffling behind her and, immediately after, she was lowered from where she had been dangling in nothing but her underwear. Yes. The men had brusquely tied her abused and raw wrists to the ceiling with a thick, coarse rope.
When at last she felt her feet touch ground, much as she tried, she could not find the strength to balance her weight. The pain in combination with the restless nights and meager nourishment, had evidently taken their toll on her strength. So Tenten fell to her knees, scratching the skin there when she crashed against the wet floor. She almost gagged when the smell of the puddle she had fallen in entered her nostrils. The hard ground was covered in blood, water and bodily fluids --the latter something to add to her list of humiliations. Tenten couldn’t be blamed for this last since the body had its own way of dealing with pain, regardless of how much the mind wish to keep its regal disposition.
“Get her back to her cell,” she heard the interrogator command and, in response, a thick, woolen blanket was tossed over her. She wrapped the piece of putrid-smelling cloth around her gingerly, trying to cover her humiliation as well as to ward off the cold embrace of winter.
Right after that she felt someone taking a hold of her aching wrists and –without an ounce of consideration to her injuries—she was thrown over the shoulder of one heavily built man. This time a small cry did left her lips when her side connected with the sharp angle of his shoulder blade.
Uncaringly, he carried her out of that cursed room. As they left, she couldn’t help thinking how glad she was that it was finally over… at least for today. Of course, tonight they’d leave her to lick her injuries in that moist, small cell she’d come to spite --regardless of the fact that it was the safest place around here.
Then she would report to Sai, like she always did. Following that unalterable routine, she would blatantly lie to him, declaring cockily that this was nothing, that the torture she’d undergone was a child’s play. Of course, those boasting statements couldn’t be furthest away from the truth…
Tomorrow, though, the person she hated the most would come to visit her. It had not always been so, truth be told. The first time she’d seen her, Tenten had felt a wave of utter relief wash over her. But that was before she knew what it meant.
Yes. A medic would come tomorrow to heal her wounds, like she always did. And it was not that she did a bad job why she’d come to be bothered by her presence, but precisely the opposite. She did a wonderful job, vanquishing the pain with skillful chakra-infused fingers. But the relief she provided was always short lived. Just as the medic would finish wrapping her wounds and repairing her broken bones, Tenten would be taken first to a room to wash –where she’d wiped clean her abused body in front of a leering crowd of guards—and then to the interrogation room, where hell would start all over again.
How ironic, to have a medic heal her, only to allow her interrogator to inflict pain without the fear of her dying. Would it not be natural for her to fear, hate and plainly wish not to be healed? Rather she be left with the constant pain, that to be given a respite for only a couple of hours before that was mercilessly snatched away!
Indeed. She despised the medic more than the interrogator. She hated the one that mended just so that she could break again, more than the one who did the breaking while being careful to gather the pieces.
Why?Because the first played with her mind –giving her body hope, where there was none to be found.
Hyuga Neji was meditating in his training grounds. No. That’s incorrect. He was ‘trying’ to meditate, yet failing miserably. Ever since Tenten had left for her mission, he’d been worried sick. Strange nightmares of her being in pain kept interrupting his nights, rendering him a cranky shinobi by morning.
He sighed, leaning back on the tree and producing the letter she’d written from the folds of his gi. Alongside the envelope, he also pulled out a small velvety bag. Annoying pain tugged at his heart when his eyes posed on the cloth keeping the ring he’d planned to present to Tenten.
Everything was set. The Elders –though he was sure Hiashi had a huge part in it—had been finally convinced that Tenten would be a good addition to the Hyuga Clan. Therefore, having the ring, the permission and the desire, all that was missing was his Koishii to be here for their relationship to finally become official. But she wasn’t here and that was the source of his troubles.
When he’d found out she had a mission by the cursed little note she’d left behind, he’d been livid. If there was indeed nothing to worry about, then why hadn’t she said something about it?
Hyuga Neji had carefully refolded the paper and placed it inside the envelope. Once that was done, he felt the ‘urgent’ need to release some of his pent up anger. So, naturally, he left the compound and stormed –like a passing hurricane leaving destruction in his wake-- into the training grounds.
There, he proceeded to wait with thinning patience for his victim. An oblivious and cheerful Lee arrived soon after. Since his first words were used to ask about Tenten’s whereabouts (a taboo subject at the moment) Neji decided to immediately commence ‘practice’… using a youthful Lee as a punching bag.
Gai, fortunately for his mini-copy, had been around and had stopped the prodigy before Lee could be severely injured. Though his former sensei was strong, Neji managed to keep him busy. Until, boldly, he engaged both beasts in a ‘mock’ battle that was fierce enough to almost maim.
By the end of their session, Neji was assaulted by his restless thoughts, now that there was nothing else to distract him. Exhausted –mentally as well as physically—he plopped down on the ground beside the two sprawled, green-clad bodies.
Suddenly something odd happened, which later became the source of his obsessive worrying. Lee pointed out offhandedly that ever since Neji left with his Clan almost two weeks ago, Tenten had been acting strange.
When the Hyuga asked him to elaborate on that, Lee explained that he’d rarely seen her. If she practiced, she either did it alone and in solitary grounds, or she did it with someone else secretly.
A rejuvenated Gai immediately jumped to his feet, fire dancing in his eyes, and yelling of youthful love and secret youthful lovers. Lee seemed just as static, jumping around his sensei talking of flowers, sun and growth under rainbows. Neji, however, had tuned them out, his mind already attempting to make connections.
Obviously, he knew for sure who the secret lover of Tenten was, because it was him. But what had struck him as odd was the change his Koishii had undergone because, even if in smaller doses, he’d tasted that alteration too.
His dark brows met as he tried to put the pieces of the puzzle together to reveal the grand picture that kept eluding him. Just what had Tenten done while he was gone? He remembered that he’d seen her chakra depleted when she’d encountered her on his return. Regrettably, he never asked her why. He’d assumed she’d been practicing by herself. But if she’d done that, then she would have done it in their training grounds and the two beasts would have seen her…
“Oh, what’s that, my worthy rival?” Lee’s voice snapped him off his musings, dark eyes peering at the bag and the envelope he was holding.
Neji immediately put them back inside the folds of his gi.“None of your business,” he deadpanned, closing his eyes as though to return to his meditation. Unfortunately, it had become an impossible deed to accomplish. When the green beast didn’t leave, Neji took the opportunity to enquire casually, “What do you want, Lee?”
“Yosh! My youthful rival, we have been youthfully given a youthful mission with youthful Naruto and youthful Kiba! We have been asked to meet with the youthful Hokage in her youthful office!” Lee answered, pointing at the direction of the Hokage tower in emphasis, “Yosh! Let’s go!”
With that he was off, disappearing in a cloud of dust as his feet gathered that amazing speed that only a hard working guy like Lee would be capable of achieving.
Neji frowned as he slowly regained his feet. “Punishment, Hokage?” he murmured, fully aware of the fact that he’d been given a team of hyperactive –and yes, quite idiotic—ninjas intentionally.
Could it be because he’d been asking around about Tenten’s mission? Was it because he had the audacity to ask Tsunade herself about it, almost demanding that she tell him where his teammate was? Whatever the case, it only added wood to the fire of suspicion he’d been harboring ever since he read Tenten’s parting note. Something else –something which he felt was not right—was going on. There was more to her mission than a ‘harmless intelligence gathering’ task, and Hyuga Neji would not rest until finding out what it was that was being kept secret.Koishii, I’ll find you… no matter what… He promised her, as he made his way towards the place that held all the answers he sought, but was giving none. Soon, though, he would make his stand and demand information. And Kami helped all those who turned him down…
~Five days later~
Tenten grunted as she propped herself up, using the wall to support her weakened body. She hissed when the woolen, baggy shirt her captors had gracefully provided brushed tersely against the tender skin of her chest.
Gingerly, she tugged at the collar of the shirt with slightly trembling fingers. With the blurry sight of tearful eyes, she inspected the mark they’d burnt into her skin three hours earlier.
The figure of a rose with only three petals left stood in the center, just above her breasts. It lay there swollen, red and still hurting --reminding her that she’d been bought. Yes. Tenten –or rather, Gin had just been branded with the symbol of whom she guessed was her new owner, much like cattle would be.
The door was suddenly thrown open and she forced herself not to squirm. Where they going to torture her today too?
“Time for your bath,” came the guard’s gruff voice, as he waited for her to stand up and walk out.
When she did as told, Tenten noticed two things right off the bat. One, the man was not smiling wolfishly like he always did whenever she was forced to wash. Two, he tossed her a set of clothes that were a bit more comfortable than what she’d been wearing.
While walking to their destination, Tenten inspected her new clothing, realizing that it bore the same symbol she’d been branded with in the back of the blouse. So, she’d been right. She’d been given, bought or won by someone, now that the interrogator had believed her to speak the truth.
When they finally arrived to the shower room–which only spat frigid water, much to her distress – she was pushed inside and the door was resolutely closed behind her. She frowned. They’d always left the door open so that more people could watch her undress and clean herself. So what did this change imply?
Half-shrugging –she wasn’t about to complain- she turned towards the shower only to find a man sitting in a chair near it. She frowned, trying to figure out what this meant. Could this man be, perhaps, her… owner?
“Hello, Gin,” he said, his baritone deceivingly friendly as he signaled the shower, “You may begin now.”
Tenten almost dropped her clothes. Even if it was better for only one man to see her showering instead of a huge crowd, she was feeling very uncomfortable with his closeness. Only Neji had ever been so close to her naked body…
Would he touch her? Would he take her? She trapped her tears, not allowing them to fall. But she was sure her eyes were glistering, exhibiting her building anguish. Did she even have a choice?
She closed her eyes, trying to rein in her splashing
feelings. Truth was, no. She didn’t. Her life was not hers to control, perhaps
it never was... Defeated, she stepped into the shower with cheeks burning with shame and anger, and peeled off her clothes.
I’m sorry, Neji…, a tear did rolled down then, but she was already in the shower and it got lost within the frigid pelting.