“Children show scars like medals. Lovers use them as secrets to reveal. A scar is what happens when the world is made flesh.” -Leonardo Cohen
Tenten’s eyes widened. All movement ceased. The only sound filling the atmosphere was the creaking of the ceiling as her bruised and bloody body continued to dangle to and fro.
The partly opened lips that had let escape that one word –that one name, closed and pressed into a thin line. She shut her eyes and hung her head with a mixture of regret and shame. The steely pride she’d been holding onto left her in a quick whoosh, rendering her a hollow carcass of who she used to be.
Tenten had finally been broken, and it was just now that she realized it happened…
He did nothing but watch. He did not take her. He did not even touch her. He’d just sat unmoving in his chair.
When, curious and defensive, she’d chanced a look at him, Tenten was surprised to find his eyes held not a jeering glint, or a lascivious tint, but they were simply admiring. He was looking at her, not as an undignified woman, but as though she was a work of art.
That, however, had only doubled how uncomfortable she felt and she was quick to finish washing her battered body. Once she did, she was further caught by surprised when he handed her a towel. Knowing that she was expected to accept the item, she did so, making use of it in a matter of seconds.
Having done that, the quiet man began handing her the new clothes that had been procured for her, one piece at a time. When she was fully dressed, he gave her a smile –a genuine, affectionate smile—and said, “Do not fear me, Gin.” He gave a step forward in emphasis, but did not breach her comfort zone. For that, she was thankful, “I am Anzai Katsuro and I’ll be taking care of you now.”
After that, he was gone just as quietly as he’d arrived. Yet his name kept ringing inside her head, loud, clear and unrelenting. Katsuro, the ‘victorious son’... her owner.
The door was thrown open not long after Katsuro disappeared. The groaning of the wood on rusty hinges was her cue to leave. She stepped out to meet her guard who, sneering at her less boisterously than usual, led her back to her cell.
That night she was fed not stale bread and water –her menu since the day she was captured—but chicken soup and tea. Granted, the tea barely tasted of lemon and it wasn’t really hot, but it was a step above. And even if the soup had perhaps five strips of chicken, it was chicken no less. Additionally, the loaf was a bit softer, which was a welcome relief for her palate, which had already been scratched mercilessly by the hard bread they’d fed her before.
During the days that followed, Tenten witnessed her routine altering significantly. It first happened the moment she was being tortured the very next day after meeting Katsuro. Despite the fact that the interrogator believed her name to be really Gin, he’d now moved onto different subjects that had to do with her training and the search for her ‘clan’s’ name.
When the pain bestowed by his sharp utensils had gone past the point of her tolerance, she’d been unable to stop her tears from falling and her scream from ringing. Shortly after, to her utter relief, the door had been open briskly to reveal Katsuro on the other side.
The first thing she noticed was that his red hair was tied neatly on the top of his head in a flowing ponytail of fire. His dark eyes were hard and cold as he glared at the one who’d done her harm. Even with the pain –or maybe ‘because’ of it—Tenten couldn’t help but focus on his dark kimono, which reminded her so much of the one Neji wore when on holidays.
The silky obi tied around his slim waist was blood red and engraved on the back was the symbol that was now burnt on her body. A red rose with only three petals left, withering –or maybe surviving like a banner of war?
“…Do it this instance, Takeshi!” Katsuro spoke in such a threatening way, that there was no need to raise his voice.
Belatedly did Tenten realized that while she had been focused on ignoring the pain, she’d also ignored the conversation –or argument?—the two warriors must have held. She cursed her lack of diligence. For all she knew, they’d spoken of something important!
Soon after Katsuro’s order, she felt her body being lowered. She closed her eyes, bracing herself for the subsequent pain that should result with her inevitable fall. Yet, instead of hardness, pain and disgusting odors, her body was met by soft but firm hands and the scent of spices mixed with firewood. Opening her eyes hesitantly, she found herself being held safely in the circle of Katsuro’s arms.
Like before, she saw affection swirling in the depths of his orbs. Against all coherent thought, Tenten squirmed lightly in his arms. The truth was, she was feeling more threatened by this show of kindness than by the interrogator’s knifes. For at least the latter she expected and, because of that, understood.
“Relax, Gin,” he whispered, gathering her in his arms as though she was a fragile child. “I’m here now.”
Though she wanted to fight him, her limbs were uncooperative. Thus, she succumbed to his unexpected aid and allowed herself to somewhat relax in the cocoon of his arms.
When they reached her cell, he personally oversaw the immediate healing of her wounds. Then, despite her weak protests, he’d washed her arms and legs gently –being respectful of her body-- before leaving her with a softly-spoken ‘goodnight’.
The following days had ended in much the same way. She was always tortured, each day more ruthless than the last. And just when she thought she could take it no more, he would arrive like her dark-armored hero and stop the pain.
Every time, Tenten would welcome him. Only for her, it would not be Katsuro murmuring those comforting words. His arms would not be the ones holding her, nor his heartbeats the music to dispel her waking nightmares. Choosing to be deceived by her own mind, it would be Neji the one looking after her. Yes, unquestionably, it would always be her Hyuga lover the one to hold her, help her, save her.
For somewhere along the way, she’d stop pretending. It could have happened as soon as yesterday evening or maybe even days before. Of the ‘when’ she was not sure. What she knew for certain, though, was that it happened.
Tenten was no longer waiting, dreaming, hoping for Hyuga Neji to take her away. No. She’d gone past the point where she could order her mind to latch onto the idea of a fragile dream while shunning solid reality. Her sprite was not coming to get her. Hell, the man probably didn’t even know where she was or how much she was suffering. So, in the end, cruel reality had won because the name that escaped her lips had not been Neji’s. It had been—
The door opened and in stroll the man she’d so desperately called.
“I’m here, Gin,” Katsuro whispered into her ear, caressing her cheek gently with soft digits. “I’m here now… and I’ll take you home.”
Tenten shut her eyes tightly with burning shame. It was taking her a lot to refrain from puking at her own display of wretchedness.
How had this happened? How had she allowed this to take place?
The more she reflected upon it, however, the more sense it made. The fact that this shouldn’t have come as a surprise did nothing to help lift her foul mood. For while she had been guarding up her front with all the sharp steel of her spirit, her captors had acted in a brighter way. They had carefully studied her defenses and patiently laid siege. And once they noted her resistance concentrating solely on the wall they’d been attacking, they sneaked around and breached her flanks.
Without her knowing it, her fortress had been swiftly invaded by the enemy in a matter of days. Only now, her once sharp spirit was blunt –tired of all the non-stop fighting-- and there was no way to defended herself against the ensuring battle.
Thus, Gin Moutou —Tenten, had ultimately been conquered. Her sharp-bladed spirit had been shattered mercilessly, the pieces becoming nothing more than a memory of who she once-upon-a-time used to be. Her shame was a mocking testament to her former glory…
“I’m taking you home, Gin,” Katruso repeated serenely, as he scooped her in his strong arms.
It was only then that Tenten realized the importance of his words. He was taking her home? Could it be that she was finally going to be taken to their base? Was her mission at last about to be accomplished?
She neither fought the embrace nor the small comfort it provided. As they left the room that still echoed of her pain and blood, she hoped --with all her broken heart-- that it would be over soon. Because she was tired. She was just so damn tired…
But would you ever forgive me, Neji? She wondered, reining in the tears that threatened to fall. Unconsciously, her arms tightened their hold around the neck of the man carrying her.
“Don’t worry, Gin,” he whispered, tightening his own hold. “Tomorrow it would all be over. This would be nothing more than a nightmare that would eventually cease to exist.”
Yes, it was a nightmare, but it was unfortunately still far from over.
The short trek continued on in silence. When they reached her cell, he again called the medic and oversaw her treatment. Having done her job, the cursed medic retreated, leaving her alone with her owner.
Like before, a bowl of lukewarm water was brought and he proceeded to wash her body with careful hands. He wiped clean the blood and grime that covered her skin in thick layers, before offering her a new set of clothes.
Gingerly and with great effort, Tenten stood up in wobbly feet and got rid of the underwear she had been tortured in. She cleaned herself more thoroughly, no longer caring that she was being watched. Afterwards, Katsuro began handing her the garments again. As soon as she was dressed, he approached her, trespassing upon the frontiers of her personal bubble. Tenten was too tired to resist whatever he wanted to do, so she just stood there –utterly defeated.
“Tomorrow it will all be over,” he insisted, caressing her cheek once before planting a soft kiss on her forehead.
Then, he was gone and she was left alone to ponder her tumultuous thoughts and burning shames. But not for long, since just as sleep was beginning to settle, she felt Sai’s chakra channel opening and beckoning her to report.
Kunai-ichi… he sent the word wrapped in such strong feelings of concern, that it surprised her. Through time, he had become slightly more emotional with her, but never reaching this level of intensity.
Tenten sighed profoundly. Normally, she would always come up with something witty to send back. She would be sure to wrap her own message with confidence and lightheartedness. But not today. Today she just couldn’t bring herself to lie anymore. So instead, she decided to send her answer without additional decorations hanging from it, and she wrapped that short message with unbound exhaustion.
Get ready, Sai. I believe I will be taken to their base tomorrow.
There was a short pause in which her partner had probably been waiting for reassurance of her wellbeing. When it didn’t come, he instigated.
Are you alright, Kunai-ichi?
Tenten snorted, tendrils of anger and frustration spreading like algae through her body. Was she okay? She had been tortured for too long! So, no, she was not okay! She was tired and all she wanted was to be safe again! To be able to sleep without having to worry about the hell she would have to endure the next day. She just wanted to go home…
And she was so damn ashamed of it…
So she lied. She pretended that her spirit was intact, when the truth was far from it. I’m fine, Sai. I’m just a bit tired, is all. The mission is finally coming to an end, so we better not screw this up, right?
If he caught her bluff, he didn’t let her know as he responded, I’ll be watching then.
You do that, she agreed.
It’ll be over soon… so until then, hang in there… Tenten…
And with that, Sai retreated. His messaged echoed inside her head, reminding her of another man who had said something very similar but signifying something entirely different.
“I’m tired,” she mumbled, hugging her legs to her chest and resting her forehead on her knees. Unbidden, tears formed and rolled down her cheeks. This time Tenten neither stopped them nor wiped them away. She’d been holding them in for far too long, that she could do it no more.
~Two days later~
Hyuga Neji stormed through the streets of Konoha, parting people with the aura of menace that surrounded his elegant strides. He was beyond infuriated by how disastrous the mission had gone. Granted, they were successful despite the amount of complications and constant setbacks. Yet, what should have taken him five days at the latest to do with a competent team, had took him twice the time.
Surprisingly, Naruto had been able to control his usual hyper activeness to the point where he had followed orders successfully. Sadly, he couldn’t say the same for the other two idiots who, failing to stay put and out of sight, had given their position to the enemy ninja just when they were moving out. It had taken them days of traveling around in circles in order to lose their pursuers, consequently increasing the time needed to come back to Konoha.
Though normally that would have annoyed him slightly, right now he felt like making a mat out of Akamaru, hanging Kiba from the longest tree and sealing all of Lee’s chakra points. The reason for it was simple. There was no Tenten to sooth his rage. Additionally, the woman was still not back and, while he had been cleaning up after his teammates, he’d lost time in finding out where she was and getting her back!
Koichii… where the hell are you?
“Ne—err…Captian, are you still angry about the mission?” Kiba’s voice broke his train of thought. Idly, Neji noted his guard was up and the tension of his body belied the casualness with which he spoke.
Deciding not to grace him with an answer that should have been quite obvious, he began to climb the stairs up to the Hokage’s office, taking a couple at a time. He had two immediate objectives in mind, both of which had to do with Tusnade and none of which could wait.
When they arrived at the last floor, the ANBU Captain noticed Sasuke, Hinata and Sakura were standing outside Tsunade’s office, most probably waiting for their turn to report. He guessed their mission must have gone a lot smoother, since they had serene expressions on their faces.
Seeing Sasuke calm and collected only served to increase Nej’s own agitation. He was glad he hadn’t taken off his ANBU mask, for it at least helped in somewhat concealing his building rage.
“Tsunade-sama is busy at the moment,” informed Sakura when the group was within hearing range. “It shouldn’t take long though. How was your--”
“Who is the old hag seeing?” Naruto interrupted swiftly. Noticing a certain Hyuga, he smiled broadly at her and asked, “Oh, Hinata! How was your mission?”
“I-It was good, Naruto. T-thank you,” she stuttered, blushing furiously when the blonde’s smile widened. “A-and Morino-sama is with Tusande-sama r-right now.”
“Morino Ibiki?” Naruto echoed, turning to look at the door thoughtfully. “I wonder what that’s about…”
“Well, whatever it was seemed important,” Sasuke pointed out offhandedly, digging his hands into his pockets.
“What do you mean?” Lee prompted with a frown.
“Well, he stormed in without permission and he seemed rather frustrated by something,” Sakura supplied. “The last we heard before the door was closed, was something about an ANBU being sent on a mission that was ‘practically suicidal’ or something along those lines.”
Neji’s entire body tensed when the news sunk inside his chaotic mind. If asked, he would have been unable to explain why the cold fingers of dread were snaking around his heart, gripping it mercilessly as the seconds tickled by.
He’d felt it before, only he’d been quick to brush it aside as non important. He’d felt it when he’d left Tenten’s apartment almost two months past. It seemed so out of place then, but now… Now the feeling was back and it was so strong, that it almost made him stagger.
Feeling as though someone else– no, that was not accurate. Rather, allowing his raw instincts to control his body, he moved towards the entrance and took the doorknob in a deathly grip that rendered his knuckles white and made his arm tremble.
“Neji?” Hinata called worriedly.
Neji could feel everyone’s eyes boring into his form. His actions, so hesitant and tensed must have caught their undivided attention, because silence crashed upon them immediately.
But how could he explain his fear when no foundation had been laid for them? Why did the idea of Ibiki being with the Hokage made him think suddenly of Tenten? As if in answer to that silent question, he heard the interrogator’s voice flow through the barrier of wood as though it was nonexistent.
“Sai’s report clearly states that she isn’t fit to continue with this mission!” Ibiki’s tone was harsh and rather threatening.
Neji’s brows met in frown. The image of Tenten walking beside the artist flashed before his eyes, making him pale with the implications.
“You trust her abilities so little, Morino-san?” the Hokage responded gravely.
A loud slap followed, indicating that Ibiki might have brought his hand down on her desk in an unfitting display of emotion. “The question is, Hokage-sama… Does she mean so little to you that you would allow her to continue to suffer? We know she’s reached her limit, Sai’s report is proof of it!”
Neji’s breathing became labored as he continued to eavesdrop on the private conversation, the hand on the doorknob tightening painfully with every pause. Where they talking about Tenten? Would they have dared send his koichii on a mission that would upset even someone as cold as Ibiki Morino?
Where is she?! His mind screamed the question he was unable to voice as his throat constricted with fear.
The sound of a chair scraping the ground signaled that Tsunade may have stood up at the hinted affront. “Sai’s reports are largely based upon speculation. It has been barely twenty days since her departure,” she informed tightly. “I would recommend you remember your place, Morino.”
Neji’s eyes widened, his blood drained from his face and his throat constricted even more. Pain, stronger than any he had ever felt, pierced his heart, threatening to break it as each beating became strained. Twenty days ago Tenten had left for her mission. A mission that was supposed to be nothing more than a ‘harmless intelligence gathering’ task.
His knees buckled slightly as his weight suddenly became too much for his limbs to handle. Where they talking about Tenten? Why was no one answering! What did this all mean?!
Silence for a small eternity before Ibiki’s voice shimmered it. “Indeed, Hokage-sama. It has barely been twenty days… for us. But I’ll let you know, that becomes infinity for the one who’s being tortured. If we don’t get her out… I fear –no, I know she’ll break beyond repair…”
Dread paved the way for anger, which filled him to the brim. His sight was assaulted by red spots and his head throbbed to rhythm of his heart. All he could think about was Tenten being tortured and all he could feel… was flaming rage gnawing at him from the inside out. Consuming him with the realization he’d been kept in the dark for too damn long! He wanted to scream. He wanted to cry. He wanted to rage. While he’d been safe, his koichii had been suffering, and he had done absolutely nothing to alleviate that ail. The nightmares suddenly seemed way better than what reality was presenting.
Stepping back abruptly, he pulled the doorknob out of the door with apparent ease. He release it unthinkingly, the sound of it clinging against the ground barely audible to his wayward senses. Sometime after his mind made the connections his heart was sure of all along, he’d activated his byakugan and made his decision.
“Neji, what are you doing!” He heard Lee’s urgent voice but paid it no mind as he took on his fighting stance.
In a second, before anyone could stop him, he brought his open palm towards the barrier that kept him from getting his answers. “Hakke Kūshō,” he gritted out, breaking the door with a forward thrust of his hand.
The two figures within the office turned surprised and confused gazes on him. Neji no longer waited for the invitation to advance, as he stepped inside with the grace of a dangerous tiger that was getting ready to attack if they made a wrong move. As he approached them, he tossed his mask away in order to pin them more effectively with his glacial glare.
“Hyuga Neji, what is the meaning of this!” Tsunade snapped, glaring right back at him but with far less intensity.
Milky eyes narrowed a fraction more, “I will ask once again, Tsunade-sama, and I suggest you answer me this time…” He gave a step forward, making certain that she understood his unvoiced threat. He would accept nothing but a straightforward answer, “Where the hell is Tenten?”
Out of nowhere, two ANBU guards came at him. Neji didn’t even hesitate before activating his Heavenly Spin to toss them back. Sickening cracks of broken bones were heard as the bodies crashed against the walls, crumbling onto the floor unconsciously. If his threat hadn’t been regarded seriously before, it certainly would now.
“Where is she, Tsuanade-sama?” He repeated, his jaw jutting as he tried to remain as composed as possible while thoughts of Tenten being hurt invaded his mind with ruthless vivacity.
Neji heard the shuffling of fabric and, in a blink, Sasuke was standing between him and the Hokage. His sharingan was activated and his hand was resting upon the hilt of the katana he had taken to strapping to his belt after coming back from his soul-searching trip with Orochimaru.
“If you value the life that has already been forgiven, you will step aside, Uchiha,” he seethed, unconcerned about hurting this particular man.
“Hokage-sama, unless you wish for one of your greatest assets to be maimed or kill, I suggest you answer him,” Sasuke pointed out, his eyes still intent on Neji’s.
“You think you can beat me?” Neji sneered.
The Uchiha’s lips quirked in a small smirk, “I never said the asset was you.”
Understanding passed between them, but before they could do something or say something more, a green blur swooshing by distracted them.
When Neji transferred his attention from Sasuke to the figure of Lee, who was now standing behind him, his eyes widened with something between incredulity and awe.
Taijutsu master Rock Lee, standing before the Hokage of the Leaf, crumbled to his knees humbly. He placed his hands on the floor in front of him and touched his forehead to the back of his palms.
“Hokage-sama, please… tell us where our teammate… where our friend is,” he pleaded with such distress, that tears formed in Neji’s cold eyes. It has been long since last he’d felt so proud of someone that was not Tenten.
Slowly but without an ounce of hesitation, Neji moved towards the prone form of his teammate. When he reached him, he did not help Lee up. Instead, he too fell on his knees and touched his forehead to the ground in an act of submission he’d only shown Hiashi before.
“Hokage-sama, please…,” his throat closed and he struggled to confess that which not even Tenten knew. In a pain-filled whisper he did it, “…I need her.”
He heard some shuffling nearby. Inspecting his surroundings, Neji found tha Kiba, Naruto, Sakura, Hinata and even Sasuke, had all fallen to their knees and made the same request Lee had.
Tsunade crumbled into her chair at the display, a hand hiding her eyes from them. She opened her mouth and just when she was about to answer, a figure came running in and out of breath.
“Tsunade-sama! It’s time!” Sai announced.
The Hokage was immediately on her feet, her skin a shade paler but determination was written all over her face. “Get ready, Hyuga,” she ordered, locking her blazing gaze with his. “Gather your team and meet Sai in Konoha’s gate in an hour… You are getting our kunoichi back.”
Neji regained his feet immediately after that, his heart pounding like a drum of war against his ribcage. “Understood,” he said and scanning the people surrounding him, added, “Get ready. You’ve just become my team.”
“Yes, sir,” the group responded in unison, a string of understanding binding them with an unbreakable bond.
Koichii, hang in there…, Neji thought, we’re coming…