Title: Heart Weighing
Word Count: 4,723
Tsunade began by tossing two photographs on the surface of her desk, facing them away from her so that Neji and Tenten could see what they depicted. Leaning forward, she propped her chin on her loosely-clasped hands, and waited unsmilingly for a reaction.
Fingers deft with any kind of steel and several other materials lifted the two photos. Dark brown eyes examined the frontal image of a man from the shoulders up. Narrowed, dark blue eyes dominated his oval-faced shape, lips tightly smiling below. Reddish-brown hair hung down to his shoulders, straight as a board and unremarkable but for the color. The second image was the same man at profile view. In this a zigzagging, pink scar upon the left temple could be seen, but that was seemingly the only difference.
“Who is this, Tsunade-sama?” asked Tenten, holding the pictures up and slightly to the side so that the man standing ramrod straight at the wall behind her could take a look. Even without his Byakugan activated, Neji could see them perfectly well from there.
“Takuya Kiyomori,” the Fifth Hokage said, “is the alleged leader of a group that has been taking advantage of a small village unaffiliated with ninja affairs just between the borders of Waterfall and Earth. Takuya's organization deals mostly with the transport of goods considered banned in most countries, such as opium. He suffers the occasional rivalry war, but his connections among various governments keep him safe from intervention by the daimyos. The people in the village are terrified of him, and rightly so. He's been known to publicly torture and kill anyone protesting his occupation.”
She took a minute to evaluate the responses of the two Konoha ninja she had summoned to her office even though it was past sunset and mission calls were usually distributed during the day. The truth of the matter was that Tsunade had required the better part of the afternoon to decide which man/woman partnership would receive this S-rank assignment. Her options had fallen between Yamanaka Ino paired with Inuzuka Kiba, although they were not originally from the same team, or Hyuuga Neji and Tenten. Tsunade knew when the only reactions to her target description was a slight incline of the head from the Hyuuga and a slow, long intake of breath from his teammate that she had decided correctly. This mission required delicacy, thought prior to every action, and absolutely no impulsiveness; things that Yamanaka and Inuzuka, though useful in their own rights, could not claim.
Neji and Tenten, however, were Jounin perfectly suited to the task ahead.
The calm shinobi spoke up. “If the villagers are so frightened, why would they take the risk in coming here to request our assistance?”
“Takuya's business in Fire is very limited due to restrictions on exchange in this country. While he does have men stationed further east, this region remains untouched by his – ah – enterprise. The three villagers who approached me this morning are farmers who do business regularly in Konoha, so traveling here would hardly arouse suspicion.”
Tenten folded her arms, nodding approvingly of the tactic. “Will escorting them back to their village be a part of our duties?”
“No, the farmers left as soon as I told them I would send a squad.” Reaching into her desk, Tsunade handed the bun-haired brunette a thick scroll detailing their mission along with directions to the village. “You should probably know that our clients are very poor and could not exactly afford our services. I accepted their request partly because I don't support the tyrannical control of civilians.” And because Tsunade knew what it was to lack financial comfort, but she did not say as much to her subordinates. “You will be paid by funding saved from special ANBU missions. All the same, I'd appreciate it if you kept the matter quiet from the council.”
She was given no objection and concluded by telling them to depart at eleven the next morning after getting plenty of sleep. “No early training,” she ordered Neji.
A little irritated (there were few things Neji resented more than the interruption of his routine), he inquired with flawless respect, “Why so early?” Rising so long after dawn was uncustomary not only to him, but to every ninja in Konoha.
“Read my scroll,” Tsunade said simply and watched them both bow. As Tenten was joining Neji to leave, she called across the room, “And by the way, have you set your wedding date yet?”
The question caught them off-guard. Tenten turned and somewhat sheepishly answered, “We've been considering next spring.” Neji was silent, but his stance had lost some of its rigidity.
Tsunade grinned at her. “I'll have Shizune mark my schedule.”
The reason for their commanded oversleeping, it turned out, was due to the covert nature of their mission. Neji and Tenten were posing as civilian night owls for the duration of their stay in the farmers' village, a little place nestled between the lands of Earth and Waterfall and padded by miles and miles of crop fields surrounding it. Tenten would have called it peace, but then again, a disruption of the village's peace was hers and Neji's only reason for their presence here.
They booked two separate rooms at the inn on the far side of the village, but they would, as always, be using only one of them for sleeping in. The other would be an office of sorts. They had fallen into this tradition of secrecy three years ago, at twenty-one. There had been no talk of marriage at the time, only a mutual need to seize whatever moments they had. Neji's proposal came later. It went unsaid, but both of them were at times surprised to have lived this long.
Back in the center of town, the two split up for the initiation of their mission. And work began.
Tenten sat by herself at a small round table in the center of a teahouse where Takuya Kiyomori's organization was said to base their operations. In a dress of black silk detailed with purple, Tenten sipped at a cup of sake watered down by a vial concealed in one of her long sleeves. Her hair was free of its tight buns, only the front strands gathered at the base of her head while the rest trailed past her shoulders in gentle, dark waves.
Ankles crossed neatly beneath her chair, she seemed relaxed enough, this notion aided by the slight smile on her lips. But in truth, Tenten was bothered by the instructions Tsunade had written for her and Neji. The farmers had specified that they wanted Takuya stopped, not killed. While Konoha ninja usually attempted to bring in more bodies to be jailed rather than buried, their professions were of extremely high risk, and deaths happened. Trying to detain Takuya for the wrath of the villagers would be more difficult than simply taking him out to prevent any further tribulation – especially if Takuya's organization was large. It made Tenten wish Lee had been assigned to this mission as well. The younger Beautiful Green Beast excelled at making a distraction of himself. Since their team was only a duo this time, it was up to Tenten to fill his duties. Hence the short, tight dress.
In the poorly lit teahouse, Tenten could see Neji as he came into her line of vision through a haze of opium smoke from cracked and chipped bowls at adjacent tables. Dressed in mainly gray and black civilian garb considerably more expensive than anything worn by a resident of Konoha, the Hyuuga appeared to be just another patron of the clearly amoral teahouse. His pitch black hair was secured at the nape of his neck and glided behind him as he walked. Unused to seeing him so well clad, Tenten had to remind herself that she was not sitting there for the purpose of gawking at her fiancée.
Sipping again at her sake, she murmured, “Seen anything?” Her voice was carried to him by a microscopic device planted into the artificial amethyst set in a choker at her throat.
“There's a man of note,” Neji's voice sounded in her ear by means of a bud of technology settled in the cartilage, imperceptible to the untrained eye.
“No. He's staring at you rather intently.”
She actually felt a number of stares bearing various meanings and asked, “He may not suspect anything. Maybe he thinks I'm charming or beautiful...or both.” Another dainty sip of sake.
“The chances of that are fairly low.”
Tenten leaned back in her chair and remained externally indifferent, although inside was another matter. “Is that so?”
“Well, considering I saw him kissing another man in the bathroom when I was in there, I choose to adhere to my analyzation.” Neji's tone did not waver from prosaic for the duration of his explanation.
Tenten utilized every ounce of the lessons she had received on controlling her emotions to allow a small twitch of lips to suffice for the laughter that threatened to erupt. “I see,” she relented. Feeling playful (a side effect, perhaps, of the secondhand intake of opium), she inched her chair back until she was certain Neji could see the expanse of her legs. There was a single catch in his breath that echoed through her ear. She tried not to feel too smug about it.
Tenten played the scene, gleaning attention of the toughs in the room so Neji could observe and listen in with his eyes – he was proficient at the art of lip-reading – to the exchanges delivered in undertones.
At one point, a woman in a pale blue kimono carrying a bowl of opium approached her. “Do you care to try it?” she asked sweetly as though she were promoting a new genus of tea leaf.
“Oh.” The kunoichi hadn't actually expected to be offered what was sold here and realized the stupidity of that. “No, thank you. Not tonight,” she added, hoping the afterthought helped her sound as though she were familiar with this kind of place.
The server only bowed respectfully, her short black hair shifting. “As you wish. Enjoy your visit and please, return again soon.” She moved off fluidly to entice another customer.
Well, she approved of the service here, she supposed. But Tenten was growing frustrated. Even though she could distract several of the men who were apparently supposed to be looking out for people just like Neji with little more than a flick of her wrist as she poured sake, they were both out of their element.
She wanted action, a chance to use the blades strapped horizontally against her pelvis (her hemline didn't obscure anything lower).
“Found him,” Neji reported at last and switched his position.
Tenten wished she could go eavesdrop too, but when a particularly violent-eyed piece of muscle ambled in her direction, she decided it would be more important to keep him occupied and cover Neji. She aimed her smile in the big guy's direction, and he half-sat, half-stumbled into an adjacent chair.
Neji's signal eventually came, just a short “shhh” in her ear, and Tenten knew he was ready for her to join him by the exit. Tenten thought fast, sending Takuya's bodyguard off to fetch her another order of sake before darting away. She asked no questions until the pair was outside. This late, the streets of the village were unlit and ghostly in their quiet.
“What did you get?” Tenten hadn't actually seen Takuya. To glance around for a familiar face would have broken her character of a stranger.
His colorless eyes were narrowed. “Nothing yet. I wasn't able to get close enough to him before he left the teahouse. I did hear from one of his men that they were going to the east side of town.” He led her around the teahouse building in hopes of cutting them off.
Tenten slipped a dagger from beneath her dress, just in case. As they ran around the perimeter of the wide-structured teahouse, thunder rolled above them. Lightning soon followed, but there was thus far no rain.
When they emerged in an alley where Takuya had been anticipated, Neji and Tenten were met by the sight of blank walls flanking empty space. No one occupied the alley, let alone their target for this mission. Meaning one thing: he had escaped. Unintentionally.
Upon this realization, the rain joined its brothers of nature and fell hard.
“Their logic is flawed,” said Neji as they returned to their room later, only an hour or two before daybreak. “I can understand the image the villagers here have of carrying out their own benign revenge, but the longer it takes us to incapacitate Takuya surreptitiously, the longer they must suffer his interference.”
Tenten listened supportively, as she was prone to do when Neji went on one of his tactical rampages. It was his way of dealing with mission frustration. His heart was never heavier than when they made no progress. “What do you think would be better?” She bent over the rug by the door and squeezed rain water from her hair.
“An improvement to the mission as a whole,” said Neji, “would be to dispatch a few of Takuya's men and than abduct Takuya himself while he investigates the matter.”
“These people wouldn't know about such strategies.” Tenten disliked indirect approaches as much as he did, but she remembered that they were hired and thus obligated to side with their clients. “The employees at the teahouse didn't even pick up on the fact that we weren't with Takuya's group. They aren't astute enough for things like this. They just want control given back to them.” Straightening once she was satisfied her hair no longer dripped, Tenten approached him near the bed, sitting on one side to remove her choker and ear bud, placing them on the night stand. “Their fields look nice, though.”
From behind her, Neji's hand fell on her shoulder. The purple and black silk, quite possibly ruined from the rain, had slipped out of position, and his fingers found bare skin. As quickly as he had begun, Neji now seemed to be done speaking of their mission. He replaced his hand with his lips.
Tenten angled her head back, and the Hyuuga, encouraged, ran short kisses over the width of her neck before she halted him with a palm at his chest. Turning to look at him, she said, “We'll have to make better progress tomorrow. I'm sure there's a limited time before our cover cracks and they break us apart. This isn't exactly a hot spot for people looking for fun.”
He nodded, agreeing with her but disinclined to vocalize it right now. Fine, Tenten thought, as long as her words went through. Anyway, she was beginning to grow very interested in what he was doing with his mouth...
They repeated their strategy the next night. Tenten sat at another table in another dress (this one not silk as it had rained for the better part of the day) while Neji meandered for information. This time her hair was entirely unbound. Again the woman in the kimono came to her with the smoking bowl, but Tenten played as though she were here for the sake and the ambience rather than the opium.
The woman paused in her duties long enough to tell Tenten her name, Nami, and to offer any help she could while Tenten was in the village. Tenten considered the possibility of Nami's involvement in Takuya's group but was more certain that the young woman had accepted the state of things in her village more readily than others and was just trying to make her way. The smile she gave Nami was genuine.
Neji's voice whispered in her ear through the device she wore again, and Tenten knew he must have been watching from a distance, waiting for Nami to go before contacting her. “Takuya is in a private room in the south end of the shop. I was able to stay outside the door long enough to hear him tell several men that plans to remove all of the residents from this village are underway. It seems he wishes to expand his base to the entire area instead of this teahouse alone.”
Tenten sipped her watery sake to ask, “What would be the point of that? It's hardly inconspicuous, considering his business.”
“I think so too. Either he's careless or there's something we're missing. And I doubt he's careless.”
“Maybe. Or perhaps he's edged the underground market enough to afford indiscretion.”
Tenten didn't like so many variables. Reconnaissance was Nara Shikamaru's forte. If Tsunade had sent him and Ino on this one, things may have been handled by now, although Tenten could see why they were picked. Shikamaru didn't fit in places like this, and Ino was...well...shrill.
She told herself to think positive, that this experience would be good for them. If they succeeded.
“They've left,” Neji said, interrupting her train of thought. “Let's go. We'll take the secondary exit this time.”
She did as he suggested, meeting him in a darkened corridor reserved for employees. They hurried out an unmarked door that took them into the alley of last night, saving them the time of skirting the whole building.
Tenten started to run out, but Neji grabbed her suddenly and pressed her back against the rough wall of the alley, his lips crushing hers. Shocked, she struggled on reflex – Neji was never so demanding with her. And they were in the middle of working! When she attempted to push him away, to get back to their task, he grabbed her wrists and pinned them over her head with one hand.
Then Tenten heard the low tones near the mouth of the alley. A sidelong glance spotted reddish-brown hair, Takuya talking to an unidentified man. Realization dawned as Tenten remembered that she had been watched the night before, possibly suspected, and Neji was maintaining their covers by preventing her from rushing onto the scene. To anyone nearby, they looked like two young people out of the opium teahouse, too absorbed in each other to notice anything going on.
Tenten shut her eyes and kissed him back but listened to the conversation occurring mere yards away.
“...told you to get rid of the owner of the inn, didn't I, Ohira-san?”
“Y-yes. But I couldn't, there were people around!”
“It's an inn. There's going to be people around. So,” continued the threatening tone of Takuya's voice, “the smart thing to do, Ohira-san, would be to lead the innkeeper away from the people, then get rid of him.”
Tenten recalled the kindly man who had given them their rooms. Gray-haired and stooped, he would be defenseless if assaulted. Her hands tightened around Neji's back. He switched angles to peer out of the corner of his eye at the proceedings.
“I...I'll do it, Takuya-sama! Please, give me a second chance!”
“The thing is, that was your second chance. Remember?”
“Yes, I know, it's just...this time, I will kill him for you!”
“That's what you promised me last time, Ohira-san. And you'll agree that a man who does not keep his word cannot be trusted.”
“Please, please...plea—” His third begging was promptly cut off. Tenten placed the sound, metal burying itself in wood. Next came the slam of a door, and then a few seconds of silence.
Neji pulled himself away from Tenten, both breathing heavily from the kisses as much as from what they had overheard. He touched her hand, and that was permission to go on. They ran together from the alley and emerged to find no one there, as before.
“Gone,” Tenten bit out. Her hands curled into shaking fists.
“Tenten,” Neji murmured, calmer by contrast, “look.”
She aimed her hateful gaze at the door he pointed to. It was attached to the next building, and at first she presumed it as Neji's guess for where Takuya and his three-man entourage had disappeared. But a closer inspection showed that her fiancée was not regarding the door itself but rather the dark, steady stream of blood running out from under the door.
Cautiously approaching with him, she stood at the ready while Neji yanked open the door. The sight promptly broke her hardened expression and turned it into a blend of disgust and remorse. Upon the door hung a middle-aged man, the unfortunate Ohira, in the position he had supposedly endured for the entire confrontation with Takuya. Blood poured down his front from where a kunai had been plunged into his heart.
It seemed not all of Takuya's murders were performed in public.
Neji stood unmoving for a moment, looking at the corpse, its eyes rolled down, its mouth slackened. The attack had been heartless, yes, but also without technique and certainly without any courage. When he faced Tenten, his eyes were already filled with the cold acknowledgment of a shinobi who did not prevent an undesirable outcome in his mission.
“Our work is unacceptable,” he said lowly, and Tenten nodded once.
“Not at all!” shouted a voice from a fair distance away. Both turning to face its source, Neji and Tenten saw Takuya watching them with at least fifty feet between them. All at once, twenty men surrounded them, serving as a barrier between the Konoha ninja and Takuya. “I think you've performed splendidly so far!”
The alley took on a deadening silence like held breath.
Ten men for each of them to get to Takuya. The odds weren't horrible; each person in Team Gai was accustomed to taking on a large quantity of enemies at the same time, and these followers of Takuya weren't even shinobi. Tenten saw the large vicious-eyed man from last night. But they were all clearly bent on their demise, and she and Neji were supposed to keep everyone alive.
That restriction made things considerably more challenging.
Before anyone initiate combat, a lithe woman wrapped in silk appeared in the door over which Ohira's blood dripped. She was looking down, lifting the hem of her kimono, and failing to fully notice the scene ahead of her. “Takuya,” Nami said, “did you—”
Her question was prematurely ended when Neji leapt forward and dragged her out of the doorway into the street, Ohira's blood inevitably staining her silken socks. She cried out as the Hyuuga clenched one hand in her short hair and held her in front of him, forcing her to lean slightly forward.
“Neji!” Tenten's eyed widened. It was unlike Neji to make use of a civilian, and using her as a shield was not only beyond him but went against the practices of Konoha ninja. “What are you—”
“Tenten, come close,” he said. Neji waited until she hesitantly obeyed before calling out over the heads of their would-be assailants. “Are you going to having your men attack us with your leader standing here?”
Oh, thought the kunoichi. She turned her brown eyes to Takuya, who had frozen, unsure of what to do in this interesting turn of events.
It was Nami who spoke first – yelled, rather. “Takuya! How could you let this happen?” Her eyes trailed frantically to Tenten. “You!”
Neji's behavior now made sense. Apparently he had discovered more than he'd initially let on, such as the fact that Takuya was not the true leader of the opium organization but instead did the bidding of Nami, who was.
“Nami-sama, I'm...I...” Through his faltering, Takuya continued to appear clueless as to how to respond to their predicament. “I didn't know you would be coming out here,” he told her weakly.
“Do you think that's good enough, idiot?!”
Neji interjected icily, “You didn't answer my question.”
Takuya looked hastily around, as though the answer was written upon a wall somewhere. When he did not find it, he called off his men, and all twenty of them retreated back into the teahouse, leaving Takuya and Nami alone with Neji and Tenten.
Neji handed the struggling but altogether unsuccessful Nami to Tenten, who held three senbon between the knuckles of her right hand and pointed them at the crime leader's neck. She couldn't help but feel a little badly for restraining someone she had originally taken for sincere but then quickly chastised herself. This was the world she had chosen after all, a world of deceit from friends and foes.
“What do you hope to accomplish?” Takuya asked as Neji moved out of the alley. “Even if you killed Nami-sama, I will still be here to continue her trade.”
Tenten let her eyes go as sharp and deadly as her weapons. “Then I will simply have to kill you as well.” Her voice assured him she could manage the feat before he could run away; there was no harm in letting them believe there deaths were impending, even if Konoha's mission dictated otherwise.
Neji was not gone long, and when he returned, he was followed by nearly a hundred residents of the village. Tenten wasn't sure that, in a village this size, it wasn't almost all of the residents.
Once Takuya and Nami were both surrounded by angry-faced men and women as old as sixty and as young as ten, Neji said, “You can let go now, Tenten.”
She did, but she kept her gaze trained on Nami. The leader eyed her in return; two females of different strength on opposite sides life. “You didn't have to live like this,” Tenten murmured to her, feeling an odd connection with her even though there was no basis for it.
Nami arched one eyebrow indifferently. “What the hell do you know?”
“I suggest some of you go into the teahouse,” Neji was telling the villagers who by now resembled a snarling mob after seeing Ohira's body hanging on the open door. Clearly, they were done being treated like doormats by ungrateful occupants. “You'll find the body of Nami's organization there.”
Tenten walked away, joining Neji outside the villagers' crowd. “What now?”
Neji turned and, with her, left the scene. “Now the rest is up to their justice.”
It was, they agreed the following morning, one of the strangest missions that either had ever undertaken.
Tenten was glad to dress in her standard, comfortable clothing with her hair back in buns. As they were leaving the village, Neji and Tenten were stopped by two farmers working in the fields.
“We've decided not to kill them all,” one said, and Tenten felt relieved of the anxiety she hadn't realized she'd been experiencing. A peaceful place like this did not need a massacre etched into its history, even if it was in defense. They listened to the village's plan to take Nami's group before the government in Earth, a country known for its lack of indulgence in drugs and other physically unhealthy products. There, the group would face proper ramifications for their actions.
“I've been thinking,” Neji said to her as they walked through the vegetable and rice fields, on their way to Konoha.
Tenten smiled. “You have a fondness for that, I've noticed.”
He took her hand and lightly held it before continuing lightly, “I wonder if we shouldn't move the wedding up to this fall instead of next spring.”
The suggestion caught Tenten by surprise. There was still so much planning to be done. “But it's almost the end of summer!” she protested, thinking of how the Hyuuga clan would react to hastened preparations.
Neji stopped her in the middle of the road. It was an open area, but as there was no one within miles, the location felt perfectly private. “I know.” Lightly gripping her chin, he kissed her.
This, Tenten thought hazily, was as just and fair a moment as she could ever receive. And her heart felt wonderfully light.