Author's Notes: So, I'm trying out a different formatting style again. This is going to be multi-chaptered but each chapter is shorter than usual so that you're only getting flashes of the action from our two groups. This also means the story is going to be pretty long. However, I have several segments previously written so I imagine I'll be updating pretty frequently. :D
Dedicated to the NejiTen FC on NarutoFan. You guys are a bunch of goobs and I love you muchly. And to my SHINING apprentice, Ness, whose FLAME OF YOUTH has made me so proud! I need a tissue.
In the Space Between Heartbeats
Lee walked the hallway to the Hokage's Office with a light step and a jaunty gleam of white teeth for anyone he saw. He might have offered a thumps-up but there were quite a few people in the corridors and his arms were full of files. To make up for this, he told himself he would give one hundred people the Nice Guy Pose after he saw the Godaime. She would want to see his reports, after all, and it was never gentlemanly to keep a lady waiting.
The folders he carried were filled with the results of his latest mission, a brief reconnaissance journey into Bird Country. He and Neji had gone to collect information, to talk to some of the townsfolk - dressed, of course, as normal citizens and so without their hitai-ate. Tsunade had wanted to be as up-to-date on the other villages as possible and Lee had earnestly written pages and pages filled with his observations. Thirty of them had been dedicated to the natural wildlife, which Lee had quickly become fascinated with. (Despite it's name, Bird Country was home to a tree-dweller called a 'koala'. Lee had desperately wanted to take one home for further study but Neji had refused to travel carrying a 'bear'. His youthful vigor obviously needed reviving.)
Other teams had been sent to other lands, all ordered to stay discreet and observe. Most of them had returned, as Lee and Neji had, and were organizing hand-written reports and land maps in the hallway, trying to prepare themselves before seeing Tsunade. One such pair was Ino and Shikamaru, Ino's voice booming from one of the empty offices.
"I know I had the plans for the daimyo's estate! I know it! WHERE ARE THEY?"
Sheets of paper flew and rolls of parchment unraveled themselves out the door as Ino tore through boxes of reports. Lee stuck his head into the room to find Shikamaru leaning lazily against the doorframe, arms crossed and watching the carnage with a bored expression.
"Shikamaru," Lee greeted, tilting his head to the side to avoid a crumpled paper ball that would have hit him right in the eye. "You're back from Tea Country."
"Yeah. And none too soon," he drawled, eyeing his partner as she started muttering obscenities under her breath. "I saw Neji on the way here, said your own trip was pretty uneventful." Shikamaru glanced at him briefly. "Sent you to report to Tsunade alone, did he?"
"He had to check in at the Hyuuga compound," Lee answered. "Hinata was to come back this week too. Have you seen her or Tenten here?" The two kunoichi had gone to Snow Country and should have arrived back about the same time as the others. Lee had not seen either of them in the halls, though, and he really wanted to show Tenten a picture of the koala.
"Nope, haven't seen 'em. Then again…" he nodded towards Ino, "I've been occupied." The lazy ninja leaned forward as Lee turned to leave and said flatly, "It's in your hand."
Marveling at Ino's youthful stamina (the screams of rage had finally stopped), Lee hurried on, keeping an eye out for Tenten as he went. He didn't see her but that wasn't surprising. A number of other ninja mentioned that the passes coming down from the mountains had flooded with the recent rain there, making entry into Fire Country from that direction slow and miserable. It was the route Tenten and Hinata would have taken and, knowing Tenten's careful attitude while escorting the Hyuuga heir, Lee thought it likely they were traveling safely rather than quickly.
So, he gave his report to the Godaime, not failing to mention the fabulous wildlife, and was just about to leave when Tsunade floored him with a parting remark.
"Have Neji report to me when he's finished at the Hyuuga compound. I know they're anxious about Hinata's disappearance but I'll need to talk to him in person as well."
Lee turned slowly, feeling as if he had just been given one of Gai-sensei's Super Flying Kicks to the stomach. His expression must have given him away because Tsunade sighed loudly.
"You didn't know, I see. Tenten and Hinata were due back five days ago. They had to cut their stay in Snow Country short due to bad weather and were headed back the last time I heard from them. Even with the high passes rained out, they should have returned by now."
"Could they have been attacked?" Lee's mind had started to spin with endless possibilities. "Maybe the weather cleared and they decided to stay."
"If that's true, they should have sent word," the Godaime said firmly, "But they haven't and the Hyuuga are of the opinion that their heir has been kidnapped."
"By who?" Lee was dumbfounded. Konoha had never given Snow Country any reason to fight and—
"By Tenten herself, perhaps."
A silent moment passed and then Lee flared indignantly, mortally offended by the suggestion. "Tenten would never betray Konoha. She would never reveal the secrets of the village, or the blood limit of the Hyuuga," he said strongly, "And I will speak with anyone who says otherwise."
The Hokage was watching him, fingers steepled together in front of her mouth. "I agree," she said, and this time Lee heard the exhaustion in her voice. "But I have heard that theory along with a dozen others from the Hyuuga clan, and none of them reflect well on your old teammate. To them, she is either a traitor or incompetent." She snorted in annoyance.
"I will go," Lee said immediately. "I will prove them wrong by finding them both safe and sound. They will see that Tenten is far from incompetent." He was turning towards the door again when Tsunade's voice stopped him for the second time.
"That will be unnecessary, Lee," she said firmly. "You have just returned from a mission and I—"
He did not turn but kept his back to her, stiff and straight. "Tsunade-sama, please allow me to do this. I will take Neji and we will bring them back." He said it as if there were no other outcome.
It took a long minute but finally there came a reluctant "very well" and Lee hurried out the door and out of the building, headed towards the Hyuuga clan's headquarters.
He would prove to them they were blind in more than one spot.
There was a swirling, tangled moment of color and then she was conscious, her eyes burning, her throat strangely tight and dry. Something was pressed over her mouth and she struggled on instinct, bringing blurred shapes to her side. Hands were touching her, gripping her arms, holding that something over her mouth until she gasped, suffocating. Her spine arched in a wild surge of terror, her heart thundering in her chest as she realized she couldn't move her legs.
"Stop," she said, but her voice didn't sound quite right, hoarse and toneless. Her eyelids fluttered as her lungs struggled for air, a line of pain suddenly moving down her hip to her knee. She let her body fall in response and felt smooth sheets beneath her.
Someone was speaking, but the vibrations curved into her ear and translated into nothing she could understand. She shifted again, weakly, but her arms were dead weight, strange fingers pressing tightly into her skin. A noise rose in her throat. She had to get free. Hinata was counting on her.
The name blazed across her mind suddenly and she jerked, eyes opening to their fullest, unseeing. Bells were ringing in her head. She couldn't move her legs. She couldn't move her legs.
"Hinata," she said, in that gravelly tone that wasn't hers. Someone's breath moved near her ear, tickling the strands of sweat-damp hair against her cheek. This time words cut through the static and made tears fill unseeing eyes.
"She's not here, Tenten. She's gone." Softer. "She's gone."
To Be Continued.