Author's Notes: Sorry for the wait on this one, folks. November is National Novel Writing Month and I got caught up with a few extra side projects. Never fear, though, for this is the finale and, though I was afraid I wouldn't be, I AM happy with it. It does leave a few things to your imagination, but I hope it explains most of what has happened and that when you get to the end, you feel you've come full circle.
Please enjoy.In the Space Between Heartbeats
The fact that the doctor woke up fifteen minutes after Hinata's departure did not surprise Tenten. Hinata was becoming a good ninja, a strong one, but killing would never be her first choice. Not that it should have been, of course, but Tenten couldn't help but feel a little regret that Hinata's Jyuuken hadn't sent him into at least a coma. It would have given her more time to prepare herself.
As it turned out, however, the doctor rose unsteadily to his feet, took one look at her and suddenly blinked as if remembering something. Taking out a notepad from his coat pocket, he jotted a few things down, intensely focused on whatever it was he was writing. She didn't say anything, simply watched in confusion as he pocketed the paper and pencil again and turned his cold gaze to her.
"I think it's time we got those restraints off you," he said.
Reaching out, he unbuckled the cuffs around her wrists, revealing the welts she had given herself in her attempts to escape. She let her arms fall limply as they were freed, exhausted from his kinjutsu and the knowledge that she could not stand on her own. What did he plan to do with her now that he knew Hinata had been in the building? Now that he had felt Hinata's strength, did he still need her, Tenten, as a source of information?
He paused once in lowering the rails of her bed, his gaze suddenly pulled to the south where he stared at the wall for a full minute, a strange expression on his face. Tenten took that opportunity to feel him out.
"Hinata is gone, you know. She won't be coming back for me. You've lost."
He glanced back at her slowly, his lips finally curving in a knowing smirk. His answer, though, was not what she expected. "Let's take you out of here, shall we, Tenten-san?"
Looping one of her arms around his neck, he pulled her bodily from the bed, another arm around her waist to keep her firmly at his side. The moment her feet hit the cool floor, her nerves twitched and she bit back a sudden cry of pain. Whatever he had done to her with that jutsu had made her skin exceptionally sensitive. In reality, his grip on her was probably not very harsh, but to her his hands felt like vises.
Suffering silently, she let herself be half-dragged from the room, her feet sliding against the floor uselessly. Despite carrying her dead weight, the doctor moved swiftly, buffeted by a thin use of chakra. He took her past the other, quiet rooms and as they turned a corner into what must have been the lobby, his lab coat fell open enough for her to glimpse the handle of the kunai sheathed behind his belt. With all that happened, she had forgotten he wore it.
Before she could even start to formulate a plan, however, he was pushing them through the front double-doors and out into sunlight that immediately blinded her. Through a sheen of sun-wrought tears, she tried to see their surroundings, to determine where was, and so her gaze came to rest on a silhoutte on the hill. Blurry and indistinct, she couldn't see who it was but immediately her heart leapt in fear. Why hadn't Hinata escaped? Tenten's mind took a halting leap into action, plans formed and discarded just as quickly. If the doctor caught the Hyuuga heir...
"Well," her captor said, "It looks like he's finally made it here."
Tenten blinked. He?
And then she realized the figure walking towards them was not Hinata, but Neji, hands at his sides and Byakugan fully activated. His face was a study of cool anger and hostility.
Abruptly, Tenten was dropped to the ground as the doctor let go of her, falling bonelessly into the grass at his feet. She managed to keep herself upright by placing shaky hands against the ground, watching through stray locks of hair as Neji's all-seeing gaze fell on her. His expression tightened.
"What have you done to her?"
"Nothing that won't fade away in a couple of hours," the doctor replied smoothly. "It was necessary to subdue her." He paused, contemplating the Hyuuga. "I see you found your way past my illusions."
"My eyes will eventually discover lies, even those as good as yours."
Her captor smiled. "Interesting. The very reason I wanted to speak more with the other girl. I take it she has this power too?"
Neji didn't bother answering. "I want my teammate back."
The doctor snapped back just as quickly, "You can't have her." He cleared his throat, recovering a little. "My research is not complete. Do you expect me to give up my only leverage?"
Neji's mouth curved into that smirk she knew so well. "You aren't the only one with leverage."
"Hien!" Someone cried off to the side and Tenten turned her head to find Lee standing there, a bound Sakaki before him. The nurse looked absolutely terrified. "They're going to kill me! Hien!" And obviously hysterical. The day Lee killed a defenseless civilian would be the day Gai-sensei declared Kakashi the winner in their private duel and took up needlepoint.
The doctor's - Hien's - eyebrows rose and he smiled slightly. "She's your back up plan? I'm afraid I overestimated you. As a ninja, I am willing to make sacrifices to accomplish my goal."
The blood drained from Sakaki's face and Lee frowned. Only Neji appeared unmoved. "What is your goal?"
"Isn't it obvious?" Hien asked. "I gather information. Specifically information on shinobi clan bloodlimits like yours. The market for such research is rather astounding. Your enemies would pay dearly for it, I imagine." He glanced down at Tenten. "The fact that this girl has no clan bloodlimit was a disappointment, yes, but I realized she did have worth, if only to secure the other specimen's agreeability."
Specimen. Tenten felt a flame of anger ignite in her throat. He was referring to Hinata, a real flesh and blood person, as a specimen. In her haze of incredulous irritation, she leaned forward on her hands, taking the weight off her legs.
"What I did not expect was for this girl to sacrifice herself for the other," Hien went on, tilting his head as if looking at a puzzle. "But perhaps that is the way of your village, for the lesser ninja to die for the safety of your clans."
In front of her, Neji's hands tightened. A few years ago he would not have been moved by the doctor's words, they would have been natural to him. He was a Hyuuga and fate had dictated that he was to be superior to shinobi of less refined heritage.
Then Naruto had come and changed everything.
In Neji's pale eyes, nothing could be so easily cast aside now.
Tenten herself took no heed to her captor's words. They were merely that and nothing more. However, on the hill, one person did take offense on her behalf.
"Tenten is anything but a lesser ninja!" Lee shouted, his black eyes shining, clearly worked up. "The fact that a person did not inherit a bloodlimit does make them useless! Anything can be achieved with hard work and determination. If Tenten fought so Hinata could escape, she survived because she is anything but 'lesser'."
And just on the end of his words, as the last syllable left his mouth, Tenten twisted upwards using one hand and with the other pulled the kunai from Hien's belt. He had only an instant to understand her intention before she plunged it into his unprotected abdomen.
"Hien!" Sakaki cried.
With a lurch, Hien fell backwards, overbalanced by the force of the kunai and the weight of Tenten's helpless body. She collapsed on top of him, her legs still refusing to cooperate, and felt blood well between the fingers still curved around the ringed hilt. She had no time to contemplate it, however, as Hien suddenly rolled himself over, pinning her to the ground, his hands going for her neck.
"I should have killed you before," he said, his crisp voice colored with pain. His hands tightened and she struggled with him, nails digging into his forearms as her vision dimmed. "It's time I rectified that oversight." She gasped in his choke-hold, willing her legs to move, to work, to knee him in the groin. It was no use, whatever they had done to her, she could not undo it herself. She...
Her chest constricted, struggling for air.
And then something barreled into Hien's stomach, making him curl in, gasping as the knife was driven deeper. Her stumbled back, releasing Tenten as he did so, and she gulped in air as her starved lungs realized she wasn't going to die after all. She turned her head to watch hazily as Neji punched Hien again, the strength behind his fist so great she knew he wasn't thinking of using Jyuuken. And why should he when his anger was enough?
In fact, Neji did not use chakra until the very end, when he closed all Hien's tenketsu.
Afterwards, Lee was the first to reach her, helping her sit up against him and pulling the hem of her hospital gown down in a move so very Lee-like that she felt tears fill her eyes.
"I'm so very, very happy to see you," she told him, and was rewarded with a youthful, if somewhat worried, grin.
"Hinata found us and explained what had happened. We would have been here sooner but that doctor was very good at genjutsu. It fooled even Neji's eyes," he amended, "for a time."
As if his name had summoned him, Neji came to her side, kneeled down close enough for her to see the blood splatter on his clothes. The relief she felt at his presence made her want to throw her arms around his neck. Instead, she settled for a tired smile and a tilt of her head.
He nodded, but his gaze was focusing, his thoughts elsewhere. "What's wrong with your legs?"
Ah, she should have known he would have noticed. "I haven't been able to move them since...since the explosion." The memory made her look around, scanning the trees. "Where's Hinata? Lee says she found you."
"We sent her back to Konoha for another team." Neji's mouth made a line but Lee's was curving. She blinked and Neji clarified. "She wasn't very happy about it."
She laughed, a short hiccuping laugh before pressing her lips together, overwhelmed. And then she really did put an around around each of their necks and hug them to her, so infinitely grateful that they were there and she was still able to touch them. The nightmare of her capture could do nothing but fade into that space between heartbeats, defeated by Lee's wrapped hand against her back and Neji's silky hair beneath her fingers.
"Let's go home," Lee said gently, and she nodded, allowing Neji to pull her onto his back, her arms around his shoulders as he rose. Lee went back for Sakaki whom Tenten had almost forgotten about. At the sight of her, however, her hip twinged and she looked at the nurse carefully.
"She gave me something, an injection," she said slowly, "I'm pretty sure that's why I can't feel my legs."
She felt rather than saw Neji's face harden fractionally. "What was it?" His question was directed at Sakaki who quailed under his strange, white gaze. "What did you give her?"
"It...it won't harm her," she said quickly, paling, "It has to be given every four hours or it wears off. Hien told me to give it to her to...to make her easier to manage."
Tenten nodded. "Then I wasn't really injured in that explosion."
"You had a concussion and some minor wounds, but nothing as serious as paralysis."
Well, that explained why she couldn't exactly remember what had happened during her fight with the enemy shinobi or how Hien had managed to get a hold of her. Their words had been lies based on a few truths - coincedentally, the type of lies that were easiest to believe.
All this in order to study a rare power, she thought, only to have it used against him at the end.
That was what you might call ironic.
As it turned out, Sakaki, it was discovered, was a real nurse who had thrown her lot in with Hien - a missing nin himself - because she thought he was a genius. She'd wanted power as well, the power of knowledge, and to be someone who Hien relied upon. That he had so easily dismissed her life in the end was something of a wake-up call for her and she cooperated with the Hokage, relating to Tsunade everything she had learned while working for Hien.
Tenten never got to hear that report, however, as she had been sent to Sakura for a full check-up, suffering herself to be tested until the pink-haired kunoichi declared her fit and ready for duty again. As she was leaving, Hinata came to see her, flanked by two Branch members. Without a single word, the Hyuuga heir flung her arms around the older girl in a tight hug, gracefully erasing forever any doubts the Hyuuga had had about Tenten's role in Hinata's disappearance.
Lee watched it all unfold with a trace of unusual smugness.
"You see, Neji? Your family was wrong about Tenten. I knew the sparkle of her youth would eventually win them over!"
Neji gave him a flat look, deciding not to mention the other handful of factors that had declared her innocence, such as, you know, exploding a man to save Hinata's life.
"Now that she's back, we must tell her about our mission! She'll want to hear everything," he gushed, waving a hand at the two, now conversing, kunoichi. "Tenten! You have to see this picture!" He pulled a photograph from his pocket and Neji, to his personal chagrin, immediately recognized it. "Isn't it cute?"
Tenten joined them, smiling, and completed the circle. Lee grinned in anticipation.
"It's called a koala..."
And everything was just where it should be.