A great fog lay thick in Neji's mind, clouding his thoughts. Floating within this muffled nothingness, it took a long time to determine whether he was awake or still sleeping. At last, he determined he was awake. If he were dreaming, he would not be so uncomfortable.
Where he was, he could not figure out, nor how he got to be there. He remembered trying to sleep but being unable, too anxious and restless to relax. He had heard someone entering his room. Expecting it was one of the many guards come to check up on him, he had started to ask who was there. Then… a thick cloth on his face, and a too sweet, cloying smell invaded his thoughts and his being, and there was nothing more.
Neji took stock of his person and surroundings, as best he could without the aid of sight. He was lying half on his side now, on what felt like a pallet stuffed with rags and smelled like mold. His hands were encased within some unyielding substance, rendering them incapable of movement. His feet were bound together. When he tried to move them, there was a rattle and dragging of metal links across the floor; he was chained to something, the wall or the floor, perhaps. The room was cold, a feeling he had not often felt since his move to Suna. There was a dampness to the air, and he tasted stale water with every breath he took. He could not hear the wind.
So, the unknown assailants had taken him prisoner, clearly having drugged him first before bringing him to wherever this was. Did that mean Gaara had been defeated? Was Gaara even now lying dead or dying somewhere in the desert, with the wind and sand slowly burying his body? Neji quickly shook the thought away. These assailants were clever, but they hid themselves and used tricks and false trails. In a direct confrontation, they had no hope of defeating the Kazekage. But despite this conviction, the worry persisted.
Neji flexed his hands slowly, testing the strength of the substance that constricted them. His fingers cramped almost immediately; the mass had no elasticity and allowed for no movement. The texture seemed soft and chalky against his skin, however, and the entire mass was fairly weighty. Some sort of plaster? If he held very still, he could almost feel it hum against his skin, as though infused with chakra, likely to prevent him using his own chakra to break it. This had all been very carefully planned.
"So, awake now, are you?" a gruff voice spoke about seven feet to Neji's left. "You know, I sure as hell hope you're worth all the trouble you've cause me these past couple of years. If having you as his own doesn't fix him, I might just kill the both of you."
Neji knew the voice, and knew the face and the skills of the shinobi that went with it. "Shiten." His voice was hoarse and his throat felt raw; whatever drug they had used on him must have aggravated his injury.
"The very same," Shiten agreed. "Not much point in keeping secret identities anymore, is there?"
"I would not have expected you to be involved in this." Shiten had always been so… loyal. But apparently his loyalty truly lay elsewhere.
"Amazing thing, isn't it? I can hardly believe it myself sometimes. Growing up, I never imagined I'd get myself neck deep into something so idiotic," Shiten said. "But that's what I get for second-guessing Fate, I suppose."
"You could always let me go," Neji suggested.
"Wish I could," said Shiten. "Can't imagine you're any happier to be here than I am to have you here. But I can promise you'll be treated well so long as you're here, if you can ignore the whole being-chained-up part of it. We'll probably be moving out of this moldy hole soon, too, and that'll be quite the relief. Once he realizes you're missing, that red-headed brat will tear this desert to pieces trying to find you, and I hope to be long gone by then."
"Gaara's still alive?"
Shiten let out a bark of laughter. "Don't sound so relieved; you'll hurt my leader's feelings."
"And wouldn't that be tragic."
"You know," Shiten said, "I'm not condoning what he's done, and I would understand if you couldn't ever forgive him for it. But I want you to know, before this whole stupid obsession with you, he was relatively normal. Had his quirks, of course, but he had the skills, all the makings of a great shinobi. He could have been one of the best. Then you came along."
"Are you blaming me for this?"
Shiten mulled that over. "I'd like to. I'd like to find somebody to blame for this whole shittin' mess. Can't blame him; he's just an idiot. A love-addled idiot. But you're right, there's no way you could have even guessed this would happen. None of us could. I bet Fate's laughing her ass off at us right now." He paused, then continued, "Anyway, no point in angsting over what could have been. I'll go get you something to eat; you'll feel better after you've tried some of Soujishi's food. Kid's got some talent for following recipes. He's the one that cooked up the blinding powder for your eyes."
"I'll be sure to thank him," Neji said. "Shiten… if you know your leader is insane, why do you follow him? Why would you do all this?"
"… Because he asked," Shiten said. "I've been a lot of places in my life, and I never felt like I belonged in any of them. Then one day, he asked me not to leave him. So I stayed. Simple, really." There was a moment's pause, then the sound of Shiten's footsteps exiting the room.
"…yeah," Neji murmured to the empty silence. "Simple."
He was pacing the floor, absently chewing on a fingernail when Shiten walked in. He looked up at his second-in-command with eager eyes. "So, what'd he say? Did he say anything about me?"
"Yeah, he thinks you're crazy and stupid," Shiten answered. "And I happen to think he's right."
He smiled indulgently. "Shiten, Neji would never say anything like that about me. I did all of this for him. He'll understand that."
"Then you go in there and explain it to him," Shiten said. "Because I sure as hell don't understand it. You haven't even gone to see him yet. You were the one so eager to get him here that you couldn't even wait until his husband was dead."
"I can't just go in there," he protested. "I wouldn't know what to say!"
"I don't believe this… you mean you've been head-over-heels, blind-to-reality obsessed with this guy for years, and you haven't even thought of a single thing to say to him?"
"I've thought of thousands of things to say to him," he said with a sigh. "I just get so nervous when I'm around him, I don't think any of them will come out right. I really want to impress him."
"Well I don't know about him, but I sure would be impressed if you were to quit with all the bullshit and just let him go back to his home and his family. Plus, I think you'd live longer that way. Not much longer, mind you."
"Whose side are you on, anyway?"
"My side," Shiten said. "I'm gonna get killed for this little stunt too, you know. Oh, and the others are starting to spook. They want to get out of here before the red-headed psychopath shows up."
"Let them go," he said. "I don't need any of those cowards anymore, anyway. I'll kill the Kazekage myself. I was thinking, after I've killed him, I could become Kazekage. Neji would be impressed with me then."
"Except for the part where Temari and Kankuro murder you, that's a great idea," Shiten muttered. "Look, if you're planning on living past tomorrow, we need to get out of here. Leave the desert completely, and find a nice spot on the other side of the world where we have a hope of not being found and therefore, staying alive."
He blinked at Shiten with wide eyes. "I'm not leaving."
"What? Why not?!"
"The Kazekage has to die. I have to kill him. If I don't, Neji will never be free of that monster. He won't be free to truly love me. I have to do this for him. Until then, we'll stay in the caverns. They won't find us here."
"You're going to die, do you understand that?" Shiten shouted at him. "This stupid obsession with Neji is going to get you killed, probably soon, and I'm not going to be able to bail you out."
His eyes narrowed. "You're just trying to make me give Neji up, aren't you? You want to take him for yourself!"
"You're being stupid again."
"You can't have him, and I don't need your help!" he yelled at Shiten. "You can just leave with the others. Get out of here, all of you! I don't need any of you. I have Neji. He's all I need. He's all I ever needed."
Shiten just stood there, staring at him. "You're really kicking me out?"
"I said leave, didn't I?"
The silence stretched, before Shiten shrugged. "Alright, I'm going. It's your funeral." He turned and walked out of the room without looking back, going to find the others so they could all take their leave, and hopefully save their own skin.
Their leader was left alone in the dark, with no friend or ally but his own delusions.
He had no regrets.
"So," Kankuro said to his sister, "how long do you think we have before he comes out and kills everyone in sight?"
Temari spared a brief glance at the clock. "I'd say about three minutes."
It had been a close call when Gaara had come home and discovered Neji missing. An explosive rush of sand had nearly overflowed the bedroom, and Gaara had let out a noise eerily akin to Shukaku's howl of fury. His siblings had waded through the rushing tides of sand to get to his side, risking their lives to reach him, knowing that if they didn't get him calmed down and fast, they were all going to die anyway. It had been lucky that Gaara was not yet too far gone, and a great deal of fast talking on Temari's part managed to keep their Kazekage from completely leveling Suna where it stood. Fifteen minutes, he'd said, with a look in his eyes that bordered on unspeakable madness. He'd give them fifteen minutes to figure out where Neji was and who had taken him. If they didn't have answers by then…
…well, Gaara had specified what exactly it was that he'd do. They probably didn't want to know the details of the threat, anyway. Whatever it was, it was guaranteed to be painful and messy. Their imaginations supplied the rest.
All they had to go off of was the same old maps they'd gone over a thousand time, and a hundred useless lists. No one had been at the house that shouldn't have been. No one had seen who had taken Neji. No one had a clue.
And all Temari and Kankuro had were three minutes to go.
"Why couldn't I have been an only child?" Kankuro finally muttered, tossing away one of the maps.
"Because then you would be the one stuck with a demon in your head," Temari pointed out. "You really think you could deal with it better than he does?"
"Good point." Fed up with all of it, Kankuro grabbed one of his lists, the list of those that had been guarding the house during the first break in. "Alright. We pretty much know it has to be an inside job. One of our own people had to have taken Neji, right?"
"Right," Temari agreed. "I don't see how else they could get somebody in here."
"…so who's missing?"
Temari blinked at him, then ran to the office door. The guard out in the hall blinked at her when she flung the door open. "I want every single person that was guarding Neji in here. Now!"
There was a crash from the general area of Gaara's room. Kankuro winced. "I think our time's just about up."
As Temari had requested, the office was soon crowded with some of Suna's finest jounin, everyone that had been guarding the house at the time of Neji's abduction. Kankuro was checking the names off his list when the door was thrown open to admit their Kazekage.
Gaara's demeanor was deceptively calm. But the gourd was once more slung on his back, and the sand spilled freely from it in an agitated miniature storm, wreathing around Gaara and hissing like a pit of snakes. Gaara's gaze moved slowly over the assembled shinobi, as if deciding which to kill first. Most of them shifted, almost imperceptibly, trying not to cringe when the sand brushed against them.
Finally, Gaara's gaze came to rest on his siblings. "Who took him?" he demanded.
Kankuro looked at the list in his hands, rather than have to meet his brother's eyes. "We're thinking it was Shiten," he said. "He's the only one not present and accounted for."
"And come to think of it," one of the assembled jounin added, "nobody can remember seeing the group of chuunin that Shiten has taken to training around lately, either."
If Gaara felt any surprise over Shiten and his team's apparent betrayal, he showed no sign. "Where did they take him?"
"Well…" Temari hesitated. "We haven't quite gotten to that point-"
"Lord Kazekage?" a small, timid voice spoke from beyond the doorway.
The sand rushed out into the hallway, surrounding the three children that stood there and all but dragging them inside the office so Gaara could get a better look at them. Nori, Umi and Keichi all looked terrified by their Kazekage's dark glare, but resolutely stood their ground.
"We want to help," said Keichi, trying to sound confident and helpful, but his voice was shaky.
"We never got to see where they took us," Nori said. She managed to sound less frightened than her companion, but only by a little. "But maybe if we tell you what we know, it would help you find Hyuuga-sensei."
"What do you know?" Gaara said.
"It was cold all the time," Umi said. "And really damp. We couldn't hear the wind, but sometimes we heard running water. And there was a lot of kind of muffled echoes, like we were underground."
"Like an underground maze," Keichi said. "There seemed to be a lot of tunnels to go through when they led us out to the canyon."
"There aren't many tunnels out in the desert," Temari said. "We've got the escape tunnels leading out of the village for emergencies, but my search teams already checked those and the outposts that they lead to."
"Those are the new tunnels," Gaara said. "What about the old ones?"
Temari blinked. "The old tunnels are gone. All the entrances to them have buried long ago."
In their desert, a land of sand and plagued by near constant winds, underground structures didn't tend to hold up very well. The current escape tunnels had been built many decades ago, when the previous tunnels had collapsed in several places. The old tunnels had been mostly- but not completely- filled in, abandoned and forgotten. It was expected that the desert would finish the work of destroying them. But perhaps some part of that network remained intact.
And if they did remain, there was only one place where they came near any source of water.
"We kill soon?" Shukaku asked, hopefully.
"Yes," Gaara promised the demon, leaving the room without so much as a word to the others. The sand swirled out behind him, whispering to itself in malicious glee. "We kill soon."
Neji knew they were there. They'd been there for the last twenty minutes, just standing in the doorway, watching him. They didn't say anything, but Neji could hear their soft, somewhat uneven breathing. They had not yet tried to stop him.
The heavy plaster mold that imprisoned Neji's hands was brought down with a hard thunk on the stone floor. It jarred Neji's hands trapped within, the ache of it resonating up his arms. Small flakes of the plaster broke off, but the bulk remained un-cracked. His hands hurt, his arms hurt, his shoulders hurt and his pride hurt. But nothing else seemed to even put a dent in the plaster casing, and so he brought up its bulky weight again and again, smashing it against the floor. Plaster chips and dust flew everywhere, and the sound echoed around the room until it thundered like a drum in Neji's head.
When Neji paused in his work, a voice spoke up softly from the direction of the doorway. "You're going to hurt yourself if you keep that up."
Neji ignored them, lifting the plaster burden again to hit it against the floor. Hardly any broke off this time; his strength was starting to wane.
"Really," said the voice, "I do wish you would stop that. You'll make your hands swell and bleed. That would be so sad."
Neji hit the plaster to the floor; it thudded dully, and he didn't bother raising it again. "Don't pretend that you care."
"How could you say such a thing to me?" they said. "Of course I care for you. You know I do. After everything I've done for you. I rescued you. I brought you here."
"And chained me." Neji shifted his leg; the chain rattled across the ground for emphasis.
"I didn't want to. I had to," they said. There was a note of pleading to their voice, begging Neji to understand. "I love you. I've always loved you. But I can't trust you, not yet. I can't let you walk free, not until I know you understand. When you love me, I'll unchain you."
"You're delusional," Neji said. "I do not, and will not, ever love you."
"Oh, I understand," they said placidly. "That… creature still has you under its spell. But I will kill it for you. And when I do, your heart will be free to love me." He paused, as if listening; Neji thought he heard it too, the sound of a distant crash, echoing a long way off down the tunnels. "He'll be here soon. The monster. I will kill him, and you'll love me." They left, their footsteps striding unhurriedly down the corridor.
He'll be here soon. Gaara. Gaara was alive, and he was coming here. It would be, without a doubt, an exceptionally bloody fight. Someone was going to die here today. Under normal circumstances, Neji would have no doubt that Gaara would dispatch his opponent in a brutal but efficient manner, leaving little left of them but a thick, bloody paste. But Neji's captor did not seem perturbed by possibility of imminent demise, in fact seemed quite confident that they would emerge the victor. Clearly they were not in their right mind, and it could be a mistake to underestimate someone so obviously insane. There was no telling what they may be capable of.
With renewed vigor, Neji smashed the plaster encasing his hands against the floor, again and again. He was not going to sit here and wait to be rescued.
The ceiling of the tunnel caved in under the onslaught of the sand, the desert sun shining down into the dusty passageway. Sand trickled into the hole in rivulets, under Gaara's direction forming into a staircase on which he could descend. He didn't hesitate, stepping down into the darkness. He'd come to this place alone; Temari, Kankuro and their hand-picked teams of jounin were scouting out any other entrances to the tunnels, and preparing ambushes should Gaara's prey manage to escape. They had wanted to come with Gaara, but he had refused. If it came down to unleashing the demon, a prospect Shukaku was in full favor of, he wanted them far out of the way.
Shukaku had been happily singing a little ditty off-key to itself ever since they'd left Suna and tracked their way to the oasis. It had a meandering tune, and the words didn't rhyme, but the demon didn't care. "…gonna kill 'em, gonna kill 'em, gonna squish their heads, gonna eat their eyes…" Gaara had been determinedly ignoring the demon's obviously glee at the impending murder and mayhem, instead focusing on finding the forgotten remains of the escape tunnels. As he'd expected, when the sand had punched a hole through seemingly solid ground and into the cavern, these tunnels had not been entirely filled in after all.
Gaara walked slowly through the tunnels, hearing nothing but the echo of his own footsteps, and the hissing of the sand in its gourd. He had no illusion that his entrance had gone unnoticed, so he did not attempt to mask his presence. The tunnels descended farther underground, where the heat of the desert sun did not penetrate, and a damp chill permeated the air and walls. He could hear water, far away; the oasis was one of a series, all interconnected by an underground river. That was part of the reason these tunnels had been closed; some of them had flooded, and some had collapsed when the river weakened their supporting walls.
These tunnels were a maze, some corridors blocked by cave-ins, some circling around until they met up at where they'd begun. As Gaara walked, sometimes he could hear soft laughter, echoing on cold stone. It seemed so far away, though the sound followed him on his trek.
"Lord Kazekage," a voice echoed through the tunnel, whispered and taunting. "All alone, far from home… these tunnels will be your grave."
"Keep laughing, scumbag," Shukaku murmured in delight, as Gaara turned down another corridor to follow the voice. "Soon as we find you, I'm gonna reach down your throat and rip out your lungs. Try laughing then."
"Neji's mine now, you know. He's promised to love me forever, once you're dead," the voice continued, baiting Gaara onward. "You're a freak, a monster. Neji knows that now. He won't mourn your death. He'll be happy. He'll be happy when I bring him your corpse. Does it hurt, knowing he prefers me?"
"Lying liar who lies," Shukaku hissed. "Maybe we cut off his tongue first?"
"First we have to find him," Gaara said. "Then, you can rip off any bit of him you want to."
The tunnel opened up into a large cavern, dark, drippy and completely empty. Gaara walked inside the room slowly. In the tunnel behind him, a short rumbling preceded a deafening crash, as part of the ceiling caved in. Gaara glanced back at the rubble, expecting to see his opponent, but saw only the pile of rocks and debris that now blocked the tunnel.
"Lord Kazekage," the voice spoke softly, mockingly, in the cavern, as if relishing the moment. There was a rushing of sand- unfamiliar sand. Part of the stone of the cavern wall disintegrated into tiny grains of sand, flowing away to reveal a small enclosure, from which the enemy emerged.
"Him?" Shukaku exclaimed, rage momentarily forgotten in the face of its surprise. "I was expecting someone older. This kid's barely past puberty!"
Just a boy, a boy Gaara recognized, with rumpled dirt brown hair, and clothes that looked at though he'd slept in them for days. Though Gaara had had little reason to remember it in the past, the name at last rose to the surface of his memory- Tashimuru. The boy was a member of squad Shiten taught, gone missing the same time their jounin leader had. The chuunin that had seemed so nervous in the face of his Kazekage, that had delivered the first message, claiming Neji as their own.
He did not seem so nervous now. His eyes were bright and feverish, lit with a private madness that was consuming his mind. Sand- reddish brown sand, the same color as the tunnel walls- danced erratic, almost frenzied circles around the boy. Gaara hadn't known the boy used sand jutsu, but it did explain how these supposedly filled-in tunnels had been cleared again. The sand in Gaara's gourd- golden sands from the desert above- growled menacingly at their russet counterpart, as though furious it would dare serve a different master. The red sands danced on, oblivious to the menacing.
"Where is Neji?" Gaara demanded.
"Safe," said Tashimura. "Safe from you, forever and ever. You're never going to see him again, Lord Kazekage." He laughed, a high, psychotic giggle. "I'm going to kill you."
Gaara's sand howled as it rushed forward in a wave, crashing heavily against Tashimura's red wall of sand. Golden against russet, the sands crashed against each other, neither side giving ground. Grit filled the air, tiny particles that stung the skin, until it was hard to tell which sand belonged to whom. Gaara's sand battled seemingly of its own will, taking no visible direction from its master. Tashimura, however, had no mental control over his granular weapon; his hands flew through dozens of signs, producing more sand jutsu than Gaara was even aware existed. Though having to use learned jutsu instead of innate ability might seem a disadvantage, the red sand battled unceasingly, and the golden sands could not work past to strike at their master.
"I studied this particular strain of earth style jutsu, just for this moment," Tashimura's voice floated past the rushing drone of the sands' fury. "To see your face, when I kill you with your own technique!"
"Release me!" roared Shukaku. "I will end this!"
"No!" Gaara replied. "Not yet…" Not unless there was no choice. Shukaku would bring down all the tunnels if he were released. Neji, wherever he was, might be crushed.
"Desert sand has a marvelous quality, as well," Tashimura said, chatting pleasantly, as if not in the midst of a battle. His hands moved through a long string of hand signs. "It has been worn down so fine and round, by wind and by time. When compacted, unlike beach sand, desert sand can actually hold water."
And at this, as if on cue, one of the cavern walls exploded outward, releasing in sudden expulsion all the power of the river it had been holding back.
At last, with the most satisfying crack, the bulk of the plaster broke apart, and Neji had his hands free. Not that he thought they'd be much use, as the effort of breaking the plaster had left his hands sore and shaky, and the muscles in his arms strained. But now that he'd regained use of his hands, he could work on unchaining his feet.
His weaponry had been taken from him, of course, as well as any tool he might be able to use for lock picking. He gathered up the length of the chain in his hand, following it to its far end, where it was embedded within the stone floor. It, like the plaster that had encased his hands, seemed to hum with a strengthening chakra. If he had use of his byakugan, he would be able to find the weak points within the chain and break it within moments; as it was, testing each link one by one would take too long.
Echoing down the tunnels was the sound of crashing, of sand storms and rushing water. Somewhere in this underground labyrinth, a battle was being fought, over him. Somewhere, Gaara was fighting this madman, though Gaara as well was perhaps not at his sanest at the moment.
But this battle was as much Neji's as it was Gaara's. After everything that had happened, after everything that Neji had been put through and everyone that had suffered on Neji's behalf, he felt perhaps he had earned the right to a little vengeance of his own. Or at least to be present when said vengeance was administered.
And though the byakugan was temporarily out of commission, Neji was not helpless. A proper stance was somewhat difficult to assume with his feet chained together as they were, but Neji managed something similar enough that it would suffice. He hesitated only a moment as he listened to the distant echoes of roaring sand, before taking on the sudden and intense speed of his perfected rotation.
Chakra whirled outward from his body, and the chains tangled around his feet as he spun, though it didn't even slow him. The chain was ripped free from where it was embedded in the stone floor, the end clattering loudly against the wall. The pressure of chakra and momentum of the rotation stretched the links of the chain wrapped about his ankles, the very molecular structure of the metal becoming brittle under the abuse. When Neji came to a sudden stop, the chains around his legs were loose and crumbly, hardly fit to hold anyone prisoner any longer.
He smiled a little ruefully as he pulled away the broken chains, stepping free of their confinement. It was different, doing a rotation without the added benefit of the byakugan. He was reminded of when he was first learning the technique, as a very young child, when the first couple practices had actually made him dizzy.
Now unencumbered by either plaster casings or chains, Neji made his way through the underground passageways. It was easy to get lost, and he did, once or twice, but he focused on the sound of rushing sand, following it determinedly to its source.
In the midst of a thundering rush of water, Gaara listened to it raging from within the protective confines of an orb of sand. With the entrance to the cavern blocked off by the cave-in of the tunnel's ceiling, the room was quickly filling with water. But the sand had quickly cocooned around Gaara, keeping him dry and safe from drowning. He could not hear Tashimura over the sound of the water, but he imagined the boy had a similar defense to protect himself.
"He better have," Shukaku commented. "I'm going to be pissed if we came all this way to kill him, and he ends up drowning himself."
Gaara said nothing to the demon in reply, but silently agreed. Tashimura was his prey. It was not enough that he should die; it had to be Gaara that would kill him.
The question of whether Tashimura lived was soon answered, however, as something heavy crashed against the outside of Gaara's sand shell. Gaara's protection did not falter, but the crashing continued; something heavy hammering at the shield, trying to bash it in with brute force.
"The sand shield is not going to last forever," Shukaku said. "If he even breaks a hole in it, it'll fill with water and you'll drown. I think now would be a very good time to let me out."
"No," Gaara said aloud. "I have more chakra than him, and I've controlled the sand longer than he's been alive. He will not break my defense."
"Awfully confident for somebody trapped in a bubble," said Shukaku. Then the demon paused, and Gaara could almost feel its sudden alertness. "He's coming."
The sounds of sand and water were muted now, but Neji knew he must be on the right path. He made his way down one of the long corridors, and as he walked onward the ground became soft and soggy, damp sand squelching under his footsteps. Gaara was somewhere up ahead, and apparently his opponent used water jutsu. Neji wondered how well the sand was fairing against water.
He was sure he was going the right way, but he thought he ought to be able to hear more of the battle at this point, if indeed the battle was still going on. The lack of sound was soon explained, however, as the tunnel abruptly ended in a wall of rock and debris. Dead end. He would have to find another way, if there was one.
The accumulated rocks of the walls gave a sudden groan, shuddering as the settled, several spurts of water issuing forth from newly made cracks. Realizing the wall was not as solid as it had first seemed, Neji retreated, but not quickly enough. With another mournful groan, the wall shuddered again and collapsed, all the water it was holding back pouring out into the tunnel in a sudden flood.
The force of water under pressure knocked Neji into a wall, which he clung to as the river threatened to sweep him away in its current. These tunnels were not meant for channeling water, and Neji could feel the handholds he clung to becoming soft and spongy, threatening disintegrate under his hands. Just as he came loose from his hold and the water tried to seize him, he was caught and held fast by a thick coil of sand. It dragged him forward with a swift movement, drawing him into the confines of a shell of sand, which opened only briefly enough to pull him inside. Neji had only a moment to register that he was no longer caught up in the water's tide, but safe within the relatively dry sand cocoon.
And then Gaara was holding him, with the desperation of one finding something they'd feared was lost.
"Neji," Gaara said, the word spoken as softly as a sigh.
Neji's whole body relaxed of its own volition, suffused with the strangest peacefulness. He had found Gaara. Everything would be alright now.
There was an inarticulate shout from somewhere outside the sand shield, and there was the grating sound of tumbling rocks, as Tashimura used a jutsu to once more block off the path of the river into the cavern. As the water flowed out of the cavern through the passageway, the room was filled with the music of hundreds of water droplets dripping onto the draining lake on the floor. The heavy force pounding against the protective cocoon of sand resumed in force.
"Give him back!" Tashimura's shout echoed within the confines of the room. "You can't have him anymore, he's mine now! He's mine!"
"MINE!" The word echoed around the room in a voice that was pure animal. From so close, Neji could feel Gaara's chakra surge as Gaara shifted, and the sand collected over him. Gaara was transforming, becoming something more than Gaara, something demonic. Shukaku had at last found an outlet. The sand molded Gaara a new form, a beastly creature with teeth and claws, and a thirst for bloodshed. And a need, more desperate than anything, to claim and protect what was his.
The sand shield cracked and broke apart with hissing fury, though Neji was deposited safely on the ground with the utmost of care. The great bulk of Gaara's demonic form landed heavily on the ground, stomping forward to meet its opponent.
Tashimura was not afraid. Here, at last, was the proof of what he had always known, that the Kazekage was just a monster. An evil beast, bent on keeping Neji from him. Tashimura could see the sands coiling around Neji, imprisoning him once again. They were going to take Neji away again, to a place where he would be caged and tortured by this vile apparition of sand and fury. Tashimura had to save him.
"I will save him from you," Tashimura whispered. With quick hand gestures he formed his jutsu, and the red sands attacked.
Neji could not tell what was going on. The whole cavern was filled with the sounds of snarling, and sand smashing against sand. Holes were knocking in the walls, and stones came loose from the ceiling and crashed against the ground and the two fighters. Neji was protected from the raining debris, by the remains of the sand shield that danced around him, guarding him. Once again, he was nothing more than a bystander, waiting to see who the victor was. Waiting to see who would come to claim him in the end.
He had had enough of this. Enough of being helpless, of feeling useless. He needed to be able to fight in his own defense. What he wanted, more than anything, was to see.
With hasty, almost frantic motions, Neji ripped off the bandaged that covered his damaged eyes. The cavern had barely any light of its own, and to Neji's eyes it was nothing but shadows against shadows. Indistinct forms moved somewhere in the midst of it, as the battle continued, but Neji could not even tell which was which. Everything was dark and formless, a hopeless mess of shades and nothingness.
This might ruin his eyes forever, he knew. Or perhaps it was too late, and they were already beyond repair. It didn't really matter either way, Neji decided, so long as he could see just one last time.
He activated his byakugan, as he had several hundreds of times in the course of his life. The shadows coalesced, fighting to shape themselves into something recognizable. Neji could almost see the fighters now, the huge hulk of sand that formed around Gaara in the shape of Shukaku, and the gangly adolescent form of his opponent.
Within moments, the strain of holding the byakugan was too much for his injured eyes, and fierce pain set in once more. Headaches flared like lightning just behind his eyes, and tears trailed unceasingly down his cheeks. Still, he did not look away, did not close his eyes against the pain. The chakra flowed awkwardly, painfully, against broken and damaged channels, rubbing raw every pathway, scouring them clean.
Neji gasped softly for breath, as painful moments passed, and the indistinct images fought to focus. He could feel his eyes changing, as the fiery chakra of his byakugan burned away the scars, leaving fresh, fragile but undamaged tissue in its place. The chakra channels were forced open under unrelenting pressure. There was a sudden burst of sizzling agony, and Neji's vision flared white.
When at last it cleared… the byakugan snapped into perfect clarity.
Neji blinked, stunned by what he was seeing; that he could see.
The battle had ceased in mid-motion, sands both golden and russet hanging in the air as though suspended in time. Both fighters were staring at Neji with wide eyes; he suspected he may have cried out or made some noise from the pain. The sand that formed Gaara's demonic shape melted slowly away, leaving Gaara only as Gaara. Neji was glad that Gaara was the first thing he saw upon regaining his vision. As the cliché went, a sight for sore eyes.
Tashimura sighed, a sound of blissful contentment. "Ah, Neji," he whispered. "You are so beautiful."
Neji's gaze flicked to him, and he stood up slowly. Gaara's sand hovered around him in wisps, as if unsure if he needed helping, but he waved it away. The battle was, for the moment, forgotten, as both Gaara and Tashimura watched Neji approach. Gaara's expression was guarded, though as Neji walked toward them, there was a flicker of something- hope?- in his eyes. Tashimura's expression was one of rapt adoration, as though his every dream had come true, his every wish granted. Neji's expression revealed nothing.
"He can see?" Shukaku whispered, battle-lust forgotten, and sounding a little awed. "The doctor said he might be blinded permanently. Not that I'm complaining or nothing, but how…?"
"The byakugan is a secret art, known only to the Hyuuga clan," Gaara replied. "And even to them, perhaps, the full extent of its working may be a mystery."
Neji spared Gaara only the briefest of glances, before he walked past him. Tashimura stood still, as if rooted to the spot, though his eyes were wide and his body trembled. The burning intensity of the byakugan held him hypnotized, and he was helpless under Neji's gaze.
Neji stepped up close to Tashimura, his gaze locked to that of his captive's. Tashimura let out his breath, shaky with longing.
"At last, I can be with you," Tashimura whispered. "I love you, Neji."
Neji's byakugan regarded the boy with an icy calmness. It read the hope and madness in the boy's eyes, the erratic pulsating of his heart chasing the blood through his veins, the thrumming chakra speeding through shivering channels. All this Neji took in within a moment, before slamming an open-palmed chakra-laden strike to Tashimura's sternum.
"Yeah!" Shukaku cheered. "That's my baby! I love it when he hurts people."
Tashimura was knocked back, before he crumpled to the ground. He choked, coughing blood onto the damp sand of the floor. He looked up at Neji with confused, watery eyes. "Neji? I… I don't… understand…"
He cried out, as the sandy floor just beneath him became liquid, and he sank rapidly into it. Neji looked over at Gaara, who stepped up beside him, his own expression somewhat impassive, as he focused on burying his prey alive.
Tashimura struggled, clawing at the sand that he sank into, but finding no purchase. Within seconds, he was buried up to the neck, and the sand around him solidified harder than stone, holding him trapped and incapable of further movement. He writhed and whined, but could not escape.
Neji turned to leave, but was halted by Tashimura's desperate cry.
"Don't leave me!" he begged. "Neji! Please don't leave me. You would be happy with me, I swear. I will give you anything you could ever want!"
"I already have everything I want," Neji said, his gaze resting on Gaara, expression softening.
At that gentle smile, Gaara felt some of the rage, some of the emptiness leave him. He had Neji, and Neji loved him. "Shall I kill him for you, Neji?"
"Neji," Tashimura pleaded. "Don't!"
"Do as you will," Neji said to Gaara, walking for the exit. "He is nothing to me."
"Neji!" Tashimura screamed. "Neji!"
Neji didn't even look back, leaving Tashimura alone with the monster. "Neji…" Tashimura moaned. He coughed spasmodically, more blood staining the sands. Neji's strike had broken something inside him. "He… he's coming back…" he whispered. "He'll come back for me… Neji won't abandon me…"
Gaara's hand clenched into a fist, and the sand around Tashimura contracted sharply. Tashimura's scream filled the cavern as his bones were crushed. He spit out a spray of blood, his coughs coming out with gurgle. Pain wracked his entire body, more pain than he'd ever thought a person could live through. Black spots danced within his vision, and his mind was clouded with a red haze of agony.
"Why didn't you kill him?" Shukaku demanded. "Look at him there, so helpless. Practically begging us to squeeze his brain meats out his ears. Come on, kill him right!"
Gaara watched his prey choke on his own blood, barely able to do more than whimper and quake. The boy's body was ruined, beyond repair. His lungs would be filling with blood, and he was likely to drown in it, if the shock did not kill him first. One way or another, he was going to die, in slow, lingering agony. It was almost enough.
"Neji loves me," Gaara said softly, irrefutably. "He always has. He always will. You are less than nothing to him. You don't even exist to him."
Softly, Tashimura began to weep.
Gaara smiled, and turned to leave the cavern and its broken occupant. The sand hissed merrily in his wake, collecting into streamers and pouring itself back into the gourd, well satisfied with its work. Now, it was enough.
Time passed in the cavern, an eternity, or barely a moment. He didn't know how long he was there. He drifted in and out of consciousness, in and out of agony. Sometimes he heard voices, sometimes droning in his ears, sometimes nothing but silence. In the darkness, he waited.
He looked up slowly when at last he heard footsteps. "Neji?" Tashimura whispered weakly.
"Sorry," Shiten said, walking with an even gait into the room. "Just me."
"Oh… Shiten…" Tashimura said. "I had… the worst dream. I dreamed Neji left me." He shook, eyes bright with fevered madness darting frantically around the room. "Neji… where is Neji?!"
"He's coming," Shiten promised softly. "He had to leave, but he's coming back. He'll be here soon."
"Oh, good." Tashimura relaxed, blinking at Shiten with eyes somewhat unfocused. "Shiten… does he… does Neji love me?"
Shiten said nothing to that.
"Shiten?" Tashimura prompted gently.
"Yes," Shiten said, not meeting Tashimura's gaze. "He loves you very much."
Tashimura smiled, weakly. "That makes me… so very happy."
"Goodnight, Tashi." Shiten's hand gently smoothed Tashimura's perpetually rumpled hair.
"Goodnight, Shiten." Tashimura closed his eyes.
With swift efficiency, Shiten snapped Tashimura's neck. Tashimura died, a smile still on his lips.
Gaara found Neji waiting for him just outside the entrance to the tunnels, shielding his eyes from the brightness of the desert sun, admiring the bleak landscape. He smiled as Gaara came up to him. Gaara embraced him, holding him tightly to him, a silent vow to never let him go again. Neji held him as well, and Gaara felt the tension leaving them both. It was over.
"You don't have any other stalkers around that I should know about, do you?" Gaara finally asked.
"Just you," Neji promised. "I seemed to recall a certain Kazekage starting a war with Konoha over me a few years back…"
"That's different," Gaara said. "You're mine."
"It looks that way," Neji agreed. "Gaara… let's go home now."
And so they did.