Naruto © Masashi Kishimoto.

Author's note: This chapter gave me a difficult time; what you're reading here is the third and best version. It's extra-long, and a first for me, so any thoughts will be greatly appreciated.

Changde is only one example of the chemical and bacteriological warfare taking place at the time.

Anyone wanting more information on human experimentation should search for Unit 731, but be advised that the material is graphic.

The Hardest Journey

They keep walking, limping, staggering on. Always on the move, circling around mountains where possible, but too often heading upward. Forever traveling to the west− towards peace and security− on the word of a dead farmer who had been wholly in love.

Hyuga Neji has no rosy expectations for the journey, cannot care what awaits them at the conclusion of their arduous voyage. The loss of his parent is all-consuming, the only thing which the depressed young man can consider. There is no respite from the dreadful truth; it flashes inside his head, keeping time with his footsteps and pulsing with his heart. The wretched knowledge occupies his every waking hour, and if his peculiar dreams− recollections of brief and bittersweet periods spent with Hizashi as a youngster, now interspersed with glimpses of white kimono and funerary urns− are any indication, he is cognizant even while sleeping. Neither the changing landscape nor the assiduousness of his worried attendant serve as a distraction from his grief, and the passing weeks do nothing to lessen his pain.

Neji is vaguely aware that he has transformed into a fatalist. Or− he mentally admits that this is much more likely− he has always been one, but the small chance of finding his father alive had been enough to keep the darker parts of his nature hidden. Whatever the reality, the former soldier had realized during that final, horrible night in the canyon that the same three options were still left to him, and they would all prove lethal. To retreat toward Liuzhou was to perish. To follow the Chinese girl deeper into the hostile countryside would kill him. To turn his rifle upon himself… Something within had prevented him from trying the last, and he decided to continue with his original plan, despite the fact that his very motivation has been lost. Now, half-starved and far beyond all hope, Neji is just ready for the end.

"Neji! Come look at this!"

Tenten's voice echoes off the rock wall beside him, sounding awed and genuinely cheerful, as opposed to the false optimism she has lately begun projecting when speaking to him. Treading carefully upon the narrow mountain trail− little more than a shadowy, crumbling ledge, with a vertiginous drop of several hundred feet to the left− Neji negotiates a treacherous bend and finds his companion waiting for him on a broader shelf. Lame again, Tenten is leaning hard upon her staff, her back to his arrival and her thin form outlined by the cloudless cerulean sky. She appears so slight that Neji pauses in his tracks, thinking that a gust of wind will send her flying; he cannot reconcile this image with that of the woman who wraps her arms around him each night, as though the weight of them can keep his broken soul in place.

Tenten must feel his pearlescent eyes upon her, or perhaps her ears had caught the earlier crunch of his footsteps, because she glances back over her shoulder at him; Neji watches, completely unaffected for the first time since meeting her, as a bright smile lights up her tired, sweaty features in response to his presence. His own grave countenance does not change, and if she notices this latest emotional failure or is disappointed, Tenten gives no indication of it. Instead, one small hand releases its grip upon her walking stick and a finger points over the cliff's edge, urging him without words to look at something. Neji cannot bring himself to share in her excitement or feel even the mildest curiosity, but he steps dutifully forward to stand abreast of her and gazes in the direction indicated.

Under ordinary circumstances, the view would be breathtaking. An enormous plateau spreads out below them, covered with forests which are still emerald despite the lateness of the year. Between the verdant boughs and on the small plains, the occasional dark roof and rutted roads may be glimpsed; after so long in the wilderness, these signs of civilization seem strange to Neji, and he chooses to ignore them. Looking on, he realizes that this is a land of water, dotted with shimmering lakes too numerous to count and riven by meandering streams that mirror the early morning sunlight. The teenager lifts one grubby hand to shade his eyes from the glare and stares hard at the horizon. Try as he might, Neji cannot tell if the distant smudges there are more alps or a product of his much-underutilized imagination.

"Mountains," Tenten says, almost as if she can read his mind. She sweeps one slender arm through the air before them, the gesture encompassing the entire vista, and explains, "This province is surrounded by them, and they serve as China's borders. Vietnam and Laos are to the south, where their peoples and the French colonials are also fighting the Japanese. If we continued walking westward, we'd eventually reach Burma. That's where international aid gets flown in from…" She trails off, and Neji wonders if she is reflecting on the war effort, asking herself if she may have just said too much. The former sergeant opens his mouth to reassure her on that count− he knows he will never have a chance to pass the information on− but then she gives a sigh full of longing and adds, "Yunnan is very beautiful, isn't it?"

Past caring about the scenery, Neji does not reply.

Tenten tilts her mahogany head toward him, observing him in the murky light. "I'm really glad you're here with me."

There is nothing he can say to so heartfelt an admission, and so Neji's only recourse is to turn away and start down the path ahead of the girl. The young man has gone less than ten paces when a sharp crack resounds from beneath his feet; he tries to back up, but Tenten is behind him and there is no time for her to get out of the way. Faster than the eye can follow, a fissure snakes between his boots and the rock of the trail disintegrates and falls away. Neji is dumped into space, too shocked by this turn of events to cry out. Tenten screams for him, and he suddenly knows that he will die with his own name ringing in his ears… There is a jolt that nearly tears his newly-healed arm from its socket, and Neji looks up to find the same tiny hand that had pointed out the landscape wrapped around his wrist, arresting his fall.

"I've got you!" Tenten says through gritted teeth, her feet scrambling for purchase on the ledge. The woman's frantic movements cause more pebbles to break off the track's unstable edge; Neji glances down to keep the grit from falling into his eyes, and instead it bounces off the back of his head while he watches the ground sway dizzyingly between his shoes. Swallowing hard, he peeks back up just in time to see Tenten's bad foot slide out from underneath her body. She drops onto her knees, scraping them both open, but does not slacken her grip on him, and Neji loses another precious few inches of altitude with a sickening lurch. The Zhongzheng he has carried since the firefight beside the Liu River slips from his left shoulder and plummets to the earth far below, the sound of its impact indiscernible.

Hanging there, Neji experiences an instant of clarity− there is no way Tenten will be able to pull him up. The path is still treacherous, and if she continues trying there is a good chance they will both fall. For a moment, he imagines some country bumpkin finding their splattered remains. Would the man be able to tell them apart? To look at the mess and know that one had been foreign? What story would his brain concoct, to explain the two of them together? Would it be any more outlandish than the truth? Tenten's free hand slides into his outstretched one, fingers entwining with his own and disrupting his morbid musings; Neji recalls that it is only a matter of time before she loses the battle against gravity, and her life. He takes a deep breath and says in a voice rusty with disuse, "You have to let me go, Tenten."

"No! I won't!"

"If you don't, we'll both die."

Tenten tosses her head, the gesture sending her bangs into her eyes. She peers intently at him from beneath the thick fringe, perhaps recognizing in him the same depression she had experienced after the death of her friend. Pain flickers across her features, but the young woman ducks her head before Neji can contemplate the change. Her shoulders hunch, her spine begins to arch, and he hears her panting as she tries to haul him upwards. Knowing it is impossible, he tries to shake her loose; she gives a determined growl and clings tighter to him. Somehow, she gets her good foot beneath her again, and with this additional leverage he begins, improbably, to rise. The friable ledge comes within reach, and Neji swings his unrestrained hand up to grasp it. A second after, Tenten yanks him back onto the shelf.

They collapse side by side, then scoot as one to the comparative safety of the rock wall behind them. Neji recovers first, rotates his right arm experimentally, then lifts his throbbing hand to brush the sweat from his brow. Tenten curls against his torso, the movement awkward with the canteen and her own rifle strapped to her back, and she buries her red face into his chest; Neji can feel her trembling limbs and hitched breath above his still-racing heart, and he wonders if this response is all due to her exertions. When the girl lifts her head a few minutes later, there are tears gathered on her dark lashes, and her tone is one of mingled sadness and frustration. "I know what you're going through, with your father, and I'm sorry. But I didn't save you back at the farmhouse so that you could just give up and die now."

The words slide out as soon as Neji thinks them, the question that had never been asked but perhaps should have been. "Why did you even bother freeing me?"

Tenten draws away from him as if stung, sitting up and pulling her bloodied knees to her chest. The sight of her injuries is like a rebuke, and Neji feels a flash of remorse, but it is impossible to take the query back. The young woman gazes off into the distance, inhales a deep breath and lets it out, then begins a halting explanation of something she herself may not fully understand. "I saved you because it was the right thing to do. Because I owed your father a debt for saving me. Because− even though I didn't know him well− I believe he would have wanted for his son to have the same chance he gave me. Now you have it, and you're here with me, except you aren't really here at all. It's almost as if I left you behind in that canyon…" She looks back at him, and whispers forlornly, "I don't want to be alone anymore."

It takes Neji's brain a long time to sort through the abundance of words, and he ponders them for an even more protracted period. Tenten's motive for helping him is not so surprising, after all; the desire to do a good turn, to somehow even up the score, is one of reasons he had turned back for her, fought her countrymen by the riverside, and saved her from his own in that dark, cold ravine. His other, more selfish aims− finding his father, exploring his attraction to her− have come to naught, but does that really give him the right to check out of life and thereby put her in danger? Neji realizes that, while he may no longer care what happens to himself, he cannot shirk the responsibility he has taken on by following her out into this savage country. Living hurts, but for Tenten's sake, he must try.

Neji stands slowly, fearing another rock slide, and reaches down with his sore hand to help pull Tenten to her feet. "Let's find another route down this mountain."

The sun is setting, coloring the tranquil waters of the small lake a deep auburn. Taking the fading light as her cue, Zhu Tenten pulls her swollen and pruned right foot from its depths, drapes it across her left leg to better inspect it. The hole left by the stick she had trod upon months ago has healed, leaving only a small dimple in the skin; how, she wonders, can something that appears so innocuous cause such trouble? The young woman presses her thumbs against the aching sole and feels pain shoot up her leg. Gritting her teeth, she thinks that she must have somehow missed a splinter, or perhaps tore a ligament. Either way, there is nothing to be done about it now, no time to rest the appendage with another day of traveling upon the horizon. Resigned, Tenten grabs her scuffed boots and forces her damp feet back inside.

Standing gingerly and turning her back upon the pool, Tenten's mocha eyes immediately search out Neji. The Japanese man is right where she had left him, resting upon their blanket at the edge of the tree line and munching on some pine mushrooms. Their near-death experience has done what all her consideration could not, and awakened Neji from his apathy. There are still bad spells, however− moments when she catches him staring off vacantly, hours that pass without his speaking, an entire day when he followed her around like a hungry ghost haunting the living− and she remains terrified that he will regress and harm himself, or just disappear. Twilight seems to be the most difficult time, probably because there is nothing to occupy him but his thoughts, but just now Neji seems well and she breathes a sigh of relief.

Perhaps the worst is over.

Feeling hopeful, Tenten limps− besides the problematic foot, both knees are still badly bruised from her fall in the mountains− the hundred or so paces to their camp and drops wearily to the ground next to the former sergeant. Neji offers her the last handful of the aromatic toadstools, but she declines with a wave of her hand and he sets to finishing them. Remembering how she had not only overlooked the edible fungus, but nearly shuffled across the troop, the girl grins; Neji had been the one to spot them, and stop her. She is glad that he is once again taking an interest in their survival. The sight of him eating makes her happier still, as he had lost a great deal of weight after hearing about Hizashi, and the ugly khaki uniform is now so baggy on his frame that she fears they will have to punch another notch in his belt.

Her own belly gives a replete gurgle, and Tenten stretches her arms out behind her, slouching and tilting her face up toward the dwindling warmth of the sun. Neji sits placidly beside her as she reflects on their good fortune− even now, with winter nearly upon the land, the temperature remains moderate and there is an abundance of edible flora and fauna− but she can feel him watching her out of the corner of one white eye. When he stops chewing, Tenten straightens and turns to him, intending to ask what it is he wants. He speaks first, however, and her smile falls, her anxiety flooding back and becoming more acute at each carefully enunciated word. "I've been thinking a lot about my father, and what fate may have befallen him. Before I left, there were rumors going around my base that the Army was engaging in…"

The young man pauses, staring at the calloused hands now folded in his lap, almost as though he expects them to open and pass him the Mandarin term he is struggling to find. Tenten's mind races, seeking a means to end the conversation− nothing good can come of talking about the war or their dead, doing so can only disturb them both and ruin what has otherwise been a lovely evening− but she cannot think of way to cut him off. Her conscience chimes in, reminding her that she is the reason he feels the need to discuss his deceased parent and, as always, the woman feels an intense rush of guilt. Deciding that she owes him the courtesy, Tenten steels herself and listens as Neji continues, "Experimentation? Medical procedures on prisoners, at secret locations. There are always stories; I never gave them any credence."

Unsure of what to say, Tenten pushes a leaf that has fallen upon the coverlet round in circles with a forefinger. "It's foolish to believe everything you hear in camp. And it doesn't mean that's what happened."

"But it likely did," Neji says, disgust written on his features. He lifts his head, his long ebony hair absorbing the last of the sun's rays, and looks steadily at her. "In this, you're more knowledgeable than I am."

Tenten hears the plea within his words. Neji wants her to confirm his terrible theory, but how can she? She had seen nothing after Hizashi's arrest, and had not remained in the area afterward. There really is nothing left to tell, unless he wants her to pass on the horrific tales her own people have related to one another since this conflict began. Stories of arson and theft, of beheadings and vivisections, of rape and families being forced to engage in unnatural sexual acts for the amusement of soldiers… Her mind goes back to a time when a man from a place called Changde had joined the guerrillas, and she shivers; he had told them all how Japanese planes had flown above the city, spraying plague-infested fleas down upon the populace, and how his entire family had later developed the characteristic black swellings and died−

"You know I'm right," Neji declares bitterly, interrupting the abominable remembrances even as he breaks off scrutinizing her. He exhales, body appearing to shrink before her eyes, and adds quietly, "This explains everything. You're just unwilling to admit as much."

"They're only stories," Tenten stubbornly insists, but she bows her head in order to hide her face, believing it entirely possible that the Japanese military would be willing to conduct gruesome tests on a soldier whom they suspected of treason.

Neji does not respond, and− while she hates to see the man withdraw into himself, mourns the loss of his company− Tenten is thankful that the painful interchange has come to an end. The sky overhead flares carmine and gold before the last bit of illumination leaches from the atmosphere, but both teenagers are lost to introspection and the spectacular view goes unremarked upon. Darkness descends swiftly and the nocturnal animals begin their familiar chorus, frogs croaking around them and an owl hooting from somewhere deep within the forest. The moon rises an hour later, and still they do not speak. In the center of the lake, a fish leaps from the water to capture an insect, and the splash caused by its return is loud in the still night air. Startled by the unexpected sound, Tenten cannot help but flinch.

"You're afraid of water, aren't you?"

Tenten glances at Neji, noticing how the lunar radiance filters through the lush canopy above them and mottles his skin with silver. She marvels at the transformation wrought by the pale lighting− he is always handsome, but now all signs of weariness and privation have been erased, leaving him unblemished before her. Her heart begins to beat briskly, and the girl is uncertain if this reaction is due to the appealing sight he presents or simply dismay at having her secret discovered. She watches as Neji picks up their canteen and takes a careless swig from it; his glowing eyes meet hers over the top of the shiny metal, the expression in them puzzled, and Tenten realizes that she has not answered his question. Somewhat embarrassed by her phobia and unwilling to admit her weakness, she merely gives a shake of her head.

Neji lowers the flask and gives a disbelieving little snort, then expounds, "Not water in general, but anything deep or flowing. We've never forded any rivers, even when we could easily have done so. You always find a bridge or a ferry, then have us hide until night falls and it becomes safe to sneak across. And when you bathe−"

Eyes widening, Tenten just manages to stifle the gasp threatening to burst from her, but Neji seems to realize that he has crossed the lines of propriety, for he never finishes his sentence. He takes another sip and then holds the half-full container out to her, either as a peace offering or a distraction from those four critical words. Tenten accepts the vessel with murmured gratitude, her hand accidently brushing against his, but she cannot erase the knowledge that the soldier has been observing her during what should be private moments. Such a revelation should prove disquieting, but she finds the truth titillating instead, feels it percolate in the most secret parts of her body. Tenten looks away and once more begins to question her feelings for him− are they just a mixture of physical attraction and circumstance, or something deeper?

"I can teach you to swim."

Resting the canister atop one leg and drumming her fingers against the sides, Tenten is immersed in contemplation and does not hear the offer. The young woman mentally concedes that she is scared of living on her own, but knows that fear alone does not explain allowing Neji to accompany her on this quest; there have been plenty of opportunities to get away from him, to take up a new life with her own people, but for some reason she has made no attempt to settle down… It occurs to Tenten, so abruptly that she loses the rhythm of her of her nervous tapping and breaks off altogether, that she is growing to know Neji's moods and habits, and cannot imagine a day without him. Furthermore, she had felt so furious and forsaken, imagining him with that girl Sakura… Had that been jealousy? Why should she be possessive?

"It should only take the morning."

This time Tenten does catch the words, intends to respond to them, but her brown orbs alight on the circular rim, wet and sparkling, and she is suddenly conscious of the fact that Neji's lips had been there just a moment before. Although they have drunk after one another a hundred thousand times, the strangest sensation ripples through her belly at the thought, a fluttering that hints at something grander, if only she would give in to the fire that has ignited within her… Knowing that water alone will not quench the flames, Tenten twists the lid slowly back onto the canteen and lays it aside. She glances sidelong at Neji, the man staring curiously back at her, and feels a maidenly blush creep over her cheeks. Does she love him? Might he return the sentiment? Tenten cannot be sure, but she knows that wants him and wants to find out.

"Tenten? Are you not speaking to me again?"

Her course fixed, Tenten leans over and presses her lips gently to his.

This kiss is different from ones that came before. Unlike their first, it is not the result of long-repressed teenage hormones, or a pointless attempt at rearranging the dynamics between captive and guard. It lacks the despair, selfish intent, and physical demand of the second encounter. Instead, there is something sweet and tender about the osculation, almost as if Tenten were offering him something precious− the gift of herself. Neji feels as though he is standing on the edge of a great precipice; he can close his eyes and lose himself to the feelings the girl is rousing within him, revel in the attention he has so long yearned for, or he can refuse and allow the opportunity to pass him by, likely for eternity. His brain argues that he is not long for this world, and it would be smarter to do the latter, so Neji retreats.

Tenten is not dissuaded, inching nearer and carefully shifting onto her knees so that she can match his height. One of her hands falls onto his thigh for support, warm even through the material of his pants, and the other comes up to cup his cheek, thumb grazing across a nick caused by shaving. She pauses like that, so close to him, her dark eyes staring searchingly into his own opal orbs. Neji wonders what she sees there, if she can read his foreboding. Heart pounding, the former soldier swallows against a throat gone suddenly dry and opens his mouth to explain to explain his reluctance; Tenten forestalls him by placing a finger over his lips, whispers words of understanding and comfort. "It's okay, Neji. I know what I promised you, but things between us are different now… You don't have to worry…"


"Please, Neji. All I want is to be with you…"

At this unforeseen declaration, Neji's resolve begins to waver, and he does not protest when Tenten's petite hand follows the curve of his jaw and then disappears behind his head. The young man feels her fingers tangle into his long hair, tugging slightly, and Tenten uses this tenuous hold to guide his mouth once more to her own. The insistent pressure of her cerise lips sets his head to spinning, and all of his determination vanishes. Neji gives himself over to the kiss, and to her, responding with equal fervor and then moving to deepen it; he lifts a hand, encouraging Tenten to tilt her head back, and his tongue glides into her mouth. A brief, sensual battle ensues, but she is easily defeated and he continues unchecked in his exploration, savoring both his victory and the little moan that he wrests from her.

The need for oxygen finally overpowers Neji, and he breaks off, leaving Tenten breathless and clinging to his shoulders. Moonlight plays over her features, highlighting her swollen lips and flushed cheeks, and the former soldier is certain he has never seen her look more alluring. On a whim, he reaches out and pulls the makeshift ribbons from her chignons, setting the mahogany waves free to tumble down her back. His fingers comb through the silken strands, moving from scalp to tip and back again as he considers his next move. Tenten decides for him; having somewhat recovered, she rests both palms against his firm chest and begins kissing an electric trail from the corner of his mouth back toward his ear. Heated exhalations fan across his neck, and then teeth commence a torturous nibbling on the sensitive lobe.

Nothing has ever felt so good. Desire swamps Neji, flooding his veins and pooling in his abdomen, and he feels the first delicious stirrings there.

Fingers pluck at a button on his rumpled tunic, diverting him from this latest assault upon his senses. Almost shyly− he cannot tell if she is inexperienced, or simply fears he will take the opportunity to refuse− Tenten asks, "Is it okay if I take this off?"

Neji knows what she thinks of his uniform, wants to please her and thereby continue this intimate engagement, so he murmurs an assent and reaches down to unbuckle the belt that encircles the thin jacket. Tenten starts with the fastenings nearest his throat, deft fingers traveling downward to meet his; their hands bump, and he concedes the last button to her, then shrugs out of the garment and tosses it away without a second thought. She toys with the hem of his white undershirt, perhaps vexed by its presence, but Neji is so eager to feel her against him that he does not allow her time to slip her hands beneath the cloth. He straightens, pulling her up after him and wrapping his newly-bared arms around her slender form. Tenten responds by draping her own about his neck, and they mold together, fitting perfectly.

The kisses resume, every bit as passionate as before, and Neji marvels at the press of Tenten's body and the way it shifts against him. Fingertips skim along her spine, earning a soft sigh, and then he lifts her tattered blouse; the night air meets the smooth skin of her lower back as his hand slides underneath the cotton, and he attributes the girl's sudden tension to its coolness. "Neji, wait−"

Too drunk on her to heed the warning, Neji continues on his mission to touch every part of Tenten. He is stroking at her hip when something slices into his index finger− he jerks his hand away, pained and very startled. Tenten offers an apology, pulling her knife from its place at her waist and laying it safely out of reach, but the young man barely hears. All his awareness is focused upon this newest injury, pearl eyes watching as a dark drop of blood wells from the pale skin. He jumps when Tenten takes his hand in both of her own, and the breath leaves his body as she ducks her head and sucks the wounded digit into her mouth. It is the most erotic thing he has ever seen, and the warm, measured rasp of her tongue upon the cut proves more than Neji can stand; he cannot help the ragged groan that escapes from his throat.

"All better," Tenten declares, releasing him after what seems like an eternity and giving him a timid smile.

Neji feels anything but healed. Desperate, he meshes one hand into her thick tresses, crushes his full lips to hers and swallows the resulting whimper. The contact is not enough to satisfy him, merely serves to heighten his arousal. As Tenten massages his shoulders, the former sergeant runs greedy hands the length of her body, sliding them over her bottom and hooking one beneath each taut thigh; he quickly lifts the young woman, settling her over his aching groin, and is unable to resist grinding against her center as she wraps her long legs around his waist. The moan elicited by his primal action, and the heat of her− tangible even through their layers of the clothing− combine to drive him wild. Neji shoves the canteen out of the way and lowers them both to the blanket so that he can remove such annoying barriers.

Tenten seems to be of a similar opinion− the tail end of his shirt is fisted in both of her hands, and as Neji hunches over to deposit her on the ground, she drags it over his head. He wiggles his arms free and drops the top, uncaring of where it lands, then stretches out beside her and prepares to even the score. An unsteady hand descends upon the frog at her collarbone; he pauses there, fingering the threads, and looks into her chocolate eyes. Tenten gives him the smallest of nods, signaling consent, and he pops the closure open and then moves on to the other two. It only takes a few seconds, but anticipation makes it feel much longer, and Neji rejoices when the last comes free and he can fold back the worn fabric to reveal the bindings beneath. Tenten leans up so that he can slip the chemise from her shoulders, and it is soon lost behind her.

When Tenten had fallen ill, Neji had unwound the linen band, but now his fumbling fingers seem to have no memory of the incident. The girl moves to help, tugging just so at the small knot, and he is soon able to grasp one end of the strip and pull it free. Her breasts spill out to greet him, small but pert and so pale compared to the rest of her tanned skin. The areolas are the exception; Neji remembers seeing them back in the canyon, and knows that they are a dusky rose, although it is impossible to tell in the current lighting… Tenten catches him staring, and mumbles something disparaging, maybe about their size. She reaches up as if to cover herself, almost like she were ashamed. Neji catches her concealing hand and lifts it above her head, pinning it there as he lowers himself to kiss her again. "There's no need to hide yourself from me."

Hoping that he has reassured her, Neji reaches over and kneads softly on the most distant mound, notes the way Tenten's dark lashes kiss her ruddy cheeks as her breath hitches. The nipple beckons to him, and he runs his thumb lightly over the tip, feeling it harden in response. Tenten gives a pleasured mewl, and Neji likes the sound so much that he tweaks the tiny peak over and over. It occurs to him that he may be leaving the other breast out, which seems a shame, so he takes the milky flesh into his mouth, licking, sucking, and nipping until she writhes beneath him and cries out. He releases her trapped hand and props himself on his elbow, wanting to see her pretty face and uncertain of what to do next. Tenten ceases to clutch at the coverlet, but her hand trembles as she brushes the ebony hair off his forehead, and he can see himself reflected in her eyes.

Her voice is low and full of need. "Neji… please…"

His own is every bit as husky. "What is it? What do you−?"

"Just hurry..."

Those words are all the permission Neji requires. While Tenten unties her girdle, he crawls between her knees and pulls both boots off, making a conscious effort to be gentle with the right. As soon as her footwear is out of the way, he grabs the loosened pants. She raises her hips, then lifts her legs, and he gives two yanks and the slacks come free of her body−

Neji had forgotten− the information had been unimportant at the time− that Tenten does not wear undergarments. For a score of heartbeats, he can do no more than gawk at the newly-revealed triangle of sable curls and pink, glistening flesh below, but then the woman interrupts his reverie, pleading for him to make haste and touch her. He obeys almost reverently, placing his left hand upon the inside of one quivering thigh to hold her open, then slowly drawing the damaged finger on the right down the length of her slit. Neji is in awe at the shape and suppleness of her, loves the way the moisture seeps from her narrow entrance and adheres to his skin. Tenten arches into his hand, seeking more, opening to him with the wanton motion; he sinks in without meaning to, almost to the first knuckle, and gasps aloud at the feel of her.

It is better than anything Neji had ever dreamed− she is all heat and compression and slick, smooth, undulating walls. He pushes the digit deeper, imagining what it would feel like to sheath himself within her, and the throbbing of his erection intensifies. Her walls ripple around him, a sinuous embrace, but as he pulls back Tenten makes a small noise of protest; he slides home a second time, and she throws her head back, moaning encouragement. Neji begins pumping his finger in and out, leisurely to begin with, watching entranced as her hips rise again and again to meet him. He takes this as a cue and slips another finger into her, stretching her to her limit, and picks up the pace… The soldier's arm starts to ache from the strain, and what little composure remaining to him begins to fray, but she is panting now, sweating and bucking−

"Oh! Don't stop!"

−her legs quaking on either side of him, toes curled in bliss and features contorted by ecstasy. Neji redoubles his efforts, curling his fingers inside her and circling his thumb over the swollen little bud that resides at the top of her sex. This extra stimulation is enough; Tenten comes, tossing her head and wailing his name as her body shudders and clenches around him.

When the constriction finally fades, Neji withdraws his fingers with care, looks from their sticky wetness to the nubile woman recovering before him; Tenten's eyes remain veiled, her face now serene and her chest heaving enticingly, and he has never lusted for anything the way that he now wants her. Hands scrabble at the belt holding up his trousers, the buckle proving rather frustrating, but then he has it undone and the rest of his clothing is easily removed. Unencumbered at last, Neji leans forward, the position unfamiliar but thrilling, and braces himself with a hand on either side of her. Every single nerve comes to life when his member brushes against her inner thigh, and the feeling is amplified when Tenten awakens and raises herself up to kiss him, distracting him as her hand works its way between their bodies−


The tentative touch nearly undoes him. Neji buries his face in her neck, inhaling one uneven breath and her intoxicating scent. Tenten's dainty hand continues its journey of discovery, mapping every part of him with tormenting precision. She is whispering into the shell of his ear, perhaps asking him something, but the meanings of the words are lost in the carnal haze clouding his mind. The girl becomes gradually bolder, fingers curling around his turgid flesh and stroking, softly at first and then with more firmness… The demands of his body are impossible to resist, and Neji bows into Tenten's enthusiastic hand. He calls her name, mouth wandering over her delicate clavicle, tasting her even as he begs for something he cannot articulate; he is not sure if he wants her to stop entirely or to finish him, knows only that he cannot take any more

Tenten must understand, for she gives his cock a gentle squeeze, guiding him to her sopping opening before finally liberating him. Nothing separates them now; Neji is agonizingly aware that a simple shift of the hips will join them, that there will be no going back from then on. His earlier misgivings return in a rush− should he be encouraging her affections for him, when there can be no future for them? What about protection?− and they are compounded by virginal performance anxiety. Neji pulls back so that he is hovering above Tenten, needing some distance so that he can put his whirling thoughts in order. Confusion evident on her features, Tenten wraps her legs around his waist to prevent further departure, her abraded knees knocking against his ribcage. He hears her give a little hiss, pained, and then she asks, "What's wrong?"

Neji settles on the concern she had not addressed earlier: "I don't have anything to−"

Some emotion flits across Tenten's face, a sadness that is quickly hidden or dismissed. "It doesn't matter. I'm barren."

There is something sorrowful about the admission, and Neji feels a bit of guilt at having extracted it from Tenten. Wanting to make amends, he runs the back of one hand down her soft cheek, bends low and captures her lips in a manner almost chaste. She arches beneath him, salacious and persistent, and their bodies commence a teasing rubbing which reminds him of his own unfulfilled needs and leaves them both gasping for air. Neji finds himself aligned with her once more, all his restraint shattered; Tenten tightens her legs about him, heels digging into his lower back, and urges him on with sighed commands and feathery caresses. He presses into her, encountering resistance− Tenten whimpers and her ragged nails leave crescents on his shoulder blades− but then the mysterious barrier yields and he finds himself enveloped in exquisite calidity.

Neji intends to ask her if she is all right, but he feels so full and close already, and her body is hugging him greedily… It takes all his concentration to hold on, and the half-formed question inside his head is lost as Tenten gives an experimental shift below him. He begins to move in response, succumbing to instinct, and the first thrusts are short and faltering but so very good, drawing small noises from the throat of the woman. Her hips rise to meet his, and he enters her faster and harder, the friction heavenly between them and rushing him towards release... Tenten's hands are all over him, covetous, and she kisses him fiercely. This maelstrom of sensation is too much, and suddenly Neji is there− burying himself as deeply as possible inside her, swelling and pulsing and spilling himself at the entrance to her womb− the pleasure explosive...

It takes a long time to come down. The first thing Neji notices, after the neon spots fade from his vision and the ringing in his ears tapers off, is the quiet, measured thud of Tenten's heartbeat from beneath his head. The next is the way her fingers glide across his temple, tiny pads going round and round in comforting circles. He realizes that, despite his being soft now, they are still melded together, and wonders if that might be uncomfortable for her. Neji lifts his drowsy head from her breast to check, preparing to force his body from this feeling of glorious lassitude and roll off of her, if that is what she wishes; Tenten is looking down at him, beautiful and benevolent, and he feels a little hand slip into his own. "No, stay," she says, before he can speak, and her voice matches her expression. "I don't want you to move− I like the way it feels…"

Neji nods, somewhat surprised but glad, and returns to his previous station, tilting his face upward so that he can see her from the corner of his eye. After a moment, he asks, "Have I hurt you?"

"Not badly," Tenten answers, pinching the flesh of his palm. "Kind of like that, but in a… more sensitive place."

"I'm sorry," Neji tells her, at the edge of sleep and meaning it. Tenten begins to chuckle, and Neji can feel the vibration running just beneath her skin, traveling through her body to his and waking him in more ways than one. He raises himself onto his elbows and looks at her, demanding without words that she explain this sudden burst of mirth.

Eyes sparkling, the girl reins herself in, biting her lower lip and flushing. "There's nothing for you to be sorry about. It's not like I was unwilling... And I was actually wondering… That is, if you don't mind…"


"Could we try it again?"

The water is cold, much worse than when she had soaked her foot yesterday. Tenten longs for the comfort of their blanket beneath the trees, wishes she were still curled inside its warmth, despite the small, dried, pinkish stain− his seed mingled with her blood, near as she could tell− that she had discovered on the wool this morning. That hankering and her old fear nearly get the better of her; she considers turning around and heading back to shore, but Neji glances over one scratched shoulder at her and then takes her hand. Gripping it tightly, the trusting young woman allows him to lead her out, tries to focus on the way his naked body looks as it moves rather than the chill creeping slowly up her own. The diversion helps somewhat, but she is still relieved when he stops and turns to her, water lapping at his navel.

"Lie back," Neji tells her, and there is a seriousness to his tone and intensity in his unusual eyes that suggests he is trying very hard not to think of the same thing she is. Tenten swallows and does as he says, clinging to his hand as she leans backward. Her legs rise without her consent, toes leaving the muddy but firm and reassuring bottom; she yelps, jerks, and is about to go under when she feels his free hand slide under her butt, supporting her in a manner that would have been impossible before last night. Neji extends her arm out to the side, keeping his fingers entwined with hers, and she mirrors the movement with the other limb. He nods approvingly, settling into his role as instructor. "Good. Tilt your head back, just like that… Stay still and breathe normally, Tenten… Arch your back and let your legs dangle…"

Her buoyancy increases with each directive, and the terror slowly begins to subside. After a time, Neji pulls his hand away; he tries to be discreet about the motion, but the appendage has been Tenten's axis for the entirety of the lesson, and she notices its absence immediately. The girl flinches, water splashing up into one eye, but she orders her muscles to remain loose and is astonished when she does not sink. A brilliant grin splits her features, and she stares past the handsome man gazing down at her to the pink and lavender dawn, where thin ribbons of cirrus clouds look close enough to reach up and touch. Does she love him, she wonders? Tenten still does not know, but right now she feels perfectly weightless and joyful for the first time in memory. Maybe, with the world is in such a precarious state around them, that is enough.

Neji says something to her, but the words are distorted with her ears beneath the surface, so she stretches downward until her good foot finds the mushy ground. Standing cautiously, hair plastered to her back and droplets rolling off her skin, Tenten asks, "What did you say?"

The corner of his mouth turns up, just a bit, as Neji reiterates, "That's floating; it's good for conserving energy. Swimming is more difficult."

That casual statement proves all too true. Neji is an excellent teacher, patient and demonstrative, but Tenten simply cannot grasp the mechanics. Perhaps it is the way the man looks gliding through the water, or how his hands brush over her breasts and hips as he tries to position her; the repeated touches are distracting, to say the least, setting her blood flowing and driving the iciness from her body. Worse is the knowledge that he is also affected− Neji rescues her once, holding her close as she coughs up a mouthful of liquid, and she can feel that willing member pressing into her belly− but they do their best to ignore the temptation and continue with the task at hand. Despite their efforts, the tutorial stalls, and as the morning wears on they both find themselves growing increasingly frustrated.

"You're not paying attention," Neji accuses her, returning from a short exhibition lap and finding that she has once again given up on treading water. Before Tenten can protest− she is exhausted and hungry, really needs a break− he hooks an arm around her waist and begins towing her into deeper water. The thought of the vast emptiness below her, increasing with his every stroke, brings the sense of dread crashing back; the woman wants to break free, to fight him off and escape whatever is about to happen, but does not trust in her budding skills to keep her from drowning… Neji stops suddenly, their legs winding together out of sight, and kisses her roughly. Surprised, Tenten parts her lips to allow him better access, but he is already pulling back, wrenching free from her clutches and setting a course for land.

Her panicked scream is cut off as the inimical waters close above her head. Tenten holds what remains of her breath and flails wildly in the semi-darkness, somehow managing to claw her way back to the now-choppy surface. She kicks her feet and sweeps her arms in frantic circles to stay afloat, the movements clumsy but sufficing, while she hacks and splutters and blinks what might be tears from her mocha eyes. As her vision clears, she sees Neji stand and wade from the lake; he turns to stare at her, crossing his arms over his chest and frowning as if she were to blame for this situation, as if he had not just abandoned her to her fate. Anger takes hold then, driving out the fear once and for all, and Tenten begins an awkward and unconscious paddling toward the soldier, loudly cursing him the entire way.

It is not until she stubs a toe on something buried in the silt, collapsing onto her pruned hands and skinned knees in the shallows that Tenten realizes she has swum to safety, all on her own.

This time, Neji's smile is obvious. "I knew you could do it."

They make love right on the bank.

The storm is stunning in its ferocity. Neji had seen it coming for a while− the clouds thickening threateningly back eastward, turning an ugly greenish-pewter that reminded him of a bruise and blotting out the sky− and considered turning back to their campsite for shelter. He had glanced at Tenten, seeking her opinion, and noticed that she was already limping again. That fact had decided him; they would never make it back to the small copse before the out-of-season shower began, might as well suffer it out among the knolls, and hope that it passed quickly. Now, with the wintry rain pouring down in silvery sheets and blinding him to the world around him, showing no signs of slackening, and the hillside turned to sludge beneath his boots, he finds himself wishing there had been another option.

Bending low against the wind, they crest the hill together, one of his hands beneath her elbow to steady her, despite the fact that he can barely stand himself. The other is holding tight to one corner of the heavy, sodden blanket wrapped about his shoulders, trying to keep the straining supply from blowing away. A lull in the gale gives Neji the opportunity to reach up and swipe the hair from his stinging eyes, and a flash of lightning allows him a brief glimpse of the landscape− there is a village directly in their path, four or five dwellings. They are lit for only an instant, but it is long enough for the former sergeant to recognize the danger and turn away to the north. For just a moment, Neji is glad of the weather, knowing that the Chinese will be huddled indoors and therefore can not see him, but then the gusts begin again and his misery returns.

Tenten moves silently past him, starting down the soggy slope, and Neji follows in her ungainly footsteps. She is right, he reflects, as thunder crashes overhead and water drips annoyingly from the end of his nose; things between them are different now, more natural. The change is due in part to the new dimension to their relationship− sex is very enjoyable, leaves him feeling cleansed and close to her− but can more accurately be ascribed to their transformations as people. Here in the wilderness, there is no war save for the occasional plane rumbling upon high, and they are without obligation, free to be themselves. Furthermore, his father has finally been exorcised. Hizashi is no longer a specter between them, an example of the way half-truths can torment a man, but a soldier laid to rest, albeit in an unmarked grave and without the honor deserved to him.

A piteous whine, barely audible over the noise of the squall, drags Neji from his reverie. He looks up to find that they have returned to level ground, gives a start when he spots the sort of old-fashioned brick wall that surrounds a house not ten paces from him. Peering through the watery veil, he locates the wooden gate set in the center of the barrier, sees with disbelief that it is ajar. A dog, much smaller than Inuzuka's mutt and lean nearly to the point of starvation, is staring out at them. Before Neji can stop her, Tenten is heading for the creature, holding her hand out for the animal to sniff. The unfortunate cur licks her fingers, then barks and dashes though the doorway, disappearing from view. Tenten puts her hand to the portal and pushes it open, sticking her head in before turning around and gesturing for him to join her.

Neji draws near, feeling a sense of doom settle over him as Tenten shouts over the tempest's roar, "I don't think anyone's home!"

"Tenten, wait− "

But she is already gone.

To be continued…