One Heartbeat.

A/N: Prompted by Kitkat973. "Neji—maybe an introspective drabble, on a long solo-mission, the moment where he realizes that he actually misses all of his team—even Gai?"

No pairings, but if you squint real hard, you might pick up on the tiniest hints of Neji/Ten-Ten or Gaara/Lee...

Disclaimer: Insert witty retort of my lack of ownership on all things Naruto.

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The praying mantis had been still for nearly an hour, simply waiting, biding his time for prey to pass its way, not noticing the sky darkening above it. Neji had been watching the creature from over twenty meters to its left, sitting quietly as his body slowly cooled from aftermath of battle and the fading sunlight. The only sounds that filled the forest were the continuous thrum of wildlife and the quiet pace of his heartbeat. His hand twitched imperceptibly from their mediative grasp in his lap as the praying mantis suddenly snapped and grabbed at a beetle that mistakenly wandered past it, chewing at the creature savagely with its pincers.

A group of dark bats scattered from outside of the range of his extended sight, Neji watched their silhouettes flying away, and he was momentarily alarmed from the disturbance—not that he gave any indication he was. Neji was just as still as he had been for the last hour. If it wasn't for the dimming light, and the blood spreading from the minor wound in his side, it would have been difficult to see how time had passed when the jounin child was sitting like a statue.

This was one of the reasons Neji was sent on this solo mission. His patience was seemingly never-ending, his quiet stealth in many ways one of his best weapons. The young man never felt the need to rush, finding that many plans worked better with serenity and fortitude rather than loud and brass displays of power. After all, his clan worked with the more subtle of arts, the 'Gentle Fist' technique rarely failing him.

Why would he need to rush when he could see his victory before him? And that statement was sometimes more literally meant than figurative at times. At that moment, he was perched softly above an encampment of a team of rather brutal-looking bandits. From analyzing their internal chakra web, he could tell that although most of the men were ninja, but their chakra levels were low and constantly in a state of irregular flux, displaying a level of incompetency in their ranks.

Not that he really needed to watch their chakra levels to see the incompetency of the group; the utter babble of inconsequential noise they was making would have drowned out any noise Neji could have made, scaring off potential game for food, and possibly attracting predators, too. Neji was there watching them, after all. They were setting up camp, putting some roughly made tents around the small clearing, a few stoking a fire that easily gave away their position from the smell and sight of smoke.

Seven minutes, give or take a few moments, and Neji would have been able to clean up this gathering of bandit low-lives. Except, he couldn't do that as it wasn't the task he was entrusted with. It was a single A-rank mission, with outlines that he had three days to get there, complete, and return with proof. Neji was contemplating whether it was too bloody to collect a head in a bag to bring back as evidence to the client.

All Neji was waiting for was the leader of the group to finally turn up. He was the real target of the Hyuga's mission. The man had already taken care of several small villages, plundering them and destroying them until there was nothing left of smoking wisps and a few piles of charred rubble. Neji had already removed his right-hand man from the picture, as he was sharp enough to see the Leaf ninja leaping from branch-to-branch in the forests, clearly heading for his boss. Neji was forced to fight him, and was unfortunate enough to receive a stab to the gut before forcing a stab of chakra through his fist to instantly force the older fighter into a painful episode of cardiac arrest.

One single touch to stop the heart, a single pulse of chakra strategically directed in the chest, and down he went. No blood, no screams, just a moment of mute, painful-looking convulsions before the man became still. It was easier to remove all traces of the body that way.

Even the way he killed men was less flamboyant than his other ninja counterparts.

It stung Neji a tad, figuratively and literally, that he was wounded so early in the mission. This had been his first solo mission in a few months, and he realized he was slightly rusty, too used to working in flawless unity with his team.

Quietly to himself, he cursed the fact he'd lowered his guard, his fighting stance automatically shifting to provide Lee an opening—Lee, who wasn't here, wasn't able to protect his open flank, and from an elementary error, Neji was hit. It was a minor hit, but it was still a blow to his ego. The blood and the wound were all superficial, not damaging in the slightest except for the occasional twinge that made Neji want to scratch the cut.

Maybe it also hurt him that Lee wasn't there. Not that it was Lee's fault. It was partially Neji's fault for growing too accustomed to his presence. That and the fact that Lee had been sent to Suna, again, though why the Kazekage kept asking for his help was beyond Neji's comprehension. The Hyuga knew Gaara on an impersonal level, and wondered why he wanted Lee to fight by his side. Surely the leader of the Hidden Sand had no real need for assistance, the strength of his Sand Barrier withstanding almost all but the fiercest attacks. Was it because Lee nearly beat him when they were in the chuunin exams that endeared him towards the stoic man? Neji made a mental note to ask his friend as soon as he got back.

Friend. The idea of being friends with Lee snuck up on him. When they first met, they were members of a genin cell, and nothing more. Well, Lee had somehow got it into his head that they were rivals, but it wasn't for a long while that Neji actually acknowledged that they were able to compete with one another on the same level of competency. And it was even longer after that before he decided that calling the odd man his friend wasn't so bad after all.

It wasn't even difficult these days, even though he didn't go out telling people. Not that he ever would. Neji's style was quiet words rather than Naruto's excited exclamations.

Neji exhaled slowly, regulating his breathing as he gazed down at the bustling team beneath him, his eyes startlingly blank and surrounded by raised veins as he watched them with his activated blood limit. Some called his eyes a gift, a blessing of great power—but many muttered in hushed whispers the fear they felt when they looked upon the man when he used his repulsive power.

He was used to this two-faced response from strangers. Neji had accepted it as normal. But he remembered the first time an adult didn't flinch when he initially activated his byakugan eyes in their presence—Iruka-sensei's lowered head had snapped up from the paperwork he was concentrating on, and berated him for using his eyes to cheat on a in-class test, (not that he needed the answers, but was merely seeing if he could get them by peeking through the answer sheet). The flash of shock Neji felt wasn't at being caught, but was for being treated like any other. The feeling was unsettling, but... comforting, in a way.

Only Iruka-sensei and a few special adults would act this way. Gai-sensei was one of those adults, pushing him hard like any other genin, not throwing compliment after petty compliment his way.

Neji thought that Gai-sensei understood that Neji didn't need that kind of training—instead, Gai acted like someone who always thought he could be improved, acted like Neji gave only 90%, always saying that he needed to put more hard work in to better himself, lecturing flamboyantly that genius wasn't everything. Neji was a prat when he was younger, relying a lot on his natural talent and skill. However, with his teacher's efforts and persistence, Neji added in those extra hours and he figured he certainly became a better ninja because of it, both mentally and physically.

The first children who treated him like any other were his genin team mates; Lee and Ten-Ten. Admittedly, Ten-Ten had fawned over his hair, and asked how he kept it so smooth and shiny, even having the audacity to reach out and touch it, but that was a reaction that at least differed from the respectful side glances that most girls passed his way as a child. Lee was fearless (and loud) in his quest to best Neji, but it was interesting to face an opponent who wouldn't quit.

In his earlier years, Neji thought he was impenetrable to attention and affection, but looking back as an older man, Neji could see how he had caved—ever so slightly—to his team mates at times he normally wouldn't. Like he actually told Ten-Ten which herbs he used to wash his hair with! But that was only after months of teamwork together before he told her, and he felt particularly... affectionate to her after she had trained so hard that she had passed out. His reaction of concern he felt at the time was irrational to him, but he still felt it.

Another instance was when Lee challenged him to a quick spar; Neji initially scoffed and turned his back, not even deeming the child worthy of his effort. But then, again and again he was asked, and in his building frustration at Lee's persistence, spun around and defeated the boy. Not that many people could've seen it, but Neji lost his cool, the calm aura that usually surrounded him dissipating.

It wasn't the last time that happened either. Not when Lee was involved. Especially when Gai-sensei was there, too.

But in a way, Neji had to thank his crazy teacher and fellow student. It helped him build a tolerance up to all things ridiculous, and helped him keep a level head in many a situation. After all, if he could keep passive while watching ridiculous displays of man hugs and tears, he could stay stoic in nearly any situation.

Even this situation he was still with apparent disinterest as he saw the leader enter camp. In the mission notes, the term 'ugly' was thrown around by some people's statements and eye-witness accounts, but that didn't cover the repulsive heaving mash of flesh that was supposed to pass for a face. There were red lines that almost looked like a flawed crimson imitation of the veins that surrounded the eyes of an activated byakugan. For the most part, his flesh was as gray as clouds that were creeping over the darkening sky, purple patches appearing here and there like some sick pattern of bruises. Muscles warped the man's frame, the sheer amount disfiguring him, removing the appearance of any neck, making his legs seem unnaturally tiny.

Time for work, thought Neji with a resigned sigh. Before he went down, he dropped a few convenient smoke bombs he carried in his jounin vest down to stun the slower reacting ninja; if they couldn't get out of the way of simple smoke bombs, they weren't worth his time. He lithely leapt from his branch, ignoring the startled yelps from the subordinates.

As he dodged a hastily badly placed kunai, he reflected that it was at times like this he really appreciated Ten-Ten's accuracy with weapons. Her flair for kunai would have slaughtered all of these slow-moving targets; if she could hit a needle-point from over fifty paces, Neji had no doubt that she could slaughter these looming figures that weakly attempted to capture him.

Three masked men fell silently as Neji burned their chakra pathways with his fingertips, aiming as usual for their hearts. The rouge ninja watched with a sense of near awe as the young man put on a burst of speed, becoming little more than a blur as he leapt from man to man, easily destroying the underlings of his target.

Soon only two were standing; the monstrous figure he was aiming for, leaning calmly against a tree, watching the destruction of his own men, and Neji, the Hidden Leaf jounin, barely out of breath, but grimacing slightly at the carnage that surrounded him.

Only when he was faced with the master was Neji presented with his first real challenge. He was able to attack some chakra points, sealing them off, but the man did not use his chakra, his strength his main weapon. Despite his size, he was fast enough to beat Neji back before he had enough time to summon the energy to his hands to force an early cardiac arrest.

The man was cunning with his underhanded attacks, enough to force Neji to release a handful of throwing stars and blades at the man, jumping back quickly from his heavy fists. Those who knew the quiet Hyuga knew of his disgust at using weapons, preferring hand-to-hand combat above all else.

Whilst a few blades hit him, one slicing a vein in his arm, the blood didn't even faze the brute. His attacks neither faltered in strength or number.

Ten-Ten would have fun with this guy, Neji thought with a small part of his mind not consumed with analyzing for weaknesses. With so many muscles, the girl could put her accuracy to the test trying to aim for a vital ligament—a difficult task when all his body was so distorted from a normal form. Neji liked watching Ten-Ten throw her blades. She was so graceful in an unconscious way that it sometimes put his own attacks to shame.

Lee would get a kick out of the strange man's inhuman strength. Neji had worked with Lee on a mission similar to this a while back, and had simply cleared out the weaker men and let Lee have his fun. Neji was ready to jump into the fray if he was needed, but he could tell Lee had the power of brute force and skill on his side. Safe to say, they had finished their mission with more ease than people anticipated. It was their first mission where they were both jounin.

That thought pulled him right back into the fight as it reminded him of a certain move Lee pulled when he was finishing off the man—if he twisted in a certain way...

Yes! Neji ducked under the clumsy swing of the taller man and dived right up to his chest. It was a risky move, but Neji blasted his torso with chakra and saw in blinding detail with his activated blood limit, just how quickly the chakra pathways surrounding the heart exploded.

The nameless villain fell with all the grace of a tree cut from its base, a choked disbelieving noise escaping his throat. Neji watched impassively, but inside his stomach was doing flips. Murder, whether in cold blood, hot blood, for a reason or for none at all, was still murder. Strange as it was, Neji had developed a very strong respect for his power over many people's lives. His gift to see and perfectly aim for vital points in the human body was one he didn't take lightly. When he nearly killed off his cousin, Hinata, he realized that he was sometimes too hasty in his choices. Yes, being a ninja, part of his duty was to kill, but he never killed needlessly or painfully.

"With great power comes great responsibility." Usually Gai's flamboyant speeches were trivial nonsense, but sometimes he spoke like a proper mentor, wise with age and experience.

Looking around the clearing, Neji rubbed his neck as he eyed all the bodies he'd have to dispose of. As he moved to get to work, he noticed something was off.

There were no surviving bandits, his job was completed and there weren't any witnesses. What did he miss then? Why did his gut feeling say there was something off?

Listening hard, he realized. One heartbeat. There was only one. Usually, there would be the numerous pitter-patters of his teammate's hearts, driven faster by exertion and adrenaline. The silence felt heavy, and the sudden loneliness he felt was eerie.

Perhaps he'd take on another team mission after this.

Shaking off the thought, he got to work, but he didn't see the small, fond smile that briefly graced his face before he cleared his mind of it.

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A/N: Okay, what did you think? Neji was hard to handle, but I hope I did a good job of it. Please review and give me some feedback! :-)