Notes: This is a prequel to my story "Straight On Till Morning" and, unfortunately, if you haven't read that then this will make little sense.
ALL THE CHOIRS IN MY HEAD SING
To live will be an awfully big adventure. - JM Barrie, Peter Pan
Tenten walked barefoot onto the bridge, space glittering at her through the big forward windows. The ship was powered down and only a few buttons glowed on the console. Neji sat in the captain's seat, seemingly lost in thought though she knew he was aware of her presence. She came to stand level with him, standing silently there for a few moments as the stars twinkled at them.
Neji still looked tired but he was healing. She did not know the extent of what Orochimaru had done to him but she could guess. Still, the bruises on his face were healing and she hoped his other wounds - the ones she couldn't see - were as well.
Moving carefully, still wary of pulling too harshly on the wounds on her back, she lifted a hand to rest it on the curving wall of the ship next to her.
"The Byakuganis yours now," she said softly, feeling the power of it hum underneath her fingers. Next to her, she felt Neji nod and she glanced over at him, trying to read his face in the semi-darkness. "What will you do?"
It took a moment for him to answer. "I don't know," he said quietly, but she could tell that it worried him. "Gai was our captain. It was never supposed to be me."
She wished she could have known this great captain of theirs. It was obvious from the little things she had heard from both Lee and Neji that he had been their mentor. What would she have been like now if she had had someone to guide her as Gai had guided them? She wanted to ask Neji about him, what he had been like, but perhaps it wasn't the right time.
She took her hand away from the wall of the ship and sat down in a chair usually reserved for the pilot. She pulled her legs up underneath her, making sure the simple dress Lee had found for her covered them. It was not a very ladylike way to sit but she found she was more comfortable if she was curled up a bit. She felt safer. No doubt one of the many, many marks Orochimaru's torment had left on her.
"The ship remembers him fondly," she said, and then stilled, suddenly nervous. She wasn't sure how much Neji knew about her Whispered abilities. Some people reacted badly, as if she were some strange sort of alien that could read their minds. Others thought to use her to their advantage. She knew Neji was neither of these but she couldn't help her sudden anxiety. If he thought her too strange would he ask her to leave the ship? Where would she go?
Neji's voice cut across her thoughts. "The ship remembers?" He was looking at her steadily, no hint of apprehension for what she had just revealed, no disgust that she was different from him. She relaxed a little and called herself foolish.
"It's not remembering, not the way humans do it, but I can't think of what else to call it. People leave..imprints on machines they use and love. A boy and his first car, a captain and his ship. Gai's imprint is everywhere in the Byakugan," she told him, "from the captain's logs, to the vidcam filing system. He's in many of the records - there were space races? With someone named Kakashi? - and in many of the security videos. In that way, he is remembered. The ship knew him well and his touch on it was...good. Kind. I can feel that."
Neji's face had changed into something fond at the mention of the space races and his eyes looked into her with quiet wonderment. "You can understand all of that by touching the ship." It wasn't a question but she answered anyway.
"I am a Whispered. It's an ability we have, to communicate with mechanical and computerized things."
"An ability Orochimaru wanted badly."
She nodded, feeling her eyes burn with unshed tears so that she had to look away from him. Perhaps in time his name would not affect her so, but her years as Orochimaru's slave were still too fresh. "He took me very young. I don't really remember my family. I've been his prisoner for as long as I care to remember."
Neji's voice was solid, immovable. "But not anymore."
She glanced over at him and felt herself relax again. "Not anymore."
For a time they sat in silence, just watching the stars, the glow of far off galaxies. Tenten felt at home in that moment, the tension draining out of her. She realized she trusted Neji, probably more than she should have given the little she knew of him, but everything in her was telling her that she was safe with him. Nightsong had come alive for him and he had taken her out of the hell that had been Orochimaru's compound. What was more was that the Byakuganshowed every sign of being a loved and cared for ship. It would not have been so had the crew not been kind.
"Is there somewhere you wish to go?" Neji asked her suddenly, breaking their silence. "We can take you anywhere you wish. It's the least we can do."
"I..." She stopped. He was asking her if she had somewhere to go home to but the truth was there was not. She barely remembered the planet she had been raised on. Only Orochimaru would know of it now, if it even still existed. She knew no other Whispered, though Lee had said there were others who could do what she did, spread out around the galaxy. Feeling a little unmoored, she plucked at the material of her dress over her knees. "I... it seems I don't really belong anywhere," she told him, slightly ashamed, and then softer, "I don't know where home is."
She felt Neji's gaze on her and when she managed to look up to meet it she saw anger there, but not at her, at what had been done to her. There was also something else, something... She would not call it 'warm'- she did not think Neji was the type of person to show emotions easily - but it was certainly a regard for her, for her wellbeing. Neji cared about what happened to her. It was a startling thought.
"If you wished it," he said quietly, watching her, "you would be welcome here for as long as you like. Lee and I cannot manage the ship on our own and you," there was briefest quirk of his lips upward, "seem uniquely qualified as a pilot. There's a place for you here, if you want it." He seemed about to say something else but stopped, waiting for her. She almost didn't know what to say except that she did. She knew instantly.
"I would like that," she replied, smiling tentatively at him. The expression almost seemed unnatural, she was so unused to doing it. "Thank you."
Neji relaxed with her answer, as if he had been worried she would reply otherwise, but he waved away her thanks, standing smoothly. "You're part of my crew now." He looked her right in the eye, without a hint of hesitation and she felt herself uncurl, sitting up straight in her chair, feet falling flat on the floor. "I want a course set for Magdela and the ship ready to go in a hour," he told her, already headed for the door as he gave her the orders. Warmth bloomed in her chest, sudden and unlooked for, and she thought she might cry for real this time, but from happiness.
"Aye aye, Captain," she replied.
Magdela was a beautiful planet, all blues and greens and whites from space. As they entered the atmosphere, Tenten could see that the surface was very mountainous and that there seemed to be waterfalls everywhere, water falling from such great heights that she couldn't see the ground due to the silvery mist that rose from the falls. Villages and towns had been carved from the mountainside, great stone pillars and houses rising from the rock face. Snow dotted the mountain tops, completing the breathless scenery. Tenten had never seen anything like it. It must of shown on her face as she guided the ship towards the landing area of some small town for Lee smiled brightly at her.
"Magdela is a wonderful place, Tenten. You will love it. This town, Axalia, is where I was born."
She glanced at him quickly, surprised, as the Byakugan touched down lightly and she released the controls, powering down the ship. "This is your home?"
"Yes!" His enthusiasm waned a bit, his features tinged with sadness. "It was Gai's as well. He trained me as young boy."
She had not known that. Carefully, she reached out to touch his arm to show her sympathy and was rewarded with a dimmer, but no less warm smile. "I didn't realize. We are here to see his family then?"
"No. Gai's family is gone now, but Neji and I would like to place a marker here for him anyway, to remember him." He brightened suddenly. "And you will have to meet my family! I have five sisters and one brother, and three cousins and my parents of course. And then there's Rose's children, my nieces and nephews and-"
"Brats," Neji said with flat certainty, walking onto the bridge, "All of them."
"Neji," Lee admonished him, frowning. "You can't still be upset over them pulling your hair. They were three and four years old at the time." Neji arched a cool eyebrow and Tenten felt the urge to stifle a laugh. It was obvious Neji was baiting him and Lee was falling for it. The mechanic shook his head. "Don't listen to him, Tenten. They will love you."
She hoped so. It seemed important somehow that she be accepted by these people Neji and Lee loved so well, however much Neji tried to hide it.
They spent a little time gathering their things and shutting down the ship. Neji and Lee wanted to spend at least three days in the village and they would leave the ship in the only available hangar while they were gone. Tenten patted the ship's docking bay door as she closed it behind her and Whispered a good night to it.
Lee's family lived on the far side of the village so Tenten was able to see a little of the place as they walked. It was not a large village but it was clean and orderly and the air was so crisp it was invigorating just being out in it. Lee regaled her with stories of his youth as they walked, Neji inputting a word here and there. Neji had not been born on Magdela but he had come there to study as a teenager which is when he had met Lee and Gai.
They did not have long to reminisce however as soon as they reached Lee's parents' house. The door was practically blown down by a mob of children with Lee's distinctive big, black eyes and short hair, followed by a group of adults who were also clearly related to Lee. There were people everywhere, children laughing and calling out and adults yelling at the children while trying to talk to Lee all at once. Tenten was hugged by five different people, none of whom introduced themselves first. They just hugged, as if being with Lee was enough for them, of course she should come right in and have some tea and had she met the children yet and no of course she hadn't but would she like to? Tenten nodded and smiled, her head whirling, but she could feel herself getting tense underneath it and she struggled with herself. Everyone there was so lovely, why couldn't she relax?
She knew why, of course, but it didn't keep her from being upset with herself. She had been around so few people in her life, being flocked with so many at once was overwhelming. Logically, she understood that, it was just frustrating that inside she felt the need to curl up again, retreat into her defenses until she could sort out what was happening when all she wanted to do was be part of such a happy, laughing group.
Neji's hand touched the small of her back lightly, so lightly she almost couldn't feel it against the healing, bandaged welts there. He stepped up behind her shoulder and she felt a calm fall over her at his nearness. Neji felt like a strong wall to her back, unstoppable and immovable. Everything was okay. They were safe.
She breathed out and threw him a grateful look.
Lee's family ushered them inside, calming down a bit after the initial rush of excitement. They were offered tea and cakes and then no, how about they start a turkey, or a chicken? Make that two. They spent the rest of the day eating and talking, though Tenten listened more than anything, not wanting to interrupt Lee's time with his family. Lee introduced her as his friend and fellow crew mate and no questions were asked. In fact, Lee's family acted as if she had always been there, filling a plate for her while Lee's sisters argued over which one of them would sit by her. Tenten had never felt so immediately accepted so, of course, she slipped up.
Lee's oldest sister, Rose, asked for her help with putting down her youngest, a cranky three year old boy who had been tired out by the day's activities but was refusing to go to bed. He was crying great big crocodile tears and Tenten knelt down and picked him up, feeling his chubby little arms immediately curl around her neck. She followed Rose into one of the guest bedrooms, trying to shush the wailing bundle in her arms. She rubbed a hand down his back while Rose struggled with getting her other two children into their pajamas on the other side of the room. Distracted, Tenten started to sing.
Little Ruka perked up in her arms at the sound of her voice, leaning back a little so he could see her face. She kept softly singing her old lullaby, reaching up one-handed to wipe the big tears from his face with her sleeve. He smiled a bit and rubbed his cheek against hers, snuggling as she continued to hum, feeling him continue to relax and quiet. She continued the song as she put him down in one of the two beds Rose and her family were borrowing for the night and tucked him in, sitting down on the edge of the mattress to brush the dark hair from his eyes. The song came to a close and Ruka smiled sleepily at her. It was only when she smiled back that she realized the entire room had gone silent.
Turning her head, she realized for the first time that almost all of Lee's family had piled into the room, the rest of the children sitting perfectly on the floor, watching her wide-eyed. And she immediately realized why. In the far corner of the room, a beautiful toy carousel was turning on its own, tinkling music floating through the air. Next to it, a small, handmade clock was whirring softly, the hands on its face speeding around and around without stopping. And on the floor, one of the children's train sets was slowly making its way across the carpet, merrily chugging its way along with a track in sight.
Tenten shut it all down at once but she knew it was too late. She hadn't even realized she was doing it, so caught up for the moment in a child's simple need for reassurement. She braced herself for judgement, wondering what she would do if they asked her to leave.
On the floor, one little girl, probably about six years old, smiled toothily at her. "Wow, can you do that again?"
Almost as soon as she spoke, all the rest of them chimed in, clamoring over each other in a effort to be heard. Even the adults joined in, Lee's sisters exclaiming that she was amazing and could she show them how to do that? By the door, only Neji was silent, watching her calmly, while Lee stood next to him, grinning widely and chattering as much as the rest of his siblings.
"Miss Tenten, are you crying?" The toothy six-year old asked, climbing into her lap. Tenten hugged her gently.
"Not at all," she said, a watery smile on her face. "I'm very, very happy."
Tenten slept that night in a bed shared with two of Lee's younger sisters, teenaged Missa and Saika. Though by morning they were all a tangle of limbs and long hair in the middle of the bed, Tenten didn't wake once. She slept soundly.
Tenten saw Lee and Neji only briefly the next morning before they headed out to where they were placing Gai's memorial. Lee was his usually boisterous self but Neji looked as if he'd barely slept, which was not altogether uncommon since their escape. She thought it was akin to how she often grew tense in new situations now. Neji's reaction to stress was just not to sleep. It would not surprise her if he had nightmares that haunted him. He had been tortured for hours on end every day that he had been in Orochimaru's compound, much more so than her as she had been needed relatively well in order to create weapons. Neji had had no such purpose. Orochimaru had kept him alive only as a plaything, something to amuse himself with when he was feeling particularly nasty. She could not imagine what horrors he had faced while in the Torturer's possession.
She thought about that the whole day they were gone, even as she played with Lee's nieces and nephews and listened to Lee's sisters gossip while Lee's mother puttered in the kitchen, fixing another gigantic meal for that evening. All of the family was currently stuffed in Lee's parents' house while Lee was there, apparently not willing to miss a second of the excitement while he was home. There were sleeping bags everywhere and every guest room had four or five people sleeping in it, and yet nothing felt cramped. It just felt...warm. Comfortable.
Like a home would feel.
They had dinner, as Tenten suspected, when Neji and Lee returned and then spent the evening playing board games until Lee boasted to Neji that his superior determination would beat Neji's genius skills any day and Neji proceeded to wipe the floor with him at which point Lee's father wisely told them all to call it a night.
Tenten changed into a big over-sized shirt Rose's husband had let her borrow and fell asleep almost as soon as she hit the bed only to wake a few hours lately as if she'd heard something in the night. Missa snored in her ear but Tenten knew that was not what had awakened her. Carefully, she extracted herself from the bed and grabbed one of the spare blankets off a nearby chair, wrapping it around herself before slipping out into the hallway.
The house was dark and quiet, everyone sleeping off the meal they had had earlier. Tenten trekked barefoot down the hall and then into the living area where she found what she was looking for.
Neji was sitting by one of the windows, staring out into a crystal clear night. One of Magdela's three small moons hung low in the sky, mystical and bright, casting silvery shadows over the lawn and Neji's face. He turned to look at her as she padded closer and his pale eyes reflected the light for a brief moment, moon-gray and full of secrets.
And tired. So tired.
Perhaps a week ago she would not have been brave enough to try this, but Lee's family had started to make her strong again, wearing down the old and fearful things in her mind that plagued her. Now, she calmly sat herself down on the floor right next to the couch Neji was sitting on and patted the cushion nearest to her in an invitation for him to lay down and rest.
For a moment she was not sure he would heed her, but then he tipped forward slowly, settling down into the cushions, his head near her arm where it leaned against the couch. When he was still, she took the blanket she had around her shoulders and drew it over him, stopping just short of tucking him in as she had Ruka.
But she did sing for him.
Softly, ever so softly so as not to wake anyone else, but with a hand soothingly stroking Neji's long hair away from his face. It was not in a language that Neji would understand, it was not even in one Tenten understood though she knew it by heart. The words were not important, however, just the tone and the feel of someone close by who cared for you. Tenten had that much left of her past at least. Someone who loved her had sang this song to her too, once.
She sang until Neji finally fell asleep, perhaps the first time in days, and then kept singing until she was sure he was asleep deep enough not to have nightmares. Picking herself up off the floor, she looked down at him, wondering at the way he looked after herself and Lee and yet cared nothing for himself.
Shaking her head, she bent down and carefully pressed a kiss into his hair.
"Good night, Neji."
They said goodbye to Lee's family the next day, a goodbye that lasted almost two hours as everyone had to be hugged and chatted with and all the children had to be played with and could Tenten make the toys come alive one more time? Bye the time all the goodbyes had been properly said it was late afternoon and all three of them had been laden with enough food and supplies to last them several months.
The Byakugan was powering up and waiting for them when they arrived at the hanger, Tenten having Whispered to it while they walked. Lee gave her a gaping grin, laughing in surprise, and even Neji looked pleased as they walked on board.
After getting her things properly stowed, Tenten headed to the bridge to make sure all the systems were online. Sitting down in the pilot's chair felt right, as if it had been waiting for her. Smiling to herself she let her fingers fly across the console keys, closing the cargo bay doors and readying the ship for flight in space. Neji joined her there after a few minutes. He looked rested for once, and comfortable. Their stay on Magdela had done him good, had done all of them good.
"Where to, Captain?" she asked cheerfully, leaning back in her seat to watch him. He leaned against the console next to her, arms folded across his chest, thinking.
"I suppose it's time to get back to work," he said. "Lee says there are some things he wants to update on the ship." Neji glanced at her for confirmation and she nodded. She'd done a scan before Magdela and the Byakuganhad reported a few minor issues they'd need to take care of. "We'll need to re-register the ship for passenger and cargo flight permits. We can do that on Galatea, and get Lee's parts as well."
She nodded and gave him a small smile. "Galatea it is, Captain."
Galatea was a government planet, most of its surface covered by tall skyscrapers and elegant palaces belonging to high government and military officials. It took a week to get there and as the Byakugan made its way through the atmosphere, Tenten realized there was an issue she had not anticipated. The planet was noisy. There were ships and electrocars and bicycles and hyper-rails and starcrafts and submarines and weaponry of every size and shape imaginable and they were loud. They were not speaking at her, really, but she could hear them murmuring, the sheer number of their voices creating a dull roar in the back of her head. She winced and pulled up her shaky mental shields. She had not had to personally shield herself in a long, long time. There had always been a deficit of voices, never an abundance.
"What is it?" Neji asked. He'd noticed her wince and was watching her carefully. He'd been on high alert ever since they'd entered Galatea's atmosphere though she wasn't sure why.
She smiled sheepishly. "There are machines everywhere here. They're very loud." He frowned but she shook her head. "It's alright. I can block them out somewhat."
Neji didn't look convinced by said nothing else as they docked the ship at Bay 1013 as they had been directed by flight control. Tenten shut off the engines as soon as they touched down and unlocked the cargo and docking bay doors. Neji had told her that the ship would be searched as part of the registration process.
Indeed, by the time she and Neji made it down to the cargo bay, Lee was already speaking with a group of officials, all dressed in the grey uniforms of Alliance military. One looked up as Neji and Tenten joined them and Tenten hesitated, feeling something strange. The man was tall, dark hair pulled back in a spiky tail and before she'd gotten closer had looked rather bored with the proceedings. Now he was looking at her, eyes narrowed, as if trying to figure out a strange puzzle. A touch zipped across her mind, quick and strong, and she blinked, eyes widening.
The man tsked, drawing the attention of his comrades. "You're a Whispered," he said bluntly. The group went quiet, the other officials pausing to look at her. She could feel Neji stiffen at her side.
"So are you," she replied, confused. Whispered were rare, that was true, but she'd learned that there were some who worked for the military, being uniquely beneficial in times of war especially. If they were known here, why was he looking at her so strangely?
"Take her into custody," he ordered abruptly and two of his men immediately marched forward to grab her by the arms. Lee made a noise of protest but next to her, Neji went completely still. He seemed to settle in on himself and the aura she felt from him was as deep and quiet as one of Magdela's mountain lakes. His face was blank and unreadable and she felt cold suddenly. This was Neji on the verge of violence.
"What are you doing, Commander?" Neji's voice was like ice.
The Whispered Commander glanced at him as the two men started to propel her down the steps of the cargo bay towards the outside platform. "She's listed in your flight manifest as your pilot, right? She'll have to go through the registration process and be certified just like anyone else. We keep a close eye on our Whispered. We'll need to document her abilities before she can be released."
Tenten's chest felt tight. She had done all this before. It was flashing before her eyes. She'd been standing on a platform just like this, only she'd been going on to a ship and someone - her mother? - had been crying and Orochimaru had put his hand on her small shoulder. We just need to run some tests.
Trembling, she lashed out before she knew exactly what she was doing. Her mental attack sliced across the Commander's mind and he stumbled to the side, obviously surprised. Immediately the men holding her drew their weapons, the barrel of a plasma gun pushed against her temple. At that range, even she could not manipulate the weapon without hurting herself in the process. Up in the cargo bay, Lee had tackled the official nearest to him while Neji had drawn his own weapon, pointing the gun at the Commander with cold fury across his face.
The Whispered Commander shook his head slightly and straightened. "So troublesome." He called out to the officers holding Tenten. "You there, holster your weapons. And you," his eyes flicked to Neji and Lee, "stand down. No one is going to get hurt here. This is standard procedure. If everything checks out, she'll be released this evening." His gaze came to rest on Tenten and after a moment she nodded jerkily, pulling back behind her weak mental shield again. He was telling the truth, she could feel it. She looked to Neji.
"He's not lying," she said, trying to keep her voice steady. "I'll be alright."
Neji's pale gaze held hers until she was finally pulled out of his sight.
For the most part, the Commander - Shikamaru, she soon learned his name was - had been truthful. She was subjected to a physical, performed by a stern but competent female nurse, and then was asked all sorts of questions about her health history, most of which she didn't know the answer to. She was forced to explain the whiplash scars on her back, the nurse taking notes, and then she'd been ushered into another room where two dull gray-clad officials asked her questions about her Whispered status.
They asked about her abilities, her range and had her manipulate a sample guidance system from a spaceship. Her piloting abilities were graded and then she actually took a handwritten test over space and planet-side flight regulations. She didn't actually know most of those answers but thankfully the sample guidance system that the officers had forgotten to take out of the room did.
She was tense and nervous throughout the long day but the horrible routine-ness of it all actually helped. It was obvious everyone was doing something they had done hundreds of times before and she could not sense any hidden agenda to keep her there against her will.
Shikamaru did come to see her towards the end of the day, slouching lazily against the wall across from her. She was seated behind a desk, dressed in sterile hospital scrubs, and looked at him tiredly. She'd been poked and prodded most of the day and her head was full of noise and multiple choice questions. She wanted nothing more than to be back on the Byakugan where she belonged.
"So, Orochimaru, huh?" he said suddenly, and she jerked in response. She didn't reply and Shikamaru sighed. "You know, there could be a life for you here. Plenty of us go into the military. Lots of ships need flying."
"I have a ship," she said quietly. He looked at her as if trying to puzzle her out again.
"I've seen the inside of that ship," he said. "It's not built to allow for a Whispered."
Her eyebrows drew together. "What do you mean?" She'd been flying it just so fine so far.
"It's all manual control. As a Whispered you could fly that ship with your mind if it was properly fitted with a interface console." He looked down at his fingernails, rubbing them absently against his uniform. "Might be you could find one at a shipyard here somewhere. Lots of salvaged military ships would have one."
She blinked, trying to read him, and then smiled slightly. "Thank you," she said gratefully.
He nodded once, decisively, and started for the door, only to stop at the threshold to look back over his shoulder at her. "My offer stands if something changes," he said firmly. "The world could always use more like us."
"Thank you," she repeated, and meant it. He opened the door.
"I believe you got a few people waiting on you," he drawled and motioned at her. Realizing she was finally done, she got up quickly, almost tripping over the chair as she hurried out of the room and into the hallway where she was abruptly clobbered by Lee who somehow wrapped around her like an octopus.
"Tenten!" he exclaimed in her ear. "We've been waiting all day! We were worried."
She laughed, she couldn't help herself, and hugged him back. "I'm okay. They've finished with me." She caught sight of Neji over Lee's shoulder and saw her captain relax upon seeing her. She offered him a weary smile. "I'm alright," she repeated, for him, and he nodded.
She was back where she belonged.
It was pure luck that they actually found one of the interface consoles that Shikamaru had mentioned at one of Galatea's salvage yards. It was a oblong thing and looked like a high tech sleeping capsule. It was made of a sturdy sort of transparent blue plastic lined with a network of computer chips. At the head of the bed was a bundle of wires that would connect with the ship's mainframe and she and Lee studied it intensely once they had the bed onboard. She had never used one of these before but in theory she understood the purpose. Once inside the capsule could basically download her mind right into the ship's computerized nervous system, allowing her to become the ship in a fashion. Used her Whispered abilities, she'd be able to be everywhere in the ship at once and she'd be able to fly it with merely a thought. The prospects were exhilarating.
Neji was not so convinced however. She knew he was concerned that they were basically flying blind in this since none of them really knew how to operate the bed or what the side effects of using it could be. In short, he was worried. It made her feel warm inside and she did her best to do what she could to ease him. She researched what she could and, as they were still parked on Galatea, she talked with as many ships as she could get away with, seeing what she could find out. She thought she remembered these cocoon-capsules too, vague memories of at least seeing one before but she knew for certain she had never operated one, and that was the sticking point. Still, Neji did not try and dissuade them and she and Lee hooked up the interface bed in a small, unused room on the Byakugan, Tenten wiring it into the mainframe herself. If it failed, it would be no one's fault but hers.
Thankfully, it didn't fail.
The cover of the capsule slid back and she looked up at Neji with sleepy eyes.
"It worked," she said happily.
From that time on she got used to melding with the ship, learning to operate within the ship's 'mind', how to better protect her crew and passengers as they flew across the galaxy. They took passengers rarely, usually only to make ends meet, but when they did they were very careful not to let any of them close to the "weapons" room, as they were calling her interface room. Neji had installed an eye scan on the door so only the three of them could enter, and when the passengers heard her voice over the intercom system, they merely assumed she was sitting on the bridge in the pilot's chair, flying the ship as anyone else would.
They had carved out a bit of happiness for themselves, moving cargo and people across worlds, and Tenten found freedom in making the Byakugan come alive. Even Neji seemed better, fewer nightmares. They'd never spoken of the night she had sang him to sleep and she didn't think they needed to. It was something special between the two of them. He had needed her and she had come to him, just as he had done for her so many times before.
All was going well, until Rahavra.
It was a desert planet and a little out of their way, but they'd stopped there to pick up three passengers on their way to Galatea for some sort of summit or something that was being held there. One was a senator and the other two were his bodyguards. The two guards came armed onboard the ship, something Neji didn't like, but since the senator had immunity there was not much he could do about it. Lee bustled their passengers into the passenger wing to get them settled and Tenten entered the interface room to set them on course for Galatea. She didn't need to fly the ship via the capsule but she was still learning and this long trip was a good chance to see how much time she could spend interfaced without too much of a drain on her body. Even using hyperflight, which they could only do sparingly as the Byakugan did not have the power for a sustained flight in hyperspace, it would still take about five days to reach Galatea.
It was on the night of the third day that things went from good to bad.
Tenten was in her capsule and was floating near the bridge while simultaneously checking on the electrical readings when she felt it. It was like part of her brain just powered down out of nowhere, her thoughts slowing and creaking to a halt. She felt drained, like time was standing still but she was still moving at speed, struggling to process.
It felt like she was having a stroke.
She had never before felt pain while interfaced with the ship and she panicked, thrashing. An alarm sounding in her ear broke her out of it. Life-support was off line. The engine. She wasn't having a stroke, the engine had powered down for some reason, and without power from the engine, several systems had shut off, including life-support. There was a backup power system however and she hurried to switch over the vital systems, relaxing when she heard the hiss of oxygen released into the cabins again. The engine was still dead, however, they could not fly anywhere. What had happened? All external sensors were clear, they had not been fired upon. It had to have come from within.
She flew through circuitry to the engine room to find the door open and one of the engine panels removed, revealing a missing capacitor. Without it, the engine could not turn over. She shifted, turning, and found a man standing in the corner of the room. He had the missing engine part in his hand and a gun pointed at the security camera she was looking through.
"Hello there," one of the senator's guards said softly, grinning, and fired at the camera.
It was like getting shot in the eye.
She screamed, momentarily blinded, and alarms sounded all over the ship in reaction to her distress. More shots were fired, more cameras exploded and she writhed in pain inside her plastic cocoon, sobbing. The assault on her senses was relentless, as if the guard knew exactly just how and when to hurt her to leave her immobilized.
He knows what I am.
"Hello, Miss Whispered." The senator's voice echoed across her pain. There was only one internal camera still working. It was the one on the bridge. She looked through it and felt her heart clench.
The senator, although apparently that's not actually what he was, and his two guards were holding Neji and Lee at gunpoint. Lee looked rumpled and angry but unhurt. He had been asleep when the attack came. Neji, however, was bleeding from several cuts, one of them over his eye that dripped blood down the side of his face. He seemed a little hunched too, as if he'd been kicked in the stomach or taken a few punches to his ribs. His expression was one of cold fury.
"What do you want?" She spoke through the intercom system and winced at the roughness of her voice. Neji stiffened when he heard it and Lee's expression darkened.
"Ah. There you are," the senator said, smiling. "I'm glad to see I've gotten your attention. Now, we can do this the easy way or the hard way, little Whispered. I don't want to have to shoot your crew here but I will if you decide to give us trouble." One of his men set the barrel of a gun against the side of Lee's head. "The Torturer has placed a bounty on your head, did you know?" the senator continued, almost conversationally. He was a bounty hunter then, thinking to claim whatever reward Orochimaru had promised anyone who could bring her in. "You must have royally pissed him off because it's a fairly generous sum, one I would dearly like to collect." The bounty hunter leaned forward, his voice turning serious. "I'll only say this once. I'm going to have my man here return the piece he took from your engine and you are going to fire up the ship again and fly us directly to Orochimaru's compound, where you are going to hand yourself over nice and pretty without a fuss or your friend here is going to die and I'm going to throw your captain out of the airlock. Do you understand?"
She was barely breathing. What could she do? The gun was too close to Lee's head. If she tried anything, the man holding it might fire by accident. And Neji... she had no delusions that the fake senator wouldn't do exactly as he said.
She swallowed hard. "I understand."
The bounty hunter smiled. "You understand... what?"
Anger swelled in her. "I understand, Captain."
"Good girl. Now get us underway."
There was nothing she could do. As soon as the missing part was returned to the engine, she fired it up and plotted a course to the Sound, Orochimaru's terrifying compound. To be going back there felt like dying a little. The pain she felt from the damage to the ship was nothing compared to knowing where she was headed.
She was starting to feel sluggish. She'd been interfaced with the ship for a full eight hours without breaking for food or drink and her physical body was weakening. She needed to rest but if she disengaged from the ship, she'd be even weaker than she was now. She wasn't even sure she'd be able to get out of the interface bed without help. At least if she was connected to the ship she had the power of the Byakuganat her fingertips and she could keep an eye on Neji and Lee. She was worried about the two of them. Lee's righteous anger had been growing as he grew more and more upset at the situation. He was sporting a black eye now and looking unrepentant. He would try something soon, she thought. Neji's wounds had stopped bleeding but he'd actually fallen asleep kneeling on the floor and one of the guards had had to kick him awake. She worried that he had suffered a head wound at some point and needed to be seen to.
What could she do though? She'd been interfaced too long, her thoughts seem to flicker all over the place. If she stayed much longer, would she get lost inside the ship? Would her body become just a dry husk, her mind forever locked inside the Byakugan?
Even as she thought this, something happened on the bridge. She forced herself to focus and found that Lee had made his move. He'd thrown himself bodily at one of the guards, the two of them grappling on the floor. Neji had taken the other, both of them locked in a battle for the gun the guard held in his hand. The bounty hunter seemed shocked for a moment at their boldness but recovered and went to draw his gun.
The gun activated and fired while still in its holster, shooting a laser burst through the fake senator's foot and into the floor. The bounty hunter yelled in pain and fell over, clutching his foot. She Whispered and the gun fired again, this time hitting his thigh. He screamed and fumbled at his side, finally realized it was the gun he had to deal with. She Whispered one last time and watched as the gun exploded, tearing a chunk of flesh out of the bounty hunter's side that immediately turned his shirt blood red, a dark puddle spreading on the floor where he lay stunned.
She thought she might have killed him and was glad. She wanted them off her ship. It was suddenly unbearable that they were still there, that a low-life bounty hunter's blood was staining her deck.
The gun Neji and the other guard were grappling with suddenly went off, the plasma charge hitting the side of the piloting console, sending a spray of sparks everywhere. She winced, feeling the hiss and burn of electricity, but was more concerned with Neji. She Whispered and deactivated the gun they were fighting over, shutting it down so that it could not be fired again. Lee had knocked out the guard he'd been fighting with and was rolling up onto his feet, headed towards Neji. They'd be okay in a few seconds and she... she'd...
Things went sort of fuzzy.
She felt very sleepy. If she could just take a little nap she knew she'd be much more helpful. But then again, ships didn't really take naps. Maybe she could just power down for a little bit...
The ship's lights flickered overhead.
She jolted suddenly, unsure of what she was doing. She was so tired. Floating in cyberspace, she wanted only to rest.
I need to get out.
The thought came unbidden and for a long moment she didn't know what it meant. Get out of where? She'd always been here. She was the ship and the ship was her. It was... It was... She struggled. Why was it so hard to think?
The Byakuganbuzzed at her, like an incessant firefly, bright and quick. She frowned and floated away from it. What was she doing again?
The spark of light came racing back at her and pushedand -
Tenten woke gasping, her entire body aching and heavy with exhaustion. She looked up into worried faces, Neji's half covered in blood and Lee's in bruises. The cover of the cocoon had been pried up and off and was missing so that when Neji reached for her with bloody fingers, he could actually touch her. He'd pried the thing off with his hands.
"Tenten," he said her name carefully and slowly, as if he wasn't sure she could hear him. "Are you alright?" His knuckles brushed her cheek.
She blinked. "I...I think so." Already the pain she'd felt while connected with the ship was fading. It hadn't happened to her. Not really. She swallowed and felt immediately how dry her mouth was. She couldn't remember when she'd last had some water. "What about you?" She lifted a hand to touch the line of his jaw while she placed the other on Lee's cheek. It was like lifting dead weight, she was so weary. "Both of you are hurt."
Lee shook his head. "We'll heal. It looks worse than it is." He frowned, looking at her. "Are you sure you're alright? Can you sit up?'
She tried but it was like pushing against a mountain. She had nothing left. "I'm sorry. I don't think so."
Without a word, Neji bent down and slipped an arm underneath her back and under her knees and lifted her against his chest. She rested her head limply against his shoulder, unable even to put her arms around his neck.
"I'll take her to her room. Can you...?" Neji directed a look at Lee who seemed to read his thoughts and nodded immediately.
"I'll take care of it." Lee disappeared and Neji started towards her cabin, walking slowly but steadily and she wondered about his ribs, if he was hurt more than Lee claimed.
"You stayed too long in there," Neji told her as he walked. His voice rumbled underneath her ear. "You could have been lost."
"I didn't know what else to do," she admitted softly. "I didn't want to leave you and Lee to face them alone. I would have been useless out here." Like she was now, barely able to move a muscle.
"Better that than to lose yourself," he replied quietly. They reached her bedroom and she managed to lift a hand to palm the door open for him. He crossed to her bunk and bent down to lay her on it gently. Before he could untangle himself and pull away, she struggled to reach up and touch the side of his face, stilling him instantly.
"I thought we were going back," she murmured sadly, her eyes flickering over his features. "For a little while, I thought..."
He lifted a hand and put it over the one she held to his face, pressing their hands together against his cheek. His long hair slipped over his shoulder as he leaned over her, framing them both. His other hand trailed down the side of her face and buried itself in her own long, dark hair.
"We are never going back," he whispered to her. His eyes did not waver. "Never." His lips descended that final distance and she tilted her head back slightly to meet him. The kiss was soft and undemanding and full of Neji's care for her. He was gentle and she wished she had more energy to kiss him properly but it just wasn't there. Not that night.
When Neji pulled away though, his pale-gray eyes were moon bright, as if the kiss had been everything he'd wanted and more. She smiled at him sleepily. His lips curved slightly in return and he brushed his hand over her forehead.
"Get some rest."
He pulled a blanket over her and she closed her eyes, still feeling the phantom warmth of Neji's kiss against her lips.
When she woke she was warm and lethargic but surprisingly still tired. She must not have been asleep that long. Snuggling into her blanket, she rolled over on her side and almost smacked into Neji. He must have come in a while ago as he was deeply asleep on his back, still fully clothed though the blood had been washed from his face and there was a small bandage on the deep cut over his eye. She watched him for a moment, warm inside at the thought that he had come there and felt comfortable enough to fall asleep without waking her.
Careful not to disturb him, she pulled part of her blanket over him and then curled gently into his side, her forehead pressed against his arm. Exhaling, she left herself drift back to sleep, safe and content.
Space was vast, she had learned. More vast than a human mind - or even a Whispered mind - could understand. Bad things happened, but there was good as well, and every day she reminded herself that sometimes things happened for a reason, even if it wasn't clear at first. She had spent so much time angry and sad and hurt, but if not for all those times she would never have met Neji. She was not grateful to Orochimaru for this, make no mistake, she was grateful that she survived to meet Neji and Lee and the Byakugan.
Of course, nothing could be completely perfect. Her test results from Galatea had very clearly outlined that she was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and, though he hadn't been tested as she had, she was sure Neji suffered from it as well. Still, they had each other, someone who perfectly understood what the other was going through, and they had Lee. Cheerful, determined Lee who was simply happy to have them at all, no matter what shape they were in. And they were getting better. Each day brought new surprises, but it brought new joys as well.
Sitting down in the pilot's chair on the bridge, she sipped on a cup of fresh coffee Lee had brewed for her and idly watched the glittering starfield outside the forward windows. The Byakuganwas quiet but ready, it's power banked but waiting. Typing one handed, she brought up the day's log and skimmed the contents, briefly catching a news clip of a drought on Duvrea. Ships were needed to carry water, food and supplies to the people there. She marked the clip for Neji's attention. Might be something to look into.
She felt him step onto the bridge before she heard him, swiveling in her chair slightly to smile as Neji passed her, his fingers brushing her shoulder.
"So," she said, unable to disguise the simple happiness in her voice. "Where to, Captain?"