Neji smirked at her childish glee at visiting the small town in Tea Country. Despite their wide and varied travels throughout their shinobi career, somehow Team Gai had never managed to get a mission to the small, peaceful country. Perhaps it was because of just that. Tea Country was a peaceful place, almost idyllic, really. Their main export was, obviously, tea, and the people were relatively happy with their government, so there was generally very little unrest or tension.
"Let's go get some tea, Neji!"
The Hyuuga genius, now retired from active duty and serving as the Rokudaime Hokage's advisor for internal affairs, sighed at Tenten's enthusiasm. She too was retired from active duty, now spending her time teaching at the Shinobi Academy.
As they walked down the street of the small town in the Tea Country, passing the small but tidy houses that spoke of a comfortable life, they came to a halt in front of a massive mansion, looking completely out of place among the other houses.
The pair of them surveyed the mansion critically. "I wonder who this house belongs to," Tenten remarked casually. "They must be pretty rich."
"Hn," Neji replied noncommittally. He wasn't too interested in the property of rich, pompous fools.
Something caught Tenten's eye, and she tugged at Neji's sleeve. "Look," she whispered, her attention riveted to what she saw.
Neji turned, following the weapons mistress's eyes. A little girl, about six or seven years old, stood, sweeping the steps of the mansion. The broom was almost as tall as she was, making the task difficult, but she persevered.
"No weeping, no hurt or pain,
No hiding, you hold me now,
You hold me now."
The child's sweet voice carried through the air, a song so pure that even Neji was struck by the song's beauty.
"Who is that?" Tenten asked a nearby bystander, gesturing to the small child.
The man blanched, a reaction that quickly caught the attention of both shinobi. "Ah, er…" he stuttered, clearly hesitant to reply.
"Answer the question," Neji said sternly. He didn't really know why he was so curious about the child, but something, something about her had his full attention.
"Her name is Hotaru," the bystander said, speaking slowly and hesitantly. "She's… an orphan."
An orphan. Just like me. Tenten's heart went out to the dark-haired child. So young, yet forced to live in the world without the comforting guidance of parents. Just like her.
She wondered to herself why she was so struck by the child's plight. She was a shinobi. She had survived a war. She had seen plenty of war orphans. What was it about this one that reminded her so much of herself?
"Who does that mansion belong to, and why is the girl sweeping it like a servant?" Neji's low voice brought her out of her reverie. She refocused on the man Neji was now questioning, interrogating, really.
"Ah…" He was definitely stalling now. "She… that is…"
"Spit it out," Tenten said. Something was wrong. Very wrong.
"The house belongs to Sato-sama," he said quickly. "He's one of the richest men in Tea Country. He has a major monopoly on the tea exports."
"You fear him," Neji observed
"Yes," the man admitted, looking down. "He's rich, so he has enough money to hire bodyguards. There are even rumors that his personal guard is a shinobi. And we never see him around, so nobody really knows what he's like."
This really caught their interest. "And this has to do with Hotaru because…?"
"You see, Sato-sama never officially adopted her. One of his men just appeared at the orphanage one day, accompanied by several others, and asked to see the children. He left with the girl."
"And nobody said anything?" Tenten asked, anger beginning to run through her at the nerve of this Sato man. "How is she treated?"
The man had a shamed look on his face. "Nobody said anything because we're all afraid of him," he said quietly. "As for how she's treated…"
The look on his face told the two shinobi all they needed to know. Tenten tensed, her fists clenching, and Neji's pale eyes narrowed as he turned his gaze towards the girl.
"Go on vacation," Naruto ordered firmly, looking up sternly from his paperwork at the stoic Hyuuga. "You've done more than enough for now."
"The clan affair has yet to be settled, Hokage-sama," Neji replied. "Some of the Main Family members are still dissatisfied with the last arrangement we made with Hiashi-sama. The Caged Bird Seal has been a part of the Hyuuga for generations, as has the division between the Main and the Branch Families. The sudden merging and the abolishing of the Seal will no doubt cause much dissent within the elders."
"Dammit, Neji!" Naruto said loudly. "I thought that this was what you wanted! You were the reason why Hinata and I feel so strongly about this issue, enough that I would pass a decree to fix this situation! And now you're standing here, talking as though it's a terrible plan. What the hell's wrong with you?"
"You misunderstand me, Hokage-sama," Neji said calmly, though he was visibly forcing himself to remain calm. "I am in full support of this plan to merge the clan and abolish the Seal. However, if it will cause the clan to fall into chaos and dissent, I will not stand for it. The unity of the clan comes first. It is far too precious to me. No matter how much I wish to see the Branch members freed from their chains, I have no wish to see my clan destroyed from within."
Naruto looked at him with an inscrutable expression, and Neji realized that, though he began quietly and with the same stoicism he generally projected, he had ended his speech with a voice filled with passion.
He turned away. "Forgive me, Hokage-sama," he said quietly. "I was out of line."
Even as his back was turned, Neji could still feel the Hokage's piercing blue eyes boring into the back of his head. Unconsciously, his hand drifted up to his forehead, touching the forehead protector that covered up the seal that bound him to servitude.
"Don't worry, Neji." The words were spoken so softly, so out of place coming from the loud blonde Hokage's mouth, that Neji spun around to stare at Naruto disbelievingly.
"How can you say that?" The words were out of his mouth before he could stop himself. "I have every right to be worried about this!"
Naruto sighed. "Yes." He looked tired, more tired than his twenty-four years should be. "Yes, you do. But I made a promise, Neji." Blue eyes gazed into pale ones, and Neji saw that same spark of determination that Naruto had during their fight in the Chuunin Exams so many years ago. "And I intend to keep that promise. You will be free, Neji. And the Hyuuga will still be whole once I'm through with this."
Freedom. Something that he had never known. From childhood, he had bore the seal, that which marked him as a member of the Branch Family, unable to go against the flow of fate, the will of the elders. But now, there was no Branch Family. There was no Main Family. There was only Hyuuga.
As the hated seal, one that had been a part of him for so long, faded from his forehead, Neji slumped. He mentally tried to describe the feeling that suffused his being. It was as though a massive weight had been lifted from his shoulders.
He laughed. The sound, so rarely heard, brought smiles to all who witnessed the event. He felt the comforting hands of Lee and Gai on his shoulders, and never in his life had he been so happy to see their bright smiles.
"Congratulations," he heard. Turning his head, he gazed into the eyes of his other teammate, who was in reality far more than just a teammate.
Neji allowed a smile to grace his normally serious face. "Thanks," he said.
"Your eyes," Tenten suddenly said, her smile widening.
Neji stared deep into her brown orbs, seeing himself reflected in her eyes. The long hair, the pale eyes, the bare forehead. "What about them?" he asked.
"I've never seen them so bright."
She stared out of the orphanage window at the people in the streets. A mother and child walked past, and she caught a snippet of their conversation.
"Mommy, mommy, what's that building over there?"
"That's the orphanage, honey."
"It's a place for children who don't have parents, dear."
"But…" the child hesitated, his large eyes wide in curiosity. "Why don't they have parents, mommy?"
Kneeling down, the mother wrapped the child up in her arms, giving him a warm embrace. Tenten's heart ached as she watched, wishing that she were that child, longing for the feeling of a mother's love.
"Maybe I'll tell you when you're older. It's hard to understand."
His cherubic face scrunched up as he considered the thought, and, as small children are prone to do, forgot all about it as he saw the dango stand nearby.
"Mommy, let's go get dango! And we can bring some to daddy too!"
The mother and child's happy laughter were like a shard of glass in Tenten's heart, and a lone tear trickled down her face as she watched the pair walk away.
At that moment, there was nothing Tenten wouldn't have given to be in that child's place, to have a mother who cared for her, a father who loved her, to be happy and carefree, blissfully unaware of the world around her. She would have given anything to be loved.
"Let's go," Neji murmured.
Tenten looked at him. "Go where?" she asked, clearly reluctant to leave the child that she saw so much of herself in.
"To the orphanage," he said, raising an eyebrow. She saw the unasked question in his pale eyes. Where else would we go?
A wide grin spread across her face, and she was barely able to suppress the urge to jump onto Neji and hug him right then and there. Instead, she restrained herself to reaching down and grasping his hand in hers, their fingers intertwined as they made their way down the street, following the directions that the bystander had given them, before all too gratefully disappearing, clearly uncomfortable with the topic of interest.
As they walked down the street, Tenten thanked Neji's foresight of wearing civilian clothes. It was a vacation after all, but a lifetime of training and fighting made them accustomed to the durable clothes that heralded their status as shinobi.
The necessity of remaining anonymous and as nondescript as possible was compounded by the possible presence of a high-level shinobi. Although they had no intelligence whatsoever on the rumored shinobi bodyguard that Sato had hired, they could not discount the possibility that the unknown ninja was a missing-nin. As far as their salaries went, although both Tenten and Neji were fairly well off, passing up an opportunity to collect a nice-sized bounty was a foolish move indeed.
She gazed up at his face, smiling, as she took in his casually tied back long dark hair and – she was still getting used to this – clear forehead. For so long she had gotten used to the presence of a forehead protector, or, in its absence the Caged Bird Seal, that the realization that Neji was finally free gave her chills of happiness.
"Have I ever told you how happy I am for you?" she murmured as they walked hand-in-hand.
Neji gave her a sidelong look and a smirk. "Are you kidding?" he asked, arching one delicate eyebrow.
She laughed brightly. "I love you," she murmured, her grip on his hand tightening.
"Hn," Neji replied, accompanied by a slow curve of the lip. Normally women would be chagrined by the lack of reciprocation, but not Tenten. All she had to do was gaze into his all-seeing white eyes, and she could see all his love reflected back at her.
They stopped in front of a fairly large, though worn, building, described by the sign out front as simply "orphanage".
"This is it," Neji murmured. "Let's go inside and ask around, alright?"
Tenten nodded, and Neji stepped forward, pushing open the rusting gate with a creaky screeching sound. He pressed the doorbell, and the pair stood, patiently waiting, until the door finally opened and a woman, a few years older than themselves, answered.
"Hello," she said. "How can I help you?"
It was Tenten who took the initiative, stepping forward and designating herself as the spokesperson for the pair of them. "Hi," she said, smiling. "We have a few questions about a child here." Given the situation with Sato, she didn't mention Hotaru's name.
"Oh!" the woman said, slightly surprised. "Come on in! My name is Akemi, I'm the assistant director of the orphanage." She led them into a waiting area, where they sat down. "Let me fetch the director," she said, and hurried from the room.
Tenten turned in her seat to look at Neji. "What if they're too afraid of Sato that they won't give us any answers?" she asked quietly, chewing her lip in mild worry.
"It won't matter in the end," Neji said. "The man is taking advantage of his wealth and power to enforce child labor. That's against the law. If we decide to arrest him, he can't do anything about it. I am concerned about this rumored shinobi bodyguard, though. We do not know anything about him."
"We'll improvise," Tenten said confidently. "That usually works out pretty well for us."
They stopped their conversation as Akemi returned, with an older man whose wrinkles lined his kind face and gave him an aged, wizened look.
"Good morning," the man said as Akemi bowed and left. "My name is Daisuke, and I'm the director of the orphanage. Now, I understand that you have questions about one of the children? Which one? I'm curious as to how you came into contact with any of them."
Tenten leaned forward and said, without hesitation, "We're curious about Hotaru."
Daisuke didn't flinch or pale, as the bystander had. "I understand," he said slowly. "You are visitors, then. It is understandable that you don't quite comprehend the situation that I, and the rest of the orphanage staff, find ourselves in regarding young Hotaru."
Neji cut in. "We understand enough," he said, a little harshly, though the director didn't react at his tone of voice. "We understand that there is a child who is suffering needlessly at the hands of a man who abuses his power and wealth. We understand that she is chained to a dark fate of servitude and slavery."
Daisuke sighed wearily, rubbing a hand against his temples. "Then you understand that we can do nothing about it," he said. "Sato is the one responsible for our town's financial success. If he so chooses to take Hotaru as a servant, what can we do? Without Sato, our town cannot survive. Sadly, loathe as I am to admit it, we cannot help Hotaru. Her fate is sealed."
"That is where you are wrong," Neji said firmly, and Tenten smiled at the determination she saw in his eyes. "With the help of others, her fate can be changed." A wry smile crossed his face. "I would know from experience, after all."
Daisuke nodded gravely. "Very well," he said. "I will tell you what you wish to know. However, I'm sorry to say that apart from information, we have little to offer in assistance."
"That's alright," Tenten said. "We can handle it. We're shinobi, after all."
"In addition to the small army of bodyguards, rumors are that Sato has also hired a high-level shinobi, possibly a missing-nin, as protection. Nobody knows this shinobi's name or what he looks like. There are only rumors, you see."
"I see my reputation precedes me," a new voice suddenly said. Neji and Tenten leapt out of their seats, whirling to face the newcomer. The owner of the voice stood casually behind them, hands crossed across his chest.
Tenten took in his appearance. Lithe but strong, flexible and agile, judging by muscle tone. A well-rounded shinobi then. Her eyes flicked to his forehead, gazing at the scratched forehead protector. A missing-nin, as they had suspected. The symbol of Iwagakure, the village hidden in the stone, was marred by a single strikethrough, symbolizing the shinobi's renouncing of loyalty.
"Komura Shosuke," Neji's voice said quietly. "A-ranked missing-nin from Iwagakure, worth a bounty of 20 million ryo."
"Heh, that's right," the shinobi said with a small grin. "Looks like Konoha's bingo books are pretty up to date. A-rank, though? Never thought I could merit such a high reward. Guess that just goes to show what can happen if you betray your village."
"Your attitude is abhorrent," Neji said, disdain heavy in his voice. "We will kill you and claim the bounty for Konoha."
Observing Neji's taijutsu stance and the scrolls that appeared in Tenten's hands, Komura cackled. "Konoha, huh. A Hyuuga and a weapons user. Wonder what you're doing all the way out here in Tea Country."
"That's none of your business," Tenten snapped, her hands itching to fling open the sealing scrolls and send a hail of steel at the missing-nin.
He sighed. "That's unfortunate," he said, drawing a wakizashi from its sheath on his back, the steel gleaming in the artificial light. "I don't particularly have any quarrel with you, but Sato-sama wants me to eliminate you two, so I guess I'll just have to do it."
Tenten's eyes narrowed, and she let her hands relax a bit, allowing for the scrolls to unravel slightly. "Sato wants us dead? Why is that?"
Wagging a finger, the missing-nin tsked. "Ah, now that would be telling. And I'm afraid Sato-sama has been too kind to me for me to betray him like that."
"Then we have no more words," Neji said. "However, we should take the fight away from the orphanage, if you would please."
Komura shrugged. "That's fine with me. I don't have any quarrel with the kids or the people here. My orders are to keep you from prying into Sato-sama's business and Hotaru-chan."
Tenten and Neji looked at each other at the hint the missing-nin had just dropped. Whether it was an accident or done purposefully they didn't know, but this changed things. It meant that Komura, and Sato, were standing between them and Hotaru.
Tenten looked Komura straight in the eyes. "Let's go."
Neji panted, wiping sweat from his forehead. Komura had been a formidable opponent, even for two jonin. In addition to be skilled at using the wakizashi, Komura had also been an adept genjutsu user, to the point where using illusions to fight seemed almost second nature. Deactivating his Byakugan and looking away from the immobile body of the Iwa missing-nin, he turned his attention to Tenten. "You alright?" he questioned.
"Yeah," she grimaced, clutching her left arm, where Komura had landed a direct hit with his wakizashi, scoring a deep gash along her forearm. She winced as she tried to wrap a strip of bandage around the wound, cursing as the cloth slipped again and again.
She felt a warm hand on her shoulder, and she turned to see Neji, who had dropped to his knees next to her. "Here," he murmured, taking the bandage from her hand. "Let me help."
Biting her lip to avoid wincing from the pain, she allowed him to tie the bandage around her wound. Neji slipped his shoulder under her arm, helping her stand.
Nodding to the body lying on the ground, Neji said, "I don't have a sealing scroll with me. Care to do the honors?"
"Sure," Tenten said. Walking over, she spread out an empty scroll on the ground and made a few hand signs. With a cloud of smoke, the missing-nin's body was soon sealed inside the scroll, which was then tucked into Tenten's handbag, in which several other scrolls were hidden.
It was never a good idea for a shinobi to go unarmed, even if they were in civilian clothes. It was okay for Neji, since he fought primarily with taijutsu, but for a weapons user like Tenten, she had to make do.
"Let's go," Neji said.
She gave him a shaky smile, trying to ignore the throbbing pain in her arm, and they set out together back into town.
The streets were empty, the residents probably taking cover as the sounds of their battle reached the town. Neji strode boldly up to the door of Sato's mansion, unfazed by the extravagance that would intimidate a lesser man, and lifted the heavy brass knocker, letting it fall with a loud bang against the door.
After a several minutes of waiting, the door finally creaked open a sliver, and a muffled voice from inside called out, "I'm sorry, Sato-sama is not taking visitors at the moment."
Before the door could be shut in their faces, Neji had shoved a kunai into the gap, preventing it from being closed. "We have business with Sato, and you're going to let us in to conduct it."
"Trust me," Tenten called, "you don't want to refuse us."
After a moment's hesitation, the door opened wider, revealing a very large, muscular man with a pair of swords strapped to his back. "I said," he growled, "Sato-sama is not taking visitors."
Perhaps the man, clearly not a shinobi, was hoping that his appearance would intimidate the unwanted guests. Unfortunately for him, all it did was create a large enough opening for Neji to half-step into the mansion, sending a quick, precise jab into the base of his skull.
The thug collapsed to the floor, and Neji rolled the unconscious body away from the door and opened it wide enough for him and Tenten to step in.
"Impatient, are we?" Tenten teased as she walked over the bodyguard.
"I'm channeling Naruto," Neji said nonchalantly as he and the kunoichi continued their way through the main entryway of the massive building. "This is the kind of thing he would do, anyway."
Tenten giggled softly. Even though Naruto was older and wiser (hopefully), and the Hokage, barging into someone's house to save an enslaved child would be something he would do indeed.
She tilted her head slightly, allowing the arrow to whistle through the air an inch away from her ear. Looking up, she saw a line of archers standing on the gilded balcony, bows drawn and trained.
"This is your final warning!" one of them, apparently their leader, called down. "Leave, before we use deadly force!"
Tenten snorted. As if. "I'll take the ones on the left," she said out of the corner of her mouth. Not waiting to acknowledge her partner's response, she was already away.
With a quick burst of chakra to her feet, she propelled herself up and sideways, dodging the first wave of arrows. Landing in a crouch against the side of the wall, she flicked her wrists, a pair of kunai dropping into her waiting palms from their concealed sheaths inside her sleeves. Pausing only to hurl them through the air, she was off again, ducking and rolling to avoid the arrows that thudded into the floor and walls.
Neji didn't bother dodging the projectiles that were fired at him. Instead, he settled into the familiar stance of the Gentle Fist. With a small pulse of chakra to his eyes, he activated the kekkai genkai that the Hyuuga Clan was renowned for. "Byakugan!"
As the arrows came raining down, he moved. With almost 360 degrees of vision, Neji simply deflected each and every arrow that came at him with his hands, ignoring the ones that would miss. Tiny jerks of his palms and small bursts of chakra redirected each arrow just enough so that they would bury themselves into the ground at his feet without even scratching him.
Tenten flung another pair of kunai before rolling out of the way, ducking behind a pillar. Hearing the thud of arrows, she chanced a quick look out. A grin spread across her face as she saw her partner, hands mere blurs to the untrained eye. "Showoff," she muttered fondly, before jumping away again, two more kunai flashing through the air as she did so.
"Mercenaries," Neji said with disdain, nudging an unconscious archer with his foot. Said mercenaries were lying, sprawled, across the balcony, small red marks on their necks marking where Neji had hit their chakra points, immobilizing them and rendering them harmless.
"Shame I had to cut all their bowstrings," Tenten muttered, running a hand over the smooth wood of one of the curved weapons. "Some of these are actually pretty well-made."
Each of Tenten's kunai had hit their intended target, but not one of the archers bore so much as a scratch. Instead, the wall behind was littered with the throwing knives, and each archer's bow sported a brand new severed bowstring.
"And you call me a showoff," Neji said, raising an eyebrow at the show of the precision and accuracy.
Tenten snorted. "Let's just go," she said, gesturing for him to lead the way with his Byakugan.
He obliged. "This way," he said, turning and striding down one of the many hallways that branched out from the entryway.
They made their way through the mansion, easily and non-lethally dispatching the bodyguards and mercenaries that tried to stop them. Causing any bodily harm would possibly provoke a war, and that was the last thing either shinobi wanted.
Finally, they reached a pair of ornate double doors, with more guards than they had seen before. Still, they posed no problem as the two jonin shinobi went to work. As the last of the bodyguards fell unconscious around them, Tenten turned to Neji.
"Care to do the honors?" she asked.
He said nothing, but instead simply took a stance. "Eight Trigrams Empty Palm!"
Chakra rocketed out of his hands and smashed into the door, blowing them inward. The two shinobi rushed inside and were greeted by a small, richly clad older man sitting behind a desk.
The man, obviously Sato, looked at the shinobi in surprise and a hint of fear. "Yes?" he asked. "Can I help you? Clearly you want something from me, or you would not have fought through my bodyguards to come here."
Tenten clenched her fist as she looked at the man who dared to condemn a little girl to a life of servitude. How could he act so nonchalant about such a serious matter?
"Komura Shosuke is dead," Neji said bluntly. "He was a missing-nin wanted for betraying his village and murdering one of his fellow shinobi."
Sato remained fairly calm at this revelation, although his facial expression showed some shock. "Ah," he said, recovering fairly quickly. "He did not inform me of that fact when he offered himself for hire. I suppose that I must thank you for taking care of the problem. Speaking of which," he said, looking from one shinobi to the other, "who exactly are you?"
"Officially, we're shinobi from Konoha," Neji replied calmly, relaxing out of his Gentle Fist stance. Tenten did the same, slipping the pair of kunai in her grasp back into their hidden sheaths under her sleeves. "However, we are not on a mission. We were visiting this village for our vacation, and came across Komura while we were here. Having recognized him from his profile in our bingo book, we fought and killed him before coming here after learning that he was under your employ."
Sato nodded thoughtfully, stroking his chin. "Indeed," he said. "But I sense that there is a deeper reason behind your coming to talk to me. Am I wrong?"
"No," Tenten said. "We're here about Hotaru."
"Who?" Sato asked, a blank look of confusion on his face.
"Don't play dumb!" Tenten snapped. "The little girl that you took from the orphanage and basically enslaved! How cruel are you that you don't even know her name?"
Sato frowned deeply. "I'm afraid I have no idea who you speak about. I have never been to the orphanage in this town. In fact, I rarely leave my house. Komura Shosuke was the one who has been taking care of my business for the past few years. You see, I managed to attain my wealth through hard work, and I decided a few years ago to retire and spend the rest of my days relaxing. I hired Komura to oversee the affairs of my shipping business, as well as to provide security."
"So you've barely even stepped out of your mansion for the past few years, instead allowing a traitor missing-nin to take care of business for you?" Tenten asked, eyes narrowed. "Doesn't seem like the best of ideas to me."
"Indeed," Sato admitted. "In hindsight, it does appear to be so. However, I did not know that Komura was a missing-nin when I hired him. It appears that he has been doing things himself under the guise of my command, which are not necessarily things that I would order him to do. I would never dream of ordering him to kidnap a child from an orphanage and force her to work as a servant. It goes against my very moral standards!"
"Hn," Neji acknowledged. "You are feared by the villagers because of your wealth and power, as well as the fact that you employ a small army of guards, and even shinobi. They did not approve of you apparently kidnapping and enslaving a child, but they dared not take any action."
Sato sighed heavily. "It appears that by isolating myself from the matters of my estate, I have allowed many grievous things to happen. I am at fault for these things, then. By allowing Komura to do what he wished, I indirectly caused this to happen." A look of shame crossed his face.
"What's done is done," Tenten said. "But it's not to late to fix things. There are still things that you can do to make this situation better. Where would Hotaru stay in this mansion?"
"Most likely the servants' quarters," Sato said. A determined gleam entered his eyes, and he stood up from his desk. "Come," he said, already halfway out the decimated doorway, beckoning to the shinobi. "I'll show you. I wish to make things right. As I see it, addressing the issue that brought the two of you here is as good a place to start as any."
Neji and Tenten exchanged satisfied glances before following the man down the hallway.
"I see that Komura was quite busy while I was in retirement," Sato muttered, gingerly stepping over an unconscious guard. "I do not recognize any of these men, and before I retired I handpicked all my security personnel. They were all assigned to the caravans that exported tea, though. It seems that Komura decided to build up his own personally army, in case I ever decided to come out of retirement, I suppose. And then he could simply take control of the company if I wished for him to stop what he was doing." The rich merchant's face was slightly pale. "It seems that I have to thank you two shinobi again," he said. "You saved me quite a bit of grief."
"Let's just keep walking," Tenten said sternly. She hadn't quite forgiven Sato for everything that he had caused, even if the man's only crime was to do nothing. Neji said nothing as he walked beside them, his Byakugan activated in case any of the hired thugs tried something.
Finally, they reached a door. "This is the entrance to the servants' quarters," Sato explained. "If this child you speak of was taken by Komura, she would be here."
"Open it," Tenten ordered.
Making his way through the sleeping quarters of the various servants, Neji led the way, his Byakugan telling him where to go. "In here," he said tersely as they reached a small door at the end of the narrow hallway.
Tenten was about to open the door when she noticed Sato staring at it strangely. "What's wrong she asked."
"Damn that Komura!" Sato cursed, showing more emotion in his outburst than the two shinobi had seen before. "How could he?"
"What is it?"
"This is the broom closet." His voice was shaking with barely restrained anger.
That was enough. Tenten yanked on the handle, flinging the door wide open to reveal a tiny space, stuffed with a small futon, a single bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling. There was a small figure curled up on the futon, which sat up, blinking at the sudden intrusion of privacy.
"Have I done something wrong?"
The fear in the girl's voice and the flinch she gave sent rage and righteous fury through Tenten's blood, and she struggled not to snarl in anger at the person who would treat a young child that she would react in such a way. Instead, she smiled an honest, comforting smile as she thought about the child singing.
"No," she said, her voice soft and kind. "You haven't done anything wrong, sweetie."
"Then…" Hotaru's voice quivered. "Why are you here? Who… who are you?"
"I'm Tenten, and this is Neji," the kunoichi introduced herself. "We're here to take you away from this place." She bit her lip, afraid that the way she had phrased it would scare her, but it turned out that she had nothing to worry about.
The look in the child's eyes was hesitant, as if she couldn't believe what Tenten had said. But as she continued to stare into the weapon's mistress's warm dark brown eyes, a visible, tangible change came over her.
Hotaru's eyes grew moist, brightness flooding into her previously dull dark eyes. Her body, tensed as if in expectation of a sharp blow, relaxed, and an expression of utter relief came over her face.
"Really?" The hope in that one word, the child's expression as she looked up at Tenten, was enough to cause Tenten to crouch down and fold the girl into a tight embrace.
"Yes," she murmured comfortingly. "Really."
Looking up with wide eyes, Hotaru asked, "Are you going to be my mommy? I've never had a mommy before."
Tenten felt her eyes begin to tear up. For a moment, she imagined herself as Hotaru, and her own warm comforting arms to be another's, someone who she wished had done the same for her when she was a child, orphaned and alone. She quickly snapped out of it, though. The past was gone, and she couldn't go back. But what she could do was to give the child that she was embracing the love and warmth that she never had as a child herself.
Neji watched Tenten hug Hotaru, and a small smile crept across his face. He didn't know what Tenten was seeing in the little girl, but he had some idea. On the other hand, all Neji could see was a beautiful baby bird, born into captivity, whose cage had just been opened.
"Are you going to be my daddy then?" The innocent voice drew Neji's attention, and he looked at Hotaru. The girl met his gaze evenly, not flinching at the strange, pupil-less pale eyes. He felt his usual wall crumble, and a warm feeling filled his chest. In that instant, even without Tenten's encouraging look, Neji knew what to say.
"Yes." The word, said strongly and with conviction, caused Hotaru to squeal aloud in joy, the most open show of emotion yet. She squirmed in Tenten's arms, and Tenten released her. Bounding towards the tall shinobi that was to be her father, Hotaru leapt into his waiting arms.
In the midst of the heartwarming scene, nobody noticed Sato turn and leave, a smile also gracing his face. He would take care of the adoption papers for the new happy family, allowing them to leave the Tea Country without mishap. In the coming weeks, he would make a brisk walk part of his daily routine, socializing with the villagers, and disseminating his wealth to the needy. Never again would a travesty like this happen due to his negligence again.
"Come on," Tenten murmured, allowing Hotaru to end her embrace with Neji. "Let's go home."
"Home?" Hotaru asked, cocking her head in childlike curiosity. "Where is home? Will I like it there? Will there be other kids for me to play with?" The questions bubbled out of her mouth like a babbling stream, and Tenten laughed.
"Why don't you come with us and find out?"
So this story plot popped into my head, and I just had to write it. I hope you enjoyed it. Please review or favorite if you would please, and thank you for reading.