The nightmare always began the same way. Only the ending ever changed.
She started out watching the family. They had come to visit the village - a mother, father, older brother and a young girl. The toddler was so excited. There were so many new things to see and smell and touch here, not like at home. Ni-san had let the girl try some of the lunch the father bought for him from a stall, something wriggly on a stick. It was rubbery and spicy, so the toddler spat it out. She smiled coyly at the people who came to her parents’ cart to look at the shiny metal things Daddy made. She knew she wasn’t supposed to touch the things... they were sharp. It was a very exciting, busy day and soon the girl fell asleep very soundly.
It was here that the scene shifted. She was no longer watching the little girl, she was the little girl. The sky glowed dull orange, and burning buildings spat vivid embers into the night sky. It looked like Daddy’s forge back home when he was working. Mommy was holding her and running. Daddy was running, pulling Ni-san behind. People were screaming. Even worse her family had changed. She knew who everyone was by what they were wearing, but their faces were now featureless, round and smooth, like an egg.
A shadow fell over them. She looked up and there was a huge monster towering over the buildings. Red eyes gleamed, slaver dribbled from pointed fangs, and nine burning tails lashed at the sky. The monster roared and slammed down one huge clawed foot. The shockwave picked up everything in its path and tossed it into the air. As she was torn from the warm safe hands that held her, the child heard Mommy screech in anguish.
Dust stung her eyes and made her sneeze. Tears mixed with snot ran in long streamers from her chin. Her arm hurt. Her leg hurt. Mommy and Daddy and Ni-san were being carried away by the huge hand-like paw. People were running by yelling and shouting. The monster’s huge head paused in the sky, staring at the toddler with an evil gaze that burned like fire. Its jaws opened wide and then swooped down...
Tenten jolted awake, blankets flying away as she thrashed against the remnants of her nightmare. It took her a long while to calm down. That dream again. She always had that dream when her life got stressful.
She always imagined that leaving the Konoha Group Home for Orphaned Children would be more of a happy occasion. I mean who could possibly miss this dump with its cruel bullies, indifferent adults, crappy food and dubious sanitation. Ever since she found out that upon graduating from the Academy, she was guaranteed her own private living quarters, Tenten had been counting down the days.
And here she was... Day zero... The first new day of the rest of her life.
She forced herself up and out of bed. She checked the padlock on her foot locker before heading down the hall for the common bathroom. She knew from experience how much she should trust the others. She splashed some water on her face and quickly brushed her teeth. The sleep was starting to fade away and she was beginning to feel some excitement mixed in with her apprehension.
This was the only home she’d known. She had been found wandering about the streets in the aftermath of the Nine Tailed Fox attack. No parents came to claim her. No relatives or neighbors recognized her. No one knew the first thing about her. She had been admitted to Konoha hospital as Female: 18 months old, Eyes/Hair brown/brown. She was entered into the orphanage system with the same identifier.
There were many children like her. Too many for the system to handle. Somewhere amid all the chaos, someone with authority had watched her running about and jotted the name Tenten down into a log book. She had no idea why they had thought that would be a good name for her, but it stuck. She looked at herself in the mirror for the hundred thousandth time and idly wondered if the name suited her face.
She spat, rinsed, and headed back down the hall. It was silly to wonder about that, of course. She would still be the same if her name was completely different.
The other girls were still sleeping. She opened her foot locker as quietly as she could and double checked her meager belongings. It was all still there. She dressed in her best shirt and pants and quickly brushed out her hair. Styling her hair was second nature to her now, her fingers darted through weaving the braids, and then spun them into two tight buns. She always felt stronger, more focused when her hair was tightly bound like that.
She put away her toiletries and shouldered her pack. The last thing she did was pick up was her Hitai-ate headband. She gently touched the leaf symbol stamped in the steel before slipping it into one of the side pockets on her pack. She didn’t want to put it on... not just yet. She looked one last time around the room, and slipped down the stairs.
She wasn’t quiet enough. Nobuko-san stood at the bottom of the landing dressed in a tattered old robe, sourly glaring up at her. Of all the guardians of the group home, Nobuko was the one she most wanted to avoid. “Why are you making so much noise this early in the morning?”
Nobuko had a cruel sense of humor, and no sense of justice. She seemed to take delight in pitting the various orphans against each other. She seemed to try to make their upbringing as harsh as possible. Some of the children suspected that she was up to something more sinister. There were rumours that she was selling the orphans off to someone. A few of the older boys claimed to have seen her talking late one night with a pair of masked, hooded figures. The next morning, Satoshi, a pale skinned boy known for his drawing abilities, had disappeared. Tenten didn’t believe that story, and figured that the older children were trying to frighten her... But that didn't mean that she trusted the old hag.
Tenten tried to be polite, really, she did. She bowed. “I’m sorry Nobuko-san, I didn’t mean to wake you. I simply wanted to get an early start that’s all.”
The older woman raised an eyebrow. “Early start? Whatever for?”
Tenten sighed and held up her forehead protector. “The Academy graduation exam was yesterday. They are going to assign the teams this morning.”
Nobuko-san scowled and took a step back, blocking the entrance to the dining hall. “There’s no breakfast for early risers,” she snapped.
Tenten ignored the matron’s barbs and got her boots on. “I was planning to get something on the way. I didn’t want to be a bother.”
“Be a bother?” sneered Nobuko. “Hah! More like you wanted to sneak away without thanking me for all the hardship I’ve had to put up with over the years because of you ! Well, before you start thinking you’re too good for us, ‘Miss genin’, just remember: You tried to leave once before but in the end you had to come crawling back!” Tenten bit her lip but refused to make a sound. Nobuko watched her warily. “Well? Still have nothing to say? Fine.” said Nobuko testily.” I know plenty of others who could use a bed. I expect you to find another place to sleep tonight.”
Tenten stepped into the street, letting the door swing closed behind her. Her lips were a thin hard line. “Don’t worry,” she muttered, tying the Hitai-ate headband tightly around her head. “I wouldn’t come back here if you paid me.”
Five hours later, she stepped into her new apartment, kicked open the futon mat and collapsed onto it, feeling more despondent than ever. Not about the apartment... It was small, whoever had it last had never dusted, and an abandoned container of yogurt in the refrigerator was now a colony of rainbow colored mold. Aside from all that, the apartment was a dream.
It was her new squad. That was the problem.
She had walked into her old classroom ready for anything. One by one, all the names were called. At the end of the selection process she found herself sitting in a small group with Neji Hyuga and Rock Lee.
She stole a glance at her newly selected teammates, wondering how well this would work out. Lee was sitting upright in rapt attention, listening to their old sensei prattle on about duty and honor. In the Academy he had been completely hopeless in everything. He tried hard and meant well, but it was obvious he had no business being a ninja.
Neji was the polar opposite. He was a genius. Everything he tried he did effortlessly. He was first in their class in almost everything. But while Lee was filled with a buoyant optimism that bordered on the obnoxious, Neji was cool, aloof and treated everyone with an air of disdain. He seemed to especially single out Tenten with a double helping of his scorn. She suspected it was because she the only one to ever beat one of his scores. It had been a windy day, and the shuriken were catching every last gust. At the end of the exam there were only two students who hit the targets with all their shuriken. Tenten had the tighter grouping and the higher score was awarded to her. All the students gathered round to congratulate her... all but Neji. She watched him slowly stalk away. She was trying to convince herself that being on a team with these two couldn’t be too bad when her new sensei burst through the door.
Really... he literally burst through the door. One moment Pazu-sensei was droning on about how their new squad captains would be picking them up shortly, and the next thing she knew the classroom door exploded in a hail of splinters. An athletic man in green tights stood in the middle of the swirling wreckage. He posed and gave the gawking students a grin. “My, my Pazu-san... What a splendid group of shinobi have graduated this year.” He spoke in the slick tones of an eager salesman. “I’d like to apologize in advance for the heart rending disappointment the rest of you students must feel, but alas... There is only one beautiful blue beast of Konoha, and he can only captain one... very... lucky squad.” His finger wavered around the room and jabbed forward right at Tenten. “Team Three!” he bellowed. “Summon all your youthful energy and follow me! Adventure and glory await!!!” He catapulted himself out the door howling, “Dynamic exit!”
Everyone was staring at them. Pazu-sensei waved them off. “Well? You heard Guy-sensei... Go on.” Gingerly Tenten and the rest of her squad got up and followed their new captain.
Tenten was very apprehensive at the prospect of having to spend even one hour under the command of this goofball. He led them to a small outdoor balcony above the public garden, asked them what their dreams were, and then prattled on and on about his personal philosophy. She tried to listen, really she did, but you can only hear so much about the ‘power of positive thinking’ and ‘youthful energy’ before your brain rebels and threatens to make an exit through your ears.
She tuned back in at the tail end of Guy’s pep talk. “... and so... at the first light of the morning sun we will gather at training field number one for a hot blooded ordeal to test our skills and bring us closer as a team! Prepare yourselves for the harshest survival training you will ever encounter!” Guy paused in his excitement and lifted a finger as if remembering something. “Ah yes, you may want to skip breakfast. The tasks we will perform are so challenging you do not want to attempt them on a full stomach.”
In a couple of hours the sun would begin to set, so she forced herself to get up off the futon and get moving. After cleaning up and preparing herself a quick meal, she prepared her things for the next day Tenten didn’t have much, only the single set of kunai and shuriken that Shinji had made for her. She then got ready for bed. The anxieties of the day left her mind full of cotton. Tenten spent a few minutes awake on her futon wondering if she was ready for this. She wondered what Momoko and Shinji would say if they could see her now.
She’d first met them when she was seven years old, her second year at the academy.
She was looking for a place to hide from Monichi and his gang. Monichi was the biggest of all the bullies at the orphanage. His gang had been picking on her ever since that day he tried to steal her ongiri for dinner and she hit him in the face. One on one she was a match for any of them. That was why they were all chasing her as a group. They had caught her a few times and knocked her around some, but she was agile for her age and always managed to break free and start running again.
She’d skidded around the corner and ducked into the dark cool shop. There was nobody in the front, and she could hear one of Monichi’s cronies calling from the street outside that he had found her . She spun around frantically looking for a place to hide... and froze.
The whole shop was lined with weapons. The walls sparkled with katana, sabers and spears, oiled shuriken and kunai glittered under glass. Better than all that, there was something familiar about the smell... It smelled like... home.
The distraction cost her. The door rang again and rough hands grabbed her. Blows rained down on her arms and head. Something warm and wet trickled down her face and stung her eye. She punched, kicked, gouged and bit her way clear of the scrum. There was a stiff leather sheet blocking off the back of the store, with a strange orange glow seeping out from the bottom. The front door was blocked by Monichi’s gang, so Tenten sprinted for the curtain. She burst through a small store room and was immediately surrounded by a fierce dry heat and the fine haze of charcoal smoke. There was an enormous ear splitting clang.
“We’ve got you now! You stupid...” Monichi’s voice failed him as the giant raised his hammer again. The giant’s steel mask was lit up in dull orange by the slowly cooling sword that lay across the anvil. The hammer came down with another ringing clang. The blow released a burning cloud of sparks. The giant picked up the burning blade in one meaty hand, and slowly turned, staring at the intruders.
Monichi screamed. His gang screamed. There was a panicked, pushing, shoving rush to get out the store and away from this giant fire demon as quickly as possible.
The giant put the katana blade to one side to cool. He lifted the heat shield protecting his face with a mittened hand. A bespectacled old man with a wrinkled face like a dried apple peered out at her. He studied Tenten, chewing thoughtfully on his lip. She warily watched this grown up and wiped at the blood running down her face from a split eyebrow. The old man glanced at the door the boys had disappeared out of and then back to Tenten. “Momoko!” he bellowed. “There’s a little girl bleeding in the forge!”
A shutter banged from the apartment above the shop. “What was that? What girl?” called a woman’s incredulous voice.
The old man gestured at Tenten with his mallet. “This girl. She’s taken a bit of a beating.” He gave her another studious squint. “Looks like she could use a hot meal too.” With the other hand he flipped the heat shield back down over his face, pulled a fresh blade out of the fire and resumed hammering.
Tenten loved visiting Shinji and Momoko. She could spend hours in the forge with Shinji, working the bellows, and fetching tools. He didn’t talk much, but she quickly learned to discern whether a grunt meant ‘fetch the longer tongs’ or ‘more charcoal in pit three.’ After he had quietly taken measure of her dexterity, the aging weaponsmith let her test out his wares. He showed her the proper way to throw a kunai and shuriken, how to use the katana, mace and lance. After a bit he even let her practice with a kusagari, staying well out of the way as she whirled the weighted chain on the scythe around. As time progressed, occasionally he would even spar with her. The clash of steel would bring his wife out into the smith yard to watch the pair of them.
Momoko was kind and caring and never scolded her too much when she came in seeking medical attention from her ongoing battles with Monichi. Her cooking was AMAZING. She had never tasted anything like it at the orphanage, and there was always more than she could finish. The only thing that drove her crazy was Momoko-san’s insistence on cleanliness and hygiene. Often times Tenten’s visits would start with the older woman tossing her into a wash tub of soapy water.
“Tenten... Tenten...” The old woman said in an exasperated voice, “What are we going to do with you?”
“It’s all Monichi’s fault, he punched me first! I actually listened to what you told me this time!” Tenten pouted. “I didn’t even start hitting him until he said I was too stupid to cry. He said girls are weak! He said kunoichi are useless except as medical-nin. He said that any normal girl would burst into tears when they were hit in the face. He called me some kind of ugly frizzy haired mutant!” Tenten whipped her head around wildly. “If anyone is weak it’s him. You should have seen how much he cried after I kicked him in the crotch.”
“Well.... Monichi is wrong about you being ugly and stupid, and he is definitely mistaken about women being weak. However, the one thing he does have a point about is your hair. Turn around child,” the older woman ordered.
“Do I have to?” whined Tenten.
“You most certainly do.” Momoko took a brush from the wide sleeve of her faded kimono and quickly began tugging it through Tenten’s tangles.
“Ouch! OUCH! Stop it Auntie! You’re killing me!” Tenten fussed and squirmed long after the brushing was done. She continued her complaining as Momoko separated out her hair into long thick strands and deftly wove them together, but stopped when she realized just how quiet Momoko was. “What is it Auntie Momoko?” Tenten asked.
Momoko shook her head slightly. “You were just reminding me of someone.”
Momoko smiled sadly. “My niece. When she was your age, she was a strong girl with a fiery temper. She never hesitated for a moment to fight any of the boys. It always made my sister quite angry when her daughter came marching in triumphantly, covered in scrapes and bruises.”
Tenten looked up at Momoko hesitantly, picking up on the nostalgia in her voice. “What happened to her? Did she... die?”
“What? Oh no dear... She became one of the most famous kunoichi the Leaf Village ever had. Surely you have heard of Tsunade the sanin?”
Tenten frowned, thinking. “I think so...” she lied.
Momoko gave her a knowing smile. “Well, Monichi wouldn’t ever want to call her ugly or stupid. She was stunningly beautiful, and stronger than any man in the village. She had the fiercest temper and at the same time one of the kindest hearts I have ever known.” Momoko smiled. “She used to tell her mother she wanted to grow up to be a medical-nin... just like me.”
“Oh she became a medical-nin, but she ended up surpassing me by far.” Momoko chuckled. “Tsunade always admired my shinobi ways much to her mother’s chagrin. When she was your age I would sit her in my lap and style her hair, just like this. It is the same way that my mother used to wear her hair.”
Tenten reached up. “It feels weird.”
Momoko nudged her hand back down. “Don’t touch it yet, it’s not ready. Mother used to say: ‘While it’s under construction, this style is a most delicate thing. But if you set it right, it’s as strong as tempered steel.’ When she was little this was Tsunade’s favorite hairdo. She would run around the house saying ‘Look at me! My head is stronger than steel!” There was a tug on her scalp at Momoko pinned the hair into position. “There... What do you think?” She offered Tenten a mirror.
Tenten twisted this way and that. Nestled neatly on the crown of her head were two buns. “Huh,” she said staring. “It’s different... But it’s pretty. Thank you.”
Momoko smiled. “It’s my pleasure dear. Both of my boys grew up long ago. I enjoy having a little girl around to pamper.”
The scene shifted again. Tenten was watching her younger self. She remembered how excited she was that one afternoon. Momoko was watching her and Shinji at the forge. Shinji was showing her the proper way to fold steel a hundred times to get the most flexible blade. “Shinji,” she had called tenderly. “Our little Tenten has been such a big help lately... Don’t you think we should take her somewhere as a reward?” Shinji grunted his approval.
Our little Tenten. She shivered with glee at the memory. “Can we go have a picnic on the top of the Hokage Monument?” her younger self asked. She’d heard some of the children in her class talking about it yesterday, how they went with their families. Again Shinji grunted his assent.
The ground shook as if there was an earthquake. A shadow fell over the scene, but only she seemed to notice it. The seven year old Tenten danced and sang holding Momoko and Shinji’s hands as if there wasn’t a care in the world. Shinji’s forge roared, vomiting thick black smoke and fat sparks into the sky. Tenten looked up.
The monster hung there in the sky, reaching down with one clawed hand. Tenten tried to scream, tried to warn them, but her voice was just the tiniest hiss.
Little Tenten happily held on the the hands of Momoko and Shinji, not realizing their faces were now featureless orbs of smooth, tight skin. She first looked confused, and then devastated as the Kyubi’s paw lifted the pair of them out of her grasp and up into the sky.
Tenten woke up gasping for air. She spun around staring at the unfamiliar apartment. Slowly, she became lucid enough to remember her surroundings... and her past.
No one knew Shinji had a weakness in his heart. The climb up the monument killed him. It destroyed Momoko. She wasn’t the same after her husband died in her arms. One of her sons returned to take care of the business and immediately banished Tenten from the home. “Get out! You’re the one to blame for all this! My parents should have known better than to take in strays at their age!” he said to her indignantly. Tenten only heard of Momoko’s passing a week after her funeral. She had a stroke, the rumor went. Too much exertion at her age. Too much sadness.
Tenten clutched her knees to her chest and let the tears come. “I wish I could have been part of your family,” she whispered. After a good long while, she wiped at her eyes and face and tried to fall back asleep.
Her clock's alarm rang far too soon. She bumped into her teammates on the way out the main gate. It was that chill grey moment as the night ends but the morning has yet to happen. She was exhausted and couldn’t stop yawning. It was obvious Lee hadn’t slept a wink, he was vibrating with adrenaline-fueled sleep deprivation. His hair stuck up every which way, adding to his air of madness. Neji... well Neji looked tidy and cool as always. The only hint that he might have been inconvenienced by waking at this hour was that he seemed way crankier than usual.
“Good morning Neji-kun!” Lee yelped deliriously. “Are you ready for a fun-filled day of Shinobi brotherhood?”
“Don’t touch me!” snapped Neji, dodging his enthusiastic slap on the back. “You won’t last a minute up there!”
Lee stepped away, “Why not? It’s only training. I can handle anything you can.”
“Yeah Neji,” yawned Teten. “Don’t get so down on Lee, he tries harder than anyone I know. It may take him a couple of dry runs but I’m sure he’ll be alright.”
“Oh thank you Tenten-chan!” Before she could dodge, Lee’s sweaty palms caught her hand. He stared up at her with big teary eyes. A rivulet of snot was dribbling from one nostril. “Your faith bolsters my spirit! Come! I will race you to the top of the hill!”
“It’s not training,” muttered Neji, as Lee dashed away. “It’s another test.”
“What?” asked Tenten, desperately trying to wipe her hand off on her pant leg. “How do you know?”
Neji smirked. “I am a genius you know... It was easy to figure out.”
“So why are you telling me and not Lee?”
“Why should I help him?” Neji stared at her with those pale eyes. Many of the other students said they looked creepy or weird... Not that she’d ever admit it, but she thought they were kind of pretty... like a mother of pearl inlay she saw on a fancy dagger once. “What does that loser mean to you?”
“He doesn't mean any more to me than you do!” Tenten gestured up the hill to their new teammate. “But he’s still our comrade! Why wouldn’t you tell him?”
For the briefest moment there was a flicker across Neji’s face. “Because the test is designed so one of us is guaranteed to fail. The one who fails must go back to the Academy.” He glanced at the rapidly disappearing Lee, and then turned back to her. “Between the pair of you, I would much rather have a worthless kunoichi on my squad... than a loser like him.”
“A worthless kunoichi?!?” screeched Tenten. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
Neji turned away smirking. “Exactly what it sounds like.”
Tenten scowled at him the whole time they ascended the hill. She was pissed. She knew Neji could be aloof at times, but this was completely unacceptable. If there was anyone who should fail this so called test, it should be Neji.
They crested the top of the hill and made a loose circle around their new sensei. He stood there, doing one handed handstand pushups. “Two hundred fifty three, Two hundred Fifty Four... Oh that’s too bad, you all arrived early. I was hoping I’d have time to do at least a thousand push ups. No matter,” he said flipping up to his feet. “I’ll just have to finish it up during lunch.” He grinned at them.
“During lunch?” asked Tenten in disbelief. “Are you serious?”
“Oh yes, there’s no greater challenge than trying to get low enough to take a bite and if you fall,” Guy clapped his hands together, “you smash everything. Automatic punishment.” That’s when it hit her. She was stuck on a team with a crazy teacher, an elitist, sexist pig genius, and an optimistic loser. They were doomed. They weren’t going to last a week. “Now you may be wondering why I have called you here to the training grounds,” Guy-sensei said, gently stroking his chin.
Lee’s hand rocketed into the air. “Ooh! Ooh! Is it because you are going to teach us some new Jutsu sensei?”
“Hmp,” snorted Neji. “It’s obvious he’s going to give us one final test before we are accepted into the ranks of genin.” He stared coolly up at the sky. “I do wonder if all of us are going to pass?”
“Another test?” Lee blurted out. “Didn’t we just take the graduation exam?”
Guy laughed a great belly laugh and pointed casually at Neji. “Well, now, it looks like someone in the Hyuga compound has been talking about Konoha’s secret testing trials.” Neji scowled and turned his head away. “Don’t you worry Neji-kun, I admire your information gathering abilities. For you are correct. There is a long standing tradition of having one final exam...”
“But Guy-sensei...” started Tenten, glancing at Lee.
“... I however do not believe in holding such a test. Weeding out candidates with such a surprise audit is against my ninja way. I am a firm believer that with enough hard work and youthful passion any obstacle can be overcome. I refuse to reject any student who is willing to learn by my side no matter what any silly test says.” Lee was staring up at his new sensei with wide eyed adoration. “So, let’s begin our first day together with a little team building exercise.”
“Yes, Guy-sensei!” yelled Lee, bounding to his feet.
“What sort of Team building exercise?” asked Tenten.
Her new sensei struck a heroic pose and gave her another grin. “We’ll start off with a short run, five kilometers should do it, and after that we’ll bang out two hundred pushups. After that little warm up, we’ll start some real Team building.” Tenten felt her jaw drop. Even Neji was looking a little perturbed. “Right! Let’s go!” yelled Guy. “The last one to finish has to do an extra fifty punishment pushups!”
The team building exercise was basically just that. Exercise... a lot of physical challenges. Mostly involving pushups, sprinting from place to place, never ending sparring matches, walking on one’s hands, and mud. Lots and lots of mud. It was obvious that Neji had ignored Guy-sensei’s advice about skipping breakfast. He had to excuse himself during an endless bout of free squats. They all could hear him retching in the bushes. When the last sparring match was mostly Tenten dropping her kunai with Neji leaning away from Lee’s tired swings, Guy finally relented and gave the three genin a ‘break’. He sat them all down in a circle.
“Now!” he boomed in that overly cheerful voice of his. “We have trained your bodies a centimeter closer to the peak of physical perfection. But muscles need fuel! I hereby declare our lunch break!”
‘Lunch’ for Guy-sensei was exactly what he said it would be. He opened a small packet of ongiri, lay it reverently on the ground, and proceeded to do handstand pushups over them, eating while he exercised. Lee took a few quick bites of his lunch, watching his sensei in wonder. Suddenly he spread out his food and attempted to do the same, with much more predictable results. Within moments there was rice mashed in his hair.
Tenten shook her head in disbelief and opened her bento. Her cooking was no where near as good as Momoko’s, but a huge improvement on the orphanage food, so she considered herself ahead. She had just started eating when there was a quiet gurgling sound on her left.
Neji was leaning against a tree, trying to meditate. A scowl twitched across his lips as his stomach grumbled a second time. If there was one thing Tenten could not abide, it was seeing someone go hungry. She’d witnessed too much of that growing up in the orphanage.
“You didn’t bring a lunch?” She asked scooting closer to him.
There was a third rumble from Neji’s stomach at the word ‘lunch’. He sighed wearily and opened one eye. “No... The so called ‘test’ as it was described to me mentioned that there would be a lunch offered to those who successfully passed... Apparently I did not take into consideration that our new team leader might be insane.”
Tenten smiled. “He is a nut job... isn’t he?” She poked around in her bento for a moment, and held out half a boiled egg. “Here...” she said offering it to him.
Neji looked at the egg. His stomach rumbled again. He glanced up at Tenten and back at the egg. He licked his lips. “I’m afraid I must decline.”
Tenten raised an eyebrow. “What... It’s not poisoned.” She nibbled the end off the egg, and held it out to him again. “Shee?” she said with her mouth full.
A faint color blossomed across Neji’s cheeks. “I... um... I must...” His stomach practically roared this time. “No,” he said simply.
Tenten sighed. “Look, just eat it.” She pushed the egg forward on the end of her chopsticks. Neji made a small yelp and ducked away. “What? It may not be as fancy as what you get in the Hyuga compound but it’s edible... Just try it!” She darted forward with the egg again.
Neji blocked it with one hand. It popped off the end of her chopsticks and rolled away in the dirt. Tenten glared at him. “Fine then! Why don’t you go back to the Hyuga compound then? Maybe your Mommy and Daddy can make something that doesn’t offend your palete!”
Neji, who had been very flustered up to that point, froze and gave her a look that was pure ice. “My parents are dead... you clanless bimbo,” he snarled.
“Tenten!” called Guy-sensei. “Stop flirting with Neji and finish eating. We start training again in ten minutes!”
Tenten whirled indignantly on her teacher. “Guy-sensei, I would expect that kind of stupid sexist remark from an idiot like him,” she said jabbing a finger at Neji, “but you should know better than to say such things!”
Guy tilted his head, confused. “But you’re trying to feed him, aren’t you?” Neji turned away from them in a huff.
Tenten gestured at Neji with both hands. “He’s starving! I was trying to be nice! It’s not my fault he’s acting like a two year old!”
Guy regarded both his students for a moment and then burst out laughing. “Oh Tenten, your feelings for your comrades do you credit.” He waved at Neji. “Go ahead and eat Neji-kun... I will testify to anyone who asks that she intended to make no claim.”
“I will be fine Guy-sensei,” said Neji bluntly. He moved away and began stretching.
Guy slapped a hand on her shoulder. “Do not take it personally Tenten-chan. The Hyuga clan are known for being strict traditionalists.”
Tenten frowned after Neji. “Traditional what? Traditional jerks?”
Guy chuckled. “They are a little uptight at times aren’t they?” He looked at Tenten and cleared his throat. “I was referring to the old custom of showing an emotional fondness for the another person by wanting to share a meal with them.”
Tenten gaped at Guy-sensei. Her eyes flicked quickly over to Neji. “Really?”
Guy nodded sagely. “Oh, yes... If Neji had accepted in front of witnesses, you could have gone to the Head of the Hyuga Clan claiming that you proposed a marriage contract, and he found the terms agreeable.”
“What?” cried Tenten, flinching. “Ewww! We’re only twelve!”
Guy shrugged. “Not unheard of among a clan that is always looking to make alliances.“ He smiled at her. “Do not worry. Things like that hardly ever happen these days.”
Her team progressed with training. Lee gained some proficiency with Taijutsu, and was constantly trying his skill against Neji. Neji still treated him with disdain, but it was getting harder and harder to defeat him. Since Guy-sensei was spending an inordinate amount of time with Lee, training him one on one, more often than not, Tenten and Neji were left to their own devices. As training partners though, Tenten was often outclassed. At first, she could keep him at bay for a little while with shuriken and kunai, but she would always run out far too soon. If she switched to a hand weapon, he would always find the disadvantage and use it against her. What she needed to do was carry a much larger selection of weapons. Unfortunately, she could see no good way to do that. Not without carrying a hundred kilos of metal with her.
Lately her training with Neji had come to almost a complete standstill. Whereas at first, they had sparred until she was sore and bruised, now he just brushed her off. He seemed to be sparring with her only reluctantly, doing only enough damage to knock her down, before walking away with a reserved look on his face.
She was sitting there, watching Lee and Neji go through another practice bout, feeling more than a little down about things, when Guy-sensei appeared next to her. “Inspiring, isn’t it? To see two young warriors showing their brotherly love for each other with their fists.” He sighed. “Lee’s skill grows by leaps and bounds. I’m a proud teacher.”
“I’m glad you can be proud someone’s skills are improving,” Tenten muttered.
Guy smiled but kept watching the match. “Do you know how I came to be the captain of team three?” Tenten picked at the grass and glumly shook her head. “ Normally, a teacher is assigned a group depending on their forte and the temperaments of the new genin. But in the case of this squad, I requested to have you three specifically.”
Tenten looked up, surprised. “Why?”
“Well, Lee was an obvious choice. Look at his enthusiasm! He burns with the power of youth! If the poor boy is to have any hope of being a shinobi at all, he will have to train to be a phenomenal physical specimen. Who better to do that than me?” Tenten almost rolled her eyes. “As for Neji,” Guy continued, “he is amazing! Watch!” Guy pointed as Neji went through a complex series of attacks, sending Lee sprawling. “Imagine a mere twelve year old being able to manage a strike combination like that! I’m sure he will master the Hyuga’s divination jutsu within six months.” There was a long pause as Lee painfully climbed back up to his feet, took a deep breath and charged Neji. “He’s also almost completely worthless as a shinobi right now.”
“What?!?” gasped Tenten looking up in shock.
Guy shook his head sadly. “It’s true. The boy is smart, but he doesn’t have an ounce of creativity or spontaneity in his body. ” Guy glanced over at her. “His clan spends far too much time pounding traditions into his head, and not enough time letting him live life. He’s very much alone. Due to his upbringing, he feels trapped.”
“His upbringing?” asked Tenten. “ What does he have to worry about? He might be an orphan like me, but he’s also a Hyuga. The richest clan in the village!”
“And that’s where the problem arises. You see...” Guy sensei paused and then frowned. “It’s not my place to tell Neji’s story. If you want to know more, you should ask him yourself.”
“Okay,” asked Tenten confused. “So why did you choose me then? It looks like even Lee is out classing me now.”
Guy closed his eyes and leaned back a bit. “You are familiar with metalworking yes? Well, Lee is molten pig iron. Burning hot, and perfectly malleable, but useless until he has been hammered into shape. Neji is cast iron. He has been poured into a specific mold by his clan. He has been honed to an incredible degree, but if there is too much stress applied to him, he will shatter.” Guy’s eyes snapped open and stared into hers. “You my dear, are true steel. You have been forged in the crucible of your pain and loss a hundred times over. You have a flexibility, grace, self confidence and an edge that those two lack. Of my three students, you are the one most ready for a real mission.”
“Then how come I keep losing against Neji?”
Guy chuckled, “That has little to do with your technique and more to do with your execution. Have you seen how tense the boys get when they face you? They recognize your skill. The moment you touch a kunai they flinch. The issue is that you run out of blades too quickly.”
“Yeah, well I can’t get any more equipment until I start making more money. With what I’ve earned from the few D-rank missions we’ve been on, I could only afford an extra twenty shuriken.” She sat back and sighed. “And even so, I had to eat instant ramen for a month. How am I supposed to get anything more formidable?.”
Guy rubbed his chin. “Hmm... good point.” Guy jumped to his feet. “Lee! Neji! Hold off for a moment!” He motioned the pair of them over. “I have good news! The three of you have made amazing progress. In fact I think that you might be ready for your first C-ranked mission.” Lee lept into the air and began cheering and dancing. Neji just stood there looking disgusted at his antics.
It was convoy duty. They had to load two small wagons that were shipping various basic supplies to a medium sized town near the border with the Land of Grass, guard them while they were enroute, and then unload them once they arrived. Mind numbing basic work, but it was more risky than weeding gardens or picking up trash so it rated the higher pay grade.
There was only one interesting aspect to the transport. It was obvious that the huge pile of seed, farm tools, bolts of cloth, pots, pans and other items would never fit into the two wagons.
“Well... this is never going to work,” muttered Tenten.
“Do not give in to despair Tenten!” called out Lee, pumping his fist. “This is obviously some new form of training that Guy-sensei has come up for us! We must carefully sort and balance all the items to make them fit into the carts.”
“Don’t be stupid Lee,” grumbled Neji. “It can’t be done.”
“Anything can be done with enough effort and the power of positive thinking!” declared Lee with burning conviction. Ever since Guy-sensei had given him his own set of green tights, Lee had turned into an eerie little clone of their teacher. He leaned down and picked up an enormous bundle of mattocks and hoes and jogged towards the wagons.
“Stop right there!” bellowed the merchant from across the clearing. “What do you think you’re doing?”
Lee stopped. “Loading the carts, sir.”
The merchant strode over frowning. “What are you an idiot? You’ll never fill all the carts like that!”
“Told you so,” said Neji with a smug little smile.
“Where’s your team captain? Didn’t he explain all of this to you?”
Tenten stepped forward, smiling nervously. “Actually, Guy-sensei is running a little late... I’m sure he’ll be here momentarily.” Guy-sensei had bumped into his ‘eternal rival’ Kakashi-sensei as they were crossing through the open air stall section of the marketplace. He challenged Kakashi to an all you can eat sushi contest. Guy told his students to go on ahead as he and Kakashi devoured the lunch rush leftovers.
The merchant tapped his foot impatiently. “Well I’m not paying to teach you three how to do this but... In the interest of time...” he produced three large scrolls from a large, full sack over his shoulder. “Here, we will be sealing everything up in these.”
Tenten timidly raised a hand. “Um, you do know we’re only genin right?”
The merchant gave her an exasperated look. “We’re not talking about making an explosive tag or sealing away a demon or anything. We’re just talking about a basic infusion of chakra to create a static matrix.”
“Huh?” asked Lee.
The merchant sighed. “Can you fetch me a sack of rice?” He unrolled the scroll as Lee came back with a large sack. The merchant placed the bag on top of a prescribed sigil, and focused his chakra. There was a puff of smoke and the sack disappeared. The merchant looked up smugly. “When I was a shinobi long ago, I used this trick with my gear. It’s a simple way to save space and weight while traveling.”
Lee was staring at it awestruck. “That is incredible! Why doesn’t everyone use it?”
The merchant shrugged. “If the scroll gets wet or damaged the seals can be ruined and say goodbye to your gear. Most shinobi just restrict using them to a few specialized items or summonings and prefer to keep their crucial equipment in the real world.” He looked at the three genin and winked. “Don’t worry, I have tarpaulins for the wagon beds if it rains. I won't make you pay for anything that gets damaged out of pocket.”
Lee was completely useless at sealing. In the end he was relegated to lugging items from place to place. Neji mechanically sealed things away with an annoyed look on his face.
Tenten found it fascinating. “So when you’re ready to bring the items out of the scroll again, how do you do it? Do the unsummoned things differ in any way? Can they come out hot? Cold? Is speed or motion conserved?
The merchant chuckled at her enthusiasm and let her experiment a little bit. She was just beginning to get the hang of unsealing an object with just a touch from her fingers when Guy came jogging up. “Well done my students! It warms my heart to see you all taking such initiative!” He gave Neji a wide grin in response to his dour frown. “Cheer up my students for on this very day your beloved teacher has increased his record of victories against Kakashi-sensei by one! I now have the lead! A whopping forty six victories to his paltry forty five.”
“I am in awe of your prowess Sensei!” cheered Lee, jogging by with an armful of scrolls.
The carts were soon filled and the mission began in earnest. It looked as if it was going to be a complete cakewalk. The air was warm, the sun was still high enough that they could get four solid hours of travel in before they would have to stop for the night.
One hour into travel Guy-sensei had to excuse himself to run off into the bushes. Twenty minutes later, he did the same again. “Are you going to be alright Sensei?” asked Lee in a worried tone.
“I’m fine Lee,” Guy said. His face was pale and coated with a fine sheen of sweat. “Just a touch of indigestion, that is all.”
Half an hour later he was once again moaning and clutching his stomach. They tried to continue the journey, but after the sixth time Guy-sensei returned from the bushes insisting “Do not worry my troubles have passed! I am as fit as a fiddle!” The three genin exchanged a worried glance.
They went into a huddle after he trotted off into the bushes for a seventh time. “We need to finish this mission.” Neji insisted. “We passed an inn a kilometer or so back. We can leave him there while we escort the wagons.”
“Abandoning our dear sensei to his fate?!?” gasped Lee. “Surely you cannot be so heartless Neji! The poor man is dying!”
“He isn’t dying,” grumbled Neji. “He just ate some bad sushi... Look this is just a lousy convoy mission! We don’t need his supervision.”
“And I say we cannot leave him alone!” insisted Lee. “He needs someone to care for him!”
Neji crossed his arms. “I refuse to let this joke of a mission fail just because our captain has food poisoning.”
Tenten stepped between them. “Why can’t we just split the team?” she looked back and forth between Neji and Lee. “You can take care of Guy sensei while Neji and I finish the mission? I mean if it’s so much of a joke... We’re not going to need all three of us are we? What kind of bandits would try to rob a convoy full of farmers tools?”
During the second watch that night, her question was answered... Well equipped bandits with a good strategy, that’s who.
Small clay pots filled with oil and topped with a burning wick were hurled out of the darkness. Soon there were five large bonfires forming the points of a circle surrounding the wagons. The fires not only kept them inside the ring of wagons, they provided enough light for the archers to keep them pinned down. Arrows hissed out of the night. Soon the merchant and both of his assistants were wounded. Tenten ended up using about half of her kunai and shuriken covering for their escape.
Neji had activated his byakugan and was surveying the area. “I count twenty six of them. Ten of them have bows.”
Tenten popped up from behind a wagon and hurled a shuriken towards where an arrow had just come from. “Well, if you point them out to me I can...”
“You can do nothing,” said Neji simply.
“If this is another crack about me being a worthless kunoichi...” Tenten grated.
“I don’t think you’re worthless.”
Tenten’s protests came to a grinding halt. “What?”
“I don’t think you are worthless,” he repeated. “All I meant was that our enemies are well behind cover. There is no way to hit them all... Not with the few kunai and shuriken we have remaining.” He took a deep breath and unbuckled his shuriken holster. Neji then took off his equipment pouch and handed both of them over to Tenten. “Here,” he said quietly. “Our only option in this situation is to try to get to their lines and engage the archers in close combat.”
Tenten looked at him incredulously. “That’s a twenty meter sprint! What do you suppose the other bandits are going to be doing while you attack?”
Neji shrugged. “They picked their ambush ground looking for long range attacks. They will not be expecting a close range counter strike. I will need you to keep them away from me while I am running.” He took a deep breath. “Of course... once you run out of weapons you should retreat.”
“But Neji... I can’t...” sputtered Tenten.
To her shock, Neji smiled at her. It was a very faint smile, but it was there. “There is no sense in both of us staying here.” His face grew serious again. “Once I am out of the light, I will have the advantage. Just make sure you keep them busy until I get there.” He hesitated a moment as if he was about to say something else, but instead he just leaned down in a runner’s sprint. “Ready?”
“Go!” Tenten hissed. As Neji took his first few steps, she jumped up and started throwing. She had carefully marked where each arrow was coming from, and she thought she scored a few hits. There was a yelp or two off in the tree line. However, her attacks were nothing compared to the storm of arrows that Neji faced.
He dodged, he blocked, and finally he lept over the last few. Tenten knew his moves from sparring with him, but she had never seen Neji this graceful before. He was halfway to the tree line when a great shout went up and a mob of bandits, wielding clubs, spears and wicked looking swords charged him.
Tenten threw all the remaining kunai and shuriken she had in one final barrage. The bandits closest to Neji tumbled and fell, but it was nowhere near enough. He was surrounded by a forest of falling clubs and thrusting blades. She heard him cry out and watched him stumble to his knees.
She had nothing left to throw. She watched feeling helpless as a larger bandit raised a huge maul over his head in a two handed grip. The bonfires belched smoke and flames high into the night. From his kneeling position, Neji turned his bloodied face to look at her piteously. She so badly wanted to do something, anything to help... but she had run out of weapons. She was helpless again. All she needed was something to throw and all she had were these wagons full of...
She acted just as the thought occurred to her. Tenten reached into the bed of the nearest wagon and seized the first scroll she came across. The large bandit with the maul checked his swing at the burst of summoning smoke and looked up in time to see a heavy iron cook pot hurtling towards his face.
There was a series of loud ringing clangs as a hailstorm of kitchen utensils landed amongst the group of bandits. Tenten stood there, a little in shock at the fusilade she had unleashed. The bandits slowly lurched to their feet massaging bruised arms and egos. The large one with the maul wiped at the blood pouring from his nose and grinned nastily at her. He hefted the maul in one hand. “So what now little girl?” he snarled. “Going to throw more pots and pans at us?” He motioned one large hand forward. “Kill her.”
Tenten grabbed an armful of the scrolls as five of the bandits started forward. She fumbled the first one open and smiled a terrible smile. She was very lucky. Hand scythes. Not as balanced or sturdy as a kama, but dangerous just the same. Not as accurate as a kunai or shuriken, but they felt familiar in her hands. She was glad Neji had the good sense to lie flat as they hummed through the air like a deadly swarm of bees.
She jogged forward as the bandits fell back from her onslaught. The only problem was, as they withdrew, the archers started firing again. “What are you doing?” Neji yelled, as Tenten stood above him. “Get back behind cover!”
Tenten flashed him a wild grin and tore open a third scroll, surrounding them in a wide floating arc. A huge wall made of hefty sacks of rice fell from the scroll. She dove behind it to the sound of arrows punching through burlap. Tenten looked over at the crouching Neji. “Instant fortress... Pretty cool huh?”
She threw shovels, hoes, mattocks, rakes... Anything her scrolls provided. The bandits tried to attack her makeshift fort three times, but to no avail. The problem was the archers. As long as they were still out there, she and Neji were tightly pinned down. A few times the bandits tried to burn them out my launching more of their fire bombs at the wall of rice sacks. but with Neji’s byakugan to warn her of their coming, Tenten always managed to hit them mid flight.
Rescue arrived just as the first sign of dawn was painting the sky. A double call of “Leaf Hurricane!” echoed through the mist creeping through the forest. The sudden crash of fighting reverberated in the wood and then silence hung over what was left of the battlefield.
Neji and Tenten peeked over the wall in time to see an overly emotional Guy sensei running towards them at full speed. “Oh my poor darling students! Left to fend for themselves!” He leaped the pile of rice sacks and grabbed them both in a tight bear hug. “I feel so guilty!” he wailed, tears streaming down his face. “I feel like such a poor sensei! I feel I abandoned you in your time of need! I feel... I feel...” A queasy expression drifted across Guy’s face. “Excuse me a minute,” he managed to mutter, before sprinting off into the bushes.
Lee popped his head over the ramparts and reached out a hand to help the pair of them up. “The merchants passed by the inn he was recuperating at. When Guy-sensei heard the news... He ran as fast as he could. He was wailing the whole time about how he abandoned you.” Lee paused and looked over at the impromptu fort, pincushioned with arrows. “This is quite the well thought out plan you had Neji. An impressive set up with which to make a stand.”
Tenten opened her mouth to correct Lee, but Neji spoke first. “Yes it is impressive,” he said calmly. Tenten narrowed her eyes and took in a deep breath to yell at him. “It is not my creation though. In truth all the credit goes to our comrade Tenten.” Tenten gaped as Neji gave her a small but glowing smile. “The fort, holding the bandits at bay. It was all her doing. In truth I managed to accomplish little other than getting myself injured.”
Lee gave her a beaming smile. “Tenten!” he gushed. “You are truly amazing! Truly you have been fused with the power of youth this day.” A mischievous grin inched across Lee’s face and he leaned closer. “Personally, I never thought I would see the day that the genius Neji Hyuga would actually compliment...”
Tenten didn’t hear the rest of Lee’s teasing of Neji, because at that moment the large bandit rose out of the bushes. He snarled a wordless cry and hurled a kunai trailing a paper bomb straight at them.
Tenten shoved Lee and Neji as hard as she could. They fell back into the protective ring of rice sacks. She pulled open a scroll at random and summoned the first thing she found, a small trowel. With one smooth motion she flung it overhand at the approaching kunai.
The explosion blossomed in front of her like a brilliant red / orange chrysanthemum. The shockwave picked her up off her feet and flung her brutally backwards. There was an instant of searing pain as she crashed into something, and then all went black.
Tenten was running through the burning village. There were screams and smoke all around her. She skidded to a stop as a huge fireball, like a bright red / orange chrysanthemum blossomed in front of her. There was a snarl from the sky, and she slowly, fearfully glanced up. The monster’s face filled the sky, and a huge clawed hand was reaching down straight for her. She was about to scream when something cool touched her wrist.
Tenten sprang awake. A medical-nin was looking down at her with a peaceful expression. “I’m terribly sorry,” the medical-nin whispered, “did I wake you?”
“How did...” Tenten started to sit up and grunted with pain. Her throbbing left arm and shoulder were set in a large awkward cast. There was an IV line and an injection port in her right. The nurse eased her back down and placed a finger to her lips indicating silence. She motioned around the room.
Lee was collapsed in a rather uncomfortable looking chair, snoring loudly. Neji was seated in a lotus position near her bed pretending to meditate, but in actuality was fast asleep. Guy sensei had somehow wedged himself upright in a corner of the room and was sleeping standing up. Tenten looked at the three of them and shot a questioning glance at the nurse.
The medical-nin smiled “You were injured on a mission. After they checked you into Konoha Hospital, they insisted on staying with you.” She smiled down at Tenten. “Apparently you’ve made quite the impression on them. They were all saying you are quite the kunoichi.”
“But all I did was...”
The medical-nin shushed her again. “According to the two young men, you saved their lives... and got a concussion and broke your collarbone in the process.” She let some of the air out of a syringe and flicked the needle. “I heard they were arguing about who was going to carry you all the way back here.” She giggled. “We all thought it was quite adorable.” She stuck the syringe into the injection port and Tenten felt a cool tingling rush up her arm. “Just a little something for the pain,” whispered the medical-nin. “Rest. You need it.” The nurse gave her a friendly pat and wandered off on her rounds.
Tenten let her gaze drift around the room staring at each member of her squad in turn. She felt cool deliciousness rush through her body as her eyelids slowly drifted shut.
The Kyubi’s huge paw reached down and was about to scoop her up when a pair of overly cheerful voices called out “Leaf Hurricane!” Dual figures clad in green tights blurred past her delivering a barrage of vicious kicks into the monster’s hand. They were laughing as they did so.
There was an exasperated sigh beside her. “Those two are at it again,” grumbled Neji. He shook his head resignedly. “Come on, they will definitely need assistance.”
Tenten shrank back. “I... I can’t fight that!” she stammered. “It’s too big!”
Neji smiled at her. A warm, loving, friendly smile that she’d never seen on his face in real life. “Of course you can. I know you are a strong kunoichi.” Neji reached over and grabbed her shoulder. “And besides you don’t have to fight it alone... We’re with you.” He took a step towards the Nine tails, but stopped as if he remembered something. “Oh... you may want these.” He handed her a scroll and jogged off to where Guy and Lee were fighting the monster.
Tenten unrolled the scroll. She touched the single seal, deactivating it. There was a burst of smoke and a pile of shining steel kunai, shuriken, katana, kama, and all other sorts of weapons lay at her feet.
In the darkness of her dream, Tenten’s eyes glittered.
As she slept in the hospital room, surrounded by her friends, Tenten’s lips cracked in a satisfied smile.