Twilight deepens an overcast sky, painting it the colour of wet slate with broad strokes as a thin, misting rain sifts down over the quieting streets of Konoha. In the distance, far over the high, leafy ramparts of the surrounding forests, stark, crooked shafts of violet-tinged lighting lance down over the distant plains. As she walks, Tenten counts the seconds from each strike, waiting for the near-inaudible thunder to crumble past her ears as she revels in the cold evening, celebrating the first rain since the beginning of this long, dry summer. The rain is barely there, and as she walks, she can't even feel her face or clothes getting wet, a soft damp velvet feeling that caresses her as she walks. She loves this rain, it's delicacy and gentility, and it relaxes her.
Her walk is unhurried, casual, and she knows she draws stares from the other pedestrians as she makes her way home. Like most of the others in her occupation, she has the right to wear one of the olive green vests that mark her as a ninja in the service of Konoha, but she doesn't. Everything she needs, every last kunai, every last blade, every last needle, is concealed somewhere on her person, under the sash around her waist, intricately woven into her hair, or magically buried in one of the many summoning scrolls she carries with her.
For all this circumspection, however, she still carries her primaries openly, largely because they have too much bulk to hide. Strapped on the left into the sash at her waist, she carries two swords, a paired katana and wakizashi, black scabbards inlaid with dancing silver dragons, the hilts wrapped in red leather twisted into overlapping diamonds. In the small of her back and at her right shoulder protrude the hilts of a pair of kodachi. She is lethal with any of these weapons, but she likes the situational flexibility of carrying them all at once.
She thinks of herself as uniquely blessed among the warriors of her village; anything with a point or a blade is her domain, and she is considered unmatched among them. Even more reassuring is that if she is exhausted or otherwise unable to access her stores of chakra, she is still a singularly deadly fighter, because the technique can carry her where strength cannot.
Around her, the neighborhood is changing, mutating away from the cluttered, crowded settlement nearer the downtown into a more cloistered, quiet region along the river. The street is cleaner here, less littered, more groomed. It looks, she thinks wryly, like money.
She is right. All the powerful clans, the wealthy families, live together here, in this neighborhood. She's familiar with the area, largely because she passes through it almost every day on her way to and from headquarters, or on her way out of town to her favorite training area. She's also familiar with it, because this is where her one-time team-mate Hyuuga Neji lives. The thought of him summons unbidden images to a secluded part of her mind, and she wonders if he is home right now. After all, she is passing the Hyuuga residence on the right, it's great stone walls surmounted by polished black tiles and lined with cherry trees.
She supposes she could always check. It's too late now to bother going in the front door; the gates are probably locked and sealed for the night. One of the residences, and the one Neji lives in, is built flush with the wall, and the jump to his room is something easily accomplished by one such as herself. His lights are off, though...he is either asleep, which is unlikely, or absent.
A sly smile gracing her lips, she bends to pick up a handful of pebbles from the edge of the road, and begins chucking them absently at the glass. A pair of carved oriental gargoyles grimace outwardly from the corners of the eaves, and she wonders just how good they actually are at warding off evil.
Apparently not good enough, she thinks, stunned, as shouting erupts from inside the compound, and a gout of flames mushrooms over the high stone walls.
"...Lee with the pass..."
"...intercepted by Inuzuka, passing to Uzumaki, who goes in for the lay up..."
"...stopped by Tenten! Back to Lee..!"
The instant the ball leaves her fingers, she braces herself for her landing, knees folding slightly as her toes and then her heels touch down on the hot, dusty asphalt outside Konoha's ninja Academy. For the life of her, Tenten has no idea how Rock Lee and Naruto are providing running commentary at the top of their lungs and playing as hard as they can simultaneously.
Her sandals squeak on the tarmac as she plays catch up, crossing in front of Chouji, who presides as judge and umpire with all the appearance and presence of a shogun on his massive throne. Ruining the image is Akamaru, who is more intent on the illegal acquisition of Chouji's lunch for his own nefarious purposes than on the outcome of the game. For all his legendary speed, Lee is beset on both sides by Naruto and Kiba, who is also blocking his passing lane to her.
Still, Kiba's slower today, without his usual animal intensity, and she knows he must be a little hung over or tired from the reunion party they'd managed to cobble together the night before. She knows she was this morning, so one recovering player per team is fair. Naruto, for some reason, never gets hung over -- she imagines he's well practiced at the art of binge drinking from all the time he spends in the company of that old oddball Jiraiya.
Cheers gush from the impromptu crowd of students and passing citizenry as Lee finds an opening, his loose white undershirt and green shorts flaring with the violence of his lunge past Kiba and the ball is headed straight towards her. His breathlessness doesn't shut him up, though.
"...Lee breaks through, to Tenten...good for three!"
His announcement is preemptive, but always prophetic, when it comes to her, anyway. Her toes are just over the three point line, but that's not an issue as she bounds lightly backwards, just short of Naruto's rushed jump to block her shot, and she releases the ball just as she hits the top of her arc. She allows herself a proud grin as she touches down, watching the ball carve through the air with just a little backspin. There is a clatter as it smacks the back of the rim, scurries around within the hoop, and then plummets straight down through the net.
"Yes!" shouts Lee, "another three for Team Gai!"
Tenten shakes her head, and by extension the complex knot of hair looped around and through itself at the back of her head, then gives her watching students a little wave before darting off backwards to block Kiba's pass lane. Lee and Naruto dance around each other on the court, shouting their commentary at each other.
"At least they're having fun," Kiba groans from behind her.
"Don't distract me," she jokes, edging across in front of him while he tries to break free. "Besides, we're hosting this, remember? Did Ino make it home all right?"
Kiba stops, trying to mess up her rhythm by changing his, as he tries to spin out from behind her. Naruto's looking for a pass now, and Lee's physical game is starting to shine as he looks to steal the ball.
"Yeah," he grunts, finally breaking free. His family's fighting style is very up-close, closer to brawling than fighting, very focused on throws and locks, and he's used to dealing with people at close range. "Can you believe these two?"
"Every week," she shoots back, grinning, as he snags Naruto's pass and scrambles in his uniquely feral manner for her basket as she launches into pursuit. He's faster than she is, and since the rules of this game forbid the use of chakra, she knows he'll get his shot off before she can stop him. Once more, the ball leaves the realm of human interference and sails in the hands of Newton until it smacks off the backboard, deforming slightly before rebounding down and through the steel ring to give Kiba and Naruto another two points.
Across a frozen instance of time, she plants one slender foot against the smooth stone of the Hyuuga compound's outer wall and catapults herself upward, catching the edge of the wet ceramic tiles with both hands and lifting herself into a crouch on the top of the walls.
There are very few visible people, most of them servants rushing to cover inside the buildings along the outer walls, but the courtyard is, at the moment, a bit of a mess. A smoking crater, lined with the tell-tale black carbon scoring of an explosive enchantment and the unmoving body of someone in Hyuuga family robes mars the otherwise constructed serenity of the manor, and silhouetted against the smoke by the small fires scattered across the grounds she can see the fighting.
She doesn't need the byakugan to know that this is more than any ordinary family quarrel, and the azure glare of the kaiten fills the yard as she leaps from the wall to one of the storehouses, landing catlike on all fours before bounding forward again.
Twisted laughter fills the air, crawling out of the smoke and through the cleansing rain, a trespassing demon in an otherwise pacific evening, and she observes, evaluating, as another unconscious member of the branch house is dragged away from the fires, from the lone man standing in the courtyard. She is at once confused and perturbed at this outrageous disturbance of the peace, and the laughter presses in on her mind, a conduit of insanity as she watches the man stumble in a tight circle, hands pressed against his face, against his forehead.
His devilish chuckling ends as abruptly as it began, and he falls to his knees, screaming. Tenten cringes involuntarily. It is the sound of unadulterated pain, the sonic issuance of hell, the howl of a tortured beast. It grates against her, alternately swelling in intensity and diminishing into a hoarse whisper of its former self before crashing outwards again with all the same agony it had before.
The man, if he is one, and not some otherworldly abberation come for vengeance, slams his forehead into the ground, once, twice, thrice, before falling completely still. She barely has the time to wonder if he has died before he lunges upright again, cackling maniacally, shouting nonsense into the darkening heavens and the gentle rain.
Gradually, his laughter dies down, collapsing slowly, imploding, and the man collects whatever remains of himself, drawing his mind from a blurry caricature back into sharp focus, and his milky eyes meet Neji's where the newcomer stands on the entrance steps to the main hall facing the courtyard.
"Toyama," he growls, staring at Hyuuga Hiashi's filial assassin with a clouded expression, "surrender, or I will cut you down where you stand." Neji's voice is shockingly cold, an unyielding waterfall of ice water, and Tenten is certain she has never heard it so profoundly imperative before.
Toyama's only reply is more, mocking laughter which segues without warning into another scream. He drops to his knees again, clutching at his temples, and then staggers off across the courtyard, in the general direction of the main gates.
"Never," he whimpers, in a miniscule, grating voice, fighting himself through the monstrous pain emanating from the swastika magically engraved in his forehead. Neji doesn't dignify this encounter with any further discussion, and strolls down the steps, into the rain, his loose sleeves trailing after him.
Tenten is confused, to say the least, on her interloper's perch at the summit of one of the guest houses. Toyama stumbles back against the massive gates of the compound, clutching at his face, at his forehead.
The sound of tearing canvas growls into the air and Toyama throws something at Neji, who handily dodges the weak attack...and then he looks at the ground in consternation. Tenten can't see what the object was from her distance, but then she looks at Toyama again and gasps in horror.
There is nothing but bloody bone where Toyama's marked forehead once sat. As he stands there, leaning back against the massive gates secluding the Hyuuga's realm from the outside world, he begins to laugh in earnest; this time mingled with a high, sobbing undertone that crushes her entire being with its chill.
"Never," Toyama says, grinning through the crimson mask that scores his face with a hundred braided rivulets. "Never, never, never," he repeats, slowly tying a long strip of cloth torn from his own robes around his defiled visage, around the gaping hole where he has scalped himself with his stained, ragged fingernails. "Never."
All Neji can do is stare at him.
At some point, Tenten leaves reality far behind. Kiba says something to her, and Lee and Naruto never stop their competitive shouting match, but it's all far, far away. Some infinitesimal component of what remains of her conscious mind recognizes that she is now in the zone. It's a curious feeling, a little like coming home and leaving the universe all at once, a separation and melding of mind, body, and the external world.
The part of her that is separate, aloof, distant, wonders where the exact separator is, as she dribbles at full tilt past a surprised Kiba, who lopes alongside her on long, gangly legs, trying to catch up. She feints as he overtakes her, draws back, and takes a clear shot on instinct alone. The usual clang of rattling metal and vibrating rivets is absent, and the ball falls straight through the tattered, water-stained cords of the net, rebounding noisily off the pavement which shimmers in the heat.
Far, far in the distance, Chouji marks the points, brushing crumbs off his fingers and his scorecard as he does so. Kiba takes a moment to rest, panting, and for a moment she thinks she can see herself standing next to him. Her mind feels somehow elastic, snapping back into place as she continues to run. Perhaps this is all a biochemical reaction to intense activity, or perhaps some more metaphysical process, but she isn't complaining.
Things happen in the zone. She's aware she is the force behind it, controlling it, but at the same time, they happen on their own, without the interference of her own faculties of rational thought. Time has no meaning. There are no hesitations, no worries, no doubts.
Only her, her objective, and her tools.
Somewhere in the vast reaches of the tesseract her mind has become, through the blur of motion, through the bright patches of people she knows on the court, through the static painted grid demarcating the edges of the court, she notices that Lee has the ball again. The fruits of his theft don't benefit him long, and the ball passes into her jurisdiction, climbing off the ground with a gentle forward spin.
Her hands are barely aware of its uniform, pebbled texture, and her body moves of its own accord as she moves up towards her goal, her objective. Naruto's body sails into place, obstructing her line of sight just as she prepares to throw. Her reaction, she notes, observing, is perfect, an underhanded blind pass under Naruto's upraised arm.
Lee finishes the game by taking the ball from its temporary station in midair and plunges it into the goal with one upraised arm. Another victory, she is sure he is shouting, for Team Gai.
The dance, then, is inevitable, and she turns away so she won't have to watch.
When she stops moving, she becomes acutely aware of the bass thrum hammering at her ears, her heartbeat magnified and exaggerated by her state of borderline exhaustion, and her lungs heave with the effort of clearing tainted breath from her airways. The focus of the external world, long absent, reestablishes itself slowly, building blocks of clarity assembling and collating piece by piece from the clear centre of her vision until the universe is whole once more, and Tenten is naught more but another component within it, rather than the sole lord over of one of its fragments.
Game over, and Chouji confirms this, putting down his lunch only long enough to make the announcement.
She reaches for her towel, draped over the chain-link fence at the edge of the Academy grounds like a small vermillion flag. It hits her face like an oasis, a moment of dry calm, reminding her just how tired and probably sore she really is, and will be, once the adrenaline and the endorphins wear off. Groaning softly to herself, she slumps down against the cold grass and waits for the others to join her. From the far side of Chouji's court, her students are sprinting across to her, congratulations and questions already spilling out of their juvenile mouths.
Tenten remains hidden until the two men in the courtyard begin their fight in earnest, their eyes lighting up in the mounting darkness with a dull grayish glow. Her right hand is preoccupied with a fistful of kunai produced from the back of the sash around her waist, so she gives Neji a small, casual salute with her left, knowing full well he can see her. Of course, so can his opponent, but he doesn't let it show.
For his part, Neji remains serene, his body and legs folding themselves within his long robes into the strike stance of the jyuuken, the voluminous pants and jacket giving him a bulk his wiry body doesn't have, and emphasizing the menace engraved on his face. Still, he gives the slightest, almost imperceptible shake of his head, and she understands. The kunai in her hand retreat to their hiding place.
This is his fight, his duty, and she will heed his request for her noninterference unless things get really tight.
Toyama relaxes, bleeding away his ordeal, and he mirrors Neji's stance. The dust and smoke from the earlier explosion settles quickly in the dampening, crescendoing rain. The first real drops settle into the dirt, pocking it with moisture.
Neji strikes beautifully, like a snake, his entire body uncoiling, springing forward, unwinding. Balanced, equidistant steps close the distance in seconds, keeping his head level with the ground, and when he finally collides with Toyama's guard there is so much force in his advance alone that the ground beneath them is dispersed. Together, they slide back five inches, locked together in the opening movements of a mutual symphony of aggression.
They begin trading blows with furious speed, chakra flaring between them, flames in a furnace. They are hoarding their strength, preserving it for what they know will be a long, aggravated battle of wits and endurance as much as skill.
She is so intent on their battle, on waiting to see if Neji will need her help that she almost fails to notice the strangers assembling outside. Neji catches them, though, with those all-seeing eyes of his, and in the midst of his own personal fight, flashes her an ancient hand signal from the days when they used to work together.
Tenten catches the hint, stunned, and follows his directions, peering down from the top of the wall. There are six of them, two entire teams shrouded in black, and what the bloody hell are they doing here? They're not from Konoha, that much is certain, and their postures speak of malice and foul intentions.
One on six, she thinks, airborne before her katana has even cleared the sheath, and on the ground in front of the massive gates of the mansion just as her right arm reaches its maximum adduction. Fair enough, she adds mentally, for her benefit, as she exits her crouch, ascending, her blade already climbing upwards through a tangled nest of flesh and bone, raining gore on her first victim's nearest companion.
One on five.
"Aah," she breathes, returning her sword to a resting, two handed position in front of her, "I don't know who you are, or what you think you're doing, but you cross this wall over my dead body."
"That, we can do," snorts one of them, and he draws his own weapon, a sickle with a weighted chain attached to the haft, a kusari-gama. "But she's mine." The other four turn back towards the wall.
Shit, she thinks, they're not falling for me.
"Neji! Incoming," she shouts, hopefully giving him enough time to do something about it.
"Well played, teacher," comes a muffled voice from somewhere on the other side of the terry cloth pressed against her face. Tenten folds the towel carefully, and throws it into her bag, which she shoulders casually. All three of her students came today, an oddity, considering how seriously two of them take their role as ninjas. Strange that they wouldn't spent the morning out training somewhere in the forest like she used to do so many years ago herself.
"I don't get it," one of those two born warriors intones, her voice that of a girl not yet become a woman. Here it comes, she thinks. "Why waste all that time playing a game with no purpose?"
Tenten grins. "Two reasons: one, it's fun," she says, her first reason the one she knows they won't understand, even though they should be children, "and two, it is training, believe it or not."
"Training?" the girl frowns. She's from a family with a long line of ninjas, dating almost beyond the very founding of the village. Tenten likes her, not for her less-than-sparkling personality, but because she works incessantly, towards her goals. On top of that, she suspects the girl might have a little bit of a heroine complex towards her, which flatters her ego more than she would otherwise admit.
"Yes, training. Endurance, strength, accuracy, teamwork, tactics," Tenten says, marking the items on her list with her fingers. "It all happens very quickly on the court, so if you can't keep up, you have to learn or lose. Furthermore," she adds, quickly, before they can say anything, "with only two people to a side, we have to teach ourselves how to cooperate successfully even with one man down."
Reaching back, she plays with her complex bun, pulling out the dagger-sharp needles holding it in place, and fixing its shape with steady fingers before returning them to their hiding place. She'd explained her oft-extravagant seeming hairstyles before to this girl -- she'd grown her hair out long enough that the utilitarian buns she'd once sported were no longer practical, but it made infiltration missions a breeze. People tended to remember only what her hair looked like if she was in a crowd, and could describe it in great detail, without really knowing who she was. If she needed to, she could pull it out, rearrange it, and disappear again. Not to mention the weapons she hid in there...even a kunai which she could use like a whip if the entire arrangement were pulled apart.
The girl seems to understand, but one of her boys, the other little soldier, takes it to the next step. "How come you don't use chakra? It would be much easier, and you wouldn't be so tired afterward."
The boy who has attended almost every one of these games has a shit-eating grin plastered all over his mug, and she points a finger at his lips. "You, quiet," she commands, "you already know. Can you two figure it out?"
The two genin in the dark stare at each other, while Tenten heads back towards the main building of the Academy where she will continue the rest of their training for the day. With the chuunin exams looming on the horizon, she's cancelled all of her students' off days...although that doesn't necessarily mean she has to cancel her own plans.
The other two still haven't gotten it figured out by the time they reach the small gardens out front, where she sits them down in the dense shade of a handful of brushy peach trees, heavy with fruit.
"Okay, you get one hint. Where does chakra come from," she finally allows her third student, who does his best to mimic old Iruka as he lectures them.
"Chakra comes from stamina," he says, "when you use hand seals to convert it, or when you focus it to help you run faster or jump higher."
"Right. So? Any ideas, you two?"
"But if you always train by using chakra to help you..."
"...you're not improving your stamina!"
"Exactly," Tenten finishes. "So from here to the chuunin exams -- which I've nominated all three of you for -- you're all going to practice not using your chakra. Today, I want as many laps around the village as you can give me, using your body's energy. Got it?" She grins as their groans filter up through the haze of adrenaline withdrawal.
It's not long before Neji's superior technique begins to demonstrate why he is considered one of the most dangerous men in Konoha. As good as Toyama is, even good enough with the advantage of surprise to down Hyuuga Hiashi, he is not good enough to keep up with Neji's inhuman speed and the sheer, calculated cruelty of his strikes.
Nevertheless, he has one trump card, and he has been playing it repeatedly -- his intense, though illegitimate, study of the ancient knowledge of the main house, an entire scroll's worth of secret Neji has never been privy to. For example, he knows how to disrupt the stance and the sequence that lead to the otherwise deadly sixty-four palms, which is preventing Neji from ending this quickly.
Neji is distantly aware of a growing frustration within him, but he knows better than to let himself be bothered by it.
An involuntary growl rumbles from deep within his throat, and he stabs at Toyama's shoulder, breaking the flow of chakra there entirely, and Toyama's arm falls to his side, inert. Less than a fraction of a second later, he has Toyama pinned against the massive doors with his entire body, his bloodied head band inches away from the empty, self-inflicted crater in Toyama's face.
"Why?" he growls at the man who was once his distant cousin, disowning him with the very tone of his voice. He would kill him here and now, but something within him demands that he know.
"Don't play innocent with me," Toyama whispers, his voice a shrieking wreckage of the pleasant baritone it had once been. His face is drooping on the right side, the skin hanging leprous from the bones, a twisted mirror of Neji's own handsome Hyuuga heritage. "You're like me. You hate them just as much as I do. Why not?"
Behind Toyama, behind the sparkling constellations of lines that represent the very flow of mental and spiritual energy through his body, he can see Tenten's unique pattern, the one he knows inside and out, by heart. In the world gifted to him by his eyes, her blade is a shadow of itself, a bare outline of steel clutched in the convoluted golden coils of her hand. He is proudly aware of how little chakra she uses compared to these intruders, compared to nearly everyone else he has ever met. It's the only thing that had allowed her to keep up with him when they were younger.
He watches her land, and the subsequent upwards cut that instantaneously renders one of the figures' coils dark.
Toyama cackles incoherently, finding in his infinite well of hatred the strength to try pushing Neji off him, but fails. He changes tack.
"I can tell you how to escape your curse," he whispers, seductively, "Listen..."
He tells his cousin, even as he is ground further into the door by Neji's unyielding shoulder.
It's terrifying. Enough that Neji lets go, backs off, long enough for him to hear Tenten's shouted warning through the falling rain, and a scream as she claims another one of the ninjas waiting for Toyama outside with a long thrust, the edge of her blade skyward.
"I," he announces, slowly, carefully, "am not like you. I...refuse."
Through the wall, he can see her katana cutting through an interrupted arc, throwing aside a thrown kunai with all the casual disdain of a haughty queen for a peasant. The sword never stops moving, even as she plucks the falling dagger from the air with her free hand, a balletic presentation of martial prowess which he never ceases to believe exists solely for his enjoyment.
She reminds him, without speaking, of why he must do this, regardless of his fury, his own hidden grudges, the ones he is working to set aside, as she completes her spin, releasing the stolen kunai back at its owner.
Another scream, this time gurgling -- Tenten must have punctured someone's lung -- but not enough. Two of the ninjas are over the wall already, and he can see that she can no longer ignore her last opponent, circling her, chain swinging in lazy arcs that accelerate and decelerate at its master's will. Tenten's ghostly sword is dripping pink and speckled with gold, water mixed with the involuntarily drained serum of her first three victims and the vanishing sparks of their dying chakra, her face splashed with the spray.
He knows, from the pattern of energy coiled around her skull, surging just beneath the scalp and the pitch black hair she keeps pulled back into whatever complicated pattern it is in today, that she is in her most heightened mental state of combat.
She's doing what she can, for him. He needs to end this.
On either side of him, the ninjas pass into his rear, knowing they can surround him, but never hide from him. They were clearly well briefed, but he knows it won't be enough.
Slowly, despite the protests of her calves and thighs, Tenten sits on one of the low concrete retaining walls lining the granite walkway and enclosing the flower beds. With a sigh, she fishes into her bag again, finding a plastic bottle of water with a pull top. This she opens with her teeth, and drains about half of it in one go. The full-body stretch that follows is best described as unladylike, and she knows it.
Absently, she watches Kiba dismiss his students -- they're a full year older and more experienced than hers, and he doesn't worry about their performance any more -- and wander off on his own, Akamaru sliding up alongside him.
"Later, Tenten," he says, waving. Akamaru shakes his head uproariously, his brown-patched ears slapping the air around him in a futile attempt to take flight, shambling past her on rangy legs that look far too much like his master's. "Catch you later, and I guarantee I'll kick your ass next week when I'm not exhausted."
"Good game, Kiba," she replies, salving his injured pride with a smile, before shredding it with her words. "Next week, I won't be recovering from a party either, so expect to get your ass kicked...unless we play those two clowns, then we kick their asses."
"Ha, yeah. If I see your students goofing off, I'll let you know."
"Thanks," she says, unpacking her swords and the rice paper for cleaning. It's a brilliant day, and she can't think of anything better to do right now. Besides which, she almost believes that if she takes care of her gear, it'll take care of her.
On the court, Naruto and Lee are still playing, doing their best to coerce Chouji into joining this time. Smiling to herself, she leans back against the peach tree, debating whether or not she should stand up and pick one of the ripe, pale orange fruits, or do it the easy way, with a shuriken, instead.
Her katana passes lazily through her fingers, passing through the folded paper in long, smooth strokes starting from the base and ending uninterrupted at the tip. She watches herself in the flat of the blade, watches the face of her optical doppelganger grow clearer as she systematically clears away the accumulated grime from the last couple of days. There may even be some dried, powdered blood in the dust on the blade, but she tries not to think about it too much.
"You can come out now, you know," she says quietly, "I can see you."
True enough, she's caught him in the reflection of the blade, and she meets his eyes with hers on its mirrored surface. As usual, he strays off topic, switching to the conversation he would like to have. She doesn't mind much, she's used to it by now.
"You were distracted in the early game," he says, stepping out of the shadows, sitting on her right. He's the only one who will brave sitting on the blade side while she's cleaning.
"Long night," she explains, shrugging, as the tip of her katana glides through the space inches from his straight, tall nose. "How'd you guess?"
"You were hitting the rim."
She snorts in faint amusement. "So I drank some. How was your night? People were wondering where you were." If he weren't Neji, she'd expect him to sigh or shrug. He doesn't do either.
"It's always family matters with you," she replies, accustomed to his terseness and his overwhelming sense of dignity. "Hinata finally did it, did she?"
His hesitation in answering confirms her suspicions right away. "Yes. She is Lady Hyuuga now." He pauses, while she allows herself a self-indulgent smile. "How did you know?"
"Lucky guess," she lies, knowing him and his cousin far better than they would ever admit.
A flash of lightning crackles to the ground much closer to the village than before, strobing through the street, a fleeting, impermanent sun. Less than two seconds pass before thunder rumbles down the street rocking the fragile cherry trees in its path, and Tenten's unoccupied mind registers that the storm must be moving. Before her, her opponent's cloak is speckled with rain, and she can feel the sky-born water running down her face, a heavenly ablution that carries away the blood splashed across her cheek and nose.
She doesn't have the time to wait for him to make the first move, which she would like, so she feints high and spirals around to strike low, keeping her eye on the weighted chain he keeps in perpetual motion. It loops around his body and a figure-eight and he finally chooses his moment to strike. The iron weight sails around the curve of his elbow, lancing straight towards her face. Tenten's body reacts for her, dropping her out of its path, and she crouches low with her left hand on the cobblestones and one leg extended out to the side as the iron swirls over head.
Her opponent seizes the initiative and lunges forward, sickle at the ready, but her sword sweeps up of its own accord, slicing through the path of his arrested charge, cutting open his concealing garment and dropping it to the ground.
The patter of falling rain is incredibly distant, as though she were listening to the storm from the bottom of a deep well, but she recognizes the pattern on his headband, the unmistakable boulder insignia of the Iwa ninjas. He retreats, swinging the weight in defensive circles, and she watches her body assume another stance, the katana held out in front of her at a forty-five degree angle to the axis of her body.
It's an invitation, and she knows it...and he accepts. The weight flashes through the air again, this time catching the blade of her sword and wrapping around, a creeping vine of metal ensnaring her weapon, and he moves in with the sickle to deprive her of her right hand.
She doesn't have to think. Everything now is instinctive, built into her, rehearsed and practiced. The form, the style -- every movement is as much a part of her as the act of breathing. Her entire entity is devoted, in this timeless moment, to this engagement. She is a dancer more than a warrior, the clash of steel more for her a performance than the casual, political murder of her opponent. She lives on a bloody stage, plays in a bloody game, but she is in the zone and does not care.
She still remembers the first man she ever killed, a ninja nearly ten years her elder who made the erroneous mistake of leaving her alive while he went on to attempt the assassination of the man she had been asked to protect. She remembers how the pain faded into the haze of her personal universe, how she stood in spite of a near-fatal wound, how easy it was to cut him open and twist her kunai in the wound so that it would not close. She remembers the shock and resignation in his dark eyes as life fled from him. She does not remember exactly how many times he was stabbed.
After that, it all became routine, so much so that it frightens her sometimes.
Her body twists, her left side crashing towards him, and he never sees her other hand slip free from the twisted red leather to grip the pearly handle of the kodachi behind her back. In the flickering blue light of another lightning strike, it flits through the air silently, and she severs the nearest of his carotid arteries in an elegant backhand stroke. He will die in three minutes, but to be certain, she buries the shorter of her two blades in his left eye on the return trip.
As he goes limp, the tension on the chain binding her and her sword vanishes, and it slides from from the steel, pulled away by gravity's grip. With a flick of her wrist, the blood slides cleanly away from her stained metal friend, and she does the same for the kodachi, sheathing both.
The pounding of blood and the rush of air in her chest slam into her as she stands still in the downpour. Around her in a rough semicircle are the remains of four men, one of whom is still alive, though barely, his own kunai lodged painfully in his own chest.
She doesn't stay still for long, too caught up in the momentum of the zone, and she vaults back up towards the wall.
Tenten holds her sword in front of her face, inspecting it with a critical eye. Satisfied, she returns it to its sheath, and props it up against the tree behind her, then settles back against the fragile bark, listening to it crackle as she leans into the tree. Neji remains upright, his back straight and supporting himself by virtue of his muscles alone. Idly, she runs a hand down his back as he speaks, and she notices how tense he is, how stiff and unyielding the flesh accompanying his spine is.
"Your students are becoming competent," he says, and she knows he means it as a compliment, in spite of the tone of his voice and the obvious potential for sarcasm in the phrase. If anything, Neji is never sarcastic...usually far too honest for his own good.
"Thanks," she says, folding her hand into a fist and rocking her knuckles against a hard spot on his back. He doesn't say anything, but his posture stiffens a little, involuntarily, and she knows he's humoring her, too. Maybe she knows him far too well for her own good. She sighs, softly. "It's still bothering you, isn't it?"
"What is bothering me?"
"Hiashi," she says, pulling her fist away from his back and sitting up next to him. "You've been evasive and stiff all week," she says, purposefully neglecting to add cantankerous, "and I think it's eating you."
He turns to look at her, his eyes glinting with lilac as a beam of sunlight filters through the leaves over him. She notices the bags under his eyes and wonders if he's been sleeping well recently.
"Perhaps," is all he says, before returning his attention to the distance, and as far as he is concerned, that is the end of the conversation. She lets him think that, reaching behind her for one of her kodachi, which she proceeds to clean in a similar manner.
"You know," she opens abruptly, just loudly enough to jar him out of his reverie, "I still remember the first time I had to kill a man."
Neji nods. "You told me; he left you alive."
"Yeah. But even though we had emotional training and I'd spent years telling myself I was doing the right thing...nothing really prepares you for your first kill. Nothing really prepares you for the way they look at you when you die. I tell my students everything I was told, but I know they aren't going to get it until they have to do it the first time." The rice paper slicks over the blade, evenly, rhythmically, and she likes the sound. She is a musician, and these are her instruments.
He doesn't say anything, listening to the sound of her voice, and she goes on. He probably didn't have any problems with his first kill, but it's her perspective, and she knows he's listening, because he hasn't stood up to leave.
"I spent a couple of months struggling with myself. I couldn't shake the idea that all this was somehow wrong, and I tried to rationalize. I tried to tell myself that it wasn't me doing it, that I somehow changed once I entered the zone, that I became someone else. Or I tried to tell myself that I was doing it for the village, that I was doing it because it was my duty." Tenten sighs here, flipping over the blade in her calloused hands. "None of that worked."
She carefully separates the outermost sheet of rice paper, setting it aside to discard it later, and goes on wiping down her blade with methodical strokes.
"Eventually I realized that the politics didn't matter...and that I had to come to terms with the fact that I do kill people for a living. But I did realize that I do it because I can help people. Protect them, or protect the things that make life worth living for them. And that makes me...happy, I guess.
"Maybe that isn't the right term. But I learned not to focus on the things I couldn't do, like keeping everyone I came across alive."
Neji finally gets the point, and he tilts his chin down towards his chest when he speaks, eyes closed. His face is all angles and planes, and she regards him as perhaps one of the most well-assembled young men in the village.
"I failed," he says. "Not Lord Hiashi...I disliked him. I failed my father. He trusted that I would do his duty, and replace him as the guardian of the main house."
And he is, underneath the armored layers of identity he wears, still a human being, she thinks. Under the Hyuuga, the genius, the Anbu...he is still a human being.
"You did your best," she says, "I know, I was there. And you couldn't have known what he was going to do beforehand." She stresses the word 'he', and they both know who she is referring to. "So what makes you happy?"
Toyama wastes no time upon the arrival of his allies. While he may be insane, he is not incompetent, and whatever plan he agreed to enact with these intruders goes into action immediately. Using his forbidden knowledge, he stabs at himself with pointed fingers, re-opening a handful of the dozens of points Neji has forced closed.
His hands whip through a series of seals, and Neji recognizes the order at the last possible second as a serpentine gout of flame flashes out from behind his erstwhile cousin at him.
It is massive, incandescent, a sentient rope of surging fire, and he stands directly in its brimstone laden path. He is not the head of the Anbu for no reason, and he moves to counteract it in the best way he can think of. His own hands tear through a series of poses, and he does not fail to produce exactly the correct quantity of chakra. Once complete, he slams his palm against the ground, his form an insignificant black point massively overshadowed by the onrushing fireball.
He summons a wall of solid, super-cold ice, which surges out of the ground less than two feet from his unflinching face. Toyama's incendiary assault slams into it, instantly sublimating it into steam, but it absorbs all the energy without allowing any through. The byakugan cuts through the mist and steam occluding everything, but Toyama is still there, and Neji rushes to perform his own counter-offensive...and comes to a skidding halt as he hears a sharp clack and a howl directly behind him.
Tenten is behind him, kunai in hand.
"They knew about your blind-spot," she whispers, gravely. She could tell, coming over the wall. The way they were oriented, the way they responded to Toyama's flashy diversion and their reliance on Neji's burning desire for vengeance. She's tried the same thing too many times herself. Just how much did Toyama tell them before hand?
One of the remaining two Stone ninjas is lying on the ground, Tenten's sharpened metal spikes protruding from his chest, throat and forehead.
"Mm," he utters, and she knows he means 'thank you'. He assumes his attack stance again, and secure in the knowledge that nothing more will be able to harass him from the rear.
Only Toyama's victorious grin can dissuade his confidence, and it does.
There is no warning as the courtyard detonates beneath their feet, dirt and stone stretching skyward, spires of rock and gravel rocketing skyward, fingers of a massive clay-streaked hand which closes down around them, compressing and crushing them under a dome of earth.
Silence and darkness surround them, but Tenten can feel him shaking with impotent rage as he tries to move and realizes that his limbs are locked against him, immobilizing him. It's a capture technique unique to the Iwa village, she remembers, one that buries its victims in stone and clay, and immobilizes them without suffocating them immediately. Still, she knows they've only got about half an hour's worth of air, maybe half that, since they are sharing the same air chamber.
They are crushed together, back to back, just as they were standing before the ground rose up to claim them, and she waits for him to regain control of himself before speaking.
"I'm sorry," she says, spitting out a mouthful of grit, "I was too worried about the one aiming at you with the bow, I lost track of where the other one was." Sometimes, she wishes she had the byakugan too.
Neji coughs, and there is a long pause. "No," he says. "It is also my fault. I was too concerned about Toyama, or else I would have paid him more heed."
He's still angry, and she leaves it at that, wishing she could do more than wiggle her toes. Minutes seem like hours, in the darkness, and she wants to reach up and run her fingers through his hair, to calm him, to comfort him, but she has to content herself with the warm press of his shoulder blades against hers.
Finally, a fist shatters the darkness from above, and Rock Lee is peering in, a portable lantern in his other hand. They must have just returned from a mission somewhere.
"Are you okay?" he asks, genuinely worried, before Neji questions him coldly about Toyama's whereabouts.
"Didn't see him," Shikamaru says, his voice distant, "but we caught this one Stone guy here...I'm guessing you'd like me to forward him to Hibiki." Shudders run through the dome as Lee begins pounding it back into rubble.
Neji only closes his eyes and tilts his head back against Tenten's, and leaves her to explain everything to a confused Hinata who appears at the aperture, her Anbu mask raised over her face.
"You," Neji concedes, as she puts away her kodachi.
He's still too solemn, too dignified, too caught up in the endless political intrigues and the familial infighting that rule his world. Without saying anything, she whips a shuriken up at the branch overhead, catching the peach where it falls into her hand.
"I'm glad," she says.
The only way to break the facade, she knows, is to be the one who can violate his personal space, to distract him, and she does. He isn't using his damned byakugan right now, so she snakes up next to him, insinuating herself into the space between his shoulder and his neck, and plants a small, gentle kiss in the hollow beneath his jaw.
"Tenten," he says, and she smiles as she recognizes the barest hint of embarrassment in his voice, the barest quaver in his otherwise steady speech, "not here."
"Only if I get to finish later," she laughs, mocking him as only she is allowed to, before taking a bite out of her peach.
Eh, I figured I'd throw in more about Toyama. Seriously, dude is fucked in the head, and I didn't think I'd really show that well enough in the first chapter. So there it is.
Also, I think I should probably bump up the rating -- it's hard to describe anything Tenten does without a lot of blood and people coming apart at the scenes, if only because what she does is cut things up. She's another character with virtually no depth in the manga, and it's a crying shame because her chosen path is by necessity a brutal one. Her first kill, by necessity, must be worse than anyone else's because sharp and pointy objects tend to be a little more invasive.
Ahem. Neji: because I've been wanting to focus more on the neglected female characters, I did kind of gloss over his duel with Toyama, so in a way, it fails to demonstrate Neji's true abilities as a fighter. Nevertheless, it is meant to be something of a conflicted fight for him, for a lot of reasons. For one thing, Toyama is patently insane, a by-product of freeing himself from the cursed seal. For another, Neji would never have anticipated a family member attempting the murder, not to mention that Hiashi is already dead at this point.