Tenten bit her lower lip as she watched the door slam shut behind her. Her hands, primly clasped together on her lap, were still trembling.

Did I just… turn down a Kazekage's marriage offer?

She turned her attention to the rapier she was inspecting earlier just before the man entered the room. Hunching down on the table before her, she picked up the steel, traced its contour with her eyes, and then finally, set it down with a sigh.

His words were still reverberating in her mind.

It was the last thing she expected of him to say when he entered her workroom that morning, face drawn in such severity that few people could not fear. She was anticipating him to announce that a mutiny among his most important military commanders transpired, or that the whole Sand Village was going to be sucked down in less than twenty-four hours by a giant quicksand underneath, or that his sister Temari was going to marry off Nara Shikamaru at sunset.

But marriage?

Her calloused hands landed on the rubber wheels of her contraption. Perhaps she needed some fresh air outside to clear her mind.

……………………………………

Prime Difference

A GaaTen request grant for FalconFire. Better than late than never, ne:) I hope you enjoy reading this, and thank you so much for patiently waiting for your request.

……………………………………….

The leader of the Sand Village, Gaara, found her months ago living in a commonplace hut in a small minor town by the border of his territory. She never clearly knew how he was able to know who she was and how he was able to find her, but she did know that he was aware of her superb skills in anything and everything weaponry.

And the great man of the village came to her humble abode just to pay homage to that…

She was heating a kitchen knife over the flames when she heard her chimes tinkle. She glanced over her shoulders and found a man standing by her doorway. Her eyes hadn't been good since that fateful incident with the Grass nins, but she could make out the unusual flame-colored hair of the fellow.

Red in a place as hot as this. Go figure out these fashionable people. She set aside the knife and proceeded to push her wheelchair towards the guest. "Welcome! How can I help you?"

"Weapons. They say you make good weapons." The tone was surprisingly quiet and even, very unlike of the voices that the usual boisterous low-level nins who were regulars of her shop boom every time. However, for some reason, there was a ring of familiarity in his tone of voice.

"Yes. Would you like to see them?" It was part of her business—touring them around her little stall that also served as a walk-in display case of her finest crafts to entice them more to have her make weapons for them as well.

"No."
She paused in mid-pivot. "No?" That was novelty. No one had ever refused her invitation to see and admire her pieces.

He shook his head. "I didn't come here to have you make a weapon for me."

"You only came here to confirm what the townsfolk say about my weapons?" she said in disbelief.

Instead of replying, he threw a broken stiletto on the wooden table separating them. Her forehead creased. Even at that distance and her faulty eyesight, she knew at once the nature of that accursed object.

"That is not my creation." She crossed her arms over her chest. "And even if it is, I don't have a money-back guarantee for them anyway."

He didn't seem to be listening to her, for his reply wasn't related at all to her comment. "I want you to identify where the steel used to make this blade can be found. If possible, identify the blacksmith who formed this weapon. I want my answer in two days."

"Demanding, aren't we?" she said, arching her brow. She was just preparing a snappy dismissal of this arrogant customer when he spoke again.

"Name your price."

Her mouth dropped open. But recovering quickly, she looked at him, wide-eyed. "Seriously?" She was already counting millions of ryo doing the cha-cha in her head.

"Just as long as you give me what I need in two days."

"What if I give it in three?" she asked curiously.

"Then I would have to kill you."

"Oh." That was a clean and simple way to put that—the penalty of a breach of contract. "Two and a half?" she tried.

"Two days." He sounded impatient. "Stop wasting time and tell me if you'll accept the task or not."

She stared at the broken weapon, her mind racing. In a way, his death threat only made his job for her more irresistible. For a matter to merit such urgency and rush, coupled with an exciting stake of wealth or death… it had to be something big.

"Alright," she decided, looking at him squarely. "Two days."

"Very well." He sounded pleased to her ears, but then again, that must just be her imagination playing tricks on her. From the little conversation they shared, she knew he was a man whose pleasure lay on the shadowy silhouettes of the plain impossible.

The next forty-hours of her life were dedicated to the careful scrutiny of the object. She opened her chests that stored her collections of parts taken from discarded weapons from various villages in different countries. She was fortunate enough to secure a reliable and respectable amount of samples before her last doomed mission confined her to this wheeled contraption. She also checked both modern references in the village archive and her personal notes on the specialties in weaponry of each famous clan in known villages.

The last few hours of the contract were spent on her numerous attempts to reconstruct the weapon using the methodologies sourced from her final list of possible suspects which were trimmed down from the initial ten thousands.

And then finally, the man with the scarlet hair returned, waiting for his demands.

"It's from the clan of Sum-yo, a family that everyone thought had perished fifty years ago," she announced as she placed the stiletto in front of him. "The carving on the handle bears the symbol of the carp, an important animal in the elite family's customs. The blade seems to have an amount of black sand mixed with it—this is particularly a give-away, since this family's assassins also were said to kill with deadly certainty. If the stab will not kill you, the powdered poison that will be absorbed into your body will surely do the rest of the job. The proportion of the weapon left me no doubt either. Even with its edge broken, I saw how the weight could have been distributed all over it when it was once whole. The Sand Village smiths are particularly known for its ability to lodge tremendous weight on the cutting part of the weapon and yet deliver quick, precise blows that could leave thirty punctures in any vital organ like the human heart within a second.

"That stiletto was broken in the act of thrust, that much I can say. A blade as powerful as that cannot be broken otherwise. In fact, it could have been shattered so finely only by something harder than earth itself."

"Like air."

"Yes." She was enjoying the way this strange man was following her discussion on the nature of the weapon. It had been so long since she last saw anyone remotely interested by her unusual passion for these deadly but beautiful toys of destruction. There was only one man whom she knew would sit still, listening in rapt silence as she explained to him the various connections and divergences among armaments known to man. The only man she knew who would have the humor to indulge her and her stories even in bed, at the same time that the embers of their own passion were starting to set ablaze again.

Just as quickly as the faraway memory came, she angrily shoved it away just as fast. This wasn't the time for reminiscing. She still had to finish presenting her weapon study.

"But not just ordinary air," she amended. "It has to be a sudden release in large volume."

He nodded. "I can already imagine that."

"I tried to look for their techniques in weapon-making, but they were very secretive. There were only guesses and rumors, including pacts with the devils and sacrifices of virgin cows." She rolled her eyes at that. "As if they'll know the medical situation of those animals. Geez."

"The Sum-yo clan is dead," he said after a while. "You stated so awhile ago. How then could have this materialized?"

"Hey," she protested. "I'm a weapons expert, not a detective. I don't have to answer that."

"You can be whatever I want you to be," he said firmly. "Now tell me how it could have survived until the present time."

Arrogant brat. But she did clear her throat and spoke again. "Maybe one of them lived. Or maybe someone stole or bought that weapon from a family member."

"I see." He got up and kept the broken weapon in a pouch he was carrying with him. She watched, dumbstruck, as he marched for the door, absorbed in his thoughts.

"Hey!" she called, snapping out of her shock. "Where's my 'name-the-price' whachamacollit? You charlatan! After making me lose sleep and meal for two days, you'll—"

He turned to her, almost surprised. "I forgot."

Her eyes narrowed. "Terrific answer."

"How much would the service be?" he asked, walking back inside.

"I want to have a better work area than what I have now," she replied, gesturing to her ramshackle surroundings. "And a full access to the Kazekage's library of confidential documents on the Grass Village." She gave him a self-satisfied smile. What she asked for was not something that the usual moneyed folks could afford. Sometimes, influence could be more powerful than the currency, and she now couldn't help but wonder in evil glee how this conceited and demanding man could go about with her fee. He must be already thinking of the many strings he had to pull to get what she wanted.

But to her surprise, he merely nodded. "That is all?"

She blinked, and then laughed sarcastically. Once conceited, always conceited. "Yes, that's all."

……………………………….

Her mocking laughter lasted only for sixty seconds.

Upon hearing her request, the strange man walked out of her shop. Three men returned with him inside, and he ordered these uniformed soldiers to help her into his carriage. When she protested, the soldier quickly hushed her.

She could very well remember the raw fear in the soldier's eyes that was echoed in his companions' own.

No one defies the Kazekage's wishes.

She nearly hit the roof with that one. The Kazekage? The leader of the Sand Village? That could only mean one person…

Even if it was against her personal wishes, she was forced to ride with him on the way to his office. She was partly relieved that he wasn't the usual chatty kind of person, for she seriously had no idea how to engage someone like him in a conversation about the weather today and what it'll be ten years in the future.

But that meant averting his gaze which she felt was studying her discreetly. She felt exactly the way she did back in the Academy when she performed her first Henge no Jutsu in front of the class, or when she was first introduced to Hyuuga Neji as a teammate. She was like a molecule walking under the voyeur lens of a microscope, with every movement and reaction observed intently.

When they arrived, he immediately tasked the construction of her own working shed—which, to her dismay, turned out to be more palace-like than the Kazekage's office itself. In days, she was all but settled in her new environment. Better tools, better facilities, and more learning resources for her crafts—the Kazekage's orders were clearly carried by the engineers and construction men. In addition to that, a cozy sleeping quarter was built in the place—a ninja's luxury she thought she could only taste in her daydreams.

The following afternoon, she was visited by the Kazekage himself, whom she now knew too as one of Konoha's feared allies.

"I have informed the archivist that you have my special permission to access the documents pertaining to the Grass village," he said, as she poured tea for herself. She didn't dare offer him tea, knowing how weird this man was in stories passed around in the Konoha office back when she was still active in duty. She couldn't risk offending him with courtesy.

"Thanks." She placed the pot down, but didn't move to drink. "I'll visit the library right away."

Gaara stood up, as if he was about to leave, but sat down again. "Is this place adequate?"

She blinked, surprised. "Adequate? Kazekage-sama, it's amazing!"

He seemed to deem her remark as acceptable. "If you ever need something in this place, you can inform Temari."

"Your sister?"

"My secretary."

"Temari?" she asked, making sure.

"Yes, Temari," he confirmed, an edge in his voice.

"I know her," she said, rolling her eyes. It wasn't easy to forget someone who humiliated her in front of everyone by defeating her so easily in a major examination-cum-tournament.

"She will see you after I leave." He got up to leave, and this time, he departed from the room. After a minute though, someone entered her room again. This time, it was the yellow-haired woman with a smirk that was popularized by canary-eating cats.

"Long time no see, dear." The haughty tone of Temari was unmistakable, even if her looks made her do a double take. The yellow-headed woman outgrew her odd fashion sense and had opted for a more subdued, mature look. She was clothed in dark kimono, cut to modestly hug the woman's curves like a second skin. Her obi was made of an expensive silk that could afford a family's month of three square meals. Yet the feminine softness her fashion exudes belied the power and strength Tenten knew that the woman possessed. Ah, but then again, to whip someone like Nara Shikamaru would certainly take a very strong-willed woman, so she shouldn't be too surprised.

"The aged woman becomes you, Temari," she greeted dryly. A small triumphant smile formed on her face when she caught the woman's cringe. Age remained to be a woman's waterloo in the battle of insults.

Temari effortlessly recovered her composure. "I admit: I was stunned to hear from my brother that Tenten, the famous weapons expert of Konoha, is still alive. Records say otherwise."

"I want to take an unceremonious break from being a ninja," she replied.

"I see." Her eyes wanted to add more, but the refined woman she was, she stopped herself in time. Instead, she went on with her business. "We are willing to conceal your presence from the rest of the world if you stay here permanently and work for the village."

"I just said I quit being a ninja—"

"You misunderstand me," interrupted the woman. "My brother acknowledges your skills and expertise in weaponry, so he offers you the chance to play god of weapons and do quality control on our manufactured arms. He will not be announcing your name, don't worry. There will be plenty of vultures ready to play as you in front of the public."

She frowned. "I don't suppose you are planning another invasion of some sort?"

Temari smiled derisively at her. "No offense, sweetie, but we don't need toys to conquer other villages. Our soldiers are our weapons."

"But then—"

"We sell them to other small-time villages," the blonde revealed. "Those that need bloody skirmishes to settle an issue as simple as who should rule the village when the leader is sick with flu."

Tenten's eyes narrowed. "Am I supposed to feel privileged?"

"As a matter of fact, yes," explained the other woman. "Secret trades of armaments comprise the other half of the economy of our village. Where do you think do we get our funds in running this place? You don't see us selling sacks of sand in the market for food."

"If what you said is true," she reasoned, "then there's no need for me to supervise your production. I mean, those customers of yours don't have any other options. You are the only sellers around here."

"Ah, but recently, other villages are starting to put up flea markets for these types of goods," revealed Temari. "Competition is toughing up. But if we have someone like you working for us, we'll be sure to crush those other markets. You're Fire Country's best, in terms of weaponry know-how."

"You do realize that the way you're building these up, you're increasing my possible demands in compensation," she said, raising a brow.

"Those who do not invest do not reap," replied Temari, shrugging. "Besides, my brother was very impressed with you."
"E-Excuse me?"

The woman inclined her head. "He approached you about the stiletto, didn't he?"

She nodded, confused. "He did. He told me to find what I can about the weapon."

"And you did."

"Yes, and…?"

"That was the weapon used in an attempt to assassinate him," explained the blonde. "It turned out that what you told him was right—someone wanted the Kazekage dead because this person felt it was his order that gave authority to the elite soldiers of the village to kill everyone in a fire five decades ago. One of these victims lived, and in the fiftieth anniversary of the clan's near-extinction, this avenger attempted to kill the Kazekage, or in this case, his son. Fortunately, Gaara's sand barrier reacted automatically…"

"But not just ordinary air," she amended. "It has to be a sudden release in large volume."

He nodded. "I can already imagine that."

"… so the weapon broke," continued the older woman. "The man was able to escape, so Gaara sought for a person who could pinpoint this person's whereabouts. And what better lead to start with than his very own weapon? Sadly though, Gaara went through his usual death threats, scaring the possible people who could help him." Temari's grin widened. "In fact, you were the only person who agreed to put your life at stake just to prove your abilities."

She smiled uncomfortably.

"That was very honorable," said Temari. "And very stupid too."

"Gee, thanks."

"But anyway, thanks to you, the man was traced. He is now under the custody of our forces." Temari crossed her legs. "That is but one of the anecdotes that lead me and my brothers to believe that you would be a perfect addition to our people."

She was about to protest when the woman held a finger up to silence her. "You will be working in the background, and Konoha will never know that you're still alive, running illegal business right inside the most important office of the Sand village. You will work under our protection, and I need not brag about the clout Gaara has when it comes to politics, knowing that all of you who worked in the Hokage's office know that already."

It was all too easy to say 'yes' at once, considering the advantages that the woman stacked in front of her face, but one thing kept pulling her back.

And Temari knew that. Carefully, she spoke, "I know it's hard to dismiss your loyalty to your village, but it isn't as if you'll betray Konoha. On my honor, I vow that we won't harm the Leaf Village. If the council decides to do that, I'll be the first to stand up against it." Her eyes told Tenten that she, too, held something—no, someone dear in Konoha, and destroying this person, as well as the village, would be equivalent to her own death.

Oh, but she understood that. Yet gnawing within her was the memory of the one person that meant everything to her, and the promise that she made to him.

"I can't," decided Tenten. "Not yet. Not until I've taken care of my business."

Temari looked disappointed. "We don't take 'no' that easily. Tell you what, I'll give you more time to think about it. But for the meantime, stay here."

"And what will I do here?" she asked, puzzled.

"Continue your study on weapons, try on these pieces of equipment we bought especially for you, create the perfect killer bread knives…" The woman got up. "You can ask anyone in this place to do what you want, save leaving this place without express permission from my brother."

"Am I being kept as a prisoner?" she wailed after the departing woman.

"No. Just a privileged guest with a limited itinerary." Temari waved before closing the door.

…………………………

Tenten's flashback was cut short when she felt someone fall to a step beside her. When she glanced on her right, she saw, who else, but Temari?

The woman looked at her, amused. "I just saw my brother march out of the room, looking like a funeral no one had visited. I take it that Tenten-san snubbed his little proposal?"

"Marriage isn't something taken lightly," she decided to say primly. She continued pushing the wheelchair towards the yard outside. "I don't know what came into his mind to suddenly prop something like that as if he's just asking me to accompany him to buy a pair of scissors in the crafts store!"

"Believe it or not, he's long been contemplating on this." Temari paused, making her halt as well.

"What do you mean?"

The blonde gestured to the canteen nearby. "Why don't we have some snacks first, then we'll talk."

She looked at the woman for the longest time, and then finally, shrugged. "As long as you're treating me out."

"Sure. As long as you're just going to order water and nothing else."

……………………………………

to be continued