The Hidden Rain Village was strung with paper lanterns. Tenten saw them swaying in the soft rain as she walked in the gate. She tilted her head up, saw them glow soft paper colors against a heavy grey sky for just a moment, then the rain blurred her vision. The colors ran. She rubbed the water out of her eyes but already her hands were wet. Her skin was coated with moisture, her hair wet right through. It would not dry the entire time she was here. It was more than a change of scenery. It was almost like being underwater. Another world, the sun never shone here. The paper lanterns dripped with endless rain.
Neji walked beside her, silent and tight with suppressed anger. Lee bounced a few steps ahead, extra-weird and extra-loud to match his own jagged discomfort. Maito Gai brought up the rear, yawning as wide as a sleepy lion, rolling his wide shoulders under layers of wet fabric. Tenten slowly fingered the leather guards on one wet hand, her skin damp and goose bumped under it. Above them, heavy droplets clung to red lantern strings, falling without warning. Cold water ran down her forehead and into her eyes.
They were here for their second try at the chuunin exam. Tenten was certain they would all destroy their opponents in the finals. The biggest problem they would have would be keeping Lee away from alcohol during the exam festival. They would be in this foreign village for a handful of weeks. Then they would return as chuunin.
The last exam had not gone well for any of them.
She pushed those thoughts out of her mind.
Their team was more than the sum of three exquisitely trained fighters. They trained together, they trained to the point where they understood one another without words, without engaging their conscious minds at all. They trained until they could be so attuned that they could almost fight as one person- six lethal hands. Gai had directed them to this, called for them to stop worrying, stop thinking- focus. But beyond his booming voice lay a rich vein of twilight. The power in it had shocked her. Absolute clarity came with this tight mental focus. It was powerful ninjutsu, seika tanden, what Buddhist monks called the void. And it was their own. No other genin team could come close to this.
And as they dashed across fields and through heavy forests, she felt herself slipping into that strange peace. She saw Neji react almost without knowing it, fall into step with her. And then Lee too was altering his movements, reacting to them both. Synchronizing, like some complicated weaponry jutsu. She didn't have to think of each blade as she formed the seals. She didn't even have to think of the seals. It flowed together. She only had to learn to step aside and let it happen.
And it was happening now. Right now.
They got to their lodgings without incident. Gai chuckled sheepishly over his tired legs, too much showy youthful dashing on the way, demonstrating dynamic running for Lee. Tenten had rolled her eyes. She'd been unfocused then, normal. Disconnected from this deep sense of synchrony. Now she only drank in the tactical details of this village, barely noticing it happening. Her mind's eye was soaked and open to the atmosphere. She expected to spar with Neji, but Neji locked himself away in his hotel room. She ended up sparring with Lee instead. She thought nothing of it. She'd imagined she might get closer to Neji once. She reached out for him and made it happen. At dinner that night, Neji stared at his food and ignored the conversation. Lee was bright in a hard, brittle way. Gai was ordering sake. She fingered the kunai strapped against her upper arm, her hand caught in her damp sleeve. She thought nothing of it. She was watching their hands, every detail. Focus. Focus.
Gai settled down. Neji looked up at her and accepted the smile that she offered. Was he looking for encouragement? Did he worry about his chances? Did he feel alone? She couldn't know, and she didn't have to know. All he needed was her smile. They moved as one, she thought, placing the sake bottle unobtrusively out of Lee's reach. Gai's warm gaze settled on her with approval. Lee talked brightly and happily, and even his words seemed to strike the rhythm of each slow heartbeat. His, or hers.. or Neji's. If the focus was deep enough, everything would synchronize. Her team held itself together like the four points of a compass. She didn't have to think or worry. They were naturally aligned, like the interlocking seals of a jutsu. Perfect as tight watch gears, elegant clockwork engineered just for this simple exam. No sweat for them. Neji vanished before dessert. He took himself out of the works. Tenten could remember the sound of his heartbeat in her ears, and pushed her worries away. Focus. It would all fall into place if she could just let it.
She found herself with Lee. Gai laughed and smiled too widely and put himself and his tipsy brain to bed. It was Lee who suddenly had her hand, and was sharing a curiosity about this strange new village that didn't even have to be spoken aloud. They walked through rainy streets, and were washed with the wet colors together, the lanterns swaying over them. They fell into impromptu sparring together, laughing gusts of steam in the steady downpour. Focused and aligned, she was less embarrassed by him, it was like his happy corny voice was part of her. It was as close and familiar as the hard edge of his hand. The play of the colored lantern light on his wet skin lingered in her memory, and the warmth of his hands, the way he moved through the rain, water streaming off his long limbs. It danced through her dreams, simmered under her skin as she washed off the chill in the hotel's bathhouse. Alone with the soap and hot water, she moved through his motions, focused enough to feel the way he moved, smooth as the flowing water, as if part of it. As if part of him, the focus brought him so close. It held Neji's schisms of anger in check. It guided her hand. She knew everything would be fine.
Held in balance, nothing would change.
It suppressed the part of her that wondered why Lee had to be like that. She thought in clean edges. She was open to it, after all. Open to every part of him, and to Neji. Neji was in his room, sulking. He wasn't training and he wasn't eating. The warm ripple of Gai's voice came through the paper wall between Neji's room and hers. So it was Lee. By no cause of her own, it was Lee.
So they trained for three days, and on the fourth they went out to walk on the rainy path by the Rain Village's high wall. Cypress trees hemmed them in against the wall's inner face and it's long line of sunken statues. Bleached stone eyes watched them, and rain dripped slowly off weathered stone hands. The Rain Village did not have a Kage, these were the statues of their dead ninja. Tenten thought about how every single member of her team had left their first chuunin exam on a stretcher. Lee talked to her, trying to lift her mood. Together they watched little birds jump around the branches and heavy wet leaves above their heads.
"Neji would like this." Lee said distantly.
His voice was like the glancing touch of sunlight after days of endless rain, and nothing else in sight.
They came to the village early to train in the changed atmosphere and establish their beachhead here in the constant rain. The days trickled away and the window of opportunity closed. Neji didn't come to the pachinko parlor either, she and Lee were alone in the crowds of deafening noise and the flashing lights. The week ended and the festival began. The Rain Village burst at the seams with crowds of travelers. The bathhouse and gate path were choked with genin and spectators from the noble classes. Voices glanced off wet lanterns and damp wooden pillars.
But still, her team mostly conducted it's business in silence. Aside from talking about when and where to train, they didn't talk about anything worth remembering at all, and this was normal. Neji wasn't at dinner, but there was an tray outside his door. Tenten cleared her mind. She looked for the sunset that wasn't there behind the heavy curtain of cloud. She only had to keep her hands and her blades sharp- nothing else. Focus. Like a razor's edge, so narrow that it cut effortlessly. On the ninth day she and Lee stole into Neji's room. They sat up far into the night with him, working on refining that absolute focus. One hand striking with the force of six. Every part of them- Neji's lightning precision and Lee's stunning taijutsu, her own shock and awe of flying daggers, and they all became elements of their technique. Pure fighting form. And if Neji was getting angrier, and Lee was a bit more maniac than usual, and stress cracks were appearing, and Tenten was trying to focus on meditating but she couldn't stop thinking of Lee's warm fingers briefly touching her wet cheek- that was fine. Focus, seika tanden, connection with his hand and his heart, and all of them moving as one.
It would be fine until the battle was over. She worked to keep herself in the right state of mind, where move and countermove where just predictable mathematics. Even training alone, her team moved together. The four hands, the eight, the sixteen.. she heard Neji whispering as he moved through the steps and his sixty-four palms sizzled through the wet air- and raindrops went flying. She and Lee pulled him out into the rain with them. They sparred far into the morning, over the soaked rooftops and above the strings of colored light far below. Everything in her team happened this way now- silent, perfectly executed. Like each element of Lee's taijutsu, his shadow dance. His muscles moved together, guided by his trained focus, all parts interconnected. He didn't have to stop and think. He learned not to think. She learned to walk a knife's edge of focus, let the snap of her arm take over and move the way she'd taught it. Neji didn't have to think of each of those sixty-four flying hands- thinking too hard could make you flub a technique you knew perfectly. Too much interfering would throw them off their collective rhythm. If they pushed too hard right now, Neji would snap. The focus took over. The team hung in balance. The sun never rose or set, the heavy clouds melted from pale grey to dark grey and back again.
So the days went by...
On festival night, Neji came out under the wet lanterns. Puddles glittered all through the village, full of reflected light. He wore heavy silk robes, and she was dressed for the party too, lush fuchsia satin and red braids tied into lucky chrysanthemum knots. They skirted the party together, leading Lee away from all those wet bottles of sake, into colored rain under the steady paper lanterns. Rain slid down under the high collar of her dress and trickled down her back. As the grey sky turned a soggy dark blue with nightfall, they walked together through the water gardens in the center of the village.
They paused on the wooden bridges, and Lee held the line of conversation for both herself and Neji. Lee tilted his head up at the wet trees full of the last dregs of spring blossoms. As rain fell on his face in heavy splotches, he talked about the Team Seven kunoichi Haruno Sakura. He talked about flowers of chakra. Tenten understood, she had seen the scrolls where each of the eight chakras were drawn as flowers. Lee talked about Sakura as a promise of flowers, when his own chakras had refused to bloom. He talked about what he thought he'd wanted. He talked about Sakura full of chakra and power like falling pink blossoms, and her teammate Uchiha Sasuke lost to the vicious black flowering of his talent. Neji's chakra as precise flowering lines, all the white violet of the crown chakra. Too much overthinking would be a constant danger to him. Lee took Tenten's hands and talked about her own serrated chakra flowers. He ran his wet fingers over the calluses on her hands.
She leaned against the soaked slippery wood rail of the bridge at watched Lee talk to Neji. The story of the crown chakra and it's thousand lotus petals, wet with constant rain. She watched Neji's expression tighten. Out in the mist over the pond she could see rain genin practicing their amphibious assault. They came to the end of the garden path. The lights and sound of the festival tent bloomed in front of them. All six hands needed to be attuned. Too much overthinking, too much fear and anger would defeat them and they'd leave another chuunin exam in pieces.
"I know." said Neji, face half-lost in the mist and rain as all around them, darkness fell. He worked himself out in silence They returned to the party. The exam hovered behind the dark clouds and the night, awash in music and colored light, veiled by constant rain. They were ready.
Nothing to do now but close that window of time.
Gai got drunk with Asuma-san and Kakashi-san, and Tenten sat with Sakura and Ino for a while. Time between training and fighting wasn't something she had to worry about, or pay attention to. She just had to rest her body and the parts of her mind that were focused and directed. She watched the light curl in the beaten metal bracelet on Sakura's thin wrist. Her eyes tracked the embossed petals and leaves of a daffodil, etched into it's surface. Lee had bought it for her. Tenten idly watched Ino tease Sakura about it, and Sakura huff and roll her eyes. And then a bit later as the conversation changed course and Sakura turned the bracelet slowly in her fingers, she said that it was a goodbye present.
Sakura reported Lee's words with a shrug, and an ill-concealed quiver of worry for her own hastily assembled team. She was competing with two strangers, both of her teammates were gone. Ino stopped teasing, and Sakura changed the subject to their senseis getting blind drunk and how embarrassing it was. Tenten wondered if Sakura felt bad about not being crushed on anymore, and if this made her feel even more lonely in her ramshackle competition team. But her mind was clear. She was trained to a knife's point, body and mind. It was meant to be all six hands in her minds eye, but she was thinking of Lee's hands, and the way he moved through the rain. Her dress was damp like every other surface in this village and clung to her. Braziers burned overhead in the heavy festival tent. Her hair curled in damp tendrils against her neck.
She pulled one topknot free, then the other, and wrapped the ribbons smooth around her wrists. Ino and Sakura drifted away. She found herself at the table, lost in the crowd. She looked across into the forest of people and saw Lee. In a crowed of hundreds, she saw him. Instantly. Why? Well.. he'd always had so much more charisma than Neji. It made the whole academy class want to watch him, even when he probably wished they would have looked away. But all that was in the past now. She watched him move. Simple, small everyday gestures, lifting a paper cup of punch to his lips. As natural as the quiet fall of a snowflake. His body was long and sleek, and so graceful. She couldn't stop watching.
He wore an embroidered red jacket, a brocade of phoenixes stitched in golden threads, the fabric rippling over his body like silken waters. "For Neji." he said, and smiled at her. He had come close, his bright smile materializing out of the humid tent and shifting crowd like the first rays of dawn. It warmed her. "To cheer him up!" Birds as a silent message of encouragement- it was so corny. She laughed. She forgot to ask him if he was really over Haruno Sakura- and why give up now, when her Uchiha teammate was lost to the village and out of the way? She forgot to worry about Neji. She accepted his hand and they went to dance.
If she thought too much, if she worried too much, her concentration would dissolve. Her aim would deviate. She was not like Sakura, worrying over a missing teammate and left all alone now. She was not like poor sad Hinata, or even sadder Neji- who had heard Lee and did understand, but was still weighted down with the anger and sadness of his family problems. Lee had hinted that there was a burden to genius, that it exacted a price- just look at Uchiha Sasuke. Or rather, the empty space where Uchiha Sasuke had once been. And just look at Neji- over there, sipping punch and talking to his cousin. But the 'talking' seemed to be mostly uncomfortable silence, and Hinata's defensive closed-off body language, the frustrated tilt of Neji's head.
But the genin that were too young to drink were dancing. The musicians were taking requests. And Tenten wanted to not worry, she wanted her clarity back. The music subsided and then started, and she was swept up in Lee's arms. She had to think quickly, match his footwork. In between their shared breathless laughter she only had time to notice the liquid way he moved, and then the perfect way they moved together. She didn't notice as the laughter turned to soft whispers. She didn't think too hard about what she was doing. She looked up and thought that Lee glowed like the paper lanterns, golden and flushed, lit up from within. Lee wrapped his arms around her tight and her soft chest rubbed against his hard body. Silk and satin rippled between them. She was kissing him and she'd never kissed a boy like this before. She was only fifteen. She wasn't worrying. She wasn't thinking. The motions were all perfect, two trained ninja ready to risk their lives in battle. Alone together, in a crowd of mostly strangers. When they kissed, it felt like part of the dance. Just the next step, that's all. Nothing to worry about. His lips were wet with rainwater that was dripping through the tent canvas, striking the hung brazier lamps with intermittent sizzles.
She forgot all about the two Hyuga and their silent argument.
But as night turned to morning, and Lee snored beside her, she remembered. She looked over at Lee, who had found his own genius, and then found that he no longer had to compete with Neji or on Neji's terms. So he rose above it, mastering his own anger and fear. And if Neji was clawing his way through the same now, he had to do it by himself. Tenten would help him, she would support him. Lee would do the same. But they had never done these things any other way. These problems would be worked out in silence, shadow- the rush of training. Lee had trained all his demons away. Tenten had mastered her own comparatively minor fears. Her path to becoming a great kunoichi was clearer. But she had fought hard for this focused emotional control, and once having learned it, she wondered why she should let darker, harsher emotions cloud any part of her life.
So she and Lee merely exchanged glances as they dressed for the written exam.
Lee talked, chatting away cheerfully to pass the minutes by. But it was that glance which mattered. They collected Neji from his room and they made their way together across the rainy village in the slow scattershot parade of genin teams, gathering like a chorus of hushed whispers. Neji's irritated embarrassment couldn't stop her hand and Lee's- he grabbed one arm, she grabbed the other. Together they caught Neji between them. Bearhug. Perfectly executed, four hands moving as six. He shifted awkwardly and put one halfhearted hand on Lee's chest to fend him off.
They held fast. "Don't worry, Neji!" Lee said, winking.
"We can do it." she added, smiling her necessary encouraging smile. They were already synchronized and ready, already in rhythm together. Trained so hard and long that all the messy complications were whipped out of them and they could rise above it all just long enough, perfectly balanced weapons, poised and readied. Lee's smile and hers, Neji's final relenting half-smile, rare as the sun now weeks gone and still nowhere in sight. No more words or worries now. They'd used all the words they needed.
"So cheer up." she whispered to him.
And then they were chuunin and the exam was over, they were packing and this hard inhuman focus wasn't necessary anymore.
Which meant that Tenten had to think about what had happened. She'd danced with Lee. And- she'd kissed him. And as Neji grew more and more distant in his private anger, they'd danced on, as the music got slower and more intimate, and the lights dimmed slowly at the braziers burnt out. As the night's colored lights faded to the slow rainy blue of morning, she'd ran on wet streets with Lee, getting wetter with him. They'd sparred in the water gardens under the trees full of morning birdcalls and the constant patter of raindrops. Lee had struck at the air, slicing the drops as they fell. He counted them down- twenty! Twenty one! Trying to beat his personal bests, always. Always trying harder. She'd stood back and watched and thought that he was suddenly beautiful. Water was flowing down his face and neck, his red jacket was soaked to a deep rich burgundy. His hair was wet blue black and shiny as milled steel in the soft light. He was wild and free and young, and as beautiful as an exotic tiger, as dangerous and she couldn't stop watching him. She wanted to touch him again. She put out her hand to ruffle his hair, he cut his last raindrop and his lips found hers, rain running all over them both.
And then- they'd run back to the hotel, she'd pulled him into her room and kissed him against the door. Lee fell into her bed and immediately began snoring, worn out by his wild energy. It went no further than that, but it could have. In the hard focus, his hand fitted perfectly to hers, who knew how far it could have gone?
And soon she'd be back in Konoha with all her normal thoughts, her normal self with it's distractions. She'd come down from this razor's edge, and what then? It could go on if she wanted it. She could run with Lee over the green fields of Konoha. She could just keep dancing with him, if she wanted. If she wanted. But did she want that?
Their certificates of promotion were in Gai's wet hand, soaking in the rain as she and Lee caught Neji in one last bearhug, the empty lanterns just wet and dead over them now, the magic over. Gai threw his wide arms around the three of them, wept for the beauty of their youth. On cue, Lee burst into tears of happiness as well, Neji looked like he'd just bitten into a lemon, and Tenten saw them for what they were: not weapons. Not hand seals. Not parts of a jutsu. People. Messy, silly, weird, complicated people.
And she was holding herself remote, shutting down whole parts of herself because she didn't want to bother with being anything but a sharp edge, an unerring aim. But she had a messy weird heart and unsolvable problems and all the rest of it. They were so well trained, they were on their way to being top-notch ninja. Their chuunin certificates were right there, the fresh ink staining in the slow rainfall. They could move so perfectly together, as if everything they did just was a dance, every step in rhythm and harmony. And that could last throughout the battle. But when their concentration broke, and the battle was over they just were people again. Lee kissed her and she saw no shock or anger on Neji's face. Gai wept louder, extolling their youthful passion, and Tenten was appropriately mortified. She thought that this just couldn't get any messier, her team was an unbeatable weapon but they just couldn't get any weirder.
Weapons were so much cleaner. They were so much easier to handle.
But in the absence of dance steps and katas and trained routines, she had to improvise. Nothing guided her hand now, it was only her own. She took Lee's hand. And as he smiled across her at Neji, she reached out for his hand as well. Gai's hands fell on Neji's shoulder, and then Lee's. His words filled the silence as they walked together away from the Rain Village's envelope of clouds, out of step, out of focus, out of the rain shadow and back into the light.