Hello everyone. As I've hinted, here's an epilogue! First of all, I'd like to show off a positively orgasmic anonymous review I received a while ago. I'm very proud of it:

From: sasukarin hater
how can u pair sasuke and karin up she is a whore masashi made that clear by
saying she wanted to ravage sasuke in other words rape him and she is loyal
orochimaru follower and is obsessed with sasuke

I deleted it quickly, because it was too amazing to handle, and because it wasn't a waste of space. Doesn't it make you happy? It's so grammatically correct, and the logic is impeccably unchallenged. Sure the story is labeled as a NejiTen and not a SasuSaku, and I've made no permanent promises whatsoever regarding the pairings, but come on! SasuKarin, Mara? Really? You know what, it's okay to flame a story based off of the pairings. Who cares about the plot or the writing style? Nothing that can actually help the writer with their technique matters when pairings are involved! Thank you, "sasukarin hater", for your wonderful advice! It wasn't a waste of time, and I'm sure I'll improve beyond my wildest dreams thanks to your metaphysical wisdom! People, pay attention to "sasukarin hater", for she's made a fabulous point. Just because Karin wants to "ravage" Sasuke (rav-age: To bring heavy destruction on; devastate) means she is quite obviously a "whore" (whore: A person considered sexually promiscuous). Also, although she didn't react badly at all to the news of Orochimaru's death, and she followed after Sasuke and Suigetsu at their request even though Orochimaru had ordered her to stay in the prison, she still must be a loyal follower of Orochimaru! And because she is obsessed with Sasuke, she sucks. It doesn't matter if Sakura was as well, Karin's worse. Therefore, SasuKarin is impossible, and SasuSaku is altogether the best pairing evuh!

Getting over that, I give my thanks to everyone who stayed with me despite the pairings, to the people that helped me improve, to the people that supported me through everything: Metal Blondie, Ukyou-Taisuke, Dreaming101, XxkikiroxX, Youkai Koneko, kimiko77, bright-rebellious, Epic Bunneh-sama, Nerd4eva, yeji301, Tobi-obsessed, Hikoru Aniki, LyricGirl16 and waterdragonrai. You all stood out to me as mature and adorable and loveable and…you guys just plain make me smile. You didn't care about the pairings, you didn't even complain about them once! You always had some helpful advice, and a compliment to help keep me going. It made me feel like my writing actually means something to you! THANK YOU SO MUCH!

And HAPPY HOLIDAYS, to all! This is my seasonal present to you. I do hope you enjoy!

xXxXx

H e A r N o E v I l
Epilogue: Seatbelts

"Tell me where the fire went and I'll tell you where it came from."

Three Years Ago . . .

There was something wrong with her.

She could tell.

She was messed up, seriously fucking messed up.

She loved it, though.

It was the sight of people avoiding her as she walked down the hallway of Kiri High School that sent her into a feeling of mirth. These wealthy idiots, afraid of her. It was magnificent.

"TenTen."

She turned around as her name was spoken with a bark. It was lunch, and she was strolling through the halls against the wave of students, without a care. She raised an eyebrow nonchalantly, leaning her weight on her hip. "What?" she asked rudely of the teacher who stood in the doorway of a nearby classroom.

"Where are you going?" the teacher asked, but TenTen could tell that this wasn't the subject on his mind. "The cafeteria is the other way."

She shrugged. "I dunno. I don't really have anywhere to go."

"But it's lunch time."

"I don't eat here. The food's shit."

The teacher winced at the curse, but didn't bother telling her to watch her mouth. He beckoned her to come over, and she obeyed, but slowly, just to bug him. "What?" she asked again, forcing herself to sound impatient as if she had something important to do.

But she only did that to bug him more.

She had nothing to do.

No one to talk to, really.

"Step into my classroom, we need to have a talk about your grades."

TenTen frowned. "But it's lunch time…"

The teacher looked sternly down at her. "You said you had no where to go, right?"

She cursed herself inwardly, but had to obey, and walked into the classroom. The teacher closed the door behind himself, but she didn't notice, because she saw someone else sitting politely in one of the desks. A pink-haired little girl from a grade beneath her.

TenTen grimaced. Sakura was her name, if she could remember correctly. The one with the know-it-all attitude and the gigantic forehead. She was kind of ugly. All the other girls hated her, always made fun of her. With good reason, TenTen commented silently as she observed the girl in the desk, who stared nervously back at her. It didn't matter what she looked like, but if this chick couldn't even stand up for herself, she was useless.

"TenTen, this is-"

"Yeah, yeah, I know who it is," TenTen interrupted the teacher impatiently. "Spit it out, baldy."

The teacher cleared his throat with indignation, and, patting his thinning hair briefly, said, "This is your new study buddy."

TenTen blinked. Sakura smiled meekly up at her, but TenTen didn't notice. She was staring at the teacher, wondering if those words had actually come out of the stupid man's mouth.

"…What…?" she asked blandly.

"Your grades are significantly poor, TenTen," the teacher explained, adjusting his glasses cautiously. "And the principal and I have been observing your behavior, and have decided that it's about time you learn how to improve yourself."

"So…you're sticking me with forehead girl?"

Sakura winced, and the teacher sighed. "See, this is exactly the kind of ill-mannered nonsense we've been talking about. Sakura, here, has the highest grade point average in the entire school, and she is considerably polite. You could learn a few things from her."

TenTen shook her head. "No, no, wait a minute!" She pointed to Sakura, who flinched immediately. "This girl doesn't deserve this! You can't just force her to teach me shit!"

The teacher raised an eyebrow. "We didn't force her into anything. We suggested it, and she accepted, because it is earning her extra points in community service credits."

TenTen paused, then glared at Sakura, who seemed unsure of what to do. "…You have got to be kidding me."

"I'm afraid I'm not. You're to meet every day in the library after school for an hour, starting tomorrow afternoon." TenTen groaned aloud, the teacher went on. "Sakura will help you with your homework, and hopefully you'll learn how to get your life together by spending time with her."

"Come on!" TenTen cried, but the teacher, satisfied and finished, left the room. TenTen now turned to Sakura slowly and dangerously, who smiled shyly.

"U-Um…" She cleared her throat and stood up. "Well, I'm sorry…But I hope that I'll be able to help you-"

"-Oh shut up, ugly, this is your fault," TenTen growled. She sighed and turned her back on Sakura. "I'll see you in the library tomorrow, I guess. And if you're late and make me wait, I swear to god…" She glared over her shoulder, a glare that made Sakura shudder visibly. "I will kick your ass."

She exited the room, leaving a lonely and slightly paralyzed Sakura still in it.

"I've been treated like an outcast my entire life…because of how I look. Pink hair, green eyes, and apparently I have a gigantic forehead to go with it…Who wouldn't think I'm a freak? People would always make fun of the fact that someone so odd had such a normal, common name like Sakura Haruno. Everyone laughed at me…except TenTen."

"…I don't get it…" TenTen said for the thirteenth time the next afternoon.

She could tell Sakura was getting mentally exhausted. They'd been going at her Chemistry homework for about half an hour at least now, and so far, to TenTen, nothing made sense. She was only being honest! She just couldn't understand what the hell Sakura was talking about and what a 'Trigonal Planar', whatever the hell that was, had to do with 'PCL sub 3', whatever the hell that was.

"Listen, TenTen, you're not even looking at your periodic table of elements," Sakura said with a sigh.

"Well how am I supposed to read it?! It's been scribbled over with red sharpie!"

"TenTen, you did that. Five minutes ago. While I was talking," Sakura muttered.

"Oh cry me a river…"

Sakura put her face into her hands. "Oh…what did I get myself into…?" she moaned into her palms. TenTen rolled her eyes. If there was one thing she'd learned in the half hour she'd spent trapped with this girl, it was that she was disgustingly overdramatic.

"What's wrong, Sakura?"

Sakura blinked and raised her head out of her hands. TenTen lifted an eyebrow and looked up as well.

A very pretty girl was standing behind Sakura with two other pretty girls behind them. She frowned when she noticed TenTen. "…Um, wow. I think I get it now."

"Get…what…?" Sakura asked slowly.

The girl sighed, running a hand through her long black hair. "You like to feel better about yourself, so you hang around delinquents like her."

TenTen only laughed. She was used to chicks like this, and it was always more fun to play along with them.

'And get them back later with five dead spiders and a pillow case full of apples…' TenTen thought with a smirk, her mind concocting a sudden deadly plan.

"That's…that's not it…" Sakura said, shaking her head. "I, um…I was assigned to help her study. I'll get extra credit from it, so we're both benefiting…"

The girl gave a harsh giggle. "Oh, I see …You're just full of yourself. As usual."

Sakura turned her head to face the table. TenTen raised an eyebrow carefully as she observed the scene. What the hell was the girl doing, just letting these people pick on her like that?

"I think you're just trying to make yourself seem even smarter. But just to let you know, you're only doing it because you're worried about that gigantic tumor above your eyebrow."

TenTen narrowed her eyes. "Okay, then."

With a screeching of her seat, which attracted the attention of the entire library, she was up. She grabbed the girl's wrist. Everyone stared at them, silent. Sakura was gazing at TenTen in overawe.

"Alright, listen here, you shithead example of a Victorian turtle," TenTen hissed at the black-haired girl. The other two girls backed away, and the black-haired one's eyes widened. "I want you to take back what you said, and I promise I won't feed you to the first large mammal I see cross my path."

The black-haired girl blinked and shook her head. "Y-You can't fight in school!" she cried.

TenTen grinned. "You also aren't allowed to bring weapons to school. And let me tell you; every pencil sharpener you see is a wonderful weapon." She tightened her hold on the girl's wrist.

"Would you like a demonstration?"

In one second the girl had torn herself away from TenTen and fled. TenTen watched her go, then sat down again with a small laugh. She nudged Sakura, who was staring at her, mouth agape. "Funny, right?" she asked happily. "'Aint she an idiot? I mean, I've tried to stick my finger in a pencil sharpener before, and it doesn't even hurt that much. I mean, I can't get my finger far enough into the thing in the first place, and…whoa, hey, what are you doing…?"

Sakura was crying. TenTen grimaced. She hated it when people cried around her. She never really knew what to do.

"Um…hey, listen, uh…Your forehead really isn't that big," TenTen tried.

Sakura just kept crying, her face in her crossed arms on the table. "It's not just that…You're always so confident, TenTen, even though you're such a freak!" TenTen glowered. "But me, I'm always so uncertain, so pathetic. They had a good reason to compare me to you." She fisted a hand visibly on the table. "I…I'm like a weed…I'm so ugly…so unneeded…" She let out another sob, and a very loud hiccup.

TenTen blinked, then groaned and sat back in her chair. The library was still staring, passersby pointed at Sakura. This was unbelievably humiliating. "Listen, okay?!" TenTen demanded. Sakura said or did nothing else, but she spoke anyways. "I'm no good with criers; I don't really know what to do. But I do know that you're better than this!"

Sakura paused. TenTen didn't notice, actually. She kept going. "I mean, I'm stupid, I get it, but if I know one thing for sure it's that you're not. And you're strong, right? You're not some sort of tool. Because…because you know what it's like to be me, don't you?" Sakura lifted her head a bit, staring at TenTen with a wet face. TenTen frowned determinedly back at her. "You know what it's like to be outcast," she said seriously. "And I'm sure that you know how to be strong because of that. How to be you."

TenTen grinned.

"Because you're not changing, are you?"

"You're just flying through life without a clue…"

"T…TenTen!"

She turned around, sighing distractedly. "What?" she asked exasperatedly. She was on her way to her car in the parking lot. It was bitter cold, and she wasn't in the mood to wait in the snow. Two months later, and they had been studying for a while now. She'd grown a little closer to the girl, but she still didn't like her. Still thought she was annoying as hell.

Sakura finally caught up to her. She was pink all over, with her pink hair, her fluffy pink winter coat, and her raw pink cheeks, pinched from the icy wind. She was trying to keep her backpack and purse and schoolbooks in her arms, and smiled sheepishly. "U-Um…I forgot to tell you… you have an Algebra Concepts quiz tomorrow, so you need to study those pages in the book I assigned you yesterday!"

"Ugh. Joy." TenTen shifted her bag to her other shoulder moodily. "Can't you do it for me?"

"…What, study…?"

"No, take the test."

"…TenTen…"

"Yeah, yeah, whatever. I know you can't, I was just kidding." She glowered as Sakura scratched her cheek uncertainly. "What?! I can't make a joke now and then?!"

"…You can!"

TenTen sighed. "Okay, calm down. Jeez, you're such a weirdo."

"I…I am not a...!"

TenTen grinned a bit. Over the months, Sakura had grown on her, slightly. And she assumed she'd grown on Sakura a bit as well. They'd studied together every day after school in the library, at the order of TenTen's dumbass, balding math teacher, and so far, TenTen wasn't exactly advanced in the subject, but she had noticed a slight bit of improvement. For instance, she actually knew what they were doing…Now she had to figure out how to do it…

Yeah. That was the hard part.

"Well, I'm gonna get to work," TenTen said with a sigh, running a hand under her bangs. "They might fire me if I'm late again."

Sakura was watching her closely. TenTen raised an eyebrow. "What? Aren't you gonna scurry off, as usual?"

"I…I have to ask you something…"

TenTen rolled her eyes impatiently. "Okay, shoot." Sakura said nothing, she just kept watching TenTen, who placed her hands on her hips, annoyed. "Hey, Pinky, I said go for it!"

Sakura blushed a bit, and bit her lip. "Um…Why do you…always insist on being so…?" Her voice faltered as she tried to find the right word. TenTen watched her as she wound her hands around themselves, then finally finished with a lame, "…well…you know…"

"Why am I like this?" TenTen translated for her. Sakura nodded nervously, and TenTen let her weight drop to one hip thoughtfully. Her breath steamed out in front of her as she pondered this. "Well…You're not really in any place to ask me that, forehead, but whatever. I guess…it's because…" She laughed. "Because that's the way I like it."

"…What…do you mean…?"

"I like life to be interesting, you know?" TenTen said, waving a hand in the air carelessly. "I like to spice things up a bit."

"But…You're ruining your future, TenTe-"

"I don't have a future, forehead," TenTen interrupted her tilting her head to the side. Sakura's green eyes were wide as she stared at her. "I don't have a chance. I've never had one, ever since my parents died." She turned around, to go to her car, and finished easily. "I don't deserve one, after all."

"Don't…deserve-?"

"See you later, Pinky."

"O…Okay…" TenTen started to walk away towards her car, but then she felt something strange.

It was a queasiness at first, like butterflies in her stomach. But then, it grew stronger, and her heart started to flutter. It was like something was tugging at it…

It was…painful

She wouldn't realize until later, that it was guilt.

It had been a long time since she'd felt it.

"W…Wait…"

This was strange. This was very strange. TenTen stopped walking, both in surprise, and in…some sort of unconsciousness. Because…she hadn't expected those words to come out of her mouth instead of Sakura's.

She turned around, not really knowing what she was doing, to face Sakura, who had turned to look at her inquiringly.

"Do you…want a ride home…?"

Sakura stared at her. She stared at her good and hard, for a long time. Then, she smiled.

"For once, I didn't know what to say. And sometimes, I wish I had said something. Because she still gets like that. But then she smiles again, and I forget all about it."

"Heh, I guess you come through for me, don't you, forehead?" TenTen said cheerfully. "I actually got a problem right!"

"Well, I am your tutor," Sakura said sternly. "You should…learn to understand these things…"

"Oh cut it out, you sound like you're supposed to be my grandma." They were in TenTen's big black Ford pickup after school. Ever since that day twelve weeks ago, TenTen had been giving Sakura a ride home through the snow. She insisted it was 'payback for shagging ass every day in the library', but she was sure Sakura knew better.

TenTen just couldn't stand the thought of the stupid pink twat walking home every day through the snow, all pink and…and…pink…It…It just annoyed the hell out of her! So, she settled - for her own benefit she tried to remind herself - with giving the little idiot a ride. Hey, it also gave her an excuse to be late to her job every Wednesday and Thursday.

"Here you are," TenTen said as they pulled up to Sakura's house. It was a small flat, very nice and clean-looking. TenTen knew it was a lot better than her shabby apartment. She was trying not to get evicted from the place, but she was sure that the land-owner wouldn't give her mercy just because she was poor as hell.

Sakura opened the door and smiled. "Oh, good, I think Tsunade made brownies today!"

TenTen's ears perked at that. Tsunade…Sakura had mentioned the lady before. She was Sakura's mother, apparently. But TenTen was more interested in the brownies. She hadn't had brownies in a long time…

Sakura seemed to notice TenTen's subtle desire, for she stared thoughtfully at her for a while. TenTen glared back at her. "What are you waiting for, forehead? Get going!"

"TenTen, do you want to come inside?"

TenTen blinked, and for once, she didn't really know what to say.

She hadn't heard anyone ask that in a long time...

"U…Um…" TenTen cleared her throat, trying not to get caught looking stupid. "I, uh…" Sakura was standing there with this goofy, annoying-as-fuck smile on her face. TenTen felt herself heat up with a blush. "Wh…What, are you joking? Aren't you…a…afraid of getting mud on your…carpet or whatever…?" But she knew, that she had never heard anything more tempting in her entire life.

Sakura was grinning, now, this…this stupid grin. "Come on! I insist!"

TenTen gulped. Why was her heart racing? "N…I…"

"Come on!"

TenTen glowered. "F…Fine, whatever!" She opened the door to her car, turned it off, and got out grouchily, pretending that the whole thing was stupid and unnecessary. Sakura led her up the sidewalk, up the porch, and finally to the front door.

Trying to be as moody as possible, TenTen stuffed her hands in her coat pockets and watched Sakura discreetly from over her shoulder as she unlocked it, and stepped in, stomping her feet on a mat just inside the door. "Mom, I'm home!" she called, gesturing to TenTen to come in.

TenTen did so, walking in slowly. As Sakura closed the door behind her, and a woman's deep voice called from somewhere indoors, "Welcome back, sweetie!", TenTen looked around interestedly, stomping her feet slowly on the mat as she did so. She was enveloped by smoky warm heat, a sweet aroma of cherries and bread floating within it. They were in a carpeted living room, with a soft sofa, and two large, fluffy arm chairs facing a small silver television. The room also opened up to what seemed to be a kitchen, that curved around a corner.

TenTen could see a dainty wooden dining table in it, before a large woman came rounding the corner, blocking it from view, and paused at the sight of TenTen. Sakura smiled and pointed to TenTen cheerfully. "Mom, this is TenTen. She's the girl that I tutor after school."

TenTen said nothing, just stared back at the large woman. She was blonde and blue-eyed, and had some outrageously revealing clothes, quite obscene for her age, wrapped tightly around her body. "TenTen, hm?" The lady, Tsunade most likely, gave TenTen a terrifying smile. "Well! It's nice to finally meet you! I've heard a lot about you, TenTen!"

"…You…have…?" She glanced to Sakura, who bit her lip and blushed nervously. "I-I-I told her a b-bit about you, b-but…the g-g-good things!" she stuttered, suddenly frightened. But TenTen made no move to hit her; she was somewhat impressed, and somewhat horrified by the gigantic Tsunade.

Tsunade had this presence about her, and TenTen could not recognize. It was warm, and motherly, and even had a hint of the pink-haired Sakura about it. TenTen felt like she should, and could, be comfortable around this lady, but she was too afraid to.

"Well, it's my brownie day. If you'd like some, come on into the kitchen."

"It smells great, mom!"

TenTen, as she followed behind Sakura uncertainly, could not help but admit to herself that she could not agree more.

"She was the 'famous' Hinata Hyuuga. Everyone wondered why a rich girl was in school, and they teased her because of that, and it was even worse that she was so shy. I hated that."

"TenTen, you need to remember your book!"

"Shut up, forehead, you don't have to act like such a know-it-all."

Many months later, winter was quickly fading, and spring was on its way. Sakura and TenTen were as thick as thieves. Tsunade had taken TenTen in, eventually, as one of her own, even though she couldn't adopt her. Sakura had become more than a tutor, to TenTen. More than an acquaintance. Even more than a friend! She was like a sister.

TenTen stood up for the stupid pink girl more than she had for anyone else. Over time, Sakura started to gain more confidence, and began to stick up for herself more than she had been. Especially towards TenTen, who she no longer feared as much.

Now, TenTen was returning to the library with Sakura to retrieve her book, which she'd forgotten. They had been on their way back to Sakura's house - where TenTen had been staying recently ever since she'd been evicted from her apartment - when TenTen had realized it, and they'd had to turn back.

"I'm not trying to be a know-it-all, TenTen, I'm trying to help you!"

"Making me feel stupid isn't helping me."

They turned a corner, and were suddenly met with a surprising sight.

"What, you can't speak up for yourself?"

There were three students, two good-looking boys and one pretty girl, crowding around someone in the hallway.

Sakura paused. "Uh oh…"

"Come on, Sakura, who cares if someone's getting in trouble?" TenTen asked carelessly, tugging on the sleeve of Sakura's uniform. "It's none of our concern."

"No, I think I know what's going on here…" Sakura said, not moving. TenTen turned to watch as well.

"You gonna talk or what?" the girl asked tauntingly. "Come on. You're rich, aren't you? You're a cute little rich girl. Why can't you say anything for yourself?"

TenTen raised an eyebrow. "They're making fun of her because she's rich…?" she gathered.

"It seems so," Sakura said grimly. "I think they're talking to Hinata Hyuuga."

"Oh, I've heard of her!" TenTen said. "Everyone's talking about the girl. A freshman, right? She's supposed to have just transferred here, isn't she, like, super rich?"

"Yeah. And apparently she's really shy, too," Sakura said. "I've seen her in the hallway. She avoids everyone like the plague. She's terrified of talking in front of the class. It's kind of sad, really."

TenTen frowned. "Then why the hell are people picking on her?" she asked, observing the three popular kids chuckling over the girl in the corner, whom she couldn't yet see.

"Because she's supposed to be so rich, but she's so uncharacteristically shy," Sakura said smartly, letting a fist drop lightly into her open palm. "Isn't it stupid?"

"Yeah. That's not any reason to make fun of her," TenTen said, narrowing her eyes. "I mean, it's her personality. It's her social status. There's nothing she can do to change that kind of thing."

"Well, people obviously don't seem to get that," Sakura muttered. The two watched the kids laughing cruelly for a while, then Sakura sighed. "Come on, TenTen, you're right. We should-"

"Hey, you guys!"

Sakura froze. "T…TenTen…" she started squeakily, but it was too late. The three turned around slowly, all sharing the same curiously amused expression. "What?" one of the boys asked rudely as TenTen advanced.

"Leave the girl alone, yeah?" TenTen demanded, placing her hands on her hips and frowning. "She hasn't done anything wrong, stop acting like you're so goddamn awesome."

"Don't talk to us like that," the girl snapped. "This chick here is such a freak! We're just trying to set her straight."

"Yeah, why don't you just go away and curl up in a corner of something?" the other boy said with a sneer. "Freak."

And that was it. TenTen was over there in three seconds, and she slapped the boy that had spoken last so hard he fell to the ground. The girl shrieked, "What is wrong with you?!" and the other boy shouted, "Hey!" and moved to hit her back, mostly in self defense. But she kicked him easily in the groin, and he fell to the ground with a yelp.

"TenTen! No!" Sakura cried hysterically, running over, but TenTen just stood laughing happily as the three scurried away. "Haha! Did you see that?" she asked Sakura gleefully, who stood there wringing her hands nervously. "They're pathetic!"

"T-TenTen, you can't just start fights like that in the middle of the hallway!" Sakura cried. "You…!" She paused, when her eyes caught on the girl in the corner. TenTen followed her gaze.

The girl was standing, sobbing into her hands. She picked her face out of her palms, feeling their stares, and gazed out at them. She had a pair of lovely lavender eyes, and long, dark hair that fell straight and pretty over her shoulders. She was shaking, TenTen could see, and her face was wet with tears.

"…Why…? Wh-why did y-you d-d-do that…?" she asked mournfully.

TenTen felt a grin come to her lips. That same old feeling was back, tugging at her heart and making her feel like she was floating. She crossed her arms cheerfully. "Because," she said, a sparkle in her eye, "we know how you feel."

Sakura nodded with an inviting smile, and extended her hand towards Hinata Hyuuga.

"Do you want a brownie? My mom makes really good ones."

"Most people would grow older bitterly, I suppose. But TenTen was strong. And once she met Sakura and me, the first friends she'd ever had, she started to smile again, and soon enough…well, here she is now…"

"Well. This sucks," TenTen muttered.

She'd been walking along Kiri's sidewalk, kicking a soccer ball through the slush of the snow that was too stubborn to melt with the gathering spring. It had rolled away into a sewer. TenTen grimaced, hearing the plop as it finally landed somewhere deep and disgusting. There was no going back after it.

She walked on, sparing only a longing glance over her shoulder before deciding what was lost was lost, and she could always get a new one. It had been exactly one month since they'd rescued Hinata from the wrath of the three idiot students, and by now, Hinata was like the angel TenTen had never had.

She'd come to TenTen and Sakura the next day with a tray full of cookies, saying it was her way of expressing the most gratitude she could possibly show, even bowing as she handed them to them (Sakura had blushed at that and insisted it was unnecessary, but TenTen had laughed gleefully as if she'd acquired a new slave). Soon enough, however, she'd become more than that.

TenTen knew that she had a little bit of mercy left in her heart after everything. She knew that she was saving her tenderness and care for at least something in life. And that something was most definitely Hinata.

While she loved Sakura in a way that Sakura was someone she could share her life with and take example from, she loved Hinata in a way that she would do anything for her. Hinata Hyuuga was the sweetest, most generous creature TenTen had ever come across, and she could never do anything to hurt her, ever. In fact, anything that did hurt her, TenTen made sure to get rid of, whether it be an object, or a person.

In short, Sakura and Hinata were her life, now. She didn't know why. She didn't care. It was an exciting, new feeling, something she was by now accustomed to, something that, by now, she adored.

She couldn't imagine how she'd been living up to this point.

Now, she had been on a walk to the park, on her way to meet the two to go out for some lunch. It was a sunny weekend morning, and TenTen had expected it to be pleasant enough to leave a jacket behind. She was wrong. It was freezing cold. Her breath steamed in front of her, and she crossed her arms behind her.

Her jacket was torn anyways, it wouldn't have made a difference if she had worn it. Sakura had been getting mad at her for going out in the cold so unprotected, recently, and TenTen knew why. She was sick!

TenTen coughed, and wiped her runny nose miserably. It was terrible. She had this terrible head-cold, and a migraine to go with it! She was even dizzy. She hadn't wanted to go out today, but Sakura and Hinata insisted she go for some reason.

"Hinata…what do you think about this skirt…? How do my thighs look…?"

TenTen blinked, and froze. That was Sakura's voice, wasn't it? Was Hinata with her? TenTen looked around the corner, and saw the two walking down the sidewalk on the way to the park. Hinata had, tucked under her arm, a sweater, colored a pleasant yellow, and very warm-looking. The two were both already wearing their winter coats, however. TenTen wondered why Hinata was carrying it, but didn't bother asking.

"Hey guys."

They both looked up, and smiled brightly at the sight of her. "TenTen!" Sakura said happily. "Right on time! We have a present for you." She nodded to Hinata, who giggled and fiddled with the sweater, but then paused and looked firmly at TenTen. "TenTen, are you alright?" she asked suddenly, concerned.

TenTen blinked, stopping in front of them. "Uh…yeah. Why?"

Sakura paused, and put her fingers to her lips. "Oh my god TenTen…you look terrible…"

"I feel fine," TenTen said, and she wasn't lying. Despite the terrible head-cold, and the strange dizziness, she didn't feel unable to walk.

"You don't look it…" Hinata said slowly, watching her warily. "TenTen…stop doing that…"

"Doing…what…?" TenTen asked. She blinked in confusion. They were getting closer and farther away to her. Why…?

…Oh…

She realized at that moment that she was swaying where she stood, she was so dizzy. "…Wh…Whoa…" she whispered, and then she fell to the ground in a crumpled heap, hearing someone, probably Sakura, crying, "Oh my god, you idiot, what are you doing?!"

Yup. Definitely Sakura.

"Oh..sh…shut u…up…" she mumbled clumsily between frozen lips, before she decided that this was a good moment to go to sleep.

"Do you see? There she is, TenTen. Her parents died because of her, did you hear? Disgusting child, she didn't repent a thing. She doesn't deserve our company. Leave her alone…"

TenTen could smell brownies.

It was the same old warm, cherry-and-bread, chocolate, smoky odor that pleasantly hugged her in her sleep. Everything was a light black that enveloped her senses gently, before she finally opened her eyes, and blinked.

It was dark out. She had a slight headache, and felt a little dizzy, as if she was still dreaming. But she sat up anyways, and rubbed her eyes, trying to clear her fogged mind. When she opened her eyes again, she saw she was in Sakura's room, on the bed that she usually slept on. The lights were off, but there was a small sliver of gold slipping from under the wooden door to flow along the carpet of the bedroom.

TenTen watched crack under the door curiously. There were shadows moving about, and she could hear the comforting clatter of a wooden spoon, a sink running, and voices talking in hushed undertones gentle to her ears.

It was like art. It was like music.

TenTen stood up, and walked carefully towards the door, and as she did so, she felt her hair tumbling over her shoulders; someone had let it down. She looked down at herself. She was out of her muggy brown tee-shirt, and dressed in a long-sleeved yellow sweater. It wasn't hers, but it was warm, and soft, and she hugged it to herself briefly, pausing outside the door. She could smell Hinata's sweet scent on it, like peppermint mochas and freshly grown strawberries. She could remember Hinata holding it now.

She wanted to laugh. She wanted to cry.

Why had they gotten this for her?

She cracked the door open into the kitchen. Tsunade turned around first, and smiled. "TenTen! You're up just in time, sicko." TenTen tilted her head to the side, and inhaled slightly. Tsunade noticed this and nodded. "Yup. We just finished the brownies."

Sakura whipped around from the sink and gasped. "TenTen! My god, we were so worried! I-I-I, I thought you were dreadfully ill, I-I thought you were in need o-of a hospital! What were you doing, walking about like that without a coat on?!"

By now, Hinata had come over quickly and handed TenTen a glass of water. She took it, blinking at the yellow light fixture above. She drank, and, to calm her spinning head, fixed her eyes on the tiles of the kitchen floor beneath her. "It seems you pass out easily," Hinata was saying softly, a relieved smile to her voice. "You have a small cold, you'll need to take it easy."

"Nonsense." Tsunade's voice cut in. TenTen looked up at her. She was grinning, and shrugging on a coat. "She's a strong little thing, TenTen is. She'll be just fine." She patted Sakura on the shoulder. "Don't burn the house down, girls. I'm off to work."

As Sakura bid her mother farewell, Hinata giving her a small smile, TenTen walked over to the small kitchen table and sat down. She felt strange. She didn't really get it. Why was everyone so obsessed with her? What had she done for them?

"TenTen? Do you need to lie down again?" Sakura's voice said. TenTen looked up at her. She was different, she could tell, watching the pink girl striding over to feel her forehead for a fever. She wasn't afraid to touch her. She wasn't afraid to talk to her. She wasn't really afraid at all, anymore.

"Maybe you should eat this." Hinata came over now with an inviting gesture to the tray of brownies on the table in front of her.

TenTen looked at them. She smiled. "Yeah…"

"I always used to wonder; how would I be now if that happened to me…? Would I be able to smile like that and make other people smile while I'm at it…? And she's helped us both so much, through everything. I always wonder how she does it. It's almost impossible, right? It is. But TenTen just proves that we all have it in us, I guess…"

"TenTen!"

She turned around and grinned at Sakura and Hinata, who were running up to her, flushed and panting. "Hi, what's up?"

"We…we need a ride home!" Sakura said immediately when they came to a breathless stop in front of her.

TenTen raised an eyebrow. "Seriously? Hinata, I thought your uncle was giving you and Sakura a ride home recently, so I could go to work on time."

"…H-He's not feeling well today…" Hinata stuttered between breaths.

TenTen rolled her eyes. "Alright, get in," she said. They both smiled gratefully at her, and did so, clambering into their seats as TenTen vaulted into the driver's seat. As she started the car and turned up the heat, she glanced at them. They were both adjusting their bags distractedly, and pulling their hair out of their eyes.

Sakura caught TenTen's gaze as she started the car, so she looked away and pulled out of the parking lot. But it was too late. "What?" Sakura asked.

"Nothing, nothing…" TenTen drummed her fingers on the steering wheel, turning into the street and pulling in front of a red light. "It's just…You two aren't wearing your seatbelts."

Sakura and Hinata both glanced at each other, and Hinata laughed sheepishly. "Oh. Yeah. I…I don't really like wearing seatbelts."

"Me neither," Sakura agreed. "It makes me feel constrained." Hinata nodded.

TenTen stuck her tongue in her cheek. "Huh…"

It was silent as the two watched her, and Hinata bit her lip. "Uh…Do you…want us to…?"

"No, no, I couldn't give a shit," TenTen said, laughing and shaking her head. "But you guys just seem like the kind of people who would be really paranoid about wearing seatbelts."

"Well…I don't mind cars," Hinata said with a shrug. "I don't know why. It's just…a bit of a tick, really."

"Yeah. I don't mind them either," Sakura said. "I just hate it when people drive really fast."

TenTen nodded slowly, but she was smiling a bit. For some reason, she felt good. She felt really good…

Because…she knew something about them, that probably no one else did. She knew something about them…

Only…only her…

So…what did that make her…to them…?

When something was over, it only meant one thing; something new was coming.

TenTen walked out of her math class, confused. She felt like she was floating. What the hell had just happened? Her math teacher, her fat, sweaty math teacher she'd quite numerously called "baldy" just told her that she had passed a math exam. With a C plus, but a passing grade nonetheless.

What in hell's name was this? And why couldn't she stop thinking about Sakura and Hinata?

She fisted a hand in her skirt in frustration as she pushed against the wave of students that walked to lunch. Why did she want to see them? Why did she want to tell them about her fucking C plus? It was the highest grade she could remember getting. But it wasn't that big of a deal. They wouldn't care.

But for some reason, she wanted to see their smiles…

She wanted to hear them say, "Good job!"

She wanted Sakura to say, "It's because of me, Panda Bear!"

She wanted Hinata to go over a recipe to one of her famous cakes, in honor of TenTen's achievement.

It was…it was just a C plus…But they…they'd care…She knew it…

TenTen felt something tugging on her heart. Something she hadn't felt in a long time. Something that made her smile, for real, something she hadn't done in a long time. A really long time…

She turned a corner, and saw something that caught her interests.

"Get out of my way." With one shove, Sakura and Hinata, who had probably been getting their lunches out of their lockers, were sent stumbling out of the way of three senior boys pushing through the hall, and slammed into the wall. Sakura, recovering, quickly checked to see if Hinata was alright, while the three boys made their way past them as if they had swatted at thin air. None of them noticed TenTen, right behind them down the hall.

Oh hell no. She was not there as a fucking prop.

She was there…she was there to protect them.

To protect them.

She was there to protect Sakura and Hinata. Because they had given her a reason to live. They'd given her a C plus, a breakfast, a mother…And TenTen was going to repay them. She was going to kill whoever hurt them. She was going to hand them the paprika when they needed it. She was going to tell them that they could pass that Advanced Biology exam. They were going to eat brownies for breakfast. They were going to drive to school and back home again, together, in TenTen's car, every day.

"Hey! You punks had better apologize!"

And they weren't going to wear any seatbelts.

"Because that's the way I like it."

xXxXx

I'd like to thank you for all the support and constructive criticism that I've received. I've lost a ton of reviewers ever since I've changed the pairing from SasuSaku to SasuKarin, but I feel that this is only because I've improved. The pairing freaks don't matter to me. If this was a real story with my own original characters and I changed the pairings around, no one would really care, and I'm sure I'd get more positive feedback than I have been getting. So I honestly don't mind.

NejiTen forever, everyone! Be sure to cherish ShikaTema, SasuKarin, and ChouIno in your hearts. And remember that even a small piece of shit is better than Sakura. Which means you are too. :)

Love,
Mara