Before I begin, I would like to explicitly state that Briggs Wild Cat Sanctuary is based on actual sanctuaries for exotics, predominately the one at which I work. Given the nature of this fic and possible unreasonable conjectures, I'm making up a new one. Oh, and I don't own Ichiban, Naruto, Fairy Tail, or TDI. Yes, Total Drama Island.
It looked nothing like Ichiraku. Old red booths lined the left-hand wall, the space between it and what was probably the kitchen filled with rows of tables covered in blue cloth. Slightly familiar smells drifted upwards in the somewhat darkened room, and the chatter seemed amplified when it attacked TenTen's ears.
"Hello," a blonde waitress beamed, clearly recognizing the Malgens. "The back booth's the only one still open, if you're staying, today."
"We are, thanks," Malgen-san smiled. She and Aubrey turned and headed back toward and then past the door, to a secluded booth set between two walls of white-paneled windows and the door's alcove. The Malgens slid into either side, leaving TenTen to sit by Aubrey as another waitress, slightly older and with gorgeous waves of white-blue hair, approached their table.
"Good afternoon, Malgen duo," the woman smiled. "And who might this be?"
"TenTen Ming," TenTen replied, realizing that she'd have to get used to giving her family name sooner or later.
"She's our foreign exchange student," Malgen-san beamed.
"Oh, wow," the woman smiled. "You'll probably be seeing more of my little sister, then." She motioned the first waitress, the one with short blonde hair and a somewhat childish face.
"Lisanna," Aubrey explained. "And this is Mirajane, who graduated with Cana."
"Oh, you've met Cana?"
"Swimsuit shopping," Aubrey and TenTen explained. Simultaneously, which just felt wrong. The only people TenTen spoke simultaneously with were Neji and occasionally Lee or Gai-sensei. Not crazy American witches who were supposedly holding her prisoner.
"It does stay warm here for a long time," Mirajane-san beamed before putting a pen to her pad. "I'm guessing two lemonades with no ice, and..?" She looked down at TenTen with an easygoing smile.
"Do you have any teas?"
"Green tea and iced tea, sweet or unsweet."
Iced tea, what? "Green, please."
"Coming right up." She then disappeared around the corner, which made TenTen uneasily realize just how much of the room she couldn't see. And with the windows all but opaque…
"Here's a menu," Aubrey said, sliding TenTen a stiff sheet of paper… mounted in some sort of clear substance. "The sushi menu's on the back."
Not in the mood for sushi, TenTen looked over the first side. Tempura, teppanyaki, teriyaki, and other familiar words looked up from the paper in Romanji, tempting her with memories of home until she couldn't find ramen. They had udon, though… "What're you two getting?"
"Spicy shrimp udon," Aubrey said, having not so much as touched her menu.
"Sushi," Malgen-san smiled, also having not touched her menu.
As if it wasn't obvious enough that they were regulars. "Is the teriyaki any good?"
"Sure," Aubrey shrugged. "It comes in a bento box with sweet potato tempura, rice, fruit, and a piece of sushi."
"Coolness." Gah, another Aubrey word! And that sounded like a lot of food.
"Here we are," Mirajane-san smiled, setting out tall plastic glasses, a tea cup, a salad by Tenten, and little white bowls of… what? "Is everyone ready?"
"I believe so," Malgen-san smiled. "I would like one order of spider rolls and another of shrimp tempura rolls, please, and… hrm, what do you say, girls? Two orders of shrimp tempura for an appetizer?"
"Sure," Aubrey beamed. "And I would like the spicy shrimp udon."
TenTen waited for Mirajane-san to finish writing. "I would like the shrimp teriyaki bento, please." Normally, she'd go with beef, but every thought of it drifted back to Fast Food Nation. Ugh.
"Coming right up," Mirajane-san smiled. "Let me know how you like the miso."
Miso..? TenTen looked down again at the little white bowl, steaming with pale yellow broth and a cloud of white… The world's plainest miso soup. TenTen gave it a careful sniff. It was also the world's heaviest miso soup. The smell was thick in the air. But, hey, may as well see how America stacked up…
It was somewhat like drinking thinned bacon fat. It was warm and filling and not totally disgusting compared to Gai-sensei's protein shakes of doom, but she certainly didn't finish the bowl. The salad, meanwhile, was nothing but pale lettuce and some weird white sauce. Not something TenTen particularly wanted… of course Aubrey looked like she had expected this.
TenTen hadn't failed to notice that neither Malgen had been given one. The staff probably remembered not to even offer. She then sipped at her tea, which was much more acceptable, and the three chatted for a few minutes until two white plates appeared, each laid out with three long, fried shrimp… long enough to be prawns, actually… The accompanying dark brown sauce smelled like a better, sweeter version of the soup.
"Itadakimasu," Malgen-san beamed as she plucked one up by the tail like a kabob. Flakes of batter came off and into the sauce, but it wasn't like anything else was going in there.
Overall, lunch was an adventure in bravery. America still had its own flavor, even among supposedly traditional restaurants, but TenTen soon realized that her hopes hadn't been that high in the first place.
Therefore, it was no shock that Aubrey's udon smelled far spicier than any TenTen had seen previously (though nowhere near Curry of Life levels), Malgen-san's sushi was so ornate it looked like spun glass, or that her own bento box was the size of a table.
A small table, but still. It was also an unusually sweet teriyaki sauce. With well-cooked vegetables, but still. It was obvious from this and Six Flags that Americans liked to overdo the flavors. Perhaps they had already killed most of their taste buds with preservatives and were overcompensating? Revy had said American guys did that as it was…
Hey, the rice actually tasted good! TenTen happily plucked up another chunk with the same politeness displayed by the Malgens (who were just as skilled with chopsticks as they were with Western-ware), and Shinobi eyes discreetly darted across the room…
They paused to watch a grown man fumble hilariously with chopsticks. Actually… TenTen looked around the room to see most patrons fumbling hilariously, displaying the smallest modicum of proficiency, or just resorting to forks. Forks which even TenTen could now operate almost as well as Aubrey, who was proving that even udon could be eaten politely (something for Naruto to see).
It really said a lot about America, that she could adapt to their culture, but they couldn't (or wouldn't) adapt to hers. Well, they were eating in a Japanese restaurant—but on their turf— but still. Ichiban tasted different from Konoha, anyway.
"So," Malgen-san asked as she dipped another shrimp concoction, "where are you two going next?"
TenTen nearly dropped her chopsticks. There's more?
Of course, some wry part of her mind drawled. You've only been in Shreveport for the past few hours. You still have to tour the rest of the shops we've passed, and then head over to Bossier. Maybe you'll get a sneak peak of the school while they're at it.
"We may head back to the house after this," Aubrey shrugged. "We've seen a lot. Oh, and TenTen got a new swimsuit."
Malgen-san nodded, mouth full of… spider roll.
Holy cow, the Hyuuga clan didn't compose the rest of the world's polite eaters!
"So how does America stack up to Konoha?" Malgen-san smiled.
"It's bigger," TenTen said, voice flat. "Back home, most stores are no bigger than this room, never mind the size of Barnes and Noble—"
Someone dropped their chopsticks.
"Yo-you're from Konoha?" a slightly older man sputtered.
TenTen turned to the booth perpendicular to her own and gauged the shock and… apprehension in his eyes. He also had the eyes of a soldier, so how best to answer… how about an American expression. "Born and raised." Please don't repeat the Six Flags incident…
"When did you move here?" he asked with forced politeness, mental wheels visibly turning.
"Three days ago. I'm a foreign exchange student."
"Are you aware that some of your countrymen nearly wiped out my platoon?"
"Darryl, calm down," the woman across from him was whispering.
"Are you aware that your country has subjugated mine?" TenTen shot back, trying to place the face.
"Are you aware that our country doesn't make kids your age kill people?"
"Are you aware that they aren't made to fight for their country, and the civilians didn't have to until America came along?"
"Are you aware that we were helping you people and you just killed every American in sight?"
I killed the man next to him.
Unlike this vet, TenTen's face and voice betrayed nothing. "Are you aware that we didn't need your help, and unlike most Americans I'm trying to learn about the country I'm suddenly in?"
"Are you aware—"
"Are you aware that the entire restaurant is staring at you?" Malgen-san inquired pleasantly.
TenTen blinked and yes, they were. The woman sitting with "Darryl" had lowered herself in her seat almost to the point of being under the table. The waitress sisters looked worried that a fight would break out. The patrons were staring with wonder and animosity at…
"Could we, perhaps," Aubrey suggested, "agree to disagree? Right now both sides are trying to pick up the pieces."
With one last glare, Darryl turned away with muttered curses.
TenTen resumed eating, with the new reminder that she had a bulls-eye printed on her chest.
On either side of the heart, in black ink.
"Now I really can't wait for tomorrow," Aubrey sighed in the car.
Aubrey blinked suddenly, her equivalent of a flinch. "You're going to meet a 'Nam vet."
Another vet? Oh, just perfect.
"Olivier Armstrong isn't the type to discriminate based on home or race. She's a bit of a Darwinist."
"She's fun. Major General."
"This is her 'charity project.' Really, she just likes getting away from people."
"And gets along with most predators better than most humans."
"Humans can be predators, too."
"Hence why you two should get along fairly well."
As soon as they arrived, the first thing that TenTen did was go right back to her room and resume her reading. For extra fun, she pulled out a history of Shreveport to parallel her American studies. Which was fairly interesting; land bought from the Caddo tribe (parish namer), Captain Henry Miller Shreve clears the Red River's Great Log Jam by 1839, the port village of Shreve Town (later Shreveport) is named in his honor, Shreveport becomes a prosperous port city, American Civil War Confederate stronghold (Amaterasu-hime, the American Civil War…), Barkesdale Air Force Base opens in 1933, lost Red River navigability until the 1990's, first black mayor in 2006…
It was three in the morning, and TenTen had read through the Trail of Tears (if they did that to Konoha she was killing every American in Hi no Kuni), the American Civil War (again, Amaterasu-hime—Hi no Kuni had nowhere near that population), Reconstruction, the Gilded Age (home of immigrant workers and slavery by a different name), "World War" I ("The War to End All Wars"), Prohibition (Tsunade-sama would have gone on a rampage), the Great Depression (Ouch), "World War" II (egad—Holy shit, the Americans had what?), the Cold War, the Korean War (the "Forgotten War"), McCarthyism (no real surprise), the Vietnam War (hopefully she'd be able to understand Armstrong-san, and there were still more things wrong with this country's citizens), The Civil Rights Movement, more wars, culture shock, a complete degradation of a lot of what the country had been founded on…
Separation of Church and State was interesting, especially once she learned why that would even have to be spelled out.
Then there were Freedoms of Speech, Assembly, Press, Religion, and Petitioning the Government if it somehow failed to help the people.
And a right to keep firearms.
Not having to shelter troops in one's home was only okay in context.
Protection from unreasonable search and seizure was pretty sheltering.
Guaranteed due process of law, not being tried twice for the same crime, not being forced to stand witness against one's self, and not having one's property unreasonably confiscated were equally nice. Dang, these people had been sheltered.
And a right to Trial by Jury in Criminal Cases, wow.
Ibiki-san would have a heart attack if he read about America's prohibition of excessive bail or "cruel and unusual punishment."
They even protected rights not even outlined in their own Constitution!
And whatever the Constitution didn't say was the government's domain, the states and people had complete control of it.
Well, Congress had usurped that last one a fair bit using the "regulation of interstate commerce" part of their charges. It probably didn't help that statistics showed most Americans not even reading their own Constitution, even though it was easily accessible.
The term "sheep" was coming to mind quite a bit.
"Are ya done yet?" Zath demanded.
TenTen blinked up at Zath, who was somehow holding up a plate of fried rice and teriyaki—her Ichiban leftovers.
"For tonight," she smiled.
"Ya mean this morning."
"It's still nighttime."
"Are ya hungry or not?"
"Here, I heated it for ya. Get some sleep, Tenny!"
And he was gone, for some odd reason reminding TenTen of Bleach's Jinta. But the food was warm and lightly steaming, he had even remembered chopsticks, and she hadn't eaten in nine hours.
FOOD! Food from a not-Japanese restaurant, where you could run into fellow soldiers… whose comrade you had killed…
Why did she suddenly feel like Neji after he'd nearly killed Hinata? TenTen's chopsticks slowed as her gaze turned thoughtful. It wasn't the same, not at all; Neji had been out of control, TenTen was defending her country, and she was getting flak for it in America. And, heck, even TenTen's friends had been publicly shaming Neji…
Which was quite rare, since it wasn't like Neji not to think of the consequences. It wasn't like him to do something stupid, and it wasn't like him (even back then) to deliberately inconvenience his teammates. Still, TenTen couldn't help but be annoyed at the results of his fight with Hinata. Fortunately for him, TenTen was more annoyed with the busybodies bothering her about it.
"So, TenTen-chan," Harisaku-jiisan began.
"So, Harisaku-jiisan," TenTen smiled at her favorite fruit-seller.
"About your teammate… the Hyuuga."
TenTen instantly stopped looking at plums. "What about him?"
"Are you… safe with him on your team?"
TenTen swallowed her ever-growing pit of rage, if only because this was a friend. Supposedly. "Of course I am. I'd trust him—and any member of my team—with my life."
"But… after what he did to his own cousin…"
"Not you too, Jii-san," TenTen sighed. "What exactly have you heard?" If she heard one more person say that Neji had used Fire Jutsu on Hinata…
"Well I don't typically pay much attention to rumors…"
"And I thank you for that."
"But when everyone's talking about how your teammate just plowed over that shy little girl before she could even throw a punch…" He paused, watching her expression. "That didn't happen?"
"No. I'll admit that I didn't see it myself, but everyone there told me that Neji talked her down to the point of tears so that she wouldn't fight, she toughened up after a quick pep talk from Uzumaki Naruto and fought Neji but was no match for him anyway, then she said something about their clan that he got way too angry over. That's when the Jonin stepped in before he successfully charged her, and Hinata collapsed from the injuries he gave her in the fight she insisted on going through with. Anything else you hear is a lie."
"I'll keep that in mind. Plums, right?"
"Hey, old man," a civilian beamed. "I'll take some…" His eyes suddenly fell on TenTen. "You're on Hyuuga Neji's team, right?"
"Yes…" Now where could she have seen this look before?
"You tell him to stay far away from my daughters."
"…" TenTen blinked, and silently paid Harisaku-jiisan.
"I'm serious," the man pressed. "It's bad enough that I hear all about how 'Neji-kun' couldn't have possibly hurt anyone, but if he takes advantage of them— Hey, quit laughing! This is serious!"
"Go-GohaHA-men… But you have my assurance that Neji has no interest" (she nearly broke into laughter, again) "in your daughters. Even when he's not busy training for the Chunin Exams—"
"Oh, yeah, he's fighting the Uzumaki brat."
Yes, a subject change—
"I'm not sure which monster to root for."
"Oh, yeah," another man began. "I know exactly what you mean. Can you believe that guy just did that to his own cousin? Ninja can be so bloodthirsty sometimes."
Where's the respect?
"I know alright," the dad nodded. "I have daughters to worry about."
Well with a father like you…
"And to think that boys like that are in Konoha, no less—"
"Hey," TenTen growled. "This is such a load of—" She didn't stop and turn because of the hand on her shoulder; she stopped and turned at the looks on the gossipers' faces. "Neji…"
"Hn." Neji slipped his hand back into his pocket and nodded toward an exit.
"But are you just gonna—"
"TenTen," Neji sighed, not even looking at the bad-mouthers. He'd clearly heard it all, already. It was a mark of how often he'd heard it all that he wasn't taking the time to tell them off in a nice, long criticism to put them in their places, and it was a mark of how sick of this TenTen was that she wanted to hear one…
TenTen forced herself to nod, and remembered her basket. "I need to drop this off on the way to the practice field."
"Hn." He looked a little more relieved than he should have.
"Sayonara, Harisaku-jiisan," TenTen waved.
"Have a good one, TenTen-chan. Oh, and Neji-kun."
The Hyuuga turned, a fair bit warily. "Hai?"
"Good luck in the Chuunin Exams."
"… Arigatou, Jii-san."
The old fruit seller nodded and winked at TenTen, who in turn gave a more honest smile than her last. The teammates walked off, but weren't far enough away to hear the gossipers protesting and Harisaku-jiisan's response about rumors, which made TenTen snigger.
That faded when she felt unfriendly eyes on her teammate, who was somehow able to remain completely calm. Even with his temper…
"O-hayō, Neji-kun!" a group of (gag) fangirls squealed.
"Good luck on the exams!"
"Don't worry about what those guys say! We still love you!"
As always, Neji didn't even look at them as they passed. TenTen did her best not to, and vengefully hoped that a couple of them were that guy's daughters.
"Remind me not to sit by them," TenTen grumbled.
"Why would you?"
She'd gotten a smirk for that, which generally helped with the rest of the walk. It could hardly be called companionable, though, given all of the glares and whispers that seemed to follow them. Getting home was definitely a blessing.
"Hey, Mom," TenTen called as they walked in. "Hey, Dad!"
"Hey, Ten," Dad called, "Guess who stopped by the shop?"
"Torigawa-san?" TenTen set the shopping basket on the table, silently apologizing to Neji for the delay. He shrugged.
"Yeah, for some post-exam fireworks. You know that's next week, right?"
"We know," TenTen drawled.
"Yeah, well, I can't wait," Dad laughed from around the corner (TenTen knew not to go into the mixing room without an invitation). "The sooner people stop bugging me to protect my daughter from her 'evil teammate,' the better." The mockery in his voice was obvious, but TenTen's apologetic eyes still darted to Neji. He shrugged, smirking. He and Dad got along pretty well.
"Yes, well," Mom smirked as she came into view, "it shows how much time they spend with Team Gai." (she winked at both Genin) "These people do know that TenTen's a Shinobi, right?"
"Sure," Dad laughed as he leaned on a wall. "After I tell them. Then it's gasps of horror all around, as if they didn't know why she needs protecting from Neji in the first place. Hey Neji, you're not gonna do anything evil to my little baby, are you?"
"Of course not."
Hopefully they knew. Neji had been over enough, after all. The whole team had.
"But," Dad continued, "if they give someone some chance for some audience participation. Don't so much as poke them or they'll start squealing bloody murder."
Neji chuckled. "Considering my technique, that would probably be wise."
Dad nodded seriously. "You're right. You want to use Fire Jutsu, instead."
"… I'm not an Uchiha."
Dad blinked. "Really? But I could have sworn Jiro said you'd used Fire Jutsu on your cousin—Oh~" (he smacked his forehead) "Stupid rumors, I can't tell the ridiculous ones from the stupid ones."
"Okay, dear, we get it," Mom said with an eyeroll. "Gossipers are stupid, you're funny, and we can trust Team Gai with TenTen's safety. Speaking of which…"
"Bye, Mom! Bye, Dad!" TenTen quickly took her escape cue. "Try not to drive off the customers with bad humor~"
"You can't talk," Dad called as TenTen closed the door.
Props for Dad; TenTen and Neji had a rather pleasant chat on their way to the training grounds.
It helped that they went by roof.
"So how was the Guide Meeting?"
"Nothing new," Malgen-san sighed after swallowing her toast. They'd gone over this every morning, after all. "Don't let the Shinobi out of your sight, don't let them on the Internet, give them the best view of America possible…
"Pillage, burn, brainwash, blah, blah, blah," Aubrey concluded. "And you remember that we're making contact, tonight?"
Alpha, Hinata's Guide.
Sesshomaru, Shino's Guide.
"How could I forget?"
Tonight, security was lowering just enough to get a secure message out…
TenTen frowned. Aubrey slowed down as the car ahead drove on, and at first TenTen saw nothing but a ball of gray rolling and bouncing on the pavement. Were a pair of squirrels fighting?
It stopped. A lone squirrel dropped to the ground, unmoving. TenTen's eyes widened with realization as Aubrey pulled off to the side and slipped out, hearing no approaching vehicles as she walked to the limp body.
It was a young squirrel, slightly depressed and unmoving ribcage betraying its manner of death. Instead of being crushed in an instant, this one had gotten to experience excruciating pain, first. TenTen felt her chest constrict as Aubrey lifted the tiny thing and walked back to the median, where she closed her eyes and placed a hand over the tiny torso…
The fur glowed the softest blue, the ribcage expanded to its original dimensions, and eyes not even glazed over by death blinked. It shot up in an instant, ignored TenTen's looks of pure shock, and looked up at Aubrey before bolting up a tree.
"But you-you just…"
"It was recent," Aubrey sighed, "and the spirit hadn't even left the body, yet. Easily reparable, too…" The witch then stood, looking TenTen calmly in the eye—"This stays between us, alright?"
TenTen could only nod and follow her back to the car, wrapping her head around the idea of Aubrey bringing back the dead. They drove on silently after that, Meeting discussion finished, into Bossier, to the low wall of Barkesdale Air Force Base. It was unnerving to see nothing but trees, rooftops of houses, and the occasional plane overhead. Aubrey had explained how families of personnel lived in base-issued housing, but this… Was this really a military installation?
Aubrey unlocked the door, and seconds later a black-clad girl hopped into the backseat, plopping a small messenger bag onto the floor.
"Hey, Aubrey," the girl smirked as she fished for the seatbelt.
"Hey, Gwen," Aubrey smirked back. "This is TenTen, your fellow foreign exchange student."
"Whaddya in for?" Gwen smirked as they shook hands.
"America took over my country."
"You're from Konoha?"
"Canada. Mom married an Air Force pilot."
"… Huh." TenTen took in the sight of the girl with her short black and teal hair, black t-shirt sporting a lion and tiger, camo cargoes, and black lace-up boots. Counting the eyeliner and pale skin, TenTen guessed Goth or Punk. "When'd you get here?"
"Three months ago. You?"
"Four days ago."
"Ouch. Your English is good."
"So is yours… Doesn't Canada also speak French?"
"Oui, comme la Louisianne."
"Yes, Like Louisiana."
"Louisiana speaks Cajun French," Aubrey corrected. "A merging of French and—"
"Yeah, we know," Gwen groaned. "Nerd."
"Watch it señorita."
"That's senior to you, junior."
"Only in high school, n00b."
"Not the n00biest," Gwen protested, staring at TenTen.
"I haven't committed to anything," TenTen protested.
That was only the start of the thirty-minute ride, out to a forest-lined highway and inconspicuous dirt road and the sweet smell of rotting meat.
"The cats like to age their food," Aubrey explained as they pulled in through the gate. "Welcome to Briggs Wild Cat Sanctuary. Home of cats who were kept as pets, used in money-making schemes, kept in ten-by-tens, declawed, and/or kept in a garage for seventeen years, among other things."
"Has Aubrey ranted to you about the illegal pet trade, yet?" Gwen smirked as she emerged from the car.
"Oh. Yeah, at Six Flags." It wasn't something she liked thinking about. Maybe when she needed some stealth practice, she could sneak down to the border and… liberate a few birds on Neji's behalf.
She strode around the building like Tsunade-sama, if it weren't for the chill in her eyes. Tall, authoritative, long blonde hair pulled back at her neck into an Ino-length ponytail. She had an assessing eye and a strong form, toned muscles showing from beneath her sleeves. The khaki polo and jeans tucked into boots displayed rugged professionalism, every inch of this woman simultaneously at ease and prepared to fight to the death.
"Lt. Gen. Armstrong," Aubrey and Gwen nodded. It didn't take that nod's similarity to a bow to show how much the Malgen respected this woman. But even without that, TenTen was impressed.
"This is Ming?" Armstrong-san inquired, gaze sweeping over her. TenTen resisted the urge to stiffen in response, knowing the weakness it would betray.
"TenTen Ming," TenTen nodded, racking her brain for a proper American greeting. "It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Armstrong-san."
"'San'?" The woman raised an eyebrow.
"We don't have names for Western ranks," Tenten explained. "'San' is a title used to convey respect."
"I see," Armstrong-san nodded, nowhere near a bow… which was a bit annoying. "How have you found America?"
TenTen wanted to be cautious in her answer, but had no intention of lying to someone like this. "Depending on the people, it has been anywhere from friendly to pleasant to outright hostile. Given my country's relationship, I'll need a good deal more time to form a proper analysis."
That I'm actually thinking, TenTen decided.
"Convault, help me inside. Malgen, get the umbrellas up and show Ming around."
"Yes, ma'am," both nodded. Aubrey led TenTen the way Armstrong-san had come, to a gate in the high wooden fence.
Beyond lay grass, wooden walkways, and high chainlink fences.
And tall, colorful umbrellas.
Aubrey winked at her, and motioned toward shorter, covered cages past the wooden building footsteps were audible in.
"That's Taz," Aubrey explained as she opened the first umbrella. An ear twitched in response, but didn't move besides. The cat, bigger than a housepet, spotted, and looking rather fat, wasn't even giving her the time of day.
"Go nearer his pen, and he'll growl up a thunderstorm," Aubrey smirked. "Bobcats are known for their bad tempers."
TenTen would remember this. "And they're local?"
"Yeah, one of the only two cats here who are. The rest are African and Asian."
TenTen nodded, then her eyes picked up something odd. "His paws…"
"He was de-clawed front and back, fed nothing but boneless, skinless chicken breast, and then his nitwit owner wanted to release him 'back' into the wild."
"Was he born in the wild?"
"No, nobody here was. Oh, and do you know anything about feline nutrition?"
"Fur is their fiber source as bones are their calcium source." Thank you, obsessive reading streak. "And by de-clawing…"
"The bones up to the first knuckle were cut out of his paws so that he wouldn't scratch anyone," Aubrey saw TenTen's face, but continued regardless, "but it's better than not cutting that high. If you fail to cut off the knuckle, the bones grow back horribly deformed."
"Americans do this to what should be wild cats?" What would Lee think of this?
"And a good deal of domestics. Well, if the cats are gonna be cooped up indoors, sometimes. Others know better."
Since the "kept as pets, etc." introduction, TenTen had suspected that this place would make her still angrier at America. She was correct.
"It's not just Americans, though," Aubrey said. "It's a worldwide practice."
TenTen was suddenly even more grateful to be a citizen of Konoha. "Does it hurt for Taz to walk on it?"
"Yep. If our cats are grumpy, they have a right to be."
TenTen nodded as they went to the next cage, and blinked at the gorgeous cats inside.
"Mongo, Noodles, and Speedy Gonzales," Aubrey smiled. "Servals. They're African bird-hunters, leaping higher than that cage in pursuit."
With those legs, definitely. The cats, probably Taz's weight but taller and slimmer, regarded them with calm indifference. Except for the smallest perched toward the back. That one wouldn't stop hissing.
"Noodles is a little ball of I hate you," Aubrey explained with a touch of fondness. "Their owner was actually a pretty good one, but she had to move from a house to an apartment…"
And you can't keep those in an apartment, TenTen concluded as Aubrey said the same line aloud.
Which was almost terrifying.
"And since we aren't the beloved owner, they hate us."
Oh, and now the other two were hissing.
"The guys're actually pretty nice by comparison." Aubrey nodded toward the bigger two, "but a bite from Mongo takes about three months to heal."
If you didn't have Sakura, anyway.
… Right, Sakura.
TenTen felt bloodlust. She whirled automatically, and her eyes locked with golden-green doom.
"That's Tigger," Aubrey said calmly. "A black African leopard, probably the most dangerous cat."
TenTen believed it. The cat's cage was meters away, the cat himself gazing across thrice that distance. Still she felt the danger, even as he sat on a plywood platform in the very back of his pen.
They approached the proximity fence that kept them five feet from the actual cage. The perceived malevolence increased.
"Hey, Tig," Aubrey called amiably. She was rewarded with a full-fanged snarl of a hiss.
Yellow-white fangs betraying his age and perfect for rending flesh.
"Leopards will bond to only one person," Aubrey explained. "That person is Buccaneer."
"He and the Lt. General run this place, and the former does a lot of the heavy lifting. He's the one who raised Tig."
"So, what?" TenTen asked. "When Buccaneer shows up…"
"Tig would purr if he were capable."
Right, they could only roar. Not purr. Still, this guy—
"And rub up against the fence like a housecat."
TenTen snorted at the thought.
"Sammy'll rub up for anyone."
TenTen followed Aubrey's gaze to the scruffy, dark orange tiger next door. He was sniffing at them curiously, good-sized for a specimen outside the Forest of Death and twice Tig's height.
"Hey, Sammy," Aubrey smiled. "I'll be inside in a bit. He and Delilah-" Delilah being the tigress snoozing in the back-"are Bengals. If they were wild, they'd be in India. As it is, they're from Texas, where they were kept in a ten-foot by ten-foot enclosure with a concrete floor that couldn't be seen because the cage was never cleaned and a murky bucket of water—not that you could fit a pool in there anyway. Whatever food they were getting was just enough for Sammy to give Delilah so that she was only somewhat starving when we got them, and could somewhat walk. Sammy could not, and was bleeding from both ends, indicating—"
"Organ failure," TenTen murmured, watching the tiger who was somehow so friendly.
"Yep. Delilah, meanwhile, was terrified of water for years because when she was a cub, her owner tossed her into a pool and told her to swim, like a little wind-up toy, because it never occurred to them that tiger moms teach their cubs to swim by holding them up. Y'know, instead of letting them pull every muscle in their bodies and nearly drown."
A tiger scared of water. How messed up was that?
"Oh, and you know Texas? That state next door?"
TenTen nodded cautiously.
"It has the world's second largest tiger population."
"Aren't tigers only…"
"Asian? Yep. You can thank assholes who think they make good pets, roadside zoos and carnivals, and hunting ranches."
"Places where 'hunters' are guaranteed a kill, even if the cat is locked in a cage and they shoot them point-blank."
"That's not hunting!"
"I know. They can go hunting as well," Aubrey explained as they cleared a corner and continued walking along the Bengal pen. She propped open another umbrella, and TenTen went to another some three meters off. "Problem is, you get these businessmen from the big cities with no business holding a gun, wanting to go shooting. So you get safety shooters, who fire at the same time as the customers—and make the kill shot. They'll say otherwise, of course, but at least it's a bit more humane."
TenTen growled, reminded of stupid Daimyos as three more tigers came into view—
And two of them were pretty massive.
"Gomez and Natasha," Aubrey said, pointing out the two lighter orange tigers, sleek and absolutely beautiful, "two of our three Siberian sibs. And Putty Tat," a scruffier, darker cat who somehow looked like Kiba, "an Indochinese-Siberian mix."
The look that one gave them spoke of energy and cleverness.
"He and Gomez are rivals for King of the Pen," Aubrey explained, "except Gomez is a bit bigger, so he's the Alpha and Putty's none too happy. "Then Natasha tells them both off, even though she's even smaller than Sammy."
She looked smaller, slimmer. For a tigress rippling with muscle beneath the fur, anyway. But… Why am I suddenly reminded of Team Gai?
Natasha strode up to the fence, eyes clear and calm, perhaps curious or even playful. Teasing, in a way. She paced back and forth, hopped up onto the rim of the huge above-ground pool, strode along the edge, walked all the way around the rectangle…
And snarled when Putty poked his head up at her.
"Putty has an unrequited crush," Aubrey smirked. "But who can really blame him? It's obvious that Natasha was a photocat."
"A photocat. Go to the carnival, get your picture taken with a tiger cub for twenty bucks… Then the cub's three, four, five months old and is too big to be a photo cat, and is thus disposed of. Roadside zoos and carnivals, imbeciles who think they'll make good pets, and of course our good friends the hunting ranches. They'd just love a tiger like Gomez."
TenTen growled at the thought of these cats locked up in a cage and shot, but amazement quickly overcame that. She had just met them! Hadn't even been all the way around the sanctuary, yet.
"And there's Morticia, sister of Gomez and Natasha."
Her golden eyes were wide, nervous, and as she paced up and down the pen she refused to close the last six feet to the very front. Everything in the way she moved was defensive.
"She's easily the shiest," Aubrey explained. "For some odd reason she's terrified of camera tripods."
A two-hundred pound tiger was terrified of camera tripods. Something was wrong with that statement.
"Don't ask me to explain why a three-hundred pound Siberian tigress is afraid of tripods, though. I just know that the last time the news crews came up… her ears went flat, her gaze went wider, and she slunk into her house for the rest of the day."
It couldn't be a coincidence that her enclosure had the most cover. Vegetation, a board set up in the back like next door but with pine in front of it…
"She's also gone more into her shell since Pooh died." Aubrey's face was somber. "He was huge, bigger than Gomez, but he would play Ultimate Doormat for her. So when we tried re-integrating her with the three next door…"
"The guys didn't like it?" If TenTen knew guys…
"She eats first. The guys eat first. If it continued, they would have killed her."
"Gomez would have?"
"They'd been separated," Aubrey shrugged. "Besides, tigers aren't social cats. You have to raise them together. They'll be happier, mind, but it's a bit of work at first."
Yeah, multiple tigers would be worse than one.
"Then there're the lions," Aubrey smirked, raising yet another umbrella. "Almost always at the front of their pens for all to see…"
And sprawled out like the laziest cats TenTen had ever seen.
"The brothers Batman and Robin," Aubrey said, somehow able to distinguish them… oh, the tufts by the back legs. "Batman's" were smaller than Robin's, even though he was just a bit bigger. "They're from a roadside zoo in Texas, and it should say something about how they were raised that Batman's son is already bigger than him."
"Moses. You'll meet him in a bit. The ladies are Yogie and BooBoo," (whose ears twitched upon hearing their names) "the latter of whom is Mo's mom."
There was enough fondness in the name "Mo" that TenTen was decidedly curious. "Hello, Batman, Robin. BooBoo, Yogie."
Batman glanced at her from the corner of his eye, but didn't move besides.
"Then there's Boudreaux, who as usual is in his igloo."
TenTen glanced at the pen diagonally set from that of the pride, consisting of grass, a track of trampled earth, a knotted rope… "I've been meaning to ask. What's with the cage within a cage?"
The much smaller section of chainlink, found in at least one corner of every pen, with a sliding door.
"The lockdown area," Aubrey shrugged. "After all, if we were to go in with them and lost an arm, the cat would have to be put down."
"But if you went in with them…"
"In the eyes of the law, the cat is dangerous regardless," Aubrey (subtly angrily) shrugged.
"But that makes no sense!"
"Welcome to animal law," a man declared.
It had to be a man. There was no way a woman had that voice. TenTen whirled to see the one who had somehow gotten within twenty feet of her, and saw a veritable giant. With a mustache, mohawk, and braid.
Wouldn't just two of those be enough..? TenTen pondered as Aubrey greeted the man-mountain as "Captain Buccaneer." Who did the heavy-lifting. For some odd reason, TenTen could easily picture him wrestling with the lions, laws be damned.
It was probably his heavy-duty metal arm.
"This is TenTen," Aubrey smiled after a knuckle-bump. "The one from Konoha."
"Really now?" Clearly as much the soldier as Armstrong-san, he was looking over her with a mixture of skepticism and analytics. Above all else, the eyes paused over the muscles of her arms and the look on her face. "Seen much war, kid?"
"More than I would like, Buccaneer-san."
[Aw, Hell no.] TenTen bit back a retort in favor of, "Would you want to see war on your soil, Buccaneer-san?" She refused to let the memories of the invasions come to mind.
To her surprise, he laughed. Laughed. "Heh… This one may grow on me." Then his eyes really started to follow her gaze to his right arm… "Curious?"
"Almost always, Buccaneer-san."
That got her a chuckle. "Automail's the next line'a prosthetics. Useful… strong…" he then hefted a large toolbox by the bench, relishing the resulting CLANK. "Durable. Back to work, Malgen."
"Sir yes sir," Aubrey said, mainly seriously, but with a touch of humor. "C'mon."
Around the pen they went, in a narrow divide between the perimeter and property fences, before turning the corner so that they could see into a small gray "igloo…"
Tarnish-blue eyes watched from where their owner lay curled up, all his attention on Aubrey.
"Hey, Boudreaux," Aubrey smiled with a warmth that betrayed her favoritism. It was obvious in her eyes, even if she didn't baby the cat the way others would have. She lowered herself to a crouch, eyes near-level with his. "How's your week been?"
Boudreaux gave a lazy cat's blink seemingly in response, before his gaze flickered to her. Nowhere near Tig's bloodlust, not as wild, not as territorial, but with energy and interest that the other cats hadn't really spared them. Except for, maybe, Natasha.
This one was different.
"He's from South Carolina," Aubrey explained softly. "He had kind owners, even if they did de-claw him, but then they got divorced and knew one person alone couldn't keep him…"
"So he was sent here," TenTen concluded. "He's declawed?"
"Only in the front. He and Batman had surgery awhile back, since the jobs were badly done."
TenTen nodded at that, again surprised that she felt fury over it when she hadn't been here thirty minutes. She shouldn't have been bonding so…
"They grow on you quickly, huh?"
TenTen blinked and gave Aubrey a look of How did you..?
"I bonded with Boudreaux before I realized it," Aubrey explained. "You seemed to have an eye for Natasha."
TenTen smiled at that. Perhaps she did, but bonding this easily was a disaster waiting to happen. Therefore, she would try to distance herself through the day…
And would fail miserably. Her day would next be composed of following Aubrey (who got into the walkway when giving tours) and seeing how it all went. It was a lot of what she had heard before, maybe a bit more for the kids…
Until Tig the leopard leapt at Aubrey and hit the fence, snarling right in her face.
"Hey, Tig," Aubrey beamed, as if ignoring both the predator and the screaming kids. "Leopards will bond with all of one person. As I am not Buccaneer, he sees me as a threat to his territory. Did I mention that leopards are the only creature besides humans known to hunt for sport?"
No, no she had not, and why the heck was she sitting down with her back to that raving leopard? "Anyone want to guess a wild leopard's favorite food?"
End of chapter.
So according to the reviews, I have made all of three people cry with this story… which isn't nearly enough! Oh, and those cats? They're as real as their stories. I have the honor of working with them. Do I have any animal lovers in the audience?
Anywhoo, I'm going to spend the summer upping the chapters I have available, but TenTen's next week and a half WILL be covered by the end of August. Oh, and if I'm getting too much into the locality and not enough into TenTen's take and struggle, PLEASE LET ME KNOW. Thanks for reading!