A/N: Good morning everyone! Not only is this a bit late, this is also a little back story I decided to shade in, in between chapters. This is a semi-side story, I guess. Also, in other news, I will be updating next week as well, as well as in the last... two weeks of January, so keep your eyes peeled and waiting for more Syndicate goodies!
By Tanya Lilac
The First Scroll: Dragon
Tenten hated this room. The paint was cracked and peeling and the furniture was old and creaky. The bookshelves were covered in dust and the smell of mothballs pervaded the air. Summer was well and truly on its way and her skirt was sticking to the back of her legs – the stern man who ran the orphanage didn't believe in unnecessary expenditures.
"Tenten," Hirai Kichirou said slowly. She was never sure if he was addressing her, or if he was just saying her name. He was looking at some forms and was only half paying attention to her.
"Yes, sir." Tenten waited patiently, her posture straight. She tried not to fiddle with her skirt.
"You have no relatives."
"No, sir." This was an established fact, she knew. It was the reason why she was living in this orphanage. It was the reason why her classmates ignored her and followed her almost all of the way back to this place, kicking stones at her feet and calling her names.
"How are your studies?"
This was surprising. She tried not to look up at the sudden question, and something betrayed her. She managed to keep her eyes downcast. Had one of her teachers said something?
"They are going well, sir."
"Evidently," he said, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. He leaned against steeped fingers. "You have been offered a place in a prestigious summer program in Tokyo this year as a result of a test you did a few months ago."
"I... I see." Tenten stammered. She knew that she wasn't particularly book smart. She was better at using her hands and could run as fast as some of the other boys around the orphanage.
"But the rest, I leave for the program co-ordinator to explain to you," Kichirou finally stopped shuffling his papers and stood up. "She is waiting for you in the meeting room." Tenten stood and bowed before letting herself out of the small office and made her way down the corridor, smiling at the children who ran past her, laughing.
After taking a deep breath, she knocked at the door of the meeting room.
A woman's voice.
After a pause, Tenten opened the door. Seated at the table was a blonde woman, her hair in pigtails. She wore a green dress that was cut too low, and she had a mark on her forehead. Something about her, however, seemed to radiate power. She knew exactly who she was and how to get what she wanted – Tenten knew.
"Please sit down, Tenten."
The girl obeyed wordlessly and shut the door behind her before sitting in the chair opposite her.
"My name is Tsunade. I'm here to talk to you today about a program you've been selected to participate in this summer."
From the first moment she'd seen her, Tenten knew she would do anything this woman said.
"You've been hand picked out of all of the schools in the entire Kantou region to participate in a program for gifted and talented individuals like yourself." Tsunade did not fuss with notes as if Tenten was a waste of her time; she spoke clearly to her as if she was an adult. She liked that. "You are in middle school currently. Have you decided on what high school you would like to go to?"
"Not yet, Tsunade-sama."
Tsunade hid a smile behind a hand and regarded her with bemused eyes. "How would you feel about leaving Kanagawa?"
A year ago, she would have outright refused. Now...
"I will do whatever you feel is best." Tenten replied automatically.
At this, Tsunade laughed, and the girl blushed self-consciously. "You are also being considered for our mentoring program, if your performance in the summer program goes well."
"The program means you will leave Kanagawa and begin the new term at a new school in Tokyo. You will be assigned a mentor who would look after you, but you would otherwise be completely independent. Your needs will be provided for until you graduate from high school. At which point, you can decide to either join my company, or do as you see fit."
"Do I... May I consider your offer?"
Tsunade smiled. "I realise this is a lot to process currently. You have the entire summer to think about this – if you perform as well as I hope you will in the summer program, I will take your answer as an affirmative." She handed Tenten some glossy pamphlets and the girl bowed before accepting them. "Just come to the summer session for now. You will enjoy it more than you think."
As Tsunade left, a young, fifteen year old Tenten watched her leave from the front door and knew that her life was about to change forever.
"How about... we just introduce ourselves for now?"
"I'm Tenten, and I'm from Kanagawa."
"Hyuuga Neji. I live in Tokyo."
"Rock Lee. I live in Saitama."
They made a funny kind of trio, Tenten thought. A young girl, not exactly Japanese, hair styled in two buns atop her head, wearing a high collared shirt she'd bought a long time ago. Two young boys, one deciding to opt for casual track pants and a loose shirt, hair shoulder length and half-bound by a headband. The other, the most striking of them all – delicate features, long hair, fine boned hands and most surprisingly, clear, grey eyes with pale pupils. One look and Tenten knew he came from money. He definitely acted like it, too.
They were sitting in a small alcove that over looked the camp's extensive fields. Tenten had known that the program took students of all ages from all schools across the Kantou region, but she hadn't realised there would be so many... people. This small team she'd been assigned to based on test scores – but she didn't really know how. Hyuuga Neji had, rumour had it, scored full marks on all sections in the test. Rock Lee had failed one section but had still made it here. Tenten... was an average student – just how had they all made it in?
The silver eyed Hyuuga gave her a funny look. "You have a bad habit of talking aloud."
"Oh, really? I didn't notice," Tenten said, looking away.
The Hyuuga sighed. "Think about it. Some of the questions in the test were similar, but at the same time different to the others. They tested a specific way of thinking; but they slipped them in with all of the others to see who would be able to answer all of them. Even the idiot who failed the test could get into this program if they answered the right questions. It's not about how smart you are, clearly. You two wouldn't have even-"
"Good morning my youthful students!" Their instructor and leader, Maito Gai burst into the alcove wearing a forest green tracksuit and a blinding smile that seemed to ping in the sunlight. He pointed at each of them and recited their names.
"Neji, Tenten, Lee! I have a feeling we are all going to get along very well! Remember each other's faces because you will be seeing each other every year for the next four years if all goes well." His face turned serious. "Tenten, I would like to speak with you later."
Tenten nodded, and he smiled and clapped Lee on the shoulder.
"Now! Dreams. Let's hear them!"
Tenten had hoped for a mentor who was a woman. Secretly, she'd hoped for Tsunade, but then she'd found out that Tsunade had left the company a few weeks after coming to see her. Gai-sensei had understood her concerns but said that, ultimately, the choice would lie with the Director at the end of the day.
Which was how Maito Gai had ended up being her guardian.
A few days before the camp had ended, Team Gai (as they'd affectionately been named by their namesake) helped Tenten move her belongings from the dormitories at the camp to her new apartment. Meaning, Lee had carried her lone suitcase up the several flights of stairs until they reached a tiny apartment with one bedroom, one bathroom, half a kitchen and two thirds of a living room, fully furnished.
"It's not much... but once you turn eighteen you can choose to move anywhere you like. This is just more convenient for everyone right now," Gai reassured her with a hand on her shoulder.
"Only if I decide to stay with the company, right?"
"I've been wondering," Lee said suddenly, "who do you work for, sensei? We've heard a lot about the company and how wonderful it is, but no one has actually mentioned a name..."
"It's a government... organisation," Gai said slowly. "You will find out next week, maybe."
They all turned to look out her tiny window and Gai smiled. "I live down the road," he pointed to a tall building and Tenten swallowed. "And your school is down that way. You don't even need to catch the bus or train."
"I see," she said evenly. "An all girls' school?" Her eyes were quite sharp, more than enough to rival Neji's.
"Only the best!" He gave her a trade mark thumbs up and she smiled faintly.
"Thank you, Gai-sensei." Tenten bowed formally, and he laughed.
"It's nothing, don't worry!" He turned abruptly. "And now! A celebratory meal!"
Tenten smiled. "I'll be right out."
Lee and Gai-sensei paraded out, loudly discussing where they were going to eat, and Tenten sighed as she shut the window, starting when she realised Neji was still in the room, despite having contributed nothing to the previous conversation.
"You're not happy," he remarked. How was it that this boy, who hardly knew her, could see straight through her?
"I... am," Tenten tried to reason half heartedly. "It's different."
"Different is buying a new brand of shampoo and conditioner. This is..."
"Life changing?" she smiled, running her finger over the counter top as she walked into the tiny kitchen. "I'm an orphan. It's the best thing I could have hoped for. No siblings, no family's reputation to ruin, no strict parents. It's going to be a blast!"
So hollow and fake, even to her own ears. She didn't even know why she was saying this, especially to him. Neji's eyes narrowed.
"You know you're going to be bound to this company for the rest of your life," he said quietly. "Even if you want to get out, they can break you because of this."
"I don't think they can," Tenten said fiercely. "I won't let them."
He smirked. "They gave you this life. They can take it away, just as quickly. They will work you to the bone until your life leaves your body and you wander about like a ghost, mindlessly following orders-"
"Do you have a particular point, Hyuuga? I recall that this is my decision and not yours."
"You're good at doing what you're told," Neji said, crossing his arms. "You'll end up someone's lapdog at this rate."
"And you're extremely talented at being an ass," Tenten snapped, grabbing her new keys before storming out of the apartment.
The following summer, Tenten met up with her group mates once more. She'd seen Neji and Lee in passing, by chance, a few times throughout the year. Lee had been ecstatic, Neji courteous and formal. It appeared he had not taken offence to what she had said. They'd been on the train, in the peak hour rush, both heading to locations they hadn't divulged to the other. Tenten hadn't been able to find something to hang on to, but didn't mind. What she did mind, though, was being forced to stand so close to the Hyuuga.
"Umm... I'm sorry," she said suddenly, awkwardly. His hand brushed against her side and she shifted. "For what I said that time..."
He turned his head to the side and arched an eyebrow at her. "What are you talking about?"
"Err. At the apartment, that day... I said some things when I lost my temper." The train shifted and click-clacked over the tracks, and she kept feeling her shoulder brush against his – or was it the other way around? Neji smirked and she almost screamed at him. He was, she had to admit, one of the most infuriating people she had ever met.
"Ahh. That." He shook his head and looked away as if to hide a smile. But that wasn't possible. "Well, everyone does things they regret."
Tenten stared. "And what do you regret?"
Neji sighed and stared out the window. "Nothing." A voice announced the name of the station as the train slowed to a stop and the Hyuuga murmured a quiet goodbye (a raised hand impossible in this situation) before managing to navigate his way outside of the compartment onto the platform. It was funny, strangers shied away from him – he didn't need to press through a crowd of people, they flowed around him. Tenten exhaled and she could have sworn she saw him smile faintly at her through a mass of people. Then he vanished.
They didn't bring it up that summer, but the program had expanded to include self defence training. Tenten thought that Lee was just using it as an excuse to fight Neji to prove that his hard work could surpass Neji's surprising natural talent.
When Gai had remarked on it, Neji had shrugged. "I'm more surprised that you've brought it up," he said mildly. "Considering you know much of my family."
Tenten was left puzzled and frustrated, as per usual – how was it that Neji knew more than the rest of them? Why wasn't he allowed to tell them?
She addressed the topic one evening as they shut the windows in the dojo styled training room. He made a sound that was suspiciously like a chuckle and Tenten looked at him incredulously. "What is it?"
"I'm sorry, that's just... a silly question. Don't you have any idea what's going on in here? That logo over there is highly classified in itself. You won't find it anywhere on the internet or any public records. Even if I told you the name of the company that sponsors this program, not only would you not know what I was talking about, you wouldn't believe me. There's no point in telling a child about the world if they cannot grasp how big the world is."
Tenten almost snarled at him, choosing instead to walk past him, trying to smack him on the back of his head as she passed. The prodigy had predicted this, and ducked smoothly, prompting Tenten to scowl and strike the side of her hand against his chest, the blow landing with a loud thud. He merely stared at her and she turned and stalked off, inexplicably angry.
That second year, Tenten realised that she had met Uchiha Sasuke many times throughout the year. The first time she had actually talked to him, she had been at a fruit stall in a market somewhere (the name slipped her mind all the time) and she had been buying some apples. The woman running the stall had set up a strange arrangement, selling apples not by weight but by number. In essence, she was better off buying far more than she wanted but she knew she wouldn't be able to finish them.
The teen next to her understood her dilemma, smirking and shaking his head before packing the extra apples into her bag as he slipped some coins into her hand. Tenten looked over, shocked and numbly handed the woman the coins.
"... Thank you," she said, bowing.
"... Don't mention it. We both win like this." He smirked and held out his hand. She straightened, blushing and gave him his apples before watching him disappear, a hand raised as the other brought the red apple to his lips.
Tenten had seen him munching on a bright green apple a few months later, waiting at the train station. Onyx eyes, spiked black hair, precise hands... but he had coolly disregarded her across the distance, and she'd turned away before hurrying towards the exit.
The time after that, it had been at a mock skirmish at their summer camp. He was a year younger than they were, Tenten learned. The top of his classes, it seemed. An orphan. No friends, not even in his team (but then again, who really was?). Uchiha Sasuke.
Tenten stopped dead in her tracks as they passed each other in the corridor. She was with Neji and Lee at the time, dressed in their paintball gear. Sasuke cocked his head to the side, tossing her a bright green apple without even looking in her direction before blatantly stating that he would defeat Neji.
Tenten had only been able to stare at him, and was silent, even after he left.
"Do you think he would do it?" Lee asked, almost worried.
"Don't insult me," Neji sighed. "I am still in the room."
"Not that... it's just against the rules to engage in physical conduct outside training, or without a cell leader present."
Neji regarded him with cool eyes. "And you should know all about that." Lee's mouth set in a thin line and he looked away. "You're rather quiet, Tenten." Their silent exchange had most definitely not gone unnoticed by her team mates. "Do you know the Uchiha?"
"I've... seen him around." Not a lie. She turned the apple over in her hands. She took a bite into it and the flavour surprised her. They were from a country in the southern hemisphere. They grew all year round and were crisp and a bit sour; not quite like the Fuji apples she was used to. Different, but pleasant all the same.
"Have you told him anything?"
She swallowed and managed to scoff. "I didn't betray you, if that's what you're asking." Tenten respected Neji, in a fashion, but honestly, he clearly took things too seriously. He talked about this like it was a matter of life and death.
"Good. Now. Have you decided on your call signal?"
"... Dragon," she said quietly. She'd written the kanji on the small slip of paper Gai-sensei had given to her. "You?"
She rolled her eyes, imagining the katakana written in his neat handwriting. "Typical." Even so, she had to hide a smile. It did suit him, even if she had yet to call him that.
Tenten was going to start her last year of high school after this summer. There would be one more summer program running after her graduation, but after that... that's when she would have to make the decision. Would she stay with Konoha? Neji had been right, after all – no one knew anything about Konoha, no one even really knew much about this summer program, other than what had been divulged in the pamphlet. A challenging summer program for gifted and talented students! With prospects of establishing a firm career right after high school or university!
Neji seemed pretty set on staying with the firm, despite his earlier tirade (one that she'd always remember but never bring up). There was something else to the story, something about his family that he wasn't telling them, but she didn't really mind. It wasn't her business anyway.
This year, new recruits had a crash course on everything that returning candidates already knew. The paintball skirmish was handled with as much playful seriousness as usual, and classes moved away from self defence to a more... proactive stance. Their classes went further into history – modern and ancient – on worldwide politics and warfare. Geography classes pushed them to the brink of the earth and back, across seas to exotic lands and complex languages. Neji already knew a good handful of languages; besides Japanese, there was English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean and a myriad of European languages including French, Spanish and German. Tenten had learned English at her school and was starting Mandarin, but it still wasn't enough.
"Have you figured it out yet?"
Tenten looked up from her book. They were sitting at a cafe (dorms were only for students who lived further away from Tokyo) late at night and poring over textbooks borrowed from a university that one of Neji's cousins attended.
"What?" she said sleepily, yawning and stretching. "I think that my translation is correct. This word, ummm... 'assassination' we say it like-"
"Not that," Neji said irritably, downing his third macchiato that evening. He was picking over his own assignment, admittedly more complex than her translation exercise. The problem with her composition was the length of the original document, Neji had to write his own essay from scratch. "The true purpose," he said evenly, "of this program we got tangled into."
Tenten shook her head. "I'm not too concerned."
"Well," she sighed and took out the two hair ties that held her hair in its customary hairstyle and closed her eyes as the tension in her scalp was relieved. "If it really were a bad place to be, why are there so many people involved? Where is this funding from? The government would have found something suspicious about an organisation pulling in children across Japan through a centrally conducted examination unless they knew about it. So... the only thing I can think of is that Konoha is some... off the records kind of intelligence group."
Neji smirked and Tenten noticed the tremor in his fingers. She would need to stop him from ordering more coffee. His eyes were steady as he replied, "Well done. Now think. Why do they need children?"
To grow them... into whatever they wanted them to be.
Tenten stopped for a moment, took a deep breath, and continued with her work. Neji followed her lead and they didn't say a single word until they left the cafe.
He walked her to her apartment and they stood outside, rubbing their eyes for a moment, shuffling awkwardly. A young mother and her child burst out of the lobby, the child pointing at them and shouting, "Look, it's a couple!"
Tenten smiled and bowed at the woman, bidding her a quiet greeting. The woman only gave her a dirty look and hurried off. She sighed and ran a hand through her hair, pushing her fringe back off her forehead. She looked up at Neji, who was smirking with bemusement (the closest he could get to a smile, she supposed) and he placed a hand on her shoulder, leaning towards her for a slow, greedy, very adult kiss. He stole her breath from her and she could only stand there, completely surprised and afraid to move.
When at last he drew away, Tenten was aware of the fact that they were standing outside her apartment (Gai most likely looking on from afar, no doubt!) and that Hyuuga Neji, who had about as much emotion as a stone, had just kissed her. On the mouth. With... well. Not as clumsy as she thought he'd be. But still.
A kiss. Her first adult kiss, thrumming with passion and intent, darkened by desire...
She blinked up at him, still wondering if she had somehow fallen asleep at the cafe, but he merely lifted his left hand, a tattoo unveiling itself from underneath his sleeve, to stroke a hand through her hair, mimicking the motion she'd just done moments before.
"You should wear your hair out more."
She was still speechless, and couldn't muster any kind of intelligible response.
He dropped his hand, his back stiff and his eyes completely unreadable.
And then Tenten realised what a mistake she'd made.
"Goodnight, Tenten. I'll look over what you've written tomorrow before class," Neji said abruptly, walking past her without waiting for an answer.
The next ten hours were excruciating, to say the least. Tenten turned up at her class the next morning, dark circles under her eyes and her hair braided messily on the way to the train station. She'd run onto her usual train, and Neji had boarded at the next stop, but was painfully silent as he read over her essay.
"Your interpretation is correct and your analysis is thoughtful."
"But..." Tenten prompted.
"That's all," he replied stonily, handing her work back to her.
"A rare compliment," she tried to smile to ease the tension but it wasn't helping. She sighed and rubbed her eyes. Drinking coffee late at night hadn't really helped, but Neji looked like he had slept fine in spite of the caffeine and... apparent rejection. "Listen, Neji-"
"Save it," he snapped, getting uncharacteristically angry. "I don't want to get into it now."
"And... what if I want to talk about it now? You weren't too interested in talking yesterday, so do me this favour now."
No response, and Tenten took it as an affirmative.
"It was... sudden. That's all. I hadn't thought that... you felt that way." Tenten mumbled, blushing. "I'm sorry I reacted like that."
"It won't happen again," he replied. "You don't need to worry."
Their relationship, even as something more than acquaintances, was happening in starts and stops, these prolonged absences and then this long period of time spent together after a year of chance encounters... Tenten attended a girls' academy; there was no circumstances where she would really be able to meet other boys (not that she particularly minded) and she wasn't really a fan of dating, either. She'd tried it once or twice, but it wasn't particularly her "scene". Neji didn't occupy her thoughts all of the time, like a lovesick teenager, but she knew that this event had blurred things, significantly. She'd often thought of him with mixed emotions – some warmth as he was her team mate, perhaps a friend and then a measure of irritation at his constant non-antics (she saw them as antics but they really were habits he couldn't really control). To find out so suddenly that he saw her in that kind of a light was surprising to say the least. Tenten shook her head to clear her thoughts. This was a train of thought she'd ridden for the past eight hours, the entire thing keeping her up at night.
"You didn't sleep well?" He asked finally, breaking the silence. He was teasing her, she knew. Tenten sighed.
"Don't flatter yourself, Hyuuga," she snapped. "I was doing this homework."
He shrugged and she smiled, unable to help herself. Perhaps working with him wouldn't be as bad as she thought.