Chapter 1: Poison
Out in the wilderness, there are no city lights to dispel the darkness. Only flickering torchlight and twinkling starlight dare challenge the absolute reign of night. The fires throw eerie shapes over partially concealed walls, smooth and steep, carved straight from and into the solid rock of the cliff. Two guards stand on watch, but neither expects trouble so far from civilization.
"Why are we here?" one asks.
"To get paid," is the grunted response. The other takes a long drag of his cigarette, the orange tip flaring bright on inhalation.
"Nothing's happened tonight. Nothing happened yesterday. And I'd wager my crap pay that nothing will happen tomorrow," the first sighs, "I could be doing any number of things right now, all of which I'd enjoy more. So, really, why are we here?"
The second does not respond for a long moment and the first looks over. He sees the butt of the cigarette on the ground, extinguished in a pool of his fellow guard's blood. Panic rises into his throat, but the knife's cold edge is faster and his words are lost in a soft gurgle. He's held upright, crimson bubbles bursting on his lips that draw no breath, until his desperate struggling ceases. His lifeless body is lowered to the ground, and three silhouettes detach from the pervading blackness to slip into the unmanned entrance.
"Three more," a ghost murmurs. His is a cold voice.
"Please leave it to me," a wraith says, shifting forward.
"Not so loud," a specter hisses, "We need to take one alive. I'll go."
The third apparition melts away, becoming a shade amongst shades, and steals down the corridor, towards the dim glow of candles. Three thorns of black metal appear in the specter's hand, winking with toxic dewdrops. They whisper through the air, stinging unerringly from fifty feet away, and the potent venom renders their victims unconscious within moments.
"That one," the specter designates. Only the wind betrays the wraith's passage as the indicated man is lifted out of his chair and bound securely. In a billow of white, the ghost sweeps over the remaining two. A single touch suffices to quell the beating of their hearts.
"We're gone," the ghost commands, and in a flash of light and smoke, they are.
Tenten drops catlike into the clearing, weapons at the ready. Her eyes are bright with reflected celestial bodies, taking in her surroundings in the brief yet thorough manner of a Konoha ninja. Satisfied that she is alone with the forest, she straightens and beckons to the emptiness behind her. The flying stars vanish in silent puffs of smoke, leaving cloudy streamers as she waves them away.
A muffled thump heralds the arrival of her comrade, Rock Lee. Though he has borne the weight of their prisoner for at least a mile, his breathing is slow and even. The discomfort on his countenance is only a result of the cloak and dagger operation the team has just executed, which does not sit well in his stomach.
Tenten busies herself with double-checking their captive's bindings. She knows that the venom she dosed him with will more than likely keep him under until they reach home, but there is no reason to take chances. Out here, there are no hospitals; a single mistake is enough to end everything. Her auburn eyes find the frowning visage of her companion.
"You did well, Lee," she encourages quietly, "It's for the good of the village."
Lee's sparkling teeth cut through the umbral veil of night as he flashes her a bright smile. She can still see the uneasiness in the open innocence of his expression, but it has largely been displaced by warmth in light of her reassurance.
"Ah, thank yo–"
"Keep it down."
The ivory ghost glides into view, appearing silently in the spaces between shadows. His pale eyes level reprimands at his two teammates. Though the three have been working together for half a decade, his natural abilities far exceeds theirs and he quickly rose in the ranks to be appointed their leader. A genius, the rumors call him. He is Neji Hyuuga, the pride of Konoha's most powerful clan.
"We have company," he states briefly. As quickly as he appeared, he is gone again, swallowed up by the greedy jaws of the dark.
Lee intercepts their first pursuer as he bursts through the foliage with a whirlwind kick. It's dodged, but he sweeps low, pressing the offense relentlessly. Under the baleful glare of the moon, he is a hurricane dance of green and orange, of bashing strikes and smashing blows. Needles fly at him, buzzing like angry hornets on the defense, but Tenten's hand flashes like heat lightning, picking each off with a thorn of her own. She doesn't need to confirm her parries; she never misses.
Paired fists to the torso devastate the attacker and he slams bodily into an unyielding tree trunk, vomiting blood from ruptured lungs. He does not have long to live. Tenten is more concerned about his support, though, who remains skulking in the concealing brush.
If she had Neji's eyes, she would have seen the arm that grabs her in an unrelenting choke hold from behind. Without their insight, she can only struggle futilely, trying to call out through the hand that covers her mouth. There is an alien scent in that palm, but breath is scarce enough as is and she breathes deep. The stars begin to fade – or is it her vision? – and she wonders if her time has come.
All at once, the crushing pressure eases. Her body falls into Lee's waiting arms as her consciousness falls into an endless chasm.
Tenten fights to open unresponsive eyelids, managing only a sliver of daylight. Memories of the night prior elude her grasping mind like dandelion seeds, floating tantalizingly just out of reach. She is vaguely aware that she is moving quickly, being carried over the course of leaps and bounds. The morning sun competes with the rushing wind, heating and cooling her skin.
"You won't be able to move," someone's flat voice informs her. She recognizes it as Neji's.
"You were poisoned," Lee supplies, their prisoner slung over his shoulder once more, "Neji got to your attacker before it could do serious damage, but you still need to rest."
She tries to piece together a coherent response, but oblivion overtakes her senses once more.
By midday, Tenten is back on her feet. She is two parts tenacity and ten parts temerity, and forces her rubbery limbs to carry her weight. Her pride is spared when Neji does not slow for her condition, but her body suffers as a result; when they reach the familiar gates of Konoha, she is close to collapse. She bites her lip until it bleeds, using the pain to focus her exigent will. In the heavy copper, she imagines she can taste the poison. It tastes of weakness and the flavor is vile indeed.
She tries not to retch during the debriefing when the Lady Hokage congratulates her team on a job well done. Failure is a bitter pill to swallow, and she resolves to double her training today. Their captive is to be taken in for interrogation, she hears, but the words are far away. Already, she is cutting through the haze, headed toward the field her team uses to hone their skills.
Lee catches up to her during her tenth score of pushups. By now, her cream shirt is soaked through with perspiration, and she has left a moist imprint of her body on the dusty earth. She no longer practices her aim. It is not technique she needs, but strength.
"Tenten," Lee begins stiltedly, "You should be resting. You are still weak."
He has never been one for tact, but even he realizes his faux pas when she glares up at him. Wordlessly, she returns to forcing her weight up, then lowering it down again, her arms shaking from exertion. He is as famous for persistence as she is, though, and tries again.
"The poison," he amends, "You are still weak from the poison. If you continue to force yoursel–"
She doesn't need another reminder of her error. Tenten draws herself up and raises her fists. Lee takes a step back.
"I appreciate your youthful enthusiasm, Tenten, bu–"
"I said fight me!"
She swings at him, but he dodges easily. Amongst their peers, his mastery of hand-to-hand combat is second only to Neji's. Her next punch misses his face by a hair, but it may as well have been a mile. He breezes by her in the intermittent time, turning to evade her followup kick.
"You should get some rest, Tenten," he recommends softly before disappearing. She is left alone in the training ground, save for her regret and the fragility in her veins. Steeling herself, she drops to the ground once more.
Five hundred. She will do five hundred.
Or a thousand.
Whatever it takes to become stronger.
Feedback is welcome.