Chapter 1: Sacrifice Play


Tenten's eyes drifted open and her fevered mind grasped for the hope that the last few months of her life had been a bad dream. Those hopes were dashed when the bare stone walls and uncaring steel door of the prison cell she occupied swam into focus.


Tenten's back was on fire. She shifted slightly from where she lay on her stomach on the cold stone floor, and the pain intensified as the movement tugged at the fresh scabs covering the crisscrossing slashes from shoulder to waist left by the kiss of a whip. That pain had become an old friend. A thick tracery of lash marks bore testament to repeated beatings, new cuts crossing over healing scars. Between her legs Tenten ached fiercely, from… her mind skittered away from those memories. Madness lay that way, and she was clinging to sanity by a thread.


Tenten lay still, taking shallow breaths and trying not to move. Moving hurt too much. Moving reminded her of the fresh wounds, the recent scars, the bone-deep bruises and cracked ribs. Her mouth was as dry as the desert that surrounded Sunagakure, and hunger gnawed at her gut like a feral animal trying to escape. Food and water had stopped arriving through the slit beneath the cell door two days ago. When she'd realized that nothing was coming and she didn't hear any footsteps outside she'd fought the pain long enough to crawl to the door and pound on it with the hand that had the fewest broken fingers. She had yelled with a voice gone hoarse from screaming, to no avail. No one had responded. No one was coming.


Tenten's eyes closed; she lacked the energy to keep them open but hurt too much to sleep. Almost immediately images filled the darkness behind her eyelids. The hallucinations had started the night before, and they were only becoming more vivid. Now when Tenten closed her eyes, and sometimes even when they were open, the lines between the past and the present blurred.

Tenten was four years old, standing outside her father's forge, watching with wide eyes as her papa taught her older brothers his trade. She was eight years old, attending the Shinobi Academy. Not a clan heir or a daughter of privilege, just a girl with enough chakra to enroll and a dream of being more than a housewife. Tenten was twelve, fighting tears as Hyuuga Neji and Rock Lee outclassed her, and her sensei Maito Gai questioned her dedication to being a kunoichi. She was fourteen, accepting her chuunin vest from the Hokage, and the congratulations of a sensei who no longer doubted her resolve. She was seventeen, bruised but unbowed, standing on her feet at the end of the jounin exams, victorious.

Then Tenten would blink, and once again she was eighteen and slowly dying of dehydration, alone and in pain and trapped in a cell of stone and steel that would soon be her grave.


The cell's steel door swung open. Tenten just stared, truly unafraid. What more could they do to her? A tall man with long, dark hair and a full face mask stepped into the cell. Her mind fuzzy, Tenten wondered who this was. None of her captors that she'd seen wore a full face mask.

"Tenten!" The masked man sounded surprised and… relieved? That wasn't right. The terrorists who had captured and tortured her for information – the Akatsuki, they called themselves – knew her name, but none cared enough to speak it. The masked man leaned closer. She glanced at the tool pouch on his belt, full of kunai and shuriken. Was he there to give her a quick death, at least? One small mercy from the merciless?

"Tenten, thank kami you're alive!" The man tugged his mask off, his waist-length hair cascading over her as he did so, and when he drew the mask away he revealed happy, concerned pale eyes. They had no pupils, but she knew that they saw everything.

"Neji?" Tenten's voice was a raspy croak. Seeing his face at the end was the cruelest hallucination yet.

Neji's arms wrapped around her and he drew her close, careless of the dirt, blood and filth on her skin staining his uniform. "Aah!" she groaned in pain as the movement tore a few of the scabs on her back open, triggering fresh bleeding. Sensing her pain Neji drew back and she watched rage and horror flicker across his features as his byakugan took in her wounds. Tenten closed her eyes, unable to look him in the face. Shame filled her as she realized his eyes would see everything her captors had done to her.

"You're safe now, Tenten," Neji assured her. "It's going to be all right. I swear it." He donned his mask once more while yelling over his shoulder for a medic. More ninja with Leaf hitai-ate entered the room.

A woman with graying hair wearing the red-on-white shoulder badge of a medical ninja crouched beside Tenten and began to tend to her while Neji hovered nearby. Liar, Tenten thought sadly, how can it ever be all right again? A needle plunged into her arm, and warm darkness swallowed her.

Four months earlier

"Begin," Tenten said calmly. The three genin surrounding her as she stood in the center of the indoor training area did just that.

First, Tenten came under assault from a blur of green and red as Isamu Ken made his presence known. His head came up to her chest now, and sometimes she thought she would see the thirteen-year old growing if she watched him long enough. Ken was a taijutsu specialist who had inherited his work ethic from his academy mentor Rock Lee, which Tenten considered a plus.

If only he hadn't inherited Lee's fashion sense, too, Tenten lamented silently. Ken's attachment to green jumpsuits and orange leg warmers was especially tragic because of the way they clashed with his buzz-cut red hair. His gray eyes were earnest and determined as he tried his best to strike her. She dodged his vigorous assault, blocking punches, batting away kicks and raising an eyebrow in appreciation of some of the more elaborate combo moves he'd picked up recently.

It was Ken's eyes flickering to the side for a moment toward a faint buzzing sound that alerted Tenten to another of her genin entering the fray. When the light from above dimmed and the droning got louder she decided it was time to go on the offensive. Tenten performed the substitution jutsu just as a cloud of kikai bugs engulfed the wooden training dummy she'd traded places with.

Still twelve but just weeks away from her thirteenth birthday, Aburame Kaede was the youngest of Tenten's three genin. Like most members of her clan she wore a hooded overcoat that covered her from head to knee. Underneath it she had short, curly brown hair and a coltish frame.

Kaede was perceptive and her reflective silvery eyes, hidden behind her clan's trademark dark glasses, processed information on the battlefield with astonishing quickness. As soon as she saw the dummy she knew her sensei was directly behind her and the kikai bugs reversed course in a roiling swarm. Kaede's reflexes weren't yet as fast as her mind, however, so Tenten's kick hit her in the back in spite of her attempt to dodge, dropping the young Aburame onto the mats face-first.

As soon as the kick was delivered Tenten was back on the defensive, ducking under a trio of shuriken that shot through the cloud of kikai bugs. The clever maneuver prevented her from seeing the whirling weapons until they were very close. Tenten was forced to use the blunted training kunai in her hand to deflect the second volley of projectiles before retaliating with some shuriken of her own.

Sporting the intense, brooding expression that her clan seemed to hand out on graduation from the Academy, Uchiha Amaya slipped to the side to avoid her sensei's throw before sprinting into melee range, a blur of blue and tan to match the green and red headed for Tenten from the other side. Amaya was thirteen, a few months older than Ken. Her shoulder-length raven hair was tied back in a ponytail save for slender bangs that framed her face. Like most young Uchiha she wore a blue tunic with the clan's red and white fan on the back, tan shorts and reinforced sandals. Her dark eyes were intent as she joined Ken in a coordinated assault.

Tenten was pleased to see that the pair had come a long way in their taijutsu coordination since being assigned to her. Ken used the Strong Fist style created by Maito Gai, while Amaya fought with the more surgical Uchiha style that focused on pinpoint strikes at joints, tendons and pressure points. After a year together they functioned well as a team against both single and multiple opponents, and when they both came at her Tenten was pleased that she had to put some effort into fending them off.

Tenten let the pair wear away at her defenses until Kaede's kikai bugs advanced on her again. When the insects drew close she threw her kunai at Amaya. That forced the Uchiha girl to dodge and retreat for a moment, giving Tenten an opening to drop a smoke bomb. The opaque cloud engulfed all three of them, and in the moment when Ken was disoriented by the loss of his vision Tenten caught a handful of his tunic and tripped him, sending him tumbling right into Amaya's path as she returned to the fray. They collided and fell to the floor in a heap.

That left two down for a moment, but while Kaede wasn't sending her bugs into the smoke, Tenten could sense from the cloud of tiny chakra signatures in the room that the Aburame girl had manipulated her swarm to surround the obscured area and the objects in the room she could substitute with. That's my clever girl, Tenten thought before she dropped a few slips of paper on the ground, formed a hand sign and silently henged to change her appearance.

When Tenten burst out of the smoke looking like Amaya, the kikai bugs hesitated. That second of extra time was all she needed to close with Kaede, who had left herself unguarded in order to cover Tenten's escape routes from inside the cloud. By the time the smoke dispersed enough to reveal the real Amaya and Ken climbing to their feet, it was too late for Kaede. The Aburame girl's taijutsu wasn't her strong point, and in three moves Tenten had Kaede on the floor in an arm lock, back pinned under her knee. When the kikai bugs moved closer Tenten shook her head, drawing another blunted kunai and tapping it warningly against her student's cheek. "Not a good idea," she suggested mildly. The bugs halted their advance.

"It's going to be hard to defend against us while you're pinning Kaede, sensei," Amaya suggested as she and Ken prepared to rush Tenten.

"Well I do have a hostage to threaten," Tenten pointed out mildly, resting the dull edge of her rubber-coated weapon against Kaede's throat. "But in any case, I've already neutralized both of you. Look down." Amaya and Ken looked, and groaned in dismay when they saw two rectangular pieces of white paper with red borders at their feet, a fairly artistic drawing of an explosion on each. They were fake explosive tags Tenten used in training, and both genin were within their theoretical blast radius.

Tenten let go of Kaede and the Aburame girl climbed to her feet while her kikai bugs returned to her, swarming under her coat to return to their hive inside her body.

"So, let's review," Tenten said briskly. "Kaede?"

Rubbing her neck and swallowing hard, Kaede looked at Tenten thoughtfully. "I overextended my swarm at the end in my attempt to cut off your avenues of escape. Also, I should not have been so close to the training dummies at the start of the fight," she concluded.

"Correct," Tenten said with a smile. "Maintaining range is important, but so is being aware of potential hazards around you, and always having a holdout if your enemy does something unexpected. On the other hand, your deployment of your kikai bugs was excellent, and you learned from your first mistake. You didn't let me get away with a second substitution." Tenten glanced at her next student. "Ken?"

Ken hung his head. "The fires of my youth were not strong enough to reach you, sensei," he lamented. "As agreed before the match I will do five hundred push-ups, and then I will do-"

Tenten scowled and rapped Ken on his fuzzy head with her knuckles. "Ken, the point of organizing genin into squads is to overcome lack of individual experience with numbers and teamwork. I've been a shinobi for a lot longer than you have; you're not going to beat me one-on-one just yet. Where did your teamwork fail?"

Ken mulled that over for a moment. "When you drove Amaya back, before the smoke bomb, I should have retreated as well."

"Exactly," she said encouragingly. "When you three find yourselves facing a stronger opponent, fighting as a unit is the only thing that will keep you alive. That means moving in sync with Amaya. Don't let an enemy separate you from her. When that happens you lose the advantage of numbers. Fighting together you can threaten or at least occupy someone at my level, and that's a good thing."

Tenten looked at Amaya. "You get points for the shuriken through the kikai cloud. That attack had speed, accuracy and an ideal distraction." Amaya smiled at the praise. "So tell me how Kaede ended up as my hostage."

The Uchiha girl blinked. "We were tripped up, and your taijutsu is better than hers?" Amaya said, looking at Kaede apologetically.

"Why were you tripped up?" Tenten asked.

"Because of the smoke bomb?" Amaya guessed.

Tenten shook her head. "Because when I forced you to move away you came back at me straight along the same line. I knew where you would be and dropped Ken in your path. Predictable movements will get you killed, Amaya."

Amaya frowned. "I knew Ken would keep pressing you; I had to get back into the fight quickly."

"No, your responsibility is to get back into the fight intelligently, not quickly. Your teammate's decision to press forward or fall back in the heat of battle is out of your control, but placing yourself where an enemy suspects you'll be in a low visibility situation doesn't help anyone."

Amaya winced, but nodded. "I understand sensei."

Tenten grinned and swept her genin up in a group hug, ignoring their grumbling. As long as they were her genin, they would receive hugs, complaints nonwithstanding. "Good. We're done for the day; you three should go get some dinner."

"Yes, sensei," they replied before heading out.

Tenten collected the discarded training weapons and put the dummy back where it belonged before leaving the indoor training area set aside for visitors and stepping out into the cold, dry night air of Sunagakure.

After dozens of D-rank missions and months of training, her genin squad had been assigned their first C-rank mission. They'd been in Sunagakure for a month already and would remain for two more, serving as the security detail to Konohagakure's embassy.

When most shinobi thought about Sunagakure they pictured it during the day; a city baked by the brutal desert sun and consumed with searing heat. They saw the white buildings sunk into the ground to stay cool, and the hardy people who made their homes in the unforgiving desert of the Land of Wind. What didn't come to mind was how cold the city became at night. With no moisture in the air to hold the day's heat, Sunagakure's temperature dropped below freezing just an hour after sundown.

In the modest but private apartment afforded to her as a visiting jounin Tenten sat at a simple desk with a heavy blanket wrapped around her, writing in her journal by the light of a single lantern. Her room had a fireplace, but the cost of fuel was dear in the desert, so she rarely lit it unless she had an evening guest and dealt with the cold on other nights. Kami knew Maito Gai had dragged her to colder places to train when she was a genin.

Tenten smiled wistfully at the memory of Team Gai. She was eighteen now, a newly minted jounin with a genin team of her own, but she remembered those times so clearly. Most days had been a fight for survival – against her energetic teammates if not an enemy – but the sense of belonging to a unit with a mission and a purpose had been reassuring. Now she was the leader, and she had to provide purpose and what safety she could to her students. Everything came around full circle.

Rock Lee was a chuunin and a taijutsu instructor at Konohagakure's Shinobi Academy now, instilling the "fires of youth" in a new generation. Hyuuga Neji had beaten Tenten to chuunin by a year and jounin by two, and was now in ANBU. Tenten had never considered herself to be in competition with the Hyuuga genius however. They had become friends and eventually lovers, and they sought each other out whenever their paths crossed.

Shivering despite her blanket, Tenten felt a moment of envy for Amaya, Kaede and Ken. They were quartered in the village's barracks with the Sand genin and had little privacy, but the village at least piped heat into their quarters. The embassy's staff was on its own. Unlike the ambassador, an Uchiha of middling talent and strong political connections, Tenten worked for a living and wasn't rich enough to waste money on firewood every night.

Shrugging off the thought, Tenten snugged the blanket tighter around her shoulders, reminded herself that shinobi were strengthened by adversity, and resumed writing.

Years ago, shortly after I was promoted to chuunin, Gai-sensei said something strange to me. He said, "knowledge of the past is a dangerous weapon in these times". He didn't say that to Neji or Lee, just me. At the time, I didn't know what to make of it. It was so out of character for him that I dismissed his words. It took me years to understand what he meant. Knowing too much about the past is dangerous, but useful at times.

If the Hokage – may he burn in a Hell more horrid than I have the wisdom to devise – suspected how much of Konohagakure's past I know, he would kill me. He's spent decades weaving lies and fictions around what really happened during the Third Shinobi War. That war is when everything went wrong in the Elemental Nations.

I don't know if Orochimaru actually had a hand in the deaths of his sensei Sarutobi Hiruzen and former teammate Jiraya. He's certainly the one who benefited most from their passing during the war. The Konohagakure Council named him the Yondaime Hokage before Hiruzen's body was cold. It should have been Namikaze Minato, but Orochimaru had more allies on the Council. Minato's death fending off the Kyuubi a few years later made it a moot point.

It's ironic that the Third Shinobi War, which started as a power struggle between the great Hidden Villages, ended with the utter destruction of every village but the five largest. Once Orochimaru became Hokage he put forward a radically simple notion; instead of fighting strong adversaries for bits of power and territory, why not simply expand the influence of the 'Big Five' by wiping out all the lesser villages? None of the other kage trusted him of course, but when he obliterated Kusagakure in a night, minds changed from Mist to Rock. They asked themselves if they could afford not to do what Orochimaru had, especially when their spies told them about captured kekkei genkai from Grass. Whispers spread of women and children taken captive in the fall of Kusagakure, their bloodlines twisted into service of the Leaf.

In the end the five great villages all did it. Waterfall, Star, Rain, Moon, Stone, Haze, Frost and more were all wiped out. Their shinobi were slaughtered, their unique jutsu and kekkei genkai stolen to serve the larger villages.

Of course, I have no proof that Orochimaru was behind the death of the Sandaime Hokage. Even if I did, would it make a difference? Sand, Rock, Cloud and Mist all like the new status quo. Orochimaru doesn't have any enemies internal to Konohagakure strong enough to challenge him. Sometimes I wonder if the knowledge of the past I've carefully accumulated is worth the risk. But if no one remembers then the truth will be lost forever.

Sighing, Tenten put away her pen and closed the journal, pressing her palm to the seal on the cover and drawing out the minute trace of her own chakra housed in the seal. In the course of becoming a weapons mistress, Tenten had by necessity learned quite a bit of fuuinjutsu. She'd kept the full breadth of her knowledge a secret, and as far as anyone from Konohagakure was concerned she possessed only the skill to store a wide array of weapons in the large scroll she carried into combat on her back. No one living knew that she had the skill to place a seal on her journals that replaced her true writings with fake pages unless her chakra infused the bindings. Anyone opening her journal now would only find the somewhat vapid musings of an earnest, hard-working but not terribly bright kunoichi.

Heading for bed and stifling a yawn, Tenten saw a flash of light as she passed the window, followed a moment later by a resounding BOOM from from above. Tenten dropped her blanket and grabbed her large scroll as she peered out the window. "That was a big explosion," she murmured. Several more blasts lit up the sky, and shouts from the neighborhood around her filled the air. Squinting, Tenten was startled to see the light of stars blocked in the sky above. For a moment a silhouette of a human figure surrounded by a cloud of sand drifted across the moon. The Kazekage is fighting someone! Tenten realized with a shiver of fear. So far she hadn't had to meet with Sabaku no Gaara, the Monster of the Bloody Sand. That was one duty she didn't envy the Uchiha ambassador.

Tenten's head turned to the east gate of Sunagakure as more explosions tore the gatehouse apart. Those were explosive tags, not whatever's going on in the sky. The village is under attack! Tenten's job wasn't to defend their ally, but to protect the embassy. The security job was supposed to be an easy C-ranked mission where her genin students could gain some experience in an allied village while Tenten stayed in the background. Unfortunately, the embassy was just a few blocks from the east gate, which meant the ambassador and his staff were in real danger and she had a job to do.

Pausing for only a moment to tie a bright blue armband with a silver plaque on her arm that proclaimed her an authorized foreign ninja, Tenten jumped out the window and took to the "shinobi highway" of the rooftops. She had to dodge a few twitchy Sand ninja, but they saw the armband and her Konohagakure hitai-ate, figured out she was just doing her job, and went on to go do theirs.

Tenten was a few blocks away from the embassy when a another explosion filled the sky, directly above her. Instinctively she dived into an alleyway between buildings, glancing over her shoulder to see falling sand and debris. She rolled into the shelter of a recessed doorway as falling objects pelted the rooftops and alley. Tenten waited for a few moments before poking her head out, just in time to see one last object plummet from the sky, cratering in the sand at her feet and spraying her with grains that she threw her arm up to deflect. When she looked down a moment later she froze. Lying in the crater was the red-haired Kazekage. His robes were in tatters and his sand armor was blasted away, his skin red and burned. Gaara's black-ringed teal eyes glared murder at Tenten for a moment before he passed out.

"Oh hell…" Tenten muttered. Theoretically, a good Leaf shinobi would provide aid to the leader of an allied village. In fact, failing to do so would probably end in an execution if it became known. But Tenten knew just how bloody Gaara's hands were, and she had no desire to die trying to fight whoever had defeated Sunagakure's jinchuuriki and strongest warrior. She could sense two powerful chakra signatures approaching, one from above and the other from the east gate.

Tenten was about to leap out of the alleyway and pretend she hadn't seen any of it when three small figures appeared in the alley mouth and ran towards her. Amaya, Kaede and Ken emerged from the darkness, skidding to a stop and gaping at the prone form of the Kazekage.

Tenten's heart froze with dread as her genin team ran into the alley and their likely deaths, heedless of the powerful adversaries approaching. She furiously considered her options. Run? No, her genin would obey her, but they had already seen Gaara. They wouldn't be able to keep the secret if questioned, and they'd likely be killed with her if the Sand shinobi or the Hokage found out. Fight? Even with the three of them, bright and promising as they were, Tenten knew she couldn't beat whoever had taken down Gaara. Subterfuge? A plan formed in Tenten's mind, one that would likely mean her death, but life for her students.

"Pick him up! Hurry!" Tenten called to her students, yanking open the recessed doors of the building's cellar. Her genin obeyed, Ken lifting Gaara with impressive strength as the girls grabbed the Kazekage's legs and carried him to Tenten.

Under the cover of moving the Kazekage, Tenten palmed a piece of paper with a single-use seal on it and pressed it against Gaara's skin. Tenten knew from experience that exposing oneself to a jinchuuriki's demon-tainted chakra was hazardous, but in this case it was necessary. She grit her teeth and bore it as abrasive chakra that felt like sand under her skin leeched into her body. When Tenten drew her hand back the paper of the seal crumbled to dust and her chakra coils were burning with Gaara's polluted energy.

"Sensei…" Amaya murmured.

"Your job now is to guard the Kazekage," Tenten instructed her genin, pointing down into the dark cellar. "Take him inside and keep quiet until reinforcements arrive."

"Sensei, we'll fight with you and rescue the Kazekage together!" Ken cried with his usual bravado, making a pose. "A future Hokage doesn't run from a fight!" Tenten had given up reacting openly to Ken's outlandish words and actions, and her hitai-ate hid the tick in her brow at his pronouncement. Upon meeting her genin team Tenten had wondered briefly what sins she had been committed in a past life to deserve one of Konohagakure's Green Beasts not just as a teacher and a teammate but a student as well.

Amaya, also experienced with her brash teammate, calmly smacked him upside the head before dragging him down the stairs by one ear. Kaede said nothing, her analytical Aburame mind reaching the same conclusion Amaya had. "You're going to draw away whoever did this," she observed as she grabbed Gaara under the shoulders and dragged him down into the basement after Amaya and a protesting Ken.

Tenten smiled sadly. "Those are my smart girls. Stay quiet. Stay hidden." Both of them, the Aburame and the Uchiha, caught her eyes as she closed the door to the cellar. She could the knowledge in their eyes that they probably wouldn't see her again. It was the way of the shinobi.

Drawing a deep breath Tenten formed a quick hand sign. "Henge!" A puff of smoke surrounded her, and when it dispelled, she was wearing the appearance of Gaara, Monster of the Bloody Sand. More importantly she was radiating his foul chakra. It was done not a moment too soon.

"End of the line, jinchuuriki, un." Glancing up, Tenten saw a slender blond man with a ponytail and long bangs wearing a black cloak with red clouds. He was mounted on the back of giant white bird that landed and blocked one end of the alley.

"Surrender, Gaara," a harsh, grating voice demanded from the other end of the alley. A broad, hunched-over form draped in the same black cloak and wearing a broad straw hat blocked that path. "You can't escape us." Silently, Tenten was forced to agree with that statement. She recognized Deidara from the bingo book, but the other was a mystery. Both of them were S-class missing-nin just judging by their chakra levels, radiating power and killing intent like nothing she'd ever felt save in the Hokage's presence. But for the sake of her students, she had to try and outmaneuver them.

Tenten would have exchanged verbal barbs with them to try to get more information or buy some time. But Gaara rarely spoke to his enemies, and her students' lives depended on her imitating Gaara. Judging Deidara to be a known quantity and the more overconfident of the pair, she charged him silently. Smirking, he drew back his arm and threw something down the alley at her. Tenten formed a hand sign. "Bunshin!" Another cloud of smoke, and there were three Gaaras, one sprinting down the alley and one now running on either wall.

"You must really be wasted to resort to such a novice trick, jinchuuriki," Deidara sneered. His first projectile, a small clay bird, continued to its original target, the central Gaara, while he opened his other hand and hurled another bird at the left Gaara. "You can't hide your chakra from me, un! Katsu!"

A pair of explosions tore through the alley as the birds hit their marks and detonated. Smirking, Deidara strode to where the left Gaara had fallen, only to stare in disbelief at empty space before glancing over his shoulder at the rapidly fleeing form of the red-headed Kazekage.

Feeling slightly exhausted, Tenten nonetheless allowed herself a satisfied grin as she ran. Maybe I'll live through this yet, she thought as she ran for Sunagakure's jounin barracks, hoping to find enough reinforcements to get the missing-nin off her tail. She heard the pair give chase, Deidara cursing and his partner chewing him out for letting her pass.

It was one of Tenten's better tricks, and one that worked better on experienced shinobi used to relying on their chakra sense as well as their eyes. She formed two bunshin, one with the regular amount of chakra, the other with as much chakra as it would hold without breaking. If she suppressed her own chakra to match that of the regular bunshin in the moment of separation, her opponent would almost always target the wrong one. It wouldn't work on a Hyuuga, but just about anyone else was fair game. Overcharging a bunshin like that was draining, but since she was still alive, Tenten wasn't complaining.

Leaping from one rooftop to the next, the clattering of wood was her only warning as something shot up from the street below her. Twisting in midair, Tenten hissed as a humanoid figure shot past her, a blade in its hand grazing her leg and drawing blood. When she landed on the rooftop two more twisted figures lunged at her. She dodged and hit them both with a kunai in the center of mass, but it didn't even seem to slow them down. Puppets! Tenten realized in shock as the three were joined by two more, cutting her off from the jounin barracks.

"Not good," Tenten muttered, leaping away and fleeing in a different direction. A few puppets she could handle, but they were more resistant to her weapons than living opponents, and they always had nasty surprises built in. They were clumsy and slow compared to Tenten, but more kept showing up, and she realized they were herding her away from the populous areas of Sunagakure towards the outskirts of town.

Tenten chafed at the restraints of her disguise. Even with some of Gaara's disgusting chakra in her she couldn't use sand attacks against the missing-nin, and while she could blow away the puppets with a Twin Rising Dragon, that technique would be a dead giveaway that she wasn't Gaara. Knowing that she wasn't far enough away from her student's hiding place yet, Tenten was forced to flee out beyond Sunagakure's limits and onto the dunes. In the open desert there was nowhere to hide or take cover, making it harder to dodge Deidara's bombs and the small army of puppets.

When her leg started feeling cold and numb, Tenten realized she was in even more trouble. There was poison on that first puppet's weapon! Less than a minute later her leg collapsed under her and she fell to the sand. Before she could recover a pair of puppets tackled her, tangling her limbs in theirs and pinning her. Struggling against them, Tenten saw Deidara's bird land, his strange bulky partner at his side. The puppet master's robe shifted and a segmented tail ending in a spike shot forward, stopping inches from her throat. "You lose, jinchuuriki," he grated. "Let the poison do its work."

Tenten could feel the cold numbness spreading through her body. Soon, she couldn't even struggle against the puppets, and they retreated as Deidara and the puppeteer loomed over her. Lying on the sand, paralyzed, she could see the lights of Sunagakure, bright in the night. My girls will be safe at least. I hope they get another jounin sensei who treats them well. Maybe Gai will take them. As darkness ate at her vision, Tenten managed a weak grin. "Sorry, guys. Better luck next time." She released the burning, polluted chakra she'd stolen from Gaara, letting it leave her body all at once. The expulsion of alien chakra disrupted her henge, and with a puff of smoke she returned to being a kunoichi with a Leaf hitai-ate. As last sights go, that's not bad, Tenten decided with satisfaction, taking in the stunned look of dismay on Deidara's handsome face before the blackness claimed her.

"Fuck!" Deidara yelled, glaring at the Leaf ninja lying in the sand, a satisfied smile still on her lips after she passed out. Resisting the oh-so-tempting urge to vent his anger on the frustrating kunoichi, he clenched his fists. "We have to go back, un. Damn it, who knows where the Kazekage is now!"

Sasori shook his head, crouching over the bun-headed kunoichi. "No, we've lost this round. Sunagakure's on full alert, the Kazekage will be hidden by now, and in any case, look there." Sasori pointed with his tail at movement in the distance.

Squinting, Deidara hopped on his bird to get a bit of altitude. What he saw was a knot of shinobi crossing the desert headed for Sunagakure. A number of Konohagakure's banners were flying over the group, including one with golden thread in its trim. Deidara's eyes narrowed in hate. "The Hokage," he spat.

Sasori nodded. "That wasn't in our intel. If Orochimaru's here, he brought his pet jinchuuriki with him. We'd need the Leader to face those two and the Kazekage at once. For now we retreat." Deidara blinked in surprise when Sasori drew a green senbon from his robes and jabbed it into Tenten's neck. Those senbon held the antidotes to his poisons. "Why'd you do that, un? We'd have the Kazekage if not for her!"

Sasori shrugged, wrapping Tenten in his tail and lifting her up. "Getting spies into Konohagakure is difficult and this one's a jounin at least. If we can get information out of her, this night won't have been a complete waste." Grumbling, Deidara nonetheless formed a second large clay bird for Sasori and his prisoner, and they took to the night skies.