“It is foolish to fear what
we’ve yet to see and know.” -U. Itachi (Naruto)
Tenten knocked on the door eagerly and proceeded to wait for the order to enter.
“Come in,” a somber voice instructed after a pregnant and, for some unforeseeable reason, heavily tensed pause. When she stepped inside, she took note of how the Hokage stood stiffly near a window, her back to Tenten. “Take a seat, Tenten,” she ordered.
Tenten’s ANBU rank prompted her to comply obediently and without questions. Yet, she couldn’t help but wonder why Tsunade’s tone sounded graver than usual. With an almost inaudible sigh, Tsunade turned to face her. Baffled, Tenten noted her superior was holding a bottle of sake unabashedly. This was a new one. Tenten knew –as did almost everyone else- that Tsunade had made a habit of drink while in the office, but at least she’d always manage to do it somewhat conspicuously. Whatever the reason for this unexpected change, it had to be big.
Without a word, Tsunade lowered herself in the chair behind her desk. Heaving another sigh, she placed the bottle of alcohol atop the oaken surface, just beside a dangerously high pile of files. Then, placing her elbows on the table, she intertwined her fingers to hide her mouth and leaned forward.
Tenten had seen the pose often enough to know she was getting down to business, but the tension in her shoulders seemed out of place. It almost made her think Tsunade was about to say something extremely difficult– which was impossible, of course! Tsunade was the greatest shinobi of the Leaf! There was absolutely nothing she couldn’t do! There wasn’t a thing in this world that could ever daunt her!
“I have a mission for you. S-Rank. Only you and another already chosen ANBU can go,” Tsunade began, pronouncing each word carefully. If not for the fact that her breath reeked of sake, Tenten would’ve never guessed she’d just finished an entire bottle prior to the meeting.
Not really knowing what to say, Tenten nodded curtly in acceptance. If her Hokage wanted her on a mission, then Tenten would go on a mission. It was as simple as that.
“There’s a rouge group that has been causing problems in the border between the Lands of Fire, River, Rain and Grass. The group is said to be directly linked to the Akatsuki’s newest scheme,” she explained. “As such, they’ve set about raiding villages and kidnapping strong women. Their main purpose is to start creating soldiers that can be molded from the start.”
“Creating soldi—babies?!” Tenten gasped, eyes wide. “They are procreating for the sole purpose of gathering an army?!” She had to make sure. Kami, it sounded like a ridiculous notion!
The Hokage nodded. “I know how it sounds,” she admitted, jadedly. “It’s a long-termed goal, but a very dangerous one at that. More so, since they’ve started to kidnap the kunoichis they encounter instead of killing them.”
“A kunoichi would first end her life than give in,” Tenten was quick to argue.
Tsunade looked at her for a long, silent while, her gaze cold and penetrating. Tenten fought the urge to squirm. Given that she had lived most of her life under the intense look of the Hyuuga prodigy, however, she managed to remain firm in her seat without much problem.
“Any human –male or female, kunoichi, ninja or civilian—can only endure so much torture before they break,” she informed, her tone slightly strained. Before Tenten could say anything else, she continued. “We know for a fact that they torture them in a village inside the Land of Rain. Very near the border with the Land of River. After they…,” she made a vague motion with her hand, “break them –a thing that never takes them longer than a month, apparently- and if they are still worth it, they usually send them to their real base. Our target.”
“If they’re worth it…?” Tenten wasn’t sure what their standards were.
“We believe the more fighting spirit the woman shows, the more worth she has, even if, in the end, she breaks.”
“What happens to those who fail the test?” Tenten examined, not realizing that her nails had dug into the skin of her palm, drawing small drops of blood out of half-moon wounds.
“They dump their bodies,” Tsunade answered with cold frankness.
Tenten nodded once to show she understood the said and the unsaid. Most probably, their bodies would be mutilated beyond recognition.
“So my mission is to infiltrate?” she concluded, already trying to come up with a way to actually do it. Why wouldn’t Tsunade ask this of two male ninjas? More so, since women for the rouge group seemed to be regarded only as tools –means to their evil end.
With surprise, Tenten took note of the rigidity of Tsunade’s body. She was shaking slightly with suppressed emotions; emotions Tenten could neither understand nor identify, for that matter.
“Tenten, I need you to infiltrate, yes. But not in the usual way,” she spoke gruffly, as if each word was a dagger cutting through her throat. With a quick movement, Tsunade was taking a swig of another sake bottle she had produced from seemingly out of nowhere.
“Ho-hokage…?” was the only thing she could stutter, as an icy sense of dread invaded her. It was as if her body already perceived something that her mind could not yet register. She gulped, trying to control her drumming heart and suddenly labored breathing.
Tsunade said nothing, closing her eyes for a second as she too tried to regain her bearings.
“How…?” It came out as a croak. Tenten’s mouth had become parched under the implications. She knew the answer to the question, but she was having trouble accepting it.
Golden eyes met brown ones in complete and utter silence. Their gazes latch onto each other as the pause stretched painfully, until... “I need you to get caught, Tenten,” Tsunade instructed, her words breaking some of Tenten’s harden composure.
“E-excuse me?” Obviously she had not heard correctly. Her Hokage would never truly send her on a mission that was practically suicidal, right?
“Your mission, Tenten, is to get captured by the enemy,” she repeated stiffly. “You will hold as long as you can under torture. Then, you will pretend to break so that they can get you to their base. A team –your companion to be precise—will follow. Once we have the location, several teams will be dispatched to raid the place and bring you home.”
Or what’s left of me, Tenten’s mind finished what Tsunade hadn’t said. Bitterness, anger and fright gripped her heart. Dozens of questions that she dared not voice must have flashed through her widened eyes, because Tsunade flinched before addressing the most important.
“You are one of the strongest kuniochi we have. Not to mention you have a sharp-bladed spirit that our enemies will find intriguing,” Tsunade offered, fully aware of how hollow the explanation sounded.
Tenten bit back what would have been a very disrespectful snort. She knew as well as the sanin that the strongest kuniochi –at least in her eyes- was Haruno Sakura. She hated the lie, but she hid her discomfort as well as she could. It was not convincing enough, though. Either that or Tsunade herself could not bear it.
“This has to be done and as much as I hate it, politics play a major role when I have to decide on who gets which mission,” Tsuande admitted crisply. She sighed and was about to say something else, but Tenten interrupted her.
“Haruno Sakura is your student and, as such, well known outside the country. When caught, the rogues could get information on some of your jutsus,” she reasoned, fisted hands betraying her facade. Plus, Lee would be heartbroken if something where to happen to her, she added.
“I-indeed,” the Hokage agreed, probably knowing full well what Tenten was doing and maybe even admiring her for that. Still, she did nothing to stop her as she continued.
“Yamanaka Ino is not strong enough physically to withstand torture. Plus, she’s about to be married to Nara Shikamaru. Neither his clan nor hers would accept the mission,” Tenten continued, bitterness marring her voice despite her efforts to keep it hidden.
There was no problem in those departments for her. Tenten –as her lack of a last name implied—had no family, no clan to fight for her. She was also, at her twenty-one years of age, very aware that she was not going to get married anytime soon. She would have even gone as far as to say she was single, only she wasn’t. She had Neji. But no one apart from them knew about it. Their relationship was a secret kept because he had made no move to make it public, and she was scared to drive him away if she were to do it instead. Contrary to her independent nature, she had willingly ceded control of the pace at which their relationship would move forward. If Neji was not ready to parade her around as his girlfriend, then –as much as it hurt- there was nothing she could do about it.
Naturally, Tenten was not naïve enough to believe they could have a wonderful, problems-free future. She was well aware that their relationship couldn’t continue to grow past a certain point. Right now, they were at a standstill, unable to move forward -not for lack of desire but- because fate was against them. Neji was a member of the branch family of the Hyugas. As such, the decisions he could make in regards to his life were limited, especially when it came to marriage.
Though they’d never addressed the situation, Tenten knew he only had one more year to marry, to choose a suitable woman to stay by his side. Given that he had not yet asked nor hinted that he wanted her as his bride, it was safe to assume she could not be accepted in that department by the Hyugas, Neji included.
She cut her depressing thoughts short with a shake of the head. Masking her emotions–again, something she had picked up from Neji—she continued, not knowing or caring if Tsunade had commented about what she’d said of Ino.
“The only other option available would be Hyuga Hinata. However, her kekkei genkai would be a huge disadvantage. If she cannot withstand torture, she may give away her clan’s weakness, crippling one of the Leaf’s strongest advantages in battle,” she finished monotonously. Tenten closed her eyes and Neji’s milky eyes flashed below her lids. Despite her emotional turmoil, she smirked. After all this time, she was still keeping her promise. She would protect his secret –his blind spot as long as she could draw breath. At the same time, she would help him protect his charge, the heir to his precious clan.
“Tenten, you can--”
“I’m your best option,” she finished stoically. “Politically and strategically speaking. I have neither family that would pester you if something goes wrong, nor do I hold secrets that would weaken the village if found. Besides Lee, I am also the one ninja that can withstand the most pain. Not to mention that, because of my youth, I will be most desirable by the Akatsuki.”
Tsunade’s eyes widened slightly before she nodded her head in acceptance, her face impassive but a shade paler. Of course the Hokage couldn’t argue. Tenten knew her case was too solid –her logic dead-on for it to be brushed aside. Why she was suddenly so keen on backing up the Hokage’s decision was beyond her. Perhaps she was tired of it all? Maybe she wanted to prove to all that the girl lacking a family name could still create a legend of her own?
“You’ve seen my record,” Tenten continued, even though it wasn’t necessary. It had never been Tenten’s decision. Yet, the irony didn’t elude her. It wasn’t for the fact that she was probably signing her own death sentence, she would have laughed. “I’ve never turned a mission down or failed one either. I am not planning to start now.”
Tenten could see Tsunade’s respect growing into silent awe. Tenten almost smirked in satisfaction. Too bad this was the first and most probably the last time her idol would pay her any mind.
“You’ll be leaving in a month,” Tsunade said, fishing a file from one of the drawers of her desk and offering it to her. Tenten took it without hesitation. If Tsunade noted the blood on her calloused palm, she hid it well. “You’ll also be training with Morino Ibiki before you leave,” she added.
There was no need to spell out why Ibiki would be involved. Absent voice, Tenten nodded, trying to keep her mind from conjuring unpleasant memories. Training to withstand torture would be a first one for her. She fought the urge to shudder at the thought.
“Who’s my partner?” she asked after a moment, glancing at the contents of the folder, scanning as much information as she could.
“Sai,” the Hokage responded. “He has a new jutsu that you’ll have to help perfect before your mission. It’ll definitely play a major role.”
Sai, the only other person that had it even worse than her. He was the boy that was given a name because he didn’t have one –or at least, he could not remember what it was. He was, likewise, an orphan.
Tenten smiled sardonically, keeping her head low so Tsunade wouldn’t see it. Of course, the Sasuke-replacement was the perfect choice. Emotions would not be an issue if he was concerned. Doubtless, the man would stoically watch as rouge ninjas capture her without batting an eye or breaking a sweat. If anything, at least helping Sai with the new jutsu would be interesting. Naturally, she would have to come up with a way to do it while keeping it a secret from Neji. She didn’t need him to worry, thinking it was his lack of effort on their relationship what had pushed her to accept the mission –even if it was partly due to that.
Glancing back at the first page, she sighed, knowing she didn’t have to worry about him hearing rumors. This was a confidential mission. Information was relayed to those involved in a need-to-know basis with only four people knowing the full extent of the operation: Sai, Ibiki, her and the Hokage.
“If this is all, then I should probably head home to study the information and learn my cover story,” Tenten suggested, standing up with the folder tucked beneath her arm.
The Hokage nodded. She seemed as if she wanted to say something else, but decided against it at the last minute. Instead, her hand moved towards the bottle of sake. It was apparent to Tenten this was probably hard on her too. After all, if she were to die, Tsunade hands would be the ones covered in blood. Being the leader of a village of ninjas was not an easy job and Tenten would not make it harder by bearing ill feelings. It was nothing personal and Tenten was nothing if not a professional. She’d given her life to the Leaf’s Hokage to do as she saw fit with it, the moment she stepped inside the ninja academy. Few ninjas ever reached old age and even fewer died of it. That was fact.
Turning on her heels, she was about to step out of the office when Tsunade spoke, “Tenten, be sure to leave everything in order,” a pause before she added, in a lower voice, “even if you will come back to us.”
Tenten forced a cocky smile, “Don’t worry about me, Hokage.” She turned her back to her and added silently, I’ll make you proud.
Tenten, weapon mistress of Konoha, headed home knowing that her life was doomed. She was but a dead woman walking down the streets of an oblivious village. Would anyone notice when she went missing?
Would anyone even care? She wondered grimly, weaving her way between the crowds gathered at the market. Today she just didn’t feel like moving across rooftops. Perhaps it was because today, she wished –for the very first time- that she had not chosen the path of the ninja. Perhaps it was because part of her wished she would reach an old age…