Sharp-Bladed Spirit

The Training I

“However long the night, the dawn will break.” -African Proverb

Tenten didn’t have to wait for her alarm to wake up. Blinking to shake away the remaining haze, she glanced at the clock. To her surprise, it was a quarter to seven. How odd that, even when visited repetitively by nightmares, she’d been able to sleep for so long. Normally, her eyes would peel open by six at the latest, whether she bid them to or not. This had prompted Neji, on more than one occasion, to curse her biological clock. Hell, the man had even gone as far as to ask her to fix it! As if that was bloody possible!

Heaving a sigh that sounded terribly melancholic, she crawled out of bed and was about to don her regular outfit, when she remembered what she was to do today. Grimacing at the idea of going to train with Ibiki Morino dressed with a white shirt was not sound, considering she would soon be clutching at various wounds.

She tried and failed to brush aside the bloody images parading through her head. Cursing her imagination, she donned black pants and an equally dark long-sleeve, oriental-styled shirt. Buttoning it all the way up to her collar, she proceeded to gather her wavy locks into her customary buns.

When she was done, Tenten stepped in front of her vanity and regarded her appearance critically. To say she was appalled would be an understatement. There stood a sickly pale woman gazing back at her with unrealistically dull eyes. No matter how much she squinted, Tenten could find none of her regular fire swirling in her orbs. Funny how she wasn’t quite sure if her reflection matched what she felt inside; especially because several sentiments were waging a furious war. She was hoping bravery and pride would win against fright and whatever else it was that tried to deterred her from her appointed path. Could that reluctant part of her not understand that it was too late? Must it keep pestering her with gut-wrenching images of her probable future?!

There was no way she could change her mind regarding her mission without destroying the image she had worked so hard to assemble in the process! She’d had to work twice as hard and demonstrate thrice the skill during her countless past missions in order to make up for her lack of Clan ‘and’ bloodline limit!

No, she would not run, she would not shrink when duty called her to step up. If destiny was indeed something inalterable, then Tenten would rise to the challenge. She was not a coward, damn it! And if to prove her worth she had to risk her life, then that was a price she was willing to pay!

Unable to keep staring at the pathetic girl in the mirror, Tenten whirled around and, with newfound determination, stormed down the stairs. Crossing the kitchen, she didn’t even think about getting something to eat. She was not hungry, anyways. Stepping out the door and into the almost deserted streets, Tenten pondered that. When did she last ate? If her estimations were correct, she had gone nearly twenty-four hours without food! However, if she thought about this logically, it was probably for the best to meet her ‘instructor’ on an empty stomach. After all, a natural reaction to pain was to puke, right?

She scrunched her nose. Now, that would be way too humiliating, even for me… That steeled her resolve, dissolving all thoughts of food for the time being.

With that in mind, she made her way towards the ANBU’s department that held Morino’s Office. According to her schedule, the first week would be dedicated entirely to her training with the head of Konoha’s ANBU Gomon (Torture and Interrogation Force). Training with Sai would start until the second week. The third week she was free to train in whichever way she saw fit, which was great since Neji would be in Konoha by that time and she wouldn’t have to skip their training sessions. Kami knew that if she did, the he might become suspicious!

Her mind shelved all thoughts of milky eyes and silky hair when the ominous three-story building came into view. The building’s gray walls helped in wrapping the department with a fitting gloomy look. Oh, joy! She thought sarcastically, halting just in front of the doors to try and fix her face into a mask of coolness she certainly did not feel. She needed the undaunted Tenten to walk through those doors, though, not the fragile girl she’d seen in the mirror.

Tenten took a moment to breathe in deeply. She closed her eyes and noticed, for the first time, she was trembling! A chain of curses rolled down her tongue with seething venom. She felt her cheeks flush with either anger or embarrassment, she didn’t know and, frankly, didn’t care.

Pull yourself together, Tenten, she snapped, fisting her hands. Her jaw clenched automatically, even when trying to relax the muscles that were constricting with her building stress.

Recognizing that she was only stretching the inevitable, she pushed the doors open and stepped inside. People moved around her -to and fro, up and down- none bestowing her even a passing glance. Tenten eyed her surroundings guardedly. She’d never been here before. Strange… she’d always believed she would find something unnerving about the place that held the most ruthless of ANBUs. Her imagination had often conjured images of dark hallways, moss-filled walls and torches lighting the way through constant shadows. Yet, to her odd disappointment, the interrogation building was not that different from the rest.

She snapped to attention when a familiar voice addressed her. “Can I help you?” Anko Mitarashi offered as she approached, purple orbs regarding her with interest.

“Ah…,” Tenten wasn’t sure how much she could disclose without increasing Anko’s curiosity. The least she wanted was for people to start snooping around her business, especially given its sinister nature. But since she didn’t know her way around the building, she chanced it.

“I’m supposed to meet with Morino-sama. Can you tell me where his…” Tenten struggled for a word to call his working place. Interrogation room…? Torture chamber…? She settled for a vaguer term,“…‘office’ is located?”

With a sharp jerk of her head, Anko signaled her to follow. Tenten shadowed her, putting a lot of effort into faking nonchalance.

“May I enquire as to what business you have with Morino?” Anko asked, as she led her down a long flight of serpentine stairs. The fact that it was getting both darker and crispier did not go unnoticed by a now nervous Tenten.

“Ah, you may,” she agreed, barely paying attention as she took in her surroundings warily. Maybe what would greet her in the basement would not be so different from what she’d imagined before? Perhaps no torches, but moss-covered walls and leaking pipes alongside a nest of feral rats was looking plausible.

“Err…okay.” A pause, “So what business do you have with Morino, then?” Anko repeated, a tingle of confusion tainting her otherwise polite tone.

Tenten smiled sheepishly. The thing was, Anko could ask, but Tenten never said she would respond. Naturally, pointing that out would most probably be rude…right? Stupid Neji, Tenten scowled. She had always known that sooner or later Neji’s influence would get her in trouble, she just didn’t think it would be with a very influential Tokubetsu Jonin. She made a mental note to punish him later.

“Well?” Anko pressed, cocking an eyebrow when the silence stretched.

Tenten sighed, “I apologize but this visit is confidential.”

Purple eyes narrowed for a second before she shrugged, but her expression indicated she was disgruntled. The silence switched from companionable to tense, but there was no way to avoid it at this point. Tenten reminded herself she was here to fulfill her training, not to make acquaintances or to exchange gossip.

They continued to trek down the cool, empty and darkish hall until Anko spoke. “Here we go,” she said, indicating an ordinary looking door. She knocked twice and crossed her arms, waiting patiently beside a stiff Tenten.

“Come in,” a harsh voice grunted from inside.

Before Anko could move to comply, Tenten noticed her brows meeting for an instance, as though the fact that Ibiki was grunting was not an everyday occurrence. Perhaps he, too, in his own way, was trying to cope with Tenten’s mission?

Shaking her head, Anko opened the door with an unreadable expression. “You expectin’ the weapon specialist, Morino?”

Tenten was surprised that Anko knew about her. Did that meant she had been successful in building a positive reputation? All the more reason to keep it, she told that part of her brain that was still refusing to allow her to plunge into what was probably a suicide mission willingly.

“Yes, send her in,” Ibiki instructed, his voice cold and business-like.

Tenten sidestepped Anko and walked inside. She felt Ibiki’s dark gaze zero on her, undecipherable. He was seated behind his mahogany desk, looking slightly disgruntled.

“Thank you, Anko. You may leave,” he dismissed her, motioning Tenten to take the chair across from him. The door closed, leaving her alone with her new teacher. How unfortunate that the subject he was to impart was not one she relished learning.

No use complaining, she yielded. As soon as she lowered herself onto the uncomfortable seat, Ibiki leaned forward. He rested his toned arms on his desk, over the papers lilting the surface. Slowly, he slid a folder across the space that separated them before intertwining his fingers. With an expressionless face, Tenten took it but turn to him enquiringly, before she even thought of glancing inside.

“That’s the information I need you to learn,” he explained, standing up. “I will try to access it through interrogation. Your task is to withstand from giving in as long as possible. I’ll be advising you throughout the process as I see fit.”

Tenten nodded, switching her attention to the folder. She hadn’t even opened it yet and she was already feeling uncomfortable.

“When you’re ready come through this door,” Ibiki said, pointing at the door at his back.

He paused suddenly, his hand gripping the polished doorknob. Tenten could tell he wanted to say more, but something was holding him back –if the tension building in his shoulders was any indication. The simple fact that he seemed uncertain was amazing, but also rather disturbing. Finally he gave in.

“Why did you agree to this, Kunoichi?” His eyes latched onto hers, his voice devoid of feelings. It could have been a question prompted by simple curiosity or raw distress, there was no way to be sure.

Still, the enquiry was unexpected. It was so unexpected in fact, that she neither had an answer waiting on the tip of her tongue nor did she presume this was a matter to be taken lightly. Quite the contrary, this called for careful consideration. So Tenten mulled the question for a while, repeating it, dissecting it and evaluating it minutely. Indeed, why ‘had’ she agreed? There were many reasons she had come up with when she’d been with the Hokage, but now… now she was not as confident. Now, doubts kept assaulting her and fears kept thrusting themselves into her heart, piercing the confidence she thought unbreakable.

“I’m the most suited, I suppose,” she offered offhandedly. “I can withstand the most pain and I don’t have a family that would mourn my loss…”

She frowned and lost her voice when she saw something that she could only identify as anger in his eyes. It blazed there, strong and steady, like fire kindling and ripping through a veil of darkness. His lips pressed together into a thin, scowling line. To have such an outward reaction from someone who’d learned to control his emotions so thoroughly –sealing his training by withstanding torture himself- was beyond surprising, it was staggering!

Like a hunter zeroing on his prey, he swallowed the space between them with four wide strides. He grabbed the armrests of her chair and swiveled her around to better face her. Dark met brown, ice met stone.

Ibiki leaned forward dangerously, shoving his face inches from hers. “You think you can withstand pain?” He snarled, his baritone lower than usual, giving it an almost savage quality.

Tenten knew she was a child in comparison to him, but she didn’t care for his tone. It was hard enough without him mocking her! She had been through a lot in order to prove how powerful she could be, pain was a constant companion of hers. How dare this man question her as though she was a snobby brat instead of a skilled shinobi of the Leaf, an ANBU at that!

“I’ve had my share of battles and wounds,” she stated, not letting anger slip into her tone. Rashness and a short-temper were some of the hazardous traits Neji had been helping her to control –hoping she would someday shed them altogether. No such luck had been met so far, though.

A bitter smirk lifted the corner of his lips. With dramatized slowness, he slid his bandana and forehead protector off, allowing her to see the deadly kiss pain gave his skin, recollections forever frozen in scars and burns. She bit back a gasp but, stubbornly, stood her ground –unwilling to break the staring contest.

“You think you know about pain because you have been wounded in battle?” his voice was sardonic, his question rhetorical. “Well, ‘Kunoichi’, you will soon find out that being wounded and being tortured are two ‘very’ different things.”

Her fright doubled by his declaration. It must have shown in her eyes, despite her trying to reel her emotions back, because he suddenly closed his eyes. Ibiki backed away and took the empty seat beside hers, as oppose to returning to the comfier-looking chair across the desk. He leaned back, faking casualness. It was all an act, just like she’d been putting.

The truth was, he was correct. She didn’t know what she had gotten herself into. Hell, she hadn’t even considered that there could be a difference between pain produced by a wound and pain produced by torture. Surely, they couldn’t be so different! Pain was pain!

“Lesson number one, Kunoichi,” he said and, despite the importance of what he was about to say, Tenten couldn’t help noting that he had yet to refer to her by name.

The perceptive part of her whispered that he wouldn’t do it. He was deliberately making emphasize on calling her a kunoichi, and she even knew why. Morino would know better than to get attach to an ANBU who he was not only about to torture as way of training, but who would also surely die in her mission. It was probably this last what had prompted his question. Tenten could bear no ill feelings for the man or his bluntness. Had their positions been reversed, she would have probably asked the same.

Ibiki cleared his throat and she was immediately reminded that this was no time to daydream. When her eyes refocused on Ibiki, he folded his arms across his wide chest, straightened and launched into an explanation.

“The body’s reaction to pain depends on the situation,” he said, his tone back to its business-like quality. He was teaching, informing as oppose to judging or admonishing. “I’m sure you’ve noticed that during battle, your mind takes in a vast number of things, trying to process everything at the same time –bringing order to the chaos surrounding you. Consequently, when you’re wounded in battle, you sometimes hardly feel pain. It is not until after everything is over that you register your wounds, correct?”

She nodded curtly.

“Do you know why?” he raised.

“Adrenaline, isn’t it?”

“Partly,” he agreed, “During a battle, adrenaline is released when the body realizes the danger surrounding you, helping you achieve greater physical performance to either fight or flee. However, a prolonged fight forces you to push your body to its limit, prompting it to release endorphins in order to cope with the pain. Those natural hormones serve to clog your pain receptors –or rather, your brain switches your reaction so instead of pain you feel exhilaration, utter bliss.”

Tenten nodded, finding the new information not only interesting but also quite unwelcomed. More so, since she already had an idea of where he was going with this.

Ibiki continued nonetheless, “When you’re being tortured, on the other hand, your mind tends to concentrate on what is immediately happening to you. The pain is felt strongly because there is nothing to steal your attention, to veer your consciousness away from the pain… ‘unless’ you create a distraction. And even then, there is only so much pain you can endure before your mind betrays you, providing the information sought in order to try and survive. After all, the human wish to live –even if hidden from the owner itself—is too strong to fight in situations of stress.”

Of course, how had she failed to take that into consideration? Torture didn’t push one’s body past its physical limits. If anything, it was focused on pushing your mind past its limits while administering doses of controlled pain.

After a pregnant pause, Tenten croaked, “I-I see…” She hated the fact that her voice sounded so dry, a clear indication of her rising fear. She heaved a profound sigh before pointing out, “What has been done is done, there’s no going back for me. If I am not suited… then you’ll have to help me fill the shoes, Morino-sensei.”

Ibiki nodded in either understanding or approval, Tenten was not sure. At any rate, his expression was less enraged and she could’ve sworn that a mixture of pity and admiration –as incoherent as that was- crossed his eyes.

“I cannot show you how to ignore pain, nor can I destroy your pain receptors,” he admitted as he gained his feet. “The only thing I can do, is show you how to effectively ‘deal’ with that pain, how to create a distraction to minimize it and…,” his eyes trailed towards the wall. After a short pause, he finished, “We’ll work on expanding your threshold of pain.”

There was no need to elaborate on that. She knew that the only way to do that would be by crossing the limit of how much pain she could actually sustain again and again, until she got used to it. Then, he would inflict even more pain and so on and on until he deemed her ready.

Wordlessly, Ibiki disappeared into the room where ‘limitless pain’ awaited her. She grimaced, viciously fighting the tears that were blurring her sight, and flipped the folder open.

There is no going back, she insisted, thumbing the darn tears that reluctantly escaped, before plunging herself wholly into studying and learning the information she’d been given. The information she would have to protect at the cost of blood and suffering. There was no going back.

~One week later~

Tenten’s eyes fluttered open when she felt another icy bucket of water being emptied on her. Her wrists, which were tied together behind her, ached as the rope scratched against her sore skin. Her numb, bruised ankles were secured onto the legs of the hard chair she’d been strapped on for Kami knew how many hours now. It might have only been a couple of hours since she had stepped inside for all she knew. To her, though, it felt like ages.

No. That wasn’t right. She had to have been here for many more hours. After all, the first time she had attended her ‘training’ lesson, she’d barely held for two hours before information had rolled unbidden down her tongue. It had been disgraceful and, had it not been for the pain pushing everything –pride, loyalty, stubbornness and vows—into second plane, the tears that had leaked out of her eyes would have been prompted by regret and embarrassment instead.

Ibiki, however, had commended her softly –almost inaudibly- before stepping outside and sending a pale-faced Shizune in to tend to her bloodied form. Whether the Medic Nin knew what was going on or not, mattered not as long as she lifted the heavy cloak of pain.

Now, Tenten was clinging with all her might to her rational part, shoving her survival instincts aside as she tried to ignore the pain. This was her last lesson and she needed to prove she could at least stand a chance to succeed on her mission!

“We’re not done yet, Kunoichi. Are you really this weak? It makes me wonder who you fucked and how many in order to be allowed into ANBU,” Ibiki jabbed viciously, the fact that his voice was low and smooth, as opposed to shouting with anger, made the hairs on her arms stand on end.

But she was used to his harsh taunts by now. She’d already learned that wounds could be received in not only the body but also the more vulnerable soul. Perhaps the spiritual wounds were the ones that often hurt the most because they could not be healed by applying medicine. Instead, they were carved in a place that was hard to reach and even harder to ignore.

Tenten hung her head to inspect her sorry state, trying to determine how long she could last before passing out. She was dirty, bloodied, in pain and extremely tired. She knew that she would have to deal with pain, but she was just as wounded emotionally as she was physically. And how could one show scars left behind by a lashing tongue?

Tenten steeled herself, closing her eyes and jutting her jaw to avoid screaming when she noticed the man had taken another kunai from the various tools he’d gracefully presented. She gasped, biting at her lower lip hard—Pain! Hot and razor sharp, shot like an electric bolt through her body. She opened her eyes, panting with exertion, to see a kunai rooted deep into her outer right thigh. Just looking at the bloodied blade sent a new wave of unfiltered pain down her body until, against her ardent wishes, her soul shed its salty beads.

She was glad that this time no whimpers came past her tightly shut lips and that only two tears stream down her blood-coated cheeks. The shiver that shook her entire frame, however, she was unable to repress. But it was inevitable, so she didn’t consider it as a sign of weakness nor an indication that she was breaking.

“Just tell me what I need to know and all your pain will cease,” Ibiki cooed into her ear with a tone that was low and soothing, the promise made for the fiftieth time was starting to sound too tempting to ignore.

She regarded him, calculative ice meeting the fire of determination, and smiled. Most times there was no need to say anything. Ibiki had told her that silence was more aggravating and unnerving than words. To keep silent often took more courage than to speak, and it certainly helped to hide the pain that her tone could disclose if it were to quiver or break.

His dark eyes narrowed and he stepped back, turning his back to her as he selected his tools. Slowly, he spun with a handful of senbons between his fingers. The new choice seemed less dangerous than a kunai, but she knew that size didn’t matter. It was how you used the tools what made them powerful, and Ibiki was a master with the cursed senbons. Morino’s purpose was to deliver the most pain while damaging the body as little as possible. Since the Akatsuki group was said to break Kunoichis before taking them to another place to serve as tools of reproduction, Morino was certain that they would use this kind of torture, trying to scar the body as little as possible –careful not to maim it in any way.

Instead, the jabs were aimed at the spirit, at that most defenseless part of the human psychology. But her soul was made of steel, glinting silver like the weapons she’d learn to wield as an extension of her limbs. Her spirit would first cut those who wish to touch it before giving in, fighting by standing strong and unbreakable before the crushing wave of words.

So, Tenten bit her lower lip hard and braced herself for the new assault. She would have to give in eventually… but not yet. Not bloody yet.

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