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girl at the end of the chain

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When Tenten joined the ninja academy, she did it because there was no one there to stop her. She was five years old and slept in a tiny cot at the orphanage, constantly surrounded by the smell of other children, by the noises of other children, and if Tenten wanted to be a ninja, the matron was never going to have the time or the energy to argue.

A part of Tenten almost wanted her to, though. She wanted the matron to grab her little hand on the way out the door and say no. That’s too dangerous. Come back inside. But the matron had so many children to watch and was never going to have the time or the energy so Tenten became a ninja because there was no one to stop her.

When she first walked into the classroom with the straps of her secondhand backpack clenched tight in her tiny hands, she stared out at her new classmates, at the sea of them, at all of the children who wanted to be shinobi, same as her. When she woke up that morning and knew it was going to be her first day she woke up early. She cut her fingernails and brushed her hair and carefully braided it back, her tiny fingers not nimble yet, but nimble enough. But when she saw her classmates she knew it could hardly be enough. Those children had something to them she didn’t. They had something she couldn’t have ever emulated or copied. They were all clean—and she was clean, too, Tenten made sure of it—but they had shiny hair and freshly washed faces, and it was something in their faces.

Those children all had someone to love them. Tenten had no one, but this was never going to stop her.

She can take care of herself. Clip her own nails, wash her own face, brush her own hair. She can take care of herself, and she does.

Tenten runs the brush through her hair again, slowly, letting each pull on her scalp pull her back from her self-pity. A new day. A new morning. Maybe she can be a new girl. She looks into the mirror in her one room apartment—it's kind of yellowed—and stares into the eyes of the girl looking back. She looks in the mirror at her brown eyes and her brown hair. She always does her hair like this in the morning.

She first decided on it when she was seven and had her hand splayed over a drawing of Uzumaki Mito in her history textbook. Uzumaki Mito had been a legend. Maybe it isn’t right to copy legends, but Tenten likes to think that Mito is just lending her some strength.

When she pulls her hair up, she doesn’t see a legend. Tenten sets down her brush, but she's still looking in the mirror. Sometimes when she’s getting ready in the morning, looking in the mirror, she stops and stares at herself, as though the girl she sees is a wild creature and not an average Konoha kunoichi named Tenten. She fixes her hair into their buns, into the same hairstyle Uzumaki Mito wore, but she's looking into the mirror and thinking: plain. Average. Boring. Unimportant.

It's just Tenten looking in the mirror and wishing she could be a legend.

Sometimes if she stares hard enough into her eyes, if she looks deep enough and looks long enough, they don’t seem so brown anymore. She wants to tell herself that her eyes have a little bit of a purple tint, that they’re prettier this way and it makes her special. But then she blinks and they’re back to mud and she feels stupid for being stopped by her reflection for so long.

Tenten steps away from the sink. Her hair is up, her teeth are brushed—it’s another day, but it isn’t a normal one. Team Gai isn’t meeting up at the usual place.

She comes from nothing and she knows that. It isn't an excuse—look at Lee, look at the way he came from nothing and, if anything, is better for it—and that just makes her feel pathetic, the way Lee has no one to go home to and no one to brush his hair for him and nobody to make sure he’s washed his face, his hands, himself properly.

He still manages. No—he doesn’t just manage. He excels. And she’s just . . . Tenten.

She’s just Tenten, and today, on a day that isn’t normal, she’s even more average—one face among a crowd-to-be of chuunin hopefuls, one plain brown-haired, brown-eyed girl drowning in a sea of bright and colorful people. She picks her way through the apartment towards the door, stepping delicately over misplaced kunai and discarded axes. She rescues the ones she thinks look particularly sharp. When she leaves she locks the door behind her. She always locks the door because everyone locks the door, but there isn’t anything in there anyone could possibly want.

She’s got some rice in there. It’s still in the pot. It’s a bit too crunchy from getting burnt while she was cooking it. Tenten can’t afford a rice cooker so she has to make it herself, and she hasn’t quite learned how to stir at the right time. Thieves are welcome to it, if they’d even set their standards that low.

She walks into the chuunin exam building with Neji and Lee—Lee’s a taijutsu genius but at least he doesn’t rub it in, while Neji’s a genius in general and definitely rubs it in—and she doesn’t feel real. She feels fake, a fake girl on a real team full of real shinobi, with her weapon scrolls and her knowledge and her jutsus and—she feels pale compared to these vibrant people around her. Tenten’s always worked her hardest and tried her best. It usually isn’t exactly enough.

She knows she’s competent. She’s a competent genin. But a competent chuunin? That’s something for shinobi like Neji and Lee.

Neji’s the one who realizes that it’s a genjutsu and that they’re not actually on the third floor. He notices immediately. It’s kind of annoying, because he didn’t even have to activate his eyes. Neji’s the type of person who can see through people and things with or without his Hyuuga heritage. He looks at someone and already knows everything about them. It makes her feel a bit itchy. When he looks at her she wonders what he sees.

She almost asked him once but the words on her mouth made her realize she honestly didn’t want to know.

“Should we just head upstairs?” Tenten asks. She knows the way this typically goes when Team Gai has to interact with enemy shinobi. Tenten plays the fool. She plays dumb and incompetent because she’s the closest thing on Team Gai to incompetent. She gets it: people underestimate her. It’s smart to capitalize on that. She just really, really hates it.

Neji gives her a look. The look is kind of . . . She doesn’t know what it is. But it makes her feel inferior. He’s usually the one to suggest Tenten playing the fool. Maybe he doesn’t get that she hates it. Maybe he doesn’t really think it matters. They’re shinobi. Her opinion isn’t important, but a strategic advantage is. She still hates it.

“Yes!” Lee pumps a fist in the air. Neji rolls his eyes—she thinks. It’s hard to tell. “Let’s go!”

Thank god for Lee.

Team Gai walks past just slowly enough to seem casual. There’s a chance they don’t even look like they’re here to take the exam, although Tenten doesn’t put much hope into that thought. It’s not that they’re bad at stealth. The way they sneak past would impress Gai-sensei—Tenten knows it. Those stealth lessons hadn’t been for nothing. But Lee has always hated being sly—he’s Lee—and Neji’s a Hyuuga prodigy, the Hyuuga prodigy, so it’s kinda hard for him to be on the down-low.

There’s a fight happening near the door to one of the rooms. It looks awfully exciting, and Tenten catches herself wishing that she would be involved in something as out-of-the-norm as that. One of the younger kids get punched in the face. It looks like it really hurts. Tenten aches with jealousy, but walks right up the stairs anyway. If Team Gai got in a fight down there Tenten probably wouldn’t be allowed to participate anyway. Neji and Lee are just . . .

Sometimes she thinks their teamwork needs some work.

They wait inside the exam room for a while. Tenten’s tapping her finger on her thigh. It’s soundless and calms her nerves but after probably twenty or thirty minutes of this—of tap tap tap tap tap tap tap all of her anxiety coming out in tap tap tap tap tap—Neji gives her a look. Lee’s practically bouncing off the walls, but that’s normal for Lee. Neji’s given up trying to chide him.

Tenten’s the one getting scolded. Tenten doesn’t have quirks, doesn’t do things like Lee does, so when she starts doing them she’s not allowed to. She has to play the straight man here, the normal to counteract Neji’s holier-than-thou aura and Lee’s high-energy personality. A part of her thinks Team Gai needs her to be normal, needs her to be well-adjusted and free from eccentric habit.

Neji can say so much in a look. It’s probably because his eyes are so big. And because he prefers to make faces instead of talking—he’s got this down to an art.

She stills her fingers and waits more peaceably until the last of the last have trickled in, and tries to ignore the small chakra-induced headache that being in the same room with so many signatures—especially that Naruto kid, his is so loud—gives her.

The proctor for this stage is a scary man—it goes without saying, really, since he’s the head of T&I—but Tenten’s met him before and she isn’t as intimidated as some of the other genin are. Neji goes tense next to her and Lee stares at the proctor with something between apprehension and excitement on his face. Lee loves a challenge. Neji loves winning challenges. Tenten glances around the room, scanning them.

Wow. They look . . . terrified.

She tries to feel bad for them, she really does—but she can’t help thinking that genin like them mean that there’s less competition for her. At least she has the respect not to smile openly. Instead she lets herself get away with a tiny one, so small that only Neji, who’s been trained to recognize facial expressions, would notice it.

After seats are assigned it’s a bit harder to see her teammates, but they’re still visible so she doesn’t feel worried. The proctor—Morino Ibiki—had given them all a good little snarling beforehand. A real scary speech. She’s pretty sure some of the younger genin came close to pissing themselves. The basics are: This is a written exam. This exam is very difficult. Do not cheat. No, I’m serious. No cheating. This exam will likely be impossible for you, but for a chuunin, it would be easy. You are going to fail it. No, I really think you will. This exam is extremely difficult.

Tenten rolls her eyes. Like her team is going to struggle. They won’t have to cheat to slide easily through this one. She shares a glance with Neji from her seat in the back and then shoots another at Lee. Lee doesn’t fully get the message she’s sending but the grin he gives her is reassuring.

Team Gai has this exam basically completed.

x

“Lee,” Tenten sighs, “your ears are still bleeding. Are you sure you don’t need a medic? Because I’m kind of thinking about dragging you off to—”

“Fear not, Tenten! My youthfulness will overcome any injuries I have!” Lee smiles at her, wobbling a bit on his feet, and Tenten holds back her own smile. The forest hadn’t seemed like a big deal at first. She’d gone on more dangerous camping trips. And it wasn’t even dangerous, until Lee shoved himself into a fight between some Oto nin and one of the younger Konoha teams, Team Seven. When questioned, he’d said something about honor and helping out other Konoha nin but she’d seen the girl—Sakura—just as well as he had, so she wasn’t fooled.

Thinking about it makes something crawl along her spine. There had been something wrong with one of the genin. Uchiha Sasuke—there’d been something wrong about him. She could feel it. When she looked at him it’d been like she had walked from sunshine into rain, with her clothes sticky to her skin and her hair limp around her shoulders. That hadn’t happened—Sasuke was just Sasuke—but she still has to shake her head against the image.

Lee wobbles again. He gives her a grin and a thumbs up. “I am doing fantastic,” he announces. This doesn’t stop her from dragging him off to go see a medic, though. They’ve got roughly a day before the next stage, and she’s not about to risk her teammate running around with injured ears during their chuunin exam. Luckily, it’s not that serious—or so the medic says—and it only takes about fifteen minutes for Lee to be back to normal.

Or, well, as normal as he can get.

They’re shooed out of the medic station and the pair of them drift off into the corner of the room to wait for Neji. He’d said something about checking out the competition, and about trying to see what exactly was up with Sasuke. He’d gone off looking even moodier than usual and with a quiet mutter of, “Chakra on his shoulder,” and then he’d been gone. He’s right, if she thinks about it more. The feeling started in his shoulder, in his neck, maybe, and then ached around his body, tight on him like plastic wrap.

Tenten doesn’t think they’re back yet—if someone with chakra as abundant and massive as Naruto was in the building, she doesn’t think she could miss it. Naruto’s isn’t heavy, at least, not like rich frosting or pouring rain—it had always felt more like gravity had increased and was pushing against her shoulders.

She pauses. Adjusts her posture. Nope, normal gravity here.

Even without Naruto’s chakra howling, feeling like wind threatening to shove her over, she thinks she can already feel the beginnings of a headache coming on—there are so many people in this room with her and she can feel their chakra signatures, not visual, but there all the same like pressure on her eyelids and it’s irritating. It’s like humidity, like she’s covered in someone else’s sweat.

“Nothing,” someone says, and the noise washes gradually into her ears until she recognizes that it’s Neji talking. She takes a moment to berate herself for letting herself become lost in her thoughts, for being caught unaware, and then she turns to Neji questioningly. “They’re not here. I assume that you already know who else to look out for?”

He says he assumes it, but the way he asks holds an implication of the opposite.

Tenten doesn’t let her fingers twitch, but it’s a close call. “Yes, we do, but it’d be helpful if you let us know what you saw.”

Lee isn’t paying attention to the conversation as much as she would like—his eyes keep bouncing away from one person to the next in excited little darts of his pupils—but she bumps her shoulder against his in solidarity. Sometimes she and Lee are united against Neji and sometimes she and Neji have to talk Lee down from his more ridiculous ideas. Right now she wishes Lee would look at Neji straight on the way she’s looking at him. The united front always gets him to cave.

Tenten loves being the one to switch sides. She always wins.

Neji sighs deeply, like it’s putting an actual strain on him to tell them. Tenten hold herself back from rolling her eyes, partly because he’d never tell if she did and partly because his pretentious facial expression is endearing. He says, “The trio from Sand, especially the one with the kanji on his forehead; a Kusa nin with cold chakra that I haven’t seen since the first stage; Sasuke, although I’m not sure what’s wrong with him; and the white-haired one with the glasses. He might be the most dangerous. He’s definitely got jounin-level chakra reserves, but he’s acting like he’s pathetic.” Neji’s eyes narrow. He’s still got his Byakugan activated and is occasionally scanning the crowd with it. The chakra drain doesn’t matter to him. She knows he’s confident he can beat any of the genin in the room. “I can’t believe he’s been a genin for so long.”

“Thank you, Neji,” Tenten says, and it’s sincere but it’s a little bit strained, and she just hopes that whatever the next stage is will start already because she’s working herself up into a thunderstorm of nerves and nervous energy. Tenten’s always had just a hint more anxiety than a ninja is supposed to. She wants to start tapping her finger on her thigh again—it’s louder in here now, with more genin spilling into the tower each passing hour, so it’s not like she’d be obnoxious—but Neji’s got an anxiety, too. It isn’t nervous energy. It’s just controlling.

Look, Tenten loves her team. That doesn’t mean Lee isn’t painfully excited about everything and Neji painfully self-assured he’s right about everything.

Neji looks over at her. “Of course,” he says, like she hadn’t had to pull the information from his mouth like pulling teeth. He looks her and Lee up and down. “You two need the help to pass whatever comes next.”

She wants to bristle automatically—she’s not charity and she’s not weak, she trained for this, she fought for this, Tenten is going to be a legend—but instead she tries not to react at all. Lee’s ears aren’t bleeding anymore, but he did get kicked around a lot by those Oto nin in the forest. Neji’s probably concerned for them but he doesn’t know how to express it without also looking down on them. He’s Neji. She isn’t surprised.

Tenten pokes a bit further through the tower, feeling around the entrances for any chakra coming in. The time limit is coming closer and closer—probably just a night of hours now—and she still hasn’t caught any bits of Sasuke or Naruto’s chakra yet. Maybe they won’t make it through. It’d be a shame, since Lee went to the trouble—

She hisses. Naruto’s definitely here. His chakra is already giving her a migraine and Tenten hurriedly pulls away from trying to sense out anymore of it. Her eyes sting. She hadn’t actually seen the chakra, not literally, but it still feels like she’s been burned. How could anyone have a chakra that bright?

Her eyes go down to the arena. She isn’t sure why there needs to be one if this is just some sort of congratulations for passing. From the corner of her eye, she can see Team Seven talking amongst themselves.

They look an absolute mess.

Naruto looks energized, bouncy, the usual, but something about the energy feels more alert than normal. His jumpsuit’s torn in multiple places and he looks like he hasn’t slept for days. There’s blood dried on the cloth and dirt on his hands, but no visible injuries, at least. Someone—a medic-nin, probably—rushes over to him and starts frantically saying something to him, hands waving and—and then their eyes land on Sasuke, who’s unconscious and who looks about a few minutes away from dying. Tenten cringes. Sakura’s there beside them, and her hair is ragged, cut roughly with the ends unclean and uneven, and she looks angry and she’s yelling something at the medic-nin.

Tenten doesn’t feel bad for eavesdropping or for watching. Orphans learn to snoop constantly into someone else’s business. Not like she has cable, so where else would she get entertainment? She channels a small amount of chakra to her ears so that she doesn’t miss out on anything, easily rerouting her usual chakra circulation. Neji gives her a side look. She tilts her head, exaggeratingly listening. He snorts and she can’t stop the smile that spreads itself across her face.

“ . . . needs to be healed, medic-san! Look at him!”

“There’s something that we have to do first,” the medic explains quietly, urgently, and their hands quickly light up green. Their face is just mildly pulled in discomfort, like they’re seeing something twisted and aren’t sure how to hide the emotion. “And we can’t take the time to heal him fully until the—”

“You don’t know what was in there!” Sakura shouts. Tenten flinches—she didn’t need enhanced hearing to hear that one. Sakura’s got her hands in fists and Tenten can tell she’s shaking. “He needs someone to take a look at—mmph!”

The medic’s right hand is covering Sakura’s mouth, their left on Sasuke’s forehead. Sakura shoves the medic’s hand off in simmering silence. “We don’t know how long healing him will take. The preliminary stage is tomorrow, once the last of the stragglers get here, and—”

Sakura’s expression becomes thunderous, and the medic’s face hardens. “The what? Someone bit him and put that—that thing there. He needs to get it off and—and there was this snake thing and—and—” She starts to stumble over the words. It isn’t like she’s afraid, or unsure. It’s more like the words are choking her, like the effort it takes to get them out leaves her throat scratched up and full of claw marks.

“Haruno-san,” the medic says lowly, quietly, with just a hint of steel, and Sakura’s expression goes even angrier, “we’d better move this conversation to another room. Follow me.” The medic looks back down at Sasuke and their expression twists a little again before carefully smoothing. When they look up at Naruto the facade shakes. “U-Uzumaki-san, please go to the medic station to have your injuries treated and to receive new clothing,” the medic instructs, pointing to the medic station. Then they beckon for Sakura to follow them, picking Sasuke up and carrying him princess-style to wherever they’re headed. It would be funny if Sasuke’s head wasn’t lolling over their arm, if his body wasn’t limp and sprawling. Tenten stops looking after they ascend the first flight of stairs. It feels too personal, and she doesn’t need to listen anymore.

She doesn’t feel guilty for it. She never does. Tenten grew up alone: a watcher, an observer, someone on the outside examining the lives of those within. Tenten grew up on the fringe, eyes wide and soaking up all the interactions she wasn’t allowed to have.

“Tomorrow,” she whispers, hoping that she isn’t loud enough to warrant any attention. She scrunches her nose up and looks at her team. Lee turns to her immediately but Neji takes a few seconds. She clears her throat just loud enough for Neji to look over at her, eyebrow raised, but no one else spares her a glance. “A preliminary. Tomorrow.”

Neji scoffs, likely annoyed she even thought this information was worthy of his time. “We won’t need to worry about it.” He pauses, looks her and Lee over again. She wants to roll her eyes so badly they practically ache with the need. “At least—I won’t.”

“We’ll pass,” Tenten says drily. Lee nods his head in such excited agreement she takes a small step away from him just to make sure he has all the space necessary.

“Yes,” Neji agrees easily, flippantly, like he doesn’t even have to think about it. “You two will probably pass with ease. This is mainly to weed out the ones who returned toward the later end of the time limit. No doubt they’ll be exhausted and unable to continue.”

“That’s kind of sad,” Tenten says without thinking, forgetting to filter what she says so that she doesn’t make Neji go off on a tangent.

Lee is suspiciously silent.

“Sad?” Neji echoes, unimpressed, and Tenten prepares to sit through another one of his lectures on fate. She’s never fought with him on them, but she can’t find it in herself to agree. Tenten’s been the one left behind before. It wasn’t great. She had to claw herself up from nothing. She chose her own path. She doesn’t see why Neji won’t pull that damn stick out of his ass and admit that maybe it’s not all about what happens before—it’s what you do in the moment that matters, it’s what you make happen that decides who you’re going to be. Fate doesn’t care if Tenten becomes a legend or not. That burden falls solely on her. “It’s fate. Those who are weak are destined to fall behind. The ones who haven’t arrived yet fell behind; they arrived late. It’s nobody’s fault but their own that they were not talented enough to have been in any sort of shape to go through a preliminary exam.” He finishes off the entire thing with a mildly impertinent, securely scornful snort.

Tenten sighs.

“All right!” Lee says, pumping a fist into the air. The looks Tenten avoided earlier all fly to them. Most of the other genin look scared or uncomfortable or both, so Tenten makes the choice not to feel embarrassed. “It is decided! We will crush the competition!”

God, she loves Lee. She grins and bumps her shoulder against his. “Right!” Tenten claps him on the back and risks doing the same for Neji—the expected irritated glare shows itself on the boy’s face in response—before her mouth goes from upturned to a more restrained thin line. A preliminary . . . She sighs. “If they need to cull our numbers, it’s probably going to be a fight.”

Tenten’s tired. She’s a shinobi, but just this once, she doesn’t want to fight anyone. She’d really rather take a nap. Even just curling up in her usual sleeping bag, the one she pulls out for long missions, would be a wonderful reprieve. She’s got mud and sweat caked on her skin, and she knows that the life of a shinobi isn’t easy work, that it’s going to be dirty and disgusting and everything she would have hated as a little girl, but gods— she really needs a hot shower and a bed to sleep in. At the very least she wants some privacy to scrape a bit of the dried mud off.

“I really need a shower,” Tenten says, just for the hell of it. She isn’t sure Lee ever feels the urge to shower; the amount of sweat that he produces in any given day of training never seems to bother him. Neji, she imagines, is the kind of person to be religiously clean, but he’s also the type to value suffering in silence, so he’s never voiced disdain towards the dirtier work they have to do as shinobi.

She could use a water jutsu on herself, but . . .

“If you clean me off with a water jutsu I’ll attempt to dry you with some wind ones,” Neji offers, like performing a bunch of jutsu before their match in front of prying eyes is a good idea. “I doubt that the proctors are using all of these rooms.”

Well then.

It’s tempting. Very tempting. It’s fair trade and she would be clean. Hmm. She spares a thought for her chakra reserves that is quickly dismissed—the forest had been disgusting and now it’s all over her of course she’s going to pick being clean, and besides, she’s only ever had a single brush with chakra exhaustion before—and when she nods her fervent agreement Neji spares her a rare pleased look.

Half an hour later finds Tenten and Neji clean and dry—and Lee, because of course they’d help him out, they aren’t awful, no matter what Tenten thinks of them all sometimes—and ready to take a nap.

“Should we set up a watch system?” Lee asks. “It would be most un-youthful of us to sleep through the preliminary!”

Tenten nods. “I’ll—”

“I’ll take first watch,” Neji cuts in, sending her a look. The mildly content expression he’d had after she’d washed him clean was absolutely gone now. “Your chakra reserves are smaller than mine, which is why you should rest first and regenerate chakra. Your water jutsu took far more out of you than my wind jutsu did me. Lee, you rest, too. I refuse to be seen walking around with two people who look like they’re about to keel over.”

Ouch. Clan kids sure can be mean.

Tenten thinks that it means he cares, though, or at least she hopes that’s what it means. She makes a show of leaning back on the floor, mockingly curling up with her head cushioned on her hands. You could be sleeping, Neji. This could be you.

He rolls his eyes. Maybe. Hard to tell. But she likes to think he does. She’s never entirely sure if he finds their conversations annoying or if it’s some kind of inside joke—the fond kind of annoyance. It seems like a lot of teams are like that. From the little she’d seen of Team Seven, they had a relationship like that, one full of playful poking and endearing scoffs. It’d been so cute. Sasuke, completely above his team, constantly fondly irritated with them; Naruto, clearly desperate for his attention, or perhaps anyone’s attention; and Sakura, secretly amused by her idiot teammates. And the way they had looked after making it into the tower, Sasuke unconscious and his teammates clearly bristling with protective defensiveness—that’s nice, Tenten thinks.

Tenten thinks her team is kind of like that.

And no matter how annoyed Neji might be with her, she already knows he would die for her. She would die for anyone on Team Gai. The feeling there is mutual. Tenten smiles a little, warmed by the thought, and stretches out her legs. She pokes Lee with her toes. He’s already asleep. Tenten closes her eyes, adjusting on the uncomfortable concrete. She listens to Lee’s loud snoring and Neji’s almost silent breaths. It’s soothing.

You could be sleeping, she thinks one last time, her mouth forming a smile again, and then she’s asleep.

x

Tenten’s on watch, Neji and Lee sleeping—peacefully on Neji’s part, really by sheer force of will, and with much twitching and snoring involved on Lee’s part—on either side of her, when a door on the balcony slams open and a dark-haired kunoichi, who Tenten only belatedly realizes had been the proctor for the second stage, walks out. The doors smack into the walls and the kunoichi calls out, “Maggots!” Neji jerks awake immediately, his entire body tensing, muscle straining in his arms.

Chill, Tenten almost says. Instead she shakes Lee. He eventually comes to and swipes at the drool on his chin.

“Gather on the arena balcony, but leave some room between yourselves,” Mitarashi-sensei shouts. “Preliminary stage starts now. We’re weedin’ ya out!”

“It’s time for the preliminaries,” Tenten whispers to Lee, still shaking him, hoping not to draw attention to them. It certainly works—everyone’s laser-focused on Mitarashi-sensei. “Wake up.” There’s a couple people walking in behind her; a shinobi with dark hair and equally dark under-eye bags as well as, notably, the Hokage.

Tenten can’t believe the Hokage is going to watch her fight. She feels a little giddy.

“Really?” Lee cries. Tenten decides he’s giddy enough for the both of them when Lee actually leaps to attention. Some of the genin, still spooked from Mitarashi-sensei, suffer a serious shock a second time, eyes dashing across the room to stare at Lee. He starts to do extremely exaggerated stretches. “I am prepared to fight!”

Tenten sighs.

Quickly, all the chuunin hopefuls gather in a loose group around Mitarashi-sensei. Team Gai scrambles down from the balcony in the shuffle. Up above, jounin-sensei are starting to spill into the room. Tenten can sense Team Seven off somewhere to her left, and if she cranes her neck to look over the crowd she can actually see them. They all look a great deal better than they had yesterday. She’s relieved for them. Most of the teams look loads better than they had earlier. Team Eight’s clearly rested. Tenten feels a bit of pity for Team Ten. They’d walked in during her watch and they hadn’t really gotten any time to rest—at most about an hour or two.

Mitarashi-sensei scans the large group with a critical eye. “Anyone wanna withdraw? Might be your only chance at getting out of this alive.”

Some of the genin back away from her nervously. Tenten, who’s always been the kind of girl to sit at the front of the classroom, holds her ground. If she allows herself to be cowed by someone like Mitarashi-sensei, she won’t go far in the field. There’s been a lot of times before when people gave her a chance to give up. She never accepted then. She’s not going to accept now. People who give up don’t become legendary.

Uzumaki Mito never gave up. Senju Tsunade never gave up—not during the war.

“I’ll withdraw,” someone—Kabuto, maybe, but Tenten’s only about fifty percent sure that she’s getting his name right, even if he is another Konoha nin—says, raising his hand and laughing sheepishly. “I’ve never really done well in fights . . . ”

Neji eyes him suspiciously. That’s right: Neji said Kabuto had jounin level chakra reserves and no reason to play the loser. Two of the genin standing next to him, who Tenten assumes are his teammates—but then again, you can never really be sure with the older genin—follow suit, raising their hands and joining Kabuto as he’s led out of the tower. They’re all Konoha shinobi, and they’re the only ones who give up.

Cowards, Tenten sees Neji mutter under his breath. She has to agree. They’d obviously made is this far, even through the clusterfuck that is Training Ground 44. They should at least try. Where’s their honor as shinobi? Their drive to move forward? Hadn’t they grown up in the same Konoha she had, the same Konoha that she’d been longing so desperately to be known within? Where is their greed? Where’s the urge to become someone?

Tenten can’t imagine anybody existing without it. She decides she pities them.

Mitarashi-sensei spits onto the ground as soon as the doors have shut behind the three of them. “Spineless little worms, ” she says venomously. “Dishonoring this village, the lot of them.”

Tenten smiles to herself. At least the Leaf has shinobi like this, too. If this weren’t an exam with her pride on the line, Tenten might have asked for an autograph.

The tired-looking shinobi coughs and Mitarashi-sensei nods to him. “Okay,” he begins. “I’m Gekkou Hayate, the proctor for the preliminary.” He motions to the digital letter board being pulled in through the doors and Tenten watches it get rolled in hungrily. “These will be one-on-one fights. Matchups are decided completely randomly. Conditions for a win are surrender, unconsciousness, death, or incapacitation of the opponent.” He eyes the group. Coughs a little. “Aim to incapacitate, if possible. No jutsu or seals that will injure spectators. Other than that . . .” Gekkou-san shrugs. “This is pretty much a no-holds-barred fight. Ninjutsu, genjutsu, taijutsu, bukijutsu—you have the ability, go ahead and use it.”

Tenten is more excited than she has any right to be. Now that she’s actually well-rested, she’s surprised to find herself raring to go. Her weapon scrolls weren’t depleted in the forest and she can just see herself lashing them open, raining weaponry on some little genin. She thinks about the terrified faces she’d seen and surprises herself by her urge to made them even more afraid. God, half the people in the room probably don’t stand a chance against her—and the other half are either chuunin or jounin. The people in this room she’s going to fight? They’re gonna lose to her and she wants someone to lose to her. She wants to fight someone. She wants to make someone surrender, or to knock them out cold, or—

“Don’t get distracted,” Neji says, flicking the back of her head. An involuntary indignant sound comes from her mouth. She turns to him with a small frown, but really, she’s thankful that he pulled her out of her thoughts.

A random chuunin comes scurrying into the arena balcony and hands Mitarashi-sensei a little slip of paper. “Am I supposed to read this chicken-scratch?” she asks angrily before making a shoo-ing motion with her hand. The chuunin grimaces and books it out of the area. Tenten looks up at the second row balcony, searching past all the jounin sensei still finding their spots up there. When she sees Gai she grins. “Okay, since we’ve got an uneven number of people, that means someone gets a pass . . . ” Anko bares her teeth. It is in no way a semblance of a smile. “Unfortunately.” She pauses, and Tenten, along with the rest of the crowd, holds her breath in anticipation. Mitarashi-sensei makes a big show out of running her fingers over the slip of paper. She starts to look like her own drama is starting to make her feel the tension and eventually blurts, “Oh, fuck it. Uzumaki Naruto gets the bye. Consider yourself lucky. Or unlucky, depending on whether you wanted to fight or not.”h

Naruto’s indignant shout is so loud it manages to make Tenten wince. “You’re all lucky! I would have beaten all of you up!” Neji sniffs in delicate disagreement. Lee only looks sad he missed the chance to fight him. Tenten guesses Naruto fits the “youthful” definition pretty well.

“Yeah, yeah,” Anko dimisses, waving her hand. Naruto makes another offended noise. “Sure, brat.”

“The first match will appear on the board shortly,” Hayate-sensei says, jumping down into the arena and going over to consult with a chuunin stationed at one end of it. He seems to be satisfied with whatever he’s asking after, or checking on, and he comes back to stand on one of the outside edges of the arena. He glances up at the digital board stationed behind him on the balcony. Tenten catches Gai’s eyes again and he gives all three of them a thumbs up. It would be embarrassing if he weren’t so earnest. “And . . . please try not to damage this thing. I paid for it.”

He nods, once, at the chuunin at the end of the arena, and Tenten watches eagerly, impatiently, as each red letter slots into place. Lee’s practically vibrating beside her and it’s a rare moment where Neji and Tenten completely match him in enthusiasm. It’s too slow for her, too much drama and too much build up and not nearly enough of her beating someone up—

A name’s revealed, and then another. Neji inhales quickly, a gasp, something almost completely foreign to him, and Lee’s enthusiastic vibration only intensifies.

Haruno Sakura, the board says, versus Hyuuga Hinata.