During her days at the Academy, the boys would sometimes dare her to come here. Any working pair of eyes said it was a target practice ground. But grade-school rumors, which at that time were decidedly twice as accurate, claimed that it was a haunted site, where the ghosts of the slaughtered Uchiha clan waited for living souls to devour.
She had asked, at the time, why an already-dead person would want to devour anything in the first place. That was apparently the most ridiculous question her peers had ever heard.
Today, Tenten could guess that many of those peers were close by, challenging each other at the public training grounds. Talk of ghosts, ravenous or otherwise, had paled in the glory of first missions and crushes, but still, she liked coming here now and then. She was pretty sure she hadn't been devoured yet.
Her weapons lay strewn about the small clearing, for the moment forgotten. Only the eight kunai she had left mattered. Eight kunai and eight targets.
Refusing to indulge herself by catching her breath, she readied the weapons and prepared to try the maneuver again. After her humiliating defeat in the Chuunin Exams only one month before, she couldn't afford to waste a moment.
Crouching low, Tenten closed her eyes and silently asked that the Uchiha ghosts wish her well.
Chapter 1: Beginning
He had to get away from them.
At the moment, he blamed Kakashi-sensei. If he had just let the sky fall and come on time for once, Sakura wouldn't have complained, and Naruto wouldn't have suggested that they start on their own. (That, and though he wouldn't admit it, he had always viewed Kakashi-sensei as much-needed backup when Sakura decided to get girly.)
Sasuke really wasn't in the mood for it today. So when their twisted carousel began with a blushing request for "one-on-one training" - honestly, what was he supposed to think? - which was then followed by a seething interjection from Naruto, he'd decided that a substitution jutsu would have to do, and they could come after him when Kakashi-sensei showed up.
Once he had gotten an acceptable distance between himself and his teammates, Sasuke allowed himself a low sigh. Things had been harder with them lately.
The ground was still soft from a night drenched in rain. Here in the wooded section of the training grounds, only fractured sunlight could find its way through the leaves, and the wind threw small sprays of moisture against his face as he moved across the muddied path. Birds and insects were his only company here. This was solitude. He'd thought he hated it, once.
Then again, the child who had formed that opinion had also been a fool.
Before his thoughts could travel too deep, a human voice penetrated the stillness. Sasuke turned his head toward the sound.
It had come from his right, where a less-traveled path veered into the brush. Sasuke frowned; he knew that path. The little fool who hated solitude had taken that path many times, now and then alone, though usually shadowed by another. But it had been a long time.
The first noise was the only one. All he could hear now was heavy breathing, high in pitch, quick in pace. Someone was working hard.
Sasuke couldn't remember the last time anyone had practiced there, himself included. Then again, after that day (silence so thick that it stole his breath, blood coloring his senses in copper and crimson), several months had passed before anyone had gotten up the courage. That clearing had been well known as a favorite of the Uchiha clan.
Since then, the only other news he had heard of it were the rumors, cruel in their ignorance, that it was haunted by the ghosts of the Uchihas who had died that day. His loved ones.
There had been moments that he was tempted to go there himself and listen for them. He had never expected to actually hear someone.
If nothing else, it was a little fool's glimmer of curiosity that took him down that path now. The trees had grown since he had last been here, and he never remembered having to duck so low or so often, but the path itself was clear.
No more than twenty paces found him at the broken tree he'd used to climb, the one that had somehow grown split into three trunks. (He had used that tree to explain to Sasuke the concept of three-man teams on the day of his graduation. "Each trunk takes its own path, but the tree's true strength is in the root, where all three join as one.") At that tree, the path opened up to reveal his destination, as well as the source of the noise.
It was no ghost. Just another shinobi.
He recognized her. It was that plainfaced girl on the Hyuuga's team, who he'd heard was all but destroyed in the last Chuunin Exam. He had a couple vague memories of seeing her in the next class up at the Academy; the others had made fun of her early on because her short haircut had made her look like a boy. The fact that she would proceed to march up to the ringleaders and give them black eyes for it, he supposed, didn't help much in shaking the image, even though she had eventually grown it out.
But what was she doing here?
Very little was known about - was Tenten her name? - throughout the village, at least in Sasuke's circles, but the one thing everyone seemed sure of was that she was enamored with her teammate and trained only with him. Looking around, Sasuke felt no other presence at all. Just her. So why was he getting a chill?
Still with her back to him, Tenten crouched low, took a breath, then shot into the air. Sasuke squinted into the filtered sunlight; something familiar…
Then, in midair, she shifted her body weight so that her feet were pointed toward the sky, and suddenly six kunai had fanned out between her fingers. Her body had begun to spin slowly, and when he saw her face, Sasuke's breathing came to a halt.
Her eyes were closed.
Before his eyes, she began to execute the move, releasing first three, then another three of the kunai. When like clockwork, she produced two more, then threw them just so that one struck the other, his blood went cold.
Throughout, her eyes remained shut, sending a wave of tranquility over her face. (He always looked peaceful during this maneuver, free somehow, despite the lines of weariness that had always been under his eyes.) Her back arched gracefully and pulled her into an upright position, and she was facing away from him again. (Always landing with his back to him, the Uchiha symbol daring him to even bother trying. All his life, only seeing his back…) There was not one stumble when she landed, dropping to one knee and an arm to keep herself balanced, looking like she was bowing to a superior. (He was always superior.) Vaguely Sasuke wondered if Hyuuga always stood in front of her when she did this. The thought flew from his head as soon as it had come.
There were eight impacts. Sasuke's eyes darted to each of the eight targets, and if possible, they grew even wider.
Each kunai had hit. Each hit was a bull's-eye.
Before him, Tenten inhaled slowly, then exhaled, letting the tension seep from her stance. Then she stood.
"How was that--" she began, turning around. When she met his eyes, the bright, tired smile morphed into surprise. "--oh…um, did you want somethi--"
"Where did you learn that?" His voice hardly made it above a whisper, and she frowned.
"That," Sasuke repeated, advancing on her without noticing, throwing a hand out in a careless gesture at the nearest target. When he was close enough, his other hand flew to her shoulder and gripped it tight. "Who taught you that?" He was aware, through the pounding in his ears, that he sounded panicked. Maybe he was scaring her; otherwise her hand wouldn't be lingering so near her empty kunai holster.
"…No one," she said, her frown deepening.
"No." Sasuke's hold grew sharper, making her wince. "Someone taught you how to do that!" Then Tenten was gripping his wrist, pulling herself out of his grasp.
"No," she echoed him. "No one taught me-"
"Your parents," he persisted. "Who are they?" He couldn't let that be true. Never in his life had Sasuke seen anyone but him perform that maneuver, much less succeed. She had to have learned it somehow from him, even indirectly.
A cloud seemed to pass over her eyes. She ran her hand over the shoulder he had gripped, kneading it. "I don't know."
The desperation that had shot through Sasuke's blood began to swiftly deflate, heralding a short, hanging silence.
Tenten's hand dropped to her side, and she rolled both shoulders back to stretch them, then looked at him a bit curiously. "You're Sasuke, right?" He nodded, overcome by a sudden stillness. Her voice, now that it was no longer shrilled by urgency, had a strangely calming effect. She gave a small nod herself. "It's a practice maneuver from a book. I don't think it's used much anymore, though," she explained, bending a bit to remove one kunai from its target. "Ranged Weaponry Techniques. Volume Three."
"Three," Sasuke repeated, his eyebrows lowering. ("Not now, Sasuke," he murmured, his eyes lowered behind a thick textbook, its cover displaying a shuriken and a large number 3. "I can play with you more after the Exam.") Tenten nodded again. Sasuke's eyes narrowed. "That's a practice guide for the Jounin Exam. You're still a genin."
"Yeah…" Her face colored a bit, her eyes lowering. "I'm pretty average in everything else, but the genin-level throwing techniques are a little…"
"Pointless," Sasuke murmured, half to himself, as he too had breezed by that unit while Naruto and Sakura had struggled.
A smile found Tenten's lips, relieved, overly modest, but honestly so. Honest like her eyes, honest like her existence.
Sasuke looked over the remaining seven targets. Each kunai was so perfectly centered, flawless, that his eyes hardly knew where to go.
He had never made a target look like that.
Tenten was watching him. "Did you want something?" she asked after a pause.
Sasuke turned towards her again, studying her. He hadn't noticed in his small frenzy that her arms were shaking with strain. Between her fingers, from which she had thrown the kunai, he could see that the skin had rubbed off several times over, leaving patches that burned red and raw. She had practiced this, held on to it, honed it to perfection.
She did it the way he'd done it: perfectly.
"Do it again." Sasuke barely heard himself say it, but she did. He knew she had heard him from the way she quickly searched his eyes with her own, looking for a reason, an explanation.
She didn't move. Instead, she looked up. "Neji…"
Sasuke didn't follow her gaze. She was the one he was waiting for. In his peripheral vision he saw her teammate drop to the ground, close enough that the movement blew Sasuke's hair briefly into his eyes. Tenten met them again, something unreadable entering her face.
"Tenten," Hyuuga said, "what's going on?"
By that, Sasuke was sure, Hyuuga meant to ask if he was harassing her. And by the impression he was getting from the almost-glare that was being drilled into him, Sasuke had a feeling that the desired answer was yes.
She didn't reply right away. Something was changing in her eyes.
"It's okay, Neji," she finally said. Stretching her arms, she started heading for the next target to retrieve her kunai. "He saw a technique he's interested in." She glanced back at her teammate. "The one in Chapter Nine."
Hyuuga's eyebrows lowered, and he took another glance at Sasuke, who glanced back for only a second before looking away. Sasuke didn't feel overly concerned with him. Even if Hyuuga used his doujutsu, he wouldn't find any dishonesty in Sasuke's aim. He couldn't, when even Sasuke didn't know what it was just yet.
Sasuke paused, retracing his thoughts. His doujutsu…
The Sharingan. This maneuver, which he had never been able to master - he could have it now. He hadn't been able to use his Sharingan back then. Now he could.
In the back of his mind echoed warnings in the voice of his sensei, who had gone to such lengths to look out for him. If I am not with you, don't use the Sharingan. The fact that it's a bloodline limit gives it a different set of rules with this curse seal.
But this wasn't a battle.
Calmly, silently, Sasuke formed the necessary hand seals and activated his Sharingan.
A burst of pain from his neck made him wince, but after a moment he was able to ignore its steady burn.
Hyuuga was looking at him again. "You're going to copy it."
Sasuke didn't answer. He had the sense that Hyuuga was liking him less with each passing second.
"She said she doesn't know her parents," Sasuke recalled, a bit abruptly. Hyuuga's eyes narrowed a bit, but he nodded.
"She was abandoned outside an orphanage when she was small," Hyuuga explained, turning his eyes outward toward his teammate. "No one knew of any family, so she was given no last name."
Sasuke watched her in silence, his eyes alive, the curse seal searing against his neck. He could feel it creeping into his blood, its dark tendrils beginning to spread. His mind slowly turned in another direction, propelled by the coaxing heat of the curse.
It would be so easy. She was small, strong but lithe, more agile than powerful. He could take this away from her, swiftly and completely. The moment she landed, he could be there, take those slender arms in his hands and shatter them in their perfection. In a second, he could end her life as a ninja, end it with a crack that would heighten that soothing voice into a scream. Few would remember her as she was, an unremarkable orphan with no last name; the technique would belong only to the last ninjas of the Uchiha line. As it should be.
His breath quickened at the thought.
She had finished collecting her kunai and returned to the middle of the clearing. She sent a smile to Hyuuga, then looked to Sasuke, meeting his eyes. For one instant, the smile faltered.
As quickly as they had begun, the thoughts vanished in a wisp of darkness. The curdling heat began to recede, leaving only beads of cold sweat on his skin. His eyes burned, but he stubbornly kept the Sharingan activated.
"The maneuver is the Kouryuu Rasen," Hyuuga continued to murmur as Tenten readied herself, "the Rain-Dragon Spiral. It's one of the most difficult exercises in the textbook." There was a pause. "She was the only one of our team to master it."
This caught Sasuke's attention, and he turned to look at him, frowning. Even he couldn't…?
She sent one last glance in their direction, eyes bright and anxious. Sasuke supposed he understood. She was performing a difficult technique before two of the most skilled genin in Konoha, one of whom rumors said she cared deeply about. Vaguely he was reminded of the day he had perfected his first bloodline technique, under the critical eye of his father.
"The only one," Sasuke repeated, and Hyuuga nodded.
Then he was suddenly on the receiving end of the full effect of a Hyuuga's stare. He blinked, a bit startled by it in spite of himself. Hyuuga's face showed little, but the air around him was grave.
"Do not take it from her."
Sasuke remained locked in that gaze for a stretched moment, trying and failing to decipher just what he was seeing in white eyes that were anything but empty.
"Here it is." The two of them turned toward her as one. Tenten's face was still a bit flushed, but the determination in her eyes overruled any nervousness she may have been feeling. The Sharingan magnified every tiny spasm her muscles made, each unheeded protest against pushing herself further. She was tired.
But as she steeled herself, as she lowered herself to one knee in a perfect reflection of her finishing position, knowingly or unknowingly bowing to her witnesses, Sasuke caught a glimpse of those eyes, so common but so bright. Just the image of them in his mind calmed the eager killer at his neck. As she launched herself into the sky, he began to understand why.
He saw in this girl what he had seen in Sakura, on the day that she had thrown her arms around him when the curse had held tight to suffocating, and begged him to stop. He had given pause that day, spared three lives, because he had never seen such honesty in her eyes. Honesty in Sakura was rare - she was always lying to herself, he didn't need a bloodline limit to see that - but Tenten emanated it. No lies were told when her eyes slipped shut and she abandoned herself to the movement. And as he watched, goosebumps rising on his skin as the phantom of his brother danced with her in the sky, he knew why even the genius would rise to protect her.
There were eight impacts. She had done it again.
For several seconds she remained still in her prostrate bow, her back rising and falling with each heavy breath. She had landed harder than before. Beside him, Sasuke could feel Hyuuga tensing with each moment that passed, but he did not go to her.
Finally she raised her head and painstakingly pushed herself to her feet. Her arms were trembling more visibly now. From where he stood, Sasuke could see the fresh trails of blood slipping down her fingers from reopened wounds in between, but even so, she stood tall.
Even after training for hours, he always stood tall.
All three of them glanced up, Naruto's distant call breaking the spell of silence. From the sound of it, he was near the edge of the wood, shouting inward. "Sasuke-teme! Kakashi-sensei is here! Sakura-chan won't leave until you come out!"
Sasuke gave an annoyed exhale. That figured. From his right, he heard Hyuuga give a grunt of recognition. Or amusement. Sasuke didn't care to distinguish between the two.
"Sasuke…" His attention shifted to the girl before him. Tenten had finally allowed her arms to hang limp at her sides, and her eyes were low, seeming to take much more effort than before to meet his. "Did you see what you wanted to see?"
He blinked. A bit of the truth had left her voice, and her eyes had dulled. The neutrality in her face was being forced from somewhere.
Then he felt Hyuuga's hard gaze on him again, and understood what she was really asking.
"Yeah." The white eyes narrowed, and Tenten swallowed hard. Turning partially away from her, Sasuke slipped his hands into his pockets.
"That's a tough move," he went on, looking toward the sky. "None of us on Kakashi-sensei's team can do it."
At the corner of his vision, he saw her face spark to life again. "None of you?"
Sasuke hummed to the affirmative, indulging her with one more glance, no trace of the Sharingan in his eyes. Her face looked incredulous for only a moment. Then the smile, the real one, returned.
"Sasuke! Damn it, quit hiding! Sasuke-teme!"
Flinching, Sasuke had to restrain himself from rolling his eyes. He sent a stiff nod in Hyuuga's direction. Then, exchanging a last look with Tenten, the talented stranger, conjurer of all that lay behind him - her message came through so clear that he nearly said "You're welcome," aloud - he turned toward Naruto's voice, and left the clearing (his clearing) behind.
"What did he want?"
She'd had a feeling that this was bothering him.
Tenten sighed, allowing her hand to be cradled in his while he treated the burns between her fingers. Neji's hands had always been cooler than her own, though lately hers had been rougher. "I'm not really sure." She paused a moment, trying not to wince when he slipped his fingers between hers to apply a stinging ointment. "For a minute he seemed really…I don't know, shaken up. Scared, almost." She leaned her head back against the tree they were using as a backrest. "Something about that move."
"Hn." A small grin tugged at her lips, because there was her proof. It was definitely bothering him. She turned her head to look at him expectantly, and at length, he obliged. "He was going to copy it."
"He would have done it." A bit more force weighed down his voice, and he even paused in his work for emphasis, his hand remaining suspended halfway to the roll of bandage. When she remained unmoved, he resumed, plucking the roll from its place. "His chakra…it was strange."
"Strange like at the preliminaries?" Tenten asked, and he nodded. She lowered her eyes to her hands, allowing herself to be fascinated by the careful precision with which he looped the bandages through her fingers. "Yeah. I don't know him that well, but I thought he was acting a little strange all around." She looked up again, blinking against the setting sun. "What do you think?"
Neji finished with her left hand, fastening the bandage at the wrist, then reached for her right. His eyebrows lowered upon noticing that that hand was the bloodier of the two. "You overworked yourself."
"Got your attention, didn't it?" she teased, lifting a quizzical eyebrow, and he rolled his eyes.
They fell into a comfortable silence while he followed the same routine with her right hand as with her left, but halfway through applying that terrible ointment, Neji paused again, still appearing disconcerted. "If you knew he wanted to copy the technique," he murmured, "why did you show him again?"
"Well…" Tenten bit her lip, unsure how to explain. "Well first off, it isn't technically mine. Anyone could have found that book-" A flat expression from Neji ended that excuse, and she moved along. "But I guess it was something in his eyes. When he asked me to do it again, it looked like…" She turned to face him. "Have you heard of the Uchiha ghosts?"
This time it was Neji's turn to lift a brow. Taking that as a no, Tenten tried to explain. "The Academy kids still talk about them, I think. They say the spirits of the Uchiha clan haunt this clearing."
Neji reanimated with a small snort, slipping his fingers out of hers and reaching for the bandages again.
"I'm not saying it's true." Tenten absently bent the fingers of the hand he'd already bandaged, working the stiffness out of them. "It's just that…for a minute, he almost looked like he was seeing them. At least, he wanted to be." Her eyes lowered to the place that Sasuke had been standing when she saw him first. "So when he asked me to do it again, I felt like maybe I could give him that."
Silence hung in the statement's wake, and after a moment, Tenten replayed it in her head and let out half a laugh. "That's the most ridiculous thing you've ever heard, isn't it?"
Neji exhaled softly against her ear as he fastened the last bandage. "No."
Once she had flexed the fingers of both hands to check her circulation, they stood. A glance told her that all manner of pointy objects were still lying everywhere. "You go ahead," she told Neji, sending him a sideways grin. "You know how Gai-sensei gets."
"Don't be late."
"I'll catch up."
As soon as he was gone, Tenten began circling the grounds, collecting her tools as she came to them. She looked disdainfully at her still-trembling arms and silently conceded that maybe she had overdone it a little.
It was as she was bending to remove the last kunai from its target that her thoughts wandered back to that boy, Uchiha Sasuke. What she'd seen in him…Neji had tried to understand it, but Tenten wasn't so sure he did. Uchiha Sasuke was holding on to something. She didn't really know what that felt like - she hadn't known her family long enough to understand - but she was pretty sure she could recognize it when she saw it.
Neji would get that look himself sometimes, as though for just a second, he had seen a phantom of his own. It was the expression he had every time he looked at his uncle, and sometimes even when he laid eyes on Hinata. Most often, he got that look just before doing something reckless.
Sasuke had seemed that way as well. She had never seen the Sharingan with her own eyes before, but she knew that was what he'd been doing. That was reckless, too.
But he had stopped.
What had stopped him, she couldn't say.
Rising, Tenten took one last scan of the area, rolling the shoulder Sasuke had gripped and foreseeing a bruise there tomorrow. It looked like she was done here. But just as she was turning to go, a small, dark shape near the exit path caught her eye. A kunai…had she missed one?
Closer inspection revealed that it was no weapon of hers. It surprised her that she had never noticed it. Slow-spreading rust and a dull tip said it had been lying there for a long while. Tenten turned it over in her hands, unable to resist studying every inch, trying to guess its age and forger. Only one detail made it different from any other kunai she had seen:
Engraved on the handle, almost too worn to make out, was a tiny Uchiha fan.
Tenten could have sworn the air chilled around her.
The beating wings of the evening's first bat snapped Tenten from her mystified state and reminded her how late it was. She glanced at the sky through the blowing leaves, then back at the kunai in her hand. The idea of keeping it felt disrespectful somehow.
Looking around, Tenten's eyes fell upon a broken tree where the path opened up, the first landmark she had learned during her visits here. She had always been fond of it, as it simply wasn't satisfied following just one path, instead twisting into three.
Resolutely she went to the tree, holding the kunai against herself as though it could break. Once there, she lowered herself to one knee before it and raised the kunai to eye level with both hands, pointing it downward.
Closing her eyes, she said a silent prayer for loved ones lost, and those they left behind. Then she drove the kunai into the ground, marking the clearing with the symbol of those who had once cherished it.
She could only hope that maybe, somewhere, a wandering spirit could now find its way home.