Necromancer

Exorcism

"…that we've finally gotten hold of him. If we don't…"

His brow furrowed a little, his ears working harder than they should to make out what was being said. For a second he wondered if he was under water. Unconsciousness clung fast to him, disorienting him, making the small movement of opening his eyes seem an impossible task.

"…see it as their Hokage knowingly putting them in danger, and the last thing we…"

He fought off the desire to slip back into unconsciousness, and the sound grew sharper. His senses grudgingly reawakened to cool, still air on his skin and something smooth and stiff under his back.

"…that sort of instability." A woman's voice, with a tone of authority. Almost familiar…why couldn't he think? Frustration finally prevailed over lethargy, and Sasuke slowly pried his eyes open, squinting against the blinding white of the ceiling.

"I agree." This voice he knew. He turned his head a little, and Kakashi-sensei blurred into focus, leaning back against the wall to Sasuke's left. "But limiting his chakra permanently, I think, is a bit rash."

Limiting his…

Sasuke's eyes snapped open when his memory rushed back in staggering clarity, making his limbs go rigid and a dull ache rise in his left arm. When he automatically moved to grip his shoulder, his breath hitched when he realized he couldn't.

"After all," his sensei went on, either oblivious to Sasuke's sudden panic or ignoring it, "if Orochimaru were to come for him again, it wouldn't be a help to anyone if a limit on his chakra made him unable to defend himself."

He couldn't defend himself now. Sasuke gritted his teeth and painstakingly turned to look at his arm, then froze.

Restraints… Glancing around, he found similar bonds around his other wrist, his ankles, and even over his abdomen, gleaming with infused chakra and holding him fast to what he now realized was a hospital bed.

After a moment, Sasuke silently went limp again, his gaze drifting back to the ceiling. There was no reason to fight the restraints. He knew exactly why they were there.

The woman's voice gave a sigh, and Sasuke dared a look in her direction. Blonde hair and brown eyes…oh, that was it. The new Hokage. She, too, either didn't notice he was awake or disregarded it. "I know," she said, frowning at the floor before returning her gaze to Kakashi-sensei, "and I trust your intuition on him. But we still don't have anything concrete to say that he'd try to defend himself. The only witness we have is still unconscious, and it doesn't help that the reason she's out in the first place is because he stabbed her in the chest with a kunai."

Sasuke's heart dropped into his stomach.

"And that's not even touching the subject of Naruto."

Naruto…

"You said yourself that Naruto would make a full recovery."

His pulse started to beat again, but its rhythm still felt sick and slow.

"I did," the Hokage agreed, "and he will. But it will still take time, no matter how fast a healer he is. Anyone else in his position would be crippled for life." Sasuke paled. "I would question more of Shikamaru's squad on whether they saw anything, but Akimichi Chouji and Hyuuga Neji only just stabilized, and Inuzuka Kiba won't be awake for a while."

Gravity seemed to pull on him harder with every name she said. Tenten, unconscious. Naruto, barely pulling through. And three others, two of them critical. Five lives almost lost.

And all because of one day of…insanity, that was all he could think to call it. The kind of insanity that could throw lives away for the sake of power. The kind that could throw away an entire clan of lives.

Sasuke closed his eyes, disgusted with himself.

"What about the other option you mentioned?" Kakashi-sensei asked, and the Hokage shifted on her feet.

"That's why it's a problem that Naruto is still unconscious. He's the only one who got a good look at that curse's second level, and I can go by the description to figure out approximately when the transformation started. Even if he did agree to have the second level removed," Sasuke's heart leapt in his chest, his thoughts coming to a hush, "there's no guaranteeing that it isn't too late already--"

"Get rid of it."

Sasuke felt both gazes turn and settle on him, and slowly reopened his eyes. He had to swallow before continuing, to keep his dry throat from turning his voice into a croak. "I don't want it." I don't want to be bound to any power but my own.

Not anymore.

The two of them were silent for a long moment before something shifted in the Hokage's face. "How did they trigger the transformation?"

Another swallow. "They called it a mind drug." Her eyes sharpened in recognition.

"When did you take it?"

"…A couple hours after sunrise," he said slowly, thinking back to what felt like a dream that refused to fade. "Eight or nine, I think."

"You're sure?"

He nodded, and some of the tension left her shoulders. "Then there's more time than I'd been banking on, but the procedure should still be done as soon as possible." She eyed him with a strange expression. "And this is what you want."

He held her gaze and nodded again.

The Hokage exchanged an unreadable expression with Kakashi, then gave a slow nod in return. "All right, then." Pulling up a chair, she sat down and pressed two fingers to his wrist, turning her gaze to the clock. "I'll make sure you've recovered enough for the surgery, and we'll get started."

Sasuke waited quietly for her to measure his heart rate, holding still while she quickly checked his chakra levels. "Hokage-sama?" he finally asked, and she hummed in response, keeping her eyes on her work. He breathed in deep before posing the one question that had been tugging at his throat from the moment Tenten had been mentioned.

"…Is she okay?"

The almost childish question was so simple and complicated at once that he wasn't surprised to see the Hokage pause to regard him for a moment. Then her mouth curved in a tired half-smile.

"Yes."


Chapter 11: Exorcism


"You don't know anything about my family - don't think you know what it feels like to lose one!"

A tarnished fan.

"I'm not like the rest of you. I have a different purpose."

A flashing blade.

"I'm already gone."

Falling--

Tenten awoke with a gasp that shot fire through her chest, making her eyes squeeze shut in a wince just as quickly as they had flown open.

"Tenten?"

Her eyebrows lowered; she didn't recognize that voice. A second attempt at opening her eyes was a bit more successful, though it took a moment for her to focus on the figure standing over her.

When she did, once-tired eyes grew wide.

The owner of the voice smiled slightly. "Welcome back."

It took a great deal of effort to find her own voice, and when she did, it barely came out as a whisper.

"Tsunade-hime…"

Her idol lifted a thin eyebrow, amusement kindling in her eyes before she turned to check on Tenten's vitals. "Been a while since I've heard that one," she murmured. "You must be either a fan or a gambler."

"I have a poster of you in my room…"

As soon as it left her mouth, some part of Tenten was vaguely mortified, but her mind was in too much of a daze to dwell on it. Tsunade - the Tsunade! - took Tenten's wrist to check her heart rate, giving a good-humored snort. "Flattered." After a moment, she let go and straightened. "How are you feeling?"

Tenten blinked a few times, pulling her gaze away from the wrist her idol had taken. "What?"

Tsunade paused, studying Tenten with steady eyes. "Do you know why you're here?"

"I…" Frowning, Tenten took in her surroundings for the first time, absorbing the steady beep of a heart monitor, the sunlight coming through the window, the sterility permeating the air. The hospital…she didn't remember coming here. In fact, now that she thought about it, she didn't remember anything after the woods…when she'd been there with--

(Wet leaves under her back, his pulse racing under her fingers. "It's okay, Sasuke.")

Sasuke…

All at once, her lungs constricted in a second painful gasp, her shoulders jerking with the instinct to sit bolt upright. "Sasuke!--"

Tsunade gently held her down with a hand on her shoulder. "Easy."

"But Sasuke, he was…and Neji! What happened to--"

"Sasuke is in recovery right now." Tenten fell silent, and Tsunade went on, "He agreed to have the second level of his curse seal removed, and the procedure was a success, but it took a toll on his body. Hold still." Tenten could only numbly obey while her idol undid the stiff bandages around her middle to examine the surprisingly small gash under her ribs, her mind spinning.

So she hadn't dreamt it. He'd really come back.

"Still no sign of infection," Tsunade murmured, "and your records say you got your tetanus shot last year, which is fortunate." Another moment of studying the wound, and she glanced up. "Any pain?"

"A little," Tenten replied, though her mind was distracted by the process of putting the pieces together again, from the moment she'd gone after Sasuke to her last memory in the forest. They came as dreamlike flashes: the spark of wildness in his eyes when he realized he'd been caught, the terror in his voice when he'd told her to stay awake, the way his arms had shaken as he'd all but carried her towards home.

"Tsunade-sama…" she heard herself say as her idol finished redressing her wound. "…Is Sasuke…I mean…"

She sensed Tsunade's eyes on her, and finally met them. "…He's okay now, right?"

Tsunade eyed her for a long moment, something like amusement returning to her face.

"We'll see," she answered at last. "No one can really know until some time has passed. But if you're asking for my personal opinion?" Tenten nodded, almost holding her breath, and was rewarded with another faint smile, "Then, yes. I think he will be."

Tenten quietly let out her breath, then nodded, lowering her eyes to her hands. "Good."

Looking satisfied, Tsunade straightened. "And you were asking about someone else? Hyuuga, was it?"

Tenten's eyes flew back to Tsunade's. "Yes," she said a little breathlessly, aghast that she had even allowed the topic to stray for this long. "Neji - Hyuuga Neji, do you know anything about him? He's my…my teammate, one of the genin that fought Orochimaru's men, and he was injured very badly…"

She trailed off when she realized Tsunade was nodding in recognition, her expression unreadable. Tenten's insides turned to lead, and she searched the Hokage's face with wide eyes, suddenly afraid of the answer. She swallowed hard. "Please, tell me."

The second that passed before Tsunade answered seemed to last ten lifetimes. "He was one of the most difficult cases," she finally began, and a wave of ice rushed through Tenten's veins at the use of the past tense, a lump already rising in her throat in preparation for--

"But he's going to make a full recovery."

A sharp intake of breath stung Tenten's lungs, her mind playing the words a second time, and a third, the knot in her throat only strengthened by the meaning behind them. "He is?" she breathed through it, feeling something creak back to life in her when her idol nodded.

"He'll be strong enough to have visitors in the next couple of days. If he doesn't follow your other teammate's example and actually stays in bed, I think he may be well in time for the Chuunin Exam at the end of the year."

"Really?" Her eyes began to burn with the surge of relief that washed over her like water, making it hard to breathe but cleansing away the fears that had been weighing her down.

"Mm. Which reminds me," Tsunade went on, her gaze drifting upward in thought, "a certain teammate of yours has given my assistant a few panic attacks by trying to camp out by your door all night. He's out there now, unless you need a minute?"

Tenten finally looked up, pushing down yet another swell of emotion at the mention of Lee. "No, h-he can come in," she managed, images flickering through her mind of the last time she'd seen him, unconscious in the arms of the boy who had nearly destroyed him.

"All right. Press that button to your right if you need anything, and someone will come," Tsunade added in a final instruction, and Tenten nodded, taking a breath in a weak attempt to calm herself.

But when Lee poked his head in, alive and well, his face lighting up at the sight of her, any composure she had regained flew out the window. "Lee…"

"Tenten! You're awake!" he cried, shooting forward to practically tackle her in a hug. "Thank goodness!" An almost hysterical laugh bubbled out of her as she returned the hug with all her strength, the first time she'd laughed in days, though it was punctuated with hot tears that refused to stay back. Lee is all right. Neji is all right. Sasuke is…

When Lee finally pulled back, the joy in his face rapidly transformed into alarm at the sight of tears. "What is it?" he gasped, flinching back as if afraid he was somehow the cause. "Are you in pain? Ah! I'll get Tsunade-sama!--"

"No--Lee…" she interrupted, taking his arm before he could run off. At the back of her mind, it occurred to her that he had never seen her cry before. She managed a tremulous smile for him. "It's all right," she said, and she knew that this time the words were really true.

"Everything is all right."


Mercifully, Kakashi-sensei waited until Sasuke was able to sit up on his own again before informing him that he had a visitor.

Sasuke frowned, eyeing the way his sensei was blocking the doorway. "Who is it?" he asked, vaguely wondering if the hoarseness would ever leave his voice.

One silver eyebrow lifted. "Who do you think?"

Their gazes remained locked for a moment, but Sasuke didn't hazard any guesses. The way things had been going so far, he was surprised anyone other than Kakashi-sensei or the Hokage would want to come within ten feet of him, much less go out of their way to talk to him. The Godaime had told him quite plainly that he was going to be treated like a criminal. Technically, he was a criminal - he understood that well enough. And even if anyone lower than Jounin rank did have the desire to visit him, the meeting would have to be supervised by at least two shinobi of higher rank.

("You've proven that you can be dangerous." A cool voice, matching the cool hands painting jutsu symbols over his skin. "So no one can afford to take any chances."

No attempt to hide that the greatest power he's ever known is being traded in for nothing more than a leash.)

But it had been his choice. That was what he had silently repeated to himself when she had finished with the symbols, and when her assistant had come in and told her that the seal was ready, and when she had turned to him and asked if he was ready.

Without the reassuring knowledge that Kakashi-sensei was at his side and wouldn't leave him until the procedure was complete, he doubted he would have been able to manage even a nod.

Looking at his sensei now, as he turned to tell the visitor to come in, Sasuke reminded himself to thank him one day.

(His heart starting to pound at the sight of the gigantic seal on the ground - an exorcism seal. The Hokage's voice instructing him to go into the center of it, and the sudden inability to make himself obey.

He can't, because too suddenly he is just a thirteen-year-old who is perfectly capable of being afraid.

"One moment, Tsunade-sama." Kakashi-sensei. A nod, and he is being pulled aside and quietly reminded that he isn't alone in this, that he is making the right choice, that things will be kept from getting out of hand.

The words remind him what it is to be strong.)

"You'll feel like the living dead for a few days," the Hokage had told him when he'd gone into the center of the seal, forming her fingers into the Serpent symbol while irony brought a bitter taste to his mouth, "but after that, you should be back to yourself soon enough."

Then a flick of her hands had eased him into a warm darkness, letting the world fall away until he felt like he was floating and sinking at once. Time lost meaning; it was just like when Tenten had done the Kouryuu Rasen with him, that weightlessness, nothing against his skin but cool air and the brush of fingertips.

That part had only lasted a moment.

Suddenly his world had cracked and shattered into a screaming red, and the curse seal was burning straight through him, and something was wrenching at his very core, physically jerking him off the ground while a thousand hands shot forward to hold him down. He could feel it, the darkness that had taken him in the Sound Four's chamber - it was clinging to him now, squeezing his insides every time those cool hands tried to force it out, and he panicked, recoiling from the touch.

Kakashi-sensei's voice was in his ears, more urgent than it should be, telling him in muffled tones what he was supposed to do. He couldn't make out the words. Visions and voices were flashing before him, red eyes and brown eyes and blades, embraces, corpses, promises and pleas - was this what dying felt like? - all blending together until he didn't know where he was anymore.

Until one voice broke through, making the rest go still.

"Then who are you?"

After that, he remembered very little.

He knew only what he was told afterward: though he had resisted the exorcism for several minutes, quite suddenly he had stopped fighting. The medics had assumed he wouldn't remember what had caused the change; he hadn't bothered to correct them.

The creak of the door made Sasuke flinch back to the present. He only absently noted Kakashi-sensei moving to a far corner of the room, alongside the two ever-present Anbu, and taking out his book; he was more focused on the owner of the sandaled foot that tentatively crossed the doorway.

Sakura.

A long moment passed them just staring at each other, Sasuke's shoulders immediately tensing in anticipation of the crushing, tear-dampened embrace she had gone out of her way to give him so many times before.

It never came.

His teammate lingered in the doorway, her eyes taking in the lighter restraints around his limbs and flicking to the Anbu and back before she left the doorway. "Sasuke-kun."

She seemed to be studying him as she slid the door shut behind her, and in spite of himself he wondered what she saw.

Sakura reached the side of the bed in a few steps, then pulled up the visitors' chair as if it were an afterthought. Up close, he got a good look at the stiffness in her movements, the dark circles under her eyes. She looked like she had stopped living since he had last seen her.

"I just came from visiting Naruto."

Sasuke's breath stopped at the sound of Naruto's name, and he could only hold Sakura's expectant gaze for a moment before looking away. When it was clear he wasn't going to reply, she went on, "He's been asking about you. He wouldn't hold still for treatment until he knew you were here."

Sasuke didn't move, silently hoping that she could just go on talking without expecting a response.

Another beat, and she spoke up again, her voice thickening. "Don't you want to know how he is?" There the tears were. He could hear them creeping into her words, only coming closer to breaking through when she interrupted his silence again. "Sasuke-kun!"

The note of anger in her voice surprised him into meeting her gaze again, and she looked back with tearing eyes that did not plead so much as they accused. "Don't you?" she repeated.

Yes. He wanted to know. It was one of the only things he wanted to know. But he wasn't ready to face Naruto yet, even if it was in words alone.

And looking at Sakura, acting so like and unlike herself, he knew he wasn't ready to face her yet either. He looked away again. "If he's asking you questions," he finally muttered, an instinctive shade of cruelty edging into his voice in his desire to make her go away, "he's obviously fine."

She was quiet for a little too long; so she would cry first, and then leave. Fine. So long as she would just get out, and leave him alone until--

A loud crack pierced the silence, and Sasuke's head whipped to the side, his cheek immediately stinging. From the corner of his eye he saw Kakashi-sensei lifting an arm to keep the Anbu from intervening. Sakura gasped, paling, and stared with wide eyes at the hand she'd slapped him with.

He didn't know which of them was more shocked.

Sakura was the one to recover first, before Sasuke could even think to lift his head. The surprise faded from her eyes, replaced with something he had never seen in her before.

When she spoke again, the anger came through clear and strong. "He almost died!" she hissed, new tears welling in her eyes. "For you! Naruto almost died, and Lee-san, and, and all of them, all for you! You can't even act like that matters to you?"

Sasuke finally looked up, speechless, but she wasn't finished yet. "You're always trying to get rid of me, Sasuke-kun, but this time I'm not going anywhere. I won't let you run away from us anymore, no matter what I have to do!" The tears leaked from the corners of her eyes, and in the back of his mind Sasuke wondered how many times he had made her cry. "And I won't let you hurt Naruto like that again," she went on, her voice starting to weaken with emotion. "I won't. I'll get stronger, Sasuke-kun, and if this ever happens again, I won't…I won't just stand here and wait for you!"

When she finally finished, her breathing was heavy, her face tearstained, her hands clenched into white-knuckled fists. And looking at her that way, Sasuke had a sense that for the first time, he was really seeing the Sakura who had protected her teammates in the Forest of Death. This was the Sakura who had chopped off her hair and called him a coward, who had given him the strength to push back the curse seal the first time it had taken him over.

Maybe this was the Sakura that Naruto had seen from the beginning.

But Sakura could not read minds, and so only found another betrayal in his silence. "Fine," she said finally, standing. "Don't say anything." He watched her turn her back on him and start for the door, conviction in her every step.

"Thank you."

She froze at the sound of his voice, and he didn't doubt she was flashing on the last thing he had said to her before leaving the village. But this time, when he was giving her the chance, she didn't turn to ask him what he was thanking her for.

As the door slid shut behind her, he could only think it was because this time, she knew.


Tenten had never known herself to be a particularly fast healer, so she credited Tsunade's skill alone for the fact that she was tentatively on her feet again within three days of her admittance to the hospital.

Well. Technically, she wasn't supposed to be on her feet, or making any attempt to get out of bed in the first place. But they couldn't honestly expect her to just lie there until she was discharged, could they? And what with Lee dropping in every day to update her on their fellow genin - who was improving, who was being released, who could start training again, making envy curl in her chest - there was no way she could just sit and wait.

Which is why, when Lee burst into her room on the fourth day, grinning from ear to ear, and announced that Neji could finally have visitors, she had jumped at the chance.

But now, as she followed Lee down hall after hall in a hospital that was really much bigger than it looked, clad only in thin hospital pajamas and with plenty of time to think, suddenly it all didn't seem like such a brilliant idea.

Because suddenly the memory of her last conversation with Neji was very clear in her mind - the iciness in his eyes, the flatness in his voice, the rigidity of his limbs. She hadn't thought about that day since the moment the medics had brought him in. But now that she was thinking about it, now that she was remembering his accusations and how she had blown up at him when he was really just looking out for her, her stomach roiled with the paralyzing fear that maybe he didn't even want to see her.

"Tenten?"

Blinking, she looked up to see Lee a few steps ahead of her, looking back with concern. She hadn't realized she had stopped walking altogether. "What is it? Are you all right?"

Tenten nodded numbly, falling into the nervous habit of biting her lip. "Look," she said finally, "maybe you should just go see him now. I mean, I'm not really supposed to be out of bed anyway, and he's probably tired, and…"

She knew her decidedly weak excuse hadn't passed when her teammate's eyes grew to the size of dinner plates, his face opening with dismay. "But Tenten, you must come!" he cried, crossing back to her and clasping both of her hands in an imploring gesture. "You are the person he most wants to see! I could not face the disappointment of our precious teammate if I were to tell him that--"

"Wait," Tenten finally managed to interrupt, not bothering to pull her hands back, and eyed Lee with no small amount of confusion. "He told you that?"

"Well, no…"

Tenten's shoulders slumped.

"But!" Lee went on, catching her eye again. "I still promise you that it is true! Words were not necessary to see what it was he desired - why, his passionate reaction to the news of your condition was more than enough!"

A glance at Tenten's lost expression, and he kept going, finally dropping her hands. "Forgive me for not telling you, Tenten, but the opportunity has not presented itself until this moment! Gai-sensei told me himself: it would seem that Neji briefly awoke while you were in surgery, and when he found out the reason why - that you went after Sasuke-kun - such was the strength of his reaction that two medics had to intervene, to keep him from injuring himself! He demanded more information, but Gai-sensei did not want to excite him any further."

Tenten searched Lee's eyes, not quite daring to believe him yet. "Are you sure?" she asked, and he gave a vigorous nod.

"So you must come," he pleaded. Tenten looked at him, then down the last hall, then back; then, finally, she sighed.

"Okay."

Immediately she was half-crushed in a hug that nearly knocked her over. "Thank you, Tenten! I assure you that you will not regret this wise decision!"

Just as suddenly, Lee had let go and marched ahead again, leaving Tenten to reel on her feet for a second before tentatively following.

The strength of his reaction…what did that mean? That he was angry? Worried? Or maybe he was just delirious, Tenten thought wryly to herself, afraid to hope that he would be that concerned with her. What if he got even more upset with her for going after Sasuke?

By the time they reached his door, Tenten had worried herself into a silent frenzy. She wanted to see him…God, that was the only thing she had wanted for days, ever since she found out he had pulled through.

But if he didn't…

"Ready?"

She looked up and met Lee's eyes, and was instantly comforted by the certainty she saw there.

Now or never.

Taking a deep breath, Tenten nodded to Lee, and he replied with an encouraging smile as he reached forward and pulled on the handle.

The door slid open, briefly blinding her with sunlight. And when her vision focused, she found herself locked in a gaze she had thought she might never see again.

Neji…

For that second, he was suddenly the only person in the world, and the most beautiful and heartbreaking sight she had ever beheld. The pallor in his face and the way his left arm lay useless at his side were almost too much to bear, but the fact that he was sitting up, awake, alive, far outweighed it. He was alive. The subtle widening of his eyes, so small a motion that anyone else would think they'd dreamed it, affected her so deeply that something rose in her chest, a sob, or a laugh, or a shout - it was too strong for just one name, too powerful to contain.

And then in a flurry of motion, she had crossed the room in three long strides and thrown her arms around his neck, careful of his wounds but completely forgetting her own. The room quieted, and he inhaled, and Tenten hugged him as tight as she could, burying her face in his shoulder and breathing him in.

After a beat, there was a whisper of cloth, and she felt weakened fingers fisting in the back of her shirt. She squeezed her eyes shut when the grip tightened, and felt her breath shake when, in a mirror of her own movement, his head slowly bowed against her shoulder.

Never before had she felt so many words pass through such a perfect silence.

She didn't know how long she would have stayed in that stillness if it hadn't been broken by a loud sniffle from her left. "My team…my excellent genin team has reunited! At last, you've all come together in victory over the barren winter of death!"

Barren winter? Tenten finally opened her eyes and parted a bit from Neji, both of them turning a skeptical eye toward Gai-sensei as he leapt from the visitors' chair and triumphantly raised a fist. She hadn't even noticed he was there. "No obstacle is too great!" he declared. "Such acts of heroism have proven to me that the three of you surely have the most supreme youthful vitality in your hearts! No doubt you will become the greatest team of shinobi that Leaf has ever known!"

"Sensei!" Lee cried, bounding across the room to cling to their sensei with watering eyes. She shook her head and let them have their moment, though when she caught Neji rolling his eyes, she couldn't help but smile, her worries forgotten. She was finally here with all of the people she called family, and they were all becoming themselves again.

After a second, she felt Neji's fingers move against her back - not letting go, just adjusting, sending tiny tremors up her spine - and realized that she hadn't even thought of letting go of him yet. Suddenly irrationally worried about overstepping her boundaries, Tenten finally let her hands slip away from his shoulders with a small cough. He let go a moment after, but eyed her curiously while she took a seat on the side of the bed.

"What happened to you?" he asked under the din of Gai-sensei and Lee, and Tenten started at the sound of his voice. She'd turned to face him before she could even think how to answer, and abruptly cut herself off.

"…What happened to you?" she asked back, her eyes widening at his newly shorn hair. She hadn't even noticed it before, but now the change was glaringly obvious, to the point that she had to check herself to keep from gawking.

Neji's expression immediately flattened, and he grumbled something about surgery procedures, but she only half heard it, struck as she was by the way his hair moved with him as he turned to glare at the wall, falling into his face just a little and making him look so incredibly--

"Stop that."

"--What?" she asked with a start, her eyes snapping back to his. Neji only sent her a deadpan expression that made her face heat up.

"You haven't answered the question."

Tenten opened her mouth, but nothing came out. With a look that strongly reminded her of when he'd asked about the bruises on her neck, he pressed, "Why were you in surgery?"

"I…" How was she supposed to say this? Somehow telling him the truth of it, after he'd warned her more than once about Sasuke, felt like an impossibility - almost as impossible as the thought of lying to him. "…I tried to be a hero," she said finally, growing comfortable in the knowledge that she wasn't being dishonest, "and it kind of backfired on me."

"Not at all!" Both of them turned to find that Gai-sensei had suddenly turned toward them, Lee watching him with wide eyes. Beaming, their sensei directed his attention to Neji and Lee. "Our Tenten followed her instincts when others panicked, and bravely subdued young Sasuke to allow my eternal rival and myself to come to her aid! And not only that, but by the time we arrived, she had brought him to see the error of his ways, even though she was nearly spent! Such actions set an example for all shinobi, no matter their rank!"

Tenten could only gape at her sensei for a minute, flushing with the praise, before quickly shaking her head. "…Sensei, I didn't exactly--"

"Wow…" Lee breathed, watching her with wide eyes. "Tenten, you're amazing!"

"But--no…" she stammered, unused to being the center of attention and suddenly very uncomfortable, "…not really, all I did was--"

"Ah!" Gai-sensei interrupted. "Modesty befitting a budding Konoha shinobi! A most beautiful thing!"

"Sensei…"

"Excuse me." All four turned their eyes towards the door, where a medic - the same stressed-out guy from before, Tenten noted - had appeared in the entryway. He glanced between them before going on, "Visiting hours will be over in a few minutes. Any other patients," here he gave a pointed look to Lee, who grinned sheepishly, "should be returning to their rooms."

"Of course!" Gai-sensei replied for them, making the medic flinch at his volume. "My team will certainly need their rest before they can resume their rigorous training schedule once again. I will personally see to it that they return to their rooms without dallying!" He punctuated the promise with a thumbs-up and a toothy grin that actually made the medic blink a few times before nodding and vanishing. Gai-sensei turned toward the door, bound and determined to keep his promise. "Come, Lee! Tenten!"

Tenten sighed, giving up on trying to explain what had really happened, and turned toward Neji to say goodbye, only to find that he was watching her with something unreadable in his eyes. She flinched back a little, startled. "…What?"

He didn't move for a moment, locking them in a brief staring contest until he finally looked away.

"After this, I'll be training with my uncle for the Chuunin Exam," he said quietly.

Tenten froze, hurt pricking at her before she quickly covered it up. "Oh," she murmured, averting her eyes. So he hadn't forgotten the last things he'd said to her before he left. He'd really meant them. "Well…that's…"

Her voice failed her when he looked up again, shocking her vision with white.

"I want you to help me."

Tenten's eyes widened, her heart leaping. This time Neji kept her gaze…waiting, she realized. Waiting for an answer, because he thought there was a chance that she would say no.

Funny, that he thought she was capable of saying no to him.

Her lips curved into a small smile, and she nodded. Immediately some of the tension left his shoulders, and feeling suddenly bold, she reached out to give his hand a squeeze. "Get better fast, okay?" she said, and felt something flutter in her chest when he didn't pull away.

Once she had left the room after Gai-sensei, it didn't even occur to Tenten to wipe the blissful grin off her face until a moment after they had dropped off Lee, when a glimpse of something from the corner of her eye slowed her step.

Just inside the hallway to her right was a pair of Anbu, one on either side of a door that crackled quietly with inlaid chakra.

That must be…

A glance at Gai-sensei's newly solemn expression confirmed it. That's Sasuke's room.

"Tenten…though I did make a passionate promise to return you at once to your room," her teacher began slowly, watching her with a sharper eye than anyone who didn't know him would expect, "if you wish to exchange a few words with him while I am available to supervise, I would be willing to make an exception."

Tenten's eyes widened a little, and she looked back at the Anbu, and what they were guarding. He was right on the other side of that door. Tentatively, she took a step forward.

("I'm--not--like them!" The flash of light on metal and a sickening sound of tearing muscle, fire in her chest, her reflection in dark eyes that would melt into horror, but not before the one instant, the cold glint of satisfaction--)

Tenten froze, suddenly feeling short of breath, and quickly shook her head. Her arms unconsciously rose to curl around her bandaged ribs.

Gai-sensei didn't question her, only scrutinizing her for a moment while she tried to make sense of how rapidly her heart now hammered against the wound the bandages hid. "Very well," was all he said, and a wave of gratitude rushed through her when he moved to walk on her other side, between her and the door, without another word.

When she got back to her room, she slipped under the bed sheets, closed her eyes, and prayed that she wouldn't dream.


Mission in Lightning Country. Back Tuesday morning.

If needed, leave a note.

-K

Need to talk. -S

Sasuke panned his eyes over the half-crumpled note from a few weeks before, then looked back up at Kakashi-sensei, unsure how he was meant to respond. In return, his sensei reached forward to tap the bottom of the sheet, where Sasuke had scrawled his reply, and looked at him with a lifted brow.

The look said plenty, but Sasuke didn't answer right away. His eyes lingered on the tiny Uchiha fan he had scribbled out next to his initial before lowering to his hands, finally free of restraints now that a week had gone by without incident. In spite of the bit of freedom, he was still painfully aware of the chakra inlaid in the walls of his hospital room, and the way the Anbu or Kakashi-sensei was always just visible from the corner of his eye. Those precautions, he knew, would not be going away anytime soon.

Another quick glance upward told him that Kakashi-sensei was still waiting, and he looked down again. He carefully let his mind return to the day he'd written the note, before Itachi had ripped a hole in his world again, when his tenuous relationship with Tenten had been at the forefront of his life.

Well, there was no point in trying to fool Kakashi-sensei now.

"Back then…I was lying about the curse seal," he said finally, a little surprised at how little effort it took, when he had once been so keen on avoiding the subject. "I haven't been able to control it for…a while." A beat, and a wry exhale escaped his throat. He shook his head. "I never could control it."

"Oh, good."

Kakashi-sensei's response was so entirely out-of-place that Sasuke was looking up again before he realized it. Slipping the note into a pocket, his sensei positioned himself more comfortably against the wall and cheerfully went on, "I've been waiting for that confession. Beating around the bush can be tiring after a while…"

Sasuke blinked a few times, incredulous at what he was hearing. "You knew?"

"Of course." With a glance at Sasuke's expression, he elaborated, "You are very good on the battlefield, but you wouldn't last five minutes in an interrogation room. You don't look anyone in the eye when you're lying. Not to mention that every time I brought it up, you flinched."

"…Oh," Sasuke muttered, a quick sweep of his memory confirming both of his sensei's observations and making him sink a little on his mattress. "Why didn't you say anything?"

"Well, at the time, I trusted your judgement." The matter-of-fact tone of his voice did little to soften the implication of the statement, and and Sasuke had to force himself not to lower his eyes. "As long as no one was hurt, I didn't see any reason to press the subject, because there wasn't much that could be done outside the training sessions we were already having. And if anything serious did happen, I trusted that you would come to me. Which brings me back to the matter of this," he said, pulling the note partway out of his vest pocket, "and what exactly you needed to talk about."

He forgot sometimes just how observant Kakashi-sensei could be.

And here came the hard part, reawakening guilt that had been left to rust, on top of that which was already weighing him down. He had to swallow a couple of times before he could make himself say the words.

"Something did happen." Quite suddenly, any remaining amusement had left the air around Kakashi-sensei, and the room felt much quieter than before. He inhaled, exhaled. "This wasn't the first time." A hesitation, and he specified as much as he dared. "…With her."

Kakashi-sensei gave a slow, comprehending nod, and Sasuke went on, going into as much detail as he remembered. Somehow, finally being able to tell him all this, to finish what he had first set out to do before he heard his brother's name, gave him a sense of freedom that he couldn't describe if he tried. It gave him the strength to confess what he had done without sinking any deeper into the guilt that he had carried with him from the moment he'd awakened.

It made him feel like Uchiha Sasuke for the first time since the moment red eyes had met red.

All the while, Kakashi-sensei listened in silence, giving no response but the occasional nod or prompt to go on. When Sasuke had finished, he only uncrossed his arms, repositioning his hands in his pockets, and murmured, "I see."

Then, after a long pause, he shook his head, a small sound of dry amusement coming through his mask. "The two of you certainly have an interesting relationship."

Sasuke stared at him blankly for a moment before realizing what else he could be referring to. A memory flashed through his mind of the note Kakashi-sensei had left the night that Tenten had slept over, and the blood rushed to his face before he could think to control it.

"…It was storming," he finally grumbled, sinking a little farther down. "That time…it was just storming, and my house was closer, and she fell asleep." Growing inexplicably defensive, he averted his eyes. "Nothing happened."

"Oh?" This time there was definitely a teasing note in his voice. "Interesting, that you didn't look me in the eye when you said that…"

Sasuke's eyes widened, his mouth falling open. It took a moment of trying and failing to get words out for him to regain his composure. With a vain attempt to banish the flush from his cheeks, he stubbornly met his sensei's amused gaze. "Nothing…"

Almost immediately he had the urge to look away, and he thought about it for a second before rephrasing. "…Nothing like that happened."

His teacher put on an expression of innocence. "Hm? Nothing like what?"

Sasuke suppressed the urge to throw his hands in the air in frustration. He instead settled on exhaling loudly and making a point of looking away. "Forget it."

But he was only allowed a moment of sulking before a battle-worn hand was ruffling his hair, surprising him into an indignant cringe. When he looked up again, torn between irritation and something else, his sensei was already turning toward the door.

"It's good to have you back."

Then, with an acknowledging nod to the Anbu across the room, he pulled the door open with one hand, pulled out Icha Icha Odyssey with the other, and vanished into the hall.

Sasuke's eyes lingered on the door while he reached up to straighten out his hair, then glanced at the Anbu and back before he moved from his sitting position to stretch out on his back, feeling inexplicably relaxed - at least, more so than he had felt in a long time. Even when his fingers habitually moved to run over the curse seal, sending small pricks through his arm and neck, he didn't feel it as anything more than a reminder that it was there.

Lying in this hospital room for a week had given him a lot of time to think. Sakura hadn't come back since the last time, and Naruto…

Sasuke heaved a slow sigh, fixing his eyes on the ceiling. He didn't know how things stood between him and Naruto. It had come as both a relief and a disappointment when Kakashi-sensei had informed him that his teammate had already left with another of the Sannin to train outside the village until the Chuunin Exam in December; as reluctant as he still felt about facing Naruto, there was something intensely frustrating about not even being given the chance.

But that wasn't exactly true, he reminded himself. When he'd had the chance, he had hidden behind the belief that he wasn't ready. He'd run away from it, away from Naruto, just like Sakura had said.

She had been right. He had to stop. He would stop.

And when Naruto did come back, stronger than ever, he would be able to look him in the eye and show him that he wasn't the only one who could change.


"Really?"

A reassuring smile. "I promise."

"Wow…hey, hey, you're cooler than I thought, Tenten!"

"…Thanks?…But hey, are you sure about not going to at least see him? It sounds like you'll be gone for a long time."

"Yeah…but Ero-sennin wants to get a lot of training in before the next Chuunin Exam. Besides, right now I can't talk to Sasuke without Kakashi-sensei or someone there, and only for twenty minutes. That's not long enough for anything good, y'know? So I'm just gonna wait until I've gotten a lot stronger so I can knock some sense into him if he gets stupid again."

A shared laugh. "Well, good luck. I guess I'll see you at the Exam, huh?"

"Yep!" The shuffle of sandals on tile, the creak of the door. "Hey, Tenten?"

"Yeah?"

"…Thanks."

On the first day after her reunion with Neji, Tenten had a conversation with Naruto.

"I mean it. You were thinking clearly, and I was letting my emotions get in the way." A beseeching bow, tinged with a badly-hidden wince. "I'm sorry I blew up at you like that."

"Tch. Forget about it." Careful hands helping her to straighten, contrasting the ever-disgruntled tone of his voice. "Apologies are too troublesome, anyway…oh, by the way. I don't know what this is about, but Temari said to tell you she can kind-of see what you mean now, about it not being the same." A half-curious glance, to see if the statement means anything to her.

It does.

On the second day, she made amends.

A clipped voice, muffled by the white Anbu mask. "Is this the weapon he used against you?"

A dry, difficult swallow at the sight of her reflection in the half-rusted steel, tinged red with her blood.

"Yes."

A shift of cloth as the Anbu moves to put the blade away; a strange panic rising in her stomach. "Um…excuse me, but…" A pause. Her eyes settle on the blade. "Could I…?"

An exchanged glance between the two Anbu questioners; a flash of light against the blade as they hold it handle-out in her direction.

A skip in her pulse when her fingers close around it.

Bravery rises. "…I'm sorry if this is strange, but…when you're done with the investigation, would it be all right if I kept this?"

On the third day, she took a chance.

Somehow, she is standing outside his door again.

What she doesn't expect is for the door to open, and Hatake Kakashi to be standing before her.

"Visiting?" he asks.

"No…" Automatic. A painfully understanding nod before he continues on his--

"--Yes." A pause. Her abdomen throbs as if the thought of him has slipped the blade right back under her ribs. But if she doesn't now…

He steps out of the doorway, allowing her to pass. A wary glance between the two Anbu; then she steels herself.

For the first time in a week, she meets his eyes.

And on the fourth day, she found the strength to face him.


They stared at each other in silence for far too long before simultaneously looking away. From the corner of his eye, Sasuke could see Tenten's gaze wandering to the ceiling, the floor, the Anbu guards, looking as if she would rather be anywhere else. Not that he would blame her.

It was too hard to look at her and talk to her at the same time, so he fastened his eyes on his hands, white-knuckled from gripping the sheets. "You don't have to stay."

She stopped breathing for a second, and he swallowed. "If Kakashi-sensei said something…"

"No--" The interruption surprised him into glancing up, meeting her eyes for only a moment before she looked away again. "I mean…" she went on, more softly, "he didn't…well, he did, but…" She stopped, taking a calming breath. "I was already here."

Sasuke didn't reply, and they lapsed back into that uncomfortable silence. Across the room, one of the Anbu coughed quietly before returning to a hushed conversation with his partner.

Tenten looked…different. He couldn't identify it right away, but something was strange about her. She was breathing too fast, standing too still, compulsively gripping and releasing her elbows from where her arms crossed over her middle. It was a position he had seen her stand in several times, but there was something odd about it now, something almost defensive - she was protecting herself.

Protecting herself, because she was afraid.

The realization hit Sasuke like a punch in the stomach - that was it, that was what had changed. She was scared. He had never seen her scared before.

But it made sense. Even the most forgiving people had their breaking point. He had lost his right to her forgiveness.

Finally he found his voice again. "Tenten, I--" he began, at the exact same time that Tenten started, "Look, Sasuke--"

Both of them clamped their mouths shut, waiting for the other to keep going, before Tenten broke the gaze again. "Go ahead."

Sasuke's automatic reaction was to open his mouth to tell her the same thing, but after looking at her a moment longer, he decided against it. He would give her that much.

But this wasn't like the last time, when he could just blame the curse seal for his actions and settle it with a muttered one-word apology. If it were, Tenten would be able to look at him right now. No, this time it had been all his doing, and he couldn't run from that.

So he wouldn't. Not anymore.

With a newly steeled resolve, Sasuke shifted to swing his legs out from under the sheets, almost wincing at how much effort it took just for that. The floor was surprisingly cold against his feet when he shifted his weight onto them.

He pretended not to notice how Tenten's body instinctively twitched backward when she realized he was getting up, or how her breath sped up ever so slightly. She stood her ground in spite of it; even now, she was trying to give him the benefit of the doubt. Across the room, the Anbu had paused in their conversation to eye him, instantly on their guard. He didn't acknowledge them. They could think what they wanted about him. Only one person in this room mattered to him right now.

And so, when he stood, his gaze didn't wander anymore. He looked her directly in the eyes. Then he clenched his fists and bowed low, his hair falling forward and swathing his vision in shadow.

Tenten froze.

"I'm sorry." When he said the words, he couldn't remember the last time he had felt them all the way from his core. He heard a slow intake of breath from her direction, and unconsciously echoed it. "For all of it, I'm…sorry."

He wasn't sure how long the moment stretched before Tenten finally seemed to find her voice again. "Sasuke…" He didn't move, not yet, and the floor gave a soft creak when she shifted uncomfortably. "Sasuke, get up."

Not exactly the response he had expected, but then, he hadn't really known what he expected in the first place. His head swam a little when he straightened, reminding him that he really wasn't supposed to be out of bed, but he felt a strange touch of gratitude when Tenten didn't reach out to steady him.

At length, she moved to rest her back against the closest wall, rewarding him with that small bit of trust, though her arms didn't uncurl from her midsection, still protecting her. After he had sat down again, she tentatively met his eyes.

"So it's true?" she asked. "You really had Tsunade-sama get rid of part of the curse?" Before, it had been hard to hold her gaze; now it was hard to look away. He nodded, and curiosity edged into her face. "Why did you?"

He had to think about it for a moment; this was the first time anyone had questioned it. The others had just been satisfied that he was willingly giving up Orochimaru's power. "…Because it wasn't mine," he said finally. "Because when I defeat my brother, I want him to know that it's me, not anyone else." A pause, and his voice quieted of its own accord. "…Because you were right."

Tenten's mouth quirked up just a bit. "I could have told you that."

In spite of everything, Sasuke found himself mirroring the expression, feeling inexplicably relieved.

"…So…what happens now?" she asked after the moment passed. "For you, I mean."

This was an answer he didn't have to think about. "Constant surveillance," he began, not bothering to gesture at the Anbu guards. She glanced at them for him. "Anbu now, but I think later it's just going to be Kakashi-sensei. I'll be living with him until they say otherwise."

Tenten slowly let out a breath he hadn't noticed she'd been holding. "That's not so bad."

Sasuke shook his head in agreement. Compared to what he had expected, having Kakashi-sensei as a constant guardian wasn't bad at all. "I'll be training with him and Mitarashi Anko every day, to control the curse seal," he went on, almost mechanically. "Any outside training has to be approved and supervised, with minimal chakra use. Mostly weapons-training--"

He abruptly cut himself off then, and there was a beat of silence as both acknowledged what that could mean for them, if it could still mean anything at all.

They looked away at the same time, and Sasuke took a deep breath, willing away the memory of her fingers around his wrist and against his back when she first corrected his technique. "…And only D-rank missions inside the village until further notice," he finally added almost under his breath, distaste creeping into his voice. House arrest, supervised training, loss of privacy - those he could handle, but being demoted to D-rank missions was just unnecessary humiliation.

When he looked up, he was surprised to find that his obvious irritation had brought a faint grin to Tenten's lips. Almost immediately he felt himself relax as she did.

"What about the Chuunin Exam?" she asked, the smile genuine but short-lived. "Are they letting you go?"

Sasuke gave a slow shrug. "I don't know yet. Probably not."

Tenten lowered her eyes. "That's too bad," she murmured, and Sasuke blinked in surprise. At the sight of his expression, she seemed to grow a little flustered. "I-I mean, because you were getting really good. At least, you were a lot better the last time we…" She paused, and Sasuke froze, suddenly remembering just what had happened the last time they had trained together. She seemed to be thinking of the same thing, because she sank a little against the wall. "…Well, you were," she finally finished, eying the floor as if looking for a hole to crawl into.

He wouldn't have minded sinking into a hole himself. The memory had come back in such clarity that he almost felt embarrassed just thinking about that day, about that feeling of flying when she had performed the Kouryuu Rasen with him, about the strange exhiliration of being so close to her when they hit the ground, about how her lips had been warm and a little chapped from the wind--

He mentally slapped himself before thinking into it any further.

"…About that," he muttered, shifting uncomfortably, "sorry about…that…"

"It's okay," she said quickly, mercifully saving him from having to say it out loud. He could have kissed her again just for that. "You've done worse…"

Sasuke's eyes snapped up, but one glance at her face told him she hadn't said it to be cruel. Her expression seemed unsure, caught somewhere between the statement's risk and its irony. Relaxing, Sasuke decided the latter would be better for both of them, and nodded. "I guess."

"Five minutes," one of the Anbu called from the other side of the room, startling them both into glancing over. Sasuke couldn't keep a shade of irritation out of his face. He'd completely forgotten about the time limit.

Tenten was the first to look away from the guard, her eyes coming to rest on the one scroll on the wall, scrawled with hospital regulations.

"I was questioned by the Anbu yesterday," she said, so casually that it took a second before he realized how important it really was. When he didn't reply, she went on, "They asked if I knew why you decided to come back after…" she took a deep breath, "…after."

Sasuke watched her face in silence, his mouth slowly going dry.

"They thought I was lying at first, when I told them I didn't know." Finally she looked away from the scroll and met his gaze. "Why did you?" she asked. "What changed?"

Sasuke thought he would have to search for an answer for much longer, but he found it was surprisingly simple.

"I did."

Tenten looked at him for a long moment, something changing in her eyes.

Then her lips curved into a small smile, and she pushed away from the wall in preparation to leave. Out of habit alone, he flinched as if to get up with her, but a sudden warmth at his shoulder stopped him.

Her hand only shook for a second before bravely giving his shoulder a squeeze, then slipping away. It was more than he thought he'd earned, but she gave it without letting him question.

"Thanks for coming back."

She was already reaching for the door by the time he found his voice again, and when he did, it came out softer than he had intended.

"You, too."

She didn't reply. The only sign that she'd even heard him was the slightest pause in her step.

But it was enough.


The next few weeks passed more quickly than Tenten had imagined they could. Visits to Neji's hospital room turned into occasionally assisting with his physical therapy, then into scolding him and Lee for trying to do too much when they were supposed to be taking it easy; the pulsing ache in her abdomen gradually ebbed until all that remained was a small, pale scar. Whispers about Sasuke's escape attempt dwindled within a week, replaced by talk of the upcoming Chuunin Exam in Sunagakure, the next day's mission, the promise of a cold winter in the winds.

And for a while, Uchiha Sasuke seemed to disappear.

She hadn't seen much of him since his release from the hospital. Now and then she would catch part of a training session with his sensei and Anko-san, or glimpse him fixing a roof or carrying water for a mission, but otherwise she had very little contact with him. The few times she had dared to try paying him a visit at Kakashi-sensei's apartment, the jounin himself had answered the door, giving her a clear view of where Sasuke had all but passed out on his couch.

"It shouldn't be like this for too long," his sensei had assured her, a note of apology in his voice. "Part of the council's punishment was to make sure that even if he did plan on running again, he would be too exhausted to carry it out."

Each time, he promised to let Sasuke know she had stopped by. Even so, she never held her breath waiting for a reply.

So she would go back to spar with Lee, or help Neji get back up to speed, or just spend some time training alone, using wires to bring her kunai to life. Those times were starting to become her favorites, when she could lie in the grass and make her blades flash in a way that could never make her feel anything but free. As her control got better and better, a strange feeling of invincibility was awakened in her, only showing its face in the reflection of steel. When she summoned her weapons, she could turn them into whatever she wanted.

It was that thought, drifting through her mind on a night when she only had to share the training grounds with the stars, that made her pause, a realization bringing new light to her eyes.

Her mind had started work on that realization at once, and hadn't stopped since. And that was what it was doing after her check-up at the hospital on the last day of October, distracting her into taking a shortcut she hadn't taken in almost two months.

There were eight impacts.

The sound stopped Tenten mid-step, making her suddenly realize just what path she was taking. But before she could even react to that, her mind finally registered the sound, making her eyebrows draw together. She only knew one kunai technique with a rhythm like that.

Curiosity getting the better of her, she stepped forward and parted the brush.

Sasuke…

His back was to her, giving her a clear view of the Uchiha fan on the back of his shirt. A glance around the clearing confirmed her suspicion: embedded in each of the eight targets she always used for the Kouryuu Rasen was a well-placed kunai.

No…not kunai, she found, looking closer. Not real ones, at least. As he pulled them from the targets - which, she noted with amusement, he did by tugging on eight wires he must have attached to them himself, just like she had shown him - she could see that their tips were dulled; even now he wasn't trusted.

"Sasuke." She turned with Sasuke toward Kakashi-sensei's voice, coming from somewhere above in the trees. "Take a break."

His face pulled into a frown. "Why?"

"It's impolite to ignore a visitor."

Tenten's breath caught, and in the next moment, her eyes had locked with Sasuke's.

He looked…better. Healthier. She couldn't put her finger on how, but something about him just seemed calmer, more stable than even before his brother had attacked him.

But still…

"…Hi," she finally said, a bit lamely, as she took a tentative step into the clearing. "You don't have to stop, I was just…" She jerked a thumb in the direction of the hospital.

"It's fine." His voice was just as quiet as when she had spoken to him in the hospital, though the roughness had finally slipped away. As soon as he had pocketed his kunai, he took a step back in a silent gesture for her to come in to the clearing, rather than hover around the edge.

No sooner had she accepted than a flutter of wings caught both of their attention, revealing one of the Hokage's messenger birds flying just above their heads and in the direction Kakashi-sensei's voice had come from.

"Picking up Kakashi-sensei's report," Sasuke explained at Tenten's questioning look. "He has to write one out every week that I stay with him."

If he had any opinion about what he was saying, he didn't show it. Tenten glanced at where the bird had gone, then back at Sasuke. "How's that going?" she tried, and he shrugged, though a look of distaste crossed his face.

"He snores," he muttered under his breath.

He said it with such complete seriousness that a laugh bubbled out of Tenten before she could cover it with her hand. "Sorry," she managed between giggles, but he gave a dismissive shake of his head, the corner of his mouth quirking up just a little.

"Hey," Tenten piped up, surprising herself with how comfortable she suddenly felt, "it looks like you're getting a lot better at that technique. That last kunai is getting really close."

Sasuke seemed to relax with her, leaning back on the nearest tree and slipping his hands into his pockets. "Yeah," he agreed, some of his old cockiness coming through before vanishing just as quickly. "I don't know what it is. The last two wires still get tangled up."

"Really?" Tenten found herself stepping forward, her mind automatically going through all the possible reasons the trajectory would be off. "If you want to try it again, I could look at it for you - I mean, if that's okay," she backpedaled, peering at his face in a sudden worry that she was going too far, too soon.

But Sasuke only eyed her for a moment before giving a silent nod. Something in his expression made the worry disappear from Tenten's mind - it was trust, she realized. He was trusting her to be honest with him, trusting her to help him improve, trusting her to not use this moment against him, no matter how easy it would be or whether she was entitled to it.

It hadn't occurred to her until then how much she had missed being among the few people he would give that to.

Tenten watched patiently while he pulled out his dulled kunai, allowed the wires to untangle themselves, and slipped them into place--

"Wait," she interrupted, and he glanced up. Without a word of explanation, Tenten walked in a circle around him, eying each of the eight kunai on him. It was only when she caught him watching her with a lifted eyebrow that she spoke again. "I think it might have to do with your positioning. Let me see how you take out the last two kunai."

Sasuke eyed her skeptically, but did as he was told, and the answer clicked in Tenten's mind, bringing a triumphant smile to her face. "Got it."

"What?"

"It is the positioning," she confirmed, stepping forward. "You're regressing. The position of the last two kunai would be right, if you were using your old grip. See?" She nodded at the last kunai in his hand, then reached forward without thinking to correct his grip herself. "You'll want to position them a little deeper in the holster, so that when you grab them, you'll already have the right grip…"

She trailed off then, suddenly very aware of how close they were standing, and how she couldn't read his eyes like she could a moment ago, and how his fingers were rough but surprisingly warm as they closed around the kunai's handle.

"…Give it a try, anyway," she finally murmured, letting her hands drop to clasp behind her back. "It should help." He nodded, and just like that she could read him again, almost able to see him making a mental note of her instructions. "So, I heard they're letting you into the Chuunin Exam after all?" she asked, determined to shake away the strangeness of that moment.

Sasuke nodded again, pocketing the kunai. "Barely. Naruto won't even be back from training until the first day of the Exam, and Sakura's taken on that apprenticeship at the hospital, so there won't be any group training until then." He looked at the sky, something between sadness and approval in his eyes. "It's a risk."

"Well, it's a risk they're taking, so you must have done something right," Tenten said, grinning, though inside she was hit with a strange note of melancholy. Even though he hadn't left the village, in some ways he was still alone.

"…Hey…" she was saying before she could talk herself out of it, "…if you ever get tired of training with the same people all the time…I mean, since you've been doing it for almost two months, and Neji is spending a lot of time training with his uncle, and Lee and Gai-sensei always train together, and…" Realizing that she had started babbling, she paused and took a breath. "…Just…the Chuunin Exam is in a month, and it looks like you could use a training partner."

When she looked up again, he was looking back with wariness in his face. "Are you sure?" he asked at length.

"…No," she admitted, trying not to look at the broken tree just behind him, the place where everything was almost lost. Instead, she looked him in the eye. "…But…I think that part of being a shinobi is learning how to move on.

"…And besides," she added after a moment, a teasing grin playing at her lips, "you might get an opponent who uses a bo staff, and then what would you do?"

Sasuke's eyes widened; then he shot her a dirty look, to which she responded with a cheeky smile. And because I missed this, she added in her mind, beaming at the grudging half-smirk she hadn't seen in so long.

"All right."

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