Laid to Rest
They stood in a deadlock under a red desert sky. He had her in a taijutsu hold on her stomach, which he could easily tighten to render her unconscious; she had a kunai pressed against his throat, suspended by a chakra wire connected to one finger.
He didn't know which of them was breathing harder, but she was the one who finally called the moment for what it was, barely gasping it between breaths.
Sasuke blinked away the sweat trying to run into his eyes and gave a tiny nod, careful of the blade.
He released her in the same moment that she pulled away the kunai. As soon as he was able, Sasuke dropped to the ground, resting his elbows on his knees, and bowed his head, exhausted. He hardly noticed the countless grains of sand sticking to his skin, far too busy re-teaching himself how to breathe.
Tenten flopped onto her back at his side a moment later, looking just as winded and worn out as he felt. For a short while, all they did was catch their breath while the sun sank on the horizon, the heat of the day giving way to the chill of the desert night.
There was a whisper of shifting sand when Tenten turned to look at him, still a little breathless. "Think you're ready?" she asked.
Sasuke swallowed, then let himself breathe a bit longer before lifting his head. "Yeah."
He heard a smile in her breath as she turned back toward the sky, pillowing her head on one arm. "It's tomorrow," she murmured, a note of disbelief in her voice. Sasuke nodded.
The final tournament of the Chuunin Exam, the day that could shape the rest of their lives, was less than twenty-four hours away. His opponent was to be a kunoichi from Hidden Rain, whose techniques he had never seen; Tenten's, a Hidden Rock shinobi with a bloodline limit that made him nearly untouchable.
The village of Suna was far less forgiving than Konoha. They were given only two weeks to prepare for these Finals, and it was not a tournament in the real sense of the word. Rather than the winners moving on to fight one another until a single champion remained, each finalist was only entered for one fight. One chance to show an arena of thousands what they were truly made of.
To call it an intimidating situation was a glaring understatement.
Especially considering just how Sasuke - and Tenten, for that matter - had managed to qualify in the first place. Sasuke was very aware that fortune had been on their side that day. Tenten couldn't have been luckier than to be matched up against Hyuuga Hinata (though he wouldn't forget how her face had blanched for just a moment when she read the name, 'Hyuuga'): as impressive as the battle had been on both sides, she'd had the advantage of working against those bloodline techniques for three years running, and against a Hyuuga much more advanced than Hinata. And after the fight had been won, Tenten had helped Hinata to her feet and congratulated her on a good battle, and both had returned to the balcony smiling.
His own experience had been very different. He had passed the preliminary only because his opponent had forfeited as soon as he heard the name, 'Uchiha Sasuke.'
"Hey." Sasuke blinked out of his thoughts, glancing over to find Tenten watching him thoughtfully. "Did you ever find out anything about that Rain kunoichi?" He shook his head, and she frowned a little, though the expression spoke more of concern than of any disappointment. "Well, be careful," she said.
He nodded. "Yeah."
"Because remember, her team was the first one to get through the survival round--"
"--and you saw how her teammates follow her around like she's their leader, and that guy from the other Rain team forfeited so fast in the prelim--"
"Tenten." He shot her a look and she fell silent, blinking innocently. "I know."
She winced, then sighed. "Sorry," she said, shaking her head and looking back at the sky. "I guess that's not helping, is it…"
"Tch. It doesn't matter," he muttered, offering a hand to pull her up. She accepted it, half-pushing herself into a sitting position next to him. "You should be thinking about your own fight, not mine."
"Yeah," she said softly, pulling her knees together and clasping her arms around them.
She didn't say anything for several moments after that, making it clear that she was well aware of the challenge she would be facing. Her future opponent's preliminary fight had been among the ugliest of the battles that day, ending with two examiners pulling the Rock-nin off of the Hidden Waterfall shinobi unlucky enough to be on the receiving end of his blows. But enough hits from someone who could produce razor-sharp spikes from his palms - not to mention any other part of his body that needed protecting - would have left even the most fortunate shinobi in dire condition.
The medics had rushed the Waterfall-nin, a bloody, barely-recognizable mess, to the emergency room. Sasuke hadn't heard anything on whether he had survived.
Thinking back on that now, he understood much better why Tenten had been focusing on his battle instead.
"How's Naruto doing?" she asked suddenly, and Sasuke rolled his eyes before lowering them, watching the breeze make tiny waves in the sand.
"He can't wait," he grumbled, shaking his head. "Moron."
Tenten gave a low chuckle at his side. "I bet he's the only genin here who would actually be excited to match up against that Gaara guy." Sasuke only grunted in response, and she sobered, looking at him sideways. "Are you guys talking at all?" she tried, her voice quieting.
"…He talks," Sasuke muttered. He kept his eyes on the ground.
"You don't?" she asked, but he didn't answer. At length, she dropped her gaze as well, pressing the subject no further. She didn't need to tell him how Naruto felt; Naruto had made that very clear himself during the survival exam, unable to hold it in any longer after a day of almost complete silence under the desert sun. After yet another question of his had been answered with a distracted grunt, he had gritted his teeth, turned, and stepped directly into Sasuke's path.
"Damn it, Sasuke! I've had enough of this!" The words still echoed in his mind. "So what if you went too far that one time? I could beat you any day, no matter how much you use that stupid curse seal, so just forget it already!" Behind Naruto and his clenched fists, Sakura had refused to meet Sasuke's eyes, which he could only interpret as agreement. "I'm sick of you trying to act like you're not one of us anymore!"
That had been when he was supposed to say something. When he should have said something, but he hadn't. It was too hard, looking at Naruto and knowing exactly what he was really saying: 'I forgive you. Now let's go back to the way things were before.'
He couldn't do that. Not yet.
So he had only looked back at Naruto for a long moment, then muttered something about getting to shelter before nightfall and walked around him. The rest of that journey had passed in excruciating silence.
Sighing, Sasuke tilted his head back, taking in the riot of stars before closing his eyes, letting go of the memory for the moment. Tomorrow would come too soon, and he didn't know what he was facing. So at least for a little while, he could just let himself exist, just be there, in the silence before impact.
When he opened his eyes again, he found that Tenten was watching him with an expression that he couldn't read. She didn't look away when he met it. "…What?"
She smiled a little, then shook her head. "Nothing."
He watched her with a skeptical eye, but she turned her face to the sky and said no more.
Chapter 12: Laid to Rest
The match between Hachibara Ringo of Hidden Rock and Tenten of Hidden Leaf had been going on for ten minutes, and it was not going well.
At the moment, neither shinobi could be seen from Sasuke's vantage point on the balcony; they were lost in a blur of sparks and flying steel. But even so, it wasn't looking good. Though Tenten had solidly held her own for this long, she had already used up several of her weapon scrolls and was covered in scratches from the Rock-nin's bloodline limit. He, on the other hand, still remained untouched. No matter what she threw at him, his quick reflexes and the strength of his bloodline saved him: every blade was flawlessly deflected by the strange blades that he could force out of his hands, his arms, even his forehead.
Sooner or later, one of them would have to wear out. And at this point, it didn't look like it would be Hachibara Ringo.
Sasuke snapped to attention when the two genin shot out of the confusion, Tenten attempting to distance herself while the Rock-nin refused to let her. She had wisely chosen a naginata from her stores, using its length to keep him from getting too close while employing the blade on the end to strike at him, but the Rock-nin blocked every attempt. With a growl of annoyance, he locked the spikes in his palms around the blade, trapping it there. In the time it took for Tenten's eyes to widen, the ground broke open at her feet, a shadow-clone rising out of the ground and locking his arms around hers, forcing them apart by digging sharp spikes into them and jerking backward. A yelp was wrenched out of her throat and she dropped the weapon, which the real Rock-nin tossed aside.
Sasuke's throat tightened. This starting to look far too much like the preliminary battle, and that wasn't something he was ready to see Tenten endure.
But it looked like that was exactly where it was going. Now that Tenten was disarmed and restrained, the Rock-nin stepped forward and looked her up and down. Then, while the clone held her back, he pulled back and slammed his spiked palm directly into her solar plexus. She gasped and buckled over his hand. When he pulled it back, the spikes were bloody.
A flash of that same blood on his own blade stole Sasuke's breath for a second, and he looked away, blinking a few times. But in that same moment, his gaze was suddenly captured by a shock of white.
Hyuuga Neji's expression, hardly different than his usual but somehow infinitely more severe, spoke as clearly as if he had said it aloud: Don't you look away.
He had hardly seen a glimpse of Hyuuga since they day he'd confronted him. Sasuke was sure Hyuuga knew the real reason Tenten had been in the hospital with them, but the punishment had never come. He didn't doubt that Tenten herself had a large part in that.
But Hyuuga's white-knuckled grip on the rail belied his passive behavior. Sasuke had a feeling that had he been matched up with Hyuuga Neji in this exam, it would not have ended well.
He felt his eyes narrow, but he only held Hyuuga's gaze for a moment before obeying the silent command. He tried not to notice his own hands gripping the railing just as tightly as Hyuuga's.
In the moment he hadn't been watching, it looked like Tenten had taken another solid hit to her left shoulder, her shirt punctured and slowly dying itself red. This guy was just playing with her now. Seeing how many ways he could make her bleed. (Sasuke had to force himself to take a breath when he realized that his Sharingan had activated, its wheels spinning furiously.) Even now, the Rock-nin was pulling back again, red-slicked spikes still sharp enough to glint in the light, and thrusting his palm forward for a third strike, this time directly at her face--
But then several things happened in the span of only a few seconds.
In the last moment before his palm connected, Tenten's hand shot up and grabbed his wrist so hard that even Sasuke could hear it crack. With a shout of effort, she dodged her head to the side and, in the same moment, redirected his strike to make a direct hit - on his shadow-clone. It vanished with a loud pop, and with the smoke curling around them both, she pulled back and head-butted him, making him stagger back a few steps. Then, when the distance was right, she flipped backwards with the acrobatic grace she'd always possessed, getting in a solid kick under his jaw.
The Rock-nin flew right off of his feet and landed flat on his back, stunned. A smirk curled Sasuke's lips; he knew that move a little too well. Several nights of going home with a nearly-immovable jaw could attest to that.
Across the arena (having immediately gotten out of his range after the kick), Tenten stood partially doubled over with one hand covering her stomach, blood sliding over her fingers. Now that she was still again, Sasuke could see that she hadn't dodged the Rock-nin's last strike as completely as he had thought, a sizeable cut running across her cheek just under her eye. She either didn't notice it was there or ignored it.
And looking a little closer, he could see why. She wasn't just getting her bearings. Her eyes were trained on her opponent, who was reeling, but certainly not down for the count, and her free hand had reached back and jammed into the pouch at her hip.
When she pulled it back out, she brought with it two identical scrolls.
There was a murmur of recognition from some of the genin who had seen her fight in the previous Exam, and Sasuke quietly reactivated his Sharingan. Only once before had he seen her use this technique, and back then he hadn't known what he was in for. Now that he knew what was coming, he thought it warranted a closer look.
She was already going through her hand seals - Tiger, Dragon, Monkey, Hare, Serpent, in the blink of an eye; she had improved there too - when her opponent started getting to his feet. He fully righted himself just in time to see the two smoke-born dragons shoot into the air, and immediately got into a defensive stance, his hands locking in the symbol of the Rat.
"Soushoryuu!" Tenten shouted, and Sasuke watched with enhanced eyes as she twisted and soared, her scrolls fluttering all around her.
It wasn't chakra that was keeping her airborne. Even when Sasuke leaned forward a little, zeroing in on her as far as he could, he found nothing visibly keeping her in the air. She was flying with the wings of something else entirely.
Somehow, he wasn't surprised.
Tenten wielded her arsenal with expert precision, somehow managing to make the act of throwing one hundred blades at once with perfect accuracy look as simple as breathing. The blades flashed as one, and in the space of a heartbeat they shot directly toward her opponent, crashing together in a brilliant shower of sparks and smoke.
She landed without a sound, her hand immediately returning to her stomach. An arena full of eyes locked on the place her opponent had stood, now shrouded in the stirred-up dust.
And an arena full of eyes widened when the smoke cleared to reveal the Rock-nin standing exactly where he had been, the same spikes from his palms protruding from his entire body. The only place he had been touched was a scratch near his temple, where it looked like a senbon needle had managed to slip between the spikes.
It was an almost flawlessly-developed bloodline limit. Sasuke's eyes showed him clearly that the guy's chakra had spread itself out just underneath his skin in a thick membrane that forced the spikes out. That was difficult chakra control for any shinobi, much less a teenage genin.
But it took a lot of chakra. It wasn't a trick he could do too many times at once.
Sasuke returned his focus to Tenten and found that she had fallen into the nervous habit of chewing on her lip, sharp eyes calculating while the Rock-nin sneered at her, the spikes withdrawing into his skin. "There's a reason my clan is known as Harinezumi, the Hedgehog Clan," he said. "You'd be better off giving up now. You can throw a thousand kunai if you want. You can't touch me."
The scratch on the side of his head said otherwise. As did the slight trembling in his hands, proof that the technique took more of a toll on him than he was admitting.
Sasuke glanced back to Tenten again, and sure enough, her eyes were flicking between the two signs of his body's betrayal. With the Sharingan, he could see her thought process almost as clearly as if it were his own: the full-body technique ate up chakra; the Rock-nin would avoid it if he could, which would be easier for him to do if he could see the attack coming, so there should be no warning; if he used it too much, he'd lose too much chakra to access it; and if he couldn't access it, he would be at her mercy.
Sasuke found himself nodding a little in agreement in spite of the fact that they hadn't exchanged even a glance. On the ground, Tenten seemed to reach a silent agreement with herself as well. Then, without a word, she launched herself into the air again, revealing the final secret of the Soushoryuu by summoning her weapons back with a tug on their strings. The Rock-nin frowned at the unexpected development, then let out a snarl and performed the full-body technique again just in time to protect himself from a second barrage of blades.
"Are you stupid or something?" he called to Tenten, but she only pulled them back, pushed off the arena wall with her feet to stay airborne, and hit him with it a third time.
Again, he deflected it; again, she reset the move, pushing off another wall, giving him no time to recover in between.
She was wearing him down. And by the sixth time he was forced to use his technique, making sweat bead on his face and his limbs shake more visibly, he knew it.
"Enough!" he barked the moment he could deactivate the technique, then thrust his palms in her direction before she could pull back her blades. "You think you're the only one who can throw something? Hishou Kasui no Jutsu!"
As soon as he said the words, the same palm-spikes from before - still bloody, Sasuke noted with a sour taste in his mouth - shot completely out of his hands with shocking speed, aimed directly for Tenten's throat.
But he hadn't counted on the fact that she trained with three of the fastest genin in Konoha. In the blink of an eye, she had brought an extra kunai out of nowhere and deflected every one of the spikes.
In the time it took for shock to open up the Rock-nin's face, Tenten seemed to make a decision. Seizing the opportunity, Sasuke was sure, to use the Soushoryuu on him one last time, now that he was both exhausted and distracted. She couldn't have much chakra left, anyway, not after using it so many times.
But she didn't pull the blades back.
Instead she pushed off the wall once more, fearlessly rubbing her thumb against the still-bleeding cut on her cheek before landing directly before the two scrolls she'd used for Soushoryuu, then slamming her blood-smeared hands down right where the scrolls crossed. All around her, the fallen weapons vanished.
"Kuchiyose no Jutsu!"
Sasuke blinked in confusion. Another summons… Around him, the other genin had fallen silent, anticipation sending an electric hush through them all.
But the seconds passed, and nothing happened. Sasuke's stomach began to twist. The Rock-nin began to laugh, the slightly hysterical laughter of one who had been expecting the worst. "That's it, huh?" he taunted. "You Konoha girls have even less chakra than…I…"
It was then that the entire arena began to shake.
She beat him to the clearing once. It was a rare thing, as he usually worked on his own for a good half hour before she arrived. Most often she would join him as soon as she was done training with her team, insisting that these marathon training sessions were good for her stamina. That, and it would still be weeks before they would be comfortable enough to really spar again.
But that day, she was already there. When he parted the brush, he found her in a mess of ink and scrolls, one pen held in her teeth while she brushed careful calligraphy across the parchment with the other.
He recognized the scrolls as the same two she used for her Soushoryuu, which she had shown him just a few days before. She was altering them somehow.
When she noticed his presence, she greeted him and then immediately launched into an explanation about how Neji had needed to leave early for a family function and Gai-sensei and Lee were out doing laps around the village and there wasn't any room in her apartment and he didn't mind if she just finished up before they started, did he?
Sasuke had only shaken his head and started warming up at the free end of the clearing while she returned to her work. But he couldn't help taking a glance at the scrolls now and then, curiosity overcoming his focus.
It was another summons. And he could have sworn that among the endless painted symbols, he could just make out a tiny Uchiha fan.
("Your chakra control is weak.")
There was just enough time for Tenten to see the smirk drop from the Rock-nin's face. Then the ground erupted in a thousand blinding flashes of steel.
("If you keep focusing your chakra in only one area, you'll only limit yourself.")
Tenten forced her breath to steady, her eyes following him as he launched upward in a desperate attempt to escape. "Hagane Ryuujin no Jutsu!"
("Maybe someday you'll even be able to use it with your Soushoryuu technique.")
Hagane Ryuujin, she had named it. Steel Dragon.
It exploded out of the ground directly in the Rock-nin's shadow, light glinting off the rows of kunai in its jaws, butterfly-knife claws held tight to its sides while the lines of shuriken running down its back brushed together and created the sound of rain. Tightly woven senbon needles flashed in the form of silver scales, giving it a liquid grace as it rose into the sky under its target, the amber of her chakra burning in its eyes.
Tenten lifted her arms into the air, making the chakra wires glint against her fingers, and directed her creation to shoot up towards her opponent, a scream of metal on metal bursting from its throat as it opened its massive jaws.
No matter that she shouldn't have enough chakra for this, and the amount required for the technique was tugging at her veins, or that her hands were spasming painfully with every movement of her fingers, or that the world was starting to spin while blood had started streaming out of her nose. It meant nothing.
The Rock-nin only had time to open his mouth for a shout before he vanished down the dragon's throat. And Tenten had no doubt that the last thing he saw was the Uchiha symbol, on the little rusted kunai in the middle of the beast's forehead.
But it wasn't over yet.
Tenten stood, burning eyes fastened to her summons as she maneuvered it into the center of the arena. Then she spread her arms apart like a bird, making the dragon's throat expand while she gasped air into furiously-working lungs.
In the same moment that the words left her mouth, she threw her arms across her body, and the creature's weapon-laced gullet slammed inward.
From inside the beast, there was a scream.
Tenten held it there a little longer than she had to, grasping at consciousness, her chakra all used up. It took the last dregs of her strength to lower the dragon towards the ground and part the weapons that made up its belly, releasing the Rock-nin. He lay unconscious after landing, his body embedded with steel, but he was alive; as she had expected, whatever he had left of his technique had protected his vital points. He would live.
The examiner stepped forward in her peripheral vision, and Tenten took a deep breath, interlacing her fingers and releasing the technique.
It was not her will that guided her dragon to give another metallic roar, swooping in a circle around her like a faithful companion before diving headfirst against the ground, collapsing into a small mountain of weapons; she could only think that it was a last trace of wandering chakra that did it. But it was done. The pile of steel vanished in a cloud of smoke, leaving only the Uchiha kunai, which she picked up with a shaking hand and slipped into her pocket.
The arena seemed to hold its breath in a stunned silence while the examiner knelt by the Rock-nin, inspecting his condition. At that moment, a tremor ran through Tenten's body from the strain, and she coughed painfully, clutching at her ribs with one hand. That in itself almost sent her to her knees, but then the examiner was straightening, and suddenly it was the single purpose of her existence to hear the next thing to come out of his mouth.
"Hachibara Ringo is no longer able to fight. Winner: Tenten, of Konohagakure!"
No sooner had her mind comprehended the words, than Lee's voice shattered the silence in an ecstatic cheer. Then he was joined by Gai-sensei, then Naruto, and suddenly the entire Konoha section, and those of all their allies, had broken into applause.
The world blurred again, but this time it wasn't from lack of chakra.
The medics checked her over in a flurry of ointments and bandages, then deemed her well enough to rejoin her team on the balcony. As she ascended the stairs, Tenten found herself fiddling with the kunai in her pocket. Not for the first time, she wondered if it would be going too far to offer it to Sasuke again. Neither of them knew what his opponent's techniques would be like, and unlike herself, he didn't have a scroll full of extra weapons. He would need all the help he could get.
But she was reaching him on the balcony before she could finish mulling over it, and she found that his eyebrows were raised ever so slightly, much like whenever she managed to surprise him in a spar; he was impressed.
"Not bad," he said as she neared him, and she shrugged in a parody of nonchalance.
"Chakra control," she said in a matter-of-fact tone that brought a smirk to his face. "Some jerk told me I was bad at it, so I had to prove him wrong."
Grinning, Tenten gave his hand a squeeze in passing. "Good luck out there." He nodded, and then she had passed him, heading for her own team.
He didn't seem to notice her sneaking the kunai into one of his holsters at the last moment. Just in case.
But she didn't have much time to think about it, because it was right about then that her team realized that she had returned.
"Tenten!" Lee cried, and in the next moment he had lifted her completely off the ground and spun her around, pulling a surprised squeak from her throat before she broke into giggles. "That was incredible!" he gushed on after setting her down. "I have never seen such control in your chakra before! When we return to Konoha, you must allow me to test my skills against that technique!"
"Indeed!" Gai-sensei boomed behind her, beaming with pride. "You have truly blossomed into a splendid Konoha kunoichi!" He punctuated the compliment with a clap on the back that she wasn't quite ready for, sending her flying toward the railing with a yelp, but a pale arm shot out to catch her before she hit the hard metal.
"Be more careful. She's injured," Neji quietly reproached them, keeping his arm there a little longer than he necessarily had to before moving it, leaving a few fingers against her back to keep her steady. How he knew her legs were threatening to give out, she couldn't guess.
"It's okay," Tenten finally spoke up, leaning on the railing more to make his job easier than anything else. "It isn't that bad."
Neji eyed her compulsive grip on the rail, but let that subject drop. "I haven't seen that technique before," he murmured, not loud enough to reach Lee and Gai-sensei's ears.
Tenten shook her head, pride edging into her voice. "Nope. This is the first time anyone has." Then, with a smirk in his direction: "I have to surprise you sometimes, don't I?"
Neji only grunted in return, keeping his eyes forward, and was he sulking? "…I expect to see it again."
The smirk softened into something genuine. "Count on it."
"I wouldn't celebrate yet."
Tenten turned to see one of the shinobi from Hidden Rain leering at her. Neji's fingers tightened a little against her back. The Rain-nin snorted at whatever look her teammate was giving him, and kept his focus on her. "Or did you forget you weren't the last match? Just thought you'd like a warning that your traitor friend is about to get slaughtered."
He jerked his chin toward the stairwell, and Tenten followed his gaze to find that Sasuke was just disappearing inside, closely followed by his opponent, the pale-haired girl from the Rain-nin's team.
Tenten opened her mouth to defend Sasuke, but the Rain-nin interrupted her with a challenge in his voice. "Why do you think her preliminary opponent forfeited before she even threw a punch? It's because he liked his sanity where it was."
Tenten's eyebrows knitted in an uncomprehending frown. From down in the arena, the examiner stepped forward again.
"Final match. From Hidden Rain, Akumune Seiko. And from Hidden Leaf, Uchiha Sasuke."
The first time they had sparred again, Tenten had been sure she was ready. Enough time had passed with them both out of the hospital that they had been able to recondition their bodies and, she was pretty sure, get their minds past the reason they had been there in the first place. A week of nothing but correcting Sasuke's few tiny flaws with various weapons had made them both restless, and the day had dawned crisp and dry, perfect weather for a quick fight before they parted ways. Needless to say, Sasuke quickly accepted her challenge.
What she hadn't counted on was the way his limbs would freeze the moment he got a blade in his hand, or the way her lungs would seize up the first time he lunged at her.
How a well-placed kick would send a trickle of blood from her mouth, and he would immediately look away.
How a successful grapple would pin him to the ground beneath her, but she would be the one who felt trapped.
It wasn't like it had been before. They were gaining nothing from it; each strike was only a jolt to the pulse, leaving them spooked and uncertain. When Sasuke's sensei had finally dropped from the trees - the signal that time was up - and quietly suggested that perhaps they keep it to weapons-training for the time being, Tenten's body had slackened under the wave of relief that coursed through her, while from the corner of her eye she saw a little of the color return to Sasuke's face.
But for her, the satisfaction didn't last. By the time she got home that night, the relief had crumbled under the weight of her frustration with both herself and Sasuke. This was wrong. They weren't supposed to be afraid of each other.
She had allowed the next couple of weeks to pass without incident. But she'd vowed to herself that she would not let things stay that way.
A week before they were supposed to leave for Suna, the opportunity came again. They had found a tentative compromise in sparring with weapons only, and she hadn't missed how rarely Sasuke chose anything with a blade. Today, just to spite her, he had picked up a bo staff. She, on the other hand, only stood in the center of the clearing and waited for him.
"I need to work on my taijutsu," was her only explanation when he sent her a questioning look.
Sasuke eyed her a little longer than he had to, but didn't protest. He took his place across from her, lowered into a much-improved battle stance for that particular weapon, and then they began.
Something strange and bold was rising in her. Every blow made her more certain that this would be the day that she put the past behind her. Whether Sasuke would do the same, only this battle would tell.
She waited until the moment and position was right; then, with a shout of effort, she thrust her palm forward in a move she'd learned from Lee and broke right through the staff. A roundhouse kick knocked the two halves from his hands.
Normally, if they were disarmed or their weapon destroyed, they would concede that the battle was over. But this time, Tenten kept going.
"An opponent--won't stop--just because you've been disarmed," she said through her teeth as he threw his arms up to block, something sparking in his eyes. The next few seconds were silent but for the low impacts of skin against skin. He was blocking expertly, but he made no move to hit her back.
Tenten gritted her teeth. "And they won't ease up," she pressed, swiping a leg out under his feet and then attempting an uppercut (dodged, then blocked), "just because you won't go on the offensive."
His eyes narrowed as he avoided another series of blows. "I know that--"
"It shouldn't matter who they are!" The frustration that had been building since their first failed attempt at sparring again seeped into her words and movements, propelling every strike to hit harder, faster. She managed to get in a direct hit under his jaw, and he growled, finally taking a swipe at her. Tenten caught his fist and shoved it aside. "You're not trying!" she accused. "You were right before, Sasuke, I could get matched up against Neji in this exam, or Lee--" right hook, dodge, block, "--and you could get matched against Naruto, or Sakura-" butterfly kick into low reverse roundhouse, dodged, repeated palm strikes, blocked, "-or me, Sasuke, and what would you do then, just give up?"
"Then don't!" Now she was the one blocking, but every punch was aimed above her shoulders, every kick below her waist. He lunged forward, and memories of flashing blades made her heart thud against her ribs, but she forced them back. They had no place here anymore. "Stop thinking about things that have already happened and hit me!" she commanded. "Just--"
The wind shot out of her lungs when Sasuke's fist finally connected with her stomach, just under her ribs, the area he'd been avoiding from the beginning. It had been too fast for her to block, her hands meeting around his wrist instead of catching the punch, and she pitched forward over his fist, gasping.
There was a strange, silent moment in which neither of them moved a muscle, utterly frozen. It was only after Tenten had opened her eyes again - she hadn't realized she had squeezed them shut - and found herself alive, and whole, and entirely aware of Sasuke's hand trembling against her stomach, that she breathed again.
Swallowing, she lifted her head to meet eyes that mirrored the feeling of ice in her veins. Her fingers relaxed around his wrist, and she found to her surprise that she was shaking a little, too. "…See?" she said, refusing to let her voice tremble with the rest of her. "It's okay."
Sasuke blinked away the haunted glimmer in his eyes, then slowly pulled back and straightened. She couldn't quite tell if he agreed.
Stepping back, Tenten took a deep breath. "So…can we do this now?" she asked quietly. When he didn't answer, she lowered a quizzical eyebrow, deciding to give him one last push. "Or are you still too scared?"
Sasuke's face opened up with surprise at the unexpected jab, and he just stared at her for a second; then his eyes took on the competitive glint she had been wondering if she would ever see again. He crossed his arms, mirroring her expression. "Who's scared?" he challenged, with a straight face and a note of less than serious danger in his voice that made the corners of Tenten's mouth threaten to turn up.
"I don't know," she said with feigned innocence. "You tell me."
In reply, he lowered back into a combat stance, a sight that made it too hard not to grin. They understood each other now.
She dropped back into her own stance, then turned her hand to make a beckoning motion. "Your move."
He made it.
The crowd fell to a hush when his name was called, then broke into a chorus of whispers and murmurs. Sasuke ignored it. He was used to it by now.
He knew very well that word of his attempted escape had spread to the villages of Konoha's allies. He knew why Kakashi-sensei was so quick to take control of any situation that pushed Sasuke too far into the spotlight, and why he was subtly discouraged from speaking to anyone from a foreign village for too long. He knew that the people in those stands had control over his future, and he didn't have their trust.
And he knew that unless he proved himself to them now, his chances of being promoted were very, very slim.
Sasuke was brought out of his thoughts by the sound of footsteps on the stairs beside him, and turned to find that his opponent - a tall, wraithlike kunoichi a few years his senior, with pale hair and cold gray eyes (he was vaguely reminded of Yakushi Kabuto from six months before, and for some reason a knot formed in his stomach) - had fallen into step with him. Even as he looked, she turned her head in his direction and gave him a slow, shameless once-over.
"Uchiha Sasuke," she said. Her voice didn't match her ghostly appearance, coming out smooth and low. He didn't reply to his name, and she didn't press for it, a small, musing smile crossing her lips as she turned to face the front again. "How lucky that I'm matched up against you."
Sasuke's eyebrows lowered, but he faced forward again when they stepped out of the darkness of the stairwell and into the newly-mended arena. He could feel the weight of everyone's gazes on him - some bitter, others wary, and precious few hopeful - as though the force of gravity had doubled in the span of three steps.
"Fighters ready?" the examiner called, and he met the jounin's eyes and nodded. Across from him, his opponent nodded as well, but her eyes remained on Sasuke's. The examiner stepped back.
Sasuke immediately leapt backwards in a trick he'd learned from Tenten, getting just enough distance that he could deal with close- or long-range attacks, and lowered into a stance for combat. He had never seen this girl's techniques before; better to draw them out of her now than to attack her head-on and be too close to react.
But she didn't move. She didn't even prepare to fight. She only stood, and smirked, and lifted her hands into the symbol of the Tiger.
He was only looking at her hands for a second. But when he looked back, the gray eyes, even the whites, were entirely black.
"The story of your clan was added to our history books the year before I graduated our Academy," she said suddenly. "Two weeks is plenty of time to refresh the memory - the tragedy of the Uchiha clan. And one boy saw it all." Her grin became wicked as she created a small army of clones all around the arena. Sasuke noted the position of every one of them, forcing himself to stay calm even though he really didn't like where this was going. "But I suppose two boys saw it, didn't they? It just happened that one of them was doing the killing." She looked up with an expression that mocked thoughtfulness. "It shouldn't be too hard to bring him here…"
Sasuke had hardly digested that when she brought her hands together in a series of rapid hand seals, ending in the Bird symbol, and looked him directly in the eyes. "Secret Technique: Kyoumu no Jutsu!"
Her chakra swept out faster than he could react, stirring up the dust and sand on the arena floor and temporarily robbing Sasuke of both sight and breath. Immediately he threw his guard up, in case she tried to attack him in the moment his eyes were shut, but the attack never came. His heart thudded strangely as he squinted open his eyes.
Then they went wide.
His mind immediately threw itself into denial that he was seeing what he was seeing, and he cursed his voice for shuddering when he activated the Sharingan to prove himself right.
But his eyes could find no illusion. Hands, feet, clothing, hair, skin, eyes…
A murmured trapping jutsu in a voice that was painfully familiar, and Sasuke's limbs were stopped. Suddenly one of the new figures was standing directly in front of him, reaching forward ("Forgive me, Sasuke. Maybe another time.") and lifting his chin (same touch, rough, scar from first Anbu mission how could she know…) with a fiendish smirk twisting the soft features (like Mother) of its face.
"Poor little brother." (same voice, soft, "Tsukiyomi" - black red night screams blood falling falling…)
The red eyes began to change.
"No!" The sound ripped itself out of his throat in a shattered yelp, his heart pounding so fast that he could hardly breathe, and on a panicked instinct his eyes squeezed shut while he tried in vain to make his limbs move. It's not real, he repeated to himself, but it was getting harder and harder to believe, when this person looked like him, felt like him, smelled like him (wood, polished steel, blood--), and he was right here right here and he couldn't move and he was going to use it on him again and he couldn't take that, not again, not again--
From behind him, another pair of those murderer's-hands slid over his shoulders and made his mouth go dry.
One of them gripped a blade he knew far too well, coated with the phantom-stains of all the blood it had spilt.
And a darkness he hadn't felt in months began to burn at his neck.
"Sasuke, I want you to activate the Sharingan."
He blinked a few times, unsure that he'd heard right. "…What?"
"I'll keep things under control," his Kakashi-sensei assured him, "but if you plan on using that technique again in the future, you'll need to show it to me now." He held a hand out, prompting Sasuke forward. "Go ahead."
Sasuke frowned, but didn't protest, instead swallowing and trying not to think about the last things his Sharingan had witnessed.
When he opened his eyes again, he almost jumped. Suddenly the world around him was unlike anything he had ever seen, with or without the Sharingan. The tiniest details of every leaf and grain of soil leapt out in stark relief; he saw birds flying past before they had even approached the training grounds; the crimson of his sensei's Sharingan eye all but glowed with the intensity of color, hypnotizing him for a moment before the need to blink momentarily broke the spell.
He hadn't realized. His Sharingan had changed when he'd fought Naruto, but he had been certain that it would have reverted back when the second level of the curse seal, the power, was taken away. He had thought the memories of that fight would remain just that, flashes of consciousness in a mind that wasn't quite his.
It had never once occurred to him that any of that power could be his own.
"I see," Kakashi-sensei said softly. He murmured something else, but Sasuke was only half listening, more occupied with making himself dizzy trying to take in everything his eyes were showing him. The silver-white of the sky, his skin pulsing in time with his heart, the blood where Anko had cut him in training--
Suddenly a strange nausea came over him, and he quickly deactivated the technique, one hand unconsciously flying to his neck, where the curse seal had started to burn.
Kakashi-sensei took this in, but kept any thoughts to himself. He didn't ask Sasuke to do it again. But Sasuke doubted that his sensei knew the real reason for his behavior.
For a moment, he could have sworn he was looking with his brother's eyes.
Tenten's fingers dug into the metal railing as she frowned at the sight before her, uncomprehending. What…
Down in the arena, all she could see was Sasuke being held in an entrapment jutsu that he was more than capable of breaking, while the Rain kunoichi was just standing there, holding his chin in a way that he would never let anyone touch him, while one of her clones had proceeded to slip her arms around his chest with a glinting kunai in one hand. She hadn't even tried to hit him, and yet…
Tenten turned helplessly to Neji, but the furrow of his brow showed that he didn't understand it any more than she did. "Is it a genjutsu?" she tried, an inexplicable panic making her stomach churn.
Neji glanced at her, then back to the arena, and silently activated his Byakugan. At the same moment, the Rain-nin at their side shook his head. "I wouldn't do that…"
Tenten almost didn't recognize the sharp gasp that tore out of Neji's throat until he had stumbled back a few steps, immediately deactivating the technique. Her hands instinctively shot out to steady him. "What is it?" she asked, the very real fear in his expression making her heart leap into her throat.
He didn't answer right away, trying to calm his breathing while his eyes darted toward his uncle's seat in the stands, then to Sasuke's opponent. He swallowed hard.
"That can't be what he's seeing."
Tenten opened her mouth to question him further, but was interrupted by a low chuckle to her left. "What's the matter?" the Rain-nin asked, jerking his chin toward Neji. "Your boyfriend get scared?"
Tenten's face pulled into a glower, but he kept talking. "Not that you could blame him, if he caught a glimpse of Seiko's technique."
"What is it?" came Neji's voice from her other side, the calm steadiness returning to it, but the words coming just a little faster than usual; whatever he'd seen had thrown him off balance.
"You saw it and you don't know? I thought you were supposed to be a genius or something." The guy leaned forward to rest his elbows on the railing, moving his eyes to his teammate. "In our village, the Akumune clan is known as the Nightmare Clan. Their jutsu revolves around fear, and they even have scientists who make chemicals for it.
"That gust of air that came out when she said her technique? It wasn't an effect of the chakra. It was a wind jutsu made to target her opponent. My guess is she threw in some of this chemical she's been playing with, that stimulates the part of the brain that triggers a fear response. That way he'd be even more vulnerable to her technique."
"What technique?" Tenten pressed, frustration edging into her voice.
The Rain-nin smirked at her, obviously pleased. "The Akumune are a clan of genjutsu masters. Once they pick a target, they can turn themselves into whatever that target fears most. And I know for a fact that Seiko is getting good at it."
It took Tenten a second to register the full meaning of his words. The person Sasuke fears most…
Her eyes went wide, and she whipped her head around to look at Sasuke again, at the combination of rage and terror and panic in his face, at the curse seal's black tendrils beginning to wind around his neck.
"Oh, no," she said under her breath.
Tearing her eyes away from him, Tenten brought her gaze to rest on his team, right next to hers, where Sakura watched with worried but dry eyes and Naruto was clenching his fists hard enough to draw blood. She knew the moment that Kakashi-sensei saw the curse seal reactivating; she caught the meaningful glance he exchanged with Gai-sensei; she saw them shifting, preparing to stop the fight--
"Wait!" she'd blurted before she could think about it, and both jounin paused to look at her, as well as the rest of both their teams. She moved her gaze between the two before letting it settle on Kakashi-sensei. "…Please, let him try. He can do this, he…"
Feeling her courage waver under the Copy-Ninja's steady gaze, she found herself turning to Naruto for support. Brown eyes locked with blue for several moments; then Naruto's mouth curved into a grin, and he turned to his sensei and nodded. "Yeah. He'll do it," he said, his voice unusually solemn, but with hope in every word. "Just watch him!"
The two jounin exchanged another glance. Tenten looked desperately between them, tension tightening her wearied muscles with every second that passed.
Finally, Kakashi-sensei relaxed his grip on the railing. "I won't make any promises," he addressed both her and Naruto. "If it goes too far, he will need to be stopped."
"It is a cruel technique," Gai-sensei added, frowning down at Sasuke and the Rain-nin. "Keep in mind, Tenten, that the battle may need to be stopped for his sake as well."
Tenten clenched her fists, feeling irrationally betrayed that her sensei would choose now to lose faith, but Neji stepped between them before she could voice it, looking at her so steadily that her entire body stilled in response.
"He isn't in your hands this time."
Any protests she had readied flew from her mind, and she could only stare at him for a second, suddenly feeling desperate and powerless and utterly seen through. Swallowing, she turned back toward the railing, gripping it hard, struck silent in the knowledge that he was right - she wanted nothing more than to race down there and bring Sasuke back, or at least give him the strength to do it himself, one more time.
But she couldn't. And looking at him down there, losing himself in the face of the reason behind every move he'd made, she was starting to wonder, not for the first time, if she had ever really brought him back at all.
"Do you ever regret it?" she asked him one night, with half-frozen earth under their backs and stars reflecting in their eyes.
He kept his gaze on the sky, remaining so still that for a moment she wondered if he'd fallen asleep. Finally he shifted, his voice coming out softer than she had ever heard it.
He didn't ask whether she meant regret for running away, or for coming back.
He was telling him to give up.
No…not him. Sasuke's mind was utterly certain of that, but his racing heart and trembling, sweating limbs refused to listen. That kunoichi…she was doing this, somehow, she--
The cold fingers under his chin spread to grip his jaw hard and jerk it upward, forcing him to meet the gaze that haunted him every time he closed his eyes.
This time he forced them to stay open, even as the black mangekyou began to spin, making his lungs quiver and a lump form in his throat. He kept them open and pumped as much chakra into his own Sharingan as he could bear, because he had to prove to his treacherous body that this was not real, it was not--
The curse seal throbbed at his neck, shattering his silent mantra. It seared through his skin, his system, his mind, pushing black chakra through his limbs and twisting his thoughts no matter who this was, he could destroy them so completely that they would see his eyes in their nightmares even as one last part of him fought the darkness back not this time, not after everything, not after Naruto, not after--
"Will you give up?" his clone repeated, and Sasuke shuddered at the warm breath on his ear (You lack hatred--), at the gleam of metal from the katana as the clone at his back forced him closer to the other one, the real one no, not real, can't be real, can't…
Sasuke took a shaking breath. "No."
No sooner had he said it than the clone behind him whipped the blade of the katana around Sasuke's front to lock against his throat (the same way Father died God this can't be real), biting into his skin. The one holding his jaw brushed a thumb across his cheek in such a sickening parody of affection that the entrapment jutsu actually wavered under his struggles to pull away.
"Then you choose for this to continue," he said. The blade pressed harder against his neck. "You choose to die, like the rest of them."
"No--" he forced out through gritted teeth, cold sweat running down his back. This wasn't real, it wasn't real, he just had to find the weakness, his eyes could do it, he just--
A pale fist slammed into Sasuke's stomach so hard that he choked, held back from doubling over by the blade across his throat. Then he leaned forward, keeping his fist buried there under Sasuke's ribs and making it impossible to breathe. Sensing his body's panic, the curse seal continued slowly snaking outward, starting to curl around his arms no, not now, not again…
The voice of his nightmares spoke to him from both sides, one against each ear ("You're not even worth killing--"), and the curse seal reached his fingertips, and his eyes burned - "This is what you choose," they whispered - and the blade flashed, and there--
A flicker. Sasuke's eyes went wide, and through his Sharingan he saw the katana flicker again, betraying its identity as nothing but a kunai, it wasn't real, there was proof, it wasn't real!
The realization rushed through his blood like electricity, shooting fire to his limbs and sending the shadows of the curse seal rapidly retreating, and with a surge of adrenaline he tore straight through the entrapment jutsu. "No!"
He wrenched his elbow back as the word left his mouth, slamming it into the shocked clone's gut and making it vanish in a cloud of smoke. The exposed kunai went flying, and one swift motion Sasuke grabbed it out of the air, lunged forward, and shoved the blade straight into the first Itachi's chest.
Something lurched in him at the sight of his brother's face showing an expression of such unbridled shock, but then the face vanished in another cloud. So they had both been clones.
He hardly had time to take it in before instinct had him throwing down a smoke bomb and launching off the ground, just in time for a hail of senbon needles to collide with each other where he had been standing. All at once, his mind shifted into the comfortable familiarity of combat mode, detaching from the situation even as his limbs continued to shake. His eyes swept over the ground while he was airborne, taking a quick inventory. Thirty clones…no, twenty-nine, and then the real one.
A barrage of kunai shot out of the smoke, exploding tags fluttering and flaming in their wake, but a well-aimed shuriken cut directly through the wires connecting them to the blades, leaving the tags to explode harmlessly in the air and throw the kunai off their trajectory. Sasuke only let himself touch the ground for a moment before leaping upward again, his hands flying through a series of seals as he concentrated his chakra to his lungs. "Katon: Housenka no Jutsu!"
He hardly noticed the burn as he shot a rain of fireballs from his mouth in all directions. From the clearing smoke below, he heard the familiar pop of vanishing clones.
But the satisfaction didn't last; out of nowhere, a cloaked pair of arms shot around him from behind, pinning his arms to his sides. In front of him, another mirror of his brother leapt into the air, hands positioned in the Bird seal again. Sasuke gritted his teeth. Not this time.
With a growl of effort, he pitched forward in the air, turning both himself and the clone upside-down just in time to use the clone as a shield against the jutsu. Just as the clone vanished, though, a blast of air stopped his breath for a moment, just like when the battle had begun.
Sasuke cursed under his breath. A third clone had done it, striking while he was distracted with the first two.
Suddenly his heart started hammering against his ribs, an inexplicable terror seizing his lungs. He landed hard on the ground, his mind reeling, and looked up just in time for his Sharingan to show him just what had happened: it was a targeted wind jutsu. And it was laced with something he couldn't identify.
He swallowed hard, cold sweat beading on his forehead. Was he being drugged?
An alarm went off in his mind, and he just managed to roll out of the way before another clone struck the ground in a kick powerful enough to make it crack, then leapt back in time to throw his arms up in a block. They were all around him now, preventing any form of escape.
It took pure force of will for Sasuke to make his hands stop shaking enough to form the seals to create two clones of his own, then left them to perform a back-to-back Goukakyuu no Jutsu while he leapt out of the circle, thrusting his hand into his hip pouch and pulling out a roll of wire. Coming to land on the wall, he pulled out the windmill shuriken he carried on his back and connected it to the wire in a single motion.
From his vantage point, it looked like his own clones had already been taken out, but had taken a number of his opponent's clones down with them. Swallowing the unnatural panic that was making it hard to focus, he let the windmill shuriken fly directly across the arena. All of the clones in its path easily dodged, which was fine-they were exactly where he wanted them.
Gripping the wire tight, Sasuke shot from his position, sprinting across the wall while a volley of blades flew in his wake. Small bursts of fire against his arms and back told him that not all of them were missing their target, but he kept his eyes forward. Finally, when he had circled the arena at least twice, he abandoned his path and pushed himself into the air, pulling the wire taut and holding it in his teeth while he conjured a fire jutsu with his hands. Down below, the tightened wire had successfully trapped a good number of the clones against each other - perfect. He breathed in, then blew out, and a line of flames shot down the wire and engulfed the trapped clones in a spectacular blaze that Sasuke could feel even from his position in the air.
He didn't even sense the presence rising behind him until his back had slammed into the ground, stars exploding in front of his eyes. In the next second, something came down hard on his stomach, sending blood up his throat and out his mouth. No…!
His arms flew up to catch the next kick before it could make contact. The other clones landed all around him from where they had dodged the wire trap; ten left. The one on top of him leapt back, and Sasuke jumped back to his feet just in time to be thrown back against the arena wall, pale fingers squeezing his throat while they held him there, his feet barely touching the ground. (Just like before NO, not like before, this isn't him--)
Just as his lungs began to panic, Sasuke tore a kunai out of its holster and stabbed it into the clone's arm. It vanished - but in the same moment, a third burst of air hit him from the side, just in time for him to gasp it into his burning lungs. His eyes widened when he realized his mistake.
But it was too late. Whatever she'd put into the wind jutsu acted immediately, hitting him so hard this time that he staggered back against the wall, one hand flying to his chest; this was wrong, it was too much, his heart was beating too fast--
It was the abnormal terror pumping through him that propelled him to dodge a strike to the face, but he couldn't make himself attack the clone back. At the sight of the rapidly-spinning mangekyou in his brother's eyes, his body wanted nothing more than to run away.
The clone grabbed him by the throat while he was still fear-frozen and threw him into the center of the arena, and he had to bite down hard on his tongue to keep from screaming as the icy dread twisted the nine images of his brother into nightmarish phantoms that were all too real. I can't do this, not against him--
Then there were bruising, breaking strikes coming from all sides, and his face kept appearing before his eyes, and he couldn't breathe through the panic that was making him claustrophobic - he had to get out, he had to, or…
A shameful, terrified sound escaped his throat, and he launched into the air in a last attempt to get away. Some of the clones immediately followed him, while the rest stayed on the ground, just waiting, waiting to--
His thoughts quieted when his frantically searching gaze came to rest on the arena's balcony. On a pair of wide brown eyes that managed to calm him even now.
Suddenly his mind sprang into motion, and he whipped his head around to take in the positions of the clones - some in the air, some on the ground, God, he could…
It was a last hope. And he clung to it.
Still suspended in the air, with pale specters of his past closing in all around him, and under the eyes of the only people in his life who mattered, he arched his back until his feet were pointed toward the sky. The last of his kunai found their way into his hands, and he fanned them out between his fingers, letting them flash in the light before he allowed his eyes to slip shut.
("If all you care about is the center of that target, then you won't get any farther than you are now.")
He let three blades fly.
("Even if you do succeed in getting revenge, the only thing that remains is emptiness.")
His body twisted, and he sent out another three. His hands reached for his last two kunai.
("I'm sick of you trying to pretend you're not one of us anymore!")
It felt different this time, letting them go. Something had changed, something that had nothing to do with the drug that was making him breathe too fast.
His feet touched down in complete silence, punctuated only by the eight pops of the defeated clones, and the world started turning again. Sasuke opened his eyes and lifted his head, looking around. All that remained of the clones were eight clearing clouds of smoke.
He had done it.
But as he thought about it, his face pulled into a frown. Eight…but…that means the real one is--
The ground crumbled at his feet, and blind terror gripped in Sasuke's chest when the last figure rose up like a vengeful ghost, the kunai glinting in its hand as it lunged for its prey. Sasuke's hand automatically flew to his own kunai holster, though he knew beyond doubt that it would be empty--
His fingers closed around steel.
In the time it took for Sasuke's heart to drop a beat at the realization, he had grasped whatever miraculous weapon he had been given and shot his arm up in front of him, sending out a shower of sparks as metal ground against metal. His brother's face twisted with rage, an expression Sasuke had never seen there before.
Because it wasn't real.
It was that knowledge alone that gave Sasuke the strength to ignore the cold sweat still pouring down his skin, and the way his chest was screaming at him from the drug speeding his pulse enough to make him dizzy and nauseous, and the lump that rose again in his throat with the illusion of being so close to the one man he hated and feared most. It was that knowledge that empowered him to reverse their positions through brute strength alone, slamming his opponent's back against the ground and sending their kunai flying from their hand with a quick circular motion.
And it was that knowledge that stilled his hand at his opponent's throat, when he recognized the tiny Uchiha fan engraved on the handle of his blade.
The arena had fallen deathly silent. With every fiber of his being, Sasuke desired no more at that moment than to add just a little more pressure to the blade across the impostor's throat, letting her life be snuffed out for what she had done. He could do it. Both of them knew it; his brother's body had frozen, utterly trapped, fear brightening the bloodred eyes and turning his face into that of a stranger.
Sasuke's hand shook. It would be so easy.
Instead, he looked straight into the eyes that made it even harder to breathe. "Break the genjutsu," he said through clenched teeth. Thin eyebrows drew together, and the body below him tensed in preparation for an escape attempt. Sasuke put a stop to it before it could begin by pressing down just a little harder with the blade, drawing blood from just under the skin. "Break it!" he barked, and this time he received only a murderous glare before his opponent obeyed.
Uchiha Itachi's raven hair and crimson eyes faded to silver and gray, and Akumune Seiko stared back at him, unsure how far he planned to go.
God, it would be so easy…
Sasuke swallowed hard, forcing himself to focus through the effects of the drug she'd given him, and kept the blade where it was. "Now give up."
Her eyes widened, and his Sharingan showed him the struggle behind them, the impulse to refuse, and then the realization that there was no other option.
They showed him the utter hatred she felt when she spoke the words, just loud enough for the examiner to hear. The jounin asked no questions; he only turned toward the stands.
"Akumune Seiko has forfeited the match. Winner: Uchiha Sasuke, of Konohagakure!"
It took a painful amount of effort to make himself stand, finally releasing the kunoichi. He didn't look at her when she got to her feet and left the arena. The effect of the drug hadn't stopped with her genjutsu, and the world had started to spin again, making his stomach roil dangerously - too dangerously, he realized, and vanished from under the medics' hands, bursting through the nearest washroom door and all but throwing himself into one of the stalls just in time for his stomach to heave.
Now that the adrenaline of battle was waning, whatever was in his system was being allowed to work at its full potency, making unjustifiable tears sting the backs of his eyes while his heart kept pounding so fast that he wondered if too much of that drug could trigger a heart attack. For what felt like a long time, he just stayed in the stall, clutching the bowl with hands that wouldn't stop shaking, and tried to breathe, though he only succeeded in shuddering gasps.
He forced himself to stand up again when he felt too much time had passed, flushing the toilet and leaving the stall to at least get some water down his throat. When he stepped out, he was both surprised and not surprised to see Kakashi-sensei standing there, offering him his canteen and a palm-sized vial of something else.
Sasuke looked at the vial, then at his teacher. "What is it?" he asked between still-quivering breaths.
"It should help," was his only reply.
Sasuke eyed him a little longer, but accepted, forcing his hands to be still long enough to down it in one shot. Immediately he grimaced at the taste, fighting another gag-reflex, and snatched his canteen from his sensei's outstretched hand.
"It would seem your opponent subjected you to a bit of an overdose," Kakashi-sensei commented while Sasuke drank down half the water in his canteen at once. "An effective drug, but a dangerous one. Her teammate said it stimulates the body's response to fear."
Sasuke finally pulled the canteen from his lips, already breathing a little easier, and nodded. "I guessed."
"I'm sure you did." His sensei leaned back against the counter while Sasuke shakily splashed some water on his face. "But you handled it very well," he went on. Sasuke paused. "It's a drug sometimes used in interrogation rooms, and I've seen more than one chuunin officer crack after only two doses. That you could focus enough to successfully finish a battle-without any unnecessary killing, no less-is very impressive."
Sasuke kept his eyes downward and let the water run, silently amazed at how his teacher always seemed to know exactly what was in his mind and, more and more often, how to cure it.
"Now, now," Kakashi-sensei chided after a moment, reaching around Sasuke to turn off the faucet. "This is a desert village, Sasuke. No need to waste water. And you can stop thanking me for the compliment now, really, it's embarrassing."
Sasuke rolled his eyes, finally feeling a little more like himself as Kakashi-sensei fondly planted a hand on top of his head just to see him cringe. "Well!" his teacher said cheerfully. "You seem to be feeling better, so shall we?" Sasuke nodded, indignantly straightening out his hair before letting his sensei transport the both of them back up to the balcony.
They arrived in a flurry of wind and leaves, and Sasuke just had time to hear his name before there was a flash of pink hair and a pair of arms throwing themselves around his neck. He was only knocked off balance for a second before connecting that it was Sakura - who had been carefully avoiding his gaze ever since that day at the hospital - and let himself relax a little.
Over her shoulder, his eyes locked with blue for a moment before she let go and stepped back, leaving him to face the one person he hadn't been able to truly face since the day he was brought back.
At length, Naruto grunted and crossed his arms. "That was stupid," he declared. "You were so scared that you didn't even use Chidori! And she didn't use half as many clones as I did!"
Sasuke watched him carefully for a moment. Then he scoffed, shoving his hands into his pockets. "Like you could have done better," he muttered. "You would have been crying like a baby, moron."
Naruto's eyes widened. Then a smile played at his lips for just a second before he thrust an arm out to point at Sasuke. "Yeah, right! I would have beaten that girl before she could even use her stupid jutsu, and you know it!"
"How, by talking her to death?"
"Wha--you--hey! Where do you think you're going?"
Sasuke had already turned from his team, and tossed back over his shoulder, "I have to return something."
He reached Team Gai's place on the balcony in a few steps, gripping the kunai in his pocket. An unreadable glance from Hyuuga was his first greeting, quickly followed by a hearty congratulations from Rock Lee, and it was the latter that caught the attention of his reason for being there in the first place.
It only took a moment for Tenten's eyes to widen. "Sasuke…"
Then he was nearly stumbling backwards when she pushed away from the railing and threw her arms around him, pulling him close in the first hug she had ever given him. "You were amazing," she murmured into his shoulder, and something quivered in him, like and unlike what the drug had done to him. Of their own accord, his arms drifted up to hesitantly return the embrace; then they grew bolder, his fingers closing around the fabric of her shirt, just like they had the morning he had awakened at her side. That strange feeling of safety came back to him as though her touch had summoned it, and against his better judgement he let himself cling to her for just a moment, his eyes slipping shut.
Then the moment had passed, and she had stepped back while Hyuuga Neji looked between them with a strange expression on his face. Clearing his throat, Sasuke pulled out the rusted kunai and offered it to her, handle-out. "I just came to give this back."
Tenten looked between him and the kunai with eyes that were suddenly unreadable. Then she reached out and gently pushed his hand back. "It's yours, Sasuke."
He opened his mouth to protest, but she had already turned her focus to the examiner below, who was explaining the procedure for awarding Chuunin ranks and vests. Sasuke frowned at her, then at the blade in his hand, the blade that had saved and nearly destroyed them both.
He didn't put it away again, but kept it gripped loosely in his hand. Just for now.
"So we have to wait a whole week to find out who made Chuunin?!"
"Not so loud, Naruto!"
"Naruto-kun, I too find it highly unfavorable, but we must view it as a test of our patience and ability to restrain our youthful anticipation! Right, Gai-sensei?"
"Indeed! I could not have stated it more eloquently myself!"
"Lee, not now…"
Tenten groaned sleepily at the conversation that seemed to have pulled her from a surprisingly restful slumber - at least considering that she was crammed in a transport back to Konoha with both her team and Sasuke's - and attempted to bury her face against whatever she was resting her head on, determined to stay asleep.
Her eyes popped open, though, when the thing pillowing her head shifted a little under her, all by itself.
"Ah! Forgive me, Tenten, I did not mean to disturb you!" Lee cried from her other side, but she waved a dismissive hand, rubbing her eyes as she straightened up to see just whose space she'd been invading.
"Oh--sorry," she murmured to Neji, heat rising to her face. "You could have moved me if you wanted…" But he only shook his head, keeping his gaze directed out the transport's one small window. She followed it, and was surprised to find a stream of sunlight coming through; she was sure it had been dark when she'd fallen asleep. "Where are we?" she asked, her voice still crackling from sleep.
"Almost halfway," Neji replied, and she groaned again, digging her fingers through her bangs.
"Did I miss anything?" she asked mid-yawn, and Neji sent a sidelong glance toward where Lee and Naruto had gotten into another animated conversation - this time concerning New Year's plans, as they were to arrive in Konoha roughly on the morning of New Year's Eve - while Gai-sensei jumped in here and there and Sakura clapped a hand over her face in surrender.
"Nothing worth mentioning," he muttered.
Tenten couldn't help but grin at the scene. Her eyes traveled over the two teams - over Neji and Lee, alive and strong, and Naruto in higher spirits than ever, and Sakura, who had grown more in two months than anyone had imagined.
The grin softened a little. Sasuke seemed to have had the same idea as herself: he was dead to the world now, his breathing soft and slow, tipped a little against his sensei and completely undisturbed by the noise from Naruto and Lee. Lucky, she thought wryly, but couldn't bring herself to hold it against him.
"After the finals…" Tenten turned to find that Neji's eyebrows had lowered a little, his gaze lingering on Sasuke before returning to her. "What was it that he tried to give you? That kunai?"
"Oh…well, that…ah…" Tenten bit her lip in thought, unsure if she was capable of explaining the real significance of the blade without somehow betraying Sasuke's trust. She didn't know what made her think that, but it was there nonetheless. "…It's more complicated than this," she said finally, resisting the urge to look at her feet and instead making herself meet his eyes, "but…well…it was the kunai."
There was a brief, uncomprehending silence while she allowed Neji to read her expression. She knew he had found her meaning when the furrow of his brow deepened. "You mean the kunai he used when…" She nodded to confirm it, automatically crossing her arms over her stomach again, a habit she hadn't quite managed to break. Neji eyed the movement, then her. "Why did he have it?"
"Because I gave it to him."
"Because I thought he might need it," she said simply. "And he did, didn't he?"
"That isn't the point."
"There's a point?" Neji shot her an irritated look, which she mocked right back at him. "Don't worry about it, Neji. Really. I won a battle in the Chuunin Exam final tournament, didn't I?" she added, nudging him with her elbow. "I think I proved I can take care of myself."
Neji only grunted back at her, seeing that she didn't plan on cooperating. "You haven't mentioned the part where you passed out for twenty hours as soon as we boarded this transport."
"I did not!" He looked at her in deadpan silence, and she found herself sinking a little. "…Twenty? Really?"
He nodded. She winced. "That's embarrassing…I hope your arm didn't go numb or anything…"
"I stopped noticing eventually."
Tenten gasped, sitting bolt upright. "You mean it did? Neji, you didn't have to…" But she cut herself off at the sight of a smirk playing at his lips. The alarm in her face quickly morphed to spite, and she smacked him in the arm - provoking a small huff of amusement - before slumping back in her seat. "Jerk."
"What about you, Tenten?" Lee piped up to her left, and she sent him a blank look, having completely tuned out the other conversation going on. "Will you join Gai-sensei and myself in a celebratory fifty laps around Konoha for the first dawn of the new year?!"
He looked absolutely enthralled by the idea. Tenten forced an apologetic smile and hoped it didn't look like a grimace. "Ah…sorry, I wish I could, but unfortunately I already have plans." She shrugged. "Maybe next year?"
"Ah, I see! And you, Neji?"
"Family function," he said without batting an eye. "Required."
"Ah, well!" Gai-sensei burst in from Lee's other side. "It looks like it will just be you and me, and the brilliance of the Konoha sunrise!"
"I can hardly wait!"
Tenten sighed, shaking her head while Lee tried to drag Naruto and Sakura into their plans, their sensei chortling behind his book and pretending not to notice. She didn't really feel bad for lying - she knew Lee and Gai-sensei would enjoy themselves just fine if she wasn't there - but she also knew that Neji had been telling the truth, having spent his New Year's Eves at the Hyuuga estate even while he was in the Academy. Looks like it's going to be another quiet New Year…
But that was all right. She would be spending the next full day and a half with the people she cared about, after all.
"Sakura-san! Before my courage fails me - I would be most honored if you would accompany me to the New Year's Festival, that we may experience the joy of a new beginning side-by-side!"
"Wha--hey! No way, Fuzzy-Brows, Sakura-chan is going with me to the festival, so back off!"
"Who said I was going with either of you?"
"Ah, the blooming radiance of young love!"
Whether she liked it or not.
It was a quiet, nameless hour of New Year's morning, and for the first time in four months, Uchiha Sasuke was alone.
The unexpected freedom had come at him so fast that he hadn't had time to prepare for it; following Kakashi-sensei had almost become second nature by now. It had thrown him off balance, for his teacher to put his trust in him so suddenly. ("Come now, I'm sure you have better things to do than spend New Year's with old fogies like me." A blank stare, answered by a much more meaningful gaze. "I'm sure you know what will happen if you get into any trouble." Realization that he's actually serious; a far too cheerful expression. "Well then, that takes care of that! Eight a.m. curfew, just for the holiday. Now, if you don't mind, I have to hide now.")
He had vanished just in time for Tenten's sensei to appear and ask after him, to which Sasuke could honestly say he didn't know.
And then he was on his own.
He must have stood there for a full two minutes before finally looking around and, for the first time in what felt like forever, deciding where he wanted to go.
Eventually he settled on going home first, just as a matter of course. A not-so-thin layer of dust had accumulated over the furniture in his absence, leaving the pads of his fingers a solid gray when he absently righted the team photo next to his bed. From there, he had wandered through the rooms he hadn't already closed off, not really sure just what he'd planned to accomplish.
In the end, the only thing he did there - at least, the only thing he felt was worth anything - was to come across the kunai Tenten had returned to him, turn it over in his hands for a long while, and then finally lay it down right next to the picture of his team. It wasn't made to see any more battles.
And it would remind him.
At length, he had left and taken to the rooftops. Usually the mechanical motions of crossing the village that way helped him to clear his mind.
But it was cold outside, and his mind was already fairly clear, if aimless. Finally he had stopped atop a tall apartment complex just to think, and silently acknowledged that he had no idea what to do with himself.
Fortune, it seemed, decided to answer that for him.
"Sasuke?" Blinking to attention, Sasuke followed the voice to see that, of all people, Tenten had poked her head out of a top-floor window. She looked just as surprised to see him as he was to see her. "What are you doing up there?"
"What are you doing?"
She lifted an amused eyebrow at him. "I live here. What's your excuse?"
He didn't have one, so he just muttered something about boredom. It wasn't exactly a lie, but Tenten eyed him as though it was, then frowned and swept her gaze over the surrounding rooftops. "…Are you alone?"
Sasuke stared at her for a second before realizing that she hadn't seen him without Kakashi-sensei nearby in almost four months. He nodded, and her face lit up. "Sasuke, that's great!" Then she paused, seeming to come to her own realization. "Oh--but I bet you want to be by yourself for a while, since you couldn't for so long, don't you…I can pretend I didn't see you, if you want?"
The complete sincerity in her suggestion made the corner of Sasuke's mouth twitch up, and he shook his head. "It's fine."
"Are you sure?"
He nodded. If Tenten had a reaction, it was cut off by a shrill whistling sound from inside her apartment, prompting her to take a glance in before leaning out again.
"Well, I've got some tea on the stove, if you want some," she offered. "It's freezing out here."
Sasuke only considered for a moment before accepting the invitation, dropping down to the windowsill after she'd stepped back. "It isn't that cold."
"Easy to say for the guy who breathes fire."
Sasuke couldn't suppress a smirk as he finished climbing in, but it faltered a little when he took a glance around.
Suddenly he wasn't sure how he felt about the fact that she had seen his place first; her entire apartment was easily the size of his bedroom. Even Naruto's apartment was bigger than this.
"Sit down wherever you want," Tenten said, shutting the window behind him and taking his discarded shoes to the doorway before he could do it himself. "Sorry it's a mess, I haven't really unpacked yet…"
It wasn't a mess. In fact, the more he looked around, the more strangely inviting her tiny apartment seemed. With decorative weapons mounted on the walls, an old poster of Tsunade-sama above her futon, and a hopelessly scribbled-upon calendar - looking closer, he saw that she'd been marking her training schedule with either a blue 'N,' a red 'S,' or the occasional green 'L' in the corner of every other day - he would have known who this place belonged to even if he hadn't seen her.
"Here," Tenten said, interrupting his observations by setting a steaming cup in front of him. "I hope green tea is okay. I'm trying to stay awake for sunup." He nodded, and they lapsed into a strangely comfortable silence. (Sasuke decided not to admit that he may have been colder than he thought, and that the hot drink felt like it was bringing him back from the dead.)
"So," Tenten piped up again after a moment, "what did you guys do at the festival?"
Sasuke rolled his eyes. "Watched Naruto get himself drunk off the ceremonial sake."
Tenten narrowly avoided spitting out a mouthful of tea when a laugh bubbled out of her. "Lee tried to get some too, 'for the sake of tradition,'" she said, doing a frighteningly accurate impression of her teammate before shaking her head. "Neji and I had to tackle him and sit on him." Sasuke snorted, and she went on, "And then, right before midnight, Gai-sensei decided he had to find your sensei to challenge him at…I don't even remember what it was, but he ran off, then Lee ran off after him, and that's the last I saw of them. Where is Kakashi-sensei, anyway?"
"Hiding." She chuckled, and he tried not to be bothered by the fact that she didn't continue the story through midnight, while she and her last remaining teammate had been alone. "I don't know where he went."
"That's probably better for everyone," she assured him, and he lifted his cup in agreement.
They finished their drinks slowly, talking in short bursts and falling into easy silences, more to while away the time and keep each other awake than anything else. By the time Sasuke had finally reached the bottom of his cup, a glance at the alarm clock by her futon told him that it was later than he'd thought. Dawn would be coming soon.
When Tenten saw the time for herself, she immediately decided that it was late enough to go to the roof and wait, but he had hardly gotten up when she stopped him. "Ah--hold on a second." He obeyed - it was her apartment, after all - and leaned back on the wall, idly taking in the mediocre view from the window while she rifled through some of her things. "Here," she finally said.
He just had time to look up before a blanket was thrown over his head, blinding him for a second. By the time he had batted his way out from under it, Tenten was already opening the window, and she glanced back long enough for him to glare at her. "I said I wasn't cold."
"Say whatever you want. You're in short sleeves!"
Sasuke blinked for a second, overwhelmed by a memory of his mother telling him the same thing when he was still proudly wielding his wooden practice kunai, so consumed with running after his brother to the training grounds that he'd neglected to grab a jacket. But the strangest part was that the memory didn't darken his spirits as thoughts of his childhood usually did; the ache was still there, but it wasn't a good or bad memory. It just was. It had been a long time since he'd had a memory like that.
"Tch." Outwardly, he only made a point of tossing the blanket back at her, though she caught it before she could get lost under it like he did.
"Fine," she said after shooting him a look. "See if I care when you don't show up for training for a week because you've got pneumonia."
"Are you going up there or not?"
"We'd be up there already if you weren't being such a baby."
"Then why are you the one still arguing about it?"
"You--" Finally Tenten let out her breath in aggravation, throwing the window open so hard that the glass shook. Just before she disappeared through it, Sasuke had to fling his hands up to keep from being hit in the face with the blanket again. "Brat."
Sasuke only tossed it aside, then followed her with a satisfied smirk on his face.
The stars were completely covered by clouds when he joined Tenten back on the roof, the sky graying with the approach of dawn. She had already settled on the edge of the building, sitting a little boyishly, with one knee pulled to her chest while the other one dangled over the edge. She eyed his still-bare arms when he sat down.
"Hm, those aren't goosebumps I'm seeing, are they, Uchiha-san?"
She finally cracked then, a quiet laugh finding its way out of her, and her mock annoyance with him vanished. Sasuke watched from the corner of his eye as she turned her gaze to the horizon and seemed to lose herself in thought for a little while.
It was…strange, he thought, how much everything had changed and somehow stayed the same. The first time he had spoken to Tenten, it had been because she had reminded him of Itachi. Then his mother, then his father, and then…
He could still see them in her now. He had seen this expression on his mother sometimes as a child, when he was just starting to realize that parents could have secrets, and wondered what she was seeing; like his father, she had a strange silence around her right now, a silence that spoke of possibility, of a future that no one else could see.
"Sasuke, do you think you made it?"
He pulled away from the thought. "Made what?"
"Chuunin," she said, looking at him as though amazed that he thought she could be talking about anything else. "I know we don't technically find out until later this week, but I want to know what you think."
Thinking about it, Sasuke found he honestly had no idea, and told her as much in a shrug. "They only picked one last year."
"But last year was such a fiasco, though, remember?"
Sasuke stifled the urge to slip his fingers over his curse seal. "I remember."
She looked at him as if expecting him to say more, but when he didn't, she let him keep his silence. Instead of asking, she looked out over the tops of the buildings, pulling her leg up to warm her hands under her knees. "I think you will," she said softly.
Sasuke didn't move, unsure how to respond to the unexpected show of faith, until a trace of light caught his eye, prompting him to look up. On the horizon, the first rays of sunlight had begun to spread above the skyline.
Tenten noticed it a second after he did, her eyes immediately brightening while the almost-somber mood of a moment before seemed to be carried away by the wind. "Here we go," she said, grinning. "Got a wish?"
Sasuke snorted and shook his head. "You actually do that?"
The rising sun captured her attention again before they could get into any sort of debate, and Sasuke rolled his eyes, looking at it again for lack of anything more interesting to watch. Better not to press the subject, anyway; he didn't feel like lying about how he really had followed the tradition for his whole life. But it had lost the childhood magic it had once possessed. That was mostly due to the fact that ever since he was eight years old, he had always made the same wish.
This year, he made two.
He didn't notice that he had closed his eyes until a surprised sound from Tenten made him open them again. It took him a second to see what she was looking at. It was only when a touch of cold wetness landed on his forehead that he realized that the gathering clouds had finally opened up, releasing tiny flakes of snow.
"You know, there's another thing they say about New Year's," Tenten said, seemingly mystified by the whirling snowflakes. "That if it snows at dawn, a spirit heard your wish."
After a second, she lowered her eyes with a self-deprecating smile. "But I guess you wouldn't believe in that one either, huh…"
(Half-lost in a sea of drifting white, while confusion creeps at the sight of the family elders giving praise. "Niisan, what are they doing?"
Cool hands lifting him higher, to better see the sunrise. "It's a superstition. They believe the gods will grant them what they prayed for, and they're thanking them for it."
Turning and turning it over in his mind. "…Are they going to grant what you prayed for, too?"
He breathes, and says nothing.)
The rays of the rising sun were beginning to part the clouds, creating pale beams that turned the falling snow into a mirror of the fading stars.
His answer came out as though it were a released breath. "…I don't know."
Tenten looked at him for a long while, then smiled a little, and it felt like she had touched him even though her hands were still clasped under her knees. "Liar," she said softly, and the ghost of a grin touched his lips.
They were silent after that, letting the morning open up around them while the reflections of a thousand tomorrows glinted in the falling snow.
She didn't look away when he met her gaze, his face briefly obscured by the blowing sand. "…What?"
She smiled a little, then shook her head. "Nothing."
It was a lie, and she suspected he knew it, but it would be all right to let him wonder. She didn't want to frighten away the person he was right now, the person he was still working so hard to become, by answering that she had just seen something in him that she had never seen there before. It had come through for just a moment, when his eyes were closed, his face turned toward the sky.
For no reason and every reason, she reached over and ruffled his hair without looking at him, making him flinch, shoot her a look, then roll his eyes without questioning her. She didn't mind. Because no matter what tomorrow would bring, she could hold on to that image, knowing exactly what she had witnessed, peering through from someplace that no one could really name:
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