He had come to watch her two more times this week, today being his third. Each time, he would conceal himself in the brush while she went through her techniques, leaving her only after the Kouryuu Rasen was performed--always perfectly.
That's what she was doing now. The wind carried her like she was nothing, only the slight thump of her landing betraying that she weighed anything at all. Lately she had been paying special attention to the landing. She lifted her head. He turned to leave.
Standing, she wiped a bead of sweat from her face.
He paused. Her eyes settled on his silhouette, cloaked in shadow.
"Do you want me to teach you?"
Chapter 2: Contact
There were times that Sasuke wondered if Kakashi-sensei had a sixth sense. He always seemed to know just a bit more than he let on, and it wasn't uncommon to see a flash of bewilderment now and then in the face of anyone he spoke to. No matter who it was, Kakashi-sensei would manage, in very few words, to hint that he was sharing a secret with them. Sasuke had seen it happen to the best.
Today, for example.
"Sorry I'm late, I wasn't feeling well…and as I am in no condition to work extensively with you today," he'd made no real attempt to hide the newest Icha Icha book in his pocket, price sticker still attached, "you will be working individually with ranged weapons. In short - target practice."
Sasuke, who had relaxed into a comfortable daze, now rose to attention, his eyes flying up as his instructor passed him by.
He couldn't know for sure, but Sasuke could have sworn he was winked at.
So it was that Team 7 found itself faced with three distant targets, thirty prepared kunai, and one very distracted sensei. As usual, Sasuke found himself leagues ahead of his teammates, who seemed to be spending more energy complaining than working on their aim. Only once did Naruto manage a bull's-eye - on Sakura's target. Sasuke sighed.
His own target sported several more kunai than theirs combined, but it was nowhere near where it could be.
It wasn't like his targets had always been.
It wasn't like hers, either.
"Do you want me to teach you?"
He didn't look for her reaction. Silence.
"Then what are you doing here?"
The wind picked up, whipping his clothes against his skin and blowing leaves from their branches. Sasuke's eyebrows knitted, and he broke from his stillness and moved forward with the intent of making his exit.
There was just enough time for his eyes to widen at the sound of a kunai whistling in his direction before the blade shot out at his right, only to be struck by a second kunai that sent it whizzing by an inch in front of his face. The blade struck deep into the trunk of a nearby tree. Two dark strands of his hair drifted to the ground.
"When someone asks you a question," she said quietly, in a clever echo of the first words he had ever said in her presence, "you should answer it before running off."
Sasuke stood there for a moment, frozen with shock, then let out an unsteady breath he hadn't known he was holding.
Finally, he turned to face her.
Tenten blinked, and Lee's face came into focus, stark against the white walls of the hospital room. His eyebrows were knitted with concern. Tenten shook her head. "Oh - sorry. Where was I?"
Lee didn't answer for a moment, busy as he was catching a drip of ice cream with his tongue. She had made a habit of buying ice cream cones before her visits, and had been sneaking them in until one of the more observant nurses had told her it wasn't a problem. Today's order had to be the messiest bubblegum ice cream cone she had ever seen. Anyone other than Lee would have been bathing in it by now.
"The Kouryuu Rasen technique," he said finally, "and how Neji couldn't do it."
"Didn't I already tell you that part?" Lee only smiled guiltily, and she giggled. "Okay."
As she once again described the scene, spending a little extra time on the way that Neji had blushed uncontrollably with embarrassment after he'd botched the landing and been caught bridal-style by Gai-sensei, Tenten marveled at how nice it was that Lee was laughing again. For a while, she'd wondered if he ever would.
"I tried reminding him that Gai-sensei only did it to keep him from breaking his neck, but he wouldn't talk about it," Tenten finished, while Lee wiped at his eyes, taking a breath to calm his laughter.
"Ah…I'm glad you mastered it, Tenten."
She wanted to tell him that someday, he would master it too, but the words tugged at her heart before ever reaching her throat.
So instead, she swallowed them down. And she smiled.
She had to check herself to keep a triumphant smirk from reaching her lips when he emerged from his hiding place, a hint of annoyance in his face. Instead, she waited.
Sasuke quietly exhaled. "It's not important."
"If it wasn't important, you wouldn't be here."
"Why not?" He smirked. "Last week, you barely remembered my name."
Quickly she wiped her face of emotion. "I guess you just don't seem like the type to take things lightly."
He made a sound in his throat that was almost a snort. "I'm not Hyuuga."
Tenten's eyebrows lifted at the bold statement, and she crossed her arms. "Do you even know my name?" The smirk faded, and she knew that she'd won.
With a quiet sigh, she dropped her arms back to her sides, then began to evaluate her training area. "I don't mind if you watch," she said, looking him in the eye again. "That's fine, as long as you quit skulking around in there." He looked insulted for a second, and she stifled a laugh. "Let me know if you change your mind."
She turned away from him then, retrieving a few kunai with a tug on their strings and preparing to resume her practice. At her back, she heard Sasuke shift his weight, then pause.
"Tenten," he said suddenly, making her flinch, "right?"
Still standing with one hand on a stubborn kunai and her back to him, Tenten's lips curved into a smile.
Sasuke wasn't sure what had come over him.
Normally, simple techniques like these wouldn't matter, because he was already far ahead of genin-level expectations, and he had more important things to worry about. Simple techniques like these wouldn't drive him to stay here after Naruto and Sakura had gone. They wouldn't frustrate him to the point of carelessness, losing three kunai in the brush from throwing too hard and missing.
And they certainly wouldn't distract him so completely that he wouldn't notice his audience until she was three feet behind him.
Finally Sasuke pitched his current kunai downward, driving it into the ground. "What--"
He heard Tenten's breath hitch. "Nothing. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have snuck up on--"
He cut her off with a shake of his head. "What…" he repeated, eyes hidden and voice low, "…am I doing wrong?" A slight turn of his head informed him that her face was betraying surprise for the second time that day.
Then the surprise faded into a spark of understanding that made him ache somehow, and shifted into thoughtful analysis.
"…Too much force, too soon. You're rushing it. And your stance is too aggressive." He tried not to tense when she took his shoulders and turned them ever so slightly, then slipped her fingers around his wrist to adjust his positioning. "You're really tense," she muttered. "Here - it's like this."
Pulling out a kunai of her own, Tenten held it up, letting it flash in the light of the setting sun. "Here's what you're doing," she said, and reverted to the grip he'd used, showing him the movement slowly. "I've seen a lot worse, but you're making the most common mistake. You're only thinking about the destination."
"What else is there to think about?"
She smiled at him. "The journey."
Sasuke looked at her skeptically, receiving a roll of the eyes in return. Tenten shook her head. "If all you care about is the center of that target, then you won't get any farther than you are now."
For some reason, he began to get a chill.
"Here," she said, putting her kunai away and taking his wrist in her hands again (like his hands - rough, gentle, worn but so sure), taking his arm through the correct motion. "See?" she asked, a bit more quietly now that they stood closer. "You want the target to be your central focus, but not your only focus. Take in everything around you. Picture the kunai's path now, so you'll know what to watch out for. And don't tense up when you throw it; just put strength behind it, and let it go at its own pace."
Exchanging a quick look with him, Tenten tightened her grip a bit and placed her other hand between his shoulderblades to help his stance, then guided him into a throw. Their aim was true: the kunai struck the center, vibrating with the impact. Sasuke's eyes widened. Tenten smiled.
"That's what will get you where you want to be."
Sasuke's eyes remained fixed on the kunai for what felt like a long time. He couldn't suppress a flinch when Tenten let go of him, for a moment having forgotten her presence altogether. For the first time since she'd appeared, Sasuke turned to look at her directly.
It looked like she hadn't gotten home since he'd last seen her, the dry bandages stained with dirt and her hair a bit unraveled on both sides. Based on the way her hand absently massaged her shoulder to fill the suddenly awkward stillness, he could guess that she was nursing a strained muscle. That brought Sasuke down from his semi-daze, because suddenly she was human again. (Pain made her human. Did that make him inhuman? Maybe he never was…)
The prolonged silence seemed to unnerve her a little, and she shifted her weight to the foot that was farther from him, probably toward wherever she was going when she got there.
Sasuke frowned. "What are you doing here?"
She blinked innocently. "Oh…I always cut through here. It's faster to get between the hospital and my place - I was visiting Lee," she explained hastily. "It's going to be two months now since he was put in there, and he's going pretty stir-crazy. The nurses like me because I keep him from sneaking out to train himself to death."
Sasuke hummed his understanding, wondering not for the first time if it would have killed Kakashi-sensei to wait until after the preliminaries to seal up his curse. "The Sand team was dangerous from the start."
The air between them changed, grew a bit more distant. Her eyebrows knitted, following her gaze to the ground. "Yeah. They were."
She didn't seem to want to take that subject any farther, so Sasuke looked at their surroundings. It was getting dark, the birdsongs gradually quieting even as he took notice of them.
"Do you want to fight?"
Sasuke's eyes snapped back to Tenten, startled. When she met his gaze again, a lively spark had entered her eyes. "Right now. Just a quick one. You haven't used a lot of chakra today, have you?"
He slowly shook his head, but continued frowning at her. "Why?"
"What-oh, this? It's nothing serious," she said, rotating the sore shoulder a couple of times. "Besides, I've had a longer break. It's fair."
Sasuke opened his mouth to question her again, but clamped it shut as the connection suddenly became clear to him. He had mentioned the Sand team. Though neither of his teammates seemed to remember many details of Tenten's battle when they recounted it, the one thing that they agreed on was that her opponent had crushed her in minutes, and that that opponent was Temari.
Temari of the Sand.
Meeting her eyes again, Sasuke now found there what he always saw in Naruto's eyes, though she was much better at hiding it: desperation. She wanted to avenge herself against a memory. She wanted acknowledgement. And by whatever twist of fate, she wanted to be acknowledged by him.
Against a memory…
More than anything else, those words were what ran through his mind when he nodded once more.