Sasuke took his time gathering his kunai, each collected blade flashing in the late afternoon sun. Tenten bit her lip as she stretched out her arms, trying to ignore the tightness in the shoulder she'd twisted that morning. I must be out of my mind.

Though it was obvious to her that Sasuke had been practicing with the targets for some time, he wasn't showing fatigue at all. Even the simple act of bending to pick up a kunai was performed with absolute control, wasting no movement. It was the way that Neji moved.

After two years on his team, Tenten still couldn't boast a single win against Neji.

But just as quickly as she'd had the thought, she stopped herself, an ironic smirk touching her lips. "I'm not Hyuuga." Maybe this guy had her pegged a little more accurately than she'd thought.

Another moment, and Sasuke was standing before her again, the rays of the lowering sun making him little more than a silhouette to her eyes. He was ready.

The wind picked up, sending a swirl of leaves between them and blowing their hair into their eyes, and held strong for a moment before dying down. Only one remaining leaf danced on the air in a downward spiral when the breeze had passed, finally landing in a feather-touch against the grass.

Sasuke vanished. Tenten braced herself.

They had begun.

Chapter 3: Covenant

When she blinked again, she was surrounded. Ten dark eyes zeroed in on her. Bunshin.

Quickly she shot into the air, just avoiding five kunai from the Sasuke clones, leaving them to collide below her with a piercing clang, and pitched out five of her own before her feet touched the ground. All five Sasukes vanished in a curl of smoke the moment they were struck. Tenten frowned; that meant none of them were--

Gasping, Tenten whirled around just in time to parry a blow from the real Sasuke, quickly matching his force. Sasuke's eyes widened, and Tenten smirked. "I'm not Haruno."

She took advantage of his reaction - though she couldn't quite say what it was - to muscle him off balance and break out of their stalemate, flipping gracefully over his head. Forced into improvisation, Sasuke put his weight on his hands and kicked her feet out from under her before she landed, a solid kick between the shoulderblades knocking the air out of her lungs.

Panic flashed through her with the fleeting memory of the moment her back hit Temari's fan. Just as quickly, she shook it off. Not this time.

Then she looked up. Her stomach dropped. "Oh--"

Her next words were lost in the roar of flames.

Sasuke swallowed down the familiar burning sensation in his throat, and an inhale of fresh air was like ice to his lungs. He hadn't planned to use any clan techniques in this battle.

As the smoke cleared, Sasuke lowered into his stance once more. She'd been surprising so far, and though he highly doubted that she could have blocked it, he was finding that he wouldn't put it past her. He was ready for a barrage of kunai to fly from the cloud at any moment.

When he could finally see, his mind barely had time to register the sight of a scorched log where Tenten would have been.

Then a burnt arm with a bandaged hand shot around his chest from behind, and he gave an inward curse, his hand flying to grasp her wrist. But cold steel at his neck made him give pause.

He could almost hear the smirk in her voice against his ear. "Match."

"Not yet."

He pitched his weight forward as he said it, wrenching her arm away from him, and sent them both into a flip that ended with the full weight of his body slamming her into the ground. Her hold on him slackened, and he broke free, quickly getting some distance. The flutter of a scroll was the only precursor to the rain of weapons that shot after him, slashing across his arms and legs in spite of his attempt to block.

That's right. She didn't miss.

That meant this distance was no good. If he was going to win this fight, he would have to stay close. She was fast, but if he could get in a few more hard hits-

He was taking too long. Another steel barrage shot toward him; he had to think fast. Where couldn't she hit him?

His eyes sparked. That's it.

Tenten blinked when her second wave hit nothing but air, then looked around, annoyed. This would be done so much more quickly if he would quit popping in and out of sight like that…

But as the seconds passed, her annoyance slowly froze into suspicion. This was a pretty open area, with few places to hide, if any…there were no perches above, and the clearing seemed to be empty but for herself. That would mean he could only be--

Her eyes widened a moment too late. Below!

The ground crumbled beneath her, and she only caught a glimpse of dark hair before Sasuke's fist connected with her jaw. The force snapped her head back and took her feet off the ground, stars bursting in front of her eyes. The tang of blood in her mouth told her that she'd bitten her tongue. She hit the ground hard, unable to suppress a yelp when the impact jarred her bad shoulder.

But then Sasuke was on her again. He wasn't taking his time anymore. In a small panic, Tenten launched sloppily off the ground, shaking her head to still its spinning. Sasuke followed her. Gravity lost all meaning as they began to exchange blows in rapid succession, pushing each other higher and higher into the sky. Tenten caught another kick to the temple, but simultaneously felt her fist connect with his stomach; a shuriken slicing her cheek was returned with a kunai across his. She couldn't remember the last time her heart had beat so hard or so fast. If she didn't remember to breathe soon, it would be her own undoing.

She almost didn't hear the telltale whistling of steel against the air.

Sasuke recognized the noise at the same moment, and his eyes widened; as one, he and Tenten quickly pushed off each other, separating just in time for a windmill shuriken to cut through the air between them.

Gravity chose that moment to assert control, and the two of them crashed to the ground in a less-than-graceful fashion. But the adrenaline of the battle hadn't slowed. Almost before he fully had his feet, Sasuke began to shoot toward her again, even as she did the same.

What he hadn't counted on was the hand that came from nowhere and caught him by the back of his collar, halting his progress completely and lifting him off his feet, eliciting a shout of surprise. A split-second later, Tenten let out a shriek as she too was seized by the shirt-collar and lifted into the air.

"Not that this hasn't been impressive," their captor drawled, exhaling smoke into the air, "but your time here is up."

"Asuma-sensei!" a shrill voice cut through. "Sasuke-kun was just about to win!"

Sarutobi Asuma held up the two genin a bit higher, provoking all manner of wriggling protests, and examined them thoughtfully. "Maybe." Seeming to forget about them for a moment, he craned his neck to look behind him. "Catch that, will you, Shikamaru?"

"Huh?--Oof!" He'd barely looked up in time to catch the windmill shuriken that his sensei had thrown to stop the battle. "Geez…"

Chuckling, Asuma returned his attention to his charges, looking between them good-naturedly. "You guys cooled off now?"

Blinking, Sasuke found that surprisingly, he was. The adrenaline had waned with the interruption. Looking across, he saw Tenten give Asuma a single nod, still breathing hard. He was still breathing hard. Only now was his pulse starting to abandon its frenzy and return to its normal pace.

Seeming to be satisfied, Asuma finally set them back down, allowing them to hastily straighten their clothes. "Our team gets this area from seven to ten. Move it somewhere else, alright?"

"We will," Tenten answered for them both, bowing politely. "We're sorry to cut into your training time."

"No problem." Heading back to retrieve his windmill shuriken, Asuma jerked his thumb toward the grounds. "All right, guys. Let's go."

"Can we get barbecue afterwards?"

"Chouji, put down that bag of chips before you ask about dinner…"

"Sasuke-kun!" Sasuke grimaced when Ino all but tackled him from behind, draping herself over his shoulders. "You know, you can train with my team whenever you want."

"Ino, give the kid a break." Sasuke narrowly avoided getting slapped by her hair when she whipped her head around to glare at her sensei. From the corner of his eye, he caught Tenten stifling a sympathetic laugh while she rolled up her summoning scroll.

Once he'd managed to shrug Ino off of him, Sasuke rejoined Tenten to head out of the grounds, leaving Asuma's team to talk among themselves. Just before they were out of hearing range, a murmured comment from Chouji reached his ears.

"Hey, Shikamaru, since when is that girl any good?"

Next to him, Tenten paused for only a moment, then turned her eyes toward the ground and kept walking. Frowning, Sasuke listened a bit more intently, slowing his step.

"How should I know?"

"I dunno. You knew she'd lose at the Chuunin Exams."

"It was obvious then."

"Chouji, Shikamaru. You can gossip like old ladies after you've hit sixty-six percent accuracy."



After that, he couldn't hear any more.

"Your aim was better that time." His eyes snapped forward, and he found that Tenten had waited for him, her back against a tree and one hand gingerly rubbing her shoulder. When he didn't answer, she looked up, encouragement in her eyes. "Really. Still trying too hard," she added, lowering a playful eyebrow at him, "but your stance was better."

"Hm." Slipping his hands into his pockets, Sasuke leaned back against the tree opposite hers, letting his head rest against the trunk. He was tired. She was making no attempt to hide that she was as well. The sight of her suggested that she'd just lost a fight to a dragon, covered as she was in scratches and the burns she hadn't quite dodged.

Then again, a glance at himself said that he wasn't looking much better. His skin felt like it was sizzling from the countless slashes of well-placed kunai. No blade was wasted when it left her hands.

There was something wistful in her silence, her attention settling on what little they could see of the practice grounds. Her eyes followed each blade toward its target with the scrutiny of an expert. After someone missed their mark for the third time, she sighed quietly, lowering her eyes again. "What?"

Sasuke blinked. Tenten grinned faintly, looking up once more. "I have a teammate who can stare at me with his back turned, Sasuke. Makes it pretty obvious when someone else does." He hadn't noticed he was looking. But he did have her attention now.

"The Chuunin Exams." She stiffened, her expression glassing over a bit, but not changing. Sasuke kept her gaze. "What happened?"

Inside, Tenten cringed. She hated it when people asked her that. Almost as much as she hated it when they didn't.

As it was, she let out her breath, looking away. "It's not important."

"If it wasn't important, they wouldn't still remember it."

"Why not?" she asked, a sideways smirk curling her lips when Sasuke realized what they were echoing. "It really isn't. I fought, I was out of my league, and I was defeated. That's all."

Never mind how the medics had said she was lucky not to be paralyzed from the blow to her spine.

Never mind how the month between the preliminaries and the final exams had been spent in physical therapy, only the last week seeing her out of the hospital and back at the training grounds.

Never mind how even Neji had pitied her enough to pretend he needed any help teaching himself the Kaiten - he had never implied such a thing, but she knew it had to be true.

And never mind how Sasuke didn't look one bit convinced that it was anything less.

"Why the sudden interest?" she asked instead, cocking her head at him. Sasuke only shrugged, looking away with practiced nonchalance.

"It's not important."

Tenten shot him a salty look, but he kept his mouth shut, looking rather pleased with himself. "Fine," she said, pushing away from her tree and trying not to wince. "Get some ointment for those cuts, smart guy, or you'll be moving like an old man tomorrow. I aim for the joints," she explained at his frown.

Sasuke stepped away from his own tree with a small affirmative grunt. "I'll keep that in mind next time."

Next time?

After a moment of staring at him, speechless, Tenten finally caught up with the moment and relaxed into a smile that she couldn't contain if she tried.

Her voice softened a bit without her telling it to. "Good match, Sasuke."

He didn't reply. The only sign that he'd even heard her was the slightest pause in his step.

But it was enough.

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