The force of impact between Tenten's body and the ground sent the birds fleeing from their branches. If she hadn't partially blocked him, Sasuke was certain she would be coughing up blood right now.
As it was, a choked yelp escaped her throat, sounding as much annoyed as it did pained. It was only after he had a kunai, the first and only weapon produced in the spar, held securely to her throat, that Sasuke shifted to take the pressure off her stomach. Immediately Tenten gasped in as much air as her body would allow.
Sasuke waited patiently until she was pulled together enough to shoot him a glare, then responded with a triumphant smirk. "Match."
Sasuke had a feeling that Tenten wasn't going to be the only one hurting tomorrow. When her weapons were taken away, it suddenly became very clear that Hyuuga Neji hadn't been her only training partner. She performed taijutsu with the intelligence of one used to defending against it, deliberately aiming for body parts that were deceptively difficult to block.
But in the end, they both knew this wasn't her battle. She was out of her element. And impressive as it had been when she had managed to break away from the first part of his Shishi Rendan - unsurprisingly, the part that he had copied from Lee - and even reverse their positions for a moment, it had been too little, too late.
"Your chakra control is weak," he informed her, quite comfortable with staying crouched right where he was, though he did pull back the kunai.
Tenten wrinkled her nose, not bothering to try and sit up yet. "I hate chakra control…"
"Doesn't matter. It's weak."
For a second, Tenten looked like she was a heartbeat away from sticking her tongue out at him. Instead, she hastily blew her bangs out of her eyes, then propped herself up on an elbow and lightly pushed back on his shoulder. "Get up. And fix your grip."
Sasuke snorted, but obeyed both commands, too satisfied with his win to be annoyed. It had been a good battle.
Tenten pushed herself to her feet with a visible wince, then rolled her shoulders a couple of times. Her expression spoke of someone who was used to losing battles, but also used to seeing victory within her grasp. Frustrated, but not necessarily with her opponent.
"Chakra control isn't everything," she blurted indignantly after a moment, taking out the one kunai on her person - the only one either of them had allowed themselves, for the sole purpose of proclaiming a win - and absently twirling it between her fingers. Sasuke leaned against a tree, skeptically crossing his arms. Tenten rolled her eyes. "Yours isn't perfect either."
"It's better than yours."
"And my aim is better than yours. So what?"
"It didn't help you much just now."
Tenten bristled at the impish smirk he didn't really feel like suppressing, spinning her kunai into the air before catching it flawlessly. "Just wait until next time. We'll see how much your chakra control helps you then."
He didn't doubt it for a moment; luckily, she didn't have to know that. On the surface, he merely lifted up his kunai, adjusting his grip before she could call him on it.
Chapter 5: Specter
When Tenten approached the Uchiha clearing for the third time that week - the first being for the spar Sasuke had proposed, the second being for her own - the sight of him stopped her in her tracks.
She was a little late, having just come from a particularly long visit with Lee - she was thrilled that he had gotten his enthusiasm back, but after the twelfth time assuring him that her abundance of fresh bruises was from training, not enemy ninjas, she had taken the first opportunity to make her escape - and had expected to find that Sasuke had gone ahead and started practicing without her. Instead, she found him kneeling on the ground, his body completely still.
Tenten couldn't quite see his face, but even from her distance, there was an air of concentration around him. She could hear it in his silence; even his breaths seemed like afterthoughts.
Frowning, Tenten crept away from the path to get a better vantage point. What is he--
One last step answered her question. As soon as the image registered in her mind, Tenten's hand flew to her mouth. The kunai…
The kunai. The ancient one she had found in this very clearing not two weeks ago, the one she had driven into the ground in front of the broken tree. The one bearing the crest of the Uchiha clan.
Her eyes darted back to Sasuke's face, now visible, but there was nothing there. There was no glint of sorrow when he reached forward to rest his fingers on the aging metal, loosely grasping the handle, but not pulling it from the ground. No spark of anger when his thumb ran over the little engraved fan.
Tenten felt her heart tighten a bit in her chest, feeling horribly careless for leaving the kunai there. She should have tracked him down and given it to him when she'd found it instead of playing along with those stupid little ghost stories. It wasn't her place. And now he had found it, and for the life of her she couldn't read how it was affecting him. What does he see when he looks at that?
Even as the thought ran through her mind, the fog lifted a bit from his eyes, and he silently drew back his hand. Another second, and he rose to his feet, finally looking away from the kunai when the moment stretched too long.
It was only when he had gone into his usual warm-ups that Tenten deemed it safe to reveal herself, and made a point of moving as noisily as possible on entering the clearing, just for good measure. "Hey," she greeted him, easily injecting a cheerful ring into her voice.
Sasuke grunted in reply, only sparing her a quick glance. "You're late."
"Yeah…" she agreed, sheepishly scratching the back of her head. "Sorry. Lee was feeling really talkative today. He can go for ages without taking a breath when he gets excited." He dismissed her excuse with a wave of his hand, and it occurred to Tenten that he had probably heard a lot worse.
"…So," she began again, "I was thinking that maybe we could just work with the targets today."
When he didn't immediately protest, she went on. "I heard it's supposed to storm sometime tonight, and also…well."
Finally Sasuke turned, quirking an eyebrow at her. "What?"
Tenten shrugged. "I just thought you might need a day off after last time…" He shot her a halfhearted glare, and she stifled a laugh. "Quit acting tough. You've been favoring your right knee since I got here. A bo staff will do that."
"Hmph." He turned around again, showing no sign of agreement.
He didn't deny it, either.
With a last spin of her bo staff, Tenten lithely dodged a kunai's jab and thrust the staff forward, slamming it into Sasuke's chest and pinning him to a tree. "Give up?"
Shaking off a wince from the impact, Sasuke glared at her a moment, then darted one hand up, probably for an attempt at breaking the staff in two. Tenten narrowed her eyes. Stubborn…
She brought the staff into a spin again before he could make contact. In one swift motion, Tenten caught Sasuke hard under the chin, then at the knee, then in the stomach, and finally finished with one end of the staff at his throat, her hand in position to shove it forward if needed.
Tenten lowered her head and looked up at him pointedly, lifting an eyebrow. "Give up?" she repeated.
Sasuke's eyebrow twitched, as she was finding it often did when he was backed into a corner. Then, with what looked like an enormous effort, he lowered his hands to his sides, letting both kunai drop to the ground in defeat.
Tenten smirked. "Good choice. Now that I've got your attention," she went on quickly, adding some pressure when he tried to move, "quit pouting and listen up."
Sasuke looked affronted. "I'm not--"
"Your first mistake," Tenten began, bypassing his protest completely, "was assuming that you would have the upper hand in close combat, just because I'm a weapon-user. Any weapon-reliant shinobi, given the proper knowledge, can be just as versatile, if not more versatile than any other ninja.
"And second," she finally pulled back the bo staff, holding it casually over her shoulder while Sasuke grudgingly rubbed his neck, "you're still using too much force when you throw. I told you, if you don't let up, you--"
"--won't get anywhere," Sasuke finished for her with an ill-concealed roll of his eyes, then proceeded to collect his kunai without missing a beat.
After a moment of speechlessness, Tenten crossed her arms with a good-natured huff. "Brat. And here I was about to compliment you!" He replied with an uncaring grunt, and Tenten shook her head, moving to deactivate the weapons she'd summoned for the battle. "You're as bad as Neji…"
She saw Sasuke flinch from the corner of her eye and grinned to herself, heading toward her duffel bag and casually twirling a last kunai around her finger.
Tenten suppressed a laugh at his reluctant surrender, bending down to finish packing up her bag. "Hmm?" she asked with feigned innocence, reaching to pick up a stray kunai he'd missed. "I don't hear anything…"
"Tenten." He caught her wrist as she passed him by, looking at her with a combination of annoyance and the slightest trace of badly hidden curiosity, to which she responded with an overly sweet smile. He didn't seem to notice that she was twirling two kunai now instead of one. "What?"
Sighing, Tenten lifted the arm he was holding, pulling her wrist away and replacing it with his kunai, which he automatically closed his fingers around. "Your grip…" she began, and she could almost feel him start to roll his eyes again. Quickly she lifted her gaze from his kunai to catch his eye, keeping his attention. Her cheeky smile faded into something genuine.
"…is a lot better."
Tenten seemed to do a mental double-take. "Really?" Sasuke nodded. For once, he really wasn't in the mood to spar either.
At 3:30 that morning, he had jerked awake in a cold sweat, his body torn between the chill of his room and the searing heat of his curse seal. He'd been dreaming again. Night was the only time that he couldn't assert control over the emotions that seemed to tie so deeply into the curse seal's power. It had taken the whole of a half hour for him to finally will the curse back, and by then he had been far too shaken up to get back to sleep.
As a result, he had wandered through his day in a sleep-deprived haze, his mind achingly sober. Added with the discovery of that kunai - he was tempted to glance at it again, but stopped himself; he was distracted enough today - he knew that any attempt at fighting would not end well.
If nothing else, it was a small comfort that Tenten seemed to have a talent for picking up on his moods. After the initial decision was made, she didn't prod him into conversation; she only moved to stand beside one of the targets in the clearing, proposed a new training exercise, and used her scroll to summon a small mountain of kunai for him.
From there, they were able to get into a good rhythm, with Sasuke throwing kunai at the target, and Tenten using her chakra to still the blade an inch away from the bull's-eye, then giving him tips on trajectory based on the speed and angle of the kunai. Sasuke had to admit that he was impressed; her chakra control had improved significantly since the fight earlier that week.
But as time passed, Sasuke began to feel a steadily increasing aura of frustration coming from Tenten's direction. A glance told him her hand was starting to shake from the strain of the chakra. When her control began to waver, nearly dropping the kunai, she gritted her teeth and muttered a curse to herself.
"No one is making you do that," he pointed out finally. Tenten shook her head.
"I'd be a hypocrite if I made you fix your aim without trying to fix my chakra control. Besides," she released her chakra and caught the kunai before it could drop, "we never really work on chakra control with Gai-sensei. This is a good opportunity."
"Never?" Sasuke raised his eyebrows. He'd been under the impression that Gai wasn't the type to cut corners.
Tenten shrugged. "Not really, no. Lee can't use chakra at all, so he would have no use for it. And Neji…well, he's a genius." He didn't miss the way her eyes softened when she said it. "His chakra control was at chuunin level when he graduated from the Academy. It wouldn't have been much help to either of them, so I just…stayed out of the way."
"Stayed out of the way," Sasuke repeated, putting away the kunai he held. A slow burn began to curdle in his stomach, a feeling that he could only compare to disappointment. "Why?"
Tossing the other kunai back to him, Tenten followed his lead and leaned back against a tree. A wry grin curled her lips. "Have you met my team?"
Sasuke was silent. After matching his gaze for a few stretched seconds, Tenten loosely gripped her elbows.
"It's different with them," she said, moving her eyes to their battered training ground. "From the very beginning, they were always out to prove something."
"Should I be?"
She looked back at him, and a tense moment slowly passed between them. Sasuke frowned; she hadn't done this before. For the first time since they'd met, her gaze seemed shrouded, walled off somehow. She wasn't the type of person who should wall herself off. She was supposed to be the honest one.
Tenten deliberately looked away, he was sure, with the intent of avoiding an argument. He was finding that she did that a lot.
"…Besides," she said, "my team has enough spotlight-hogs as it is. Someone has to be the anchor, or we wouldn't be able to function."
Sasuke felt his eyes narrow a bit with distaste, and finally broke his gaze away from her. "So you're sacrificing your career for them."
"No…you're missing the point. I'm not giving any less than I'm capable of--"
"So if you were matched up with Hyuuga at the next preliminary exam?"
Tenten froze, even giving pause to the breath she'd been about to take. She didn't answer.
Sasuke could feel the candle's-flame of annoyance in the pit of his stomach begin to spread. "You'd let him win."
"He would win," she countered before he could inhale again. Her eyes said that she was trying very hard to be the sensible one here. "I've trained with him since we graduated, Sasuke. I can't beat him."
Sasuke made it clear in a quick exhale just what he thought of that.
"It's true!" A defensive rise in the volume of her voice broke through her shield of reason. "Not everyone is like you, Sasuke. It isn't as simple as watching a technique and knowing it, or having a will that won't break, or just being born perfect, we can't all have that! It's--"
She stopped herself then, taking a breath. Her voice had been steadily rising up to that point.
He wouldn't let her regroup now. "What?"
Tenten swallowed hard, and sighed. "…It's just hard, knowing you're always going to be held up to someone you can't reach."
("I am the barrier you must overcome…even if you hate me.")
Sasuke could have sworn that his heart stopped beating.
Tenten felt her face pull into a frown when Sasuke's entire body stilled, a haze settling over his eyes. She remembered that look. He was seeing ghosts again.
"Sasuke?" she tried.
Setting aside her annoyance with him for the time being, Tenten pushed away from her tree and closed the space between them in a few strides. On reaching Sasuke, she carefully laid a hand on his shoulder. "Sasuke."
This time he flinched, his eyes darting up to blink at her. She held his gaze. "Are you okay?"
Sasuke stared back at her for only a moment. Then he abruptly pushed past her into the center of the clearing, nearly knocking Tenten over with the unexpected jerk. In the same motion, he pulled a kunai from one of his holsters. "We're starting."
"Wha--now?" Tenten asked, her voice sliding up in pitch with bewilderment. Straightening, she planted her hands on her hips. "I thought you said--"
"I know what I said. We're starting."
It occurred to Tenten that she could produce any number of good reasons why it wasn't a good time for that, but her hand was already moving to take out a kunai of her own. It wasn't like she hadn't done the same thing to him the week before. And after he'd found that kunai…she didn't know why, but she felt like she owed it to him.
Even as she moved to get in position, the first few drops of rain began to fall. A heartbeat later, they had begun.
Unlike those preceding it, this spar was disconcertingly silent. Sasuke didn't seem to be relying on strategy this time. For several minutes he came at her with nothing but his fists and that blade, the moves cleanly performed but sloppily timed. He wasn't focused.
Tenten could only defend and counter to the best of her ability while the drizzle steadily intensified into a downpour, trying not to show her concern. What happened to him?
With every crash of thunder, Sasuke's movements grew more destructive and less predictable. He was trying to get rid of something. For the first time, Tenten found herself struggling to keep up with him. His feet were moving just a little too fast, his hands striking just a little too hard, his eyes seeing just a little too much.
Tenten gasped through the downpour, squinting her eyes into focus and instantly throwing her arms up to block another barrage. A flash of lightning reflected blood-red eyes, immediately followed by a roll of thunder that felt like it shook her very bones. Why is he using Sharingan?
"Sasuke!" she called over the storm, only to have the breath forced from her lungs when he seized an opening. The next thing she knew, her back was slamming into a tree on the other side of the clearing. She reeled for a moment from the impact, and the back of his fist connected with her cheek. For a moment she could have sworn it was the ground that flew up to meet her, rather than the other way around.
Tenten quickly shook off the dizziness, and when he came at her again, she was ready. Borrowing a move from Lee, she brought her hand down on Sasuke's wrist, taking him down with his own momentum, and flipped over his head to regain her footing. When Sasuke launched toward her from his fall, Tenten asserted control, taking hold of both of his shoulders and pinning him to the nearest tree.
"Sasuke," she said again, holding him there, "that's enough! This forest is like a lightning rod, it's dangerous to be here!" Lightning flashed again, accented with a crash of thunder, and Tenten frowned. She could have sworn she saw something for the moment he was illuminated, like a shadow across his skin.
Just as quickly, she shook her head; this wasn't the time. She could feel him trembling with adrenaline under her hands. Catching his gaze, she set her jaw, ready to drag him out of there if she had to. "We have to--"
The kunai at her hip began to vibrate, and a loud crackling filled the air. Tenten felt her blood freeze.
Then she was throwing both Sasuke and herself to the ground, as far from any of the trees as she could get them, wrenching away her holster and the kunai in his hand and pitching them away, instinct taking over for a paralyzed mind. Just as she clapped her hands over her ears, the deafening roar of a thousand explosions filled the clearing, along with a flash of light so blinding that she could see it through her eyelids. Tenten could only duck her head and pray the lightning bolt wouldn't branch out to them from the trees.
After a few more seconds had passed with no heart-stilling jolts, Tenten felt Sasuke shift under her, and shakily sat up with him to squint through the gales and survey the damage. "You okay?" she asked him for the second time that day.
Sasuke nodded without looking at her. His eyes were no longer the color of blood; whatever she'd thought she saw, it was gone now. At worst, he looked understandably spooked.
There was another jarring crash of thunder, and both of them jumped. Staying here was not an option.
Sasuke was on his feet in seconds, jerking Tenten to hers with a firm grip on her wrist. They exchanged a glance so swift that their eyes barely met, and then they were off, Sasuke in front, Tenten following, hardly daring to look away for fear that she'd lose him completely, blinded by the rain. She kept her eyes locked on the Uchiha crest, only breaking the gaze once, just outside the clearing.
The broken tree at the entrance was the worst casualty of the lightning bolt. One of the three trunks had burned almost completely to black.
"A warning was issued for everyone in the village to stay inside until further notice," Sasuke confirmed, tossing the warning note into the trash, "three hours ago."
Tenten gave a wry, quivering laugh. "Three hours, huh?" Her hands were clenched around her arms, but doing nothing to still her shivering as she dripped rainwater onto the floor. Sasuke himself wasn't doing much better.
And thanks to this warning, it looked like they wouldn't be leaving anytime soon.
About the third time that thought repeated itself in his mind, paired with the sight of Tenten standing a bit awkwardly in his entryway, it occurred to Sasuke that he had a role to step into here.
"Uh…come in," he said finally, the words sounding foreign on his tongue; it had been so long since anyone had come here. "The living room is…" he let an absent gesture finish the sentence for him, not quite sure what exactly he was expected to do. "…You can sit down."
Tenten gave him a slightly apologetic smile and gingerly stepped out of her shoes. "Thanks."
As soon as she was in, Sasuke went to his room, rifled through his closet, and by some miracle managed to find a plain black t-shirt and pajama pants that didn't have his family crest sewn in. They would be big on her, but better that than both of them catching pneumonia.
Sasuke reemerged in the same daze that had been hovering around him for some time now. Without a sound he padded by the door to what was once his parents' room; what was once his father's study; what was once his room, the same room Sasuke had torn apart in a rage two weeks after the massacre, and the same room that he had painstakingly restored the very next day, though both acts had stemmed from the same unbearable, driving need.
Any desire to enter that room had since vanished. The desperation had not.
Sasuke shook his head. He'd just had one too many shocks today. It had thrown him off balance. He just had to get them both settled, get himself dry, sit down for a minute, and avoid any more scares--
When he set foot in the living room, his heart dropped a beat for the third time that day.
She had hardly moved from her position on the couch. The only changes at all were that she had taken her hair down, presumably to let it dry, and that the small drawer in the end-table by the couch was slightly ajar and empty, its single content held with care in her hands.
Tenten looked up when his footsteps came to a halt in the doorway, and something warm and aching rose in Sasuke's chest. The picture frame in her hands was turned just enough towards him, held just close enough to Tenten's face, to render him speechless. His gaze could only fasten on the two pairs of dark eyes that looked back at him; the two heads of long, dark hair, damp (she had just come in from the rain that day, a Saturday in May), cascading over their shoulders; the nearly identical expressions of surprise on their faces (she hadn't been expecting her husband, a younger, happier man who their sons would only know in unreliable toddler-minds, to be waiting with a camera; it had been her birthday, that was why…), which carried the barely-noticeable gauntness that came from caring too much for others.
For a moment, he had believed…
But one of the faces animated then, breaking the spell. "Oh, I…sorry," Tenten murmured, suddenly looking flustered. She quickly moved to put the photo back in its drawer. "I didn't mean--"
"It's fine." Leaving the doorway, Sasuke took the frame from her, trading it for the pile of clothes and a towel. "The bathroom is down the hall. You can change in there," he said quietly, setting the frame not in the drawer, but on top of the end table. Somehow the idea of shutting his mother away again made his stomach turn.
Tenten didn't move for a second. Sasuke didn't need to look to know why, as the very air surrounding her now held a strong current of guilt. He took a breath, willing his heart to slow its pounding; she had done nothing wrong.
"…You look just like her," Tenten finally tried, wrapping up tightly in the towel he'd brought her.
Sasuke looked away from her, from the way she looked sitting next to that photo, her wet hair framing her face in that way that was so achingly familiar. "So do you," he murmured under his breath.
He shook his head.
It was a rumble of thunder that woke her up, followed by a flash of lightning that illuminated a room she had never seen before.
Disoriented, Tenten instinctively scanned the room for a clock, coming to rest on the first one she found. Just after one o'clock. One o'clock in the morning and she was alone in a bed that certainly wasn't her futon, in a room that certainly wasn't her apartment.
Then a second flash lit the room, correcting her assumption: she wasn't alone. Someone had rolled out a sleeping bag on the floor - Sasuke. That's right, that's where she was. But how had she ended up in his room? After that awful moment in the living room - there he was, letting her stay in his house and borrow his clothes, and what did she do but pull out something that was obviously painful for him and rub it in his face, that's how she thanked him? - she had changed as instructed, then gone back to the couch to wait for Sasuke to come back out of his room. She remembered she had curled up over the arm of the couch, and then…what?
With a small groan, Tenten turned onto her back and covered her face with her hands. She must have fallen asleep right there, without even thanking him for the clothes. Strike two.
A particularly discordant crash of thunder made her flinch, and she dropped her hands back to her sides, then propped herself up on one elbow to look at Sasuke again. The storm didn't seem to be disturbing him at all, but it couldn't be comfortable down there.
Well, she may have been a horrible guest so far, but she would at least let him have his own bed. Slipping out from under the sheets, Tenten knelt at his side and touched his shoulder, whispering his name. He didn't stir. "Hey. Sasuke," she tried again, a little louder, shaking him a little; he gave no response whatsoever. If not for the slight movement that came with the steady breathing of deep sleep, she would have been worried.
Heaving a breath, Tenten crossed her arms. "You're going to make me put you up there myself, aren't you?" she murmured, then shook her head. "Guess I deserve it. Okay, come on…"
She had just managed to get one arm under Sasuke's shoulders, the other supporting his back from the odd angle, when quite suddenly he sat bolt upright, nearly scaring her out of her skin. Heavy eyelids lifted open, and his eyes came to settle directly on her.
Tenten mentally strangled herself. On top of everything else, now he was going to think she was just like one of his obsessed fangirls, trying to molest him in his sleep--
But he didn't say a word. He only looked down, his eyelids drooping, then grabbed his pillow - and inadvertently, Tenten's arm along with it, triggering a shriek that she quickly stifled - and dropped back into unconsciousness.
"Sasuke!" she hissed again after a moment, incredulous that he was really still sleeping. A few increasingly determined attempts to free herself did absolutely nothing against a grip she was certain he could never match when he was awake. "Are you kidding me...Sasuke."
Finally, Tenten sighed, giving up and slumping into a sitting position. Apparently Sleeping Sasuke had some things in common with Drunk Lee, and if that was the case, she wasn't getting her arm back anytime soon.
But a halfhearted glare in Sasuke's direction could only turn into a helpless little smile. With her free hand, she reached over to gently ruffle his hair, a sisterly gesture she was so rarely given the opportunity to use. Then she leaned back next to him at as respectful a distance as she could manage, draping an arm over her stomach, and let her eyes drift shut, allowing herself to be lulled into a slumber by the soft roar of the rain outside, mixed with the whispers of a house filled with memory.
artwork by VioletVolchok (http://violetvolchok.artworkfolio.com/)