In the last hazy moments before Sasuke awoke, he was in another time.
He was small - surely no older than seven - small, and sleepy, and warm. And someone was very close by.
His first thought was that it was probably Mother, fallen asleep at his side after telling him stories until the storm passed. Or maybe it was Niisan, allowing him to curl in close just for a little while, silently shielding him from the thunder, like he used to.
Like he used to…before…
Suddenly the fog of sleep was clearing far too quickly.
But even as the nightmare of memories unfolded, unwanted flashes of reality flickering behind his eyes, the one anomaly that kept him there was that small circle of warmth, that consistency - someone was with him.
It took another full minute for that to sink in, and in the process, become a little disturbing.
Finally he blinked open his eyes, and was immediately blinded by the sunlight streaming through the window. Was it that late already?…Sasuke ducked his head a bit to shield his eyes, his whole body reflexively curling up with it, and a spark of confusion hit him when his fingers tightened around some sort of fabric. What…?
As soon as his eyes had adjusted enough that he didn't have to squint, Sasuke lifted his head to take a better look at his surroundings. And he froze.
Someone was indeed with him. The only one who could be with him. The fabric in his hand was the bottom of the shirt he'd lent her the night before; the warmth around him came from the small weight of her arm, loosely draped over him. Protective, almost.
Other than that, she wasn't touching him. There was something strangely comforting in that thought.
Sasuke slipped his fingers away from the soft material, feeling childish for holding on even this long. But he didn't move right away. For just a moment, he dared to turn his eyes upward and study Tenten's face, searching for any of the overwhelming similarities he had seen in her the night before.
Up close, the differences were more noticeable. Tenten's looks were fairly well-defined , unlike the soft features that had always been characteristic of the Uchiha line; her hair, splayed across her shoulders and the floor, was a bit lighter than he'd originally thought. From here (and what was she doing down here?), her appearance was very much her own.
But at the same time, there was something…
Tenten shifted a bit in her sleep, jerking Sasuke out of his analysis and abruptly setting his mind into motion. He had to get up. This was not what he should be doing.
With another quick sweep of their positions with his eyes, Sasuke summoned up as much subtlety as he could so soon after waking, and carefully moved Tenten's arm away from his shoulder. Why it felt so necessary not to wake her up, he couldn't quite say. Either way, he quietly let out his breath when she barely stirred, only turning a bit and draping her arm over her stomach.
Sasuke stood then, tossing a glance at the clock on the way out of the room, and silently reprimanded himself for sleeping so long.
On the way through the living room, he paused. His eyes came to rest on his mother's picture, right where he'd left it. The drawer it had come from was still ajar.
Sasuke's feet were carrying him toward the end table before he made any conscious choice to do so, and then he was standing before it, closing his fingers around the frame. A layer of dust still clung to it, with the exception of his and Tenten's fingerprints. He couldn't remember the last time it had left that drawer.
It had most likely been the last time any other pictures of his old life had left their hiding places, he reasoned. He'd hidden them away long ago, unable to bear seeing them, but even less able to bear getting rid of them. Some days just the knowledge that the images still existed all around him, hidden away everywhere he could think of, but that he couldn't bring himself to face them, made him feel like more of a coward than he would ever admit.
But not right now.
Sasuke looked to the open drawer, then back to the frame, taking in a moment lost to time and foggy memory, then gently set the photo back on top of the end table and pushed the drawer shut. His mother's dark, sparkling eyes looked out from the picture frame, being given the light of day for the first time in years, and Sasuke took a deep breath.
Today, somehow, he felt like he could face her.
Chapter 6: Prophecy
"Your clothes are dry."
Tenten's footsteps stopped short in the doorway. Sasuke spared her a glance before turning his eyes back to the counter, carefully packing together another handful of rice for onigiri. "They're hanging up."
After a hesitant moment, her footsteps began again, less gingerly this time. "I saw," she replied finally, the words elongating with a covered yawn. "Thanks."
Sasuke didn't look up when she leaned over his shoulder to observe. "Onigiri for breakfast, huh?" she asked after a moment, amusement playing behind her voice.
"…Yeah." Any attempt to keep the slight flush from his cheeks was in vain; in truth, he could count the number of actual breakfast foods he'd had in the past month on one hand. His glaringly empty refrigerator could attest to that.
But a quiet laugh told him it didn't seem to bother her. "Well, you make them better than I do. Mine always end up looking like a Bunshin gone horribly wrong."
The side of Sasuke's mouth quirked up, but he didn't reply, instead making a careless gesture at a couple of riceballs he'd already finished making, in case she thought she needed permission. She seemed to take the hint and accepted the invitation, inclining her head in thanks before taking the onigiri to the table. Another minute, and he joined her, taking a seat across from her.
"Mm--" Tenten stopped to swallow her mouthful of rice, holding up a finger for Sasuke to wait. "--I almost forgot. Someone left a note on your window," she said finally. "I wasn't sure if you'd seen it already, so it's still there."
Sasuke only gave a quick nod in reply, taking an unconcerned bite of his own onigiri. Kakashi-sensei was the only one who ever left messages for him; if it was urgent, he would know. Tenten quietly returned to her plate.
This was…not what he'd expected, Sasuke decided as the silence stretched through the minutes. Not that he knew exactly what he had expected, but he had thought that this would feel a little more strange. It had been almost five years now since he had started a morning with anyone but himself, especially in this house. And if Hyuuga had been telling the truth, then Tenten probably lived alone as well. The silence was habit, but it was comfortable.
Had he really thought he would forget what this felt like?
As soon as she was done, Tenten vanished into the bathroom to shower and change (though not before insisting on washing both plates, claiming it was to make up for her apparently horrible manners the night before - how horrible one's manners could be when they were asleep, Sasuke couldn't really say), leaving Sasuke to return to his room.
Sure enough, there was a small, folded piece of paper sandwiched between the window and the sill, sporting his name in Kakashi-sensei's familiar scrawl. He had probably only missed it the first time because he'd been focused on getting up without waking Tenten…
Sasuke paused. If the note had already been there when he woke up…and Tenten had gotten up after him…then that meant Kakashi-sensei would have seen…
His eyes, widening of their own accord, darted back to the paper. Suddenly he wasn't so sure he wanted to know what was inside.
Finally, swallowing hard, Sasuke opened the note with a flick of his wrist, then silently took in the message within.
Chidori training today at noon. The usual place.
P.S.-Hope you slept well!
A rush of heat went to Sasuke's face, and he hastily closed the note, as though that would make it so that his sensei hadn't just jumped to the worst possible conclusion. Or maybe he really hadn't. There were still times that Sasuke couldn't really tell.
Across the hall, the shower stopped running. Sasuke glanced at the clock, then back at the note, suddenly wondering just how long Tenten planned on staying here. She wasn't being a problem, but he honestly wasn't sure what he was supposed to do until she left.
As if on cue, Tenten chose that moment to reappear in her own clothes, hair tied back into its usual style , the borrowed shirt and pants from that night draped over one arm. At the sight of him frowning at the note, she paused. "Everything okay?" she asked, nodding at the note.
Flinching back to life, Sasuke gave an absent nod. He tossed the note aside and took the clothes from her, depositing them in the laundry basket he kept under his bed, suddenly in desperate need to distract himself from the new situation with Kakashi-sensei. "Training."
Tenten was quiet for a little too long, and when Sasuke looked up, he found that her eyes were fastened on the clock. "Today's Sunday, isn't it?" she asked slowly.
No sooner had Sasuke nodded, than Tenten had paled and burst into motion, flying past him to pack up her scrolls, cursing under her breath. "I'm so late! I'm supposed to be at the training grounds right now…!"
Finally she gave up on the last stubborn scroll, throwing it between her teeth before quickly checking that her kunai holsters were in place. Then she shot to her feet, looking ready to sprint through the wall if she had to. She was through the doorway and in the hall in the next second. Once there, though, she paused, then took the scroll from her mouth and whirled around on her heel, moving fluidly into a grateful bow. "Thanks for everything, and sorry for being rude and creepy, it really was an accident, but thanks - the onigiri was really good!" A wordless nod in reply, and she spun back around and dashed out the front door.
Sasuke eyed the doorway for a few seconds, feeling vaguely as though a small hurricane had just left his house. Then, shaking his head, he proceeded to go about his usual routine.
This was a problem.
Tenten panned her eyes over their section of the training grounds, still winded from her mad dash over the rooftops from Sasuke's place. From this standpoint, it seemed that despite the fact that her teammate was the epitome of punctuality, she was very much alone. Her brow creased in a frown. It looks like the right place…so where is--
A one-second warning, no more than the barely-audible whistling of steel, was all that preceded her answer.
The moment her mind registered the sound, Tenten's body jolted into motion, her legs springing her into the air just in time to avoid the small wave of kunai that shot into the ground where she had been standing, her hands instinctively gripping her own kunai and pitching them back at her attacker, then coming together to form a combination of quick seals.
But her assailant was faster; no sooner had she formed the last seal than she was suddenly trapped, one of her arms being twisted behind her back, and one of his locking around her shoulders, holding her in place. She only struggled for a moment, grunting with the effort, before two words from him, growled quietly against her ear, brought her to a pause.
It was only after Sasuke had spent five minutes waiting, seven warming up, and eight more practicing his kunai deflection, that he finally came to a pause, tossing a frown over his shoulder. "You're late."
In response, a gloved hand came down to muss his hair, for the sole purpose of making him bristle. "I confess…" his sensei sighed. "I was detained by a swarm of locusts. I'm going to have a word with the Aburame head when we're done, actually..."
Sasuke gave a small snort, giving his sensei points for creativity, if nothing else. Finally releasing him, Kakashi-sensei passed Sasuke to stand off to the side, motioning for him to continue with the kunai while he pulled out his book. "Good to see you found the note," he said while Sasuke pulled out his next pair of kunai. "I was afraid I'd have to tell Sakura you'd fallen into a mysterious coma. She would be heartbroken."
Sasuke rolled his eyes before continuing, throwing first one kunai, then another, in attempt to strike the first and hit the target at an angle. He hadn't mastered it yet, but he was coming closer.
"Overslept," he muttered.
"I'm not that late," Tenten argued, not bothering to struggle against Neji's grip. Better if he didn't see how her face was flushing with the close proximity, in any case. "I just…overslept."
Neji made a sound of disapproval. "Your apartment is southeast of here," he stated, slackening his grip a bit when he noticed she wasn't fighting him. "Why did you come from the opposite direction?"
Hastily blowing her bangs out of her eyes, Tenten shot him an irritated look over her shoulder. "You're just full of questions today, aren't you?"
And with a flash and a puff of smoke, she activated the substitution jutsu she'd set up just before he'd grappled her and quickly got some distance, landing in a crouch next to the target posts. When Neji shot out of the smoke, Byakugan activated, she smirked; that was more like it. Closing her fingers around a scroll, Tenten met him with steel, and from there they fell comfortably into their usual routine.
The conversation was dropped for a few minutes, as they were busy instead with the familiar volley of shuriken and chakra, speed and stillness. When Neji lured her into close combat, Tenten quickly armed herself with a pair of tonfa and used all her speed - the one area in which she knew they were on equal ground - to block a double-strike, halting them in a brief stalemate.
But now that she was up close, Tenten saw that Neji's eyes were still narrowed slightly, a subtle expression that his teammates recognized as dissatisfaction. "What?" she asked, her voice a bit strained with the effort. "We can go an extra ten minutes if it's bothering you that much."
Neji only gave a small shake of his head, quite suddenly letting up. Tenten instinctively moved with her inertia to seize an opening, but cut herself off with a surprised yelp when instead of blocking, Neji caught her wrist, sending one of the tonfa flying when her fingers opened. As abruptly as he had began it, Neji brought the spar to a complete halt, his eyes locking onto the hand that he now held captive. His eyebrows lowered.
"Neji?" Tenten tried after a moment.
Keeping his Byakugan activated, Neji turned her hand over and briefly studied it.
"Your chakra tunnels are swelled," he said after a beat, a frown creasing his brow. "That happens with overuse."
Loosening his grip a bit, Neji glanced up. "What have you been doing?"
Kakashi-sensei didn't respond to Sasuke's excuse, instead leaning forward to scrutinize his technique. "You've improved," he commented after a moment, his visible eyebrow lifting slightly. "Quite a bit."
Then his sensei's gaze was on him, calm and curious. "What exactly have you been doing?"
Sasuke gave a careless shrug, frowning at the nearly-missed target, then at the readied kunai in his hand. Too much force. She was right…
Shaking his head, Sasuke repeated the maneuver. This time it came up a little short, and he muttered a curse under his breath. "Extra training," he answered aloud, if a bit distractedly, while he pulled out the next pair.
Kakashi-sensei kept quiet while Sasuke readied the blades, then threw them once more, one after the other. There was a perfectly-timed clink when the second kunai struck the first, sending it whistling into the target.
Kakashi-sensei's visible eye took in the target, then moved back to Sasuke, curving a bit with a subtle but knowing smile. "She's a good teacher."
So he did know.
Sasuke slowly rose out of his stance, letting his gaze linger on the successful kunai.
After a silent, stretched moment, Kakashi-sensei pushed away from the tree he'd been leaning on. "Well! I assume you're warmed up…" Twenty minutes ago, Sasuke muttered inwardly, "…so let's move along, shall we?"
Sasuke nodded, unconsciously flexing his fingers in preparation to form the Chidori, but Kakashi-sensei raised a hand to stop him.
"We'll start by working with your chakra control."
"…I've been working on chakra control," Tenten finally answered, forcing herself to blink after being so suddenly locked into Neji's gaze. She averted her eyes and focused instead on her hand, trying and failing to see what he was seeing. "Is it really that bad? It's felt a little stiff lately, but I didn't think I was doing any dam-"
Blinking again, Tenten found that Neji's face had gone flat. When she nodded, his frown deepened. "You hate chakra control."
To her own surprise, Tenten laughed.
"Yeah," she agreed after a moment, throwing a glance at the ground before lifting her eyes again. "But you said I should have a plan, right? Well…" She nodded at her hand, still cradled in his. "I'm just not quite used to it yet, that's all."
With a dissatisfied grunt, Neji lowered his eyes to her hand for a moment more; then he unceremoniously let go. "You're overdoing it," he stated. "If you keep focusing your chakra in only one area, you'll only limit yourself."
Tenten faltered for only a moment, struck with a sensation she couldn't quite place.
Neji seemed to decide then that the conversation was over, turning toward the center of the training grounds, her lateness apparently forgotten. "We should start."
Tenten came to herself and nodded. "Yeah…"
But for some reason, an echo came back to her from the day before.
"So you're sacrificing your career for them."
Frowning at the ground, Tenten stubbornly followed after Neji. Sasuke was wrong. She wasn't sacrificing anything. She liked helping Neji and Lee. After all, she was sure they would do the same for her if she asked.
Tenten started, her feet slowing under her. Had she ever asked either of them for help? A quick sweep of her memory turned up nothing. Even during the Chuunin Exams, when Neji had caught her fresh out of the hospital to ask for her help with the Kaiten, it hadn't even occurred to her to do anything but accept.
Has it always been like this?
She subtly shook her head. What did it matter if she'd never asked for their help? She was a strong, independent kunoichi who had no problem taking care of her team. One of the things she prided herself on was that she was different from the hot-blooded genin who would throw themselves into the spotlight at every chance. She had never needed it before, and she didn't need it now.
By now, she had come to a complete stop, her eyes clouded in thought. For some reason, Sasuke's accusation wouldn't get out of her mind.
"…Neji?" she'd blurted before she could decide against it. Up ahead, he paused, glancing back at her. Now or never.
"Um…I know we were going to do the usual routine today, but…" She briefly bit her lip, frustrated with herself; why was she making this so difficult? Giving herself an inward pinch, Tenten lifted her eyes and steeled her voice. "After deflection training…or sometime…do you think you could help me with my chakra control?"
Just as Tenten's had only moments before, Neji's face briefly went blank. It looked like it had never occurred to him either.
Sasuke's face briefly went blank. "Chakra control?" Kakashi-sensei nodded, and Sasuke frowned. "You said this would be Chidori training."
"It is," Kakashi said. When Sasuke remained nonplussed, Kakashi-sensei lowered his book, calmly meeting his gaze. "It's been almost two months since the Chuunin Exams, Sasuke. I haven't been able to work with you one-on-one since then. I need to know what your limits are now to train you effectively against the curse seal."
"Unless," he went on, a bit more slowly, "you've noticed any changes in the seal's behavior since we last spoke about it. If that were the case, this session could go very differently." Kakashi-sensei lowered his head a bit and caught Sasuke's eye, posing the question without saying a word.
Sasuke lowered his eyes and shook his head.
"Very well." Kakashi-sensei lifted up his book again. "In that case, I'll need you to go into the chakra concentration exercise I taught you during the Exam. Then we'll get back to the Chidori."
Sasuke could tell he wasn't going to win here; against Kakashi-sensei, it was a rare thing. So he only nodded, took his position, and focused all of his attention on his core, willing his chakra to behave as though he were in a battle, but purposely weakening it in the area around the curse seal. It was a difficult exercise that took a lot of patience he rarely possessed, but he couldn't deny that it helped.
"When is the next group training?" Sasuke asked as soon as he'd gotten the exercise in motion, keeping his eyes shut but needing something to keep him occupied.
Off to the side, he heard Kakashi-sensei shift, probably sitting down, as this tended to take a while. "Actually, not for a while."
Sasuke's eyes blinked open, his brow lowering in confusion. "What do you--" He cut himself off with a wince as a small lapse in his concentration sent a jolt of heat through him, and quickly asserted control again. "…What do you mean?"
"Stay focused," Kakashi-sensei instructed, briefly glancing up over his book. "And what I mean is, I've given Naruto a temporary instructor for a while." His eye lowered back to the pages. "He was feeling rather neglected."
Sasuke gave a small snort. "He feels neglected if you blink at him."
"Pots and kettles," Kakashi-sensei jabbed quietly, and Sasuke shot an affronted glare in his direction. "In any case," he went on, a hint of amusement now lacing his voice, "it is true. I can attend to your needs as a shinobi more effectively than I could with his. That, and I can say with complete certainty that this instructor will keep him busy."
His frown smoothing with curiosity, Sasuke turned his head a bit more in his sensei's direction. "Who is it?"
"Mm…let's just say he's a bit of a legend," Kakashi-sensei said slowly. Then, with a smile, "And a very talented novelist."
Sasuke lifted an eyebrow, but Kakashi-sensei's nose was buried in his book once again, so he closed his eyes and didn't bother to push any further. Either way, this was a good thing. It would be much easier to progress this way, when he wasn't distracted by Naruto and…
His eyes snapped open.
"From the very beginning, they were always out to prove something…so I just stayed out of the way."
If not for those words, it would have never crossed his mind.
"…What about Sakura?" he asked at length, keeping his eyes straight ahead.
A small rustling of paper told him that he'd surprised Kakashi-sensei into lowering his book again. "Sakura?" he repeated, and Sasuke nodded, taking care not to let up on his concentration.
"You said you sent Naruto to train with someone else, and you're here now." He turned his head to look at Kakashi-sensei more directly. "Who did you assign to her?"
For a little too long, Kakashi-sensei was silent.
After a small eternity of regarding Tenten in silence, something shifted in Neji's expression. Then he nodded. "Whenever you want."
"Really?" Tenten heard herself ask, wondering how those three words had just managed to make her day worth getting up for.
Neji hummed to the affirmative, his eyes clouding a bit, as they usually did when he was in the process of making a decision. "…After deflection," he determined at length, meeting her eyes again. "You aren't warmed up."
Tenten raised a quizzical eyebrow at him. "Aren't I?" she asked slowly. "So your little sneak-attack earlier would be…"
"Punishment," he replied simply, a hint of a smirk playing at his lips, "for being late."
"Oh, really?" Taking the hint, Tenten cracked her knuckles - a habit she knew he hated - and pulled out a pair of kunai, spinning one into the air and catching it. "Hope you've been practicing, Hyuuga," she warned, returning the implied smirk in kind. "I've been putting in a lot of extra hours lately."
Finally looking satisfied, Neji fell easily into the stance for his Kaiten. "I noticed."
Really? Tenten had to smother the urge to pose the question aloud, just to see him confirm it, just to have that proof that all this work really was paying off. Instead, her grin only broadened. "Good. Then I'd better not catch you holding back."
"Well," Kakashi-sensei answered finally, "I haven't assigned anyone to her yet."
Kakashi-sensei eyed him quizzically for a moment before giving any response. "Sakura is very different from you and Naruto," he said at length. "Her balance of abilities, and so her needs as a shinobi, are different. And especially after seeing her performance at the Chuunin Exams, I think that giving her the same curriculum as you two would, quite frankly, be holding her back."
Sasuke waited a moment for him to go on, but Kakashi-sensei seemed to have no more to say. His frown deepened. "That doesn't answe--"
"Concentrate," Kakashi-sensei interrupted, calmly lifting up his book once more. "Twenty minutes. Then we're moving on."
His tone, though casual as ever, left no room for argument, so Sasuke grudgingly gave up for the time being, facing forward and closing his eyes.
The remaining twenty minutes passed in silence, only broken by the occasional turn of a page. As soon as Kakashi-sensei was satisfied, they moved into what would become the hardest, most intensive training session Sasuke had been subjected to since the Chuunin Exams. He worked with the Chidori until his hands shook, until his sweat-soaked clothes clung to him and his vision tried to blur.
It was only when Kakashi-sensei cut him off with a hand on his shoulder that Sasuke's dwindling momentum finally came to a stop, and it was all he could do not to pass out on the spot. With his sensei's approval and an encouraging squeeze of his shoulder, he was released to wander back toward home, using the last bit of his strength to keep from looking as exhausted as he felt.
The one thing he could pride himself on, Sasuke reasoned as he weaved through the crowds on the main road, was the fact that even as difficult as the training had been, he had kept the curse seal under control. Not once had he felt the searing heat creeping over his skin, or the wrenching feeling in his chest; he'd even forgotten about it for a little while. It had been a long time since he could boast that.
But why now?
Why now, when he was so drained that he could barely function, when he'd worked with chakra more in one session than in the past week? Why could he control it when he was like this, and not when he was sitting with Tenten, perfectly rested and using no chakra at all?
He could probably have mulled over that question for a much longer time than he did, but the moment he got through his door and down the hall, the very sight of his bed waiting for him sent any remaining coherent thoughts flying from his mind. Three more steps, and he all but collapsed onto the mattress, gladly giving in to exhaustion.
And he dreamed.
"Your chakra still isn't focused enough."
"Neji, if I try to focus it any more, my hand is going to fall off."
"No, it isn't."
"Want to bet?" Tenten snapped through gritted teeth, darting a sharp glance in his direction before stubbornly re-focusing on her good hand, which was refusing to cooperate. Sweating with the effort, she made a feeble attempt to take a deep breath. "I hate chakra control…"
"I know you know!"
Her retort was answered with a quick exhale, the closest Neji ever came to expressing amusement. Tenten was grateful beneath her frustration for how patient he'd been so far, but what he found so entertaining about her complaining, she couldn't guess.
At long last, Neji stepped forward and waved a hand for her to stop. A trace of a smirk was still playing at his lips, to which Tenten sent a halfhearted glare, but the moment was short-lived.
"Your chakra doesn't have direction," Neji said finally, scrutinizing her with his Byakugan. "Your body is still adjusting to using chakra as often as you're trying to. That's why it got difficult for you after a short time."
Tenten sighed, shaking the stiffness out of her hand. "Yeah…you were right, I've been overdoing it." She leaned back against one of the targets and pulled out one of the kunai she'd lodged in it, absently twirling it. "Someone pointed out that I wasn't good at it, so I guess I've been trying to prove him wrong."
"You mean Uchiha Sasuke."
"Yeah, he was being a real brat about it…" But she stopped then, looking up in surprise. "Wait, how did you--"
"The burns," Neji replied, deactivating his Byakugan to give his eyes a much-needed rest. "You kept coming back with new ones. He's the only one who uses that technique, and you only started getting them after that time in the clearing."
"Oh…well…yeah," Tenten said finally, wondering why she felt like she'd been caught in the act of something. After a moment, the kunai started twirling again, this time at twice the speed. "I've been helping him with his aim, and we've sparred a few times. I'm getting better at dodging that fire jutsu, actually..."
Neji studied her face carefully while she spoke, his own expression unreadable. "What about his chakra?"
Tenten sighed, knowing at once what he was really referring to. "It's been fine, Neji. Normal. It got a little weird once, but that was just for a second. Don't worry about it."
Whatever he would have said in response was cut off by the sound of footsteps from the entrance to the training grounds; their timeslot was over. Without a word, Neji moved to start gathering what was his, and Tenten proceeded to do the same. By the time she'd finished, though, she found that she was several kunai short.
Frowning, she stood up, absently cracking her knuckles. "Neji, is there anything of mine still over there?"
After a pause, he pocketed his last one. "No--stop that." He shot a glare at her fingers, and she stopped, grinning. Rolling his eyes, Neji took a last look around with his Byakugan, like he always did. "There's nothing left. You should have them all."
"That's weird…" As Team 8 approached to begin their session, she retraced her steps in her mind. She'd been in a hurry to leave Sasuke's, but most of the blades had been in their holsters all night, as she'd been only too happy to get them off her person after that lightning scare in the clearing…
And there her answer was. Of course, we didn't take the time to pick anything up after that lightning strike.
Relaxing, Tenten waved a dismissive hand to Neji. "Never mind, I know where they are. We can go." Deactivating his Byakugan again, Neji rejoined her to head out of the grounds, nodding respectfully to Hinata as they passed her team.
It was only when they were a good distance past Team 8 that Neji spoke again, returning to the original subject. "That chakra…" he began slowly, as if unsure how to word it, "the abnormal chakra he has. It isn't his own. It comes from an external point on the left side of his body, between his shoulder and his neck. That is the source." Finally he looked up again. "I'm telling you this because you're around him when he uses chakra. If you sense that chakra, that source is what you should aim for."
"He isn't a complete brain case, Neji…" Tenten started, but the comment had little bite, as she was too affected by how honest his concern seemed to be. He was worried about her. "…but thanks. Thanks for everything today, I know it wasn't what you planned on."
Neji held up a dismissive hand, turning his gaze forward again as they reached the exit. "Keep your chakra evenly dispersed when you train. Don't try to concentrate it all at once."
"I won't," Tenten promised, then raised a hand in a wave before they parted ways, and she headed back toward the Uchiha clearing, the place that was starting to feel more and more like a safe haven. Her place.
No…not her place.
Why is this happening?
Half his body was burning. The curse seal pulsed with renewed fervor, sending shockwaves through his blood with every beat. His own labored breaths stormed in his ears, muffled by the pillow he'd thrown over his face in attempt to suffocate a memory.
He hated dreaming.
Sasuke moved the pillow a bit to let himself breathe, focusing all his energy on keeping each breath slow and measured. If he relaxed, the curse would recede. He needed to stop thinking. Needed to stop thinking about him.
And her. His mother had been there too.
It had been a recycled moment, one that he'd nearly lost. It wasn't his moment; he'd been an observer, peeking through the doorway of his room, intrigued by his mother's strange behavior. He'd wondered what could have moved her to approach Niisan in the middle of the hall and look at him like that, then step forward to wrap him in a tight, silent embrace. He'd puzzled at the way Niisan froze in her arms, neither rejecting the hug nor returning it. He'd watched quietly as she finally released him, wordlessly cupping his cheek for a moment and looking like she wanted to cry.
And he'd wondered what Niisan was thinking when he remained standing there for over a minute after she'd gone, his eyes fastened to the floor.
It wasn't the memory itself that was painful. It was the knowledge that she would be dead at Niisan's blade two days later.
Sasuke's fingers tightened in the pillowcase. "Get back," he murmured to the curse, to the memory, to him, trying to bring anything else to the front of his mind.
Sakura's eyes that day in the forest.
Naruto's annoying voice, shouting exactly what he needed to hear.
Kakashi-sensei's hand on his shoulder, with a silent promise of protection.
At long last, Sasuke removed the pillow, letting it drop to the floor. Holding up his hand, he found none of the winding black patterns that only moments ago had seared across his skin. His mind felt like his own again.
He took a deep breath, moving the hand to push sweaty bangs off his forehead. His room was too warm. He had to go somewhere else.
Finally he shakily pushed himself into a sitting position and slid out of bed. Then he was out of his room, in the hall, making a conscious effort not to look at the spot where his mother had stood. He didn't want to take the risk that he might see her there.
A rush of cool air enveloped him when he reached the living room, but the moment of relief died almost as soon as it was conjured, because there she was again, looking out from the picture frame, dark eyes watching and weighing.
Sasuke's already feverish pulse quickened even more, and his mind reeled, overwhelmed. He had to get out of here.
Quick footsteps and a slam of the door, and he was outside, the evening air chilling his skin. His eyes didn't lift from the ground before him until he was out of the Uchiha complex, the road giving way to forest.
He just had to get away from that house. Just for a little while, just until he was himself again.
Soon he found himself nearing the entrance to his family's clearing, the place he'd once thought he would never enter again, the place he now sought as a refuge. If he could just be alone here, just breathe, he would be all right--
But he wasn't alone.
She was there again. Right by the entrance, kneeling next to the broken tree, oblivious to his presence. What is she doing here?
His question was answered when she reached under a bush and pulled out one of her forgotten kunai, holstering it securely at her side. She looked ready to get up, but she paused, eying the kunai that still pierced the ground in front of the tree. His family's kunai. After a moment, her hand hesitantly moved toward the handle, but then she drew it back, biting her lip. That expression…he'd seen it before, last night, when he'd caught her with the picture frame. Guilt.
And suddenly it made sense. Why she'd lingered outside the clearing for so long the day before and thought he hadn't noticed, why she looked guilty now. She had something to do with that kunai. She was the reason it was there. She hadn't expected him to find it. And now she was kneeling there, the way she had no right to kneel (just like him that day, showing how the tree's root was strongest of all, lying, like he'd always lied), and thinking about taking it back.
Sasuke's eyes narrowed. She had no right to be here, in his clearing, with his mother's face and his brother's footsteps, reminding him, always reminding him…
Alarms went off in his mind the moment he felt the black heat at his neck again, but sheer strength of will forced them into silence. He was done chaining the power that so desperately wanted to come forth. He was through allowing her to keep raising his ghosts with every step she took, every word she said. This time, the curls of darkness wrapping around his body were embraced, welcomed with every fiber of his being.
He hadn't put a stop to it before. This time, nothing could hold him back.
The moment she stood up, Tenten found herself face-to-face with Sasuke.
Sasuke, whose skin was swathed in tendrils of black. Sasuke, whose eyes smoldered with a fury she hadn't thought human eyes could contain.
Instinctively she took a step back, her eyes widening, her breath catching. "…Sasuke--"
The darkness in his voice made her flinch, and she swallowed hard, her hand moving toward her kunai holster of its own accord. "…Sasuke…what--"
"Stop…" one of his hands was wrenching her arm away from the holster, the other seizing her by the throat and shoving her into the broken tree before she could even register that he'd moved, "…doing that!" A choked gasp escaped her throat before his grip tightened, cutting off her air completely, bruising fingers feeling like they were burning holes in her skin. As her mind recovered from the shock, sending her hand flying to dig her nails into his wrist, a block of ice formed in the pit of her stomach. He isn't going to stop.
Her mind racing, Tenten steeled herself, then used her free hand to push back against Sasuke, using the split-second advantage to land a hard kick to the knee he'd been favoring the day before. As she'd expected, his leg buckled, and he dropped. What she hadn't expected was the iron grip that would force her down with him, stars bursting in front of her eyes when her head hit the ground.
For a moment they struggled, Tenten half-blind and scrabbling, clawing, pulling, anything she could think of, her body panicking from lack of air. But then he was on top of her, pinning one arm to the ground while the other threatened to crush her throat. Her body was starting to shut down; she was out of time.
In an act of desperation, Tenten's hand flew out for a handful of dust to throw in his eyes, but her fingers brushed cold metal instead. Her eyes widened. The kunai.
As the sounds of the forest began to fade beneath the ringing in her ears, Tenten forced her fingers to close around the kunai's handle. As her vision began to blur, Neji's warning flashed through her mind, and her failing eyes fastened on her target. And there it was, right where he'd said it would be, the tiny seal pulsing deep crimson as it pumped the chakra through him. The source.
"If you sense that chakra, that source is what you should aim for."
Tenten's eyes tried to flutter shut, but she forced them open, ignoring the burn. She only had one chance. I can't miss.
And with the last ounce of her strength, she wrenched the kunai out of the ground, threw her arm around Sasuke's neck, and drove the blade down.