Dusk was approaching.
Sasuke opened his eyes just as the last rays of sunlight, dyed coral with the late hour, began to ebb in the mid-autumn twilight. A breeze sent an unexpected chill through him, and as if it had flipped a switch, he jerked to full consciousness, a flash of his last memory illuminating in his mind. His stomach gripped. What did I…?
A too-quick attempt to sit up resulted in a wince when pain jolted through his left side, his arm nearly buckling under him. As soon as he was sure he wouldn't topple back over - his limbs felt like they were made of lead - he lifted his fingers to gingerly prod the curse seal, the source of the jolt, and was surprised to feel a soft bandage under his fingertips instead.
Sasuke started, his head instinctively turning toward the voice, and at once felt something in him clench and relax at once.
Tenten was there, awake, alive, but with a distant flatness in her eyes. She sat against a nearby stump with an elbow on her knee, while her other hand idly threw a kunai into the center of a target, drew it back with an invisible thread, and threw it again. A second look told him she had created a sizeable notch in the center of the target from striking the same point so many times.
Covering the bandaged curse seal with his hand, Sasuke chose not to answer, instead allowing himself to be hypnotized by the way the kunai struck the bull's-eye over and over. She didn't ask again.
Some minutes passed them in silence, but for each measured thunk of the kunai against the wooden target. Sasuke used this time to slowly gather himself, trying in vain to conjure any memory of what he had done. It both frustrated and alarmed him that he could not.
It wasn't until Tenten abruptly stopped throwing the kunai, making him blink with the surprise of silence, that he really looked at her.
Her eyes remained on the target, but that wasn't what caught Sasuke's attention. Now that he had his bearings, he could make out the dark bruises ringing her throat, just beginning to come through. Had he done that?
The echo of a strangled gasp told him that he must have.
Sasuke blinked again, thrown. "What?"
Finally she looked at him, her face unreadable. "I'm sorry I stabbed you." Stabbed…she'd had to go that far… "I'm not that good with medical stuff, but the gash isn't very deep. It shouldn't take long to heal." Why couldn't he read her anymore? "You were out for a while…"
"Why are you here?" he interrupted, a little louder than he'd meant to, anger slowly rising in him. He would have understood any other reaction, but he couldn't take an apology. Not from her.
The anger faded a bit when she met his gaze, instantly calming him, just like when he had first spoken to her. "Well, I wasn't going to just leave you here."
"No." She looked at him in silence, waiting patiently for him to elaborate on what he meant. Sasuke frowned, conflicted; what did he mean? What was she doing that was bothering him so much?
At length, he could only hope that her strange ability to read people would engage itself. "…Why are you still here?"
Tenten took her time, brown eyes lifting in thought while her hand began to slowly twirl the kunai she'd been throwing. A closer look told Sasuke that her wrist was marked as well, with the same pattern of finger-sized bruises. His stomach gave an uncomfortable twist.
"At the preliminaries for the Chuunin Exam…"
Sasuke blinked, his expression opening with confusion. Tenten spoke slowly, keeping her gaze on the sky.
"When you fought," she specified, "after you copied Lee's move, your chakra did something. And a couple of weeks ago in this clearing, when we met. It did the same thing then. It felt like the same chakra just now." She shifted her position, pulling her knees to her chest and letting the kunai swing freely from her finger. The gaze he was met with left no room for ambiguity. "What is it?"
Sasuke's fingers tightened a bit over the bandaged seal, aggravating the wound but doing little more. So that was why she had stayed, even though he'd completely lost control. Even though he'd made a very real attempt to kill her. Instead of wanting to get away from him, she wanted to know why.
And he couldn't find it in him to deny her that now.
"…It's…complicated," he muttered after a moment, realizing that he had never actually said out loud what had brought him to this point.
Tenten didn't waver, regarding him without judgment.
"Then explain it to me."
Chapter 7: Risen
Mission in Lightning Country. Back Tuesday morning.
If needed, leave a note.
Sasuke frowned at the sheet of paper, feeling somehow insulted by the way it fluttered in his general direction. The late autumn winds were coming in. If not for the kunai that held it to Kakashi-sensei's door, the note probably would have been blown to the Lightning Country with him by now.
Sighing quietly, Sasuke took the pencil that Kakashi-sensei had tacked up above the note, underscored by an arrow, and scrawled out a quick note of his own: Need to talk. -S
On a whim, he added a small, hasty version of his clan symbol next to his initial, though he was sure Kakashi-sensei recognized his handwriting by now. Then he returned the pencil to its place and stepped back, crossing his arms. There was little more he could do now.
Well, at least he hadn't made a liar out of himself. He'd told Tenten the night before that he would tell Kakashi-sensei about what happened - what had been happening - and he had every intention of following through. He didn't like to admit it, but he couldn't do this on his own anymore. That, and somehow it felt like the only way he could…what? Make up for nearly killing her for no reason? Take responsibility?
Or maybe he just didn't like the taste of guilt…
Sasuke turned to find that Sakura had appeared at his side, her face flushed from the wind. Her eyes brightened when he met them. "I didn't expect to see you…is Kakashi-sensei gone already?" she asked, peering at the message over his shoulder. "He said he'd be leaving early, I guess…"
Sasuke kept quiet, his eyebrows flinching downward a bit at the bounce in her step. It had been a while since he had seen her in a good mood that wasn't a front.
"Leave a note," he suggested finally, turning to leave, but she grabbed his hand before he could take a step.
"Wait-Sasuke-kun…" He paused. When he looked back, she closed herself up a little, letting go and shyly lowering her eyes. "…I just wanted to thank you."
Thank you? "For what?"
"Er…well, for this." For the first time he noticed she'd been holding a monster of a book this whole time, which she now lifted for him to see. Advanced Chakra Techniques & Applications, Volume 1.
When he lifted his eyes again, still nonplussed, she pulled the book back, holding it to her chest while she went on. "Kakashi-sensei stopped by my house last night and gave me this. He said it was to make up for him not being as available for the next couple of months…" She caught his eye, and her voice softened. "He said you were the one who brought it up."
Sasuke broke the gaze and shoved his hands in his pockets, but did give a small, confirming nod. She seemed to blossom in response, a genuine smile replacing the shy, hopeful one she usually plastered on for him. She smiled at him the way Tenten did. "I wasn't going to say anything to him about it before, because you were all working so hard, especially with your…" Sasuke sent her a sharp glance at the same time she hesitated, leaving a tense silence to fill in the blank. "…I didn't want to be a burden."
"So I just stayed out of the way."
"It isn't that difficult," he snapped back before even registering that he was annoyed, and Sakura flinched, startled. Taking a breath, Sasuke backpedaled to explain. "Trying to improve isn't the same as being a burden. It's the other way around. You would be a burden if you didn't care." He eyed the message he'd left for Kakashi-sensei, somehow seeing it as proof that he practiced what he preached. "It isn't hard to understand."
"…You're right," Sakura said after a moment, her eyes sparkling as though he had just proposed. "Thank you, Sasuke-kun." Sasuke only shrugged, fisting his hands deeper into his pockets; it was getting cold enough that it wasn't worth staying outside longer than he had to.
"Um…" Sasuke paused mid-step, glancing back again, and the image he was met with was both familiar and foreboding. Sakura was blushing in earnest this time, no doubt encouraged by his almost-compliment, and her smile shrank back into its usual shy little curve. "Maybe…if you don't have anything to do today…" Here it came. "We could do a little one-on-one training later, and…"
One-on-one training. The magic words that managed to repel him no matter what his mood. As usual, Sasuke took it as a cue to tune Sakura out. Sometimes it was easier to just let her talk. In fact, it felt like everyone wanted to talk lately. Sakura wanted to talk about 'one-on-one training,' Kakashi-sensei wanted to talk about the curse seal, Tenten wanted to…well. He had gotten himself into that one.
Sasuke wasn't a fan of talking. He liked doing, taking action, not talking about it. But the conversation he'd had with Tenten had needed to happen.
And he was starting to think that he had needed it as much as she had.
"It's a curse. I can't always…" Who was he kidding? Frowning, he averted his eyes. "I can't control it."
"A curse?" she repeated, and he nodded.
It wasn't hard to jog her memory. She had been there that morning in the Forest of Death, when the curse seal had gripped him for the first time. She had seen what he had done - who he had broken - under its control.
"It reacts to chakra. And...other things," he went on. "That's why I haven't been using the Sharingan. I…" He knew he had to tell Kakashi-sensei. This had gone too far. But after today…to look Kakashi-sensei in the eye and explain that he'd been lying to his face for this long felt like an impossibility. He'd already been pushed over the edge once today, and he had a feeling that that might just kill him. "…Tomorrow I'm going to tell Kakashi-sensei." Yes, tomorrow. Tomorrow was better.
He saw her look up from the corner of his eye. "Then what about before? With the Kouryuu Rasen, I mean." It was getting harder to look at her. "You were acting a little weird before you used the Sharingan."
"I didn't use it," he pointed out in his own defense, but she regarded him with a skeptical eye.
"You know what I mean."
He did know, and he also knew the answer to her question. But he had allowed that answer to be his own burden for so long that he didn't know if he was ready to let any part of it become hers. He didn't know if he had the strength for that.
It was pride alone, his instinctive revulsion at the idea of lacking the strength for anything, that drove him forward. He had never worked so hard at the first two words of a sentence in his life.
"…My brother used to do that technique." Saying the word 'brother' wouldn't make him appear, he reminded himself when his voice tried to choke. He swallowed so hard that it hurt, took a deep breath. "I'd never seen anyone else perfect it."
Tenten's expression smoothed a bit, but she hesitated, as if unsure how she was meant to respond. At once it hit him: of course she didn't know. Why would she? He forgot sometimes that while his generation knew bits and pieces about the slaughter of the Uchiha clan, very few of them were as familiar with the details as he was.
It took another push of effort, but he managed to make his voice work again.
"He was the one who did it."
A heartbeat's hesitation, and her eyes widened. He didn't need to say any more.
Well, this looked familiar.
Tenten couldn't suppress a smirk at the sight before her, in spite of a valiant attempt to stay focused. Not a week ago, she had been performing this very same bo staff technique, and Sasuke had shot her a similarly exasperated scowl. She spun the staff out of Neji's range and went in for three rapid strikes, all of which were expertly blocked by chakra-quickened hands. She didn't let him move to the offensive, though. She was seeing how long she could keep him on his toes today.
Noticing her grin, Neji frowned at her between blocks. "What?"
Quickly Tenten shook her head, trying and failing again to wipe the amusement from her face. "Nothing."
Before he could press for a better answer, she darted forward and used her staff to vault over his head at the last second, then turned and aimed a quick strike between his shoulderblades. Neji had to whirl around blind to block it, nearly losing his balance, but making up for it with a sharp twist of his hand that sent a spike of chakra straight through the wood, slicing it in two.
The force of the strike knocked Tenten back a few steps, now with a splintered stake of wood in each hand. Her eyebrows shot up. "That was different," she remarked, simultaneously annoyed and impressed.
Neji didn't wait for her to recover, instead taking the offensive with a satisfied smirk. "You aren't the only one who's been putting in extra hours."
Thinking fast, Tenten altered her grip on the two halves of her staff and threw them up just in time to block him, then planted her feet and pushed back, forcing them into a brief deadlock. She could feel beads of sweat forming at her brow - in terms of physical strength, Neji had the advantage, but she had never let that stop her before.
"Which reminds me," Neji said after a second, at which point Tenten swung one of the stakes out of the stalemate and put him back on the defensive, "we have a mission this week."
"What?--" Tenten faltered for only a moment, but a moment was all Neji needed to duck in close and pin her wrists to the target post. Quite suddenly he was much closer to her than she'd been ready for, stealing her breath for a second.
"Match," he quietly declared, glancing at her hands and back. Taking the hint, she sighed and dropped both halves to the ground. Neji didn't move right away, though, instead taking a moment to scrutinize her. "You're surprised."
"Well, no, I guess not." Tenten said after blinking a few times. "We just haven't had one for a while. Gai-sensei's been so busy with Lee."
Finally Neji released her and stepped back, nodding his agreement. "It won't be difficult," he went on while Tenten rubbed her wrist. "C-rank. We're to escort a group of carpenters from a village near the border of Earth Country."
"Carpenters, huh?" Tenten bent to deactivate her summoning scroll, then went to work rolling it up. "Are they well-known or something?"
Neji shook his head. "Just paranoid. They're coming to help rebuild on the west side, but they're still afraid of being targeted by the ones who destroyed it in the first place."
Straightening, Tenten packed up her scroll, then leaned back against the target post he'd pinned her to. "When do we leave?"
"Tomorrow night. Seven. If we travel through the night, we'll arrive by sunup."
"So assuming we'll be slower with them and their supplies, we'll be back by Thursday," Tenten finished half to herself with a slow nod. "And we're leaving at seven…meeting at the usual place?" Neji nodded again, and Tenten flashed him a teasing grin. "All right. It's a date."
As soon as she'd received the roll of the eyes that she'd been counting on, Tenten pushed away from the target post and headed past him. "See you tomorrow--" she began, but Neji's hand caught her shoulder before she could pass, stopping her. Silently he coaxed her to face him, and she frowned. "What?"
After a beat, his fingers left her shoulder and came to rest lightly against the side of her neck. The bit of pressure aggravated the sore, dark spots there, marking where Sasuke had grabbed her. Tenten's breath caught. Neji lifted his eyes back to hers, watching her very closely.
"Oh…um…" Tenten absently raised her fingers to the bruises, letting them linger there until he moved his hand, which she replaced with her own. "It's nothing. Just an accident."
Tenten knew she'd failed when Neji's eyes moved to her equally bruised wrist, on full display now that she'd stupidly lifted her arm, and back. His eyebrows lowered, and she sank a little inside.
Tenten winced almost visibly. He didn't look as angry as he did thrown off, and for good reason. She never lied to him.
"…Look, I'm training double-time now," she blurted when the silence grew too thick, taking a step back toward the exit. "I'm going to get banged up now and then. It's nothing, just…forget it, okay?"
Neji's frown deepened. "You're protecting someone."
"Will you stop that?" Tenten sighed, crossing her arms. "Stop dissecting me, Neji, you know it isn't fair. That's reserved for opponents, remember?"
"I never said that."
"Well…" Finally she shook her head. She never had been good at arguing with him. "I have to go. I haven't been to see Lee yet today. Visiting hours are over soon."
When he didn't argue, Tenten turned around to leave, shifting her arms so that she was loosely holding her elbows. Something had gripped in the pit of her stomach, and she wasn't sure why.
It seemed like she was feeling that way a lot lately.
She knew she shouldn't be feeling guilty. She had never met Sasuke's brother before; she didn't even know what he looked like. There was no way she could have known that she was affecting Sasuke just by being there.
But even knowing that, it still made her stomach churn.
The silence was stretching. She felt like eternity could pass them, just sitting there without words. The feeling wasn't comforting.
"…Here," she said finally, picking up the Uchiha kunai, her savior, and holding it out in his direction. His eyes fastened on it, taking on the same shrouded look she had seen before, when he had first discovered it. "I found it after you left that day. I didn't really know what to do with it, so…" Her words tried to trip over each other, and she calmed them with a pause. "It's more yours than anyone else's."
He swallowed hard, then silently took it from her, lifting it to examine the blade. Again she found herself wondering what he saw.
"I don't know what to tell you about the Kouryuu Rasen," she went on, more out of a need to break the silence than anything else. "I just use it to keep in shape for my summoning techniques…at first I just wanted to see if I could do it. I didn't mean anything by it--"
"I know." He looked down, lowering the kunai but not letting it go.
She wasn't sure if she was treading on thin ice, but a connection had suddenly sparked in her mind. "That's it, isn't it? That's why you said you didn't want to learn it."
He shook his head. "That isn't what I said."
"Well, okay, you said you didn't want me to teach it to you."
"My brother taught it to me." Tenten quickly swallowed whatever argument she'd been conjuring, feeling another pang of unwarranted guilt. He still didn't look at her. "I don't need to be taught again. I just never mastered it."
Something touched his voice that she hadn't heard before, something between anger and sadness - she couldn't give it a name, but it reminded her of the way she felt whenever she thought of not only her failure against Temari, but the moments she'd wasted pitying herself over it. Not quite regret, but close. Taking a deep breath, she mustered up her courage and went out on a limb.
"Well, if you want to…" She felt his eyes fasten to her as she stood and stretched, satisfied now that he would be all right on his own. "…Master it, that is. If you want to do that, I could help you. Not teach," she added, the corner of her mouth faintly twitching up, "just help. And if you don't want me to, I won't." She lifted her eyes to the darkening sky, wondering how long they had been here. "It's getting late," she murmured. "I have an early session tomorrow, so…"
He looked upset. No…frustrated. Yes, that was it. His brow was furrowed as if he was trying to read a foreign language, and the visible tension in his shoulders betrayed the apparent calm of his sitting position. She paused. "What?"
He blinked, as if surprised that she'd noticed, and gave a quick shake of his head. She waited a second more, in case he changed his mind, then bent to pick up a last forgotten kunai and turned toward home.
Tenten glanced back at the sound of his voice, and the sight of him, seemingly unable to lift his eyes from the ground, erased any doubt from her mind.
"I believe you."
It was past noon on Tuesday, and Kakashi-sensei wasn't back.
Sasuke knew he should be used to it by now, but he was still irritated. He was feeling unusually restless today, hardly able to sit still, and had hoped to have been done talking to him by now. So much for that.
Stepping away from the broken tree, Sasuke moved to the center of the Uchiha clearing and panned the area with his eyes, taking in the locations of the eight wooden targets. He knew he had at least eight kunai on him. I wonder…
There was something a little frightening about the way it felt to crouch down in that clearing, knowing what he was about to do. He hadn't even thought about it in half a decade. Until this year, his mind had always attached the thought of this technique to the thought of failing, as well as thoughts of his brother, two subjects that were never welcome, but something was changing.
He was changing.
Slipping the eight necessary kunai between his fingers, Sasuke took a moment to bow his head and take a deep breath, then steeled himself and launched into the air.
He'd almost forgotten it, this feeling of flying and falling at once, the wind whipping against his face as he twisted his body against it. His arms moved of their own accord, the motion crystallized in his body's memory; the kunai slid from his fingers like water. He remembered now why he used to love this feeling.
Another twist and an arch of his back, and Sasuke's feet were on solid ground again, his body crouched so low that his hair brushed the grass. Vaguely he wondered if Tenten's heart beat this fast every time she performed this technique. A more timid voice inside him wondered if his brother's ever had.
It wasn't until his lungs started burning that he realized he'd been holding his breath, and he slowly exhaled, then pushed himself to his feet to examine his work.
He'd improved, even a little more than he'd expected after five years without even an attempt: four bull's-eyes, two on the line, and one just barely there, making seven hits altogether. It was the last kunai that missed; as far as he could remember, it had always been the last kunai. I'm still not there yet.
Sighing quietly, Sasuke took the sight in one more time, then left the center to collect his kunai. He would have to talk to Tenten; his aim had felt off lately, ever since…
Oh, right. Since the other day, when he'd started the morning in her arms and ended the evening with his hand around her throat.
Sasuke shook his head, still quietly cursing his own lack of control. The occasional flashes of what he'd done that night had been eating at him for the past two days, even after she had accepted the apology he'd had to force down so much pride to give her. Even after she'd offered to keep working with him, when she had every reason to cut him off completely.
"If you want to master it, I could help you."
The conversation replayed in Sasuke's mind for the hundredth time as he bent to pick up his last kunai, the one that had missed, from where it lay on the ground. On straightening up again, he paused; someone was coming--
He had hardly turned around when there was a flash of white and a blur that slammed into the tree an inch from his head, startling him right off his feet for a second. Sasuke jerked to action, his arm darting up in preparation to defend himself, but a hand clamped around his wrist before he could strike, restraining it in midair and forcing his fingers open. The kunai dropped from his hand. When he finally looked up, for a moment he couldn't register anything but white.
Hyuuga Neji did not look happy.
Sasuke quickly masked any surprise in his expression, though his heart was still racing from the momentary panic. "Interesting way to propose a challenge, Hyuuga."
If Hyuuga heard the taunt, he ignored it. "Why is she lying for you?"
This time Sasuke couldn't catch himself before confusion crept into his expression, but it only remained for a second. He's here for Tenten.
Eyes narrowing, he pulled his arm from Hyuuga's grasp and said nothing.
Again Hyuuga didn't care, letting his own arm drop to his side, but he left the other hand against the tree, keeping him uncomfortably close. "What did you do?"
Sasuke gave a disdainful snort and broke the gaze. "I don't see how what I do is your business."
"When you do it to my teammate, you make it my business."
That obviously wasn't the desired answer. Sasuke knew the moment Neji started scrutinizing him, using that damned insight that he could employ without even activating his Byakugan. He knew the moment Hyuuga's eyes found the patch of gauze that Tenten had securely fastened over his curse seal. When he finally looked up again, Hyuuga's jaw was set in a warning.
"I don't care how you got that chakra," Hyuuga said finally, "and I don't care that you can't handle it." Sasuke bristled, unsure whether he was more annoyed by the statement's boldness or its truth. "But don't give her another reason to lie for you."
"Does it bother you that she's lying for me," Sasuke challenged before Hyuuga could take another breath, fighting back on behalf of his wounded pride, "or that she's lying to you?"
Hyuuga drew back a little, insulted, but stood his ground. "It bothers me that she's lying at all," he said. "She isn't the kind of person who lies." At least they agreed on one thing.
"No," Sasuke replied, looking him in the eye. "She's the kind who stays out of your way. Right?"
For the first time, Hyuuga betrayed a glimpse of confusion, but quickly shook it off. "She's the kind who'll forgive you."
(The way she looked at him, his mother's endless patience in her eyes. "I believe you.")
Suddenly uncomfortable, Sasuke looked away again. He let his ears tell him when Hyuuga planted his feet, his voice firm. "But she's the only one."
"What are you going to do?" Sasuke asked, all his restlessness from earlier on now transforming into pure stubbornness. "Fight me?"
White eyes narrowed, seeming to look right through him and call a bluff he hadn't even made yet. "If that's what it will take."
Sasuke frowned, the haughty glint fading a bit from his eyes. He's serious.
Sasuke and Hyuuga blinked at the third voice, then turned as one toward the source.
Tenten had paused mid-step beside the broken tree. Her eyes moved slowly between the two of them, as if trying to decide just what she had walked in on. "…Am I interrupting something?"
A beat of silence; then, seeming to realize what this could look like, Hyuuga's eyes widened. "No," he answered for both of them, quickly pushing away from the tree and out of Sasuke's personal space. When Tenten looked to him for confirmation, Sasuke shook his head in agreement, willing his face not to flush.
The spark of amusement in Tenten's face lasted only a second before her eyebrows lowered just a bit, and she exchanged a long, silent look with her teammate. Now it was Sasuke's turn to glance between the two of them, wondering in spite of himself just what he'd missed.
Finally, something in Hyuuga's face closed up, and his voice grew stiff. "Are you packed?"
Tenten nodded slowly. "Seven, right?"
Hyuuga returned the nod, then moved to exit the clearing. "Don't be late." A last warning glance at Sasuke, and he vanished into the brush.
Curious now, Sasuke eyed Tenten as she entered the clearing in earnest, only absently picking up his dropped kunai. "Packed?"
"Yeah," she replied, leaning back against a tree opposite him. "That's why I'm here, actually. I was on my way to your place to let you know I've got a mission with Neji tonight. We'll be gone until Thursday morning - you know, in case you'd planned on training before then, " she added hastily. Then she met his eyes, dismissing the topic altogether. "Did Neji say something to you?"
Sasuke shrugged. "Not really."
She studied him for a moment longer, then shook her head at something he couldn't hear. "…Okay. Well…what about you?" she asked, nodding at the kunai in his hand. "What are you doing here?"
Sasuke hesitated, lifting the kunai to study his distorted reflection in the metal. "That technique," he answered quietly and at length, moving the kunai so that it flashed the sunlight briefly into his eyes. "It's been a while. The last kunai is off."
He heard Tenten draw breath, then pause, as if unsure whether her advice was wanted. Finally she settled for a small sound of agreement. "It's always the last one. I had that problem, too."
Taking a quiet breath, Sasuke lowered the kunai back to his side. "What did you do?"
She sent him a quizzical look. "Want me to tell you, or show you?"
In response, Sasuke slowly lifted his eyes, then flipped the kunai into the proper grip and sent it whistling into a target just at her side. Almost mechanically, her hand shot out to stop it an inch away from the target and suspend it in the air with her chakra. Just as she had done the night of the thunderstorm, Tenten held the kunai there, then analyzed the angle between the target and the blade. Looking up, she smiled, letting the kunai drop into her hand.
There were eight impacts.
Sasuke shook his head, shooting a scowl at his eighth kunai, which had stubbornly lodged itself in the bark of the tree, hardly an inch above the top of its target. A few more tugs on the wire attaching the kunai to his finger were to no avail. "Stuck."
"Well, look at it this way," Tenten tried, examining the kunai from her perch on a higher branch across the clearing. "At least it didn't bounce off this time?"
"Tch." A flare of blue chakra shot through the wire from Sasuke's fingers and moved in the direction of the kunai, presumably to increase the force and pry the kunai loose.
Tenten shot him a triumphant smirk. "Glad I made you use the wires, huh?"
Sasuke rolled his eyes, but didn't deny it. He'd been unusually cooperative so far, having given her nothing but a lifted eyebrow when she'd insisted that he use kunai with wires attached, not only to save time, but because if he did it right, he wouldn't get tangled up. Not that Tenten was complaining - she supposed it was a nice change of pace - but she didn't doubt that it had something to do with the other day. There wasn't much she could do about that.
As soon as the small flame of his chakra reached the kunai, Sasuke jerked back on the wire, forcing the blade free, and used the chakra to float it back into his hand. Tenten blinked, a little surprised; she had never thought of using wires as a conduit before. She'd have to remember that.
"So," she began while he disentangled the kunai wires, "how did talking to your sensei go?"
"Haven't done it yet," he muttered, frowning at what looked like a particularly unyielding knot. "He was supposed to get back from a mission this morning, but he's late."
Tenten suppressed a laugh. "Gai-sensei makes a speech about the 'evils of tardiness' every week. I think your sensei has something to do with that…" She paused, craning her neck to see how he was faring against the knot. "Do you need help?"
Tenten sighed to herself. "Okay…"
"He's probably back by now," Sasuke seemed to decide half to himself, finally managing to free one of the seven tangled wires. "I have to check."
Tenten nodded, leaning her head back against the tree trunk. "I should probably be going over the mission itinerary."
She could only assume the silence that followed meant that Sasuke didn't really want to leave this place either.
"Okay," Tenten finally said, deciding that untangling the wires was taking too long, "how about this. We both have places to be, and it looks like the wires are being more trouble than they're worth. So just forget them." One well-placed kunai from her hands, and all eight wires were cut. "You've been using them all afternoon, so one try without them before leaving won't hurt." She then hopped off her branch and joined him in the center of the clearing.
Sasuke eyed her while he discarded the remaining segments of wire. "What are you doing?"
"Making sure you don't break your neck," she said, briefly stretching herself out. "More concentration on your aim will mean less concentration on your landing. Besides, I'll get a better look at your angles if I'm up there with you."
Seeming to find her explanation sound enough - not that she left any room for argument in the first place - Sasuke gave a slow nod, then readied his newly liberated kunai. As soon as he'd done so, Tenten moved behind him. "Ready?" she asked quietly, and he nodded.
As one, they launched into the air.
Gai-sensei had worked with her this way when she had first proposed the technique to him, but it hadn't felt anything like this. Gravity meant nothing now; they defied it. Tenten made sure to give Sasuke enough space that she wouldn't be interfering, but stayed close enough to guide him if she had to. When she placed her hand between his shoulderblades, a silent reminder not to be too hasty, it was as though they became a single shinobi, breathing in unison, moving as one.
Just before Sasuke loosed the last two blades, Tenten quickly moved her fingers to his arm. "Wait," she whispered, and he listened. As soon as the timing was correct, she pulled her hand away, and as if in answer to a secret code, Sasuke immediately let the blades fly.
From the corner of her eye, Tenten could see the last kunai on its ever-uncertain path. It wouldn't be a bull's-eye, but it would hit. She knew it would.
In one breath, they arched their backs and turned upright once more. It was only then that Tenten noticed that Sasuke's eyes were also on the last kunai, now securely wedged in the target's upper arch for the very first time - which meant he wasn't concentrating on the landing any more than she was. Seeming to make the connection at the same time, both of their eyes widened--
--Just in time to witness their own spectacular crash-landing in the center of the clearing, startling away half of the birds in the surrounding trees. In a moment of quick thinking, Tenten avoided injury for the both of them by letting her heel slide forward when she hit the ground, skidding her safely onto her back in time to cushion Sasuke's fall. As a result, they were both still in one piece by the time the dust settled - in a tangled, coughing heap, but in one piece.
"…Like I said," Tenten coughed after a second, a laugh bubbling out of her before she could stop it. "More concentration on your aim…" Sasuke only grunted back at her, moving to get up at the same time she did, but she did catch a glimpse of a grudging half-smirk at his lips while they struggled to untangle themselves. Finally she leaned back on her elbows to wait for him to get his footing, trying to catch her breath. "That was better!" she encouraged, still beaming with mirth. "At this rate, you could have it down by the time I get ba--"
But something stopped her then, momentarily confusing her. What…?
It was only when the moment had passed, and he was slowly pulling back, that she realized her mouth had been stopped by Sasuke's.
The curse mark pulsed.
It took no more than a half-second after feeling Tenten's breath catch against his lips for Sasuke to jerk to reality, his eyes going wide.
It took no more than another half-second for him to scramble off of her without even bothering to stand up, every curse word in his vocabulary racing through his mind on repeat. He was vaguely aware that his eyes weren't quite returning to their normal size. At the same time, the curdling heat at his neck lingered only a moment before reluctantly fading. However, the receding curse seal did nothing to slow the adrenaline that now churned through his blood, paired with a strange paralysis that he could only see as a mild state of shock.
He didn't know whether he was more panicked about the curse seal, or the fact that he had just kissed a girl for the very first time.
When Tenten pushed herself up, awkwardly clearing her throat, Sasuke didn't look at her. He couldn't. He couldn't handle this now, not so soon after he'd…
…No. He had to see Kakashi-sensei. Now.
He pushed himself to his feet, still unable to look at her. "…Good luck on the mission," he murmured, his eyes fastened to the ground.
There was a hitch in her breath as she swallowed hard, and a soft rustling when she stood as well. He didn't feel her eyes on him; she must have been having the same problem he was. "Thanks," she said quietly. "Good luck with Kakashi-sensei." He only nodded in return, whether she could see it or not.
A flutter of wind against clothing, and he knew she'd taken to the treetops. He was alone.
Then he was out of the clearing, out of the woods, making his way at a brisk walk toward Kakashi-sensei's with his face in his hand and wanting to strangle himself. Things had been going well, and then he'd had to…to do that, for no reason…
No, that was a lie. He could think of plenty of reasons. But none of them were the right reasons.
She had been doing it again, raising phantoms with every step she took. But this time, it had gone farther. Never before had he allowed himself to mix the past with the present this way, but then there she was, with his brother's technique, doing what his brother had never done. To a question that he had always answered with a thinly-veiled 'no,' (The prick of pain that he had always mistaken for fondness. "Forgive me, Sasuke. Maybe another time.") she had said 'yes.' She had given him that, when it had never been given to him before, and it had jarred him to the core.
And when they had seen the last kunai make the target, he had caught a glimpse of pride in her eyes. Pride in him, like the way his father's eyes had looked on the day that had given him hope. ("As expected of my son." Five words that meant more than anyone could know.)
And when they had fallen, her first instinct had been to protect him. When she'd laughed, he had seen his mother in her eyes again, happy and whole, perhaps the only member of his family to boast such a luxury.
He had seen in her everything he wanted back. No one had ever done that to him before, and he'd wanted…
Sasuke dropped his hand and shook his head to himself, glancing up as he neared Kakashi-sensei's place. He didn't know what he wanted anymore.
Growing closer, he found that his sensei's front door was bare, which was a good sign. He was back. Now things could be taken care of. Already Sasuke could feel a bit of the tension seeping out of him with somewhere else to put his focus. He would be able to get the truth of the curse seal off his chest - suddenly confessing didn't feel nearly so impossible - and have some time to put things in perspective.
It wasn't until he was halfway up the stairs to Kakashi-sensei's room that something began to feel a little off. For a second, he swore he could hear hushed voices. Strange…he never has company.
Frowning, Sasuke ascended the remaining stair steps, then didn't bother to knock before opening the door. "Kakashi--"
The image he was met with told him that something was very wrong.
He didn't say anything for several moments, panning his eyes around the room and taking in the presence of Gai-sensei, Asuma-sensei, and Kurenai-sensei, each perched in a different corner, their expressions chillingly sober. Then there was Kakashi-sensei himself, lying motionless in bed, his breathing soft and slow.
Swallowing hard, Sasuke looked at each of the conscious jounin in turn, searching for an explanation. They revealed none.
"Why is Kakashi-sensei asleep?" he finally asked, his pulse beginning to pick up. There was no answer. His eyebrows lowered. "Why are jounin gathered here?" he tried again, more insistently. "What happened?"
It was Gai-sensei who finally answered, casually refusing to meet Sasuke's eyes. "Nothing much happened…"
Sasuke hardly had time to think of reacting before quick footsteps behind him made him turn. Even as he did so, another jounin threw himself into the doorway, panic in his breath and electric energy in his limbs. When he spoke, anxiety laced his voice. "Is it true that the Itachi came back?"
The world stopped spinning.
"And he's after Naruto?"
The room fell away. He…Naruto…
Then he was running, his every thought cast into darkness but for one: I have to stop him. No question of what he would do. No fear of what would be done to him.
How foolish. For a moment, he had forgotten what it was he wanted.
Now he remembered very well.