Tenten and the youth set off at a brisk pace, saying nothing to the other, but Tenten couldn't help but sneak a few sly glances in his way. He was of a lean build, and his muscles were built beneath the bulky layers of clothing. His hands were slender and, she suspected, smooth, for she could see no calluses. His features were aquiline- and he was almost hawklike in his manner of watching the world around him with shrewdness- but his nose was slender while his jaw was strong. His luxuriant locks, despite being recently cut significantly shorter, were incredibly healthy nonetheless and so dark brown they appeared black in the poor light.
"I think you've had more than ample time to analyse my features," he called back without looking at her.
Tenten blushed and trudged though the snow, using a slim branch to dust the snow out of her path.
"What is her name?" he asked after some time, in reference to the horse.
"Starshadow." Tenten couldn't keep the pride out of her voice, having taken care of her since she was a foal.
"She's very sleek- her gait is light and quick."
He obviously had experience with horses.
"But she does not have the right build to be a knight's steed."
"I rely on agility and fleet of foot in battle- not just brute strength and weight to throw around."
The Hyuuga scoffed.
"It's typical of a woman to make up such an excuse."
"It is typical," she replied scathingly, "of a man to mock a woman who has the potential to exceed him!"
"You believe you have the potential to exceed me?"
He turned in his saddle and smirked down at her.
"I wish you luck, lady."
"It's Tenten." She automatically corrected him.
"Tenten," He inclined his head in acknowledgement and turned back around.
"And what is your name, sir?" Tenten asked, remembering that she lacked this piece of information.
"You may address me as Hyuuga-san."
Tenten rolled her eyes. The young man was egotistical enough to withhold his name from her. She clicked her tongue and watched as Starshadow flew through the forest, kicking up a flurry of snow in her wake, taking the noble with her as they crashed through branches and frozen thickets. Tenten watched with keen eyes as the young man leaned forward and began to croon into the horse's ear.
The young woman's eyes narrowed as she saw the horse calm and, the noble still astride the black filly. Tenten caught up to the pair and bowed, feigning relief.
"I am… sorry."
He raised an eyebrow at her.
"My Lord." She added belatedly. "It would have been a shame if you had fallen off." She murmured deferentially.
"I'll never fall off a horse," he replied arrogantly with a flick of his hair. His skin was flushed with exhilaration, his eyes were alight and his breath was slowing as they spoke.
He turned around and Tenten made a silent sound. Starshadow reared as she had been trained and the Hyuuga slid off the saddle and into an undignified heap at Tenten's feet.
"Never fall off a horse?" Tenten echoed, holding out her hand. He ignored her offer of help and stood, flicking the snow out of his clothes as he stalked off.
Tenten rubbed the star and kissed the horse's cheek before running after the noble, Starshadow trotting after her.
"You will not ride, sir?" She asked after she caught up with him.
"I will walk, for now." He replied curtly.
Tenten did not mount, but slung her bow back onto the saddle, freeing her movements and walked on.
A few hours later, dusk was falling quickly onto the land. Tenten sensed an eerie quiet in the forest around her- more deathly quiet than the sleepy slumber of winter. She tensed and slowly raised a hand to her neck, unclasping the cloak and stuffing it into her bag. Cracking her fingers, she drew out the swords at her waist and threw the pair to the noble, immediately unsheathing the blades that rested on her back.
"Do you know how to fight?"
"Of course. I was trained since the time I could-"
"Stop talking!" She hissed.
Starshadow whickered nervously and pranced on the spot. Tenten instinctively crooned, but she could sense the impending danger.
There was a vicious snarl and a pack of ten or so wolves surrounded them, teeth bared and all pumped for an easy kill.
The man smirked.
"I will take six. I need a new fur coat."
Tenten rolled her eyes. Men.
The atmosphere shifted and Tenten knew before it happened, ducking and thrusting her blade up into the air in a smooth arc, slicing right down the stomach of the wolf that had attempted to rip out her throat, warm droplets of blood streaming onto the snow. Spinning on the spot, both arms flung out, another beast fell as the young woman made the same, silent signal she had earlier that day, and Starshadow reared, her hooves failing dangerously.
As she stood, Tenten caught a glimpse of the devilishly good-looking noble she'd rescued holding out very well on his own, having taken out three of the pack.
There were four left, circling the travellers warily. The strongest had silvery fur and a scar down its face- a mark, perhaps, of his claim as the leader.
"He's mine." The youth whispered, and Tenten rolled her eyes at his arrogance while calming the filly. Tenten facing one way, and the noble facing the other, they timed their attacks and took out a wolf each with quick, deft strikes. The remaining two growled viciously, hackles raised and teeth bared. Starshadow whinnied and the wolves slunk away into the darkness.
The noble was about to pursue them when Tenten grabbed onto his sleeve and pulled him back with a vicious tug.
"It's not worth it!" She admonished him. "They gave up- and that's all there is."
He did not resist her, but shrugged her hand away, and cleaned Tenten's blades in the snow before offering them back to her.
"Keep them. You could need them at a moment's notice and I might not be here." She removed her belt and handed it to the noble, quickly rearranging the straps on her back to create another belt from which her second pair of blades could hang.
"Who is your blacksmith?" He asked suddenly. "These are finely crafted blades- incredibly wonderful, balanced and smooth."
"I made them." Tenten replied, a blush tinting her cheeks as they walked away from the wolves. The cloak seemed suddenly too bulky on her and restricting as she pulled it back on; but she knew she'd need it soon enough.
"You are a fine blades crafter. Your fighting style, however, needs work."
He had a definite ability, Tenten thought dully, to turn a compliment into a put down. He was so typically… arrogant. He was like all of Sasuke's infuriating traits bundled up together to create some kind of lump of vanity.
The pair set up their small camp in an alcove a few hours after sunset, Tenten throwing her back her hood as she began to strike up a fire, feeding it precious twigs and leaves to get it going, and then sprinkled a powder into the flames to strengthen its warmth and light. The young man returned with a few branches and began to throw them into the flames, bringing up a warm, ambient glow.
Tenten looked up at him, her mouth curving into a small smile of gratitude as she handed him a knob of coarse bread and dried fruit. He nodded in thanks and they chewed the food in silence.
Tenten huddled up in her cloak as she rearranged her blades so that they were within reach and wouldn't stick to the scabbard.
"What are you doing?"
"Staying up to make sure those wolves don't come and attack you while you sleep." She said irritably.
"Well, wake me up at midnight and I'll watch until just before sunrise."
"There's no need-"
"Your sleepiness by that time would endanger us both." He interrupted her curtly and Tenten grudgingly agreed. However, she narrowed her eyes and nodded, turning her head to the side and watched, out of the corner of her eye, as he settled to sleep in the only bedroll they had- hers.
There was no sound in the dead of the woods, but Tenten had neither fear of the darkness nor the blanketing silence of snow. She shut her eyes as she reflected on the Hokage's last words to her, replaying the episode in her mind as she stared into the hazy glow of the flames.
There was a sudden movement and the former knight moved for her blades in a split second, but her limbs were clumsy and her eyes were dazzled at the sudden loss of light.
"You were staring into the fire." The noble's voice dripped with smugness. Tenten shook her head and her eyes adjusted to the light. She knew it was dangerous to do so; but something about this man made her never want to back down, ever.
"Save your breath." He grumbled as he melted some snow in a tin cup over the flames and threw some more logs to fuel the fire. "Get some sleep while the sleeping roll is warm."
Sleepily startled by his words, Tenten complied only too gladly and was deeply asleep after taking in a deep breath laden with the noble's scent.
Morning came all too soon and Tenten rolled out of the sleeping kit with mild difficulty. They needed to get out of the forest soon; the air was heavy with the smell of snow. The snow storm would blow in by tomorrow at sunset at the latest.
There was a heavy ache in her chest; she was getting sick. She could only hope for the warmth of a castle in winter within a few hours.
That day, the Hyuuga seemed to trust her enough to ride Starshadow once again and he initiated a conversation, much to her surprise.
"You're getting sick," he remarked as she cleared her throat while rubbing her chest.
"I need to talk to you, about something."
"It's about… tomorrow."
It was clear that he knew they'd reach the castle tomorrow.
"You will ride behind me on the horse. We'll be forced to stop at the gates. I want you to keep your hood up until we reach the main castle and show your face only when I introduce you. You will remain silent and walk two paces behind me and once pace to the left."
"Be silent!" He snapped. "In my family, appearances and propriety is everything. If you are not introduced in the right way, they'll assume that you are involved with me romantically."
"Aren't they bound to think that anyway?"
"Not unless you give them reason not to."
"It can't be helped!" Tenten reasoned. "Women always talk."
"Are you speaking from experience?" He smirked and Tenten rolled her eyes.
"Just… ugh." Tenten gave up trying to communicate with the antisocial noble.
"Just do as I say and take my lead. I will need your services in the court. I need you to be my eyes and ears and I will need your protection, regardless of my fighting prowess."
"And why is that?"
"Because they will still see me as a threat; I've come back to them out of the blue after six years and they have no idea how far my fighting abilities extend, regardless of how much that witch watched me. I will need your presence to protect me from their schemes to lock me back up."
"And what if they do not care, and lock me up with you? What then?"
"I highly doubt that. If it comes to that, then we can escape and flee to Konoha and bring this issue to your Hokage."
"… She didn't-" Tenten decided whether or not to finish her sentence but decided against it; she was not sure how he would react and Konoha was too far away to reach within a day, regardless of whether or not they both travelled by horseback. The forest behind them was too thick to ride in and the wolves were facing hunger. "… Oh, never mind. It's nothing."
The next day, they spoke little and Tenten could see the tension in the Hyuuga's muscles. She jokingly offered to massage him as they stopped for lunch at midday, but her attempt to lighten his mood fell to shambles as he rewarded her comment with a smouldering glare.
With a roll of his eyes, the Hyuuga went off into the woods and Tenten released her hair and began to twist the curled lengths into neat braids and pinned them together behind her head.
The noble returned as Tenten finished grooming Starshadow. She looked up with a smile.
"You took your time."
The noble shrugged.
"I need to look respectable for the both of us."
"Haha, very funny." Tenten said sarcastically. "Are you ready now?"
The Hyuuga did not respond, but he mounted anyway and held out his hand to help her up.
"And this isn't humiliating." Tenten muttered under her breath. "What happened to not looking 'romantically involved'?"
"It's faster this way. We won't make it in time if one of us walks." He paused, and tenten could have sworn that his cheeks were tinted a slightly pink colour that could not have been from the cold. "Besides, like you said, women talk. Especially in my family."
Tenten glanced up at the ominous clouds and hesitated before taking his hand.
"You don't trust me?" That arrogant smirk graced his face once again and he aided her in mounting the filly.
"Not a single chance, Hyuuga." Tenten smiled as he kicked Starshadow into a gallop and sent the snow up into the air in a flurry.