A sharp laugh startled Tenten out of her practice circuit and she turned to stare at the strange girl watching her from the end of the room. Tenten hadn't even realized anyone had joined her in the dojo– the kindly owner tended to leave her alone when she practiced by herself unless it was to introduce her to some new challenger. The owner was nowhere in sight, though, and this girl was still dressed in her crisp school uniform– the Samezuka uniform, Tenten recognized.
The girl took one look at Tenten's gaping face and laughed anew, remembering a moment later to smother it into her hand.
"I'm sorry," the girl said without even trying to sound sincere, waving her hand as if to brush away her laughter; the smirk stretching her lips stayed. "I've heard so much about this talented swordswoman, 'Konoha's own Tenten-san,'" she affected a breathy voice for these words, obviously mocking something she'd heard, "well, I guess I just imagine someone with real talent behind her."
The insult itched over Tenten's skin and she gripped tightly to her shinai in her irritation. "Excuse me?"
Another wave of her hand, and the girl shrugged, looking away as though in disappointment. "Ah, well," she said, "I thought the people I heard crowing about you seemed pretty weak themselves. I remembered your name from the school karate competition, though, and I found myself thinking– 'you know, maybe that girl shows more promise with a weapon in her hand.' So it was my own fault for building you up in my head, I guess."
"You–" Tenten breathed deeply, reigning in her temper. She would not let this girl ruin her practice for her. She would not. "I guess you're some sort of expert?"
"Mm, not an expert, no," the girl said, shrugging again but now looking back to meet Tenten's eye, "but then I'd hardly have to be in order to beat you."
"If you want to challenge me to a fight, just say so," Tenten growled, turning away and easing flawlessly back into her practice steps. "Name the time and place, and I'll see what I can do for you."
The girl laughed again and said, "Well, I don't know that challenge is the word– this certainly isn't going to be much of a fight."
Tenten snapped her head back around to retort, but was taken aback to see the girl selecting a shinai for herself from the rack by the wall. As if feeling Tenten's bafflement, she threw a look over her shoulder.
"As for the time and place," she said, "we're both here now."
It seemed like a joke, this prim and sophisticated girl in her spotless school uniform slipping off her shoes and setting her glasses atop them to step onto the mat and meet Tenten in the middle. As she walked, she stretched her arms and legs– the sort of stretch more suited to a run, Tenten thought, than to strenuous exercise. The way she moved told Tenten that she was dealing with a skilled opponent, but Tenten could hardly see evidence of it in her actions.
"Now?" Tenten repeated dubiously, though she was already settling into a beginning stance. "Listen, um–"
"Temari-san– I can wait for you to change, you know. It can't be comfortable in your uniform, and I'd hate to see it soiled." She actually wouldn't mind taking it outside and throwing it in the mud, but that was petty.
"This won't take long," said Temari, still with that smirk, "and I don't intend to break a sweat."
"We'll see," Tenten answered, grip going tight before she made herself relax. When Temari only settled into her own opening stance and kept smirking, Tenten added, "I'm ready whenever you are."
Tenten wrinkled her brow.
"I'll give you three tries," Temari clarified, "then I'll end this."
Promising herself that she was going to end this long before it came to that, Tenten took a deep breath and struck, shouting her fighting spirit. Temari countered her perfectly and with hardly a visible effort, sending Tenten reeling. The second attempt was even worse, Tenten cursing the wounded pride that made her sloppy as Temari had the nerve to laugh at her again.
True to her word, Temari made no offensive move just yet. Tenten took the opportunity to back off and get her bearings, to breathe deeply and reevaluate her opponent. She didn't make a habit of breaking her promises, but she had a sinking feeling that she was about to let herself down in a big way…
No! She shook her head to clear away the negative thoughts. Was she really going to give in to despair just because she was facing a worthy adversary for the first time in such a long time? Of course not! And she certainly had no intention of justifying this girl's sense of superiority. She had caught Tenten off guard, that was all.
Steeling herself, Tenten took a breath and went in for her third strike, letting all her pride and confidence carry her voice as she shouted.
It was her third and final, as things turned out. Temari dodged so gracefully that there was a moment that Tenten almost believed that she'd somehow run right past her. She turned to stare and caught a glance of that smirk before her vision was full of stars. It took her a moment to actually register the pain in her side, and another moment to recognize the source. Temari hadn't even bothered with a shout of her own.
Still, Tenten refused to let this girl end the fight as quickly as she obviously expected to. Fighting to suck air back into her lungs, she forced her body to take a defensive stance, shinai raised–
Her shinai was on the floor almost immediately, both of her wrists stinging though Temari had moved so quickly that Tenten wouldn't otherwise have realized she struck twice. Desperate not to go down just yet, Tenten dropped to catch up her shinai again. In the next moment, it was her on the floor, her whole head aching and her face smarting where Temari had struck her, swallowing a mouthful of blood. Defeated and dizzy, she slumped to show her surrender.
Temari came to kneel beside her, and Tenten counted it as a victory when she managed not to flinch. Breath ragged, she glared up into her opponent's smirking face; only the pain kept her from curling her upper lip in a snarl. She actually did flinch when she saw Temari reach out to her, though it hurt so much that she couldn't find it in her to resist when that hand found its way under her chin with a deceptive gentleness.
Temari hummed as if in contemplation, running a thumb across Tenten's lower lip. The sting and spread of wetness told her it was split, not that she was surprised. "Much as I'm disappointed in your performance," Temari said, "I can at least see now what they meant about your looks." She tipped Tenten's face as if examining it, humming in what sounded like approval this time. "At least coming here wasn't a complete waste of my time."
Tenten wrenched away, biting down on the wave of nausea that accompanied the sudden movement. The fresh wave of dizziness was harder to ignore, and she found herself hunched over, forehead to the floor as she tried to control her breathing. Through the ringing in her ears, she heard Temari laugh again. That laughter stuck with her long after Temari had collected her shoes and glasses, replaced her borrowed shinai and gone on her way.