a/n: The setup is a lot harder than I thought it would be xD So, I hope you manage to enjoy the chapter! Thank you so much to everyone who reviewed/faved/alerted the story!
Disclaimer: Kishi-sama owns
The light is different when next Tenten wakes. Instead of flickering flames, trying to keep deep darkness at bay, the shadows are suffused with a buttery glow. The air isn't as dank; the clamminess that came with being deep underground doesn't cling to her skin anymore – it is easier to breathe. Despite the grogginess Tenten gingerly stretches out a hand to brush lightly over the surface she is resting on. She groans softly as she turns carefully onto her back. She hadn't been dreaming; she was very definitely lying on a bed. One that hasn't been used in a long time – judging by the dusty, disused smell – but a real bed, nonetheless. The shackles are gone, though her wrists and ankles still hurt from the tightly clamped steel, and the pain from before has receded. For a moment longer she lies quietly, allows herself to become aware of her surroundings in minute detail. She is still clad only in her bindings and underwear, her weapons are still conspicuous in their absence, but she is blessedly alone. Slowly, cautiously, she allows the memories to trickle back once she is sure her captor is nowhere in the vicinity.
Sasuke. Uchiha Sasuke.
She couldn't begin to fathom what he could possibly want with her. But, truthfully, Tenten didn't really care. The only thing she could focus on was the fact that she would likely never emerge from this place, wherever they were. Not alive anyway. Her hand falls from her eyes; drifts slowly down to her hip and hovers, trembling, just above the place where he'd burned that symbol into her flesh. It took far longer than Tenten liked to admit for her to screw her courage into a tight ball and reach down to touch the still aching skin. Her eyes flew wide open as her fingertips brushed gingerly down only to encounter soft gauze taped securely over the wound. Without thought, wincing almost in anticipation of the pain to come, Tenten pushes herself up into a sitting position, staring down at her body in mistrustful disbelief. He scarred her … and then cleaned and bound the wound?
It made no sense.
For a moment longer she stares at the white square, allowing her senses to become aware of the fact that he'd clearly applied some kind of salve or healing agent to the seared skin; she could feel the cool tingle of medicine relieving the burning ache under the gauze. Warily she glances at her forearm where a strip of plaster covers the cut that is the last clear memory she has.
"I die, you die, Tenten."
Hadn't that been a dream? Some crazy subconscious form of torture inflicted by that cursed Sharingan of his? She shakes her head violently, fighting with all her might against the wave of nausea that rose dizzyingly along with the vigorous movement. The implication of that one short sentence … is not something she could contemplate. Not without going insane …
The door opens slowly, creaking on its hinges, and Tenten reacts before she can think of a solid course of action.
The air is dank – damp and cold. He'd almost forgotten how much he hates these bases of Orochimaru's. Without fail they make him feel trapped; trapped as he'd been when he'd first come to the Snake Sannin: stuck in a place he never wanted to be; too young and powerless to help himself and too full of the realization that he needed power to fulfil his plans. Despite his arrogance and self-assurance – a façade necessary to win the allegiance of Sound– training with Orochimaru hadn't been a choice he'd undertaken lightly; or without trepidation. But he hadn't had any other choice in the end. Itachi had been waiting, somewhere out in the wide world, and Konoha had been babying him. The fact remained that the only way to gain enough power to defeat his brother had been to ally himself with Orochimaru. So Sasuke had ignored the way every cell in his body screamed at him to get as far away from the Snake Sannin as he possibly could and he'd fought through the claustrophobia that threatened to engulf what little sanity remained to him whenever they descended into one of these lairs.
A shiver skates down his spine, despite his best efforts to contain it. Down here, far beneath the earth, it's hard to breathe. The air seems to press down on him, rolling over his skin in a way that is all too reminiscent of how the late Orochimaru's gaze had roved over his body hungrily, as Sasuke struggled through whatever ridiculous exercise the man had cooked up. Always the pretence that it was to make him stronger; but Sasuke wasn't stupid – even then, caught up in dreams of dealing death to Itachi – he'd known that for all the reassurances Orochimaru was really only putting him through the paces; seeing how he performed, as if he was a horse up for auction. He'd done what he was best at: surviving. He'd locked himself away, become no more than a sharply-honed weapon and he'd learned. Powerful jutsu, new and inventive ways of killing people – though in those days he'd rarely made use of those skills – but never enough to really be a threat to the ambitions his master held. Or so Orochimaru had thought.
Sasuke smirks mirthlessly as he reaches for a badly chipped porcelain mug, crossed to the corroded steel sink and filled it with water after rinsing it thoroughly. Orochimaru, like most before him, had badly underestimated the power of the Sharingan when wielded by a true Uchiha. The shinobi world had grown too accustomed to Kakashi – formidable with his implanted Sharingan to be sure – but no real match for someone with the power to fully utilize the deadly red eyes swirling in their blood.
The darkness, ever-present, pulls at his mind; threatening to suck him down into the unthinking abyss of endless accusations and regrets – things could have been so different… He'd been inactive for too long, chasing after the kunoichi – planning and planning endlessly with no real action to keep the demons at bay.
Shaking his head to dislodge the thoughts – he had a prisoner to win over after all – Sasuke forced himself back to clarity. But it was too late; the doubts that dogged his footsteps wherever he went had won and the Uchiha stood frozen, staring down at the tray filled with Tenten's meagre meal, lost deep in thought.
How different would it have been if he had been the eldest? For so long, Sasuke had lived in Itachi's shadow; sure that no one and nothing could surpass his brother's genius, that he had been blinded to Itachi's true nature. Then he'd been equally blinded by rage and hatred; sure that his brother was a cold-blooded killer. When he'd finally learned the truth it had unhinged him a little – Sasuke was the first to admit that. Or maybe it had unhinged him more because he really couldn't claim to have been well-adjusted to begin with …
But finally, the wondering had started – the indescribable despair at his brother's fate had lifted a little and he'd been able to recognize that beneath the grief lay the all-consuming desire to save his brother. Only he couldn't do that; Itachi was dead. So he'd set about saving what remained of Itachi's name – the name he had wound up sacrificing himself for …
It had been unsettling to say the least; to realize that after so much time spent thinking his brother invincible, unconquerable, that Itachi was merely human after all. Brought to his knees by the bonds of love he couldn't help but have …
A long time had passed before Sasuke had been able to see his brother – and himself – clearly. Finally, he realized that for all his strength and genius Itachi had one fatal weakness – his ability to love coupled with his selfless nature. And he'd begun to wonder: would he have done differently in Itachi's shoes? Clinically, Sasuke examined the thought – for the millionth time – and for the millionth time came to the same conclusion: Itachi was the epitome of a shinobi soldier; no one would ever be able to surpass him. But, much as it pained him to admit it, his brother wasn't a leader; it wasn't in his nature to break away from rules and regulations that had been instilled in him from birth. Too introverted and inward-looking to ever really connect to those around him, too devoted to vows he'd made, too tied up in bonds of loyalty, bonds of love.
And if it hadn't been for Itachi, Sasuke didn't doubt he would have grown up much the same; blinded by loyalty to a village to which he was expendable at best. But the agony of his childhood had hardened him, cut any and all ties he could have formed with Konoha and because of that he was stronger than his brother in ways that Itachi couldn't ever have foreseen. Not for the first time, Sasuke allowed the futile daydream to take control – imagined himself in his brother's shoes, Fugaku asking the impossible of him, and a savage shiver of satisfaction races through him as he imagines plunging his katana into the stone-faced man's heart; stopping the rebellion and the bloodshed – the heartbreak – that was the only outcome of the man's ambitions. This time he allows the dream to flow further; imagining that he could take his mother, his brother, every other innocent Uchiha who had been sacrificed because of his father and the clan elders' ambition and hide them away. After they were safe, he could return to destroy the village that held his blood in such low regard that they would be willing to turn on him at a moment's notice no matter how much of himself he gave …
For a moment, the imagined image flickers; another –a memory this time – layered over it and Sasuke clenches trembling hands around the edges of the sink, taking deep breaths as he forced the familiar nausea to recede. His mother's mutilated corpse, lying in a pool of her own blood; his beloved brother standing over her – blade still edged with her blood …
Oxygen is scarce and Sasuke gasps through the sudden stinging in his eyes as he fights to suck one deep breath after another into his constricted chest.
When he comes to, he's kneeling on the cold stone floor, fingers bloody and torn from digging into the uncaring stone in an attempt to anchor himself against the memories. His breathing is shallow, he's light-headed from lack of proper breath but his ribs have loosened their crushing hold on his lungs and he stays as he is for a few moments longer; gratefully sucking in deep, deep breaths of air. Finally, the worst of it past, he straightens, carefully gripping the sink until he's sure his legs will hold, locking his knees and elbows against the trembling in his limbs.
The last of the memory retreats and he's firmly back in the present, flexing his bruised fingers until he's sure they'll be able to grip the tray properly. Sasuke stares at the meal he'd placed on it for a long time – as if the piece of somewhat stale bread and cup of clear water could give him the answers he so desperately longs for - before he forces himself forward, picks up the tray and moves with jerky steps into the hallway.
Was he doing the right thing? Would the kunoichi – Tenten, he reminds himself – prove to be as useful as he hoped? Or would she be merely another hindrance, another game piece that would inevitably have to be cleared off the board as he makes his final moves in the game of survival that is his existence?
With a firm shake of his head Sasuke pauses in front of the door to her room – her cell – and carefully places the tray against the wall, out of the way if she should decide to be less cooperative when awake than she was unconscious. It might only be a stale piece of bread but it was all that was on offer – as it was he was going to bed hungry tonight because he couldn't risk leaving Tenten alone while he went foraging for something edible.
The lock clicks, and for a moment, pure dread rushes through his veins, freezing him in place. The foreboding lasts only seconds but, when Sasuke shakes his head again and turns the handle to open the door, he's sure of only two things:
One, for better or for worse, Tenten was bound to him now and they would both have to make the best of it; even if it proved to be the worst idea he'd ever had.
And two, this would be his final gamble; his final game – the last time he faces off with his enemies. Tenten would be his last piece to play – and he had to be sure that he played her wisely.
The moment the door swings open on squeaky hinges, Sasuke is grateful for the fact that he'd had the foresight to leave the tray of food outside. Tenten reacted every bit as violently as he'd thought she would; a kick aimed high at his head while her fist tries to blind-side him from the left. He sighs, she is skilled at taijutsu, that much he'd learned after watching her for so long but physically she is a lot weaker than he is and, without heavy boots and ankle guards reinforcing her blows, it is easy enough to bat her leg out of the way. He steps smoothly to the side, avoiding her fist with equal ease as he watches her trying to right herself as momentum throws her off course.
She should have known better than to attack without planning; she was a better kunoichi than this, of that Sasuke was sure. She knew how to plan, how to search for an opponent's weak spots and use them to her advantage. He was taller, bigger … it followed logically that he would be stronger and she should be trying to use the fact that he outweighed her to her advantage instead of blindly attacking.
He sighs again; he'd not really pegged her as the type of girl who would allow emotions to rule her life and he couldn't help but hope that she wasn't about to prove him wrong.
Ignoring the pain in his fingers and the pounding headache that had developed beneath his right temple, Sasuke moved swiftly – not bothering to suppress the smirk at her blank expression of surprise as he moves too fast for her to follow. One hand reaches out, catching her smaller wrist in a crushing hold, he whirls tightly; positioning himself behind her, her arm twisted up uncomfortably against her back. But it isn't enough; she's a kunoichi after all, so he uses his body to force her forward, pressing her face-first against the stone wall next to the door.
"Enough." His voice is firm, his tone authoritative and he's gratified by her instinctive response to the command; she freezes in place.
"I will let you go and you will not fight me any further. Understood?"
He waits for her jerky nod before he releases her wrist and steps away, using the moments she spends in flexing her arm and massaging her wrist with a wince to retrieve the tray from the hallway. A smooth kick shuts the door, the lock clicking automatically into place, and Sasuke places the tray on the bed before facing Tenten again.
She hasn't moved from her spot by the wall, save for turning around to watch him warily, still gingerly massaging her hand. Her speculative stare fixes on him and suddenly Sasuke is uncomfortable for the first time in a long time. He walks to the opposite wall, leans against it and crosses his arms.
It's a command and he can see the resentment flaring in her steady gaze as she shifts her attention to the tray on the bed.
A decidedly unladylike snort breaks her silence and she returns her attention to him, dismissing the food.
"How stupid do you think I am?" she scoffs, "for all I know you've laced chakra-suppressants through the bread or mixed poison into the water."
For the third time Sasuke sighs and resists the urge to massage his temple as the pounding headache increases in intensity. Carefully holding her gaze he moves to the bed; breaks off a crust of bread and chews it quickly before swallowing it down with a small mouthful of water from the chipped cup.
The faint flicker of uncertainty in her eyes is a victory but Sasuke only moves back to take up the same position as before and watches her until she steps away from the wall, reaches out a hand and picks up the bread. As she eats, finally sitting down on the bed, though she never lifts her wary gaze from his stationary form, he begins to talk.
"If I wanted you dead, you would be." His voice is flat, emotionless; it's crucial that this conversation play out in a certain way. "I am not going to poison you, suppress your chakra or in any way harm you. Unless you attack me," he adds as an afterthought. "I advise you not to try; you saw what happens to you when I'm injured."
She briefly closes her eyes, as if she can't stomach the thought of what had transpired, and, for the first time in a long time, Sasuke feels irritation spinning through his veins. He grits his teeth before he continues.
"The seal binds in blood. Time and distance doesn't matter. If I am attacked any injuries I sustain will be replicated in your body."
He watches carefully as she stiffens, places the half-eaten piece of bread on the tray and meets his gaze evenly.
"So, running is pointless, that's what you're saying," she states flatly, but doesn't quite manage to hide the flare of panic in her eyes.
Sasuke inclines his head in agreement – relieved that she caught on so quickly. He pushes away from the wall with his shoulders, keeping his arms crossed as he walks to the door. Before he steps over the threshold and into the hallway he pauses.
"If you want to live, Tenten …" He doesn't wait for a response though he can feel her chakra flaring behind him.
"We begin at dawn."
The silence is almost deafening but Tsunade forces herself to tough it out, to sit like a statue, her gaze fixed unwaveringly on the Hyuuga boy standing in front of her. His pearlescent eyes are fixed on some point in the distance but she knows he isn't really seeing anything at all.
"I'm sorry, Neji. But I thought you should know. Gai and Lee have succeeded in setting up a base-camp, just outside Fire country's border. He's managed to track down enough of our fleeing forces to allow for word to spread … all Konoha deserters know where to go now. They are gathering, awaiting our signal for the final move."
She doesn't know why she's repeating the facts; hoping perhaps that they would provide some comfort to him? She knows that's impossible; having lived through the loss of Jiraiya Tsunade knew better than anyone what it does to a person to lose someone they trusted, literally, with their lives.
"But Tenten isn't there. And there's no sign of her that any of the tracker shinobi have managed to find." His answer is flat, calm.
Tsunade couldn't help the wince, "Neji. They know that she left her sister with her grandparents in Grass, that she made it back within Fire's borders ..." her voice trails off when she realizes that he isn't listening to a word she's saying.
"Tsunade-sama," belatedly he bows, remembering the correct protocol when addressing the Hokage, "I request permission to search for Tenten."
"Once you leave these walls you won't be able to come back, Neji. Not until after order is restored," Tsunade speaks carefully, not wanting to antagonize one of her strongest soldiers remaining but not willing to alienate one of the strongest clans supporting her by allowing this request, either.
"I understand, Hokage-sama. If I am unsuccessful in tracing Tenten I will join Gai-sensei at their camp and continue to work for Konoha from there."
"What about your uncle?" Tsunade reluctantly releases the breath she'd been holding because she'd really known all along that she would allow this though she couldn't help but hope he'd change his mind.
"I will request permission from my clan-head, of course," he bows again, and stands to attention, awaiting her decision.
For a moment, Tsunade studies the young man in front of her, "Permission granted. Hyuuga Neji, you are hereby ordered to search for Tenten. As Hokage, I command it. You have two weeks for your search, after which, irrespective of the outcome, you are to report to Might Gai at the resistance camp."
He's gone almost before the words had fallen from her lips.
a/n: So, what did you think? Review and let me know ^^ Pretty please?