At first, he'd been terrified.
He hadn't shown it in front of his new allies - something in him refused to let him use the term 'comrades' - but after he'd taken the mind drug from them, against every instinct in his body, and they had locked him in this dark chamber, he'd really been afraid. It was the darkness that had done it. Darkness was not supposed to feel like a tangible thing, brushing across his skin, seeping into him with every breath. Poisoning him.
The thought had crossed his mind that if this was really the path he was born to follow, it shouldn't be making him feel like this.
He had felt it from the first step he'd taken outside the village gates, a strange uneasiness in his core that had made his heartbeat shudder. Pride had made him force it back under the Sound Four's eyes, but as soon as he was alone, the dark slithering into his body with every passing moment, the feeling had made him tremble all the way to his fingertips.
It wasn't that he was completely surprised. In a matter of hours, he had abandoned the village that had always been his home, joined the servants of one of the people he feared most, followed them, taken that strange drug from them, and entrusted his body, his life, to them.
And for all that, he had felt just like he had after Itachi had broken him, wandering between worlds, unsure anymore what was real, but certain that his insides were going to twist themselves to nothing and his body was going to shatter. He had sworn he would never let it happen again; now he had made it happen again.
When the darkness had thickened to the point of suffocation, panicking him, his mind had automatically tried to calm him by conjuring the images that had once reassured him, though this time they had only made it harder to breathe: Sakura, Kakashi-sensei, Naruto. And…yes, he'd realized, now Tenten was there too. But they hadn't comforted him.
Sakura had told him she loved him. Kakashi-sensei had tried to protect him. Naruto had stayed at his side, called him 'friend.' And Tenten…he didn't know what she had become to him. But he couldn't let thoughts of her, thoughts of any of them, save him anymore.
He couldn't, because when he thought of them, all he wanted to do was go home.
The darkness had chosen that moment to jolt through his body again, so sharply and suddenly that he had gasped and curled into himself, his fingers digging arcs around the curse seal at his neck. Bursts of white had splashed in front of his eyes, which were only moist because the jolt had made them water (not because it had felt like he was being torn apart, not because there had finally been no one to see him, not because he was scared and had known it was too late to turn back), and the faces of those he'd left behind had blurred and dimmed until there was nothing left but whispered voices and crimson eyes.
That's right, he'd remembered. There was a reason he was here.
Finally the darkness had let go of him, and he had slumped down, gasping for breath, his consciousness in tatters. Broken images had flashed through his mind like blowing leaves, never lingering long enough for him to give them a name. His head had bowed, and weak fingers had dug into his hair. He'd hated being so lost, hated it, he'd wanted to be anywhere but here.
But then he had felt the power.
As suddenly as his eyes had squeezed shut before, they had now opened wide. In a drugged reverie he had let his hands fall away, his breath catching in his throat.
He had never felt anything like this before.
The power had rushed through him, strength flooding his veins and coursing through his limbs, making his heart pound. Suddenly every breath had brought him to life, shooting heat through him, transforming him, scorching him a new skin. The small, frightened boy had faded away until he was only a shadow, an echo. Even the burning at his neck had no longer been anything more than a small annoyance, an afterthought lost in the glow.
It couldn't hurt him, not really. Not anymore.
It hadn't hurt when he'd sat up in the small chamber, half-reeling. He'd started trembling again, but it wasn't because of nerves; the fire blazing through him was too brilliant for his body to contain. The creeping darkness had curled around him and held him close, no longer the cruel grip but a protective, possessive embrace that had only lifted him higher until he'd felt like a god.
This was true power. This was what he had sought. This was what he had seen in Itachi's eyes every day of his life. I think I understand you a little more now, Brother.
He knew now that he had been foolish to allow himself to be afraid, no matter how justified it may have been. The darkness that cradled him now was not an enemy; it was power. And truly great power would always instill fear. He just hadn't understood.
But he did now. For the first time, everything was clear. He could do anything. He was invincible.
So he closed his eyes, and breathed the darkness in.
Chapter 9: Resonance
Within an hour of waking up that morning, Tenten had known something was wrong. And like so many things in her life lately, it had started with that kunai.
She hadn't really thought about it in the last few weeks, occupied as she had been with watching her life spin out of control. Lee's surgery, and Sasuke's silence, and Neji - she quickly shut down that train of thought - had all kept her mind far away from the little rusted kunai she had presented to Sasuke not so long ago.
But she did remember giving it to him. Which was why when she saw it there on her shortcut to the hospital, dew-beaded and glinting in the morning sun, exactly where she had put it when she'd first found it, an alarm had immediately gone off in her mind.
Next had come the whispers. As soon as she had set foot out of the exercise grounds and onto Konoha's main road, she had heard them in almost every conversation she passed. His name was on everyone's lips, making the village in its entirety sound like a nest of troubled snakes to her ears.
When she had finally stopped and asked what was going on, she had gotten the real story.
So he was gone. No - he had left. Of his own volition, with complete knowledge of what he was doing. She knew the attack by his brother had changed him, and she'd felt the tension coming from him when they'd talked the night before, but she'd never thought he would actually…
Tenten paused at the hospital's main doors, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath. Not now, she told herself. Now wasn't the time to think about what she could have said or done to stop him; with the week she'd been having, she had a feeling that anything more would put her over the edge. She was here to see Lee, and she refused to upset him by showing her apprehension. Not when she had sat for hours the night before while he was in surgery, and rejoiced right along with Gai-sensei when it was announced as a success.
So she wouldn't think about after the surgery, when she'd run into Sasuke in the street, and she wouldn't think about the sight of Neji turning and walking away from her. Even if she only pretended she didn't have any problems, Lee had a knack for making her believe it herself. This could still be a good day.
Trying on a smile, Tenten reopened her eyes and strode through the doors.
She had hardly taken a step inside when a green blur shot in her direction, and big hands had grabbed her by the shoulders, nearly scaring her out of her skin. "Tenten!"
"Ah! Wha--Gai-sensei?" she said, her voice shrill with surprise, and quickly let go of the kunai her hands had automatically gripped. "What--"
"Tenten, have you seen Lee? Is he with you?" her sensei demanded, practically shaking her.
"--Lee? No, he…" Her mind finally catching up with her, Tenten frowned. "Isn't he here?"
That seemed to be the wrong question to ask, as it provoked a dramatic wail on the part of her sensei, his hands slipping away from her as he slumped to his knees. Tenten searched his expression in vain, bewildered. "Sensei? What's going on?"
"I'm afraid," Gai-sensei replied at length, grave and weary, "that Lee has vanished."
"Vanished?" Tenten blinked hard, trying to get a grasp on just what was happening here. "But…you mean he's just gone?" Her frown deepened when he nodded. "But his surgery…it was just yesterday, he can barely walk by himself. He can't have gotten far--"
"Alas, he certainly could!" Gai-sensei was suddenly on his feet again, one fist coming up in front of him, clenched with emotion. "When Lee has his heart set upon a goal, he will not rest until he has achieved success! I should have seen it - why, he was so upset this morning about not being included on the retrieval mission, if only--"
"Wait," Tenten interrupted, her head spinning. "Retrieval mission?"
Snapped from his emotional reverie, Gai-sensei paused to look down at her, frowning a bit himself. "You don't know?" She turned her palms up in reply. "I'm surprised Neji didn't tell you himself."
Tenten suppressed a wince. "Neji…well, he's…" She shook her head. "Never mind. Tell me what?"
Gai-sensei took a moment to respond, instead studying her face with eyes that were much more perceptive than anyone gave him credit for. Finally he moved his gaze out the window. "Well," he said, strangely sober, "I suppose you have heard about Uchiha Sasuke's disappearance?" She nodded, swallowing, and he continued. "This morning, Tsunade-sama sent Nara Shikamaru to amass a team, with the objective of catching Sasuke and returning him to Konoha. Unfortunately, doing so may involve the task of dealing with the ones who are leading him." Finally Gai-sensei met her eyes again. "Neji was among the shinobi chosen for this mission."
"Neji…" Tenten bit her lip, unnerved by the solemn tone in his voice and the very real concern in his face. He had worried about Lee before, and herself, but never about Neji. "…And you think Lee went after them?"
"I am positive," he replied. "A young man's heart can never be quelled by idleness when faced with a young woman's tears! Lee has gone to honor young Sakura's request and aid in the battle, reclaiming his place as the Beautiful Green Beast of Konoha Village!"
Tenten cringed at the sudden increase in volume. "Gai-sensei--" she said, before his waterfall-proportioned tears could start, "what can I do?"
"Ah, I'm afraid there is little that can be done at this point, though my heart is moved by your youthful initiative!" He shot her a smile that made her see stars for a moment. "I'm afraid all that anyone can do now is wait for our fellow shinobi's triumphant return."
Tenten lowered her eyes, gripping her elbows. "I see." All of them are gone…
Finally she lifted her head. "Well…I'll go to the gate and look out for them. No reason to wait around here." She turned toward the doors. "I'll let you know if I see them." Gai-sensei nodded, and then she was leaving the hospital grounds, leaping across the rooftops in the direction of the village gate. The cool breeze on her face did little to calm her worries.
Halfway to the gate, she stopped on a particularly high roof, just to get her thoughts together. But instead, she found herself looking silently over the expanse of land beyond the gates, cut off by woodlands just before the horizon touched the sky. The wind whipped at her clothes and blew her bangs in and out of her eyes.
"Where are you?" she murmured into the wind.
It no longer mattered to whom she was speaking.
It was time.
He broke free in an explosion of light and sound and smoke, letting the sun blind him as he took his first breath in ages. The wind whipped against new skin, and for a moment he just stood there, letting renewed senses fill themselves with the rustling of trees, the smell of grass, the taste of open air, as if for the first time.
Vaguely he could hear a familiar voice - Naruto. So he was here.
But it didn't concern him that Naruto was close by. Not at all. He was just something far away, something trying to pull him back to earth. He didn't matter.
Feeling his body shift, Sasuke slowly lifted his hands in front of his eyes, studying them, marveling at them like someone who had been born without them. A lazy, secret smile crossed his face, and he laughed a little, power-drunk and uncaring who heard him. Even his fingertips were tingling with new strength.
He was reborn.
From somewhere in the distance he could still hear Naruto's voice, angry now, shouting his name. Vaguely he wondered what had happened to bring Naruto to him, while the Sound Four were gone. But as soon as he had the thought, he realized that he didn't care. Perhaps they were dead.
Still grinning to himself, he stepped forward and launched into the trees, reasoning that at least he could move faster without them. He'd had no ties to them to begin with, and he didn't need them anymore.
It was his time now.
Neji, Kiba, Shikamaru, Chouji, Naruto.
Those were the ones who had gone after him. Tenten had learned it when she had gone to wait at the village gates and found that she hadn't been the only one with that idea. Sakura, she had expected; Ino, not so much. It was Ino who had informed her about the other members who had been sent after Sasuke, emphasizing more than once that Shikamaru was the one leading them, so there wouldn't be anything to worry about.
Not long after that, Hinata and Aburame Shino, the latter apparently just back from a mission with his father, had joined them. Hinata had looked worried, while Shino…well, she couldn't really tell, but he seemed a little more restless than usual. That, she understood. Tenten wasn't thrilled about waiting instead of fighting either.
Once the remaining two had gotten settled and the conversations trailed away, they had fallen into a charged silence, watching and waiting for their teammates, their friends, the people who had become their second families. Or, for some of them (but looking around, Tenten realized with a tug that it really only applied to herself), their only family.
But all of them were worried, she knew. The way Ino started pacing on and off as the minutes crawled by, the way Hinata instinctively squeezed Shino's hand at a glimpse of distant movement that turned out to just be a bird - the way Shino had let her - and the way Sakura kept almost-unblinking eyes on the horizon, the picture of unebbing hope -they all meant the same thing.
As the minutes continued to stretch, Tenten could see that the worry was making some of them impatient.
"What's taking them so long?" Ino grumbled, her fingers tapping against her arm as she resumed her pacing once again. "It's been almost two hours."
To Tenten's right, Hinata swallowed hard. "I-It could be that they had to stop and fight," she said in her usual half-whisper. Ino turned to face her, and Tenten could almost see her confidence clashing against Hinata's uncertainty. They were getting on edge.
"So what?" Ino snapped, making Hinata flinch. "Shikamaru's lazy, but he's not stupid. If he knows he has to finish something fast, he'll find a way." Hinata lowered her eyes, and Ino turned back toward the horizon, feet planted and arms crossed. "They should be back by now."
"They will come back." Tenten blinked in surprise; she had almost forgotten Sakura was there. When her eyes fell upon her, she found that the younger girl still had not torn her gaze away from the forest's edge. "Naruto promised they would bring Sasuke-kun back. And when he makes a promise, he keeps it. They're going to come back." The quiet conviction in her voice made the others go silent.
Feeling she had little to contribute, Tenten sighed to herself and followed Sakura's gaze back to the horizon. Ino did have a point. This was taking too long.
And on top of that, she couldn't get Gai-sensei's expression out of her head. Never before had she seen him show anything but pride in Neji, so why was he worried now? Did it mean she should be worried, too?
Well, if she was supposed to be, she was failing. Years of believing in Neji no matter what had made it automatic. Even if she wasn't getting along with him right now, she still had as much faith in him as she had ever had; he was Neji, after all. She didn't know if she was capable of not believing in him.
Tenten bit her lip, making another fruitless sweep of the forest's edge. Lee was making her nervous. After the scare with his surgery, for him to run off while his body was still fragile, pushing it when it was trying to heal…every passing moment weighed a little heavier in the pit of her stomach. She didn't voice it like Ino did, and she didn't show it like Hinata, but this whole situation was starting to scare her.
A flash at the side of her vision brought Tenten out of her thoughts, and she turned to find that it had apparently been the light reflecting off Shino's glasses; he must have moved. Looking closer, she could see that his body had tensed, his breathing quieted.
"What is it?" she asked, and the others came to attention, swiveling their gazes in his direction.
He didn't answer right away, but then gave a slow nod into the distance. Tenten turned with the rest of them to follow his gaze, the sunlight making her squint before she could find a hint of what he saw. At her side, Hinata quietly activated her Byakugan; there was a spark of white as her eyes widened. "Oh!"
At the same moment, Tenten found that she could make out several figures leaving the forest, moving toward the village gates. She held her breath and counted: four were walking, but it looked like two more were being carried, unconscious. Six all together. Hope leapt in her chest for a moment, but was immediately replaced by confusion - if there were six, then that meant either Lee or Sasuke wasn't with--
But her train of thought was cut off as the figures came into full view. Sakura gasped from the side, and Shino's grip tightened on the rail, but Tenten could swear her heart stopped.
She couldn't move for a moment, the sight of Temari of the Sand shaking her bones, but the shock of green next to her was what drained the blood from her face: Sabaku no Gaara, with a bruised and motionless Lee draped over his shoulder.
Lee's name whispered out of her, and before she knew what she was doing she was leaping to her feet and rushing forward to--
"Wait!" Ino's hands on her shoulders were the only thing that stopped her, though the younger girl didn't seem as concerned with her as with the approaching shinobi. "Shikamaru's with them."
Forcing herself to look down through the half-blindness of panic, Tenten saw, to her confusion, that Ino was correct. It was Shikamaru who led the Sand shinobi to Konoha's gates with Akamaru carefully cradled in his arms, talking quietly to Temari while Kankuro hefted an unconscious Kiba higher on his shoulder.
As soon as Ino had let go of her, Tenten jumped down with the rest of them to meet the returning shinobi at the gates. "What happened?" Ino demanded as soon as Shikamaru was in hearing range, to which she received a tired frown. He shook his head. Tenten's fingers worked impatiently at her sides, wanting only to get Lee away from Gaara and into a hospital bed.
"No time," Shikamaru muttered, seeming reluctant even to pause, and jerked his head toward Kiba's pale form. "He's lost a lot of blood." Hinata's hands had flown to her mouth at the sight of her teammate, but now Shino stepped forward, a strange tension in his movements.
"I'll take him," he said quietly but firmly, and the air seemed to grow heavy in the moment that Kankuro met his eyes. It was only a moment, though, and then Kankuro was handing Kiba over to Shino, rolling the shoulder he'd been supporting him with.
"I gave him a blood-stopping pill," he informed him, seriousness overtaking the drawl Tenten remembered, while Shikamaru put the dog into Hinata's care. "Should've at least slowed it down." Shino nodded, then turned to Hinata in a silent command, and they took off toward the hospital.
Emboldened by Shino's actions, Tenten stepped forward and interrupted Ino's second attempt at interrogating Shikamaru, her voice coming out clear and strong. "What happened to Lee?"
"He passed out." She had directed the question toward Shikamaru alone, but the voice that answered her gave her a chill, and she had to suppress a flinch before steeling herself and meeting Sabaku no Gaara's gaze. He looked back with the same indifference he had shown the few times she had seen him before, though this time there was a pronounced weariness behind it that she had not seen. "He tried to fight beyond his capabilities," he explained, seeming to read her expression and lowering Lee into his arms, then offering him forward. Tenten took Lee from him at once and brought her teammate close, her fingers just brushing against Gaara's in the exchange. His hands were freezing from lack of chakra. "Other than that, he's fine."
Swallowing hard, Tenten nodded, shifting Lee so that his legs were hooked over one of her arms while the other supported his shoulders. She bravely kept Gaara's gaze. "Thank you."
She had just turned to go when Sakura's voice made her pause. "Shikamaru - what about Sasuke-kun?"
"Yeah," Ino piped up again, "where are Chouji and the others?" Neji…
Shikamaru sighed, lowering his eyes. "I don't know." Then, looking up again, "Do whatever you want, but we're waiting at the hospital." Ino nodded and moved to follow, but Sakura held back.
"I'll stay," she murmured, and Shikamaru shrugged. It was at that point that Tenten turned back around, carefully avoiding the gaze that she'd felt Temari set on her from the moment she'd stepped forward, and broke into a sprint for the hospital, all the while holding Lee close and thanking the stars for every breath he took.
Naruto's voice was barely audible, a pathetic murmur nearly lost in the cacophony of the Chidori in Sasuke's hand, and Sasuke carefully concealed a frown. The hopelessness in that sound bothered him. When their eyes met, Sasuke became keenly aware of the thick sorrow that Naruto was emitting, rising around him as surely as that strange red chakra was surrounding him before Sasuke's eyes. He had seen Naruto angry, jubilant, terrified, but this expression was new to him.
Heartbroken. That was how he looked right now.
Swallowing hard, Sasuke used the time he needed to charge his Chidori to study Naruto further, wary of that chakra that was slowly changing his teammate's fingernails to claws. Naruto hung limply in his grasp, as if too overcome by whatever was going on in his head to even function. His emotions ruled him. No shinobi could survive long like that.
Sasuke gritted his teeth, inexplicably angry.
Idiot. Naruto had come this far since they'd met, and he was still a shortsighted idiot. Sasuke knew that Naruto could never understand why he was doing what he was doing, because he hadn't come here to understand. He had come to take Sasuke back. That was all that mattered to him; he was just an idiot who saw what he wanted to see, and he would never get anywhere like that.
(Her fingers around his wrist, her voice in his ear. "If all you care about is the center of that target, then you won't get any farther than you are now.")
The memory struck him so suddenly that his eyes widened. Where did that come from?
Tenten's words, even in memory, gave him a shadow of the chill he'd gotten when she'd said them first. It hadn't occurred to him then that her instructions could apply to anything beyond the kunai in his hand. Vaguely he wondered if she had meant to do that, if she had been explaining a way to live that he hadn't been able to grasp. It was only now that her words rang true.
But Naruto wasn't the one she had said them to.
The muscles in his left arm tensed, distracting him; the Chidori was almost ready. And in a moment, he would use it to kill his best friend.
Just like Itachi had told him to.
("You were given the power of Chidori. That power isn't used against friends or for revenge." One bond is loosened, another one pulled tight.)
("Your team really looks out for you, don't they?" Yes. They do.)
(Trust in his own knowledge, even if it is the knowledge of a broken mind. "You should know what that power is for.")
He felt the push of chakra, signaling that the technique was at its full power. The lightning tore at his skin, the chakra tugging on his veins. His body was ready. His chakra was ready.
He didn't move.
Cold sweat mixed with the spray of the water beneath their feet as each memory opened the gates for another, and another, paralyzing him.
Do it, he told himself, his mind quietly frantic. I have to do it. Otherwise…
But he had hesitated a moment too long.
With a broken, animalistic howl, Naruto jerked in Sasuke's grip, and then one clawed hand had closed around his wrist, and the red chakra burned so white-hot against his skin that he screamed, and the Chidori faded to nothing but air in his hand, and he was being tackled, another set of claws closing around his throat as his chakra gave way and they crashed into the water, and the world was suddenly dark and silent and airless.
He had missed his chance.
And some small part of him was terrified that that was what he had wanted.
Hinata and Shino had already settled in the waiting room when Tenten arrived, and Shikamaru and the others arrived just after she had given Lee over to the medics. From there, it became clear that once again, all they could do was wait. It was Shikamaru who saved them from dwelling on their injured comrades too much, giving them a weary play-by-play of what had happened from the time they left.
Tenten absently wrung her hands as his story came to a close, still avoiding Temari's eyes and glancing at the door to Lee's hallway every few seconds. So they'd had to leave Neji behind. He was taking on one of that Orochimaru guy's men alone.
He can do it, she assured herself. It's Neji. He can handle one shinobi.
For some reason, her next breath shook.
Shikamaru moved to the window as soon as he was done, his arms crossed and his mouth in a thin line. He was worried. When Ino moved to stand at his side, silent for once, Tenten lowered her eyes, suddenly very aware that she was the only one in the room without a teammate. She couldn't remember the last time that had made her feel so alone.
But that was okay, she reminded herself, because it couldn't last long. Lee was going to be all right - though she didn't know how far she could trust Gaara's judgment, as she doubted he knew just how newly healed Lee was - and when Neji got back, she would apologize for snapping at him, and the two of them would visit Lee's room just like after his fight with Gaara, and she would lecture him while Neji rested in the visitors' chair (if he was taking this long, then he was probably using too much chakra), and Naruto would bring Sasuke back, and everything would go back to the way it--
"Out of the way!"
Tenten's head snapped up, along with those of everyone else in the room, just in time to see a group of medic-nins rush through the main doors in a burst of sound, shouting instructions to each other and carrying a stretcher between them. She jumped to her feet, her heart suddenly pounding against her ribs, but when she saw who it was, she - along with the rest of the Konoha shinobi in the room - was struck silent. Chouji…
She hardly recognized the skinny, motionless boy on the stretcher as Akimichi Chouji. What kind of people are they fighting?
Shikamaru practically sprinted across the waiting room when he saw, Ino right on his heels, and flagged down the last medic-nin in line. "What happened?" he demanded in a fiercer tone than she had ever heard him use, overlapping with Ino's almost frantic, "What's wrong with him?"
The medic looked between them grimly. "I can't tell you much right now," he said, genuine apology in his voice. "Our first priority was to get him here. Now we're trying to reverse the effects of whatever he took, to slow down his metabolism. But look," he went on, sharp eyes making a quick sweep of the waiting room before returning his attention to Shikamaru, whose Chuunin vest seemed to mark him as the authority figure, "I'm sorry, but everyone here is going to have to stay out of the way. The rest of the squad will be getting here soon with the other one."
At that, Shikamaru's gaze flicked to Tenten and back before he nodded his understanding and obediently got himself and Ino out of the way. Tenten hardly had time to register the statement or the glance before a second group of medics burst into the room, just like the first, another stretcher supported between them. She didn't move right away, her feet staying rooted where they were, as there were too many medics surrounding the stretcher for her to see its occupant.
But when one medic moved, giving her a full view of the lifeless body they carried, Tenten's throat closed.
That can't be him.
He was doubled over in the rain, numbly watching a raindrop roll down a motionless Naruto's cheek, when the sound of a familiar voice turned his blood to ice.
No. Sasuke tensed to the point of pain, his shoulder spasming in protest, but he didn't move. Behind him, wet footsteps approached him slowly, without fear.
"Sasuke," Kakashi-sensei's voice repeated, this time from much closer, "you won't be going any farther."
Sasuke's fists curled against the ground, his nails scraping against unyielding rock. No. He couldn't go back, not when he'd gotten this far, not when he'd…he'd even…
He looked desperately at Naruto, but the pale body didn't move.
At the corner of his vision, one of Kakashi-sensei's scouting dogs padded up to Naruto's side and quietly sniffed at his hair. Though Sasuke could feel Kakashi-sensei standing just behind him, his sensei made no move to touch him. Sasuke didn't turn to look at him, his eyes transfixed on the dog, his mind at a hushed standstill.
"Pakkun?" Kakashi-sensei prompted after a moment, and the dog finally looked up.
"He's alive," Pakkun replied, and it was only when air rushed into his lungs that Sasuke realized he'd been holding his breath. "Barely, though."
Behind him, there was a similar release of breath. Then he felt the full pressure of his sensei's gaze, and he swallowed hard. He was running out of options. He could still try to make a break for it - though a quick inventory told him that he didn't have much chakra left, and activating the curse seal wasn't an option. So he could either force the chakra to his feet and try for a last dead sprint, or…
Or he could go back.
The thought struck him so quietly and so abruptly that the rest of his thoughts fell silent. Go back…
His eyes drifted downward again, absently locking on to the unsteady rise and fall of Naruto's chest with each weakening breath. Go back. After all this, could he really go back?
And, a softer voice in him added as Naruto's breath went still for a moment too long - if he didn't go back, if he kept running, would it really be worth it? All for power…because he--
(The bloodred eyes once like his own, the sensation of falling forever in a world without air to breathe. "Why are you weak? Because you lack hatred." A whisper that echoed with his family's screams--)
The curse seal shot fire down his arm with the memory, and he gritted his teeth, one hand flying to his shoulder as he pitched forward. Itachi's voice stayed with him, though, so vividly that he could almost feel his brother's breath on his ear.
No. He couldn't go back.
Kakashi-sensei was moving, bending to - what? Carry him? It didn't matter. He had sensed that the pain was not an act, and his guard was down.
The moment he felt the touch of his sensei's fingertips, Sasuke forced dwindling chakra into his feet with one great push that made his head spin, then launched away with all the speed he could muster, his eyes fixed on his one escape route, adrenaline flooding his veins because he was going to do it, he was going to make it, he--
Kakashi-sensei's arms appeared from nowhere and locked around his chest.
"--No!" For several moments he struggled against his sensei's grip in a blind panic, kicking, thrashing, fighting as if he were being restrained by Itachi himself, and all the while Kakashi-sensei held him fast and silent, as easily as if he were restraining a small child.
Finally the strength seeped out of Sasuke's limbs, and with a wordless, furious shout, he stopped fighting, out of breath and almost in tears with frustration. That had been his last chance, and he was stopped that easily…he was powerless.
Kakashi-sensei's hold did not loosen. "Are you finished?" came his voice, inches from Sasuke's ear. Sasuke gritted his teeth and clenched his fists, but there was nothing he could do. Nothing.
Silently, he bowed his head.
"Kakashi," the dog said from behind them, "Naruto doesn't have time for us to wait around."
And suddenly, Sasuke knew what to do.
As Kakashi-sensei bent to allow his dogs to nudge Naruto onto his back, Sasuke slowly allowed his body to go limp, just as it desired. As he was shifted in his sensei's grip, one arm hooking under his knees and the other supporting his shoulders, Sasuke let his consciousness slip just a little, deliberately giving up the struggle to stay alert. He could almost feel his chakra starting to replenish itself with the much-needed rest.
A last bit of adjusting, and then the wind was whipping at his hair as Kakashi-sensei started to leap through the trees. Taking him back to where he began.
But that was alright. He would wait. He would wait, and he would rest, and he would plan.
And the moment Kakashi-sensei left his side, he would be ready.
She was frozen. As if from far away, she heard Hinata gasp, "Neji-niisan…"
No. This couldn't be Neji.
Neji's body could never become that pale, once-fair skin battered and drained to a sickly ashen white. Neji could not lose so completely that his forehead protector would be gone, leaving only the mark of the Caged Bird, the mark he hated and took such pains to hide, bared for all to see. Neji could never…
But then her eyes found the dark stain on the left side of his shirt, saw it continue to spread before her eyes, watched it seep through the once-white stretcher and drip to the floor even as they moved him, realized that she could see through…
He wasn't breathing.
"Neji…" she heard herself whisper, ice creeping through her veins. Then her limbs were moving, rushing her forward. "Neji!--" But then she was frozen in place again, not of her own will, unable to move even a finger. For a moment she struggled against whatever held her, not caring what it was, her heart pounding in her ears, he wasn't breathing… "Neji!"
Then the medics had disappeared with him through the swinging doors, and Tenten was being forced to turn around by the mysterious pressure - only to come face-to-face with Shikamaru, who had his hands firmly positioned in the Rat symbol, the signature of his clan techniques. Her eyes widened with shock. "…Let go of me, Shikamaru," she warned, her voice trembling against her will.
"No." Sweat was beading on his forehead; he was probably drawing on his last bit of chakra for this. "Calm down."
Fire shot through Tenten's blood and quickened her breath, making the room start to spin. "Let go!"
"So you can do what?" he challenged back in the same breath, and Tenten felt the backs of her eyes heat with panic and frustration and fear that rushed through her in a rapid crescendo, gripping in her chest to the point of pain, making her next words come out as almost a scream--
"God damnit, Shikamaru, let go of me!" From the corner of her eye, she saw Hinata and Ino flinch. She didn't care. "I have to…I have to…"
But her voice closed then, her body overcome with the stinging realization: he was right. She had no answer for him. Neji was in there…dying, and there was absolutely nothing she could do. She was powerless.
And finally, there under the wary gazes of her allies and once-enemies, she forced herself to swallow the knot in her throat, and lowered her eyes.
"Stop wasting your chakra," she said at length, her voice coming out a hoarse shadow of what it had been. The grip of his jutsu wavered, but held, and he said nothing. Tenten forced her breath to slow. "You're tired. Let go."
She heard him take an unsteady breath, then quietly exhale, and her limbs finally became her own again. At once her body jerked with the unfulfilled desire to fly through the doors after Neji, but she clenched her fists, pushing the urge down with everything else. And in a motion that made her instincts shout in protest, she forced her body to sit back down. She felt seven pairs of eyes follow her, but she met none of them, silently pulling her knees to her chest and fixing her eyes on the floor.
It felt like a long time before anyone in the room dared to break the silence that followed, and even then it was only Temari and Kankuro murmuring to each other. No one else said a word. Tenten felt gazes find her and leave her every few moments, but she couldn't make herself see whose they were. Something had stopped in her. The moment her mind had accepted that she couldn't do anything for Neji, her body seemed to have taken it to mean she could do nothing at all.
After a time, the same medic Shikamaru had spoken to before strode back through the double-doors, making everyone around Tenten stiffen. He seemed to understand the meaning behind the room's sudden silence, and disappointed them with a quick shake of his head. No, he hadn't brought them any news.
Tenten lowered her eyes once more, no longer caring why he was here.
"I'm sorry to ask this," he said, "but we can't spare any of our medics right now. Is there anyone here who can contact the families of these three…" there was a pause as he pulled something out and took a glance at it, "…Akimichi Chouji, Inuzuka Kiba, and Hyuuga Neji?"
The lump rose back into Tenten's throat at the sound of his name.
There was a moment of silence, during which there were probably a few looks exchanged between teammates. If anyone looked to her, she didn't notice or care. She had backed down on going after Neji, but she would not leave him.
At length, the sound of footsteps signaled that someone was stepping forward. "I can tell Chouji's dad. He lives down the street from me." Ino.
Then, just after her: "I will contact the Inuzukas." Shino. "His sister can be brought in to look at Akamaru." The medic must have nodded.
Brief pause. A few stray gazes made Tenten's skin prickle. Then, finally, tentatively: "Father will want to know about Neji-niisan. I'll tell him."
A quiet exhale of relief came from the medic's direction. "Good. If any family members want to come here, just make sure to remind them to stay in the waiting room." He must have dealt with panicked shinobi parents before. "There are several delicate surgeries taking place right now, and it's very important that there are no distractions." There were some affirmative sounds, and then their footsteps were speeding away as they left to carry out their tasks.
There was a shifting of clothing as the medic turned to leave, but he paused mid-step. Tenten didn't see who he addressed. "…I can take care of that broken finger for you if you want."
It was Shikamaru who responded, and Tenten found it in her to take a glance; she hadn't noticed before that his left index finger was in ugly shape, bruised and swollen to nearly twice its normal size. From his expression, it looked like he'd forgotten about it until now. He hesitated for a moment, casting a dubious glance over the remaining shinobi in the room - only the Sand-nins and herself, now - but then nodded mutely and followed the medic down another hall.
His departure left the room in a tight-strung silence. Several minutes passed without even a glance exchanged from either side, which was fine with Tenten. She didn't have anything to say to them. The silence was only interrupted when three more medics rushed through the room and into the hall where Neji had been taken, making her flinch forward automatically, every bone in her body aching to bolt after them. She had to make a conscious effort to hug her knees tighter and clench her jaw to make herself stay put.
Across the room, Temari made a derisive sound in her throat.
"Don't know what good you think you'd be in there anyway," came her voice a moment after, the voice that had once echoed through nightmares that always ended with a sickening crunch. "You'd be more help if you just went home and stayed out of their way."
"You have never been in the way. You're being foolish if you think you have."
Tenten's eyes narrowed, but she didn't respond.
"…Quit being a bitch, Temari." It was the middle brother - Kankuro. Now that the situation was no longer urgent, the halfhearted drawl had returned to his voice. A part of Tenten quietly marveled at the fact that he was almost defending her, but more likely was that he was just bored.
"I'm not!" Temari's voice rang strident in Tenten's ears. "I'm being honest. I wouldn't be hanging around here if it was me." Tenten felt her eyes turn in their direction in spite of herself; the three of them had never looked very close during the Chuunin Exam, but somehow she doubted that statement. Kankuro rolled his eyes, and Temari crossed her arms. "That's why I could never live in this village. Too many lovestruck little girls, like that pink-haired one at the gates--"
"It's not the same." Tenten's voice worked on its own. "Being lovestruck, and what she's doing." What I'm doing. "They're not the same."
For the first time, Tenten and Temari locked eyes. One blonde eyebrow lifted. "Oh, really?" Tenten swallowed, her voice dry from the sudden use after her bout of silence, but managed to unwaveringly hold her stare. That seemed to be answer enough. The eyebrow lowered again, this time in a challenge. "How?"
Tenten opened her mouth to respond, but before she could get a word out, the main doors flew open and brought the room to life with sound and movement, nin-dogs sprinting through to find unoccupied medics, and…
And Kakashi-sensei, with a half-conscious Naruto on his back and an unconscious Sasuke in his arms.
Tenten's breath caught in her throat at the sight of the two battered genin, and she hardly noticed Sakura coming in on Kakashi-sensei's heels. Sasuke…
The medic from before was rushing toward them in seconds, Shikamaru coming in right behind them and quickly getting out of the way. Tenten watched in a stunned silence as the medic carefully took Naruto, while Kakashi-sensei kept Sasuke himself, wordlessly following the medic toward the same doors Neji had been taken through.
As they passed, Tenten got a good look at Sasuke's face. Good enough to catch the way his eyes slid open ever so slightly, just enough to take in his surroundings, before quickly closing again.
Tenten's eyebrows drew together at the sight, and remained that way for several moments after the group had vanished through the double-doors. What was that? She knew it wasn't uncommon to drift in and out of consciousness when one was injured, but there had been a clear intent in his gaze. A glance around the room told her that no one else seemed to have noticed.
Sasuke, she thought, gripping her elbows but not sitting down again just yet, what are you doing now?
The opportune moment came sooner than he had expected. Only seconds after his back had touched the stiff hospital mattress, a new flurry of voices had come into the room, firing questions about Naruto's condition and the nature of the Chidori's damage. Finally Kakashi-sensei had agreed to go with them and analyze Naruto with the Sharingan, giving a firm order to the nurse that Sasuke was to be put in restraints. Sasuke had needed to check himself to keep his jaw from clenching and betraying his consciousness. Kakashi-sensei never had been easily fooled.
But his sensei had made a mistake. He had left the room before any more medics had arrived to aid the nurse.
The moment the door clicked shut, Sasuke leapt to his feet with newly-regained speed and grabbed the nurse before she could react, clamping a hand over her mouth and sending a burst of chakra to her temple. She instantly went limp in his arms, and he set her down on the mattress, careful not to make a sound. He couldn't have anyone else rushing in here.
He took only a second to catch his breath and take inventory. Though he had regained a little energy on the journey back, he still didn't have much to work with. He would need to get out fast, then conceal himself well until he could travel at full speed. What was the quickest way out, that wouldn't get him spotted…
(An innocent answer to a dubious question. "Oh, I always cut through here. It's faster to get between the hospital and my place…")
With a mental nod to Tenten for her unknowing aid, Sasuke stole out the window and toward his family's clearing.
One last time.
"Code Alpha, Room 23. Code Alpha, Room 23."
Tenten jumped at the sound, as well as Sakura, who had shakily taken Shikamaru's seat after he'd led the Sand shinobi out of the room and down another hall. Both girls looked up, searching in vain for the source of the alarm.
"What is that?" Sakura asked at length, her voice still tremulous with worry for her teammates.
Tenten shook her head, cringing as the alarm continued to repeat. "I don't know. What does Code Alpha mean?"
Sakura's expression immediately turned calculating, her brows furrowing with the extra effort to concentrate over the din. "I think I read it somewhere, but I don't remember…I think…oh!" She turned pale, and Tenten's heart sank. "Code Alpha…it means that someone is missing."
The image of Sasuke's eyes, open and aware when they shouldn't be, flashed through Tenten's mind. Oh, no.
Sakura caught her eye desperately, and Tenten knew they were both thinking the same thing.
As one, they both turned and sprinted through the doors and into the hallway, uncaring whether they were authorized. They hardly had to look to find Room 23, as the door was thrown wide open and several medics were rushing in.
No sooner had the two girls reached the doorway than they had to jump back out of the way to allow a group of the medics to carry out an unconscious nurse, a small chakra-burn at her temple.
Beside her, Sakura started trying to break through the commotion and find out what happened, but for her own part, Tenten kept quiet. The nearly frantic conversations between the medics told her enough.
"I checked his chakra levels, they were almost too low for him to function. He can't have gotten far."
"You don't think he could have used that seal on his neck against her, do you?"
"No, that's impossible. He wasn't trying to kill her. He just wanted to get out."
"Did you find Kakashi?"
"No. He went over to help with his other student before, but no one knows where he went."
"Damn it! What does that kid think he's going to prove? He won't even be able to get out of the village again unless he knows a damn good shortcut--"
Suddenly, it clicked in Tenten's mind. Shortcut…
"Oh, God," she heard herself murmur. When Sakura looked up, Tenten was already turning and breaking into a run, back towards the waiting room, toward the main doors.
"Tenten--wait!" Sakura's hand caught her arm and tried to stop her, just like Ino had done that morning, just like Shikamaru had done that afternoon. This time, Tenten immediately jerked from the younger girl's grasp. Sakura flinched, startled, but didn't back down, instead taking advantage of Tenten's brief pause. "What's going on? Do you--"
But Tenten silenced her with a firm grip on her shoulders. "Sakura," she said, new strength in her voice, "get Kakashi-sensei. Gai-sensei, anyone. Send them as fast as you can." Then she was letting go, and turning, and leaving Sakura with five last words before sprinting out the main doors.
"I know where he is."