A/N: This fic is NOT yaoi. It will NEVER be yaoi, no matter how much you might beg. So do us both a favour and don't bother with the begging. If you want yaoi, go elsewhere.
It's the thunderous, tooth-rattling clang of a huge, heavy metal door falling into place that rouses him from the state of near-unconsciousness he's been in for the past few hours, that disjointed feeling of knowing that something is going on, yet failing to grasp reality firmly enough to truly be considered awake. As gears turn and shift and the chained clatter of locks snapping closed and bolts slamming home assault his ears, he finally manages to slit open one dark eye, then the other, though the dull grey stone that meets his gaze offers precious little information as to his current situation.
The floor whirls and his vision blurs as he's suddenly forced into motion again, and he's gradually becoming more aware of his surroundings. It's cold, very cold, each step a jolt of unpleasant iciness against the soft, savagely torn bottoms of his feet, though they're too benumbed by the cold for him to feel any real pain. There's pressure on his shoulders and each of his arms--from the guards who are half-marching half-dragging him down a twisting maze of corridors--and he's already given up trying to remember the path they're taking even if it would be simplicity itself to remember if he could activate his Sharingan, which he can't. His head is heavy, impossible to hold up, his vision refuses to stop swimming out of focus, his whole body feels empty, weak, only the barest thready traces of chakra lingering within.
"You may have tried, but you did not kill my little brother, so I will spare your life… But do not be fooled; this is hardly a mercy."
Sasuke knows his ears are just playing tricks on him, that he must be delirious, because he can hear the Raikage's voice echoing through the hallways along with the tramp of his captors' thick boots, the stumbling slap of his own bare feet struggling to stay beneath him and to bear his weight, the rough hiss of his pantslegs dragging against the floor and the skin being scraped from his knees and shins and the tops of his feet when his legs give out and he tries to stop to rally his strength only to have the guards continue to pull him along between them regardless.
Closing his eyes again, he focuses on his own breathing, steadying himself, shutting out everything but that simple, balanced rhythm of inhale hold exhale pause, inhale hold exhale pause, clearing his mind of the fog that pain and delirium had rolled over it…and then almost wanting it back as the bright flood of memories washes over him.
Konoha has been destroyed--Sasuke knows this, remembers it clearly, he'd seen what Pein had done, he'd been the one to set what little was left of it or had been rebuilt on fire, he'd watched it burn--though he is sure its people are already working to rebuild it again, because as long as any of them are left alive, the Will of Fire still lives on. Breaking the jar only frees what's trapped inside to fly away and grow stronger.
But Naruto is dead. Madara is dead as well, and so are most of the other members of Akatsuki. Sasuke would have been one of them if not for Sakura, and even though it's been more than half a year now, he's still not sure whether or not he's grateful that she found him in time, that she'd been willing to sacrifice part of her life energy to bring him back from the brink of death even knowing full well that he'd brought it all on himself and that he was why her home was burning and her friends were dying and her whole life was going up in smoke all around her. I can't lose you, too, had been the words he'd only half-heard through the roaring of flames and the pounding of blood in his ears and the rattle of his own ragged breathing, and if this is the only way I ever bring you back, so be it.
Sakura is still in Konoha, and she is one of the reasons Sasuke is certain it is being rebuilt. But even if it is, he's more than certain that he could never return there, not even for her. The look in her eyes when she'd found him lying mortally wounded beside what was left of Naruto's body, that look still haunts him, because even though she didn't say a word, he could read a hundred questions there on her face and even if the questions weren't hers, even if they were solely his own creations and she'd never even thought them, they lingered around her, clouding her out of his already dimming sight. And they weren't questions he could live with. He couldn't stand seeing are you finally satisfied? and how can this be what you wanted? and was your revenge really worth losing this--losing him? ghosting over her face and peeking out of her eyes and slipping themselves into everything she wasn't saying each time he looked her way. He'd already spent most of his life living for the past, and now he was finally ready to be rid of it, to let it go…and that meant letting it all go, even the few good things that still remained. At the time he hadn't known where he'd go (where is your future? what will you do now?); all he'd known was that he had to.
Until today, he still hadn't known where he was going.
That uncertainty is gone now. Now, he's heading for one of the who knows how many cells in this poorly-lit meat freezer of a prison, set in the mountains in the farthest northern reaches of the Land of Lighting. He hadn't meant to wander into Kaminari no Kuni, but as he hadn't had any particular destination in mind, he hadn't taken any particular care in choosing his path, or in covering his tracks; the border patrol had captured him just two days after he'd crossed into their territory.
He'd been sloppy, or maybe he'd actually wanted to be captured, wanted someone to punish him for what he'd done to the only people left alive who'd really cared about him, wanted somewhere to focus his anger and resentment other than on himself.
Whatever the reason, it has landed him here, the northernmost wastelands of Lightning Country, his clothes taken and traded for a flimsy cotton prison uniform, his chakra neatly sealed by the cuffs clamped around both wrists and ankles, his body battered and bruised and his head still ringing from being repeatedly clocked with the prison warden's tonfa for his refusal to answer any and all questions. Sasuke doesn't even know the name of the facility, but it's obvious to him that this is where people go when the Raikage wants them to be forgotten.
He's thrown into one of the countless cells, the door shut and locked without so much as a parting jab from the guards, and he takes in his new residence as he wearily picks himself up off the floor. The cell is only slightly more complicated than a metal cube: there is a single door with a flap in it for meals to be shoved through, and there are no outside windows (actually something of a mercy, since he would doubtless freeze otherwise, not that he won't anyway thanks to the threadbare pajama-suit they're calling a prison uniform and the apparent lack of heat ducts). About half of all three inner walls are bars instead of solid sheet metal--the cells are doubtless harder to keep heated that way, and privacy is next to impossible, adding just that more cozy comfort to the prisoners' lives, though to be honest, Sasuke is slightly surprised that he hasn't been placed in solitary confinement, locked away from the rest of the world entirely. A metal bench with a tangle of dirty blankets atop it and a primitive toilet system are the cell's only fittings; the only lighting comes from the flickering fluorescent panels set in the ceiling of the corridor outside.
Years of shinobi training take over then, and his feet become his first priority. They're so numb now he can't stand, so he crawls to the bed and sets to work tearing the smallest of the blankets into long strips, wrapping himself in the remaining scraps of blanket and tucking his feet beneath himself in an effort to warm them in the meantime. Once he's finished preparing the strips, he begins to chafe his feet, working feverishly to rub the feeling back into them, ignoring the sting of the cuts and abrasions on the tender soles; he's eventually rewarded with the tingling prickle of revived circulation, at which point he proceeds to wrap his feet in the strips of cloth, fashioning makeshift shoes of a sort. While far from warm, they should contain his body heat well enough to prevent him from losing any toes to frostbite.
That done, he huddles against one of the inner walls, knowing that he should get up and move around a bit to warm himself, but far too exhausted to do so, and unwilling to leave even the negligible warmth he's generated beneath his blankets.
It's a tribute to just how well the Kumo-nin have worked him over that Sasuke doesn't sense the presence in the next cell over until just that moment. The sudden telltale crawl of the skin on the back of his neck warns him that he's being watched, and with obvious reluctance, the last Uchiha shifts about, turning to look through the bars at who he now perceives is the only other person in this cellblock.
The other prisoner's build and the faint trace of chakra lingering about him tell Sasuke that he's a shinobi too, slight and blonde and probably not much taller than Sasuke himself, and though he's wrapped himself in his bedding as well, he doesn't really seem all that bothered by the cold, as if he's used to it. There's something troublingly familiar about him--the tilt of his eyes, the bright gold of his hair, his high cheekbones, the smugly superior expression his features are set in; but when Sasuke makes eye contact, that condescending, self-important smirk freezes, almost instantly overshadowed by a flicker of shock, surprise…and recognition.
As the flash of recognition fades, the blonde's face twists into something ugly, full of rage and hatred; then abruptly, those emotions shift to curiosity and grudging admiration, though there's still more than a little anger and annoyance edging them.
"You're supposed to be dead, yeah."
It takes Sasuke few seconds to place the other man; the (rather irritating) verbal tic is what jogs his memory, otherwise he might not have made the connection at all. The blonde looks so different without his hitai-ate or Akatsuki cloak and with his hair cut short, shaggy and messy and still in his eyes but not even falling to his shoulders. It makes him look a hell of a lot more masculine, and decidedly younger as well, much closer to Sasuke's age, which in all actuality he might very well be.
But those dark-fringed, sharply blue eyes are unmistakably the same, as is the expression of loathing smouldering in them.
…What had Madara called him again…?
"So are you," Sasuke rasps back, his voice rough and hoarse from disuse and most likely the beginnings of illness. He can't help studying the other shinobi, both to determine his condition and convince himself that he's made a positive identification. Patches of what little he can see of the blonde's skin are shiny and raw, as if he's still healing from some serious burns, and he looks pale and gaunt as only a long-held prisoner can, but it's definitely the same guy, the one who tried to blow them both up at the end of their fight.
The blonde (Deidara, Sasuke suddenly remembers, his name is Deidara) tries to smirk at him but it comes out looking a lot more like a sneer, and an uneasy one at that. "That final jutsu of mine didn't work quite the way I thought it would, yeah." His tone is light and airy, as if having to admit to a mistake of this magnitude isn't a knife twist between the ribs of his ego. "It's not like I could test it, after all. How was I supposed to know that it wouldn't kill me like it was supposed to, that I'd only end up nearly dead, drained of chakra, and covered in burns hundreds of miles away from where I'd been?" He almost sounds bitter, though whether it's over the fact that he didn't die with his masterpiece after all or something else, something he's not saying about all this, Sasuke doesn't know and honestly doesn't really care. Nonetheless he automatically files away the basic details of Deidara's story:
He'd been found not too far from Kumogakure, ironically enough. The Kumo-nin had healed him, treating his burns so well that hardly a scar remained, then imprisoned him once he'd healed enough for them to fit his face with the one in his profile in the bingo book. After two attempted (and nearly successful, according to the former Iwa-nin) escapes from the prison in Kumogakure, they'd sent him here…
Deidara is still talking about something, and Sasuke tries to keep processing it, tries to force himself to comprehend what's being said to him, but he feels more and more like he's trying to listen while trapped under water, drifting farther and farther from consciousness and reality, slowly sinking until the light fades away entirely and the darkness rises from the deep to swallow him up.