Notes: The end at last! I probably should have just included this in the previous chapter as it isn't very long, but honestly I wasn't sure how it would end until I wrote it. Thanks for hanging in there with me and I hope you feel a sense of completion now that this particular journey is over. On to the next!
STRAIGHT ON TILL MORNING
Sakura watched as Neji stopped before a closed door and gently rested his free hand on it. The singing they had heard was coming from inside - it could be only be Tenten - but he made no move to open the door. He stood there, listening, and as soon as the song came to a natural end, he dropped his hand away. His gaze found her and Sasuke.
"We need Orochimaru to stand here. Right here," he said, and she nodded though she had no idea what was going on. Why couldn't they go inside? It was very possible that Tenten needed medical aid, surely she should have a look-
"Ah, so you are still alive?"
The three of them swung around to face the hiss of a dark voice. Orochimaru stood at the end of the hall, slowly approaching as if time was of no consequence to him. He was alone. Yellow-gold eyes watched them narrowly, a smirk on his ghost-pale face.
"I wasn't sure you know," he continued, holding Neji's steel-hard gaze. "Not many survive a stay at The Sound." His eyes flickered over to Sasuke who stiffened imperceptibly. "And you found my wayward apprentice as well. How fortunate."
"Leave," Neji snapped, the word like a whip-crack. "There is nothing for you here." Orochimaru laughed, a slick, oily sound that made Sakura's skin crawl.
"Don't be naive, Neji," he said, grinning. "I'll have the little Whispered you stole from me, and the boy too."
In answer, Neji lifted the black sword, both hand wrapped around the hilt. The runes on its blade glowed, casting odd shadows in the darkened corridor. Next to him, Sasuke settled back on his feet and bent his knees slightly, ready for combat.
Orochimaru looked at them through lidded eyes. "So be it."
The next thing Sakura knew, the Torturer had someone moved behind them, his movements so fast she hadn't seen him take even a step. She half-turned, a startled gasp barely leaving her lips before she felt a knife sink into her shoulder, the point grinding against the bone. She couldn't even scream it happened so fast, she simply toppled backwards, the med bag she'd had thrown over shoulder hitting the ground as her knees went weak. Someone shouted and then there was the sounds of fighting, of movement.
She felt dizzy and her vision narrowed as she looked up at the ceiling from the flat of her back. Her mind was still in a state of shock, trying sluggishly to comprehend what had just happened. Shaking, she lifted a hand and curled her fingers around the knife hilt rising above her chest. Stifling a groan, she pulled the blade free, the weapon clattering from her fingers as soon as it cleared her skin. She felt warm blood bubble up from the wound and she weakly pressed her palm against it, trying to control her breathing. She could not pass out. She just needed to breathe. The wound was not fatal, she just needed to get the bleeding under control.
The sounds of fighting broke her concentration and she turned her head slightly to get a sideways view of Neji and Sasuke facing off against Orochimaru. Neji was currently engaged in the fight but Sasuke was further behind him, one hand clenched against the side of his neck. He seemed strained, his muscles tense as if he were in some pain. She hadn't seen him get hit. What had happened?
Her lips formed the syllables but there wasn't much power in her voice. Somehow he heard her anyway, for his head turned towards her and she felt horror well up within in her. Half of Sasuke's face was a mask of comma-shaped black marks and both of his eyes whirled red. Dread curled in her stomach.
"Sasuke," she tried again, and let her sadness bleed through. What had he done to himself?
Behind him, Neji was suddenly forced back against the wall, keeping two of Orochimaru's long knives at bay with the blade of his own strange sword. Orochimaru broke the stalemate by lifting one blade to slash at Neji's eyes, forcing the captain back and way, off balance. Instead of pursuing him, Orochimaru turned smoothly and charged at Sasuke, who's back was to him.
Sakura's eyes widened in alarm. "Sasuke, look out!" Her call was weak and whispery, but Sasuke pivoted, using his forearm to block Orochimaru's attack. The Torturer barely paused, simply pushed forward, throwing Sasuke to the side, and came straight for her. Her eyes could barely track him until he was standing over her, knife raised to run her through.
"You took him from me once," he hissed smoothly. "This time I'll take you from him." He lunged.
Perhaps it was because the shout was so surprising, so unlike Sasuke, that Orchimaru obeyed, pausing to look over at his apprentice. Perhaps he simply wanted to draw out the anguish, to get a good view of Sasuke's face as he killed Sakura there on the floor before him, rendering Sasuke helpless again. Whatever Orochimaru's reasons, his pause cost him his life.
Sasuke's red eyes captured and held him, freezing him to the spot. She watched as Orochimaru's muscles locked and his whole body trembled, a sweat breaking out on his forehead. Neither he nor Sasuke said a word, both of them locked in a mental battle the likes of which she was sure she would never know. A few seconds passed and Sasuke shifted slightly, a mere waver of his body and Orochimaru's lips spread into a halting grin. His fingers tightened on the knife in his hand, the one still poised over her.
Down the hall, Neji called out. "Now!"
The door next to Sakura slid open at last but she barely got a glimpse inside before an array of guns and other weaponry fired and she turned her head away, feeling Orochimaru's blood splatter over her. He fell to the ground next to her with a sickening thump and she looked back, her eyes catching on his blank and startled face.
From inside the room, a weak voice called out hesitantly. "Neji?"
The captain hurried up and Sakura watched as he drew Tenten from the room, practically holding her up against him as she seemed very weak. The Whispered's gaze fell on Sakura and her relieved expression turned to worry.
Before either Tenten or Neji could make a move, however, Sasuke was kneeling down next to her, the black marks receding from his skin as if Sakura were watching the last few minutes in reverse. The red in his eyes stuttered out like a fire quickly banked.
"I'm...alright," she told them. "Just need to...stop the bleeding." She grimaced as Sasuke pressed down hard on her wound with one hand, his other reaching out to her medical bag. She nodded stiffly at Orochimaru. "Is he...?"
"He's dead," Neji said calmly, but she could sense the deep satisfaction in his voice. "He won't be torturing anyone ever again."
She nodded and closed her eyes tiredly. "That's good."
Darkness enveloped her and she went without a fuss.
She woke in the med-bay aboard the Byakugan, in one of the narrow patient beds, a sterile sheet pulled up over her, bright lights shining down overhead. She blinked and let her vision resolve to show her Neji standing at her bedside, arms crossed over his chest as looked down at her.
"Neji," she said, wincing at the rough sound of her own voice. Neji uncurled enough to reach over for a cup of water that had been sitting by her bedside. He offered her a straw and held the cup while she drank thankfully. "How long have I been...?" she asked when she was done.
"Only a few hours. Lee patched up your shoulder."
Her left arm was in a sling to stabilize the bandaged wound and she was grateful to realize she felt no pain. Lee must have given her something for that as well.
"Is everyone alright?"
"We're alive," Neji replied, though that was perhaps not what she had been asking. She was sure he knew it too. "Tenten is resting. She used up a lot of energy and will need a little more time to recover." His pale searched hers carefully. "And Sasuke is onboard the Tsukiyomi. He asked that you be brought there as soon as you're able."
She could feel her shock registered clearly on her face. "The Tsukiyomi? Is his brother...?" She had almost forgotten about Itachi in the midst of dealing with Orochimaru. She struggled to push herself up. If Sasuke was meeting Itachi, someone needed to make sure that-
Neji's hand on her uninjured shoulder gently, but surely, pressed her back down. "There's no need for worry. They will not hurt each other. Tenten was able to explain the situation but Sasuke needed to see and talk to Itachi himself."
"What situation?" she asked softly.
Neji's face grew grim. "Itachi is dead. Apparently it is only his spirit that inhabits the ship. Now that he has fulfilled his purpose, I don't think he will linger any longer. Tenten advised Sasuke to go to his brother before it's too late."
Sakura didn't know what to say. Itachi had been dead all these years? Sasuke must feel...directionless, to know after such a long time that the revenge he had lived for was now no longer possible.
"You should rest," Neji said, watching her face. "There is still some time before we can dock properly with the Tsukiyomi."
She nodded wearily, a little overcome with all the events of the past day. She closed her eyes and made herself relax, holding on to the belief that when she opened them again, the world would make sense once more.
Standing on the bridge of the Tsukiyomi, Tenten disengaged the ship from the now deserted Akatsuki. An escape pod had jettisoned from Orochimaru's ship a half an hour before and she'd made no effort to track it. The pod would most likely land on Whitefall and she was content to let Orochimaru's Snakes stay there. Without their master, they would be able to cause little trouble.
The Akatsuki itself was another matter. No matter who its captain had been, it felt wrong to destroy an entire ship, but Neji was adamant that they shoot it down. He had refused to set foot on it and had forbidden either herself or Lee from doing so as well. Tenten had briefly toyed with the idea of trying to Whisper the ship but in the end thought better of it. She knew very well of how remnants of people got left behind on their ships and she did not want even a wisp of Orochimaru touching her mind.
So it was that she trained the Tsukiyomi's close range guns on the Akatsuki and opened fire.
The ship burst and broke apart, debris flying every which way as the bulk of the ship tumbled end over end in a spin that sent it moving away from them into space. She felt only relief in watching it go. They were really and truly rid of the Torturer.
Neji's voice broke her out of her thoughts and she turned towards him, nodding. "Just." She tilted her head at him. "Did you bring Sakura?"
"She's with Sasuke now in the captain's cabin. Looks like Itachi left some recordings and logs that Sasuke wanted to look through."
She exhaled and leaned back against the console table. "It's a lot to take in," she admitted. "Will they be alright on their own?" It was one thing for the Byakugan to run with a skeleton crew when one of them was a Whispered but two people alone would not be able to operate the Tsukiyomi efficiently, especially when only Sasuke had flight experience. There was no question, however, that Sasuke would be taking his brother's ship. It was obviously meant for him and Neji had no need of another one.
"Lee is going to pilot the ship into Galatea where they can find a crew. You and I will follow in the Byakugan."
She nodded and looped her arms around Neji's neck as he drew closer, his hands falling to her waist. She leaned her forehead against his and closed her eyes.
"It's really over," she breathed.
Neji's voice settled over her like a blanket. "It's over," he agreed.
They said goodbye on a sun-drenched landing pad in Galatea's space harbor, standing between both the Byakugan and the Tsukiyomi. It was a fond farewell but not an emotional one. They were all still too shell-shocked over the events of the past few days and there was more cause to be happy rather than sad, though perhaps that was not true for Sasuke. He seemed quiet and withdrawn, Tenten thought, more than usual, without the hard fire that had so filled him when they'd first met. The wind had spilled out of his sails but she knew, with Sakura there, he would be alright again. The medic looked better, her arm still in a sling, but she wore a smile on her pretty face as Lee tried to hug her without jostling her shoulder.
"Keep in touch," Tenten told the other girl when it came time for her own hug. "If we can help, we'll come."
Sakura smiled. "I will. Thank you for everything you have done for us. With the new crew, Sasuke wants to go back to the Sound, see what's left and then set fire to it, if possible." Tenten could relate to him there. "I'll let you know what we find out."
Tenten nodded. "Thank you. I wish you well, Sakura. I hope..." She flicked her eyes to Sasuke. "I hope everything turns out the way you want."
The medic laughed lightly. "Me too. It may take some time, but..." She smiled prettily. "It's worth it."
And with that the two departed into the Tsukiyomi, the sleek, dark ship rising vertically before taking off into the atmosphere with the smoke of a hard burn billowing out behind it. Tenten watched it go, listening to the contented hum of the ship's voice as it faded out of sight.
"I hope they'll be alright," Lee said, one hand shading his eyes as he watched the sky.
"They will be," she reassured him, hooking an arm through his affably. "They both needed a new start."
"Speaking of starts..." Lee said, suddenly grinning down at her. She arched an eyebrow at him.
"Oh no, I thought we agreed you were telling him, not me."
"Tell me what?" Neji asked from behind them, arms crossed over his chest. He was wearing his grumpy captain's face and she felt a laugh, pure and perfect, bubble up inside her and escape. All she needed were these two, together and safe, and everything would be alright.
The grin she directed at Neji matched Lee's.
"How do you feel about a vacation?"