The Beginning Of The End
She was still only in Amegekure.
Tsunade stared out the window where the late afternoon sun glinted in between the slats. There was a blessed break in the rain for once. It seemed like a dream but for the first time in days warm golden light puddled on the floor around her feet.
When she'd first stumbled over to the window from her bed she had held out hope that everything about Rain had been nothing but a dream.
A few peals of laughter from the street caught her attention and she looked down to see children actually playing as they splashed through puddles. It was hard to imagine that they could find something to enjoy in the midst of this wasteland. The children were darting in and out of ruined buildings, dodging piles of rubble on the street as they played tag. A couple of passersby crossed at the corner opposite from her room clutching small parcels of food they had managed to acquire through barter or trade.
Life went on it seemed.
She sighed heavily and turned leaning with her back against the window. As she closed her eyes she blindly reached for the bottle on the table to her right. Her hands closed around the cool of the glass but it was the heat inside that she needed. Tsunade cracked open an eye just long enough to spy the glass near the bottle and pull it over. Tipping the bottle she steadied the glass with one hand and filled it with the amber fire inside.
Picking up the glass she knocked the drink back in a single swallow, wincing as she forced it down. Searing heat hit the back of her throat but it was another warmth that she waited for. As expected it hit her gut and uncoiled through the rest of her body, slow burn spreading to the tips of her fingers. She held the glass under her nose so the scent of it could spike heat up into her brain as well.
The heat came as promised, if only the forgetfulness would come, too.
A kunai lay beside the bottle. She'd used it to cut the seal on the top before she'd opened it. Idly she picked it up, corner of her lip turned up in a smile. Maybe there was a simpler solution to this after all.
The steel was familiar, cold and solid in her hand. It must be one of the first kunai she'd ever bought.
Pressing the tip against her wrist she drew it up her forearm with barely enough pressure to break the skin. A thin line of blood welled up from the wound. Directing her healing chakra to it, she closed it up.
So easy. The words flitted unbidden through her mind. It would be so easy.
Tsunade did it again only this time she didn't intend to break just the skin. She pressed harder, directly along the vein pulling back and letting the blood well up on her wrist. Fat drops hit the floor joining the pool of sunshine.
Attention-seeking little girls cut across their wrists she thought wryly. Tsunade knew well enough that someone who really wanted to end it sliced along the vein, opening it up its length.
Fascinated she watched for a moment then re-healed herself. As expected, it had hardly hurt at all.
She poured herself another drink and followed the same ritual as with the last one. Knock it back fast, eyes closed, swallow hard then wait for the heat to spread.
Flood of warmth and her head was light. Not enough to forget, for that she'd need to be unconscious. But it helped.
She followed the cut-bleed-heal ritual again, too, then switched to the other arm.
So she could forget?
If she ended it right now, just let herself bleed out then it wouldn't matter anymore because she was the only one who knew what happened. The knowledge could just die right along with her.
Wrists healed but still sore, she looked down at the drops of blood splattered around her.
What a mess.
Then she looked at her room in total disarray, sheets half on the bed, clothes and personal items strewn about. Hell, the blood probably wouldn't even be noticed here, just a little bit more tracked in with mud and muck from earlier.
Rubbing her tender wrists and then pouring herself yet one more drink, Tsunade saw the scrolls unfurled on her desk. With a strangled cry she swept them off the table. Her angry motion jostled the glass in her hand so that she spilled most of it on the floor.
The wrecked room matched her unordered thoughts of the last few days.
They were supposed to be here on a peacekeeping mission, a mission of goodwill, she thought bitterly to herself.
The trip to that remote village was supposed to have been for humanitarian purposes.
Dammit, she was a doctor, not a monster.
Heat from tears filled her eyes now and spilled over to trace warm rivulets down her cheeks. She wondered if they would mingle with her blood and the whiskey on the floor.
Head down, weeping softly she missed the sound of footsteps outside her door only jerking to attention when it was flung open and her teammate Orochimaru sauntered in.
"Miss your shift once, princess, and I'll cover for you. Miss it twice and you'll damn sure tell me why." Even though his tone was sharp there was more annoyance in it than threat. As teammates they had all covered for each other on more than one occasion. He wasn't upset that he'd taken her duty shifts, only that he hadn't been asked ahead of time.
He flopped down on her unkempt bed and propped himself up on an elbow, black hair hanging loosely over one shoulder as he looked at her. His eyes narrowed. "Must be one helluva bender, Tsunade. You look like shit."
Tsunade wiped her face with one palm, pushing her blond hair up out of it and back. "Yeah, and you look edgy, wound tight as a watch-spring. like somebody who got off work early before the whores hit the streets. S'matter? School still in session?"
Unfazed the young man took out a kunai and held it by its handle in one hand with the tip against the forefinger of the opposite hand then twirled it gently. He looked at his reflection in the blade and laughed once then turned his attention to her again. "Ah, ah, ah, Tsunade, you know the schools here in Amegekure are still being rebuilt after the war. One of the reasons we're here now is to help them with their infrastructure, rebuilding roads, schools, hospitals. Remember? The same ones we just got through destroying."
He yawned then continued smirking at her, "Besides, the whores here bore me, the girls and the boys. You'd be surprised at what they'll do for just a little bit of money or food..."
"You're disgusting!" she snapped, still leaning against the window gripping the edge of the sill behind her.
He laughed a little again then pointed his kunai at her. "That may be, but you, princess, are derelict in your duties. And I have covered your pretty little ass for two days now. And I want to know why."
When Tsunade didn't answer he sat up on her bed and leaned forward, taunting her. "I assumed you'd gone off to see him, but I doubt very seriously our beloved Dan-kun would be found in the squalid accommodations I see you've chosen to wallow in these last couple of days." He nodded indicating the room in general. "You call me disgusting?" Tsunade noted that his references to Dan dripped with scorn.
She stared at her toes and simply shook her head for an answer. Puzzled, Orochimaru looked around the room then back at his teammate. Her silence continued which was unusual. Tsunade was very good at their tit-for-tat exchange of barbs, quicker on the uptake and with a more pointed reply than Jiraiya most times. Even drunk, her tongue rarely lost its sting.
The only sound in the room was the thump of the off-balance fan overhead as it vainly circulated humid, sticky air. God, he hated Amegekure. They all did.
Orochimaru turned his attention back to the room and its contents. He spied the scrolls lying on the ground. Rising, he got up from the bed and bent to retrieve them. There were three in total and he recognized the official seals on two. When he straightened out the third he saw his own neat script.
"This is mine," he said softly as he turned to face her. "You took one of my works? Why?"
"I had to know," she whispered.
"I had to know if you were part of it," voice so soft he had to strain to hear it.
"Part of what?" he demanded.
"Part of the mission, part of the project, their project..." her voice trailed off.
Orochimaru exhaled sharply. "I have no idea what you are talking about. But you've taken something of mine and I think you had better explain yourself to me."
Tsunade swallowed hard and tried to comply. "It started a couple of weeks ago. There was a mission to go upriver and deliver medical supplies to a remote village. It was supposed to be routine..."
When she didn't continue after a few moments of silence, Orochimaru prompted her. "And?"
"I didn't know the two medics who were with me, they were new, just arrived in from Konoha. They were young, eager, seemed to be proud to have my name associated with their mission." She laughed a little but the sound was hollow and vacant, like the look in her eyes. "Made sure I signed off on the exam forms, the vaccination forms, everything."
Orochimaru settled himself in a chair to wait for the rest of her explanation. He thought about having a drink himself and pulled the bottle of liquor over to him then after sniffing it thought better of it.
Tsunade pushed herself away from the wall and crossed her arms over her chest as she paced about the room while continuing. "After the first visit, I knew something was wrong. The vaccinations should be administered in three doses over a specified period. The two medics," this time she sneered the term derisively , "were far less interested in returning for the second dose. At first I thought it was just because it's a pain in the ass to get to the place..."
She looked at Orochimaru directly now with her heart thumping in her chest. If there was anyone she could tell the truth of the matter to it would be this teammate of hers. Dan, Jiraiya, Sarutobi, they would all judge her. But not Orochimaru.
Drawing in breath she went on, "Turns out there was no need to adhere to a schedule since the second dose was nothing but a placebo, saline."
Jesus, Orochimaru thought, from the look in her eyes what she was remembering must be something unfathomable to rattle Tsunade so. Intrigued, he spread out the two scrolls that did not belong to him and compared them. The first specified a fairly routine childhood inoculation program but that masked the nature of the second set of orders. They were to deliberately infect the subjects with a known disease and monitor the progress.
"Why would anyone order something like this?" he asked, bewildered.
"You tell me."
His nostrils flared in anger and he rose from his chair. "You thought I had something to do with this?"
"I know your predilections, they certainly border on questionable from an ethics standpoint..."
"Dammit, Tsunade! It's a known disease! This is repetitive, wasteful! You may consider my ethics questionable but one thing I won't do is waste a research opportunity or a research subject for that matter." He stood towering over her, glaring down at her now.
"I know," she acknowledged, reaching for the bottle again. He caught her wrist and held her there halfway to her goal of the bottle.
"What did you do?" he demanded.
"What did you do?" he repeated grimly.
Tsunade jerked her arm out of his grasp and refilled her glass. She held it aloft to him in a mock toast and smiled, crazed glimmer in her eyes. "I killed them."
She finished the drink and said simply, "All of them."
"All?" he echoed flatly.
"All the ones that were left," she answered in an equally neutral tone. She felt the first chink in the dam inside her start to give way, rage giving over to horror. She'd fought it back for two days now, battling the memories with the liquor for as long as she could. But here, now, to Orochimaru, she could confess.
"It was a...nightmare when we got there. Most of the children were already dead, killed by the village elders to keep the disease from spreading. They were suspicious of us from the beginning. The two medics with me were rounding up people, questioning them. That's when I found the other scroll on the boat. They had their own set of orders, separate from the ones they had shown me first. I checked the stock of the vaccines and realized that despite the labels, the second and third contained nothing but saline."
She looked up at Orochimaru wondering if there would be any reaction but his golden eyes were flat and blank and staring. That's when her dam finally broke, when she realized that he could just stand there and absorb all she'd said.
"I...I couldn't stop myself," she sobbed leaning forward against his chest. Tsunade felt his arms close about her. "I found the two. They'd moved from questioning to killing people. Killing the elders for what they'd done, threatening the parents to find out if any of the children were still alive, away from the village, if anyone outside the village knew. It was worse than any battle... I killed the medics. I killed the elders. And the parents who'd lost children were begging me to kill them too. And...I...did. The whole village, it's nothing but rubble now." She looked up at him, tears running down her cheeks.
Speechless they stood there staring at each other. The only sound in the room was the damnable fan with its off-kilter thumping echoing around in her head. It mirrored her thoughts of the last two days, ceaseless, relentless and yet going nowhere.
"Who ordered it?" Orochimaru's question broke the silence between the two of them.
"I don't know."
"Danzou, probably," the raven haired man mused. "Probably wanted to curry favor with Hanzo directly. If it was a border village and causing Rain trouble, and Danzou rid him of that then..."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Tsunade laughed maniacally at Orochimaru's seeming acceptance of the situation. "I killed those people. What difference does it make who ordered it? I'm a criminal."
"You're no such thing," Orochimaru said with equanimity. "The two shinobi you killed were clearly rogue agents acting against the stated policies of the Land of Fire. They killed most of the villagers, you said so yourself. As for the rest," he shrugged, "you put them out of their misery."
Tsunade screeched, "You monster," as she raised one hand to strike him. Orochimaru easily intercepted the blow, grabbing her wrist again. He always had been faster than her. He caught the second one as a precaution as well.
He had the barb on the tip of his tongue. He was about to say 'at least I didn't just destroy a whole village' in response to her 'monster' comment when something caught his eye that sickened and enraged him more than anything she'd just said to him this evening.
"What the hell is this!" he demanded, jerking both her arms toward him.
"What the hell did you do, Tsunade?"
"I killed them," she answered her head swimming, wondering what more he wanted from her.
"This!" his face was livid now, as he pulled her own forearms up, wrists facing her. "What the hell did you do to yourself?"
The chakra flows! Of course! She saw him eyeing the straight, precise path she'd used on both forearms, no accidents from a battle there. He could tell her chakra flows were still weakened from cutting herself earlier this evening. She'd healed the skin but the chakra patterns were disrupted enough that someone with a trained eye like Orochimaru's could tell it as easily as if there had been scar tissue there.
"Isn't it obvious? I was..."
"No!" he uttered cutting her off, dropping her wrists and pacing around the room himself now. "No! You do not get to decide such a thing, princess! I spend half my existence trying to keep you and that toad oaf alive and you do not get to decide on your own that you will end your pitiful little life."
"Careful, Orochimaru," Tsunade snapped back, sounding like her old self, "if anybody heard you they'd almost think you cared..."
"You stupid little bitch!" He whirled to face her. "Don't you know you're the only thing I do care about? You and that idiot teammate of ours? The only ones I wouldn't want to see hurt?"
"Ah, the truth comes out," she began to mock him but he interrupted her.
"The truth? You've never faced the truth in your life. The truth is that you know as well as I do that those villagers don't amount to anything as far as we're concerned. They should have thanked you for deigning to end their miserable existence. The truth is that you've killed a hundred times that many based on a different signature on a different scroll and never lost a moment's sleep over it as long as it was official."
She had seen him in numerous battles before, cold, calculating and precise. She'd seen him irritated, annoyed and aggravated with Jiraiya on plenty of occasions, too. But never had Tsunade seen Orochimaru as purely angry as he was right now.
"And the truth is," Orochimaru was continuing, "that you weren't even able to kill yourself. Were you?"
He chuckled low and cold, the sound sending shivers down her spine. "Poor Tsunade-chan, you're as much afraid of dying as you are of living."
Indignation was all she could wrap herself in and she tried, pulling herself up straighter against the wall, wiping her face again with one hand trying to clear cobwebs from her head. "What are you saying?" she demanded through gritted teeth.
"Pathetic! I'm saying you're pathetic. You think you can't live with what you've done but you can't kill yourself either. Pathetic little fool!"
He cocked his head to one side like a bird, studying her with cold glittering eyes. Chakra crackled in the air around him. Tsunade channeled her own, both to begin to neutralize the alcohol in her system and to prepare for defense. Was he actually going to strike her?
"The truth is, Tsunade," he whispered his voice was low and lethal this time. "You don't really even live at all. You merely exist. You stay safe."
Orochimaru advanced toward her and she tensed, fists balled at her sides, trembling.
"Look at you," he continued, "You're absolutely terrified. And of what?"
Tense and rigid she stood in front of him, unable to speak, unable to hit him, unable to do anything except listen. She felt frozen. Hypnotized like a bird by a snake while he went on whispering.
"Are you afraid of what's going to happen if your precious little Dan-kun finds out? Or honored Sarutobi-sensei? What will they say? What will they think?"
His body, tall and angular crowded her. With her back against the wall she wanted to flee, to slip past him and head for the door and run away from all this. But she couldn't. Couldn't speak, couldn't move, couldn't push him away, couldn't make him stop. And still he kept talking.
"Or maybe it's Jiraiya, our noble toad sage doing such a noble thing to forsake his village and his team, you and me, to help those orphans? Is it his opinion you value so highly?"
Perceptive, malevolent little wretch that he was he kept telling her the truth about herself. Better than the liquor his voice was its own brand of intoxication. Tsunade closed her eyes and let his words wash over her.
"Surely you're not afraid you'll go to prison, are you? Honorable little Senju heiress?" He chuckled and there was something deliciously wicked and knowing in the sound this time. "That'll never happen and you know it."
And she did.
When she opened her eyes, amber orbs that she'd held fixed on the door now looked up and met his own golden eyes. He was looking down at her, so close his raven hair brushed against her shoulders.
"Or maybe you're just afraid to find out what you're capable of? Are you afraid to find out what you really are?" His question was a challenge.
Tsunade hesitated before replying. Orochimaru was poised perfectly silent near her, watching waiting for her to find the answer she was seeking. She wondered if he could remain motionless like that forever. As she found the truth within herself she was horrified. Her throat constricted and it was actually painful to drag the words forth.
"People have called me a goddess," she whispered recognizing the voice as her own but it sounded dim and far-away, lost in thought. "And for the first time...I felt like it, Orochimaru. Like I could...do...anything. Like nothing could stop me."
She paused then added even softer still, "What kind of monster am I?"
"Gods and monsters," he replied his voice as soft as hers. "I'm not quite sure I've ever understood the difference. But what's important is that we are what we are. We are above the rest of them. Together, you, me, Jiraiya, no one can stand against us. We've proved that here in Amegekure."
"I felt like an avenging goddess," Tsunade continued incredulous at her epiphany, "like I was right...righteous...,"
The uneven beating of the fan echoed in her ears like her thoughts in her head before she heard him speak again. "You give life and death, that's the simplest definition of goddess I've ever heard," he whispered.
"So why do I feel dead now? Numb?" Tsunade stared into his eyes, his face unreadable. She wanted him to speak but he was waiting, waiting for something from her. Another tiny eternity slipped by and there was the ambient noise in the room, the fan, children's voices from the street outside. But like the lowering sun in the sky lengthening the evening shadows it was all closing in on her. Everything in the room felt like it was drawing in, cocooning her in his presence. There was nothing left in the room but the two of them.
"What do you want to feel?" Orochimaru whispered.
Tsunade wasn't sure if the thumping was from the fan or her heart. The two seemed in some kind of strange arrhythmic pattern now, hammering in her ears and her chest. Could he hear it? She wondered, as he continued to study her like some curious specimen he'd found.
The words felt foreign as if they were pulled from her heart, from her lips. But she recognized them as her own. "I want to feel like I did then. I want to feel... alive. I want to feel like I can do...anything."
His hand was at the back of her head, fingers tangling in her blond tresses, pulling her head back forcing her to look up at him. His other hand brushed at the column of her throat. "Do you?" Orochimaru breathed against her like a kiss, his forehead almost touching her own. "Because there's a very great deal of difference in being alive and being safe, Tsunade-chan."
Electricity or chakra? Didn't matter. She felt it from his fingertips as he stroked them down her throat and back up to cup her cheek, smoothing a tear away with his thumb.
Tsunade licked her lips and answered him with a voice that was hoarse but soft at the same time. "Alive, Orochimaru. Make me feel alive."
Waiting. Waiting. Tsunade thought she'd die from the waiting when feather-soft he breathed against her once more and she kissed him.
Licorice-sweet and bitter, she kissed her teammate.