0. Dawn breaks behind a curtain of storm clouds. Rain pours in from the North, soaking the parched Land of Fire for the first time since spring, yet still arriving two months too early. Animals rush in a panic to their burrows and birds stay grounded in their flocks. Plants bend, nearly snapping beneath the force of the falling droplets. The ground melts into a slurry of mud and leaf litter that flows slowly but surely downhill.
And in the middle of it all Kakashi is shoving himself forward, chasing frantically after Sasuke and Naruto’s scents before the rain washes them away.
"We’re almost on top of them," Pakkun calls over the drum roll of the rain, "The scent’s strong, and still pretty fresh! They’re not far!"
Kakashi doesn’t reply. His jaw is clenched tight, brows furrowed hard, heart beating too fast for him to track. Sakura’s scent has come and gone, blinking in and out along the trail blazed by her friends as they chased after her. There’s not even a question of if she’s been using olfactory genjutsu to send her pursuers off on tangents and down dead ends. The question is if she’s still covering herself. If he’s lucky, he’ll break through the tree line to find the three of them in the midst of battle in the Valley of the End.
Kakashi’s never been very lucky.
Despite expecting the worst, when he comes skidding to a halt on the lake shore and sees only a shelter made from two Practice Brick walls covering two bodies, Kakashi’s heart nearly stops. He should hurry, Pakkun certainly is, but his legs feel like they’re melting as he drags them through the mud towards his students. With a shaking hand he pushes his headband away from the Sharingan. The first thing he catches is Naruto and Sasuke breathing, shallow but steady. Yin chakra glows lime green around their brains, wrapping around them like tissue paper around a gift. Curled up on Sasuke’s chest, shivering in the cold and the damp, is Tonton. She perks up the second Pakkun gets close, hackles rising and tail twitching to one side, but relaxes as Kakashi draws nearer.
Kakashi kneels down at the head of the shelter, distantly listening as Pakkun reports, "Well they’re beat to Hell, but they’ll live. At least, they will if we get them back quick as we can. Wouldn’t really do for them to catch cold on top of all of this."
Tonton creeps towards Kakashi and snuffles at his knee, softly snorting with her ears flat against her head. Kakashi doesn’t need to understand her to see the guilt on her face. He reaches out and strokes along the top of her head, a touch she leans into with another mournful grunt.
Kakashi looks to Pakkun and murmurs, "Any trace of Sakura?"
Pakkun sighs, "There’s a genjutsu over it, but the scent’s there. Fading fast, though. If I had to guess, she took off just before the rain came in and crossed the border just after sunrise. The rain’ll wash what’s left away in a few minutes."
Kakashi shoves a hard sigh out through his nose. Leaving the boys in the care of his dogs and crossing the border into enemy territory alone isn’t an option, but Kakashi considers it for far longer than he should. The trail will be long dead by the time he makes it to Sound, and even if she can’t run, Sakura can hide. Even from him. He made sure of that by sending her to Kurenai. His eyes drag along the Practice Bricks keeping Naruto and Sasuke nominally dry. He taught her this, too. How many other techniques he taught her did she use against her friends?
Only now does it dawn on him exactly how much of this disaster is his fault.
Wet noses snuffle at his face and shoulders, breaking Kakashi out of his spiral. The rest of the dogs have caught up. As they stare at him, heads low and tails between their legs, Kakashi almost considers sending some of them across the border after Sakura, as if that wouldn’t be a blatant act of foreign espionage Orochimaru would absolutely turn in his favor right after killing and skinning any dogs he caught. He closes his eyes, pulling his headband back down.
"This is the end of the line," he mutters, "Akino, Uhei, you’re carrying Naruto. I’ve got Sasuke."
Kakashi gently lifts Sasuke and maneuvers him onto his back while Akino helps roll Naruto onto Uhei’s. Kakashi pauses one last time, listening to Sasuke’s breathing, feeling the rise and fall of his chest against his spine.
"I’m sorry," Kakashi whispers, to Sasuke, to Naruto, to the dogs, to Sakura, to Rin and Obito and Minato and everyone else he just can’t stop letting down.
He turns back toward the trees and starts the slow journey home.
Sakura drags herself through fifteen miles of mud, repeating Kimimaro’s directions under her breath the whole way. The landscape slowly shifts from dense forest to copses of trees littered between rolling hills and wide open fields. Sakura keeps to the trees when she can, only taking quick, wary glances out towards the expanse of rice paddies. The last time she felt agoraphobia like this was when they came to the edge of the Land of Waves and she saw the ocean for the first time. How Orochimaru can live in a place this empty after growing up in the Land of Fire is beyond her. She supposes she’ll be finding out first hand.
She forges ahead, deeper and deeper into untamed wilderness. Her eyes flicker from tree to tree, looking for the shimmer of scales and the bending of light around camouflaged forms. Now that she’s no longer running for her life she’s finally noticed the snakes slithering along her trail. The first one she saw was as she climbed out of the Valley of the End, staring down at her from a high branch, lightly obscured by a second skin of chakra. When they locked eyes it hadn’t flinched, only moving when she was past it to slide down to the forest floor and disappear into the brush.
And now that she’s seen one, she can see all of them. They’re nestled in branches, resting low beneath shrubs, coiled inside holes in the dirt. They watch her, unblinking, their tongues flickering out to taste the air their only movement. Once she passes they finally break their vigil, either disappearing or following her at an easy pace. They aren’t stalking her like prey, but they aren’t letting her out of their sight.
They let her know one thing for certain– She’s expected, and has been for some time.
Sakura coughs out a chuckle. Not quite a red carpet, but it’ll do.
She follows Kimimaro’s directions to the letter. Sakura cuts through abandoned, fallow fields. She climbs up and over hills. She wades through marshland and ducks back into forest. She heads North, Northeast, East, North again, East again, then West. She comes upon a glen of oak trees with a series of Torii gates disappearing into their depths, just as Kimimaro said there would be. She positions herself in the direct center of the gates and walks down the path, standing up straight with her shoulders back.
At the end of the corridor of gates is a small, humble shrine to a kami she’s never heard of. Sakura roots around in her pack and finds a ten ryo coin sitting near the bottom. She tosses it into the offering box, pushes what little chakra she has left into the palms of her hands, then rings the bell and claps twice. The sound waves, laced with chakra, hit the trees behind the shrine. The dissonant chakra dissolves the genjutsu, the trees melting into fog and revealing a path around behind the shrine. Sakura whispers her prayer, gives a shallow bow so she doesn’t stress her broken rib, and makes her way around the shrine.
She comes out into a clearing surrounded by tall trees, nearly as tall as the old-growth oaks in the Leaf Village. What looks like a small roof sits on the ground below one of the trees, and as Sakura comes closer she can see a pit has been cut into the ground, with stairs leading to a door. Painted above the door, just below the roof and beside some sort of air vent, is the image of two coiled snakes.
If that isn’t proof enough that this is the place, Kabuto leaning on the door frame sets it in stone.
As Sakura lopes down the stairs he arches a brow and remarks, "You actually made it. Were you followed?"
Sakura shakes her head and replies, "Only to the border."
Kabuto’s other eyebrow pops up; "So it’s just you? No Naruto, no Sasuke? You shook them off?"
Sakura frowns and spits, "I knocked them out myself. They’re not going to be a problem, that’s a promise."
Kabuto stares at her for a few seconds, mouth pressed tightly shut before it breaks into a smirk; "Well then. This is going to be interesting. Come on, let’s see how this pans out. You might want to take your headband off."
Kabuto turns on his heel and strides into the darkness. Sakura blinks rapidly, then scrambles to untie her headband and stow it in one of her pouches as she jogs to follow. They descend into the bowels of the earth, natural light disappearing in favor of low, flickering torches. The snaking halls are narrow with low ceilings, but their footsteps echo in the vast silence. In the low light Sakura can just barely make out breaks in the rough-hewn stone walls, picking out doors and rows upon rows of prison bars. The silhouettes of people huddle far behind those bars, and Sakura can feel her eyes straining to pick out their faces.
She forces them forward. If she’s going to be living here, if she’s going to embed herself in this "village" until the time is right, she can’t think about all the people Orochimaru is hurting. Down that way lies only despair.
They walk for what feels like hours until coming to a door set into the stone wall, at which point Kabuto turns and looks her in the eye; "I’m sure you’re familiar with the Will of Fire. Before we go in, I feel like you should know the Will of Sound."
Sakura’s brow furrows, but she swallows her confusion and listens.
Kabuto leans in until they’re nearly nose to nose, then whispers, "The Will of Sound is that everyone here is out for themselves. You sink or swim alone. That tip about the headband is the last bit of help you’re getting for free."
Sakura swallows hard and it burns the whole way down. Kabuto turns on his heel and slides the door open.
Sakura’s not sure why she’d expected Orochimaru to have some kind of throne room where he received guests, but regardless, she’s surprised to be lead into what looks like a conference room. There are no torches, but set into the wall is a glass tank full of strange fish that wraps all the way around, lit from within by some kind of low, electric light. Blue-green light plays in swirling, hypnotic patterns across the long wooden table dominating the room. Orochimaru sits at its head… or at least she thinks it’s Orochimaru. The figure sitting with their hands steepled in front of their chin has the same golden eyes with the same purple markings around them, she can see one poking out of the bandages covering his entire face, but the bandages cover what parts of him aren’t covered by a plain yukata. A shock of gray hair sits shaggy at the top of his head instead of the flowing black hair she remembers.
His golden eye alights upon her, and he shoots her a withering glare. Sakura sucks in a breath. She remembers his eye peering out from the burned skin on the Grass ninja’s face in sickening clarity. This is Orochimaru, no matter what the body looks like. Kabuto shuts the door behind them with a click. Sakura can’t suppress the shiver that races up her spine. Kabuto simply heads over to one of the nearby chairs, settling down and not sparing her a second glance.
There’s a full minute of silence before Orochimaru snarls, “I’m not happy, Sakura Haruno. Would you care to guess why?”
Sakura’s tongue is a lead weight in her mouth.
Orochimaru answers his own question; “I’ve lost the Sound Four. I’ve lost Kimimaro. As valuable of investments as they were, these would be sacrifices I would be willing to live with if they had just been able to get me Sasuke… But you aren’t Sasuke. You aren’t even Naruto. Your family’s only accomplishment was providing the village with one more martyr. You struggle twice as hard to become half as powerful as your peers. You are not worth the loss of five rare bloodlines, let alone one. You made me miss my window to gain the Sharingan by a hair, and I’m stuck in this body for three years. You’ve robbed me of three years of progress. I do not take being robbed lightly, especially not by the same person, twice… And yet, you know how the saying goes. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. There might, and I stress might, be something about you that’s been worth all this trouble.”
He stands up, slow and smooth; “I’m going to make this very simple. You have five minutes to convince me that you’re worth keeping alive. They start now.”
Sakura’s mind is racing alongside her pulse. Of course, of course, all along she was the mistake, she should’ve known that from the very beginning. She knew back when she’d done it she was stealing something meant for Sasuke, how had she let herself forget that?! She bites the inside of her cheek. That doesn’t matter right now, it can’t matter. She has a mission, and that mission is about to fail before it’s begun if she doesn’t think of something.
Her eyes dart over to Kabuto. He’s inspecting his nails, picking at them with the tip of a kunai.
She takes a deep breath, holds it for a moment, then lets it go.
Sakura straightens her shoulders, smoothes her features, and states, “First, I defeated Naruto and Sasuke in order to get here. If you don’t believe me, believe those snakes that were watching me. I know they were all over the Valley of the End, the genjutsu they used was serviceable, but nothing I couldn’t see through. That should prove I’m strong enough to be of use.”
Orochimaru’s eye darts over to Kabuto; “Did you put sentries along the Sound Four’s route?”
Kabuto jumps slightly, drawn abruptly from his own thoughts, before responding, “Yes, I did. I could summon them back here to report if you’d like, but I wouldn’t want to take up more of Sakura’s time limit.”
Orochimaru’s gaze slides between the two of them, but eventually stops on Sakura; “… You lead with ‘first’, I assume there’s a ‘second’.”
Sakura’s stomach twists at the thought of her second point. Of all the things Sasuke could forgive her for, she’s not sure he’ll be able to forgive her lying like this, her twisting her own wishful thinking and turning it into a weapon. But she forces herself to smirk instead of grimace.
“Second,” she continues, “I can still bring Sasuke to you.”
Orochimaru sneers, “Really. Please, tell me how, it’s sure to be a fantastic claim. At the least entertain us before you die.”
Sakura places her hands on her hips and forces herself to sound flippant as she lies, “Sasuke’s in love with me. Even as I was putting him to sleep, he kept telling me so. He’s infatuated. And if you know him like I do, you know Sasuke’s stubborn. He’s an Uchiha, it’s in the blood. He won’t drop that torch, not even three years later. And trust me– He’ll be better for you then than now.”
Orochimaru’s eye narrows; “And how, in this case, is later better than sooner?”
Sakura’s grinning now as she explains, “In three years I can bring you an Uchiha who’s trained under Tsunade! After three years he’ll have access to Tsunade’s healing jutsu, and you’ll have access to that healing! Sasuke’s an incredibly quick study, especially with his Sharingan, it’s not impossible that he’ll be capable of maintaining his body like Tsunade can! That means you can maintain his body after you take it! You’ll never have to switch again, you can keep the Sharingan forever!”
She can’t read Orochimaru’s face behind the bandages. But there is a spark in his eye. She’s close.
The bandages shift as he raises a brow behind them; “You’d trade your teammate, take advantage of his love, fatten him up like a hog before the slaughter, for… what? What are you hoping to gain in return?”
Sakura meets his gaze head on; “Power. Knowledge. Experience. All I’m asking is that you take me on as an apprentice. I’ll do whatever you ask me to, I’ll be your research assistant, your spy, your assassin, whatever you need. Because I need to be more than… nothing. I don’t have a kekkei genkai. I’m nothing now. But I can be anything. I will be anything you want me to be.”
Orochimaru glances over to Kabuto, whose eyes are bouncing from Sakura to Orochimaru and back again as he clenches his jaw tightly shut.
He looks back to Sakura, and remarks, “While you are near me I can reach out and grab hold of that mark on your shoulder at any time. Within the Village Hidden in Sound, I am Hokage, Daimyo, and King. I have complete control over any and everything here. Staying here means I can snuff your life out whenever I please. Do you understand?”
Sakura swallows hard and replies, “Yes.”
Orochimaru starts stalking around the side of the conference table, eye locked on her as he prowls closer; “And when you deliver Sasuke to me, when I take his body, that will be the end of him. His body will live, but his mind, his soul, everything that makes him Sasuke, will be nothing but a memory. Do you understand?”
Sakura can’t answer with words. Her throat is tight, blocked by a lump larger than her fist. She simply nods.
Orochimaru looms over her now, less than a foot of space between them. Sakura looks him in the eye.
She will not be the one who blinks first.
The first thing Sasuke sees when his eyes creak open is Kakashi slumped over in a cheap plastic chair, his eye closed. A blanket was probably draped over him at some point, but it’s mostly fallen into his lap. Sasuke stares at him for a moment, watching his shoulders rise and fall, before dragging his eyes through the room. It’s a Leaf Village hospital room, at this point Sasuke could figure that out by smell alone. Two animals are curled up at the foot of Sasuke’s bed, Tonton and a little brown dog with a squished face and a Leaf village headband. Both are sleeping soundly, snoring loud enough to wake the dead.
And in the bed next to him is Naruto, sleeping like the dead. His face and arms are covered in bandages, but his breathing is even, and there’s no special equipment for any serious injuries. He’s fine, relatively speaking.
Sasuke blinks, once, twice, three times. He slowly and deliberately lifts his left hand, bringing it up from his side and letting it fall on his left leg.
He doesn’t feel the impact.
He squeezes down and can’t feel the pressure of his own fingers.
Sasuke shuts his eyes, and immediately regrets that decision. All he can see behind his eyelids is Sakura pulling him out of the lake, kissing him on the head, holding him as her genjutsu takes effect and he slips into darkness. He presses the heels of his hands into his eyes to stem the flow of tears before it can begin. He presses so hard spots dance across his vision. He clenches his jaw tightly shut, taking deep breaths through his nose.
He wants to go back to sleep. He wants to wake up. He wants to stop waking up in the hospital after losing everything and proving himself a failure.
A hand closes around his shoulder and Sasuke almost shrugs it off.
"Sasuke," Kakashi murmurs, voice soft, "Look at me."
Sasuke takes another deep breath, then slowly lets his hands fall off his face, landing limp at his sides. He opens his eyes and turns, following Kakashi’s arm up to his face. Sasuke takes in the lines at the corners of Kakashi’s one dark eye, the wine-dark shadows beneath it, the ring of red around the edge of the white.
Kakashi’s mask warps in a weak smile as he picks up a wooden crutch from under the bed; "Let’s go for a walk."
Kakashi lets Sasuke struggle out of the hospital bed and onto the crutch without help. He has experience enough with doing this that it’s not hard. He hobbles out of the room, Kakashi at his side. Instinct draws him down the stairs and out into the courtyard. Petrichor blows through on the breeze as steel gray clouds hang heavy in the sky, promising that this is only a momentary reprieve from the rain. Sasuke can spy birds huddled in the branches and squirrels curled up in holes in the trunks of the trees lining the path. The wind bites at Sasuke’s cheeks and nose, the chill a herald of an early Winter.
Kakashi gently cuts through the silence; "I don’t know if I’d call this good news, but it is news. Your leg’s not unsalvageable. If Hakumei and Tsunade perform the surgery, you’ll be… Well, maybe not one hundred percent. More like ninety, maybe ninety-five. I know you were on the fence before, but… Now it’s either this or amputation."
Sasuke’s stomach rolls. He stops in his tracks, leaning heavy on his crutch. He’d been keeping his limp as a reminder, wearing the pain like a hair shirt so he knew what happened when he overestimated his own abilities and pushed himself too far. But he hasn’t learned a goddamn thing, has he? He’s been pushing on an injured limb this whole time, it’s no wonder it gave out when it did. He’s no better than Lee was when he found him in this courtyard, months ago, doing pushups on ruined toes.
"Then there’s no choice, is there," Sasuke whispers, forcing his eyes to focus on the path ahead and refusing to look at Kakashi.
Kakashi is quiet for a moment before softly replying, "There’s always a choice."
Sasuke considers that.
He considers that for a long moment.
"Well, even if there is, I’ve already made it," Sasuke murmurs, "There’s too much I’ve left unfinished."
Kakashi nods, staring past Sasuke and out into the middle distance; "Fair enough."
They come around the bend in the path, the trees pulling back to reveal the koi pond. Sasuke almost expects to see Hinata, hooked up to an IV drip and quietly crying with her back straight, on the bench across the water.
Instead, of all the people to see, he sees Gaara of the Desert. He’s seated on the bench directly across from them, scarred face comfortably unreadable as he breaks apart a piece of stale bread and tosses the crumbs into the pond. The koi mob the offering and Gaara watches them quietly, hands folded in his lap. As the koi disperse Gaara looks up and locks eyes with Sasuke. The two of them stare at each other across the pond, waiting to see who will blink first.
Gaara takes the hit, blinking rapidly and looking down at his feet as he mutters, "It’s going to rain again soon."
Sasuke looks to Kakashi, an eyebrow quirked in question.
He can hear the strained smile in Kakashi’s voice as he replies, "I know it feels like it’s been a while, but the inauguration was only a week ago. When you all needed backup, Tsunade asked our allies if they’d delay their trip home to provide it."
Sasuke’s brow furrows; "So everyone else is…?"
Gaara stands from the bench and starts making his way over as he calmly reports, "The first half of your squad, Ino Yamanaka, Choji Akimichi, Guo Tiantang and Neji Hyuuga, were found near the village. They were the most heavily injured. Yamanaka and Hyuuga are still undergoing intensive medical ninjutsu, while the Fifth Hokage is working on an antidote for some sort of poison in Akimichi’s system. Guo’s injuries were serious, but not life-threatening. We weren’t sent out until after they’d all been found."
Gaara presses his lips into a tight, thin line, quietly avoiding Sasuke’s gaze; "The second half were… We found and supported them. Rock Lee and Shikamaru Nara’s injuries are minor. Hinata Hyuuga’s internal injuries relapsed from overexertion, but according to the medics she’ll recover. Kiba Inuzuka and Akamaru suffered many deep lacerations to the face, throat, and chest. Kiba was also stabbed through the stomach. They’ll recover, but scarring is likely."
Gaara’s eyes briefly flicker to Kakashi as he remarks, "I heard Shino Aburame followed behind the squad and ran into resistance."
Kakashi nods, running his hand through his hair with a sigh; "Unfortunately, he did. Whoever hit him took out almost his entire colony, then knocked him over the head and set the forest on fire around him, leaving him to breathe in the smoke. If I didn’t find him when I did, he would’ve suffocated."
Gaara takes a deep breath before slowly meeting Sasuke’s eyes; "Your mission was a failure."
Sasuke nods; "Yeah. Sakura’s gone."
Gaara bows from the shoulders; "We prioritized bringing the injured back to the village. If I had pressed ahead I could’ve helped you subdue her. On behalf of my siblings and the Sand Village… On behalf of myself, I apologize."
Sasuke finds himself jolting back, blinking rapidly; "What? No, that’s– Gaara, no, this isn’t your fault. The mission was a failure, but everyone lived, even Sakura. That wouldn’t have happened if you just left everyone to bleed out in the woods. You… You made the right call."
"Sakura… Do you think…" Gaara purses his lips, eyes drifting down to the koi, "Do you think there’s hope for her?"
The answer that comes immediately to mind is Fuck if I know. In the Valley of the End Sakura showed him the absolute depths of her capacity for cruelty. She forced him to fight his best friend. She took advantage of his bad leg, both physically and psychologically. She nearly drowned Naruto. She’d fought like a wild animal backed into the corner of her cage…
Which is exactly what she had been, hadn’t she?
She’d pulled out every trick she could to throw them off the trail, to make them run in useless circles so she could slip away without a fight. Her traps had been designed to incapacitate, to put them harmlessly to sleep. She had begged him at every turn to just let her go. Everything she’d done, she’d done to get away. If he was running, if he was backed against a wall, would he really fight any cleaner? He certainly didn’t fight clean when they clashed in the Valley of the End.
He didn’t fight clean against Naruto back in August, when all that had been on the line was his pride.
Sasuke closes his eyes. He hears Sakura on the wind, whispering a dozen choked apologies in a voice thick with tears.
He opens his eyes; "Yeah. I do."
Gaara straightens up. His face hardly moves, but the outer layer of sand on his gourd ripples from top to bottom. His eyes are bright in the dull, stormy daylight.
Sasuke’s mouth twitches up at the corner; "I mean, if there’s hope for you, there’s probably hope for almost anyone."
Gaara’s eyes narrow, and after a pause he remarks, "I don’t know if you’re insulting me or not."
"Yeah, I get that a lot," Sasuke replies, "It’s gonna start raining any minute now. Let’s go back inside, see if Naruto’s awake. He’ll probably want to see you before you leave, might as well do that now."
Gaara and Sasuke start back towards the building, but Kakashi stays put as he says, "Go on ahead, you two. I’ve got something to take care of."
Sasuke frowns; "What is it?"
Kakashi lets his eye fall shut; "… Someone has to tell Sakura’s mother."
Oh. Sasuke nods and mutters a quick goodbye before turning on his heel, shuffling quickly away.
Sasuke and Gaara are quiet. Neither has anything to say, and that suits them both just fine. It’s rare Sasuke finds someone else just as comfortable, if not more so, in silence. He’s going to savor it while it lasts. They make it to the room and open the door to find Jiraiya settled on the open window sill, in the midst of conversation with a bright-eyed Naruto. They turn to Sasuke, Jiraiya as unconcerned as he ever is with him while Naruto quickly shifts from excited to… guilty.
Sasuke’s stomach drops.
Naruto refuses to meet Sasuke’s eyes as he says, "Hey, uh… I’ve got something to tell you."
It’s raining again when Tsubaki hears a knock at the door. She leaps from the couch and sprints to answer it, throwing it open with a loud bang!
Kakashi is staring down at her, one dark eye unreadable. Her blood runs cold.
She steps aside, allowing Kakashi to shuffle into the genkan, as she asks, "Did they find her? Is she alright? Is she at the hospital again? Kakashi, please, what’s going on? Don’t just stand there, say something already!"
Kakashi says nothing, not until she’s closed the door and he’s standing in the middle of her living room. He slowly surveys the room, looking from framed photographs of Tsubaki and Rin when they were young to the photo her mother took of Tsubaki and Sakura at dinner after she graduated from the academy. Kakashi’s shoulders slowly sink.
"I… I don’t have good news," Kakashi breathes, "I never do, but…"
Tsubaki covers her mouth, shutting her eyes tight. She can hear Kakashi shifting in place, hear him take a deep, shuddering breath. Her hands are shaking. She takes a fistful of her dress in her free hand, her grip white-knuckled.
"We… haven’t been entirely honest with you," Kakashi begins, "There’s no point in hiding it anymore. So I’ll explain everything. From the beginning."
He spares no detail. He tells her about her daughter being branded by a criminal so heinous he was more a folklore monster than a man. He tells her about the curse, about it’s seductive power and how it drew Sakura in with the promise of more, more, more. He tells her about that promise drawing Sakura away, into the forest, across the border, and into darkness.
From here, Tsubaki knows the rest. She wakes to an empty house. She assumes Sakura headed off to train and thinks nothing of it. She continues to think nothing of it until Iruka comes into her workplace with a surprisingly stern expression and asks if he can speak to her in private. She obliges him, and in the alley behind the store he tells her he’s here in a professional capacity. She learns her daughter disappeared from the village and they’ve sent a squad to go find her. She goes home early to quietly go out of her mind with worry.
And after chasing her from sunrise to sunset to yet another sunrise, they lost her.
Her daughter is gone.
Tsubaki opens her eyes. Kakashi begins to say something more, but she’s not listening. She crosses the floor in three strides. She rears back and slaps him hard across the face.
She finds herself screaming, "You son of a bitch! You’re her fucking teacher, it’s your job to keep things like this from happening and you let this happen! Was Rin not enough?! You take my sister from me, then my daughter, then what?! Huh?! There is nothing else! Congratulations, Kakashi! You did it! You’ve taken everything that matters to me! I hope you’re fucking happy!"
Kakashi is silent and still as the memorial stone.
Tsubaki’s eyes spill over, hot, bitter tears running down her face as she grabs Kakashi by his flak jacket and shakes him; "Well?! What do you have to say for yourself?! Come on! Say something, you bastard!"
Kakashi says nothing. Instead, he reaches up behind his head. He unties his headband, letting it clatter to the hard wood floor. Tsubaki takes a sharp breath in and an instinctive step backwards at the sight of the Sharingan. Kakashi’s hair wilts without the headband keeping it out of his face.
Her eyes go wide as Kakashi reaches for the top of his mask and pulls it down.
His face is… just a face. A nose, a mouth with a mole near the corner, and a jaw covered with two days of gray stubble. He’s just a man. Not a wolf, not a demon, not even a great shinobi. Just a man in his twenties. She was in her twenties, once upon a time. For an instant she’s thrust back to her kitchen table, doubled over bills as they lay strewn across the table top, biting her lip so Sakura won’t hear her crying and realize Mommy has no idea what she’s doing.
She still does that, some nights.
Tsubaki hasn’t even fully processed that before Kakashi has fallen to his knees. He bows until his forehead touches the floor.
"Everything you’ve said is true," Kakashi whispers, voice thick, "I’ve hurt you and your family more than words can express. Whatever punishment you think is right, I’ll accept. It’s no less than I deserve."
Tsubaki stares down at Kakashi’s back. She listens to the rain hitting the window, drumming on the roof, running down the street. She listens to how silent, how empty her house is, how empty it was before Kakashi came here, and how empty it will be no matter what she does to him.
She slowly sinks down, her knees inches from the top of Kakashi’s head. She takes him by the shoulder and pushes him up. No matter how tightly he clenches his jaw, no matter how straight he holds his shoulders, there’s no hiding it. Kakashi is ugly when he cries.
Tsubaki brings up her other hand and slaps him across the other cheek with no force behind it.
"There," she sighs, "That’s your punishment. Now stop crying all over my floor."
Kakashi blinks at her; "I don’t understand."
"Of course you don’t," Tsubaki snorts, leaning back on her hands, "This… This is pointless. What is hurting you going to change? Will that bring Sakura home? Will that bring Rin back? No. And you… you…"
Tsubaki shakes her head and wipes at her eyes; "You’re not the enemy. I don’t know who is. Maybe it’s me, I mean, what better way to rebel against your mother who hates that you’re a ninja than by becoming a rogue ninja?"
Kakashi’s mouth drops into a frown; "This isn’t your fault, Tsubaki."
She smiles and replies, "And it’s not yours, either. Rin and Sakura both loved you, not because you tricked them or because they were using you to fill a hole in their hearts, but because… Because you love them, too. I knew that. I always knew that. You were just… an easy scapegoat, I guess. I’m sorry."
Kakashi is quiet for a long moment; "… Rin talked about you all the time, you know. It felt like every day she had a new story about stealing some of your clothes or some joke you told or some new thing your dickhead boyfriend had done to piss her off, and I just… I remember wondering if all civilian families were like hers, if they were all as comfortable and close and… warm."
"I can at least tell you we’re a lot louder than other families when we get together," Tsubaki laughs, "When Rin was alive we were even louder."
Kakashi grins; "She said as much. It felt like every other day she was showing up at my apartment with her medical textbooks, complaining that you were fighting with her dad or your mom was getting into it with your aunts and she couldn’t study… And then she would spend the whole afternoon talking to me and not actually studying."
Tsubaki runs a hand through her hair, shaking her head; "God, I teased her constantly about her using us as an excuse to hang out with her dreamy teammate. She had it so bad for you."
Kakashi’s jaw almost drops. Tsubaki can’t help a guffawing, snorting laugh as it bursts out of her.
"You seriously didn’t know?!"
Kakashi rubs at the back of his neck and mutters, "I was an arrogant little asshole back then, my head was way too far up my own ass for me to notice it when girls were noticing me. It fit way better with my whole tragic anti-hero thing I was going for if I was pining for someone who’d never love me back, anyway."
Tsubaki falls quiet for a moment before murmuring, "Rin was so excited when I was pregnant. It felt like she was the only person in the world who wasn’t judging me for keeping Sakura. She was just… happy to be an aunt."
Kakashi leans forward, bracing his elbows on his knees; "They’re a lot alike. Too much for Sakura’s own good, sometimes."
Tsubaki lets her eyes fall closed; "They would’ve loved each other."
Kakashi’s voice is ragged at the edges as he replies, "Yeah, they would’ve."
Tsubaki and Kakashi sit together on the floor, listening to the rain come down around them. Tsubaki isn’t giving up on her daughter. She never will. But… In the meantime… She’s glad she has someone to mourn with.
Tsunade is barely out of the surgical theater when she hears Shikamaru’s voice calling, "Hey, Lady Hokage!"
Tsunade turns around. Shikamaru is moving surprisingly fast for someone with a sprained ankle, cutting across the hall to get to her. The lazy, unmotivated mask has been thrown out in favor of a clenched jaw and eyes burning with rage. Tsunade crosses her arms over her chest and stares him down.
He jabs a finger at her and hisses, "I need answers, now."
Tsunade interjects in her calm, reasonable, 'Hokage' voice, "Choji’s going to be fine, by the way."
Shikamaru blinks a few times, but barely loses any of his fire, stalking up to her and slamming his palm flat against the wall; "Everything about that mission stank. That mission should have been A-rank at least, there should have been at least two Jonin on it, but you sent your newest chunin and a bunch of genin you didn’t think were worth promoting. When you sent backup, you sent ninja not even from this village, who have no obligation to report shit to us."
Shikamaru’s hand curls into a white-knuckled fist as his voice rises; "Sakura, one of the most loyal ninja I’ve ever met, suddenly turned on her village with no warning! But when people from her village came after her, she used almost entirely nonlethal methods to try and shake them! She went to Orochimaru willingly even though she knew he wanted Sasuke, not her! Nothing about any of this adds up!"
Tsunade doesn’t break eye contact; "And why do you think that is? You’re smart enough to see all of this, you’re definitely smart enough to come up with a hypothesis."
Shikamaru’s eyes narrow and he leans in, glaring up at her; "Like I said, Sakura turning traitor and running off to get more power doesn’t add up. You know what would add up? The Hokage herself sending the perfect, low-risk, disposable mole in undercover, then taking advantage of her emotionally compromised apprentice to cover her tracks with a mission doomed to fail."
Tsunade purses her lips. She shuts her eyes and lets out a long breath.
"Shikamaru," she murmurs, "Does that really seem like something I’d do?"
Shikamaru doesn’t flinch; "All due respect, Ma’am, I don’t know a goddamn thing about you. I’m not stupid enough to take the whole 'prodigal son coming back out of the goodness of your heart to do right by your hometown' gimmick at face value. And I’m also not stupid enough to forget that half of your title is shadow. Doing shady shit is part of the job description."
Tsunade’s lips quirk up weakly at the corner; "But you are stupid enough to, when you smell a conspiracy, go straight to the person you think is responsible for it and accuse them of conspiring right to their face."
Shikamaru’s mouth twists into a grin a hair shy of manic; "Anyone who matters to me and isn’t sedated knows exactly where I’ve gone. They know exactly what I’ve come here to do. They know how to check if I’m really me. I killed someone for the first time, my two best friends nearly died, all my friends are laid up in here, I haven’t slept in thirty-six hours and my first mission as a chunin was a complete failure. I really, really, do not give a fuck if I die right now."
"God’s sake, kid, take it back like ten notches," Tsunade sighs, rubbing her temple, "I’m too tired to think of some clever ninjutsu gimmick that will guarantee in your eyes that I’m not lying, so instead… I’m going to give you information."
Shikamaru’s eyes go wide, his eyebrows leaping up.
Tsunade puts her hands on her hips; "Kakashi reported directly to me when he brought Sasuke and Naruto home. He did so because he was the one to find Shino. The forest around Shino had been set on fire, following standard Leaf tactical procedures for trapping hostiles and erasing any material trace of your presence– finger prints, scent, and if Kakashi hadn’t come when he did Shino’s body would’ve also been burned to erase any trace on it of who he’d fought. But Kakashi did come. Kakashi claimed that he noticed black stains on Shino’s jacket that didn’t seem to be from blood or soot and didn’t line up with any intel we have on any Sound ninja."
Tsunade’s eyes narrow as she mutters, "That’s going to be the real measure of how deep this, whatever this is, goes. If that jacket disappears, then we’re in for a weed with some deep fucking roots."
She starts walking again, patting Shikamaru’s shoulder as she passes; "Trust me or don’t, that’s your choice. Follow your instincts. And know that I meant what I said during my inauguration. I believe in people, not institutions. If there’s corruption– and make no mistake, there is– I’m going to smoke it out if I have to burn down the village to do it."
Tsunade strides away, leaving Shikamaru alone with far too much to think about.
Danzo stays focused on the darkness below the bridge. He stares into the depths until it is clear that Sai doesn’t have any more to say. Only then does he turn to face him.
Sai is holding in his left hand a bundle made from torn red fabric with a white circle embroidered upon it; “This came for us.”
Danzo’s mouth presses into a fine line. He closes the distance between himself and Sai, the tapping of his cane on the stone echoing throughout the massive space.
“Let’s see it, then.”
Sai unties the top of the bundle and holds it open. Inside is a Sound headband and two locks of hair, tied together with twine– one a soft pink, the other a glossy, familiar black.
"… How long has it been?"
"Nearly two weeks, sir."
Danzo shuts his eye and pinches the bridge of his nose; “Destroy this. Observe, monitor, but do not engage. I want full Blackout Protocol. Do you understand?”
Sai does not respond with words. Instead, fire chakra blossoms from his hands, flames consuming the fabric and hair. The headband’s metal plate bends, buckles, and blackens. It clatters to the floor, and Danzo sweeps it off the bridge with his cane.
It falls into the abyss, disappearing without a sound.
October makes good on the promise of an early Winter. Snow has started to fall, but it won’t stick to the ground until December. Birds make their way South and squirrels stuff their hollows with what acorns are left on the forest floor. The trees quickly turn yellow, orange, brown, bare. The people of the Leaf Village hastily prepare their homes for the incoming cold and break out their warm clothes. Ichiraku puts a space heater under the bar, a few seats down from where Naruto usually sits so he won’t burn his toes on it like he does every year.
Sasuke’s surgery was on the eighth.
Naruto is leaving with Jiraiya on the eleventh.
Sasuke has forgotten exactly whose idea it was to throw a combination "Congratulations on Your Successful Reconstructive Surgery"–"Goodbye Naruto"–"Happy Birthday Naruto" Party, only that Neji and Hinata somehow convinced Hiashi to let them throw it in the Branch Manor (which, honestly, they’re probably lying about) and Sasuke has been roped into going with Naruto to buy some last-minute drinks. The only justification he got for that was that apparently nobody had bought any orange soda and Naruto wasn’t going to attend a party with no orange soda.
"I don’t get why you need me here," Sasuke mutters as he hobbles behind Naruto into the convenience store, "It’s not like I can carry anything."
Naruto grins and replies, "I totally need you here! It’s my birthday, so you’re paying!"
Sasuke shoots him a glare; "I hate you."
"Hate you too, Jackass," Naruto chirps, strolling to the drink case and forcing Sasuke to go double-time on his crutch to keep up. Naruto scans the drink selection with an appraising eye, hands on his hips and brow furrowed in deep, serious contemplation. Sasuke catches a glimpse of his own reflection in the glass. He stares at his left side. Just as he estimated a month ago, he’ll be off this crutch and out of this brace by tomorrow. And when he walks, it will be without a limp. He won’t be walking without pain, but it won’t be like it has been for the past Summer.
He’ll be back to normal. Back to how he was.
Like he hasn’t learned anything at all.
Naruto elbows him in the side, bringing him back to the moment; "Hey, since you’re paying you should get something you want to drink. Choji and Shikamaru probably didn’t buy whatever bland old man stuff you like so it’s now or never."
Sasuke elbows Naruto back before opening the case and picking out a bottle of root beer as long as his forearm.
Naruto gags and leans away; "Ugh, seriously? What is wrong with you?"
"Plenty," Sasuke replies, "Now get your orange soda. You better get the cheap shit, I’m living on mission pay and a government stipend too, you know."
Naruto’s eyes go wide as he picks out his drinks; "Really? I thought there was some Uchiha War Chest you’ve been breaking into all these years or some clan account in the bank or something."
Sasuke shrugs his right shoulder; "There is an account, but I don’t get access to it until I’m sixteen or a chunin, whichever comes first. I guess they weren’t about to trust an eight year old to handle a whole clan’s fortune. And if there’s a war chest I’ve got no idea where it is. I haven’t exactly been rooting around the houses of my dead extended family on my days off."
Naruto grimaces; "Then yeah, that shit’s probably long gone, believe it. It was gross, dude, anyone who wasn’t afraid of a bunch of Uchiha ghosts started looting the district like. A week after everything went down. How fucked up is that?"
Sasuke, who heard all the same whispered rumors Naruto did in the academy, just replies, "Pretty fucked up."
They head over to the cashier and check out. Naruto did get the cheap stuff, and Sasuke thanks him for it by shoulder-checking him as they squeeze out the front door. Naruto gets him back by thwacking him across the back of the head.
Sasuke’s suspicions are confirmed when Hinata meets the two of them at the gate to the Hyuuga estate and ushers them to follow her around the outer wall. They squeeze through a broken portion of the wall Sasuke remembered being much bigger when he was five years old, cut through a bamboo grove, dart from rock to rock in the rock garden, shimmy through a gap between the wall and a storage shed, cross over a koi pond, and finally go all the way around the branch manor so Neji can let them in through the back door.
"I thought you said your dad was gone on a mission," Naruto remarks as they shut the shoji behind them, "Why are we still sneaking around?"
Neji shrugs, shoulder still stiff two weeks out from his own operation; "Hiashi may be gone, but Hanabi’s always lurking around, and she takes any opportunity she can find to snitch to Hiashi or the elders about us doing anything they wouldn’t approve of. So, anything."
Hinata gives Neji a gentle shove, carefully avoiding his injuries; "S-she may be a… a tattletale, but she’s still my sister. Please be nice."
Neji chances a little smirk and counters, "I will when she does."
Sasuke shoots Hinata a grin, arching a brow as he remarks, "I was told you got permission to do this."
Hinata’s face lights up and she quickly looks away; "I… I-I did ask my father if I could… have friends over while he wasn’t here… I-I didn’t really say which ones or how many or what we’d be doing but I didn’t lie! I-I asked and he said… W-well he kind of grunted and then… Well he asked Hanabi how things were going at the academy, b-but–"
Naruto lets out a belting laugh; "Awesome! We should’ve brought booze, really stick it to that old fart!"
Hinata turns a deep crimson, but Neji just snickers, "Oh I definitely wouldn’t worry about that. If Tenten doesn’t smuggle us some in a scroll we can at least count on Kiba to have swiped his mother’s flask."
Sasuke and Neji head off to start setting things up in the front room. If they don’t give Hinata and Naruto some alone time now there’s no way she’s gonna have the courage to give him his birthday present once everyone’s showed up. Neji ribs Sasuke for being early to his own party, Sasuke counters that he couldn’t trust their friends to actually get any setup done, and Neji can’t argue with that. They’re in the middle of commiserating about being the only people in the village that actually like root beer when Tenten and Lee arrive, Lee with Ino slung over one shoulder and her collapsible, hospital-issue wheelchair tucked under his arm.
Ino is wriggling like a fish on a line as she shouts, "We’re here, put me down already!"
Lee grins, but he does as he’s told; "What is the matter? It was much faster this way, right?"
Ino’s cheeks are bright red as she gets herself situated in the chair; "It was humiliating is what it was. Next time you’re injured see how you like it when I cart you around like a sack of potatoes everywhere. Couldn’t even have the decency to carry me bridal style, could you?"
Sasuke’s distracted from Lee’s reply and Tenten gluing herself to Neji’s side by Ino’s hair. He’d heard she’d cut it again, but instead of a simple trim, she’s brought it down to a neat pixie cut. Her bangs are still long, falling down to intermittently cover one eye, but the rest of her hair is barely over an inch.
Ino catches him staring and shoots him a cheeky grin; "Noticed the hair, huh? How’s it look?"
Sasuke frowns for a moment, then remarks, "It’s short."
Ino’s laugh is better described as a cackle; "Wow! Really! I hadn’t noticed! What other stunning, deep, piercing insights have you got rattling around in there?"
Sasuke rolls his eyes; "The only reason I’m not smacking you for that is because you’re in a wheelchair."
Ino’s eyes light up; "Oh yeah? Well I’m not gonna hold back against a guy on a crutch! Lee, wheel me at him!"
Lee shakes his head and instead wheels Ino towards the drinks; "Absolutely not. This is a party, there is no place for fighting at a party."
Ino just snickers, "You’ve obviously never been to a Yamanaka Clan New Years party. You know what? Consider yourself invited to the next one, you have to see what happens when my dad beats Auntie Yoshiko at cards."
Choji and Shikamaru aren’t far behind, Choji hauling in most of the food and drinks and Shikamaru dragging the overflow. They brought enough to feed a small army, but considering this party’s going to be hosting Naruto, Choji, and Kiba, Sasuke can’t help but wonder if it’s enough. He grabs a couple omusubi while nobody’s looking and shoves them in his jacket, just in case.
"Trust me, those aren’t what I’d worry about running out of," Shikamaru snickers, appearing at Sasuke’s side, "Five hundred ryo says the taiyaki are gonna be the first to go."
"Keep your ryo," Sasuke grouses, "Spending time around Tsunade is the easiest way to kill a gambling addiction before it can start."
Shikamaru falls oddly silent. He’s staring at the taiyaki with far more intensity than they deserve.
"Out of everyone in this village, you’re one of the only people who actually knows Tsunade well," Shikamaru remarks, turning to look him in the eye, "How much do you… trust her?"
"Completely," Sasuke answers without even thinking. Shikamaru jolts back a bit, eyes going wide. Sasuke hasn’t even finished wondering why before he notices how clear and sharp everything in his field of vision has become, as well as the red tint. He blinks rapidly, dismissing the Sharingan.
He starts to apologize, but Shikamaru cuts in, bemused, "Well, that settles it. If a cagey motherfucker like you is vouching for her, guess I have no other choice."
Sasuke’s brow doesn’t unfurrow; "What’s this about, Shikamaru?"
Shikamaru briefly considers him before clapping him on the shoulder; "It’s not really party talk. I’ll tell you soon, though– maybe over shogi or something. Gotta have something to do while I’m kicking your ass."
Shino and Kiba are the last to arrive, rolling in at around the same time that Naruto and Hinata finally emerge from the back room. Sasuke’s distracted from the scars criss-crossing Kiba’s face by the fact that Naruto’s now wearing a bright red scarf. Indoors. Hinata’s face also matches the scarf’s color as she beams from ear to ear. Sasuke finds himself softly smiling. He’s not sure if Naruto knows their relationship is progressing, but everyone else on the planet definitely does.
The party gets very loud, very fast. Both Kiba and Tenten bringing alcohol does not help. Ino has barely had a drop of it before she’s belting out all the village gossip, even pieces of it that involve people in the room with her. After an hour spent forcing Shino to strain his injured throat singing karaoke and gawking at how well Tenten and Neji can dance so long as they’re doing it together, Hinata and Choji bring out a cake with "Happy Birthday Naruto/Safe Journey Naruto/Congratulations On The Leg Sasuke" written on the top in letters so compressed the three sentiments are basically one word. Naruto blows out the thirteen candles scattered across it. Choji remarks to Sasuke that they got a pumpkin cake both for the season and so it wouldn’t be too sweet for him. He thanks him privately as Tenten and Naruto publicly bust Neji’s balls for not being able to swallow even one bite.
For a while, Sasuke can handle the noise. He suffers through Kiba and Lee proving what terrible singers they are, learning exactly who all their teachers are having sex with from an overexcited Ino, and being almost asked to dance about ten times. But after two hours he can’t help the feeling they’re all trying to drown out the one voice that’s missing.
He excuses himself to the back porch without a word.
In a quiet marred only by the muffled sounds of music from inside, Sasuke pulls out one of the omusubi. He unwraps it and bites down. It’s filled with okaka, which Sasuke suspected, but is still pleased to discover. It’s always strange, realizing in little ways that his classmates who don’t have crushes on him have still been paying attention to him all these years. Sasuke lets out a long sigh, watching his breath turn to steam in the brisk night air.
Will they still pay attention to him when Naruto’s gone?
That thought makes something hot and dark coil into a lump in his stomach. For fuck’s sake, when did he become so insecure? When did he start caring this much about what other people think? Didn’t he have a goal? What the Hell does it matter if people like him if he can’t kill Itachi?!
The thought of Itachi conjures not images of the massacre, of his parents’ black blood seeping into the tatami, but Sakura lying broken and dead to the world in the middle of a hotel hallway in Shukuba Town. He has so much more to answer for, that should have galvanized him, should have hardened his heart…
But the world is so much wider now.
It’s so much harder to stay on one straight, narrow road when all these side streets keep opening up. Itachi needs to die. The Uchiha Clan needs to live again. But Sakura also needs to come home. Orochimaru needs to be ground into dust and scattered to the wind. Sasuke needs to learn everything he can from Tsunade, from Kakashi, from Lee and Neji and Hinata. And Sasuke’s a medic now, or at least he’s going to be. A medic can’t afford to ignore their fellow shinobi to go chasing shadows.
Before Sasuke can spiral any further, the shoji slides open. Sasuke expects Hinata, Neji, Shino, or even Shikamaru to settle down beside him in the quiet and the cold.
He does not expect Naruto.
"It’s getting crazy in there," Naruto chuffs, voice lower than Sasuke’s ever heard it, "I think they were about to play Spin the Bottle when I left."
Sasuke shudders; "Down that way lies only pain and despair."
Naruto nods; "Believe it."
Sasuke gestures to the scarf; "Did Hinata get that for you?"
Naruto grins and fiddles with the fringe; "Yeah, she knit it herself. Said if I was gonna be heading off now I should have something warm for when it starts really snowing. Did you know she could knit?"
Sasuke shakes his head; "No. She’s good."
They lapse into silence. They’ve been doing that a lot these days. Sasuke watches snowflakes drift through the light from the windows.
"Hey," Naruto breaks the silence, "Do you… You haven’t given up on Sakura, have you."
Sasuke’s brow furrows; "Of course not."
Naruto sits quietly for a few more breaths before slowly speaking; "Orochimaru has to wait three years between bodies. She’ll be okay for that long… And I… I think I still want to bring her home. But… When I fought Gaara and Neji… When I fought with you… I don’t know. I got you. You guys… made sense to me. Zabuza and Haku made sense to me. Sakura… doesn’t. I thought I knew her, but… I don’t get how she could be so… cruel, how she could fuck with us like she did, how she could try to kill us, how she could throw away a family and friends that love her and her home for creepy chakra and a set of bug wings. And I don’t get why she didn’t kill us. She said I was her best friend, but she also said I was holding her back, and I know one of those is a lie but I don’t know which one."
Sasuke’s eyes are locked on the ground.
He wants to say, Maybe they’re both true.
He instead says, "Well, there’s only one person who can tell us."
Naruto leans back on his hands. He stares up at the starless sky. A few snowflakes hit his face, melting on contact with his unseasonably warm skin.
Naruto turns and looks him in the eye; "Will you be alright if I leave?"
Naruto frowns; "Really? You’re not just saying that to sound tough and cool and shit, right?"
The girl he loves abandoned him and now his best friend is going to do the same, how the Hell is he expected to cope with that?
"I mean it. I’ll be fine."
Naruto heaves a sigh; "Yeah… okay. I’m… I’m gonna head back in. You coming?"
Sasuke ponders that for a moment, then replies, "Give me a few more minutes."
Sasuke’s brace comes off at six-thirty the next morning.
There are a few false starts, but after a minute he’s walking on it fine enough, with only twinges of pain and the weakness that comes with atrophied muscles. Hakumei gives him a retinue of yet more physical therapy to get his leg back to full strength after months of being limped on. Shizune also informs him that he’s going to be staying with Kakashi as he recovers, and if he likes she can help him carry whatever he wants to take over there.
Sasuke knows he’s not staying with Kakashi because someone needs to oversee his recovery. He’s staying there because Tsunade and Shizune have decided neither him nor Kakashi should be alone right now. He can’t say they’re entirely wrong.
He also has an appointment to keep.
He trusts Shizune. He asks her if she can start without him and she agrees. He hands her the key to his apartment and tells her what he wants to take. He tries and fails to ignore the flicker of surprise and concern that crosses Shizune’s face when she realizes exactly how little he wants her to grab.
Sasuke walks to the gate at seven.
Naruto and Jiraiya come down the street at seven-fifteen.
Naruto perks up and sprints to stand in front of Sasuke, a bright, surprised grin on his face; "You’re here!"
Sasuke smirks with a loose shrug; "Of course I am. Someone’s gotta see you off, and as you can see," Sasuke gestures with one hand to the empty benches on either side of the gate.
"That party was a bad idea," Naruto snorts, "Everyone’s sleeping off their hangovers, believe it."
Sasuke nods; "It was so distracting I forgot to give you these."
Sasuke pulls out a pair of tekagi-shuko from behind his back. Naruto’s eyes go wide and dart between Sasuke’s face and the claws, jaw dropping.
Sasuke shrugs; "If you’re gonna fight like an animal you might as well have the claws to match."
Naruto takes them with a laugh; "Jackass."
Sasuke just holds out a hand; "Loser."
They trade grips and pull each other in for a quick but tight hug, pinning their clasped hands against their chests. Sasuke meets Jiraiya’s eyes over Naruto’s shoulder. They nod to each other in silent acknowledgement.
Naruto pulls back; "Don’t burn down the village while I’m gone."
Sasuke grins; "I make no promises."
He watches Naruto and Jiraiya make their way through the gate. He stands there, watching them grow smaller and smaller, until they’ve disappeared over the hill. Then he stands there for a few minutes more.
Sasuke ambles over to Kakashi’s apartment at eight. He arrives to see Shizune and Kakashi making small talk on the balcony. There’s a half-empty duffle bag Sasuke recognizes as his slung over Shizune’s shoulder. Both of them turn to look at him as Sasuke draws closer, their conversation coming to an end.
"I apologize in advance for the state of my place," Kakashi remarks, rubbing at the back of his neck, "This may come as a huge shock to you, but I don’t really entertain all that often, and dogs don’t make for the cleanest roommates."
Shizune smiles at him and graciously replies, "I’m sure it’s not that bad."
And in a certain respect, it isn’t. The apartment is spacious, the furniture is kept well enough, and aside from the eight dogs all strewn about the room it’s relatively clean. Still, Sasuke takes note of Shizune’s small frown, the line between her brows, as her eyes run across the living room. The furniture may be well-kept, but there’s barely any to keep beyond absolute essentials. There’s nothing on the walls. The shelves are bare. The windows are shut and the shades are drawn.
It looks exactly like Sasuke’s apartment.
Sasuke takes the duffle bag from Shizune; "We’ll be fine from here. You should probably tell Lady Tsunade that we’re settling in."
Shizune nods rapidly, forcing another smile; "Right, I– Yes, I should be going. Excuse me."
Shizune quickly scurries back down the hall and out of the apartment. Kakashi and Sasuke stand in the middle of the living room, just… staring at each other. Waiting for the other to say something, because they have no idea what to say.
Kakashi shoves his hands in his pockets and breaks eye contact; "Have you eaten yet?"
Sasuke shakes his head; "Not yet."
Kakashi starts schlepping over to the kitchen, muttering half to Sasuke, half to himself, "I’ll see what we have here. It might just be dog food, but…" he glances back over his shoulder and points back the way they came, "The dogs have been sleeping in the spare bedroom, but if you’d prefer that to the couch in here it’s off the hall, just past the genkan."
Sasuke nods and heads back down the hall. The only furniture the spare bedroom can boast are a smattering of dog beds in different sizes scattered around the floor. Sasuke sets the duffle bag with all his belongings down in the closet, going through it to make sure Shizune didn’t forget any of his ninja tools. At the very bottom of the bag is the tantō Sakura gave him for his birthday. Sasuke extracts it from the bag and holds it up. The Uchiha crest shines stubbornly in the low light.
Sasuke straps it to his hip, the weight a welcome and sorely missed presence at his side. He reaches up behind his head. He unties his headband, taking it off and bringing it around so he can stare at the leaf insignia on the steel plate.
Sasuke ties the headband around his left leg, just above his knee. He leaves the room and dips into the bathroom. He turns on the faucet, splashing his face with cold water before taking a moment to look at himself in the mirror. He rubs at his bare forehead, wondering what it will look like with the Strength of a Hundred Seal in it’s center. The thought sends the first frisson of excitement he’s felt in days up his spine.
Sasuke smirks and murmurs, "Well… Let’s get Madara rolling in his grave."
END OF PART I