30, June, 1001
"Sasuke," Kiba crows, "We’ve got another one!"
Sasuke hisses through his teeth, "Of course we do," and only diverts ten percent of his focus away from the shattered femur he’s supposed to be rebuilding.
Akamaru comes bounding over, a little boy draped across his broad back. Kiba is left to the delicate task of laying the boy out on the nearest piece of flat, clean ground and whispering some encouraging nothings to him because if Sasuke takes his hands off this man’s leg for even a second all his work will come undone. Despite his attitude grating on him there’s no one Sasuke would rather have covering his back right now than Kiba– After all, no one else in the Leaf Twelve-Minus-Two has an older sister who drilled them in the basics of field medicine until they could recite them in their sleep.
Sasuke redirects all his attention to the case in front of him. That’s all the harder to do when his 'surgical theater' is actually just four metal rods holding up a tarp to keep the rain off in the middle of a destroyed village, with other members of his pitifully small squad racing this way and that to clear the boulders and mud blocking roads and filling homes. Blocking out the sound of pounding rain, shouted orders, and survivors calling out frantically to the missing is almost harder than actually mending this bone. After a few more moments of hard-won focus, Sasuke exhales and pulls his hands back. He’s done all he can do. He hates how often that’s the note he has to leave on, not a total victory or a total failure, just an earnest attempt.
He calls to Taiyō, "Clean this one up," and doesn’t spare a glance to see how the genin medic is doing before turning on his heel to the new arrival.
Kiba’s already removed the boy’s shirt to reveal a massive bruise so purple it’s nearly black. The boy’s pale-going-on-white skin is mottled with smaller contusions and one of his pupils is larger than the other as his eyes stare blankly at the canvas ceiling.
"He was caught in the debris flow," Kiba explains, "Everything in there ran roughshod over the poor kid and beat him to hell. He’s gonna have hella internal bleeding and trauma. This a lost cause or–?"
"No, because you brought him to me," Sasuke snaps, palms blazing to life with blue-green chakra, "Get back out there and–"
Lee comes barreling over, exclaiming, "Sasuke! Kiba! We have finally opened the way into the canyon, we have five wounded coming up this way!"
Sasuke lets out a harsh grunt; "Are you fucking–?! I am not gonna be done with this kid by the time they get here!"
Kiba looks between Taiyō and Sasuke before turning to Lee; "How bad's it look?"
Lee winces and just says, "Very."
Sasuke shuts his eyes and growls, "I fucking hate landslides."
Kiba snorts; "Pretty sure everyone in this town relates."
Sasuke takes a deep breath. He and Taiyō are the only medics in the squad thanks to a severe miscommunication over the scale of the disaster. He’d been trying to conserve chakra and pace himself, but Taiyō doesn’t know Mystical Palm yet. Tsunade’s working on getting more medics stationed out here on the border with Hot Water but that’s the future and right now any support won’t get here in time to make a difference for these people. Nothing else for it.
Sasuke opens his eyes and the Sharingan blazes to life.
He hears a shuddering gasp and bare feet slapping on muddy ground. He sets to work but diverts a thimbleful of attention to the source of the noise. There’s a woman in her thirties, soaking wet and caked in mud from elbows to fingertips from digging out friends and family, sprinting as best she can towards the tent. The expression on her face is one of pure, unadulterated terror as her eyes stay locked on Sasuke’s Sharingan.
"Kiba–" Kiba’s already on it. Akamaru runs ahead and stops the woman in her tracks, tail wagging too hard and tongue lolling out of a doggy grin. The sudden appearance of a large friendly dog delays the woman long enough for Kiba to make it up to her and block Sasuke with his body. The woman starts babbling frantically in the local tongue and Kiba replies in the same language, fluent and trying very hard to be calm.
Sasuke hears Taiyō warble out a little laugh; "So that’s why he’s here."
The woman keeps pointing to Sasuke, insistently jabbing her finger like she’s trying to make some point that Kiba’s just not getting. Kiba puts his hands on her shoulders and keeps his voice even and firm. Sasuke hears the word 'Uchiha' hop back and forth between them several dozen times. Akamaru bounces around her, laying on the Big Friendly Dog routine incredibly thick until she finally starts petting his drenched fur. The simple act of petting Akamaru causes some of the tension to drain from her shoulders.
After a few moments her speech slows down and she stops pointing at Sasuke, but her eyes never leave his for long. Eventually Kiba steps away, hopping onto Akamaru’s back and racing off to sniff out more survivors. The woman watches him go, then looks back to Sasuke just in time to catch him looking at her from the corner of his eye. She freezes for a split second before whirling around and darting away like a spooked deer.
Sasuke doesn’t have time in the day or space in his head to wonder about what the Hell that was all about. The patient is all that matters.
With his Sharingan active Sasuke works with machine-like precision and efficiency, not a movement wasted or a second lost. He stabilizes the patient, makes a long midline incision with the chakra scalpel, and opens up the abdominal cavity. The Sharingan picks out every source of bleeding, and Sasuke sets about controlling it with one hand and using Mystical Palm to cap it off with the other. Once done he moves on to the injured organs, treating them in order of most to least severe. Sasuke is in the middle of closing the boy up when the five wounded Lee promised come around the corner, three on stretchers and the other two over both of Lee’s shoulders.
Sasuke clicks his tongue against his teeth and calls over his shoulder to Taiyō, "Scan the new arrivals while I handle the kid’s concussion!"
Sasuke keeps an ear open while he brings his glowing palms up to the child’s temples, and Taiyō reports after a few moments, "I can take three of these guys, the other two are in a bad way. They’re all yours."
"Great, you’re a lifesaver Cricket," Sasuke grouses, the chakra flickering out on his fingertips as the little boy blinks, quicker and quicker as he’s getting his senses back.
Taiyō’s indignant whine of "Come on, you’re not even in the clan," is probably not very encouraging to his patients.
Once his vision is clear and he can focus, the little boy’s eyes meet Sasuke’s Sharingan.
He lets out a piercing, ear-splitting scream.
He scrambles out of Sasuke’s hands and all the way over to Lee, moving quicker than someone who was concussed and had suffered some of the worst blunt force trauma he’s ever seen ought to. The little boy cowers behind Lee’s leg, clinging to it like a rock in the middle of a stormy sea. Sasuke’s jaw drops open but no sound comes out. What does he say? He's had patients be afraid of him before he treats them but after is something else entirely.
The little boy’s voice comes in a near incomprehensible torrent, but Sasuke’s able to get some of it; "No no no no I promise I’ve been good I promise please don’t look at me please please please–!"
"Hey," Taiyō exclaims, coming around and kneeling down next to the boy, "Hey, hey, calm down, Sasuke’s not gonna hurt you! He saved you, you were gonna die before he helped you out! What’s the matter, huh? What’s so scary about him?"
The little boy shrinks even further behind Lee’s leg, pointing at Sasuke’s eyes; "The village sends the ninja with scary eyes when you’re bad! If they look at you with their scary eyes they make you go crazy or fall asleep and never wake up or–!"
Sasuke's heart skips a beat; "What?"
"Whoa whoa whoa," Taiyō cuts in, putting his hands on the little boy’s shoulders, "I don’t think Sasuke can even do any of that."
There’s a pause, then Taiyō looks over at Sasuke; "Can you do any of that?"
"No," Sasuke huffs as the wounded are set down and he immediately identifies his cases. Sasuke’s thought of I don’t have time for this becomes a mantra to calm his backfiring nerves and keep him focused on the patients.
There’s a woman whose left side from the pelvis down has evidently been crushed and a man covered in burns that could only have resulted from one of the town’s two power lines going down directly into whatever body of water he was swept away in. One of the reasons Sasuke is uniquely suited to this line of work is that the massacre left him desensitized to the horrific things that can happen to the human body, and he’s able to calmly make the assessment that the woman can wait if he’s quick. With the Sharingan active, Sasuke is nothing if not quick.
Sasuke focuses on treatment, but can’t help overhearing Lee’s voice dropping into something soft and gentle; "Now now, there is no need to be afraid. Look, see how Sasuke moves as he treats that man’s burns? He is fast, and very accurate– That is thanks to his eyes. They are not scary, they help him help people. If he had not used them he would not have been able to help you."
The little boy’s voice is quieter but no less harried; "But–! The grown ups all talk about the scary eye ninja coming and–! Momma says that’s why my poppa and Hoa’s poppa and Shun’s momma and Yoo-Mi’s momma had to go to the hospital in the city and stay there forever, b-because they were being bad and made the daimyō mad and–! A-and grandpoppa says during the war they’d–!"
Lee gently shushes the boy; "All of that was a long time ago. Those ninja were Sasuke’s family, but Sasuke is not like those ninja. You said your father did something bad? Well, how would you feel if because he did something bad people said you were bad?"
The little boy is quiet, and when he speaks again it’s in a heavy whisper; "It feels really really awful and I hate it."
Sasuke almost steals a glance back at the little boy. Tsunade’s voice in his head snaps that he doesn’t have time for this and neither does his patient. Sasuke keeps his eyes on his work.
The work goes as well as it can and Sasuke does all he can do for his patients. The flood of wounded eventually narrows to a trickle, because the thing about landslides is that they create a lot more dead than they do injured. Sasuke finds his focus constantly wandering, because all he can see now is his lucid patients staring at his Sharingan while holding their breath for some other shoe to drop, and all he can hear is those townsfolk outside the medical tent whispering to each other, repeating 'Uchiha' and 'Sharingan' like they're the names of folklore monsters coming down the mountain to steal their children away in the night.
The rain eventually stops and the sun starts to set behind the thick clouds. Thunder rolls through the sky and the air is muggy with the sticky heat of a Fire Country Summer. The busywork of monitoring patients and sending ripples of Lightning chakra along his skin to kill any enterprising mosquitoes does little to keep Sasuke from going deeper and deeper into his own head.
As he’s changing some bandages, Taiyō sighs, "This is so weird. Like– I thought people liked the Uchiha. Like, I mean, civilian people. They do in the village, anyway. You guys were the police, you solved crimes for them and kept them safe in, like… a normal way, not a scary way like the ANBU. You honestly had more to do with them than any of us."
Sasuke simply replies, "We’re a long way from the village."
Taiyō runs a hand through his ponytail and mutters, "No kidding."
After an hour or two more of Not Doing Enough, Sasuke’s sitting on the ground in the middle of the medical tent when he hears the sounds of fur rustling and two-too-many footsteps on mud. A large, fluffy weight leans heavy on Sasuke’s side and another back presses against his.
Kiba asks from behind him, "We lose any yet?"
"Three so far," Sasuke replies in a fatigued mumble, "Probably gonna lose a fourth soon if that guy on the far right is as bad off as I think he is."
"God disaster relief sucks," Kiba mutters, leaning his head back and pushing Sasuke’s forward, "I don’t know how you do so many of these. I’d go crazy."
Sasuke scoffs; "You know how I usually do them? With more than just one genin and you to support me. First thing I’m doing when we get home is telling Tsunade to tell the daimyō to fix the fucking infrastructure out here."
"As you fuckin’ should," Kiba sighs.
They fall into a silence punctuated only by the high whine of mosquito wings. Sasuke knows he doesn’t need to say anything more. Akamaru has flopped down to drop his head in Sasuke’s lap. Sasuke could just sit here, pet the very big, very good dog, and keep an eye on his patients.
But if Sasuke’s good at anything, it’s making himself feel worse; "That woman you were talking to in the local tongue, the one who was pointing at me, what was that about?"
Kiba shrugs, jostling Sasuke slightly; "I mean, she was scared of your eyes, but that’s not surprising. Mom always said the Uchiha always got stuck with all the messy jobs, 'cause the Sharingan made it so they were really good at them. You know, T&I, ANBU, suppressing dissidents, all the shit you really hope they never ask you to do. Uchiha who didn’t want to do that stayed cops and the ones who were okay with being bogeymen to keep people in line went into the regular forces."
Sasuke isn’t surprised, but he wishes he was; "The kid you brought in said his father had his mind broken by someone with my eyes."
Kiba nods; "Sounds about right. Our clan’s old lands are out around here, I swear I heard somethin’ about some people at least making some plans to revolt or some shit last time we visited. It didn’t get too far. Guess we know why now."
Sasuke shuts his eyes. Akamaru nuzzles into him and lets out a high whine. Sasuke runs a hand through his thick, soft fur, scratching behind his ears. He takes a few deep breaths, shuddering on every exhale. Kiba reaches up and buries a hand in Sasuke’s hair, giving it a tug just painful enough to pull him a few inches out of his own head.
"Sasuke, don’t go there," Kiba rumbles through grit teeth, "This isn’t on you. This happened years ago. You are not your clan."
Sasuke’s shoulders tense up. He clenches his jaw and purses his lips, pressing them into a tight line. The uchiwa pinned between him and Kiba burns, so hot Sasuke wonders if it’ll burn Kiba too and finally after seven years (nearly a decade) there will be another person bearing this mark.
Sasuke whispers, "Yes, I am. I’m all that’s left."
7, July, 1001
Sakura spends her first vacation in nearly two years returning books to the library.
She’d spent most of May and all of June studying, digitizing, and hand-copying the texts she stole from the monastery, only leaving the archives to eat and use the bathroom. Anything she needed from outside that wouldn’t contaminate the ancient documents she sent snakes to fetch. Technically speaking she wasn’t sleeping in the archives, mostly because she was barely sleeping. She hadn’t trimmed her hair even once, just adding more and more bobby pins to keep more and more of it up and out of the way. After four weeks without bathing she didn’t so much smell bad as she did musty. Sakura would’ve been content to waste away in there for the rest of her days. But Orochimaru had seen fit to order her to take some time off.
"No missions, no nothing, just… go outside," he’d sighed, running a hand through his hair as his eyes darted up and down Sakura’s disheveled form, "I don’t care where you go or what you do just stop doing this for… I don’t know, a week? Seriously, Little Flower, keep working yourself this hard and all your petals are going to fall off."
Sakura had frowned at him and croaked, "Do I need to take a handler with me when I go?"
He’d waved a hand dismissively and replied, "Of course you don’t, I can track you wherever you go through your curse mark. Now get out of here or I will drag you out and lock you out."
Sakura hadn’t wanted to leave. She’d wanted to stare at the antique paper and ink until she got sucked inside it and never had to come out again. But her sleep-deprived, guilt-addled brain had conjured an idea even more self-destructive and masochistic. Sakura had grabbed it and run like the thief she is.
And that’s how Sakura found herself walking through the Leaf Village’s western gate with a select few of the stolen texts and the handful of scrolls she’d had snakes steal from the village library nestled safely in her backpack. Sakura had told Orochimaru that these texts were too fragile to be handled constantly and she’d put them in the archives’ secure, climate-controlled vault. He’ll likely be furious with her when he discovers the truth.
Good. Someone should be.
In one sense, only obscuring herself with a basic transformation to make her look like an ordinary traveler is a practical move. Sakura’s visit has coincided with Tanabata. The Leaf Village’s festival draws visitors from miles around, the crowds are enormous enough to overwhelm even a whole village of trained shinobi made doubly wary by a relatively recent terrorist attack. A genjutsu isn’t necessary, and it might even be worse because all the sensors will be on high alert for elaborate works of chakra.
But in a larger, more honest sense, Sakura’s really just hoping one of the chunin stationed on the gate will notice her ducking around the security checkpoint and stop her. Maybe they’ll grab her shoulder and feel the chakra covering her. Maybe they’ll break her transformation and see that it’s her, a wanted criminal listed in the Bingo Book as a threat to be detained immediately and killed if necessary. Maybe they’ll throw her in jail and she can just sit there and rot forever.
So of course they don’t notice her.
The Leaf Village has changed in the little, subtle, but important ways you only notice when you’re so familiar with a place you could navigate it blindfolded. Sakura’s favorite tea shop downtown has closed it’s doors and the sign in the window says it’s going to be an izakaya in the fall. Asuka Nara’s pharmacy has moved further down the main thoroughfare where the rent is cheaper. More streets are actually paved now. They finished carving Tsunade’s face into the mountain, and now she watches over the village alongside her grandfather, great-uncle, and teacher.
The Nohara Tailoring Shop is still where it’s always been, with a stall out front for the festival selling pre-made garments. Sakura can’t see if her mother is manning it and she doubles her pace so she doesn’t have to.
The crowds thin out the closer Sakura gets to the library. With ninja fewer and farther between Sakura is safe to throw an old standby over herself, a genjutsu that makes her seem deeply uninteresting and compelling any eyes to simply pass over her without a second glance. Ordinarily Sakura is quite good at shoving down the memories any jutsu she learned outside Sound bring back. Something about walking up to the building where she’d first read about it, down the street Kurenai had used as their training ground for it during the lunch hour rush, makes that so much harder. And that’s the point. It shouldn’t be easy, it should leave her feeling like there’s a massive iron weight on her chest making her ribs creak under the strain.
Sakura pushes through the doors and walks with purpose to the sections where these scrolls normally live. She slides each one back in it’s place on the shelves, double-checking their call numbers against their neighbors to make absolutely sure nothing’s changed. Nothing has. Nothing really does in the library. Once she’s returned those scrolls she searches the building until she finds a temporarily unmanned cart of books and scrolls in the process of being re-shelved. Sakura checks to see if the coast is clear before placing the antique texts on it. She tucks a bookmark with the message Please accept this anonymous charitable donation (Handle With Care) into each one.
She leaves as quietly as she entered.
When she comes back out into the sun and fresh air, Sakura pretends to check a watch that isn’t actually on her wrist. She made it into the village without incident and will probably be able to get back out again just as easily. And that was the plan, kind of, but it wasn’t really the plan. What does she… do now? Does she just leave? She should just leave. This is a sign, maybe, probably, but all it signifies is probably that the village needs to up it’s security.
Before she knows it, Sakura is wandering back down the main street. She looks aimlessly around at the festival she’s attended every year she could. This was going to be the third in a row she’d missed, before she’d decided to drop by. Last year she was in Sound, and the year before she’d been in the hospital following her fight in the preliminary round of the Chunin Exams.
She remembers looking down at these same decorations from her hospital window. She’d watched the streamers and strings of paper cranes blowing on the breeze. She’d watched people, so many she knew and so many more she didn’t, hopping from festival booth to festival booth to buy and win all kinds of treats. Couples had shared dango while strolling arm in arm, children had begged their parents to buy them things they didn’t need, groups of friends had challenged each other to see who could do better at the festival games. Sakura had yearned to be out there with them.
Now she is. And all she can do is float through the crowd like a ghost, haunting her old home.
Before Sakura’s thoughts can grow any darker she’s knocked off her feet and right onto her ass. The sudden impact breaks her concentration on the genjutsu that had been cloaking her. That’s the thing about a jutsu that makes people ignore you. They ignore you. And if you ignore them right back there’s no one to make sure you don’t all crash into each other. Sakura can hear a few people gasping, some asking if she’s alright, and she’s content to ignore them all and make her own way back up before someone reaches down to her.
The hand being offered is masculine, smooth-palmed, and crowned at the wrist by a bracelet made from polished blue-black stones.
Sakura knows exactly who’s offering to help her up before he asks, "You alright?"
She follows the line of the arm to a yukata sleeve that used to belong to her father but has been altered to fit a shorter, slighter body. Her eyes sweep along the curve of his shoulder, up the column of his neck, over his lips, and right into the charcoal gray eyes of Sasuke Uchiha.
His brow furrows, he repeats his question, but Sakura can only stare at him. The soft edges to Sasuke’s face as she remembers it are in the process of being chiseled into something sharp, noble, and mature. She catches glimpses of his arms, his shoulders, his chest beneath the yukata, and she can see lean muscle making it’s presence known. Every urge puberty planted in her mind that she’s been shoving down (that haven’t been hard to shove down because the only person in Sound she would even consider experimenting with is trapped in a glass tube most days) comes stampeding up in a rush so powerful it’s paralyzing. Good God, Sasuke has gone right past handsome into fucking hot.
But her eyes drop to the palm of his hand… It’s so smooth. She remembers Sasuke’s hands being covered in calluses, little nicks from kunai, shuriken, and all other sorts of blades, burns from lightning and fire. But healing chakra has smoothed all of that over. He’s been keeping up with it. He hasn’t given up. He’s been learning at Tsunade’s side and helping people, and a fierce pride in the brooding, angry, wound-tight boy she’d first fallen in love with bubbles up only to tangle in a knot when Sakura remembers how she’s been spending these last two years and how did she ever think she could do this mission and just come home like nothing happened how will this Sasuke take her as she’s become and–
And suddenly Sakura is on her feet and sprinting away from Sasuke as fast as her legs can carry her. She thinks she hears him calling after her, but that's wishful thinking. Sasuke wouldn't care about some random traveler. Sasuke wouldn't care about her. Sasuke wouldn't care. Period.
That's a filthy lie, but it's shouting louder than the truth and that's all Sakura needs.
She runs and runs and runs until she's at the foot of the Shrine of Six Paths. The shrine is surrounded by a massive, lush bamboo grove. It’s the heart of the festival, where people go to leave their wishes, sample the best of the food stalls, and climb the shrine’s imposing staircase to find the perfect spot to watch the fireworks. Sakura still remembers snippets of her very first Tanabata, when her father was still around. He’d put her on his shoulders so she could tie her tanzaku to the higher branches and get the best view of the festival.
Sakura scrambles to the bamboo grove, going past the tree line and into the depths. She drops her transformation. She doesn’t even have the presence of mind to conceal her scent from the panda bears that roam the grove. All she can do is stumble to a stop and wrap her arms around herself as she sobs through her teeth.
She’s a coward. She’s a fucking coward. None of this guilt is worth a damn thing if she’s too scared to face the consequences of her actions. Why couldn’t she have just let some guard at the village gate catch her?! They’d throw her in jail and she’d be having an awkward conversation with Danzō right now instead of standing in a bamboo grove and feeling like her heart is going to tear in two because she’d just gotten a glimpse at Sasuke– and suddenly she's seized with panic as she realizes who she didn't see at his side. Where was Naruto? Was he a chunin now? Was he on a mission? Did something happen to him? No, no, she forfeited the right to worry about bad things happening when she wasn’t there to do something about them–
"You shouldn’t be here."
It takes Sakura longer than she’d like to admit to place the voice. Once she does, she turns to see a familiar ANBU tiger mask under a cloak that cannot be comfortable in the sticky heat of a Fire Country July. Sai is standing three feet away, deeper in the grove. With the bamboo between them it feels like Sakura’s looking at him through the bars of a cage.
He continues, "This is an unnecessary risk to your cover. Why are you here?"
Sakura swallows hard; "Have you been getting my reports?"
He inclines his head in the shallowest of nods.
Sakura looks away; "Then you already know why."
Sai is quiet for a few moments before bluntly remarking, "No, I don’t. You haven’t assassinated Orochimaru, therefore your mission isn’t complete. Therefore, you have no reason to be coming back to the village."
Sakura whips her head around to shoot him an incredulous look and sputters, "Wh–?! I-I told y–! Dozens of people are dead because of me, and I–!"
"I fail to see the problem," Sai cuts in, "These deaths were a result of actions done in service to the mission, were they not?"
That stops Sakura in her tracks.
Her first instinct is to say no, but she was there to get the scrolls on orders from Orochimaru who did not take kindly to orders being disobeyed, and she’d staged the heist as a dry run for her actual assassination plan. One of the many reasons she’d been researching Wood Style is because democratizing the style could make defeating Orochimaru that much easier. She was only able to research it because one of her rewards for passing the trials of Ryūchi Cave was unfettered access to the archives, and those were trials she’d passed to get closer to her target and gain more tools in her arsenal for the fight against him.
So Sakura replies, "I… Yeah… but–"
Sai’s voice hits her like a cudgel; "Then there is no problem."
Sakura runs a hand through her hair, stammering, "B-but– You don’t get it, it’s– It’s more complicated than that, I–!"
"No it isn’t."
Sakura chokes on her own tangled emotions and can only stare, open-mouthed, at Sai. His mask’s black lenses meet her gaze, empty as the Summer sky.
"You are making it complicated," Sai continues, "You may be working for Root, but you clearly don’t understand our mission. Think of what roots do. They work below the surface to sustain, to support, to perpetuate and to defend the plant. We work in the dark so that they," he gestures towards the edge of the bamboo grove, "can live in the light."
Sakura’s words drop from her mouth like raindrops into the ocean; "But… The monks… They didn’t need to die… I’m… I’m a bad… person…"
Sai's voice is as flat and cold as the blade of a knife; "The only thing that makes you a bad person is whether or not you decide to abandon your mission. If you choose to let someone like Orochimaru live to see his next attack on the Leaf Village, then you are a bad person who deserves punishment. Right now you are not."
It isn’t… wrong. And that’s the most disturbing thing about it. It would be so, so easy to just believe that. Sakura’s already been living underground in the dark for this long. She could be one root among many, crawling deeper and deeper down to support, to sustain, to defend the plant. But…
Seriously, Little Flower, keep working yourself this hard and all your petals are going to fall off.
A sakura is a flower. A tsubaki, a suisen, those are flowers. Flowers are responsible for more than just keeping this plant alive. Flowers attract bees and birds that carry their pollen to other plants. Flowers create fruit. Fruit feeds animals and people, and they spread the seeds so that more plants can grow. That… That seems so much harder. But it’s what her parents named her. It’s what Orochimaru constantly calls her, and for some reason what he thinks of her matters now.
Leaves, flowers, roots. Plants need all three and more besides to live.
Sakura shakes her head; "You aren’t wrong. But I don't think I can believe it’s that simple."
Sai’s voice tilts in the barest note of displeasure; "This has been a largely unproductive conversation. Will you be leaving the village and returning to your mission or not?"
"I will," Sakura replies, "Just give me one moment."
Sakura retrieves her tanzaku and hangs it on a nearby branch. She wrote her wish with her right hand. That combined with her handwriting renders it near-illegible.
Sai’s voice is back to it’s normal flat, featureless tone; "What did you wish for?"
Sakura simply replies, "That’s not relevant to the mission. Come on, let’s go. You can escort me to the gates."
She and Sai slip out of the village under cover of fireworks. The only evidence that Sakura was ever here are a set of old books and a slip of paper hidden deep within a bamboo grove, bearing a simple sentence.
I wish to set things right
13, August, 1001
For Sasuke, Obon starts before sunrise.
He wakes in the dark to find Kakashi still away and all the dogs asleep. He doesn’t wake them. He lights a chochin emblazoned with the Hatake crest and hangs it outside the door. He lights another chochin emblazoned with the Uchiha Crest, bundles together all the offerings and supplies he picked up yesterday, and creeps out into the pale sunlight to trek all the way out to the Uchiha District. He doesn’t stop by the tower or the hospital to let them know where he’ll be. It’s just him and the pack that weighs as much as he does. He passes through the gates to the district, past the homes that used to house his relatives, around his own family home, and takes a right at the Naka Shrine to arrive at the Uchiha Cemetery.
Sasuke can still remember his first Obon after the massacre, arriving to the cemetery to find every family’s grave greatly expanded and covered in familiar names. It had made him sick. Now the fact that each grave is stuck at it’s current size, never to grow again, makes his stomach twist.
Sasuke takes a deep breath, dragging it in and pushing it out. He heads over to the Naka River and fills a bucket with water before setting to work.
Sasuke takes his time to combat the feeling of being a worker on an assembly line, repeating the same rote task over and over. He lights a lantern. He joins his hands in prayer and says a few words to the deceased. He washes the grave with water from the Naka River. He places offerings of food and flowers. He lights a candle and offers incense. He joins his hands in prayer again. He goes back to the river to refill the bucket.
Sasuke clings to the things he remembers. Izumi had loved sunflowers, so he places a lightly-crushed bouquet of them across her family’s grave. He leaves dango and green tea for Shisui, because he and Itachi couldn’t get enough of the stuff. He leaves senbei on the grave of Teyaki and Uruchi’s family and apologizes for it, because they’re probably nowhere near as good as the Uchiha Senbei. Obito died before Sasuke was born, but he remembers Obito’s grandmother leaving peonies and red poppies for him every year, so he does the same. He leaves saké at the graves of Inabi, Tekka, Yakumi and Yashiro, because he remembered them drinking with his father more than any other officers.
On so many more graves Sasuke just leaves chrysanthemums and rice. An eight year old boy can’t possibly know every member of his massive clan. And now he never will.
It’s nearly noon when Sasuke finally comes to his own family’s grave. It sits at the very back of the cemetery, ensconced in the roots of a massive fig tree. Sasuke pauses in his rhythm to stare at the stone edifice and read the names. He climbs his family tree all the way to the top, to the reason why the grave is all but hidden.
Madara Uchiha. His grandmother’s father. Sasuke feels like he remembers some argument, some story told over dinner, some whispered conversation he wasn’t supposed to be listening to, about the clan almost leaving his name off the grave when it was first erected. But Grandmother had insisted. And she tended to Insist with her Sharingan active.
Sasuke reaches out and lets his fingers trail along his great-grandfather’s name. If Itachi had merely pruned the clan’s branches instead of cutting it down to the stump, would anyone Insist that his name and ashes be added to the family grave?
Sasuke presses his mouth into a pale, thin line. He lights a lantern. He joins his hands and says a standard prayer. He washes the grave. He places offerings of inarizushi for Madara, higashi for his grandparents, daifuku for his mother, omusubi for his father, and green tea for no one in particular. He surrounds the grave with orange and red spider lilies. He lights a candle, offers incense, and joins his hands in a prayer he doesn’t finish. He makes his way back through the cemetery and tries to ignore the crows settling on the graves, even as their beady eyes follow him out.
Sasuke drags his feet. He’s deeply aware of the bags beneath his eyes and the ache in his knee. And he’s not even done.
Sasuke’s break for lunch lasts only as long as his omusubi does. Once done, he gets to work on the Naka Shrine. After paying his respects to the kami he sweeps the sandō, cleans out and lights the stone lanterns, clears the haiden’s gutters, and generally performs any maintenance on the shrine that wouldn’t require a trip to the hardware store.
The work is hard, but better than tending to the cemetery. Just like medicine, cleaning lets Sasuke push the world into the background. He doesn’t have to focus on how empty and dark the haiden is when he’s busy getting rid of cobwebs. His complete, isolating focus only breaks when a slightly-out-of-place tatami mat catches him off guard, tripping him and sending him sprawling onto his face. For a half-second, Sasuke considers just lying there for a little while, breathing in whatever toxic mold is probably growing in these mats.
He pushes himself up and turns to the mat, mouth screwed up into a scowl. The scowl quickly falls. That isn’t just any mat. That’s the seventh mat on the far right side of the haiden. He’s the reason it’s out of place. He’d followed Itachi’s directions seven years ago, creeping down the cold stone stairs to find a stele with chakra-carved inscriptions he couldn’t decipher. He’d stormed out of there feeling entirely too much at once, and hadn’t done a very good job of closing the 'door' behind him.
That had been before he awakened his Sharingan.
Before he can tell himself to stop, Sasuke is peeling the mat off the floor and setting it aside. He pads down the winding staircase, finding it narrower than he remembered but just as dark. After a significantly shorter walk than the one in his memory Sasuke stumbles into a cramped chamber, it’s walls painted with fierce images of winged beings wielding fiery swords. In the middle of the room are the same bronze braziers, and as he passes between them seals in the center of their bowls flare violet and produce a pair of strong, steady flames with a burst of chakra.
At the head of the room sits the stele. It now comes up to Sasuke’s waist instead of dwarfing him. The text is indecipherable, as it was years before, but now Sasuke can see the shimmer of chakra on the edges of the inscribed words. On the wall above it is a framed piece of yellowing parchment, holding words Sasuke can read:
For a thousand years, we have kept this knowledge. The eyes of the unfavored son may look upon it, and learn the secrets of his power. When he has set his feet upon the cursed path, he may look yet deeper. Only the eyes of his father may see all and know all.
Sasuke remembers reading those words seven years ago. He remembers the twisting in his gut. He’d thought he was the unfavored son, and yet the stele had stayed locked away behind its shroud of chakra. Did this mean that Sasuke had been loved all along, or that he didn’t even count as a son of the Uchiha? It had been too much for his grief-addled brain. Now…
Sasuke activates his sharingan to find out for certain.
A portion of the script squirms, wriggles, and twists itself into new shapes. The first quarter of the stele rearranges itself into something antiquated, but legible.
The sharingan is awakened for the first time when a son of the Uchiha looks upon a god of death, and sees his face reflected in its eyes. But it is only mastered when he becomes that god, and one whom he dearly loves looks into his eyes, and sees their death there.
The rest drifts into nonsense Sasuke couldn’t read even if he wanted to.
Sasuke slowly sinks down onto his knees, then further and further down until he’s lying on his side, the stele towering over him once again. It takes the whole slow trip down to the floor for Sasuke to realize something.
Up until this very moment, Sasuke had been sure Itachi was lying.
He lies there in numb, cold silence for hours. His vision starts to blur and his hearing muffles like he’s being waterboarded in a bucket full of blood. He hears a sound from the corner of his ear growing steadily closer, a sound like a pebble bouncing down the stairs. There’s an odd warble, then the world snaps into sharp relief when a hand closes around his shoulder. Sasuke’s grabbed his tantō and whirled around to put it to the intruder’s throat before they can take another breath.
Kakashi reacts to Sasuke’s blade sitting a hair away from his jugular vein with a lightly arched eyebrow and a slow, "Easy, Sasuke. It’s only me."
Sasuke stares at him for a long moment. He drops the blade and uses his other hand to throw a hook. Kakashi easily catches it, but his dark eye narrows, and Sasuke can’t help a frisson of dark satisfaction that he’s getting even a fraction of a rise out of him.
"Okay, can’t blame that one on shock," Kakashi mutters, keeping a tight hold on Sasuke’s fist as he tries to push against him, "Do you want to use your words like the adult you legally are or do you just want to hit me?"
Sasuke’s eyes aren’t burning and his voice is not coming out thick and choked as he snarls, "Oh, you wanna pretend like you’re the fucking grown-up now?! You wanna talk like you know jack shit about what’s going on with me?! Fuck you!"
Kakashi lets his eye fall shut and pushes out a sigh, "I won’t know what’s going on with you if you don’t tell me."
A weird, tortured laugh comes flailing out of Sasuke’s mouth as he shoves himself up and away; "I don’t need to tell you shit! The answers are all right there," Sasuke flings an accusing hand towards the stele, "Go ahead, read it! You’ve got the sharingan, you can!"
Kakashi’s eye darts between him and the stele before he slowly lifts his headband. His sharingan runs up and down along the text, eyes growing wider with every letter.
After a moment, he breathes, "Good God."
Sasuke throws his arms out wide as he shouts, "Right?! Exactly! Hell you can probably read more than I can– You saw what it said, you get the Mangekyō by killing someone you love! Wanna finally tell me how you got that eye, Sensei?!"
Kakashi’s eyes whip to his, burning with barely-contained fury as he snarls, "Sasuke, you are out of line. You need to calm down right now, or–"
Sasuke feels a jolt right to his heart, and finds the filter between it and his mouth broken as he screams, "Shut up! Shut the fuck up! Don’t tell me what to do, you’re not my fucking father!"
Kakashi’s expression flips in an instant, eyes going wide and tension draining from his shoulders; "I– What–?!"
Sasuke shuts his eyes and presses his hands hard against them, the stars on the inside of his eyelids all bloody red; "You’re not even an Uchiha, you’re barely even here! You’re just off running after Sakura and I’m just stuck here by my fucking self getting raked across the fucking coals by your clan and all the others for existing and now I know why! It’s not just Madara, it’s not just Itachi, it’s every fucking one of us! I’ve been up since dawn tending their graves but how many were put there by their own family?! How many of the blind old people in the clan only went blind because they stabbed their cousin while on a mission in the back country?!"
Kakashi takes a step toward him; "Sasuke–"
Sasuke buries his hands in his hair, nails scraping at his scalp; "And I know– I know– I know for a fact people did! Itachi wasn’t the first one! Did you know how much wetwork we got stuck with?! How we got sent out to break people’s minds so often that we’re monsters to the people outside the village?! What happened to you, to Sakura– It’s happened before, and with Itachi out there it’ll happen again and–! How do you trust a clan that does this?! That has to do this to get the kind of power to–?! Is this it?! Is this really the only way I’ll be able to match him, by killing Naruto or Sakura?! Did he– Is that his real game, don’t kill me but break me by forcing me to do this?!"
Sasuke is pacing manic circles around the chamber; "And there’s no one I can even talk to about–! Who the fuck would I talk to?! Tsunade’s always running off to fix something or hear some grievance and her clan has hated mine for generations! Shizune, my friends–! None of them get it, none of them can get it or ever will get it! Sakura can’t get it and it’s not like it fucking matters if she would, she left! Maybe Naruto would but he left too, and you–! I don’t even know, I’ve never seen your face and you’re never here and–! And Itachi took fucking everyone else who–! I’m so fucking–! I’m just–! Everyone in my fucking life just keeps leaving or getting torn away from me and I’m starting to think the only way to end it is if I’m the one who–!"
Strong arms wrap tight around him. Sasuke goes boneless in the embrace and Kakashi crumples to his knees right along with him, not letting go or loosening his grip for even a moment. He’s pressed so close he can feel Kakashi’s breath hitch and his heart beating like a hare on the run.
Kakashi speaks like he’s opening a wound; "Don’t. Don’t go there. You… You aren’t… I know where you are right now and I’m sorry I wasn’t here to keep you from going there and I…"
Kakashi’s voice dissolves into a raw, ragged noise Sasuke can only classify after a moment of stunned silence as a sob.
That’s all it takes to get Sasuke to press his face into Kakashi’s shoulder, bring his arms up to hold him as tightly as he can, and break down. Sasuke hasn’t cried like this in seven years. He sobs so hard it makes his whole body shake, his throat aches like he’s swallowed broken glass, and no matter how many deep breaths he takes he just can’t stop. Everything he’s been shoving down comes up and out of him in a flood. Kakashi doesn’t let him go. He rubs Sasuke’s back in small circles, and he’s whispering something but Sasuke has no idea what. It doesn’t really matter, anyway.
Sasuke has no idea how long it takes, but the sobs eventually die down into uneven breaths and hiccups. He feels like he's been cut open and hollowed out. He doesn’t make any effort to pull away. If he stays in this embrace, keeps his eyes shut, he can pretend Kakashi is…
… Who, exactly? Not his father. His father wasn’t the one who held him when he cried. Not his mother, not Itachi, because it was… different with them. His mother would fuss and whisper and try far too hard to bring his tears to an end before they’d run their course. The few times Itachi had been there, he’d been all but paralyzed, just letting Sasuke cling and staring down at him with eyes wide in… maybe it was shock, maybe it was fear, Sasuke doesn’t know anymore.
Sasuke feels the light scratch of the flak jacket against his cheek, the subtle but unmistakable strength in Kakashi’s arms, the sound of breath muffled by a mask, and more than anything he feels… safe.
Sasuke has never been very good at pretending, so he stops trying.
Kakashi’s voice is hoarse and soft when he finally speaks again; "I know I’m not your father. I’m not Itachi. I’m not an Uchiha, and I can barely call myself your sensei after how I’ve failed you. You, me… I think we’re too alike for our own good, sometimes. But…"
Kakashi brings his hands up to Sasuke’s shoulders and pulls him off so he can look him in the eye. His mask is damp with tears. Sasuke almost wants to laugh, but he doesn’t think he can without it turning into another sob.
"We’re all that’s left, Sasuke," Kakashi murmurs, squeezing his shoulders, "If we can’t stick together, if we can’t look after each other, then there really isn’t any hope for us. But there still is. I see you, Sasuke. I know you’re trying, and I… I’m the one letting you down. I’m your sensei, but… I should be learning from your example."
Sasuke’s eyes slowly widen; "Wh… What?"
Kakashi’s eye crinkles at the corner; "Two years ago, your only reason for being around people is because they were means to an end. Now… Remember what I told you, after the exams? 'A ninja’s worth isn’t measured in how many lives they take, but how many they save’. Sasuke, you’re a medic. Saving lives is what you do. You’re getting stronger every day, not by locking people out but by letting them in. And that’s a skill I still struggle with… So, Sasuke, will you teach me?"
Sasuke holds his gaze and his breath.
After a long moment, he finally replies, "Only if you actually stick around to learn. And no being late, or I’ll send the dogs after you."
Kakashi laughs, "At least it’s not Katsuyu. You know how I feel about slugs."
Kakashi helps him to his feet and they hobble out of the chamber together. The sun is resting on the horizon, painting the sky in vibrant oranges and rich pinks. It’s still Obon, so Kakashi comes with Sasuke down to the river and helps him light yet more lanterns.
Kakashi sets one on the water, watching it float downstream, as he says, "So you were wondering how I got this eye."
Sasuke tenses, remembering the venom he spat at Kakashi just minutes before; "I– You don’t have to–"
Kakashi sends another lantern down the river and cuts in, "No, this conversation was always coming. It… should happen today, I think," Kakashi stands up and puts his hands in his pockets, staring off toward the setting sun, "When I was your age, I had an Uchiha on my team. Obito Uchiha. He and I got along like cats and dogs, but… On our last mission together, our teammate was kidnapped. I put the mission first, but Obito said I was worse than trash for abandoning a friend, and put her first."
Sasuke’s breath catches in his throat.
"When I came around to help, I lost my eye," Kakashi continues, "Obito’s sharingan awoke right then. He used it to protect me. We freed our teammate, but while trying to escape I got hit on my blind side, and… Obito took a blow that should’ve killed me. As he lay there on death’s door, he gave me his eye. He said it was a gift. It helped us escape…
Kakashi drops back into a crouch at Sasuke’s side, lighting another lantern; "Obito was an Uchiha, as much as you, Itachi, your father, or anyone else who lived in this compound. When I read that tablet, I could only imagine what he’d think. And…"
He turns to flash Sasuke another smile that reaches his mismatched eyes; "I think he’d call it all bullshit."
Sasuke opens his mouth, but all that comes out is a choked syllable, and he has no idea what word it was supposed to be.
Kakashi finally pulls his headband down to cover Obito’s eye; "Right now, you are your clan. But I don’t think that means what you think it does. If Obito got to decide what his sharingan was for, what to do with it, then you get to decide what to do with yours. And you get to decide what the Uchiha Clan will become."
He leans on Kakashi, who puts his arm around Sasuke's shoulders. They watch the Naka River carry the souls of his clan further and further away, all the way to the ocean.