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In Good Company

Chapter Text

Sasuke is drinking the yolk of his second egg—raw, because Sasuke won't admit it, but he really doesn't know how else to eat them, his mother never got around to teaching him those things—when he hears the gagging.

He puts the glass down with a decisive thunk and cracks his third egg against the edge of the mug. Briefly, momentarily, his Sharingan flares into life. It's his imagination, he knows, because for the past three hours he has tolerated Naruto and Sakura's incessant prattle, and he can still hear the echo of their conversation ringing in his ears (Maybe you shouldn't cut your hair, Naruto, Sakura pointed out, You might look good with a short ponytail. Really, Sakura? Because Iruka-sensei grew out his hair when he was young, and I wanted to—and where is Kakashi-sensei? He's so late...)

Sasuke rubs the bridge of his nose, trying not to think too much about the headache that's starting: a familiar thud-thud-thud in his ears. He had figured, for the first few days at least, that Sakura and Naruto becoming friends would be a good thing. But now they're eating his ears off, not giving him even the few, tense moments of silence that used to define their relationship. Now...

Now, he has a day off, courtesy of Hatake Kakashi—who never showed up, Sasuke thinks with a scowl—so he's left with nothing to do. He could have trained with Naruto, but that would also involve paying for the inordinate amount of ramen Naruto would demand afterwards for lunch.

But then again—

Sasuke accidentally breaks an egg in his anger at the memory of it.

Then again, Naruto wasn't too concerned when Sasuke said no to lunch plans, because..."Neji," the blond had mumbled under his breath, and smiled. And isn't that just precious. Naruto and Hyuga goddamn Neji.

"Spec-fucking-tacular," Sasuke grumbles and flicks off shards of eggshell into the sink. He licks at the drops of yolk on his fingers and hears it again, the muffled gagging. He glances over his shoulder at the sound, and frowns when he catches a glimpse of his living room, overflowing with scrolls, weapons, maps, and clothes. And Ichiraku ramen take-out boxes.

He returns to the eggs. It's not as if he wants to eat ramen with the moron.

And besides, Sasuke repeats to himself decisively as he heads towards his bathroom, there's laundry to do. An entire pile of it, occupying a corner of his room, and even Naruto, the observational king that he is, has noticed that Sasuke has worn the same shirt for the past three days. He glances briefly at the offending KONOHA SUMMER FESTIVAL 2002 shirt, speckled with mud now, and looking so old and tattered that Sakura said it was a crime to even own it, but it can't be that bad, probably could get another evening out of it...

Sasuke nudges the door to his bathroom open with his foot, and places the cup of egg yolk in the sink. The bathroom is so small it doesn't even have a counter, only a cabinet behind the mirror. He keeps his eyes on the yolk as he unzips and stands in front of the toilet bowl. Eating the egg raw smells a little strange, sure, but he needs his protein, and he really doesn't want to waste time making something out of an egg. His mother used to do that for him more than a decade ago...

Growling under his breath—goddamn son of a bitch Itachi took even the joy of eggs out of his miserable fucking existence—Sasuke pushes down the flush with his foot and zips up before snatching the cup from the sink again.

He tips the cup to swallow a mouthful of yolk, determined now. Nap. That's the game plan for the day, he thinks as he finishes off his breakfast. Wiping at his mouth with the back of his hand, he steps into his only slightly less tiny bedroom, thinking that maybe takeout tonight won't be so bad—

"Doesn't this kid have any hygiene?"

"Punk didn't even wash his hands."

And there is no possible way that Sasuke didn't hear that, because it's right in front of him. He stops instinctively to avoid crashing into the person who should be in front of him—but isn't, he panics—and his foot tangles in a stray shirt on the floor. "Fuck—" He's falling face-forward even before he can finish the word, dredges of egg yolk flying out of the cup to land on the carpet, clothes, and on the bed sheets. He's in a defensive stance with a kunai held up a second later, crouching low to the ground. Sasuke breathes through his nose slow, deep, and easy, because there are people here, and he can't see them.

Steady, Uchiha, he tells himself and grips the kunai tighter, knuckles white and bones nearly creaking from the pressure of it. He scans the room and his eyes land on the yellow stain of egg yolk in front of him, accusing, proof of the voices he's heard. Because no matter how cluttered his home gets, Sasuke never trips. He hears laughter, and then:

"That's right, kid. Fear the wayward yolk."

"What is he defending against?"

"Do you see anything?"


Silence again. Sasuke spins around, heart racing. He heard that. There are voices, three—four distinct voices. And not his neighbors' either. Couldn't be his neighbors, because the voices are right there—one coming from behind him, one from next to him, one ahead of him, and another still, from the door. He can't smell anything other than the usual filth of his apartment, can't hear anything aside from the noises outside and his neighbor upstairs. And he can't feel any chakra besides the ones he always keeps tabs on: Naruto, a bright, fierce flare somewhere in the center of town; Sakura, steady and strong from outside the village; and Kakashi, sinewy and lightning quick in the Hokage Tower. Nothing else. Sasuke's legs are starting to cramp with all the adrenaline now, and he shifts his position a little, breath quickening.

"What's wrong with him?"

"Beats me."

"Where are you?" Sasuke hisses and hates himself for it. Never call out an enemy, Kakashi's voice whispers in the back of his mind, just as Sasuke inches towards his living room where his weapons are scattered. Never reveal your weakness. But he can't see, he can't see anything. "Show yourselves."

"Okay. He's lost it." It's the voice from right next to him.

"Where are you?" Sasuke snarls, and it takes only one hundredth of a second for his eyes to bleed into Sharingan, such a knee-jerk reaction that he doesn't even notice it until his senses become painfully heightened, vision tinged red at the edges, the headache a loud thunder in his ears now.

And then he sees them, lounging casually at different spots in his room: One sitting on his bed, leaning forward to look at him, dark-black hair spilling over his shoulders. Another standing next to him, towering almost. Sasuke looks up from his crouch, sees an amused smirk and white eyebrows raised high. A third—is that Naruto? No, can't be—sitting at his desk, curiously peering over the scrolls laid out there. And a fourth, "Sarutobi-sensei," Sasuke mumbles and instinctively abandons his defensive crouch, dropping to one knee, head bowed respectfully. "Hokage-sama." And he stays like that for a split second before it hits him, the utter absurdity of that, so he pushes himself to his feet again. "What?"

"Ah," Sarutobi mutters, looking a little surprised. The expression vanishes quickly. "Sasuke, you can see me."

It talked, Sasuke thinks and reflexively takes a step back, then another, foot sliding on egg yolk on the floor. Sarutobi's eyes crinkle into a smile—he's dead, he shouldn't be here—and he gestures at the people around the room. "Forgive us for dropping in like this unannounced, but we were taking a stroll through Konoha, and I wanted to introduce my friends here—"

The doorbell cuts him off, shrill and insistent in the apartment, and Sarutobi falls silent. Sasuke flinches at the sound, but keeps his eyes trained on Sarutobi (dead, dead, dead, dead). There's a split second, and then loud banging. "Sasuke! Open up, or I'll kick the door down!"


"Visitor," says the man with white hair and jerks a thumb over his shoulder towards the door. "Doesn't sound too happy."

"I mean it, Sasuke! You better open this door, or so help me God—" Sasuke inches towards the door. This is a trap, an illusion. Itachi, a voice whispers in his mind. Which means Naruto is in danger, so he has to get Naruto out of here, because the idiot will kick the door down if Sasuke doesn't open it. "—you're in that dump of yours because—"

Itachi is here, and how did he manage to penetrate Konoha so easily? How had Sasuke walked into the illusion so blindly, and what kind of illusion was this anyways? Sasuke edges out of the bedroom, eyes still trained on the Hokage and the other three. He takes a few short steps across the living room and fumbles behind him for the doorknob, hands sweating, straining with the effort to keep from visibly shaking. "—Sasuke, you jerk, stop ignoring me—"

Sasuke opens the door just a fraction. Not even bothering to turn around, he hisses, "Not now, dead last. Go away."

"What the hell? You're blowing me off for porn?"

"Idiot, I mean it. Leave, go get the Hokage." He's about to close the door when Naruto shoves it back up against him. The door hits Sasuke square in the back, knocking the breath out of him. And Naruto is inside now, hair windswept with wisps of straw-blond strands floating around his face, within reach of any possible attack trajectory coming from the bedroom. Sasuke ignores Naruto's angry, "What is your problem?" in favor of pushing the blond back up against the door, using his body to protect him. It must be instinct—all those years of saving the idiot's ass—because Sasuke bites down the reflexive need to cover his own ass and leaves himself so terribly, horribly open to attack as he stares down the intruders. "Sasuke, what the hell are you—"

"Shut up, you fucking moron." Sasuke reaches behind him, feeling for the kunai holster on Naruto's thigh, still watching the people peering at them curiously from his bedroom door.

"Stop groping me, you pervert!" Naruto slaps Sasuke's hand away from his body and knees Sasuke in the small of his back. But still Sasuke holds his ground—protect him, protect him, protect him—and his Sharingan swirls so fast he can feel the back of his eyes tingling with it.

Naruto is in line of fire from the intruders, and Sasuke needs to protect him. One, two, three, four quick hand seals, a bite to his finger, blood drawn and smeared into a semicircle, and there's a protective wall around Naruto. There's 2.35 feet from the front door to Sasuke's weapons scattered on the coffee table. Jump, land, crouch, and he has his sword drawn in one hand, kunai holster in the other. Judging by the chakra signatures of these people, they're powerful. He stands no chance against them. "Naruto," Sasuke says slowly. "Leave. Get the Hokage—"

"Naruto," one of the men breathes out and pushes out into the living room. He hesitates for a split second, and then takes a shaky step towards Naruto. And the barrier around Naruto isn't strong enough, will never be strong enough against a man whose chakra is making Sasuke's hair stand on edge.

"Stay away from him," he hisses, drawing himself up as tall as he can without abandoning his stance. The man looks surprised for a moment and stops.

"Excuse me?" the man asks, sounding amused, as if he's humoring Sasuke.

"One step closer to him, an inch, and I'll kill you," Sasuke snarls, and is surprised to hear the honesty in his own words. His blood is pounding, thrumming through his veins in synch with the chant in his mind—protect him, protect him, get him away

"What the hell?" Naruto takes two short, easy steps around Sasuke, past the barrier, and begins to pick his way towards the kitchen, muttering under his breath about pigs, Uchiha freaking Sasuke can't even clean up after himself, and is stoned, and reading porn to top it all off—

Sasuke watches, eyes widening in horror, because his apartment is so small, and Naruto is practically walking into the enemy's arms at this point. "Naruto, don't—" And Naruto walks right through the man, breezing past him without even a glance, visibly shuddering as he does. The man's body flickers once before becoming solid again. He looks down at himself for a split second, glances briefly at Sasuke with narrowed eyes before turning to follow Naruto into the kitchen. Sasuke lunges, killer's instinct so honed in him now that it's one, two, three kunais whistling towards the man's vital spots, the sword already drawn back to go right through his jugular, razor-sharp strings already between his fingers, lassoing around the man's torso and pulled back so roughly that it's sure to cut his body in half—

The kunais land with dull thuds to the ground, lodging themselves into the hardwood floor. His sword swings through the air, nearly toppling him from the unexpected lack of resistance—he'd expected a head to roll with the amount of power he put behind that swing—and his strings land pathetically by his feet, limp and not a trace of blood on them.

The man pauses in his trek towards the kitchen and turns to stare at Sasuke, an eyebrow raised. "That's enough." He tugs on the white robes hanging on his frame, and rolls his shoulders a little. "Stop interfering."

Sasuke's palm starts pulsing with chakra—he has to kill him fast, quick, efficient, and what better way than this? He'll vaporize the man's heart for trying to get near Naruto—

"Enough, boy."

But it's already done, and the next instant the apartment is filled with the noise of thousands and thousands of birds chirping, his veins throbbing with the amount of energy he's putting behind this attack. Sasuke focuses some of the chakra towards his eyes, sharpening the Sharingan even more: 1.2 steps to the right, and the man can escape the attack, but Sasuke will be prepared with a kunai; 0.34 steps to the left, and he can attack Sasuke at his weak spot, but Sasuke will take that hit and slam his fist through the enemy's heart anyway.

This is an assassin's attack, Kakashi told him once. Use it when you want to kill.

In the short sixteen years of his life, Sasuke has already used it effectively four times. This is the fifth—and the ball of chakra keeps growing, keeps sparkling and crackling with energy. He didn't even know he could make it so powerful—and Sasuke will be damned if he misses this time.

The man's eyes narrow slightly when Sasuke nearly disappears in a lunge towards him, pushing himself forward with chakra, eyes swirling an angry red. "I said stay away from him."

From the kitchen, Naruto yells, "Sasuke, you freak, what the hell are you doing—"

There's a soft, cold pressure on the back of his neck, at the knob of his spine, and suddenly, the chakra in his hand frizzles and falls silent, sending Sasuke sprawling into the ground, head making painful contact with the hardwood floor.

His vision fades into black just as he hears Naruto's surprised, "Sasuke!"

Kakashi is there when he wakes up.

"Naruto," Sasuke gasps and pushes himself up into a sitting position, eyes wild. "Where's Naruto? Is he—"

And as if on cue, the door bursts open and the blond darts in. He's dressed in dark jeans and a loose-fitting black shirt, the sleeves of which are bunched up around his elbows. "You moron! Couldn't you have waited for me before you woke up? But no! You live in a dump, and I had to take out your trash and—"

"You took out the trash?"

"And did your laundry, the dishes, organized your scrolls in alphabetical order..." a voice pipes in. "The kid got on all fours and cleaned the whole damn apartment."

"It must be a nervous habit," someone else interjects politely.

Naruto's eyes are almost an icy blue in his worry, and he frets his hands about, making odd gestures. "I didn't mean to—"

"You didn't do anything, Naruto," Kakashi cuts in softly. He puts a hand on Naruto's shoulder and edges him out towards the door. "Go tell the Hokage that there's nothing to worry about."

Naruto frowns and pushes Kakashi aside to walk back to Sasuke. "Are you sick? Was it the cursed seal?" Sasuke's hand comes up instinctively to cover the tattoo on his neck, and he digs his nails in, trying not to wince at the expression on Naruto's face.

"Cursed seal? What cursed seal?" a voice questions, and Sasuke swivels his head to his left where it came from.

"Those men," Sasuke breathes out. Doesn't Naruto remember?

"There were no men, Sasuke," Naruto says apologetically and waits for Sasuke's reaction with fearful eyes. There were no men, Sasuke repeats to himself and says it again just to be sure. But there's no time to feel surprised, much less look it, because the expression on Naruto's face—is that pity?—makes Sasuke smooth his features down.

He has enough problems up in his head. Hearing voices and seeing things would be the least of them. "Of course."

"Oh, we were there all right," a taunting voice says.

"You saw us, boy."

"Almost tried to kill me—"

"You're already dead, Namikaze—"

"Perhaps we should stop," comes Sarutobi's voice. "He can hear us."

Sasuke swallows down on the irrational fear crawling up his spine. "Naruto," Kakashi speaks again, patient. "That was an order. The Hokage, now, please."

The expression on Naruto's face makes even Kakashi's eyes soften, but the blond gets up anyway. He looks down at Sasuke, face going through so many different emotions it's hard for Sasuke to even keep up. They stare at each other for a few moments before Naruto raises his hand and slaps Sasuke upside the head. Hard. "What the—"

"Pull something like that on me again, Sasuke," Naruto seethes, voice low, "And I'll twist your balls off."

And then he's gone in a flash of blue, black, and gold. Sasuke raises a hand to rub gingerly at his head when he sees the bandages around his arm. The one he used for the Chidori. The swathes are thick, coming down from his elbow and wrapping around each of his fingers. Kakashi waits until he hears the loud bang of the front door before turning to look at Sasuke. "Well," he says politely, and Sasuke has been with Kakashi enough years to know exactly what that tone means. The last time Sasuke abused the Chidori—an unnecessary kill, one just for his ego, one that had put Sakura in danger—Kakashi had used the same voice to invite Sasuke to a training session. Sasuke had spent three days out cold in the hospital after that.

Kakashi watches as Sasuke plucks at the bandages, trying to reveal the damage he's done. The swaths fall gently from his hand and he winces at what he sees. There are angry, red track marks going all the way up his elbow, and his palm is actually scarred with deep, black lines.

"You blew the chakra pathways to your last two fingers because they couldn't take the load," Kakashi explains and leans against the reading table—which is spotless, Sasuke notices, and can't help but be impressed at Naruto's efficiency. "Your thumb, index and middle fingers are intact, so you'll be able to perform jutsus. Thanks to Sakura."

Sasuke flexes his fingers and nearly doubles over with the pain that shoots up his arm. He takes a few deep breaths until the fog clears from his vision. "Why are you here?"

"The entire village felt what you pulled, Uchiha" Kakashi says, amiable still. He pauses for a second before saying, still so very polite it makes Sasuke's skin tingle in anticipation, "You should rest."

Kakashi pushes himself off the desk to walk out of the bedroom. Sasuke watches him with narrowed eyes. There has to be more, should be more—At the door, Kakashi turns, looking as if he just remembered something trivial. "Oh, and Sasuke, the Hokage recently told me that the well on Monument Hill is empty. Refill it with water from the lake by tomorrow evening."

Sasuke can't help himself. "How?" he snaps, and winces the instant he says it.

Even with the mask, Sasuke can imagine Kakashi's smile. "A bucket, of course."

The well on Monument Hill is not a well. It is a decorative man-made pond, installed towards the end of the Third Hokage's reign in honor of the fallen warriors of the Great War.

Sasuke dumps out the water of the twenty-third bucket and stares at the small puddle by his feet. His left arm is aching, hanging limply by his side and heavy with bandages. His right palm has a small groove where the bucket's handle has dug into his skin. The lake, thankfully, is only two hundred feet away from the foot of the hill.

Kanaye, he calls loudly in his mind. There is a stir of chakra, but the snake does not appear. "Son of a bitch," Sasuke growls under his breath. He raises his arms up in front of him and does a few quick seals, wincing when chakra runs down the overtaxed pathways of his left arm. There's a split second, and then a snake is rising to meet his gaze in front of him.

It's a black mamba, so gray and sleek it almost blends into the coming dawn. "Well, I better get rats out of this," Kanaye mumbles and slides up Sasuke's extended arm, giving him a quick bite on the back of his hand before wrapping lazily around his neck. Sasuke sucks at the puncture wound, scowling when he tastes something sweet.

"Stop biting me with poison," Sasuke hisses in snake tongue and scratches absentmindedly at Kanaye's underbelly.

"I'm hoping you'll die from it one of these days." Kanaye swivels his head around to take stock of his surroundings. "What? No battle?"

"No, really. You think?"

Kanaye's head snaps back, and his teeth sink into Sasuke's carotid. "Lots of poison in that bite," Kanaye mutters darkly. "What is it?"

"Help me heal," Sasuke mumbles, embarrassed at the request. But these are his snakes, and they've seen him in worse condition—after Orochimaru tortured him the first time, and when he limped back to Konoha, dragging Orochimaru's body behind him—so he swallows his pride and starts to undo the bandages. Kanaye slides onto his left arm and coils lightly around the wound, his tongue flickering out to taste the scars on Sasuke's palm. He's nearly four feet long, still a teenager in snake years, but when he wraps around Sasuke's arm, he covers nearly every inch of skin.

"Well," Kanaye mutters, and falls silent. Sasuke feels the careful, contemplative prod of snake chakra, cool and soothing against the burn under his skin.

Three hours later—when Sasuke is carrying his fifty-third bucket of water up the hill—Kanaye says, "I'm bored," and tightens his coil around Sasuke's arm.

"If you squeeze me any more I'm going to gouge your testes off with a kunai," Sasuke snaps in human tongue—because he doesn't know how to say 'testes' in snake yet.

Kanaye and all the other snakes occupy a place in Sasuke's mind where they have access to his thoughts. So it's no surprise when Kanaye says in human tongue, sounding as amused as a snake can sound: "Testes, noun, part of the male reproductive system. Repeat after me." He pauses for a second to make sure he has Sasuke's attention before hissing out a long, vulgar sounding word.

It doesn't sound anything like testes. "Kunai," Sasuke mutters, still in human tongue, feeling his lips twitch, "Meet Kanaye's balls."

"Testes," Kanaye repeats, and hisses the word again, which is now longer and more vulgar than before. Sasuke ignores him, but when he goes downhill to refill the bucket, he makes sure to dump his left arm—and Kanaye—into the lake.

Kanaye bites him.

When he wakes up, Kanaye is nowhere in sight. His left arm is pounding, his legs are still cramped from the punishment of the day before, and the clock reads 10:07, which means he's late for training. Again.

Sasuke trudges into the bathroom and manages to get ready in ten minutes. When he opens the closet to pull out fresh clothes, he sees that the mess inside is completely gone and replaced with rows of neatly hung up pants, and shirts folded into perfect squares in perfect towers. "OCD, much, dead last?" Sasuke mutters under his breath, and pulls out a pair of pants and an old shirt that he may or may not have used to clean the kitchen counter with.

He doesn't have time to shave, so he scrubs angrily at stubble before strapping on his kunai holster. He knows that somewhere in the apartment, Kanaye is lounging in a tight curl. It must be the snakes, Sasuke thinks. He's starting to become like them—languid, lazy, and entirely uninterested in doing anything with the twenty-four hours in a day.

Or maybe it's Kakashi's influence.

Kanaye, he calls out with his mind and doesn't hear anything. So he tries again, this time in snake tongue. "Kanaye."

"Here," Kanaye hisses back, and in the next instant he's crawling up to curl around Sasuke's injury again.

"I'm late," Sasuke mutters. "You should have woken me up."

"I was asleep too," Kanaye snaps and settles comfortably against Sasuke's skin. The healing begins again: soft, feather-light touches that makes his skin itch. "Keep me today too. I'll heal you."

"I thought you'd be tired," Sasuke says, and closes the door to the apartment behind him. The snake healed him all day long yesterday, and even through the night. He's halfway down the stairs when he realizes that maybe—just maybe—a few protective seals around his door won't be such a bad idea today. He walks back up to his apartment door to make the necessary hand seals.

"Don't underestimate me." Kanaye pauses to watch Sasuke's seals. "You're getting paranoid."

"Let's not talk about that," Sasuke mumbles under his breath as he finishes the trap.

On his arm, Kanaye yawns widely, revealing two razor-sharp teeth. His tongue flickers out once, and then twice more before he asks, "You're meeting the Dog-Master today?"

Dog-Master in snake tongue means Kakashi. Sasuke's snakes have their own names for everyone in his life: Fox-Child for Naruto, Time-Witch for the Hokage, and Plum-Wine for Sakura. They haven't told Sasuke what they call him.

"As always," Sasuke mutters, and tries not to think about the fact that Shikamaru's team has already started independent missions. Because, Shikamaru has actually passed the chuunin exams—and Sasuke hasn't. Sasuke fingers the cursed seal on his neck automatically, scratching at it until the skin starts to tingle with feeling again.

"Fudo says that it's good that you still have a master." Kanaye shifts slowly on his arm, getting more comfortable, and falls silent again to heal. By the time Sasuke reaches the bridge it's already 10:35, and Sakura has a dangerous glint in her eyes.

"One, you're late," she snarls when Sasuke ambles up to them. "Two, what were you thinking with that stupid, stupid, stupid move the other day?"

Naruto joins in. "And he calls me a moron!"

"I can't believe you, Sasuke—"

"And I don't even get a 'thank you' for cleaning up his shit!"

"You cleaned up his apartment, Naruto? Oh, thank God, he lives like a pig."

Naruto's angry blue gaze narrows and he points an accusing finger at Sasuke. "And look at what he's wearing today! I did your laundry, you ingrate!"

Sasuke wants to point out that Naruto is a moron, that he doesn't live like a pig, thank you very much—and that his apartment is still clean except for a few dishes rotting in his sink. Also, since this isn't the KONOHA FESTIVAL 2002 shirt, could they please stop complaining? But just as he's about to, Kakashi appears with a soft pop.

Immediately, Naruto and Sakura abandon their tirade against Sasuke and turns on Kakashi. "You're late!"

"By three hours!"

"Once, can't you be on time just once?"

Kakashi clears his throat. "There," he says, pausing for dramatic effect—or to actually come up with a decent excuse. Sasuke isn't sure which—"Was a toxic spill in the south end of the forest."

Sakura throws up her hands with a frustrated growl and turns to Naruto for backup. They console each other in their misery, shaking their heads and whispering some sort of archaic chant that Sasuke figures will probably deliver Kakashi's—and Sasuke's—soul to Hell for all eternity.

Kakashi smiles pleasantly at Naruto and Sakura before turning to look at Sasuke, taking in the snake on his arm and his bedraggled appearance. There's a split second, and then Kakashi's hand is on the back of Sasuke's neck, gripping hard and pushing him towards the far end of the bridge. Sasuke matches his pace with Kakashi's and tries not to stumble when Kakashi gives him a particularly rough shove before letting go. Sasuke is almost Kakashi's height now—nearly 6'2''—and broader in the shoulders, but that doesn't mean the jounin is any less intimidating. "You were late to practice again today, Sasuke," Kakashi says.

Sasuke scoffs and turns his head away from Kakashi's lazy gaze. Naruto and Sakura are talking to each other on the opposite end of the bridge. Sakura is gesturing wildly and Naruto is nodding his head in understanding. On his arm, he feels Kanaye shift languidly.

"Kakashi," says a breathless voice.

"Ah, I told you, didn't I, Namikaze? He was an ANBU for quite some time, but he quit a few years ago. He is back to being a jounin, now. One of our best," Sarutobi says.

There's silence, and then, sounding so fiercely proud, "Naturally. He is my student."

Sasuke is frozen, listening to the side conversation carried on by the voices in his mind—and it must take place inside his head because Kakashi clearly can't hear them. Kakashi doesn't ever talk about his teacher, his previous team, or about anything from his time pre-Team 7. But this Namikaze in his mind, though, thinks that he was Kakashi's teacher. So either Sasuke has a really creative imagination, or...

"Well?" Kakashi interrupts, a little sharper.

Dog-Master is angry, perhaps you should retreat and take cover.

I'm not going to retreat. He was late, too, Sasuke thinks, and winces at how much like a whine that sounded. Kanaye doesn't say anything else. "I slept in. The alarm clock didn't go off."

"Oh?" Kakashi hm-s under his breath. "And as far as your snake is concerned?"

Kanaye lifts his head. Tell the Dog-Master my name. "Kanaye," Sasuke translates.

"Kanaye," Kakashi corrects, expression unchanging. "Leave Sasuke for the day, please."

"But he's—"

"Healing you, I see that," Kakashi interrupts and looks down at the snake again. "Leave, please."

If Kanaye wants to, he can kill Kakashi with his poison in under a minute. But he, and the other snakes, respect Kakashi for some unknown reason, so Kanaye nods once before looking pointedly at Sasuke, and Sasuke grudgingly lets him disappear in a small puff of white cloud. He hides a wince when the pain returns to him as sharp, silver-quick streams up his arm. If Kakashi notices Sasuke's discomfort, he doesn't mention it, just looks pointedly at Naruto and Sakura.

With a scowl, Sasuke turns on his heels, about to join the other two when Kakashi adds pleasantly, "Oh, and Sasuke? You can join Lee in his fifty laps around the village today."

In his mind, he hears a voice say—as if the person is standing right next to him—"Dear lord, Kakashi, you've grown to be quite the teacher."

Lee looks up when he sees Sasuke perched high up on the village wall. He waits for Sasuke to drop down from the wall and watches him land neatly on the outside of the village before he asks, "Late for training again, huh?"

Sasuke growls under his breath and falls into place next to Lee. It's become routine now, and Sasuke hates to admit it, but it isn't the worst punishment in the world to run with Lee. At least, unlike some people he knows, Lee doesn't blab unnecessarily except for the occasional and enthusiastic "Time of our youth" profundity. They get ready silently, and when Lee offers weights for Sasuke to use, Sasuke shakes his head. His body is still aching, and he's not sure he can take a single step with an extra fifteen pounds on each foot.

An increasingly familiar voice speaks up again. "Fifty laps, huh?"

"I'm betting six hundred ryo he'll drop down dead before the fifteenth."

"Eight hundred on twenty-five laps," a third voice says politely. "The Uchiha Clan men are born and bred warriors. He will complete at least half his assignment."

"Eight hundred ryo on five, Brother," the first voice says, taunting. "He's still exhausted from yesterday."

"Perhaps we should stop," Sarutobi interrupts. "He can hear us." There's silence after that.

Sasuke ignores them, and when Lee gives him a curt nod, they take off, following the wall as it curves around the circumference of the village. A little unnecessarily, Sasuke looks over his shoulder to see if they're being followed. Next to him, Lee yells out, "You want to grab lunch at the sushi place after this?"

Sasuke pretends to think it over—he has a reputation to maintain—but it's a lost gesture around someone like Lee, so he yells back, trying to ignore the cramp in his leg and the pain in his arm, "Fine."

He does all fifty laps, and in his mind, the voices haggle over who owes what to whom. In the end, everyone loses and grumbles about the utter unfairness of it all. It must say something about the state of his mind, because Sasuke bites the inside of his cheek to stop the triumphant grin that's threatening to break out over his face.

Sakura is waiting by the entrance of the restaurant, and when she sees Lee she gives him a soft, shy smile. Lee returns it with a grin, and the three of them walk in. Which is where Sasuke sees them: Naruto and Neji, sitting at a booth, talking with their heads bent close.

Lee tenses next to Sasuke, giving him a quick glance. Sakura offers, voice a little hesitant, "Maybe we should get ramen? I'll just tell Naruto that we—"

"No," Sasuke hisses and walks purposefully up to the table.

Naruto looks up when Sasuke slides into a seat, and a taunting smile comes readily to his face. "Kakashi-sensei's really pissed off at you, huh?"

Sasuke scowls and turns his face away from the utter and shameless lack of space between Naruto and Neji. A waitress comes to take their orders and vanishes for a few minutes before bringing out a tray laden with bowls. Once she's served the food, she turns to leave, gaze lingering on Sasuke. For the heck of it—such a petty, petty way to feel better—Sasuke gives her an appreciative glance. She blushes and stammers an, "Enjoy," before disappearing. Naruto kicks him under the table, scowling. His smile is gone. "No shame. No shame at all."

Sasuke bites down the Look who's talking that's crawling up his throat and settles for a smirk instead. His gaze lingers just a little too long as Naruto turns back to Neji to finish his sentence, entirely oblivious to the expression that crosses Sasuke's face at the gesture. He should be used to this by now, he thinks, but it's useless when he's sitting right across from Neji and Naruto. Because when Sasuke left to go to Orochimaru, apparently Neji stepped in neatly by Naruto's side.


Sakura growls before ordering everyone to eat and stop being such men around her, didn't she get enough of them already, and where is Tenten anyway?

Neji shrugs his shoulder at the question, and the movement––so deliberate, so slight—makes his shoulder brush against Naruto's. When Sasuke breaks his chopsticks, the wood splinters into several pieces. Growling, Sasuke stands abruptly, excusing himself to get another set of chopsticks. He's at the counter, asking for another pair when he feels Neji standing next to him. "If you're going to act like a prick," Neji says calmly, reaching for a handful of napkins, "You should leave."

Sasuke stares into Neji's milky-blue eyes and clenches his fist so hard the bones start hurting. "Fuck off, Hyuga." And it's such a pitiful comeback, even he knows it.

Neji smirks at him, wicked and triumphant. "Cat got your tongue, Uchiha?"

Sasuke glances briefly over at Naruto who's laughing at something that Lee is saying. If he were to punch Hyuga and walk away with his blood on his knuckles, Naruto will never, ever forgive him. Not after... "If you hurt him," he says instead, and is about to round off the sentence with a threat—

"Not everyone is like you," Neji snaps and turns his back on Sasuke's expression.

"Well, that's interesting," says a voice by his side. "Your son is in demand, Namikaze."

"They should both be castrated," another voice hisses in response, sounding unbelievably angry.

"They're teenagers," comes Sarutobi's voice soothingly. There's a few moments of silence as Sasuke gathers his anger and pride, watching as Neji slides back into his seat next to Naruto. Then, the same voice—Sarutobi's—offers, "Sasuke, perhaps you should..."

"I know," Sasuke mumbles under his breath, wondering why he's even listening to this insanity inside his mind, and heads back to the table. He's surprised when there's a cool, oddly gentle, touch on his shoulder as he starts to eat, head bowed over his food so he doesn't have to see Naruto's soft, fond gaze on Neji.

How it started is entirely irrelevant in Sasuke's mind, because all that matters is breaking a few of the bastard's bones. Just for the heck of it. "You don't want to get on my bad side," Sasuke scowls and twists Neji's arm a little more.

"Oh, do tell, Uchiha," Neji drawls, and does a half-twist to get Sasuke off of him. Sasuke lands a few feet away on all fours, grinning. Neji gets into a stance, his bandaged arms nearly glowing with the chakra running through them. He considers Sasuke for a moment before activating the Byakugan, eyes freezing into a steely, gray blue.

Sasuke growls low in his throat and crouches lower to the ground. He won't need the Sharingan to take Neji down. "Oh, shit," Sakura swears somewhere to his right. "I'll go get Kakashi-sensei, or Gai-sensei. Whoever..." Her voice starts to fade as she takes off.

"Or the Hokage!" Naruto yells after her before he turns to Sasuke. "What the hell, Sasuke! We're just sparring." On the other side, Lee is trying his best to calm Neji down. "Come on, buddy. This isn't—"

Sasuke smirks, the taunt coming easily to him. There's centuries of feuding between the two clans. He and Hyuga are, by birthright, obliged to carry on the discussion. "Byakugan, if you're too afraid to attack—"

"You're the one who's talking, Sharingan." Neji lunges, nearly blurring in his speed, but Sasuke—injured, tired, and exhausted as he is—has never felt anger like this before.

Training, Naruto suggested at the end of lunch, and after half an hour, this is where they're at.

Kick-block-punch-throw-duck-punch-kick—and Neji stumbles back with the force of that attack. He re-centers himself and stares at Sasuke, fingers bending a little. "You're at a disadvantage, Uchiha. Your muscles are overused and your left arm is practically useless. Not to mention you're left handed and can barely make jutsus. Yield."

"Listen to him, boy," a voice implores.

"Withdraw. This isn't your battle."

"Try and make me," Sasuke snarls, and he sounds animalistic even to his own ears. "Just try and fucking make me."

Neji appears a few inches from him again, and then their fists are flying. Ignoring the pain, Sasuke brings up his hands, makes a few quick seals, takes in a deep breath, and blows so hard his teeth sting from it and he can't breathe for a few seconds after. There's a ball of fire in front of him, blinding in its heat and light, and when it vanishes, Neji is barreling towards him, an angry, spinning tornado of kunais. It's Tenten's technique—Sasuke's seen it before—but Neji has modified it.

Sasuke dodges in a puff of white smoke. It doesn't give him much time, but it's enough for Sasuke to make a few seals. The pain in his arm is screaming now, and the scars on his palm are bleeding. Sasuke ignores it in favor of his next attack. He draws his sword with his right arm, balancing the familiar weight in his hand. It's still a new technique, so new in fact, that Neji—not Naruto—will be the first to see it. And live.

For sentiment's sake, Sasuke calls this the Up Orochimaru's Ass Jutsu.

"Here we go," Sasuke mutters under his breath, and the sword starts to fizzle and sparkle with chakra. The kunais stop flying, and Neji pauses for a moment to give the sword in Sasuke's hand a wary glance. It reminds Sasuke of Orochimaru's expression when Sasuke did the same only a year ago.

One, Sasuke counts in his mind and spreads his legs, grounding himself. Two, Sasuke breathes, and moves his left hand along the length of the blade. Three.

"Sasuke, whatever you're doing—" Sarutobi's voice cuts in urgently.

"Now," Sasuke growls, and pushes chakra into his left foot. He spins in a half-circle, blade sizzling in mid-air. A whip of blue comes off the blade and crackles against the ground, a safe two feet away from Neji who jumps back at the attack. When the dust settles, there's a deep, three-foot trench in the ground where the whip made contact.

The surprise in Neji's eyes—which quickly hardens into anger—makes it worthwhile. "What was that?"

"Lightning," Sasuke snarls. "Fire made into lightning."

"Fire?" It's not Neji, but Naruto. "But how did you..."

"Too scared, Hyuga?"

"How did you do that?" Sasuke hears Lee wondering in the background, sounding breathless and awed.

Sasuke doesn't withhold an answer. He remembers one of the voices in his mind saying, The Uchiha Clan's men are born and bred warriors, and that is the truth of it. "I am an Uchiha."

"And I," Neji counters, grinning, rising to the challenge, "I am a Hyuga." He makes a seal—a twitching movement of his fingers—and suddenly, Sasuke feels his hands spasm into rigidity. "You didn't block enough of my attacks," Neji points out. He makes a small finger movement, and a muscle in Sasuke's right arm twitches, pinning it to his side. "Your anger is distracting you."

Sasuke narrows his eyes, focuses his concentration, and realizes that somehow, sometime, somewhere, Neji got to his chakra pathways. Clavicular and antecubital, Iruka-sensei's voice lectures in his mind, and he can almost see his old Academy teacher, pointing at the life-size anatomy poster on the blackboard. "I haven't used my Sharingan yet," Sasuke says and closes his eyes, feeling the familiar twinge of his Sharingan. Without opening his eyes, he asks, "You want to settle this now? Byakugan or Sharingan?"

"Neither," interjects a tight, female voice—Sakura must have found Tsunade first—and the earth crumbles under Sasuke, walls of dirt closing in around him, and Sasuke sees darkness.

Kanaye is there when he wakes up—in a hospital room, Sasuke observes absently—looking angry. A rattlesnake comes into view beside him. "Fudo," Sasuke tries to say, and swallows dirt. The two snakes watch him as he leans to the side and spits and gags. "I think I ate a worm."

"You," Fudo hisses, rattling his tail dangerously, "are a moron."

"I realize," Sasuke groans, and winces when Fudo snaps his head and bites him on the forehead. This will hurt later, he can already feel it. "My arm," he says, and when he looks down, there's a cobra coiled around it tightly, pulsing with chakra. "Ishi."

"Shut up," Ishi snaps, sounding so very, very angry it makes Sasuke wince. He's angered the snakes twice before, and they let their feelings be known in ways that were almost always painful, if not a little messy. "Just shut up."

Sasuke gags a few more times, and when nothing comes up he sticks a finger down his throat and forces himself to heave. Kanaye coils tightly around his neck, squeezing a little too hard to help the process. "That's—" Sasuke drags in a gasp of air, "Good—" Another gasp. "Thanks—" A final shuddering breath. "Kanaye."

"I should kill you," the snake mutters darkly, and gives one more warning squeeze before sliding off.

"I know," Sasuke rattles off, voice monotone, "it was reckless of me. I wasn't grounded well enough. I could have blown my body to bits. Blah, blah, blah."

One of the voices in his mind speaks up all of a sudden. "Do you think they're trying to kill him?"

"No, I think they are trying to heal him, Tobi. In their own way."

Another voice asks, "But how did he summon them?"

"They summoned themselves," comes the quiet, disbelieving voice of the Third Hokage.

Sasuke doesn't have time to hear any more of that conversation because there is a loud, loud pop. Sasuke tries not to look, tries so very hard, but then, he hears a female voice. It's deep, resounding, and commanding in the small room. Fudo very visibly flinches. "Well, boy," he hears, and Sasuke manages to look at the snake, a giant, yellow python, spotted with orange and brown.

She is the mother of Sasuke's Snake Clan, and for this occasion, she has downsized herself to fit inside the room. Rin takes a deep breath, her throat becoming thick with the motion, and flicks out her tongue. "I should eat you," she says after a while, her tail tapping the ground in a slow, steady rhythm.

Sasuke has only seen Rin in this world a handful of times. The first time was when she tested him to see if he was worthy of her kind. He remembers Rin's fang sinking into his back to touch the knob of his second lumbar spine—an initiation ceremony—her poison like lightning, thrumming in his blood. The last time he saw her was when he fought and killed Orochimaru. Both times he was about the size of one of her fangs. Oddly enough, crammed into the same room as her, he feels much, much smaller all of a sudden.

The fact that she's summoned herself out of the Other World speaks volumes, Sasuke realizes, about just how utterly and devastatingly stupid he has been.

"Instead," Rin snarls, "I will just kick your stupid, adolescent ass."

"Hey," Kanaye mutters, sliding away quickly. "Wait for us to get out of the—" Sasuke takes a deep breath and braces himself when Rin lifts his body and slams him against the wall. The plaster cracks.

Sasuke groans and rolls onto his back. "Can't I just get grounded?" he breathes, trying for a joke. She doesn't look amused, so he curls up into a ball to better defend himself. Rin throws him out the window and down three stories.

"Ow," Sasuke moans and writhes pathetically on Rin. He's spread out on her belly, in the center of her loose curl. Ishi is working to heal his left arm, Fudo is patiently pushing his tibia back underneath his muscle, and Kanaye is curled up next to him, gloating. Rin breathes in, and the movement makes Sasuke rise about two feet into the air. When she exhales, he comes gently down again. He tries again because he knows, very well, just how much of a sucker Rin is when he's in pain. "Owww."

"Shut up, boy," Rin snaps, sounding angry, but her large, large head comes into view to check on him anyway. Her tongue flickers out and slobbers saliva onto his body. Sasuke wipes it away from his face ineffectively, only gets a mouthful down his throat for the effort. "It'll heal you," Rin says, her hiss so loud in his ear that it's ruffling his hair. Scowling, Sasuke turns onto his side and stares down at the forest canopy a hundred feet below. Rin has moved them into the forest surrounding the outside of the village walls, away from curious, prying eyes.

"Play with fire like that again, boy, and I'll eat you. I don't like human flesh, but for you I would make an exception," Rin mutters to herself, and settles her face down a few yards away from Sasuke. Her golden-brown gaze is sharp in the moonlight, flickering with anger. "The stupidity. The utter stupidity..."

Kanaye giggles, and Sasuke slaps at him, his hand weighed down by Rin's slobber. Immediately, Rin's voice comes back, loud as thunder. "Enough, the both of you. Sleep, boy."

"You could have just grounded me, you know," Sasuke mutters, and closes his eyes when he hears Rin's soft hissing laughter.

"You don't want to be grounded," Kanaye mutters, raising his head a little. "Trust me."

"They're still hissing?"

"Getting kind of annoying... Should we go back to the Village?"

Rin's head snaps up, her entire body tensing. "Intruders," Rin growls, and her body shivers with anticipation. Sasuke pushes himself up into a sitting position, wincing at the strain. "You hear them? Oh, thank fuck."

"Who?" Fudo asks, head swiveling around.

"I don't hear anything," Kanaye offers, and looks up at Rin's flickering eyes. "You do?"

Rin looks down at the space a few feet away from Sasuke, and her eyes slit with recognition. Sasuke lets his Sharingan flare to life. They're there—all four of them—standing around at different spots on Rin. Sasuke glances up to see if Rin is looking in the right direction. "You see them too, right?"

Rin clears her throat and then rasps out in human tongue, "The Chieftain."

"Hello, Rin," Sarutobi says, looking up with a smile. "It's been a while. Sorry to intrude like this. I just wanted to make sure Sasuke was doing all right."

"You brought guests," Rin says, scowling a little, and then lowers her head to rest it on her stomach, a few feet away from Sasuke, blinking lazily. Her tongue flickers out dangerously. "It's rude to intrude on a snake's nest, Chieftain. You should know better."

"I do, I do," Sarutobi concedes, looking suitably apologetic. He indicates to the other three and sits down cross-legged. He is entirely comfortable despite Rin's presence in a way that Sasuke has never seen a stranger act around the huge snake before. "But some rules just do not apply when one is dead."

Sasuke decides that this moment, if any, would be a good time to faint. "Aw fuck," he mutters, and then he does—

Faint, that is.