Author: Prosopopeia PM
AU, SasuNeji; Do facades ever break down fully, especially when considering a Sharingan user who turned away from his village? Part Eleven.Rated: Fiction T - English - Mystery/Romance - Sasuke U. & Neji H. - Chapters: 11 - Words: 57,020 - Reviews: 169 - Favs: 115 - Follows: 130 - Updated: 07-29-08 - Published: 04-26-05 - id: 2369100
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Yes, yes, I know. I'm very sorry again. Lol. But this chapter is very important. Mainly because I'm finally bringing together some major plot points that I've noted earlier. Which, you know, was a really big relief for me because I thought I'd never reach this point. Hahaha. Sorry there's not much Sasuke and Neji interaction here. But I promise that's coming up! Really! Thanks for sticking with me all this time, folks! Also, I've revised the rest of the chapters so hopefully, they're a little better to read now. Oh, and though the story is AU, I've still incorporated quite a few current facts from the recent manga chapters. And will probably be doing more in the future. So, eh, spoilers? They're abstract, though, so I don't think it's too bad...
And can anyone spot the literary reference? ;)
All things considered, Gaara was surprisingly grateful when they picked him up. It had been a while since Naruto had seen the Kazekage—a year or so to be exact—but he appeared healthy and quite content. Naruto grinned at his old friend. He was glad Gaara was finally able to find peace after the Jinchuuriki incident. He was the youngest Kage in the world, but probably one of the strongest. That spoke much of his potential. There had been a bit of a happy celebration when he came to Konoha. No other Kage in the world would ever socialize so freely with ANBU guards and Jounin except Gaara.
Naruto downed his drink in one gulp before slamming the glass on the table loudly.
He was quickly on his way to becoming drunk. He could already feel it in his blood. The room was hot and everything seemed to vibrate. The sounds around him were muted and he was deliriously happy. Gaara was not drinking, he knew. Neither was Lee. One sip of alcohol for him and even Gaara would not be able to hold him down as he wreaked chaos. Neji was somewhere in the background, probably holding his own quite steadily. Shikamaru was long gone. That he had joined Kiba and Chouji in singing ridiculous songs was proof. Shino was off in the corner, sipping his tea and probably surveying the scene with something akin to amusement and horror. Shino had always been a bit of a stiff. The girls were at their own table. It seemed they were discussing gossip, chatting away like mad amidst the off-key singing of the Chouji-Kiba-Shikamaru trio. Usually it was rare for all of them to be able to meet like this. So they had made the best of it with Gaara's arrival. It was fortunate they had rented the restaurant to themselves. Any other patron would have probably run off in fright at the sight of them.
"Oi, Sasuke! Where are you?"
Naruto was drunk all right. He laughed at himself and swiveled around in his seat trying to spot the Uchiha before he found him—sitting next to Neji. Naruto frowned to himself. "Are you drinking, Sasuke?" he called out.
"No," came the curt reply. Even through his drunken haze Naruto could detect the frostiness in the man's tone. He pouted.
"There's no need to sound so mean," he muttered loudly.
Sasuke watched the swaying blond with some distaste. Alcohol. It seemed everyone was obsessed with it. Even Neji sported a drink. He drank it considerably slower than the rest, but it still had surprised Sasuke. He always imagined the Hyuuga to be the most reserved of the lot. He wasn't surprised at Shino and Gaara's discipline, however. And Lee had no choice but to drink something nonalcoholic if they wanted to live through the night unscathed. An interesting fact indeed. Sasuke would not have foresaw Lee's natural talent in drunken boxing. It intrigued him considerably and he wished to see it for himself. Neji, however, seemed to be watching Lee exceptionally closely this evening. His teammate's rampage must have been something quite extraordinary if even Neji took such caution to prevent it from happening.
It had been a strange day. Escorting Gaara from Suna had been a charming event filled with no special occurrences. The Suna siblings were exactly as how Sasuke remembered. They all knew of his return and treated him no differently than they would any other ANBU guard. Then in came Lee and Naruto. All at once the politeness was broken in favor of playful banter. Lee stuck around with Gaara more than Sasuke would have imagined. He thought Naruto would be the one closest to the Kazekage. Apparently, new developments had been made. Kankurou and Temari ganged up on Shikamaru most of the trip, teasing him relentlessly whilst the shadow user merely brushed off their words coolly. It was a strange dynamic. It almost seemed as if Gaara wasn't even the Kazekage for all the informality of their actions. Sasuke had assumed they were all comrades, but he didn't expect them to be friends. Only Neji seemed like the outsider of it all—so Sasuke had ended up gravitating to him more during the trip. The Hyuuga took part in the conversation and occasional joke, but it was clear he wasn't on as close terms with the Suna siblings as the rest of his team.
Sasuke took another sip from his tea and watched as Naruto finally keeled over and fell asleep on the table. The girls laughed at him but Sakura still cleaned up his face and placed him in a more comfortable position on the bench. Sasuke kept watching in silence.
"Are you all right?"
Blinking, Sasuke looked at Neji. The older man had refilled his glass. He was a controlled drinker—reveling the taste and allowing a pleasant buzz to take hold rather than total inebriation. Sasuke turned his cup in a circle, examining the leaves before answering. "Do you do this often?" he asked.
Neji gave a small smile. "No, never. I can't even remember the last time all of us were together like this—though I suppose it was never really complete since you were gone," he replied.
"Hm," murmured Sasuke, lowering his gaze.
"It's not so bad is it?"
Sasuke raised his gaze. Neji looked back at him expectantly. "More strange if anything. I can't remember the last time I was ever in the company of so many people who weren't trying to kill me," he said offhandedly.
Neji gave a small frown. "Isn't that good?"
"Perhaps. Let me think about it a while," retorted Sasuke dryly, sipping his tea. He placed the cup on the table and breathed deeply. "Everything is strange here."
"You're not on the battlefield."
"No, I'm not," agreed Sasuke, eyes flashing. Neji understood. Well, that was something.
"You were with Aya-san for five years in the desert. Surely you must have had some peace out there," pointed out Neji.
Sasuke gave a twisted grin. "Not when you're hiding from Orochimaru. It was never peaceful, Neji. Not for one second in all these years."
"And yet here…"
"Here, you have protected borders. It will be considerably harder for any enemy to sneak into this village," continued Sasuke.
"Making us safe," concluded Neji. He felt for Sasuke. To be living in constant paranoia even when he was supposedly free. "You don't know what to do with yourself."
The young Uchiha stared blankly at the scene before them. Kiba, Shikamaru, and Chouji had convinced Ino and Hinata to join them in the tuneless chorus. Sakura and Tenten watched on, barely able to suppress their wild giggles. Lee and Gaara appeared to be debating over something of great importance judging by their serious expressions. Naruto was still oblivious to the world. Shino still sat alone in his corner, though Akamaru was also present to keep him company. The Aburame was seen reading over the newspaper, the great dog's head resting on his knee. You would never imagine for a second these were all Jounin-level shinobi—four of them making up Konoha's best ANBU squad. It was as if they had forgotten themselves for the night. Sasuke marveled at that.
"Our next mission is in two days if that's any consolation. It sounds like there'll be considerably more action entailed."
Sasuke looked at Neji in confusion, a frown marring his expression. "What are you doing?" he asked, not without some bewilderment.
Neji almost congratulated himself for finally knocking Sasuke off balance. The Uchiha was vulnerable already, surrounded as he was by unfamiliar settings despite the village and people being his own. Neji had been gauging him all day to decide when would be the right time to finally confront him. It seemed he had chosen the moment well.
"I figured you were craving some danger, some excitement. Coming back here was not what you imagined was it? You probably expected harsh punishment, not this," he said, gesturing to the party around them. Sasuke's eyes bore into his own cuttingly. Neji didn't back down. "You've been dead for so long. All this normality is getting to you—winding you up."
If Neji had thought Sasuke cold before, it was nothing like the way he looked at him now. There was nothing but iciness within those dark depths. All the vulnerability he radiated before was gone. Sasuke had closed himself up so quickly, so effortlessly, it alarmed Neji. Someone who could turn off his emotions like that was dangerous. And he had been the one to push him to do it.
"You know nothing of what I feel." A hollow tone, a sharp look. Sasuke stood up and walked over to Shino, saying a few words. The Aburame nodded and then he was out the restaurant. Neji narrowed his gaze. He would not allow Sasuke to escape that easily. Leaving his mostly full drink, he went after the Uchiha.
Almost as soon as he stepped outside, Neji felt different. The loud and jovial night had given way to a dark and empty street. There were some people lingering about, drunk or else heading to a place to get drunk. Neji allowed the Byakugan to do a quick scan; he found Sasuke almost immediately. The younger man was in no rush walking back to the Aburame quarters. Neji followed after him.
He wondered to himself where this tenacity came from. Perhaps it was the drink. But no, even the alcohol's effects would have worn off by now. This sudden determination came from somewhere else. Neji traced Sasuke's steps carefully. He had seen the Uchiha in all different moods. But today had been the first time he saw something resembling fear in the young man. And for some reason, it inspired him to approach Sasuke directly—now more than ever. They had worked together on an extensive mission. They had fought together. And now they had socialized together in the presence of others. Yet Sasuke seemed stuck in the moment—that moment when they had all reunited with him in the desert. There was no change in the man's demeanor except for some moments of uncertainty, and there was certainly no change in Sasuke's attitude towards himself and Konoha.
Lee had told him today: "You look happy, Neji." Those words were probably another reason why he was aggressively seeking Sasuke out now. He knew he had changed. It was slight, but if Lee had noticed then it was quite significant. Neji himself didn't feel much different from usual, but he did know that he was spending less time alone now. Ever since he had come back to Konoha he had been spending time with either his family or teammates. Seldom was he alone nowadays except when he required isolated training. His uncle and Hinata were happy that he spent more nights over for dinner. Gai-sensei had commented on it too. It used to take considerable persuasion to get him to join the old team on a random excursion into the forest or mountains. Neji felt it was a positive change—and attributed it mostly to Sasuke. Trying to speak to the younger man, to get him to open up during their time on the mission, had proved an experience for Neji himself. But for Sasuke, the path was still a lonely one. Neji had tried to help before but lacked the force. Maybe now he could do better.
"You're a persistent one, I'll give you that."
When he finally caught up, he saw Sasuke waiting for him. One hand was casually at his hip, the other hanging free. Neji approached him slowly.
"Your village and friends are waiting for you to come back. Why haven't you?" he prompted.
Sasuke raised an eyebrow. "You really think it's so easy?"
"Why isn't it?" shot back Neji.
"Because it's never as simple as that," replied Sasuke, dead-panned. "I've been here a week. Do you think you can cut a guy some slack?"
The nonchalance was what bothered Neji the most. He shook his head at Sasuke. "When we were off in that mountain trying to find that root to save Shikamaru, I thought you had made your choice. I thought you wanted to change—to find your way back home. But here we are and you don't seem to be making a single effort to do anything," he said coldly.
"And have you been keeping tabs on me, dear? Why, I never thought you the stalker type," mocked Sasuke derisively.
Neji stared at the younger man in disappointment. "I thought you better than this."
Sasuke laughed bitterly. "What do you know about me? What do any of you know about me? You're all clinging onto the memory of a twelve-year-old Genin. You keep confusing me with him. But I assure you now we're nothing alike," he said, his tone becoming dangerously low.
"If you want a fight, that's not what you're going to get," stated Neji.
"So if I attacked, you wouldn't defend yourself?"
"You're not going to attack. That would only be an outlet for your frustration."
"Why are you here, Neji?" asked Sasuke finally, voice devoid of any humor.
They had arrived at the root of the conversation at last. Neji pondered his words. "You're lost. And I can understand that. We have different circumstances but that doesn't mean you're entirely alone in this. I don't think you realize that," he said.
"Did it ever occur to you that perhaps I prefer being alone?" snapped back Sasuke.
Neji narrowed his eyes. "But that's not an option. Not anymore. You came back to Konoha with us. Before that, you had all the chances to leave. But not now. Not ever."
Before he knew what was happening, Sasuke was right in front of him. The Uchiha pushed Neji back against a wall with one hand firmly around his throat. His eyes glared dangerously into his own. Such was the speed of his movements that Neji gasped at the sudden loss of breath. He recovered quickly enough when he noticed the way Sasuke looked at him. There was nothing human in that expression.
"Do not try to chain me to this place," he hissed.
For a second, Neji thought he was dead. Such conviction underlay those words—but it was a conviction born from fear and wild desperation. It was beginning to irate Neji to no ends. He summoned his chakra and pushed Sasuke back roughly.
"I really don't understand you," he began, eyes glowing. "You've been given the chance to prove yourself—to make amends for what you did. Betraying your own village…it's not something so easily forgiven. But here you are, with your friends and actually home, but you're still running away. Sometimes you're fine. Sometimes you almost look as if you're finally opening up, but then you get into these moods…and then I have no idea what you're thinking." Neji smirked. "Try for some stability will you?"
It had been a while since Neji expressed such scorn for someone. The years had tempered his arrogance and he didn't normally show such disrespect for his peers, but he felt Sasuke would need the bluntness. It seemed nothing else got past him unless it was fueled with cutting derision. So Neji watched Sasuke neutrally, masking his thoughts behind a casual face. The Uchiha didn't seem to react at first, his gaze unwavering and still. Then he laughed—a quiet, dangerous sort of laugh that made Sasuke appear even more unfeeling. Had the Sharingan been activated at that precise moment, Neji knew—without a single doubt—that it would mean death. As it was, Sasuke only continued to chuckle to himself for a few seconds, his head bowed low.
"You're all so goddamn annoying," he whispered hollowly. Lifting his eyes from the ground, Sasuke appeared calm again. "So what am I to you? Why are you insisting on this so adamantly? You don't owe me anything. No doubt you feel some type of obligation to your fellow shinobi, but I don't think it's just that. You said we were similar. Is that it? Help me, help yourself? What is it, Hyuuga-kun?"
Sasuke's tone was steadily growing wilder. He approached Neji slowly, eyes wide. It was like seeing a madman emerge from the calmness that was usually Sasuke. It was terrifying. Neji felt afraid yet at the same time, his heart bled for the younger man. He stayed his position and allowed Sasuke to close in on him. The Uchiha was insane. Neji considered the possibility before. Three years under Orochimaru's tutelage, five years in the desert with no other company than an elderly woman, constantly fighting to remain hidden. It was almost a decade's worth of minimal interaction with regular people. It would not be a surprise if Sasuke's mind fell prey to lunacy.
"You've been alone for so long. Don't you want it to end?" Neji asked quietly.
Sasuke's hand flew to land on the wall behind Neji. His arm was mere inches away from Neji's face. He was so close, Neji could only see crimson.
"You shouldn't be so welcoming of strays."
Neji breathed again when Sasuke stepped back, eyes reverting back to normal. There was an oddly complacent expression on his face. All his rage had disappeared. Neji began to wonder if it had even been real.
"You're an excellent actor."
A crooked smirk. "Is that so?"
"Don't you ever get tired of acting?" inquired Neji sharply.
"All the world's a stage. The truth is there—you just have to find it."
"Do you even know the truth yourself?" snapped Neji, eyes flashing.
Sasuke gave a half shrug. "Go home, Neji. You're not accomplishing anything tonight," he replied.
He disappeared into the night. Neji stayed behind, contemplating. The Uchiha lacked motivation. Apparently, the ties to his village and comrades were not enough to tether him. Neji didn't know what else to do. Lectures were pointless—Sasuke was a master at misguiding words, often causing Neji to forget his original intent. The Hyuuga sighed and shook his head. It seemed Sasuke was on his own then. Let the genius discover for himself what needed to be done.
Without looking back, Neji turned away and returned to the restaurant.
Missions came and went. For the first month Squadron Thirteen had gone through serious changes with the inclusion of Sasuke. Brilliant fighter that he was, his attitude had affected the team in rather negative ways. Naruto had often teetered on the edge of seriously harming his own teammate and Shikamaru had to employ his persuasive skills more than ever to keep the blond under control. Lee had tried to maintain peace between Sasuke and Naruto—his endless positiveness seemingly unaffected by the Uchiha's threats and scowls. Neji remained as aloof as ever, keeping an eye on Sasuke but never involving himself directly anymore. The Uchiha had realized this quickly and had adapted an even more vicious personality than ever—as if Neji had been his keeper before and now he was finally free.
It had taken quite some time for all of them to finally reach a settlement. Naruto eventually began to temper his aggression and reached a sort of impasse with Sasuke. Their relationship was a complex one of which no one else bothered to examine. Shikamaru was only grateful for the peace. Lee continued with business in his usual carefree manner. But Neji only kept an even closer eye on Sasuke when the man decided to turn taciturn.
When summer began to hit Konoha, the change was noticeable at once. The trees and plants bloomed in vivacity. The air grew hot, the days longer. Business was conducted as usual, but there was an increasing sense of unease that affected everyone.
It was July, the twilight of Konohagakure's peaceful tenure.
The missions were trickling by slowly when it happened. Squadron Thirteen had been granted a small break since the business was low. It seemed every village was hitting a slump. Mostly, they were all preparing for war, building defenses for their homes, keeping their strongest and best close at heart. Orochimaru's attacks on little known villages had informed Konoha and her allies of what was to come. The attitude of the village was complacent, but they all knew it was only a disguise. Tsunade was keeping up false pretenses to keep morale high.
Then one day, the war struck Konoha.
It was an undercover operation that had probably been going on for months, but Tsunade and the elders never expected it. It was the main hospital that had been targeted. Hundreds of civilians and shinobi had been murdered in the explosions. And the worst part of it all was who had led the massacre. They never understood the words of the Kumo shinobi until that day. Orochimaru! You have the devil in your hands! Your village is already under attack! It was Shizune, Tsunade's most trusted advisor and skilled medical officer, who had fronted the destructive act. Except when Squadron Thirteen captured her afterwards, it wasn't.
Her body had been dead for almost four months, kept preserved and untainted by one of Kabuto's jutsu, her mind set to obey only his orders. And there had never been any suspicion because it was Shizune, all her memories and personality, a perfectly obedient corpse of a longtime friend. No one knew how Tsunade had managed to maintain herself after that. It had been a devastating loss for all of them—even more so for the Hokage, but she never wavered. There had been no time.
The fighting had finally reached them and Squadron Thirteen had been the first to be dispatched as Sunagakure called for aid.
"You know, I'm never gonna complain about boring days ever again after this!" exclaimed Naruto as he brought down an Oto shinobi.
They had swarmed the entire village and even Gaara could not take them all out on his own. Having Shuukaku taken from him had dampened his abilities considerably and he no longer had an indefinite source of chakra to call from. Sunagakure had been under constant attack for days before finally seeking Konoha for assistance. It had been a difficult choice for Tsunade. Konoha had been on the verge of holding out against attack and to lose any more shinobi would put her people at considerable risk. But she let Squadron Thirteen go because she knew they were her best and swiftest.
"I'm still trying to figure out how all this happened!" cried out Shikamaru. "I knew the war was coming but damn, this is a little fast for my opinion! Where were all the warning signs?"
Naruto cringed as he barely dodged a sound-specialized attack, the vibrations echoing inside his head dully. "We've been preparing for the past eight years, Shika. I guess Orochimaru finally got tired of waiting," he replied, smiling grimly.
The attack on the hospital and the death of Shizune had been the turning point. The flagging economy and lack of missions had been foreshadowing. Now it was in the height of summer that Konoha found itself in the midst of a war that had been coming since nearly a decade ago. Naruto gritted his teeth as he charged through the bloody sand. He only wished it had not been so sudden, so tragically unexpected. Shizune had been like an older sister to him and yet no one had realized she had been dead for the better part of the year…
Naruto cleared his head as darker thoughts began spiraling him downwards. He needed to be focused on the battle. This was his first time fighting in such an open territory, where only those who showed no mercy made it off alive. In some ways, he was finally living up to the word shinobi. They were nothing but sacrificial lambs out here really. Defending the village for as long as possible to the death. Naruto had seen many of his comrades fall beside him, but he still hadn't had the chance to mourn them. He couldn't. If he did, he felt he would lose his mind and never be able to fight again.
"They're retreating!" called out Hitomi, a Suna shinobi leading a regiment of fighters that had arrived at nearly the last second to help Squadron Thirteen.
She was sporting a bloody cut over her eye and her left arm was disjointed at the elbow but her eyes were fierce. Her words filled Naruto with relief as he saw the Oto shinobi flee the battlefield. Those that lied on the field broken could only cry and plead for merciful death. To which Naruto felt hardly obliged to deliver. He and Shikamaru gathered as many prisoners as they could for questioning, leaving their own men to the Suna shinobi.
"Wonder how the others are holding up," muttered Shikamaru as he set the chakra seals in place on the prisoners. He and Naruto had only collected the ones most coherent. The rest would ultimately be put to death. These few were lucky enough to have that fate prolonged for a bit. It made Shikamaru sick sometimes to think of how easily he disposed of these shinobi now. "Neji and Lee should have had no problem by the south end. I think we were the ones who ended dealing with the brunt of the attack."
Naruto looked at the sky. It was a hazy red, the bloody sun sinking slowly behind the horizon. Dust and smoke filled the air along with the stench of decay. Flies and maggots had settled in the corpses, the pace of decomposition hastened by the intolerable heat. Naruto himself stood surrounded by bodies of mixed comrades and enemies, blood splattered against his clothes and skin—little of it his own. For a second he could only stare at the sky in a daze, gripping his kunai tightly. Shikamaru looked at him warily, feeling the dark chakra rising within his friend. He placed a hand on his shoulder, forcing Naruto to look at him.
"Hey, we have to go," he said slowly.
Naruto jerked at his touch, snapping his head around to Shikamaru in surprise. He gave a startled laugh, scratching his head nervously. "Sorry. Yeah, we should go. I'm sure the others are fine. And Sasuke and Gaara? God, that's a team-up I'd never even want to see," he said breathlessly.
As they walked off with their prisoners, Shikamaru could only stand behind and watch Naruto a bit helplessly. Perhaps it was the pragmatist in him, but though the bloodshed and war disturbed him, he wasn't nearly as affected by it as Naruto. He worried about the toll it would take on him in the future. Shikamaru knew Naruto was avoiding thinking about the battlefield, but he also knew the nightmares that plagued the blond at night. Naruto's way of ignoring his problems was beginning to prove detrimental for his mental health. Shikamaru knew he would have to do something about it soon.
Shikamaru thought they had shed the skin of childhood long ago. But he was wrong.
It seemed like a dream, the past few months. Shikamaru could hardly believe Sasuke was with them sometimes when he remembered a time in the desert, when those crimson eyes had struck fear in his heart with just a single glance. It wasn't that Sasuke didn't worry him anymore, but more so that Shikamaru had grown accustomed to having the Uchiha by their side now—so much so that the team he thought was complete now seemed empty when Sasuke wasn't there.
It was all so incongruous, the passage of time. Shikamaru understood why Neji was so tense nowadays. It seemed that day they set off for the scroll had been the start of it all. Tsunade had told them the scroll contained a forbidden jutsu. One of Jiraiya's contacts had ensured them that it came directly from Orochimaru's hideout. Shikamaru understood the importance of it then, and it had filled him with some relief that their time spent away wasn't for nothing. But the jutsu remained inscrutable to all those who examined it. Even Sasuke had been unable to decipher its secrets. If it weren't for the fact that the scroll seemed virtually indestructible, Shikamaru would have guessed they rescued a blank piece of paper. Most likely it could only be unlocked by Orochimaru himself. Blood sealed perhaps. Tsunade had agreed with the suggestion made by Sasuke.
But the mystery of the scroll hadn't been all that plagued Shikamaru's mind these past few months. Sasuke's presence itself was daunting. Of course, this he had eventually overcome, but even now he still gazed at the Uchiha in bafflement from time to time—when the fighting wasn't close at hand. Friend or enemy, Shikamaru still couldn't decide. He just prayed that after all this time, all their trust and faith in Sasuke wouldn't lead them to their deaths. Because the Uchiha could very easily bring Konoha down crumbling if he wanted. The Kikai bugs implanted by Shino had been removed because the distance was too much for him to maintain. This left Sasuke essentially free. Even with the rest of Squadron Thirteen and the Kazekage surrounding him, he could potentially backstab them whenever he wished. Shikamaru watched him as carefully as possible and he knew Neji did the same. But even their combined eyes couldn't see through the Sharingan. Especially when they were forced to separate.
"We're fools aren't we, Shikamaru?"
Blinking, the shadow user looked at Naruto. He was smiling but the look in his eyes was haunted. Shikamaru clenched his fist. "Why's that?" he asked softly, knowing well what Naruto was going to say.
"All those lectures at the Academy, the missions and fighting… None of it compares to actual war. I always thought there was some kind of honor to be found in battle—no matter how gruesome. But Kaka-sensei was right. There's nothing but death. And all you can do is kill your enemy before he kills you. It's the most uncivilized thing ever."
The tortured note in Naruto's voice hurt Shikamaru more than he showed. All he could do was place a hand on the blond's shoulder comfortingly. "I guess this is a lesson well learned then," he said. He looked around them at the mangled bodies—at the barely living souls waiting for release. Shikamaru hardened his gaze and looked at Naruto. "But we're shinobi. This is what we're meant to do. We're weapons, Naruto. Never forget that. But what we're fighting to protect—that is worth all this. Don't pity your enemy, Naruto. Only give him the quickest death if possible."
Naruto looked at Shikamaru, his expression surprised. The cloudiness in his eyes lifted and he nodded fervently. "I know," he whispered. Then loudly, "I want ramen!"
Shikamaru couldn't stop laughing.
The wreckage was too much for any of them to look upon. An entire building brought down in heaps of rubble, smoke and ash spewing into the air. Underneath the concrete and metal were the bodies of at least 500 people, many of them civilians but a fair amount of them shinobi as well. The fire roared into the sky and Squadron Thirteen was stuck in the middle. A death site behind them, the culprit staring straight at them. They didn't know what to think. They didn't know what to say. Shizune had made no attempt to run away after setting off the well-placed explosion tags. Instead, she stood right in front of the hospital when it went down and was still standing there when Squadron Thirteen arrived.
Naruto trembled with barely contained despair. There was no stopping the tears that ran down his face as he screamed at her, demanding her why. Shikamaru stood placidly at the center, staring at her as if seeing her for the first time. Lee was quiet and uncharacteristically grave and it was Neji who realized it.
"Stop, Naruto. She's dead."
They all looked at him in shock. Naruto stopped screaming and they all watched in horror as Shizune began laughing. Only now they could see it wasn't her. It was never Shizune at all. Her face twisted into an ugly smile as she spoke.
"I was beginning to wonder if anyone would notice. Of course, it would have ruined the plan if anyone did, but I didn't think it would be so easy!" she taunted, her voice unnaturally high and her eyes empty. "It takes a lot to control a dead body directly like this so I'm gonna make this short. Basically, you should have gotten our message. This was only a warning. The next time will be for real and Orochimaru-sama doesn't intend to let Konoha go. Oh, and wish Sasuke-kun well for me will you?"
Then Shizune sagged lifelessly to the ground. Naruto raced to her side. Kabuto's jutsu was lifted now, though, and her body began to deteriorate at an alarming pace. They could only watch as her body molded away, her sightless eyes seeking something beyond their world.
"That hurts, Neji!"
"Where'd all that amazing determination go?"
"It seems the battlefield took most of it away."
Neji raised an eyebrow at Lee, who only grinned at him despite the obvious pain he was in. At least three of his ribs were broken and Neji had been trying to bandage his friend up, but Lee insisted on squirming away from him like a child. Lee was usually extremely good at being patched up but Neji knew why he was being like this. He was still too wired from battle to sit still. Adrenaline was rushing through his system telling him to stand up and keep moving. Neji knew this because his own body was telling him the same. But Lee had to take care of his injuries and Neji was damned if he let his friend walk away.
"I could numb the area you know," he said, wrapping the gauze around Lee's torso tightly.
"No. That would probably not be good. I'd forget I was hurt and move around heedlessly," Lee replied quietly.
Neji looked at him with a small smile. "You're finally thinking logically again."
"You think Gaara is okay?"
"I have no reason to believe otherwise. He's Kazekage for a reason. And besides…"
This time Lee smiled at Neji. "Sasuke is with him," he finished.
Neji refocused his attention. "And fortunately for us, that Uchiha seems to excel at surviving. I'd doubt he'd leave behind Gaara in a pinch. I'd be more concerned if the situation was reversed."
"Gaara would never leave behind a comrade—even if his loyalty was still in question."
Neji tucked in the remaining piece and sighed. "How did we ever come to this, Lee?" he asked faintly.
Lee hit Neji in the shoulder, jolting the other man from his reverie. There was a severe look on Lee's face as he spoke. "Does it matter, Neji? The most important thing is that we're here, at the end of the day. We can worry about tomorrow when it comes," he said.
Neji shook his head, running a hand through his long hair. It reeked of blood and he grimaced. He was grateful for having Lee by his side in battle. But more importantly, after the fight, Lee kept him sane. He didn't know how the go-happy Lee was taking the war so calmly, but that was him. Lee never let anything keep him down for long. He had an endless amount of hope that fueled his strength. Neji needed Lee's optimism to remind him of why he was there sometimes. It was all too easy to lose oneself in the throes of violence and death without an anchor.
"Excuse me, sirs?"
Both Neji and Lee looked up as a Suna shinobi entered their tent. Neji recognized him as one of the messengers that traveled between the camps from the village. He straightened immediately. If a messenger was here then that meant news. It had been four days since he last heard from Shikamaru or the Kazekage.
"Do you have something for us?" he asked.
The messenger nodded, handing a scroll. "It's from Tsunade-sama, forwarded by Gaara-sama; Nara-san has also read it and wrote a response," he said, bowing.
Neji shared a surprised glanced with Lee as he took the scroll. It had been almost two weeks since Tsunade sent them out to help Suna and they had not heard from her in all that time. Neji unraveled the scroll hurriedly. Stay in Suna as long as possible. Do not return to Konoha. Things are under control for now but I need someone to remain on the outside should something happen. Be safe and good luck. Neji frowned deeply and looked at the attached note written in Shikamaru's messy scrawl. Talk about rotten eggs. We need an Ichiraku.
They needed to meet. Yes, Neji agreed wholeheartedly. But it was damn near impossible with their separate camps dividing them and the threat of enemy attack at any moment. Shikamaru and Naruto were on the opposite side of the village, taking care of those borders just as Neji and Lee guarded this side of the village. Gaara and Sasuke remained at the main entrance where most of the attacks had been concentrated initially. They had been in constant combat since they arrived but now it seemed the enemy was retreating slowly. The six of them formed an impregnable fortress and with Temari and Kankurou watching the village itself, it was fast becoming impossible to invade Suna. Neji wondered if they could risk at least an hour to meet.
"When did this letter arrive?" asked Neji.
"Around noon yesterday, sir."
Lee looked at Neji worriedly. "What do we do?"
Neji let the scroll burn in the fire, sending away the messenger. "We've got to rendezvous."
You've come this far, Sasuke-kun. That's more than I ever could have done. Now I leave everything up to you.
I chose my home over my family. Now what will you do with me, little brother?
In times of peace, those who let their guard down are the ones who fall the hardest. Lying in the wake of naiveté and hope, a snake will strike.
The desert is a cruel place, Sasuke. But even here the sun god blesses us each day with a beautiful morning. Just like the real world. You can't always live in darkness.
It was raining in the desert. Somehow, it seemed fitting after a long day of fighting. There was nothing like watching the water wash away the blood and filth, the rankness and dirt. It gave the illusion of purity, something many of the shinobi needed—especially the fresh ones, the naïve ones who had held delusions of glory and fame. Fortunately, Sunagakure's shinobi were mostly veterans who had fought in wars before. But there had still been plenty of virgins who had balked at the sight of screeching death and mutilation, turning white and barely making it through the first scrimmage on instinct alone.
Sasuke almost laughed at their stunned expressions, their uncompromised fear and terror. Those young ones had learned soon enough. And those who hadn't did not make it through the first day. That was something they never stressed enough back in the Academy. Fighting was one thing. But the slaughterhouse of the battlefield was something you could never prepare for until you experienced it yourself. It wasn't the death that traumatized shinobi. It was the quietness at the end of a battle, when there was no more enemy to fight, to distract you from the demons. It was why so many shinobi went mad. Why there were so little shinobi left from the periods of great war.
But they were fortunate, the little ones of Suna. They had Gaara as their commander. Sasuke remembered being alone and forced to cope on his own. And despite all the hatred and anger he held, he would never have wanted these young shinobi to learn the ways of war on their own. It was brutal and savage. It was something he wished he never had to deal with himself. But they had Gaara, and the Kazekage would never abandon his children.
Sasuke looked at the fading seals on his arms. They had been removed when Tsunade ordered them to head for Sunagakure, but even if the inhibitors were gone the paints were notoriously difficult to wash off—especially the longer they were kept on. Sasuke rubbed at them absentmindedly when he felt Gaara approach him.
"They will want to meet," the Kazekage said in his even voice.
It was hard to believe that crazed, psychopathic boy had grown into the man standing before Sasuke. Gaara was living proof of someone who had turned around his fate and changed. Sasuke wondered from time to time if the same miracle could occur twice.
"That's up to Shikamaru."
"Will you go if they do?"
Sasuke paused. He looked at the smudged seals on his arms. "If I have to," he replied.
"Thank you for protecting my people today."
The sudden gratitude made Sasuke look at Gaara. The other man was shorter than himself, his red hair still shocking in the dim firelight, but his eyes regarded Sasuke calmly, respectfully. There was not a single trace of that former madness in Gaara's face. And despite having the responsibilities of Kazekage placed on his shoulders, Gaara looked younger. There had always been an unhealthy hue to him as a child—perhaps due in part to his severe lack of sleep. But now he was glowing in his prime, those dark rings fading away gradually from his eyes. Sasuke felt small for a moment. Gaara was thanking him, but it was the Kazekage's own brilliance that overwhelmed him. Sasuke knew he would never want to fight Gaara again.
"You're giving me too much credit, Kazekage-sama," he said smoothly, masking his discomfort.
Gaara continued watching him. "You're the same as me. Once. I hope you never have to walk down that path I was so close to treading on."
Sasuke looked sharply at Gaara. The redhead just stared at him serenely, but there was a trace of sympathy in his eyes. Real sympathy. Because Gaara had been through true despair and horror. And Sasuke couldn't throw his words back at him. Nor did he even feel like trying anymore.
"I've made my choice, Gaara. A long time ago. And I don't go back on my word," he said slowly, closing his eyes.
"Then I hope for your sake—and everyone else's—that you made the right one."
When Sasuke opened his eyes, Gaara was gone. He stared at the empty space for a while. The desert was rapidly cooling now that the sun was almost gone. The rain continued its downpour and Sasuke stuck a hand out from under the flimsy tent to catch its beads in his hand. He smiled darkly.
"We'll soon see the answer to that, Kazekage-sama."
The Hokage's office stood in dilapidation. Papers were strewn across the cracked floorboards, furniture overturned and slashed through. The splintered shutters were flung open, bearing witness to widespread massacre. Screams filled the air and standing by the open balcony was Tsunade, gazing at the scene unfeelingly. The elusive scroll retrieved by Squadron Thirteen lied on the floor by her feet, now displaying a long line of crimson writing and seals.
Laughter echoed in the desolate room and a pale hand caressed Tsunade's cheek.
"I told you I would be back didn't I?"