A/N: Thanks ijnt for betaing!
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Sakura felt anxiety like a tangled ball of old hair when a messenger bird scrabbled at her window. She opened up the catch, letting the bird land on her arm. Ouch. A little sharp. She unfurled the message.
'Reassigned. Training grounds 3 ASAP. - Tsunade.'
Much like a hairball, Sakura's attempt to assuage that anxiety only made it tighter, and more impossible to untangle. She got dressed so fast she didn't bother with the makeup. Yet somehow, bare-faced felt normal, now.
Sakura made it as fast as she could to Training Grounds 3. So much so in fact, she didn't bring any of her ninja tools, and she had a bad feeling her sandals were on the wrong feet.
As she stuttered to a stop in the field, looking around, her heart sank. Three kids she didn't recognise. Tsunade can't have assigned her a team. No way.
"Hello," a young boy said, tentative. "Are you lost? I think we're using this field today."
Sakura blinked. "I, um. I don't know, is this, uh, Training Ground 3?"
One of the two girls turned around, looking derisive. "Yes. Do you not live here?"
Sakura felt a little insulted. "Sure I live here, I just…"
"Ah, Sakura. Good. You're here."
She whipped around as Satsuki slammed a firm palm into her back. Sakura sputtered. That was hard.
"Sakura." Satsuki pointed at the kids. "This is Tarou," the boy, "Ashi," the toothy one, "And Hanabi," the mean one. "They're my genin team. You'll be training with us."
"Satsuki-san," she said, her voice catching in her throat. She laughed awkwardly. "You, you uh, can't be serious."
"I'm serious," Satsuki said, nodding. "You might as well be a genin, but we have to keep you in jounin form. So you're with me."
"But sensei," Ashi said brightly, "she's old, like you. Why's she training with us?"
"Because she's dumb, like you. Do a lap."
Ashi picked up her bony dog, and slumped it into her backpack as she set off at an astonishingly quick pace. By her side, the light-eyed Hyuuga Hanabi regarded her with an appropriate disgust. Sakura felt it burning down her back.
"What kind of failure jounin needs to train with genin?" she sneered.
"The kind with amnesia," Satsuki said, sharp. "And if you know the difference between procedural memory and declarative memory, you'll know that Sakura is still going to have a very effective right hook. Cut it out."
Hanabi did indeed, cut it out, but she didn't look happy or satisfied with the answer.
"So is Sakura-san our sensei?" Tarou asked, confused. He was a slim looking child, and his clothes looked a little oversized.
"No." Satsuki stretched. "Just call her Sakura. It's easier that way. But she'll be training with us and coming on some of our missions."
"Not all of them?" Sakura blinked.
"If you come with me on any mission with potential combat, I won't be able to protect all four of you. It would be dangerous," Satsuki said, frowning. "So likely not those."
Sakura felt like a burden. It was a familiar feeling, but it still felt like a far off, and devastating return to inadequacy.
"So on the topic of procedural memory," Satsuki went on, standing upright and untying her cloak. She tossed it onto a training post, and rolled up her sleeves to reveal thin chainmail, and familiar slender fingers. There was a scar Sakura didn't recognise. "You'll all be sparring Sakura."
Ashi came back around on her lap, and through heavy happy breaths her voice dopplered into the distance. "Sparring! Sparring! Sparring!"
Sakura stared, and Hanabi turned up her chin, folding her arms. "My Gentle Fist would injure her beyond repair."
"That's why it's called a spar." Satsuki flicked Hanabi's forehead so loud it made a noise like a thick leather drum. Hanabi slammed her hand against her forehead too late. Her teeth were grinding, and Tarou stifled a laugh, turning it into a cough after Hanabi's withering glare.
Tarou was first. He was a slender looking boy, and Sakura was taller than him. He didn't look scrawny next to Satsuki, though. Satsuki, looking so elegant, so put-together, long, strong and all in black - with even the hint of a smirk on that once unrelenting face! - motioned them to make the Seal of Reconciliation.
Ashi was chanting "Tarou! Tarou! (Tarou! Tarou!)" in the distance.
Tarou, the young boy beaming, made it with a soft smile. "I promise I won't strike to kill, so please go easy on me."
Sakura laughed nervously. "That's the least of your worries, trust me."
Satsuki snapped her fingers, and Sakura felt her body move first.
If Sakura could have likened it to anything, it was the experience of confidently striding up an extra step of the stairs and slamming down your foot with excessive force you didn't know you had. She lunged forward to strike, and found herself slamming the hard bone of her forearm into Tarou's rib. Not enough to break it, but the kid looked winded, and he tumbled across the grass and slammed groin first into the training post.
Hanabi covered her mouth.
Ashi stopped, jogging on the spot from across the grounds. She cupped her hands around her mouth. "Oooooooh! Oh no! Tarou, are your balls okay?"
Second was Hanabi, who seemed a little bloodthirsty considering she looked like a haunted coathanger made flesh.
"No gentle fist," Satsuki re-emphasised to Hanabi, with a somewhat sharp tone. "Got that?"
Hanabi shrugged. "She seemed to defend herself fine against Tarou."
"That was an accident," Sakura said, blushing as she made the seal. Tarou was still looking a little sick.
Hanabi looked sullen.
"Make the seal." Satsuki gave her a look.
Hanabi went in for Sakura's chest. Sakura felt reflexes she didn't understand pull her aside, and she wrangled her own force against Hanabi's attacking hand, pushing upwards and around to press her arm against Hanabi's back. Sakura was stunned, and in that moment Hanabi slammed a kick into Sakura's stomach, hurtling her backwards.
The slim young Hyuuga rebalanced herself, loosening up her arm and constructing her stance once more. Both of her hands were carefully positioned, like she was using the Gentle Fist even though her chakra remained untouched. She lowered her weight.
Sakura's reflexes kicked in again, and she dived back, expecting Hanabi to cut across her with a fan. Damn.
Hanabi seized the mistake, slamming the palm of her hand into Sakura's arm, staggering her. Sakura moved to hit her with her other hand, and Hanabi pressed two fingers into a pressure point on her elbow, grinning as she leaned away.
Instinct flooded in like jelly out of the mold, and Sakura swept a hard kick beneath Hanabi's ankles. The girl collapsed like a rack of clothes, and Sakura stared.
Hanabi moved to strike again, teeth gritted, and Satsuki batted her hit away with the flat side of her fan.
The Hyuuga girl stormed away before Satsuki could say anything, and Sakura looked lost.
Ashi was yelling from the other side of the field. "Hanabi! Did you lose? That's so sad! What happened?"
"Ha-naaa-biiiiii? Are you mad? Do you wanna talk about it?"
Satsuki whipped around, looking foul. "I told you to do one lap. Why are you still doing laps?"
"I don't really listen when people talk to me, ma'am."
Ashi was finally stationary, and she had fished out a pair of tekken.
"You're going to hurt Sakura with those," Satsuki said, eyeing the coarse black metal.
The girl was bouncing from foot to foot like a five year old, rubbing together her fists and shaking her head. "Nope, ma'am. She just shredded Tarou's balls and she made Hanabi cry."
"I did not cry!"
"And she's built like my mom. To be honest, I think my dad's straight up dead."
"Put the tekken away," Satsuki said.
"Ma'am, Haruno Buffkura is gonna kill me if I don't use the tekken. Actually, ma'am. Sorry, you're not a sensei, right?" Ashi wove her fingers through the metal knuckles with enthusiasm, looking over at Sakura. "Anyway. Have you ever crushed a watermelon with your thighs? You look like the type to have that as a party trick."
Sakura blinked, looking put on the spot. Everyone looked at her. Including Satsuki.
A blush spread from her cheeks to the tip of her ears, and she shook her head, spluttering. "Of course not! What are you saying?!"
"But you have amnesia, right?" Ashi said, folding her arms.
"U-uh, yes, yeah. I think- well…"
Ashi motioned impatiently, with a voracious grin on her face. "So, you can't say for sure that you haven't crushed a watermelon with your thighs. Right?"
Sakura looked from Tarou (intrigued), to Hanabi (exhausted), to Satsuki (mildly convinced) and then to Ashi, who was looking very smug.
"I suppose not."
"Then I can use the tekken!" Ashi cheered, slipping on the second tekken with a grin. "Oh! Congrats on the watermelon thing. I tried it, it didn't work. But I did manage it on a mango. But then my mom got really mad at me. 'Cause I got mango guts all over her jonin uniform. Because I was wearing her jonin uniform."
"You can use the tekken," Satsuki said. "Stop talking."
Ashi was looping from foot to foot, looking truly wild. Her dog did not. He was in the back, whining.
"Ready?" Satsuki asked, and Sakura's eyes widened, and she motioned to stall in a flurry of arms.
"Wait, can I have some warning? Is she, um, is she good?" Sakura asked hurriedly, watching Ashi limber up foot to foot. "And her dog?"
"Don't use the dog," Satsuki ordered Ashi, looking pointedly at the scrawny dog, who whined in response.
"Of course I'm not gonna use Blackfire. He won't help me get better at sparring. Plus, he's very skilled. You could get hurt." Sakura doubted that. Ashi was cracking her shoulders. "So stay put, Blackfire." The dog yowled.
"What's your style?" Sakura looked her up and down, feeling weirdly anxious. "Do you guys have one? The Inuzuka, I mean."
Ashi shrugged, grinning wolfishly. "We do, but mine's not the same."
"What's yours then?" Sakura frowned. She'd never seen anyone use tekken.
Ashi stretched. "Not telling! You've already seen my tekken, so I'm keeping it secret. I might need to take down Hanabi someday, if she becomes a nukenin."
"Is that enough?" Satsuki said, raising an eyebrow at her. "They're just kids, Sakura. You'll be fine."
Sakura wanted to scream, 'I'm just a kid too!' but she swallowed instead, standing to face the genin Inuzuka. "Alright."
They made the seal. Ashi brought her tekken together in a practiced, victorious screech of metal, and closed the gap.
The Inuzuka girl shot under Sakura's offence like a fish beneath driftwood, and Sakura dodged what could have been a rib-cracking punch with nothing but reflex.
Ashi's heavy step carved out a clump of grass. Breath caught in Sakura's throat as she leapt back, trying to land a blow on Ashi as she retreated.
She had more reach, but this kid was nimble, and very very quick. As Sakura recovered her stance, Ashi was already to Sakura's left, measuring up the space between them. She was darting from foot to foot again, hands readied and her gaze certain.
"Don't you wanna strike first?" Ashi said, all fangs and incisors.
Sakura gulped. "Nope."
Ashi didn't speed towards her this time, not fully extending herself as she closed in; a couple steps, measured, gaze accounting for all of Sakura's limbs, and now Ashi was on the offensive again, close and fast and with a far better read than Sakura had imagined.
Sakura's reflexes were starting to show their wear, because she couldn't take the initiative. And reflexes weren't always enough here: Ashi's punches were fast, she feinted where she could, and she was trying to make Sakura expend her energy.
"You're good at dodging." Ashi started moving quicker, moving around Sakura and trying to catch her blindspots from the side, behind. Sakura was beginning to struggle, turning, and hitting back where she could, but Ashi was diving from side to side, hitting toward her joints. If Sakura overextended, she was going to get her, and it was going to hurt.
Sakura lowered her weight, punching back. The pose, the posture, now that was familiar. She knew that. She started striking back, pushing against Ashi's outstretched arm and getting behind her, almost!
Ashi wrapped her leg around Sakura's, pushing against her and tripping her up. She rounded back, grinning, iron fist glimmering. Sakura twisted out of the way, chest seizing as she dodged to the side: Ashi and her metal fist slammed deep into the ground, and stuck.
That was it. Sakura came in, gathering her hand into a tight fist as she came in from the back. She had her.
Ashi's smirk caught the sun with a gleam.
With one hand in the dirt and the other fist on the surface, Ashi kicked up her body weight and locked a leg around Sakura's neck. The world turned upside down, Sakura choked, and Ashi let gravity guide Sakura's head into the ground.
Can't breathe. Air convulsed in her lungs, trapped, pulsing back and forth, Sakura scrabbled, instinct-
"I don't care where fucking Satsuki is! I'm here to kill you, not her!"
He slipped by her hit like a wraith. Grinned wolfishly. Ruefully. "Y'know, Sakura-chan… you've changed."
"Everytime you call me that," she seethed, another senbon skimming his skin, "I add another minute to your death."
"Sounds good to me."
"Not with how I'll kill you." Got him. She slammed a senbon into his arm. "You'll be begging for it."
Naruto's grip went limp. She had him. Still, he turned over, stupid smirk on his fucking face. What she would do to sew that mouth up forever. Rather, what she hadn't done. "For what?"
"The end." Sakura reached around for another senbon, eyes running over his back, picturing all of those soft, tender organs gently sleeping beneath the skin.
Chk. Something pulled her into the ground, hard. Fuck. A clone? She should have known. Her head was spinning.
"It's like you don't remember me at all."
Arms locked around her throat now. Broken nails digging in. Blood vessels popping. Colours. She couldn't breathe. The sun was beaming in behind him, the world was deafening, all she could hear was blood, her heartbeat, her death, every vessel in her strained for OXYGEN. She saw him grinning, something sad and pitiful and disgusting like a squashed bug in his expression, the world was bending into darkness-
"I don't beg."
Sakura slammed a senbon into Ashi's leg.
The young girl stared at the wound, looking astonished. Her leg went limp, and as Sakura freed herself, she felt a cold, alien terror gripping her at what she just did. Tarou and Hanabi both looked similarly shocked, and the worst was Satsuki, who looked troubled.
Ashi, staring at the long, protruding needle, looked dumbly up at Satsuki.
"My leg won't do anything," she said, bringing a finger to the metal. "I've lost, right?"
Satsuki nodded, frowning before she knelt down to look at it. She looked back at Sakura.
"Was that an accident?"
Sakura covered her nose and mouth, nodding incessantly and trying not to cry.
"An accident?" Hanabi snapped, looking furious as she stalked over to Sakura. "You just stuck a huge needle into Ashi's leg! We were just sparring! What's wrong with you?!"
Sakura slumped down onto her knees, breathing in the cone that her hands made, in, out, trying not to cry. Tarou was holding Hanabi by the shoulders, muttering something.
"No, Tarou! Why should I?! We were supposed to be holding back! Ashi wouldn't have seriously hurt you!"
"I'm sorry," Sakura whispered, trying to blink back tears. "I'm really sorry. I don't know what happened."
Tarou took Hanabi by the shoulders. "Hanabi-san, Sakura-san might be telling the truth. That was probably her procedural memory kicking in. Most of the time, amnesia doesn't affect our instincts."
Hanabi gritted her teeth, pearly eyes glinting as she turned her rage on Satsuki instead. "So why are you having some lethal half-jounin come and-!"
"Hanabi." Ashi stood up, one leg looking rather unreliable and wobbly. Sakura looked at her face, feeling a deep, unrelenting shame at how it had provoked such a random, deep hatred in her. "It's fine. It was even nice to have a real fight for the first time. And I shouldn't have kept you in the headlock so long."
Sakura started letting tears stream then, keeping her breaths quiet and trying to calm herself. Why was she so nice? She just hurt her in a spar. What was going on? She felt sick. So sick. She was just a girl.
Ashi smiled, looking unsteady. Satsuki leaned in, hooking an arm under hers to take the weight off. "An injury might make my ma get off me about being a 'real ninja' or whatever anyway. It might be better to get injured now either way. It's like, y'know, practice."
"You're not a human callus, Ashi-san," Tarou frowned. "You won't become resistant to injury just by getting injured."
"Wait. Isn't that how it works?" Ashi squinted, looking confused. "I really thought that was how it worked."
There was much talk about who would take Ashi to the hospital. All being told, Sakura had been trained by Anko in this, that much she remembered. Maybe she could have helped, but it felt like the world was collapsing, and she kept her face buried in her hands and knees. Tarou and Hanabi took Ashi, who seemed to be revelling in the attention just a little, and it was just Satsuki and her then.
The Uchiha girl, slender, and a little kinder now, sat down in the grass, grabbing her cloak and folding it in her lap.
"So," she said. "What happened?"
"I remembered something," Sakura whispered. "I remembered fighting Naruto. I remembered him choking me, I remember using senbon on him. He asked about you."
The wind passed through their old training ground. It needed the grass cut, because the wind passed through it in luscious waves, and the air was heavy with pollen.
"Do you think it was your imagination?" Satsuki asked, crossing her legs.
Sakura shook her head fervently.
"I remember the anger," she said. "The hate came back to me. It was so… deep. I hated him so, so much. It was nothing like- like, I've never imagined anything like that in my life. For a moment, it was just so… so real. It was like he was here. Like I was trying to kill him, right now."
Satsuki's expression was hard to read then, until after a minute she stood up, and motioned Sakura to stand up too.
"It's for the best you stay with the team, then," she said. "We'll get more of your memories back like this. Maybe we won't, but it's better than doing nothing."
Sakura nodded, wiping away her tears with the palm of her hand, and Satsuki sighed, looking irritated.
Sakura sniffled. "What?"
Satsuki put the cloak around Sakura's shoulders, bringing it round to her front and tying it at the collar. Her fingers were deft, elegant, quick, yet callused. And her expression was reluctant, sullen, even annoyed, but her eyes were focused on that tie, the cloak. Anywhere but Sakura's face.
Sakura smiled, that old childhood adoration flooding in for a moment. It felt different. Better.
"Thanks, Satsuki-san," she said, feeling a little better. "I'll give it to you tomorrow."
"Same time, sharp." Satsuki motioned, not looking her in the eyes as she walked away. "Don't be late."
As Sakura walked back home, feeling just a little lighter, she buried her face in the cloak and allowed herself just a little childhood indulgence: the cloak smelled like Satsuki, like tea and a clean house, and she couldn't help but smile.
Sakura went upstairs. Her mother wasn't home, her dad wasn't home, and it was quiet. Opened her door, locked it behind her, yawned. Took off the cloak, put it on her desk, and was halfway through pulling off her top when she saw it.
A box, on her bed.
Sakura felt a chill go through her. It had a ribbon, and a bow, and a plain gift pattern with "happy birthday!" written on the paper. Everything about it made her panic.
She looked around. The window didn't look broken, in fact, it was locked, key still in; there were no marks, her bed was as she left it. The front door had been locked when she got back, too. Surely no one but her mother had been in here?
She looked at it, feeling something turning in her stomach, and she opened her wardrobe, reaching for a coathanger and unfolding it into a long metal stick.
She gulped, standing by the door, and pushing aside the ribbon, opened it.
Nothing exploded, or jumped out. Some part of her calmed. It was maybe just a gift. Who knew? Her birthday had been a while back, but people used whatever paper they had, didn't they? Maybe someone had forgotten her birthday. She did have relatives.
As she walked forward to look, and her eyes processed, she opened her mouth to scream, but found nothing came.
A dead rat, wrapped in paper. The paper read, in a nasty inky scrawl:
'LATE. 5,000,000 RYO. NO EXCEPTIONS.'
As Naruto awoke, his first thoughts were of drowning, and he rose with a gasp, the sharp jolt of air shaking him awake in panic. He'd knocked a cup across the tatami. Water, but just water, poised between the reed weave. Droplets, not sea. He was dry.
Kimimaro, to his right, was breathing heavily, looking aghast.
"I," Naruto breathed out, looking at his hands, and the sheet. "Sorry- sorry, I thought I was… thought I was drowning. Just a dream. Sorry."
It took him a moment to realise where he was. He looked around and saw no posters, nor plants, nor the straight-laced foul cobble of that base.
He stilled, breathing heavy, fists clenched around the sheet, reeling a moment, and when he felt a hand on his shoulder, he twisted, ready to level a punch.
"You alright?" Juugo said softly.
Naruto breathed out, rubbing his eyes. "Hey. Yep. I just scared the- dream scared the shit out of me."
"You scared the shit out of us too," Kimimaro croaked. His voice was raw, and he had bags under his eyes, dark and purplish.
The room was tatami flooring, very traditional; futons, sliding doors, and slumped candles. An inn, maybe.
"Uh… Where is Karin? Is she alright?" he said, a strange panic flowing through him as memories flowed through him like sobriety into a drunk. "I didn't- what did- sorry, I can't remember… what happened? Is she-"
"She's fine," Juugo sighed, rubbing his eyes and slumping back onto the ground with a soft thump. "She went out to get some food for us. Are you alright?"
Naruto blinked. "Me? Oh." He waved it off. "Nah, nah. That's… you know, my skin, y'know, it just, seals everything right up."
Juugo frowned and shook his head, rinsing some weapons in water with a cloth. "No, really. Your hand."
Naruto looked down, and would have yelled if there had been air in his lungs. But it caught in this throat, and he just stared.
Half of his hand, his right hand, was gone, reforming bloodlessly. His little finger, ring finger, and middle finger, were half burned away, and bone poked out the top of them. There was no wound, or char, just raw, bubbling skin, not painless, but untouched, like a picked scab almost healed. Shiny, shiny pink.
He was speechless.
"What," he said, almost finishing it, coughing then as he moved them slowly, tenderly. He hadn't even noticed before. Hadn't even felt their absence. No pain. Just… absent injury. "What's- my hand…?"
Kimimaro rubbed his head, and he looked tired. "It took four hard hacks to get that off."
Naruto turned so fast his neck felt like it could have snapped. "It- what-?!"
"You had black fire on it," Kimimaro shot back, his eyes looking positively poisonous. "Black fire we couldn't put out. I had to cut it off."
Naruto looked back at it, his brain looping over and over as he stared at the wounds, as though he would remember something, anything.
"We tried to leave you in the Nine Tails state for as long as we could, so you could regenerate it," Juugo said quietly, crossing his legs. "But Karin was the one who restrained you, and she was starting to lose control of you. We were scared you'd break out and… well."
Naruto looked at Juugo, blinking, not processing. "And what?"
"And kill us," Juugo finished, looking dire.
Juugo let the water run off the knife in silence, shaking it once by the hook to shoo off stray droplets. He laid it against the wall, sighing.
"We had no idea how we were going to get you back… back to normal," Kimimaro said, thumbnail raking across the outside of a small gourd he had. "That was all Karin. She came out with one of Orochimaru's seals. She saved us."
"Oh," Naruto said, staring dumbly at his hand.
Juugo stood up, leaving the room and sliding the door behind him. Kimimaro sighed. Naruto looked at him, but he looked away.
"What did you guys do with the base?" Naruto said, remembering abruptly. "And the prisoners-"
"There was a boat, sealed outside." Kimimaro drank a long gulp of water, but he looked parched even afterwards. "I took the prisoners across. It took three trips."
"Did you burn it?"
"No, I didn't."
"Do you know how long it has been since I slept?" Kimimaro said, his voice cracking.
"Orochimaru's research is terrible," Naruto said, frowning. "We can't let that get out there-"
"Like that's what it's about," Kimimaro shot back, voice raising. "You're really worried about Orochimaru's research falling into the wrong hands? Do you think I'm dumb? You sure don't mind keeping his research on you."
"Because then it's in my hands!" Naruto retorted.
"And in your ridiculous crusade to burn everything, for oh, ethics, you got yourself near killed!" Kimimaro shouted. "You're missing half of your hand! You don't remember anything! You almost killed all of us!"
"Kimimaro, I get what you're saying, but-"
Kimimaro slapped Naruto so hard his cheek felt like it should have torn in two. Naruto fell back on his palms, his head hitting the wall with a thump.
"You don't get anything! You don't remember anything! Will you shut up about burning things?!" Kimimaro snapped, getting to his feet, his expression sharp with anger. His eyes were glistening. "We thought you were dead! Do you understand that? We both thought you were just… that we had- just-"
Kimimaro's teeth were grinding, and he turned around, rustling through a pack until he found something. Something loose. "Do you see this?"
He came close, dangling it in front of Naruto's face. He saw it.
"I saw this around your burned, useless fucking neck," Kimimaro said. "This necklace. You always kept it with you. You always tucked it under your shirt when you thought I wasn't looking. And it's the only thing you try to take care of.
"I pulled it from your neck, in that filthy… burning chakra form, because I knew how much it would hurt you if it burned away. Even though I knew you would never say a word, that you would never ask what happened, that you would never admit you cared, I knew that you would care. I burned this hand for you. I didn't do it because I felt like I deserved to be hurt, or because it was right, or easy, or fun. I did it because I care about you."
Kimimaro threw Satsuki's handiwork, that good-luck charm, right in the centre of his lap. The cord had burned away. He would have to buy a new one. It smelled like smoke, but the gold was still bright.
"Good luck didn't save you." Kimimaro looked sleepless, and angry. Naruto wondered if that was what family was like. "We did. From you. From your own bad decisions. Whoever gave you that clearly cared about you. And until you treat yourself with any respect at all, you're going to disappoint everyone in your life. I'm not here to join you on your suicide crusade. I'm here because you're my friend."
Naruto slumped down, looking at Kimimaro with the charm in his hands. The slender boy turned away, angry tears slipping from his eyes as he moved to leave. His hands were tight by his sides, and he faced the door.
"I'm going to get food," he whispered. His voice sounded like it had been stuck with a jagged pick of ice. Cold, strained, hurt. "Don't bother me."
Kimimaro slammed the sliding door so hard it bounced right back open, and he heard his heavy steps down the hall, softer, softer, and then distantly, just barely, a sob.
Naruto lay in a strange awareness for a while, like when he used to wake up in the middle of the night alone. No sleep, no point leaving, just waiting for something that took its own time and came of its own accord, like a ghost with no release. Just endless worry.
It could have been an hour or many times that by the time Kimimaro came back. Time had distorted in that strange way, and though he'd felt awake, he almost thought he could have been sleeping, on the edge in that strange delirium. Couldn't tell. He avoided looking at his hand all the while.
Kimimaro was first, followed by Juugo, who dropped half a sleeping sack full of something on the ground. Kimimaro lowered a heavy blanket, unfurling it across the tatami. "Food."
Naruto leaned in, peering in. "Flowers and nuts."
"Food," Juugo repeated, folding his arms. "I used my senjutsu to collect it. It's all sansai. All edible. You'll need to start up the hearth."
Then, peering out from beside him, was Karin. Her neck was smeared with blood.
"You alright?" Juugo asked, looking at her neck. "Not injured?"
"It was a rabbit, not a buck," she snapped, looking a little sullen as she sucked the blood from her finger. Kimimaro turned away, visibly disgusted. "I'm fine. Just got a little on me. Skinned two."
Naruto's eye drew to two hanging carcasses in her right hand. Her nails had blood under them.
"I'll stick with the berries," Juugo coughed, looking uneasy.
"Everybody's a vegetarian until they're hungry," Karin snipped.
"I bet you've already tanned the hides into a coat," Kimimaro muttered. He grabbed a handful of berries, dipping them into the water Juugo had cleaned his weapons with. "I'm keeping watch. Goodnight."
Kimimaro was gone as soon as he'd came. Surely he'd fall asleep on watch, Naruto thought. Maybe that spoke to his desperation not to be around Naruto.
Juugo looked at the door with a sigh, before kneeling down. Karin walked right past Naruto, and he couldn't help gape at how carelessly disinterested she was. Like he wasn't even here. Juugo raised an eyebrow, shaking his head. "Right. We'll need to wash and prepare these to cook. Karin, do you have Katon?"
"No," she said, giving him a sidelong look. "But I'll take care of the fire."
Juugo shrugged, looking a little doubtful. "Fine. Naruto?"
"No, but I do have a seal!" Naruto grinned, reaching into his bag. "I have one in case- well, it's just a trick I have up my sleeve, but-"
"No," Karin said, sharp. "No seals. You'll burn the place down. Let me do it."
"But you said you don't-"
Karin shot him a withering glare, and Naruto shut up.
As she unstrapped a variety of twigs, sticks and curled dry bark from her back, Naruto felt his chest turning, feeling strange and odd as he bided his time washing berries. Karin was a stranger in all senses of the word, but the first living member of his family he'd ever seen with his own eyes couldn't have looked more striking.
She turned to them, building the fire stick by stick in immaculate form, pointing perfectly upwards with the dry scraps underneath. Had she done this a lot? They'd had lessons on this, but he didn't remember a scrap.
She began turning wood harshly against the bottom, sending a flourish of wind chakra from her lips down its base. The fire kindled. Juugo raised an eyebrow.
"What?" she said, irritated. She blew on the fire again, and a curl of dead bark caught.
Juugo shrugged, cracking a nut. "I wouldn't have been able to do that."
"Yeah, well," Karin muttered, prodding the embers into a dry, hot embrace. "It used to be part of my… well. I used to do it a lot."
"Huh." Juugo cracked another nut.
Her hair was a deep red: but deep, was that the word? It wasn't like blood. It was colder.
He forced his gaze aside, focusing idly on the flowers Juugo had brought. Most were flower buds, some peering open, most closed.
Naruto blinked, old memories flowing in. "Wait! Is that- that's tawny daylily!"
Karin frowned. "What?"
Naruto pinched it from the stack that Juugo was sorting with his good hand, brandishing it like a candle into the sky.
"That's tawny daylily!" Naruto picked a shy bloom from the clump. It was barely a bud, orange-tipped like a cigar. "They bloom for one day, and then they die. That's why they're called that."
"And they're edible," Juugo nodded. "So we'll have them with the rest."
Karin frowned, then her expression softened with recognition. "Oh. Kuwansou."
"Kuwansou?" Naruto said, frowning. "I thought it was called yabu-kanzo."
"No arguing," Juugo said, gruff. Even so, his thick-fingered hands were almost delicate and slight as he cracked nuts quietly, into a pile.
The two of them settled into silence. As they prepared berries and nuts and rabbit around the heart of the house, the final dredges of daylight began to sink away and the fire seemed brighter, warmer. Karin was seasoning the rabbit with focus, and in the safety of dusk, Naruto finally took a look at her.
From beyond the warm glow of the fire, her hair could have seemed warm, but no; it was cold. But unsettling? No.
It was the colour of those hardy flowers from Iron, that flourished happily in the scarce dark corners of his apartment; it was the uncertain tinge of their unripe berries. But her skin was pale, and her hair was like the cold flush of winter on the ears. She looked unnatural, but no, Kimimaro was wrong: she wasn't unnerving. Just out of place, like a flower from distant mountaintops pressed in glass, impervious, unchanging, in bloom forever.
He chewed a berry as he thought. Huh. A little sour.
Her face was almost, almost a little like his… or maybe it was his eager eye carving those contours into it. Her expressions were soft. But then there was something sharper too; those brows, her eyes, her high bridge nose and the definition of unyielding lips reminded him a little of…
...his brain wandered.
He finally finished up, scraping the shells together like shogi pieces and pushing them aside. He hadn't done very many, with few fingers to work with. He was better off washing the fruit.
"So, how do we prepare these?" Naruto sighed. Karin tilted her head.
"I wasn't under the impression we could pick and choose." Karin skewered the rabbits with a thin stick, pushing through the tissue slowly with a deft hand. "Since you're all living off the land."
Juugo seemed to be finishing up as well. "I don't see any reason not to forage. But either way, I'll just take some of the nuts and berries for me and Kimimaro, and you two can have some, and the rabbits."
Karin was positioning the rabbit carefully beside the flame, frowning as she tentatively put it into place. "You two are the tallest. You should be eating meat."
"I eat meat," Juugo said, gathering himself and a generous bowl of sansai as he headed for the door. "Just not tonight. You two get some sleep so we can move on tomorrow. I don't want to stay here longer than that."
He closed the door with a subtle click, hearing the creak of the wood under his feet as he headed outside. Then it was just them, and the steadily rising smell of cooking rabbit. Rabbits were cute. They weren't his favourite to eat.
As Naruto split a berry between his teeth, the fire crackling like the absent whispers of a gossiping crowd, he considered Karin.
Family wasn't everything, was it? That hair of cold fire was nothing like his, after all; she was collected, not scattered like him. What similarity was there but the one he was desperate to find? She didn't even know who he was.
Karin finally spoke, and Naruto jumped.
"You were searching for me," she said, a strange dullness in her voice as the reflection of fire licked across her glasses. She turned the rabbit over, to cook the other side.
"Well, yeah," Naruto said, feeling a little out of step. "Orochimaru told me you were my relative. I don't have anyone else. Not that I know about, anyway."
Karin chuckled mirthlessly, repositioning herself and cracking her shoulder as she did. She brought her gaze to him. "Does that make a difference?"
Her eyes were red too, and her pupils were steeped in the same winter hue; it was hard to tell where she was looking. Like Hinata.
Hinata had always looked at the floor, though.
Naruto turned his gaze forcibly to the fire, thumbing the material on his knee and dragging his mind back to the rabbit. Had to eat. He was hungry. Had to remember that. "I dunno. I think so."
"You think so?" Karin repeated, leaning back. The smell of cooking rabbit was heavy in the air. He'd lost his taste; now all he could smell was death.
"Well, I don't really know," Naruto admitted, a lethargy settling into him. "I've never had a family. But I just… you know, people care about family. People die for it."
Karin turned the rabbit again. "And you don't have one, so you don't have to. Be grateful."
"But it's because they care, right? People aren't just dying for nothing," Naruto began, then faltered, brow furrowed. "I had a… uh, a friend's not the right word. Uh… she was…"
"Oh, a girl?" Karin raised an eyebrow.
"No, no, I mean… well, she was a bastard."
"But she was really… her family meant a lot. She lost them." The sunlight was dripping off of the other end of the sky. Stars winked from the interim. "Sure, maybe remembering them tormented her, but… she lived everyday like it wasn't even worth enjoying life without them. She took a lot of pride in like, their memory, their history. She wore their symbol, used their jutsu. Everything for her was about that."
Naruto shrugged, biting his lip. "I began to wonder if… maybe, because I don't have any of that, I'm just half empty. Half a person. I began to think that was why everything feels so… pointless. Because I don't have any history, any reason for doing it. Anything. D'you know what I mean?"
Karin finally took the rabbit off. He peered over, despite himself. Smelled so good.
She blew on it. Wind chakra cooled the meat, and she slipped it off the skewers with ease. "You think if you know where you come from, their jutsu, their symbols, that you'll stop feeling empty?"
Naruto shrugged half-heartedly, rubbing his head. "I know it sounds stupid. Maybe I'm looking in all the wrong places, but I dunno. I don't think I'll… I just wanna know. If it all meant nothing, then that's just how it is, y'know? Then I can move on."
The cold-haired girl gave him a look, and she passed him the rabbit.
"It won't change anything at all," she said, not meeting his gaze. Her lips twisted like a rose filled with wasps. "You're just looking to feel hurt for people you didn't even know."
Naruto dug in, fresh, the sour taste of berries on his lips, the savoury cut of rabbit. Somehow, in his mouth, it tasted like he'd chewed soft wood down to a clump of pliant splinters. He swallowed it.
"Maybe that's what I need, though," he said. "If I just know it's over… I dunno. At least then I'll be able to leave it behind, y'know."
Karin shook her head, and she stared at the rabbit meat, a content char across its surface.
"You won't," she said. "No one just leaves it behind. You can't. That's why we live our lives fighting for stupid grudges that don't even matter, dying for nothing."
She dug in, and Naruto made his way through the meat, picking at every last bit, tearing at the dark tissue that clung to the bone.
"Well, all ninja die for nothing, right?" he said at last, staring at the marrow. "It doesn't matter either way."
She finished hers off too, impatiently swallowing as she tossed the bones into the fire. "Are you gonna die for nothing just because everybody does?"
Naruto frowned. The bones revitalised that smell of rabbit in the embers, and he looked back at her.
"I don't think so," he said. "If I die because of something I find out about my family, that won't be for nothing. I dunno if it'll be for them, but it'll be for something. It's not wrong to die for something you actually care about, is it?"
"Not wrong, but it's not smart," Karin sniffed. "You can't make change when you're dead."
Naruto tilted his head. "Is that why you're still alive, then?"
Karin blinked. "What?"
"If our entire clan is dead," Naruto said, "And you didn't die in the fight against whatever killed them, are you trying to change stuff?"
Karin seemed taken aback by the question. Starlight was above them, hanging in such a way that Naruto didn't know if they were universes of their own, or dust, so close to his eye he couldn't place it.
"When you killed Orochimaru." Karin said, "Was that for change?"
"He killed some people I cared about," Naruto said, quietly. "And I think the world's better off without him anyway."
"What if the cause of your problems was bigger than that?" Karin took a charred daylily, and crunched, tearing it petal from petal between her teeth. "What if there was no Orochimaru to blame for it all? What if all the bad things that kept happening to you and the people you know, didn't have one guy at the centre?"
Naruto frowned. "What do you mean? What happened?"
"I don't know what happened exactly," Karin said, frowning like she was chewing peppercorns, not a daylily. "But there was no Orochimaru. It was bigger than that."
Naruto ground his teeth, tossing the rabbit carcass aside. "What do you mean? Why can't you just be straightforward about it?"
"Because I don't know what happened," she said. "I never found out who destroyed Uzushiogakure. There were no footprints. Just ash. Because that's what ninja do."
A/N: Strangest food you've eaten? I've had rabbit, though I know it's not that weird. It was the ribcage that unnerved me. Too small.