hi! this was originally posted on Ao3, and it's the longest story i've ever written - am still writing. any reviews, thoughts, and comments are welcomed!
Death is not what Naruto expects. He's never actually seen anyone die, but from the lessons they learnt at the Academy and through the heroic stories they were told, Naruto expects it to last longer or carry more weight.
What really happens is that one moment Sasuke is screaming at him, and the next there's just silence. It's a thirty second interval from one moment to the next, and this is how he loses Sasuke. No opening Naruto could have intercepted, no lingering last words to be exchanged.
Thirty seconds is just three long, deep breaths.
"S-Sasuke?" There are needles, far too many needles, poking out from his rival's body.
"Sasuke!" He runs to Sasuke just as he falls into his arms. Sasuke is ice cold, like the water in the stream he used to fish in, on a cloudy autumn evening.
"SASUKE!"" Sasuke always looks younger when he's asleep, the dreams wiping his face smooth and clear. He looks like he's just sleeping, except his chest is still and his body grows colder by the second. This is the oldest Sasuke will ever be.
And just like that, Sasuke is gone.
"Is this your first death of a friend? This is the way of the shinobi," Haku says, voice sorrowful and almost warm.
"Shut up," Naruto says, the words flowing from his mouth unconsciously. "I'll kill you."
He means it, because the intent to kill comes as easily and naturally as the chakra that builds up within him, and bubbles over. The heat is cleansing, turning the cold water that surrounds them into vapour.
The first punch he throws at the mask sends Haku crashing backwards. A jump and Naruto's flying through the air, every movement seamless. He lands on top of Haku, a crater forming on the bridge where his feet touch the ground, and punches his mask again.
It disintegrates like wet paper. Big, black eyes meet his first, and Naruto draws back as the rest of his mask falls away to reveal skin the colour of snow. Naruto comes face to face with the beautiful boy he first met in the forest.
Haku opens his mouth to speak, and Naruto feels his rage waver. It's only for a second, because he remembers that it had taken just two more for Sasuke to die. If Haku speaks, Naruto doesn't hear it. This punch flows too easily from him and he's never felt so powerful, so cleansed, in any fight before. Bone splinters and flesh tear apart under his knuckles. Blood fills his senses: his vision is coated red and the smell of iron permeates everything.
The words, whatever they were, die along with Haku.
Naruto continues punching past flesh, past bone, past wood, past cement, until there is nothing but water below. The smell of the ocean chases away the tangy iron in the air. He turns his head, and Sasuke is still lying there, unmoving, the needles sticking out of his body glittering in the weak sunlight.
He makes his way towards the body warily and drops down beside him. He's still dead; he will always be dead from here on now. Naruto breathes slowly, in intervals of three, because the dust makes it hard to breathe. This is how Kakashi, Sakura, and Tazuna find him, still dripping with Haku's blood, still coated in Kyuubi's pulsating chakra, tails framing him in erratic circles.
What's left of the half-built bridge stretches onwards, only to meet a jagged drop straight down to the choppy ocean.
Sakura's shrill screaming begins when the dust clears, but not even that pierces through the cloak of chakra that envelops a sobbing Naruto.
CHAPTER 1: ABSOLUTION
"It's a pretty nice place to read, or just stare at the clouds," Kakashi tells the boy beside him.
There's no answer.
"No one disturbs you here. I'm always here," Kakashi adds. "Maybe we'll see each around next time."
Konoha Cemetery is located at the village outskirts, in a quiet field that is dotted with simple stone slabs as far as the eye can see. The newest one is Uchiha Sasuke's, headstone gleaming in the light of the dying sun.
It still unnerves Kakashi that Naruto is the quiet one now, while Sakura could not stop screaming. She screamed at the bridge and screamed when anyone tried to touch Sasuke's body. The only way to get her to stop, and to take Sasuke's body home, was to put her under a weak genjutsu.
Naruto had carried Sasuke, while Kakashi carried Sakura back to Konoha. The Kyuubi released its hold over Naruto once he stopped crying, and they walked back in a silence that ached as much as their hearts and limbs. The moment the gates shifted into sight, Kakashi laid Sakura down carefully and collapsed beside her. He didn't even feel the ground when it rose up to meet him. Everything else was blissfully blank after that.
He missed the funeral together with Sakura, who was tied down to the bed next to him, a silencing seal placed over her mouth to protect her throat. In between his bouts of consciousness, he heard loud squeaks - Sakura straining against the straps, body shuddering from the tears she wept.
A week after the funeral, he was cleared to leave. Fully healed, as good as new, but another dead body added to his list. Sakura's still in the same bed because doctors say they need more time to assess her mental state. What's left of Team 7 spend their time at the graveyard, when they're not by Sakura's bedside.
He knows it is cowardice, but he cannot bear to ask Naruto how the funeral went. He has an inkling though, and that's enough for now.
"All these people, all these headstones, they're here because they call themselves shinobi." Naruto says finally, and Kakashi turns from the headstone to look at Naruto's face. "It's not right. It's not fair."
"It's the way of our world," Kakashi replies automatically.
"Not if I can help it," Naruto says, fingers curling into a fist. There's an edge of steel in his voice, something Kakashi is more used to hearing from Sasuke than loud, goofy Naruto. Ah, that was then; this is now. The boy next to him seems to stand taller, spine a little straighter. The first death you witness, like love, is the one that will always stay with you. It's the last thing you think of before you drift off to a merciful sleep, and the first thing you see when you gasp awake. They both have the ghosts of Uchihas who will haunt them now.
Naruto's blue eyes burn brighter than ever, but Kakashi is sure he sees a glint of crimson flash through them. It's just the sunset, Kakashi wants to tell himself, even though he can feel it in the air: the subtle shift in chakra is a whisper that the Kyuubi is gaining a foothold, sinking its claws into its vulnerable host, within his beloved sensei's son.
The nightmares are terrible, but Naruto learns there is a thing as varying shades of terrible.
He's no stranger to pain, and loneliness is like a blanket - heavy but oddly comforting after some time. These nightmares are pain that exist on a different plane of existence because it's sharper, more nuanced, and unbearably ruthless. He can never know what to expect what he will remember, when he's dragged from sleep and thrust into the unforgiving world of the conscious.
There are nightmares where Sasuke dies, over and over again in his arms, and Naruto wakes up with self-loathing so solid that he only has enough time to turn his head to the side before throwing up all over the floor.
After that first incident, he places an old red bucket on the floor.
Then there are the kind of nightmares where Sakura or Kakashi die instead of Sasuke, and Naruto wakes up with cold sweat clinging to his forehead like droplets of ice. The relief is so strong he's lightheaded because the sickening truth is that he'd rather lose his sensei or his crush than his rival to Haku.
The amount of time it takes him to realise this is the cruelest part, because it's often three deep breaths.
There's no use for the bucket now, not really, because he doesn't sleep much any more.
Tell me what Sasuke-kun's last words were.
Naruto reads the neat words scrawled on paper, and looks up to meet Sakura's watery gaze. The lower part of her face is still wrapped tightly with bandages, adorned with black spirals and letters for the seal where her mouth is. Her upper body is no longer restrained to the bed, so they're allowed to exchange notes now. It could be pretty romantic, if not for the fact that they are stuck living through hell each and every day.
They tried releasing the seal several days ago, and Sakura continued to scream as though they were still on the bridge. Chakra magnifies voice; Naruto had heard it all the way on the swing in front of the Academy, several blocks from the hospital. He raced all the way to her bedside, and held her hand when three nurses pushed her down into the mattress while two ANBU weaved signs and reattached the seal over her mouth. There were half moons carved into his palm, speckled with blood, once the procedure was done, and his ears rang for hours after that. If this is his punishment from Sakura for letting Sasuke die, it's not nearly enough.
"I've already told you," he says in what he hopes is a gentle voice. To his ears, it sounds flat.
Sakura knits her eyebrows together tightly, gaze sharpening, and Naruto understands it perfectly clearly.
Want to hear it again.
Please, her eyes beg and Naruto's heart clenches. This is his real punishment: seeing Sakura look at him and see nothing but Sasuke's death.
"He was talking about his brother...about how he wouldn't die until he killed him."
Sakura nods, more to herself than anyone.
"Sakura-chan, will you enrol for the Chuunin exams?"
Her head stops mid-nod, before she shakes her head to the side once, slowly.
"I guessed that much," a voice calls out from the side. Their eyes turn simultaneously to the door, and it's Kakashi, back for his daily round to Sakura's bedside. "You, Naruto?"
He opens his mouth to say automatically, Of course I'm joining!, because he's never needed to ever consider this before, but nothing is the same since Sasuke died. The words curl up on his tongue, sharp like wood splinters and tasting like concrete.
"Before you say anything, I have a suggestion. Don't take it this year. We'll take this time to train so you'll be prepared for the next exam. You too, Sakura, when you get better."
She picks up the paper and scribbles so furiously the pen tears through the paper. She lifts it up to the door, and it's slow enough that Naruto can scan the paper. Her hands do not shake.
I am not a ninja any more.
Naruto takes her hand, and squeezes it tightly. She squeezes back just as hard, with more energy that he'd expect her to have. Her green eyes are wild and sharp, as though she never stopped screaming. Naruto raises his other hand, curls it into a fist. He lifts it at Kakashi, smiling fiercely.
"I'm going to be Hokage, so I'm holding you to this, Kakashi-sensei!"
"Today's lesson is on chakra control."
"Chakra control? I thought I'd be learning a new jutsu or something!"
"We learn to walk before we run, right?" Kakashi replies, sing-song.
"Nope, I was born running," Naruto replies confidently, and Kakashi just shakes his head.
"Time to run on water, then," Kakashi says.
The arm comes out of nowhere, sending him flying into the pond. Naruto has barely enough time to inhale before he's sinking into the water, the cold water leaching into his bones as the weeds ravel themselves around his feet.
He kicks himself to the surface, finding a pair of feet before his eyes, shoes glowing blue.
"Hey!" Naruto splutters, when he's done coughing.
Kakashi grabs onto Naruto's jacket, dragging him out of the pond and dropping him onto the bank with no fanfare. It's cold, and he feels the water drip off his hair, down his face, into his shirt, everywhere. A bubble of panic threatens to rise. Water is not ice, he tells himself. Water is not the enemy.
"In order to walk on water, you must continuously emit tiny amounts of chakra from your feet into the water's surface, adjusting it to allow your body to float. This will teach you to regulate your chakra expenditure, which is fundamental to proper chakra control."
Naruto tries to concentrate on Kakashi's words, not shivering too much, and fighting the strange panic that coats his skin from the inside out.
"Got it," he says, and this time, he's prepared when Kakashi pushes him into the water.
He concentrates the chakra on his feet, but it's not enough because he drops right into the water, like one of those pebbles he used to try to skip at the river.
"Again," Kakashi's voice calls out as it echoes around him in the water. He squeezes his eyes shut and kicks himself to the surface as quickly as he can. It's just water, he tells himself over and over again, like a mantra.
He stops counting after the sixth time he falls into the water. Thirty minutes later, he sinks again after finding three breathtaking seconds of balance on the water's surface. This time, falling feels different. The water feels colder, heavier, and before he can break the surface, Haku's mask appears before his eyes, its pure whiteness glowing in the dark water. His words swirl up and around him like a current.
He landed a blow on me and without flinching, died for you.
What Naruto does is automatic: he doesn't weave any signs, he doesn't kick himself to the surface. His body is frozen solid while his mind is in free fall. All he can do is open his mouth to scream, and the water that rushes into his mouth and down his lungs are as sharp as needles.
His body shudders, before growing warm. The water that surrounds him bubbles. Something is pushing him upwards, away from Haku and his ghostly mask. There's a figure floating below Haku, hair dark and skin pale and this sight is enough to tear through his heart. Naruto squeezes his eyes shut and when he opens them, he's standing on water, albeit on all fours, and screaming.
He knows he's no longer under water, but he still feels the pressure pressing against his lungs and the way he can't take in enough air. It still feels like drowning.
At least the heat that flows through his veins is cleansing. Kakashi is rushing towards him in slow motion. His mouth moves as he yells, but Naruto can't hear anything over his pounding heart. He takes one clumsy step forward, and somehow he's transported halfway over the lake, zig-zagging across the rippling surface. Sheer power pulses through him. As he reaches out for Kakashi's outstretched hand, a red incandescent claw grows monstrously from his shoulder and swipes at Kakashi's chest viciously.
There's way too much blood.
There's way too much water.
Everything seems to happen in a fraction of a second, and Naruto still cannot stop screaming.
Sakura's favourite corner of the library is right at the back, hidden by a giant shelf that houses a small collection of books on ancient languages. No one ever browses those books, so Sakura is left alone, hidden by knowledge and serene silence.
The first words Sakura spoke when her seal was broken were directed at Kakashi. He had to lean in, because her voice is softer and raspier than before. Sakura likes it, because it reminds her of the brown leaves that coat Konoha's grounds in autumn. "I do not want to be a ninja any more."
The first thing she does after that is pick up her hitai-ate, and presses it firmly into Kakashi's hands. Her hands did not shake.
This was two weeks ago.
And just like that, she is free. She moves back home, and stays in her room pouring over scrolls she borrows, stacked carefully in her arms. When she's not in her room, she's pouring over rarer scrolls that cannot leave the library. Everything she can find about shinobi is devoured: the history of chakra, the establishment of clans, the foundation of hidden villages. There are so many scrolls, so much information that if she reads and reads and does not stop until she dies of old age, she doubts she would have even gotten through half of that can be found within these walls.
It's a comforting, yet unsettling, thought: she will never run out of things to research, but there is so to learn, to know, out in the world beyond Konoha.
If she reads for too long, the words make her eyes blur; she hates it when that happens. It means she has to stop reading, close her eyes, and see Sasuke's broken body and Naruto consumed by blood red chakra, her eyes watering from the heat that surrounds his small body.
Today's scrolls are on rare bloodline limits, its genetic makeup, and the price of its powers.
Of course, she can never be free, not with the weight of reality bearing down on her.
Naruto wakes up in the hospital, next to a window. Outside, a bird chirps.
Kakashi is lying next to him, absorbed in his perverted book.
"Yo," he replies lazily into the pages.
"What happened...Did I hurt you? Why am we here?"
"Our training got a little out of hand, and all over my chest," Kakashi says, finally putting aside the book to reveal his heavily bandaged torso.
Naruto feels the colour leave his cheeks as he twists himself to the side, staring at Kakashi's body with wide eyes. "I did that?"
"The Nine Tails seems to be leaking out faster than ever. We're going to train you to control its power."
"I almost killed you," Naruto says, his eyes widening. His breath hitches unconsciously, and that familiar pressure in his lungs is back. He squeezes his eyes shut - he doesn't want to see Haku or Sasuke behind the flimy curtains that surround the other empty beds, or hiding in the shadows under the beds.
"Hey, this is just a flesh wound. It'll take more than a few of your tails to kill me," Kakashi says firmly. "Naruto, Naruto look at me."
Naruto's breaths are coming out in short, sharp gasps.
He opens his eyes, but there's nothing but darkness. He can hear sounds, voices, but they're too far to catch. The darkness he's descending into churns, and the most appealing thing is the warmth it emits. He can continue fighting and reaching up towards the voices and sounds, or give into this warmth that promises him everything will be ok: he couldn't save his rival, he almost kills his teacher, but it stops here. He will change the world of shinobi, because children like them should not be trained as weapons. Kids like Sasuke do not need to die.
Naruto sinks into the comforting warmth that bleeds red around him.
His nindo will be his absolution.
The hand on his shoulder shakes him awake, and he doesn't recognise the voice at first. It's only when he opens his eyes to see the whitewashed ceiling and green eyes come into focus that he links the airy, scratchy voice to his teammate. Sakura's new voice. For a moment, Naruto feels the sheer gravity of what they have lost settle over him, weighing down on his bones. He stares into her eyes as she gradually comes into focus, gaze sharp.
She's wearing her usual red outfit, but her hair is plain and neat. No hitai-ite, Naruto remembers with a lurch, because Sakura is no longer a kunoichi.
"Good, you're awake. I don't have much time."
"What's happened? Where's Kakashi-sensei?"
"Someone is going to take you out from the village to train. I don't know when you'll be back. Sandaime and Kakashi-sensei have decided to keep you away from your triggers."
"The Hokage said what? What triggers?"
Before everything changed, the old Sakura would huff impatiently and hit him at the side of his head. The Sakura now just looks at him, almost as though she is seeing through him. Her eyes are piercing, but they have a distance within them that makes his skin crawl and tighten. "Memories of Sa- Team 7 triggers you to lose control. I couldn't catch the rest of the conversation they were having in the library. They thought it was empty, but I was there."
Naruto blinks, his mind slowly catching up.
"They're sending me away."
"T-They can't. Who will be with Sasuke if I'm gone? There's Kakashi-sensei, but he's always wandering off to other plots. There's so many fallen leaves around Sasuke's headstone, and we know that'll drive him crazy because he's such a weirdo about his things being neat and tidy." He fights the rising panic because he knows that this time, he needs to stay in control. "Sakura-chan, I- Can you do that for me? Keep him company? Please."
Even as he blabbers on, he knows it's not fair to her. Sakura missed the funeral; he doesn't even know if she visits the grave. He doesn't know if she can.
Sakura picks up his hand, squeezing it tightly, once. It's not an answer. There's a sound at the door, and without a second glance back, she releases her grip, throws the window open and leaps out. There's a crash when she lands on the roof below, because Naruto knows she's not using her chakra any longer.
She disappears in a whirlwind of pink and red.
Naruto turns to a tall figure by the door, flanked by two ANBU guards. The man has a mane of spiky white hair, and a curious smile across his face. "So this is Uzumaki Naruto, huh?"
"Who's asking?" Naruto says, crossing his arms over his chest.
"Mount Myoboku-Gama's holy master Sannin, also known as the legendary toad Sennin!" the strange man says with flourish, crouching down suddenly with one palm extended in front of his face, the other reaching out to the back. One of the ANBU guards nearly gets hit in the face.
"Sannin...means nothing to me, but okay."
"You'll learn more about me in due time, don't worry," he says, straightening up. "How are you feeling?"
The man walks up to his bedside, and pokes at his cheek, arm, and stomach.
"A shrug isn't an answer. You made me check for myself."
"I'm fine," Naruto says, sinking deeper into the pillow.
"Okay! Let's go!"
"Don't you want to train?"
"I'm in charge of your training now. We won't be travelling far - just around the Land of Fire as I continue my research."
"What's wrong with training in Konoha," Naruto asks sullenly.
"Gee, you're a lot less fun and adventurous than I was told," the Sannin says, wrinkling up his nose. "If you want to continue learning how to walk on water in Konaha, be my guest. The Naruto I was told I'd find would leap at the chance of getting to train under my legendary guidance."
"They're sending me away from the village!" Naruto yells, eyes trained at the blank wall ahead.
If the man is surprised he knows, he doesn't show it. "Naruto, it'll just be for awhile. Once you learn how to control the Kyuubi, you'll realise how much you can do with its power. We won't be gone for long, and the change of scenery will be fun. Fresher air, hotter spring water, prettier ladies…"
Naruto turns to look at the man, who wags his eyebrows and smiles so gently down at him it makes his eyes prickle strangely. Maybe he'll sleep better outside of Konoha. Maybe it's okay if there are leaves around Sasuke's headstone, because Sasuke is dead and dead people don't complain about dry leaves. Maybe he can be Hokage faster and change the world quicker, because he's grown powerful enough to control the beast inside him.
He gives the man one quick, decisive nod.
"I'll meet you at the gates in two hours - the adventure begins!" The Sannin disappears without a glance backwards, ANBU melting away with him.
Naruto pushes himself from the bed slowly, not because anything hurts, but because the knowledge is heavy. Sakura is right: this was never a request, but an order from the get-go.