Er, please don't kill me? All I can say for now is that I've unashamedly tipped the angst bucket. Let the fun begin.
See Chapter 1.
The outbreak of searing images eventually subsided, as Sakura was left clutching onto the hilt of her sword with an unrelenting death grip. She forced herself with a newly released amount of sheer determination to surface from the agonizing abyss of memories. Reality was much more overwhelming at the moment than any conjured scenes from the past.
I can't . . . breathe . . .
This must be what it felt like to drown.
Only she was slowly suffocating in a pool of soaring emotions too raw for the inadequate vessel of her body. A trembling hand traced lovingly across the cool metal, where a raven-haired young man's reflection was superimposed. Sakura was so entranced by the spell of her emotions, that she didn't even realize when the merciless edge of the blade nicked her finger.
She needed to see him, not just a taunting copy; she wanted to touch the real, breathing embodiment of flesh and blood that was only on the other side of the wall.
Sasuke . . .
She stuffed a fist into her mouth, and bit down harshly to keep from crying out. Heaven help her, but she wanted to beat against the detestable barrier that separated them.
Inside, the three men remained entirely oblivious to the immense suffering that was occurring within the shinobi outside.
Kabuto picked up the pair of shades that had been tossed negligently beside him. Dangling the dark spectacles languidly on the edge of his finger, he examined them with half-hearted interest as the Kazekage continued his verbal assault on the recent entrant.
"Why don't you just keep the mask on? It gives me the creeps thinking I'm talking to a non-existent person."
"He's always hated it," Kabuto explained with an easy smile when the addressed failed to respond, "but it's been a necessary measure. Especially now, don't you think?"
Sasuke remained comment-less as he turned his cold gaze onto Kabuto. It made the medic almost wish that the Uchiha had kept his shades on with the way those dark orbs could spear you with their subdued intensity. The lethal edge of his tone only magnified the effect a hundred-fold.
"If it's so important to you, Kabuto, why don't you make me a new one with the Kazekage's help?"
The cruel expression on his face told them exactly what he meant by 'help'. As the Uchiha took a menacing step in the Kazekage's direction, the other man quickly skirted around the room until he was safely behind Kabuto.
"Don't take that attitude with me," he warned, using the medic as a shield of sorts against homicidal shinobi, "Orochimaru-sama gave you explicit orders to protect me!"
"Do you think Orochimaru would be able to save you now?" Sasuke asked in his characteristically uncaring tone of voice. For effect, he drummed his fingers dramatically against the kunai pouch at his left hip.
As the dark-haired shinobi pursued his prey with silent menace, and the Kazekage became more squeamish with his outbursts, Kabuto could only watch in a resigned manner while secretly pondering an issue that was of much more interest.
When the Kazekage suddenly let out a terrified squeal at the prospect of Sasuke reaching him, the medic finally decided that it was time to stop them.
"Enough Sasuke," he ordered, but kept an appeasing smile on since the Uchiha wasn't usually in the habit of obeying him, "I think we should let the Kazekage retire for the evening. After all, he has such a tiring role to play each day."
Sasuke's reply came as icily as the dark glower he sent Kabuto.
"I'm offering him the opportunity for a long rest. If you don't want to join him, get him out of my sight."
The Kazekage let out an indignant huff of protest from his position of relative safety, but Kabuto silenced him with a raised hand. There seemed to be a silent combat of wills that hung in the air that was thick with coiling tension, waiting to lash out viciously at the earliest signs of weakness. Kabuto matched Sasuke's expressionless mask, before finally choosing to negate the situation.
"I will reprimand him," the medic-nin stated simply, and all parties were aware of whom he spoke of.
Sasuke took a moment to come to a satisfactory conclusion, the slight narrowing of his eyes the only indication of what thoughts he chose to pursue. An eventual curt nod was the only sign of his conclusion.
Before either Kabuto or the Kazekage could stop him, Sasuke had bolted, leaving via the very window that had been his point of entrance. The only indication that he had ever been in the room was the slight fluttering of the Kazekage's long robes that eventually settled as the swift breeze the Uchiha had created as he glided past him subsided.
"I really hate him,"
Kabuto looked over at the other man, and didn't even bother to hide his disdain this time. Fortunately, the Kazekage remained entirely unawares of the condescending look the other shot him, a look that sealed his fate to forever remain a pawn in the games played by others.
The cry was like an un-tuned note that rang dissonantly across the open night.
Of course, it would be asking too much if he expected Sakura to have left the premises after her near-fatal plunge. But then again, maybe that was why he had made such a show of revealing himself to her; their encounter was bound to happen, and it may as well be taken care of now.
He turned with almost reluctant grace, a subtle shift of the body that enabled him to directly face the figure that was approaching on unsteady legs. Finally, the young woman stopped her trepid advance, and with shaky fingers, lifted the ANBU mask that had been hiding her vulnerability.
Not the mask . . .
Twin trails of sparkling moisture were illuminated on her lovely face. Her wide jade eyes took in his presence with something akin to wonder and melancholy triumph.
The occasionally errant breeze swept carelessly over the rooftop, where the two individuals now stood facing one another. Mere paces separated them, but somehow, the distance seemed so much greater, as though they were on opposite sides of an imaginary chasm of immeasurable depth that stretched in-between.
She stared at him, the figure of the one she had pined after for so long. If she had thought him gorgeous as a child, the young man standing stoically before her now was absolutely breathtaking with his understated, aristocratic good looks. Sasuke had never been a particularly awkward child, but time had smoothed out any last imperfections of adolescence and shaped them into the hard, perfect lines of his current body. The elegant patrician contours of his face remained set in their cold expression, while hard jet black eyes regarded her engagingly.
"Sasuke," Sakura murmured dreamily, "why…?"
His question imparted nothing but impatience and maybe even slight irritation on his part.
"Why are you here, why are you in league with Kabuto and the Kazekage?"
Releasing a much-needed breath, the disorientated young woman then lowered her voice to almost a whisper.
"But most off all . . . why haven't you returned to Konoha?"
"There is nothing left for me there," Sasuke answered frigidly, as he seemed unaware of how the words carved another wound in Sakura's heart.
He didn't understand. He never did. How could someone as emotionally reserved as Sasuke possibly understand the yearning and devotion of a young woman who had endured the daily torment of five years to be reunited with her first love? The realization that her former teammate really hadn't changed much after all this time was bittersweet indeed.
"My feelings haven't changed," she whispered. As she lowered her head to stare fixedly at the dark symmetrical pattern of roof tiles, Sakura continued on more to herself with a sad little smile.
"Maybe a part of me always secretly knew that the tears would never stop if I chose this path, but that never affected my decision."
Her words didn't fall on deaf ears, but the stony silence that Sasuke kept strict vigil over told otherwise.
"Sasuke . . .? Let's go now, I'm sure Kakashi-sensei will be very pleased to see you."
She wiped her eyes using the base of her palm, and made a brave reach for his hand.
Without warning, Sasuke retreated back several meters, his movements so swift that he seemed to drift away without exertion. The act effectively put significant distance between them once again, leaving the Uchiha to stare back at Sakura's confused, hurt expression.
"I told you last time that we would start different paths. I can't and won't retrace my steps."
"I'm not asking you to retrace anything," Sakura cried out piteously, "I don't care what you've done since you left our village. I just want—"
Here, she choked abruptly on the swell of emotion that overcame her.
"—I only want you to come back with us, let's leave this miserable place that's out in the middle of nowhere . . . it's not our home."
His fierce glare of disapproval stopped her short. Sakura could feel herself shrinking helplessly under the freezing fire of his gaze, and the fact that he could now potentially tower over her with his considerable height didn't help matters. The cold attitude that he kept constant towards her gave Sakura the numbing sensation of being plunged headfirst into an ice bath.
Sasuke, I've waited and fought for five years just to see you again. Won't your eyes grant me even the smallest measure of warmth?
The silent plea from the kunoichi went unheeded, and instead if it was at all possible, Sasuke's voice dropped several degrees lower when he next spoke.
"You have no idea what's happened. What I've done since then, you couldn't begin to imagine."
He looked Sakura full in the face, all the while keeping his own as emotionless as though carved from granite.
"Our paths are too far apart, they head in different directions. I wouldn't involve myself any further in the Sand situation if I were you."
With that said, he presented her with the hard lines of his back once more, signalling the end of their unfulfilling reunion.
Though he made to leave, Sasuke fully expected to be stopped with more of Sakura's wasted tears and pleas. Consequently, he was honestly shocked and more than usually alarmed when there were no teary words that came. Instead, he was greeted with the recognizable metallic clang of a sword being unsheathed.
With none of the surprise registering in his calm features, Sasuke turned around to see Sakura standing resolutely in a clearly uncertain stance, her long sword brandished in an offensive position that required the firm grip of both hands. Her eyes were still watery with intermingled old and fresh tears, but there was something harder underneath the beautiful emerald hue. Something that brought back unwanted memories, a look that he would never in a million years have expected to be directed at him.
"I'll stop you. I won't you let you go back to them."
The eerily quiet tone of her declaration was slightly diminished by the lightest flicker of uncertainty that betrayed her true feelings. Her eyes told him another story altogether.
You're leaving me again . . . why? Please don't . . .
Sakura swallowed the painful lump that had risen in her throat with bitter recrimination, and focused on pointing the sharp end of her weapon at Sasuke.
Must it really come to this?
Her thoughts were broken by a sudden dull pain that shot up her right arm, causing her sword to fall at her feet with an echoing clatter, along with the small object that had impacted the central nerve of her wrist. She stared down in shock at the small rock that was no bigger than a marble in dimension.
What, a pebble . . .?
Dumbfounded, she raised disbelieving eyes to the turned figure of Sasuke. He had been able to disarm her with little more than a toss of the hand.
"You couldn't stop me back then either,"
That sentence carried more warmth and underlying affection than anything he had said to her thus far. She imagined that the barest of smiles must have shaped those impassive lips for one brief second in eternity.
She didn't watch as he left again without turning back. She felt as though the dark waters of defeat had opened and swallowed her whole. It seemed that as much as she had tried to close the gap between their abilities, he was now as unreachable as ever. He was right: she possessed nothing that could stop him or change his mind.
Sakura looked down at the white and crimson mask by her feet that she had been so proud of before, because she saw it as a symbol of her ultimate accomplishment. Now, it was just another glaring reminder of her greatest failure.
If there was one thing that had become apparent to Kakashi after risking his life in the name of duty for more times than could be healthy, it was that there was no such thing as an average lifespan for shinobi. Every time that you decided to pledge yourself to undertake a mission, there was no guarantee that you would return to see the sombre visages aligning the Hokage memorial. There were the lucky ones, who seemed able to evade death and live to a ripe old age. But there were also the young ones, fresh out of the Academy, who went to their deaths with wide, confused eyes, taken from this world before they had even grasped the full significance of being a shonobi.
That had not happened to him yet, and though he was reluctant to admit it, there was a sliver of hope in Kakashi's inner psyche that prayed he wouldn't be taken as unawares as some of the casualties he had seen. But if the powers that be had already penned his life's script to end thusly, there really wasn't much he could do about it, was there?
That was perhaps the only pure sense of justice that existed in this world: everyone had an equal opportunity of dying at any given moment.
However, Kakashi had made at least some inkling of effort to make things easier for his squad should the unmentionable happen to him. There was a short, hastily written note tucked under the flap of his backpack that had been left behind. Should one of his team members suddenly decide to check and see what gear he had taken off with, they would find the concise details of his whereabouts.
Secretly, he hoped that Sakura would be the first one to inquire about his extended absence, and find the note. She would rally the others to search for him, only they would naturally be too late. She would probably weep silent tears at the simple funeral in his honour. Maybe she'd even take it upon herself to visit the memorial every now and then, and trace the characters of his name that had been carved proudly into the smooth surface. She may even come to regret that she hadn't opened up to him more—
My God, Kakashi, what the hell is with all the morbid melodramatics!
His imagination was overenthusiastically wandering off in a direction that he honestly didn't want to venture down. Blaming it all on the blandness of his surroundings, Kakashi resolved to concentrate all his attention to his destination.
This should be it, but this place is literally 'deserted'.
He winced at the sheer awfulness of the pun, and his mind immediately conjured the image of how Sakura would have rolled her eyes in a silent groan if she'd heart it.
Shaking himself of the picture, the Copy Ninja gave the infinite ochre horizon another scan over. Just more flat terrain that made up the abysmally gigantic the sandbox they were playing in. Either the messenger boy that afternoon had been a lunatic, or he'd been purposely duped.
Only for what purpose?
This was hardly the location for a potential ambush, unless the adversaries could literally burrow themselves into the sand. However sand was a much harder medium than earth to manipulate using ninjutsu, since one had to meld their chakra to envelop every individual grain.
But that was definitely not to say that it couldn't be done.
As he continued forward to his seemingly unidentifiable destination, Kakashi debated whether to abandon the pursuit. While he slowly tapered off the rapid succession of his steps into more of a brisk jog, the Jounin frowned at the odd sensation of his footfalls. The ground, it suddenly felt much different from before, softer, making his steps heavier and more effort consuming.
Kakashi looked down in alarm to see that the sand he was treading on seemed to be flowing, as some of the fluid matter rippled across his sandaled feet. Keeping himself composed, Kakashi extracted himself from the enveloping sand and backed away until he once again felt he had a firm footing against solid ground.
He studied the yellow surface again, and to his growing amazement, the large sectioned area before him was visibly different from the surrounding area. The sand literally seemed to be alive, as much as he hated to use that particular description. It flowed, moving with a mysterious vitality that created ebbing waves that rippled across the fluid surface.
Kakashi could almost taste traces of the ninjutsu that was being used in the air. The area was heavily saturated with the collected presence of concentrated power. The Copy Ninja cautiously lifted his forehead protector from his concealed Sharingan, and watched in almost fascinated horror as the area of living sand expanded, stretching out at an alarming rate that would reach him in a matter of seconds. The only recourse he could think of was to use an earth-sealing jutsu he usually relied on to counter shifting and opening grounds.
Giving no other thought as to how much of a long shot his plan could potentially be, Kakashi quickly whipped out a kunai and allowed another cut to join his ever-growing collection.
"That's two in two days," he remarked dryly, wondering if self-induced blood loss had ever been a reason for casualties among the Leaf-nin.
The trickle of crimson that pooled onto his kunai was quickly converted into a series of characters that Kakashi carved into the ground. With a final cry, he performed the required seals, and bringing his right hand to clutch his left wrist, slammed his open plam into the ground. The resulting turbulence was a colossal wave that rippled forth, originating from his epicentre that spread out over the surrounding area of several hundred meters.
When the billowing torrents of sand finally settled, Kakashi lifted his gaze from its focal point on the ground and glanced around. It appeared as though his jutsu had stopped the moving sands. Everything looked normal enough.
As though to mock him for speaking too soon, the sand in front of him once again shifted, though this time they seeped away as though drawn towards a giant funnel that drained away the golden matter. Kakashi watched in rapt fascination as the sand formed a descending staircase that tunnelled deep into the ground. The invitation was clear, though the unnecessary dramatics caused Kakashi to seriously wonder at the opposing party's integrity at this point.
Beneath the courageous there is nothing, he sighed to himself, before venturing down the steps that ventured deeper down than he'd first expected. At length, his steps brought him into a moderately sized chamber, dimly illuminated by a single paper lantern that hung from the low ceiling.
Sitting cross-legged in the middle of the floor was a young man, whose pallid features were harshly discernible under the weak lighting. His auburn hair was cropped close to the scalp in a way that left the strands in a disorderly mess that that seemed at once both chaotic yet orderly in a primitive way. With his eyes closed, the only telling signs that the young man was currently concentrating his focus were the thin lines at the corners of his neutral mouth.
Kakashi studied him carefully, from his starkly pale face to the simple black outfit he donned, all the while remaining primed on the balls of his feet.
He breathes like the dead.
There were no detectable motions made by the young man, not even the faintest whisper of breath that could be picked up by a shinobi of Kakashi's calibre. The Copy Ninja's eyes fell to the other's hands that rested laxly on his legs in what looked suspiciously like a tiger seal. All the energy that filtered through the chakra-dense air seemed to be originating from this young man, who appeared in the midst of a deep sleep without the associated breathing patterns.
Kakashi was sorely tempted to clear his throat in irritation, but chose prudence over such brashness. Instead, he brought his own hands together in a tight seal, and channelled his chakra with all the swiftness required for chidori. As expected, the crackling blue currents of chakra disrupted the other's uniform flow of chakra. Slowly, the young man's eyes opened, thus enabling twin orbs of dark emerald to observe Kakashi with interest.
"I remember you, you are the Leaf's Copy Ninja?"
The words came out calmly from a voice hoarse from disuse.
Kakashi nodded, as he tried to place why the haunted look in the young man's eyes struck a familiar chord with him. Sleepless, restless eyes . . .
Without warning, the ground under Kakashi's feet trembled violently, causing the shinobi to momentarily lose his footing as he sank heavily to one knee. Since the entire chamber was constructed of sand, the walls trembled as the area shook, causing piles of sand to rain down on the two men when the ceiling cracked under pressure.
The cry caused the young man to grit his teeth, as he tried to temper the effects of his jutsu until the chamber reformed slightly. Kakashi had halted at the first sound of another voice, and turned now to see someone else at the bottom of the stairs he had used. The newcomer was similarly dressed in black; only his outfit consisted of a headpiece that revealed only his noticeably painted face.
"Kakashi, please you must help him!"
Undeterred by the bewildered look Kakashi shot him, the other hastened to explain.
"The seal prevents him from controlling his own chakra."
Kakashi tried to place the situation by brushing away any last wisps of confusion and focus on Gaara, who appeared in agony as he fought to control the chakra that threatened to tear apart the chamber. He was at a loss for once, having no idea why type of seal was placed on the young man since he could see no signs of it. It wasn't until Gaara let out a throat-searing scream, that Kakashi saw the symbol ablaze on the young man forehead. There, where the character for 'love' had previously been etched in bold, crimson letters, was the character for someone that Kakashi immediately recognized.
Snake . . .
It was nearing midnight when the dark-haired young man finally returned to the spartan furnishings of his quarters. With a cautious glance over his shoulder, Sasuke slipped into the darkened environment using his customarily understated grace. It wasn't until after he had closed the door and bolted it, that he relaxed into a full-body sigh that was immersed with weary futility.
Five years . . . he had come to believe that he had rid himself of all emotional attachment. The only one potent enough to stir him would be hate, a hate so scarring in its intensity that it had consumed his mind and burned away all other trace of his humanity. But tonight— a flowing tendril of coral hair, a pair of beseeching eyes— had proved that he could still feel.
The undesired warmth that he had stubbornly been trying to lock away since he first caught sight of the Leaf delegation was returning with a vengeance. With an unsettled heart, Sasuke reached to flick on the light switch for the living quarters.
"Even after all these years, you still enjoy playing the role of her rescuer."
His heart leaping in his chest, Sasuke whirled around to glare at the speaker.
"I have killed others for much less, Kabuto."
The medic chuckled good-humouredly as he pushed away from the wall he had been leaning against.
"You shouldn't be leaving this around so carelessly," he commented offhandedly, before tossing the bundle he had been holding behind his back.
Unflinching, Sasuke caught the cloth package, and wordlessly unwrapped it to reveal the faux skin mask he had left behind.
"You knew she was there," he whispered harshly with narrowed eyes.
Kabuto's smile widened until he was laughing outright in a way that irked the other shinobi to no end.
"I'd have to be deaf to not hear the commotion you two made out there. Though it would have been greatly entertaining to see her reaction to your sudden unmasking . . ."
Exerting formidable control over the rage within him, Sasuke tucked the mask inside his vest, and stood his ground in front of the other man. Though they well almost equally matched in terms of skill, he understood that it would take more than physical dexterity to kill Kabuto. And as much as he hated to admit it, Sasuke wasn't entirely certain that he had what it would take yet.
"Were you hoping for a performance of some sort?"
The Uchiha's icy tone conveyed none of the blanket camaraderie the words should have implied.
"No," Kabuto sighed with a mock gesture of great regret, "but if you were going to put one on, then I would have sat back and enjoyed myself."
When Sasuke remained silent, the medic smiled from behind his gloved hand and eyed the other young man shrewdly.
"Or is everything a performance when it comes to her…?"
Kabuto raised a perfect slate eyebrow as he wordlessly took in the scene of the overturned desk lamp, whose broken fragments lay scattered across the floor.
"Don't pull that shit around me," Sasuke warned venomously, his back tensing to reveal his agitation though his face was still turned, "you know they all mean nothing to me now."
"Of course," Kabuto shrugged, "which is why you're willing to help Orochimaru-sama and myself." He blinked when Sasuke chuckled harshly in response.
"You always sound so sure of yourself, that respectful grovel of yours must almost be second-nature by now. But one day, he'll figure out you're not the tail-wagging bastard you pretend to be. And we'll all be dead by his hand."
"Perhaps," Kabuto commented easily, not at all intimidated by the grim prospects brought forth by the other, "but I don't foresee that happening for quite a while yet. Besides, he will kill you first and hesitate with me. You shouldn't forget that I've saved his life before. Can you claim such for yourself?"
At Sasuke's scoff, Kabuto strolled over until they were a mere step apart. His next words were delivered in a smooth, affable tone that would have convinced any outsider the two were the closest of comrades.
"Who do you think is responsible for letting you keep your own body up until now? Face it Sasuke, we're two sides of the same coin and our paths intertwine regardless of whether you choose to curse the fates. Which is why we're both better off cooperating in the long run."
Though unspoken, the underlying threat was there, as subtle as anything done in typical Kabuto-style.
Sasuke could only thank whatever deities still looked over his accursed life that he was facing a wall and not Kabuto. As much as he fought to hide the shame of it, the young Uchiha had a sinking suspicion that some of the utter helplessness he was experiencing must have escaped through the windows of his eyes. He knew he was being drawn deeper and deeper into an intricate web spun by others who played on his ambitions and vulnerabilities, yet like all others who lived for nought but a single purpose, he was powerless to extract himself from the ominous chain of events already set in motion.
He had already learned that the trick to salvaging one's sanity in such a situation was to never, ever look back. That included cutting ties with everyone from his past. After his brief encounter with Sakura, he realized that he had not done as thorough of a job as he'd originally thought. Just as he was agonizing over how he would go about foregoing interaction with the Leaf delegates now that his cover was blown, Kabuto once again answered the question for him.
"You won't have to worry about the consequences of your identity being revealed."
"They will try to bring me back to the Hidden Leaf,"
"I think they will have more pressing concerns . . . as will you and I. Neither of them will leave the Wind Country alive."
At the questioning look that Sasuke sent him, Kabuto widened his eyes with feigned surprise. His next words froze Sasuke's blood in his veins.
"Oh, didn't I let you read the missive Orochimaru-sama sent some days ago? He is will be arriving shortly to personally oversee the situation here. It would seem that our progress is a tad slow for his tastes. If I were you, I'd stop concerning myself with outcomes that you cannot possibly change, and concentrate on preparing for your mission in the Grass Country. We ceased to be shinobi of Konoha a long time ago, Sasuke. Never forget that."
This chapter, along with others, have actually been sitting on my comp for a while, and wow, I really can't believe that I ended the last chapter at such a god-awful place. Life interfered, and what do you know? Kishimoto decides to throw in all these plot advancements. Nothing that will affect the plot of my story, but I was fascinated by Kakashi's history and other recent plot developments, so there will be some slight changes I'll have to make. I'll be uploading a slightly altered version of chapter 5 along with the review responses for this chapter, because whoa…it is long.
Oodles of thanks goes to MaidenoftheMoon for giving me the first fanart for this story. You're awesome! Especially, since you sent this like a year ago…(blush!)
It's a scene from way earlier in the story. You can check it out at
http: maidenchan. deviantart. com/
(minus spaces of course)
Thanks so much for the continued support, even when it seems like I've dropped off into an entirely different alternate universe!