Disclaimer:I don't own Naruto. If I did, Naruto would wear boots, Sasuke's shorts wouldn't be so short, and Sakura would have a purpose. Okay, fine, I'll shut up.
AN:First of all, I'd like to thank everyone who reviewed for the encouraging feedback! I really appreciate it--y'all rock. I hope you enjoy this chapter as well.
Secondly, I don't speak Japanese, so I had to consult and online dictionary and a friend who's learning Japanese to figure out some words. According to both these sources, "yajuu" means beast or monster. It's what Sasuke and Sakura will sometimes refer to the shape-shifter as. Also, I was told that "baindingu" meant binding. It is a special type of jutsu that Sakura uses.
And as always, I'm still looking for a beta-reader, if anyone is interested.
Enjoy the conclusion, and remember, reviews are a girl's best friend.
The Mourning After (2/2)
Sasuke's body flew above her head, hitting a tree trunk behind them with a thud. She gasped in pain for him as he slid down the bark and settled at the base. His palm involuntarily opened and she noticed that the kunai had not been deployed. The exploding tag was still attached to the hilt of the weapon.
"Sasuke-kun!" She lunged at his prone form, sliding to halt against the dirt ground. She pulled the makeshift bomb from his hand and launched it at the enemy they'd been fighting. Had the yajuu stayed in its original form, it could have easily avoided the blade. But it had chosen to morph, and in its enlarged and energy-bound state, the kunai was able to imbed itself in its shoulder. It wasn't a critical point, but she hoped it would slow him down enough for her to take care of Sasuke, and find Naruto.
The shape shifter growled in pain as its shoulder rippled and bulged. The kunai sank further and further in, until it was pulled completely under his skin. Sakura used this opportunity to assess her teammate's condition. She moved his head, placing a palm on his bleeding temple. He groaned slightly against the movement, and his eyes slitted open. She sighed in relief before her medical training took over again. "Sasuke-kun? Can you hear me?"
"S-Sa…kra." His eyes focused on her face, and he tried to push himself up on shaky hands.
"Ne, Sasuke-kun," she said, stopping any further movement. "Don't move so suddenly. You'll hurt yourself more." She steadied his back by placing an arm around his shoulders, and pulled him up. "Use me for support," she told him, "we have to get out of here and find Naruto."
He nodded to her, closing his eyes. The tremors that ran through his body suddenly subsided-- he'd opened one of the gates to stabilize himself, she realized.
They pushed passed the tree, trying to get deeper into the forest. They needed to regroup before facing the yajuu again. Sasuke seemed to realize this too, for he didn't argue as she led them further from their attacker.
"I hope Naruto didn't get himself into any trouble," she said, more to herself than him. "He was supposed to meet us an hour ago, but still--"
The sharp breeze that grazed her right cheek stopped her sentence. She brought her hand to her face when she felt wetness there. Her fingers came away red and sticky. Sasuke saw her wound, and then turned his attention forward. She followed his gaze, eyes widening when she saw the same exploding kunai she'd thrown two minutes ago embedded in the ground if front of them. The characters on the tag were burning.
Sasuke reacted first, grabbing her around the waist and using his speed to propel them beyond the dagger. They landed ten feet away, his weight on top of her, before the forest behind them flashed, and debris rained down on their bodies.
He rolled off of her quickly, and she could see that he'd reactivated his sharingan. Three shuriken were held between his fingers, and he was posed to launch them. "Sakura, stay down," he ordered, as he stood up in front of her. He was breathing hard, and blood was dripping from the cuts on his face and arms. He closed his eyes again, and the heaving stopped.
He'd opened another gate she realized, and her pink eyebrows drew together in concern. Kakashi-sensei had taught them that technique almost a year ago, but had warned them to use it only in situations of life or death. She'd understood why he'd placed that restriction on them-- Lee-san's battle and injuries were still fresh on her mind. Their teacher's order hadn't really applied to her, though. She had not been able to master the technique like Naruto and Sasuke had. The boys had both obliged their teacher's request so far, but their enemy was powerful today, and Sasuke was…
He turned quickly and flung the shuriken towards her. She ducked in time, but knew she wasn't in any danger. The trajectory indicated that they would have flown over the top of her head to impale whatever was behind her. She looked in the direction of the flying ninja stars as she retreated to where Sasuke was. The shape shifter was there, and his body absorbed Sasuke's weapons just as it has absorbed the kunai. The demon howled as it had before, and the energy that surrounded it sparked. The howl became lower and more rhythmic. It was laughing.
Kakashi leaned with his back against the railing, Jiraiya with his forearms on it. It was something of a custom with them whenever they met on the rounded balcony above Konoha to discuss important matters. Today's topic of conversation: his squad. Or what was left of it.
"Teamwork isn't prime these days." Kakashi said, placing his elbows against the railing as well. It stretched his body more, giving him a lazier look. "But with their new ranks, the team will soon be dispersed. So perhaps it's a moot point."
Jiraiya turned his head to Kakashi. "We both know the squads serve a greater purpose than just Genin training."
Kakashi looked to the Sennin and then looked away, saying nothing. Of course he knew.
"This has been a most unfortunate development," Jiraiya continued, staring at the streets of Konoha. "Sakura's presence was essential to both Sasuke and Naruto. It was an elemental balance."
"Yes. And now any bond Sasuke and Naruto shared has crumbled. They're both handling her death in ways that cannot be reconciled."
"How are the two of them doing? I saw Naruto yesterday, and he seemed to be in better spirits."
"Naruto has certainly matured tremendously. Sakura's death caused him to grow up faster than expected, but he's dealing with it surprisingly well." Kakashi looked down. "Or as well as one ever deals with the death of a teammate."
Jiraiya nodded, not pressing the young Jounin further. "Naruto is good at surprising people." He chuckled. "He reminds me a bit of myself."
"His antics are as infamous as yours, though I doubt he'll ever gain an affinity for writing." His words turned serious again. "He's known loneliness, but he has never truly known loss. He had been letting the grief consume him.
"Until you provided him with an outlet."
"And what of your protégé? How has this been affecting him?"
Kakashi sighed, folding his arms across his chest. "Sasuke, unfortunately, is not dealing with it as well as he'd like us to believe."
Sakura glanced up at Sasuke, whose eyes were narrowed. He'd pulled two handle-less kunai from his leg pouch, but was waiting before attacking.
"You cannot defeat me, shinobi of Konoha." The voice was gruff and mechanical. "You and your comrades will die." The energy tendrils that surrounded the yajuu's body unwrapped themselves. The freed tentacles then plunged into its skin, which rippled and bubbled before releasing the three shuriken absorbed earlier. The energy arms launched them back towards Sasuke and Sakura, who just barely jumped out of the way.
Sasuke launched his kunai, but they were sent back towards him in the same manner. "Damn it," he swore, concealing himself behind a tree. Sakura had done the same.
"You cannot hide from me, shinobi." Sasuke was barely able to jump before one of the energy tendrils wrapped itself around his tree. He somersaulted in the air, pushing off against a tree branch before landing behind the energy beam. He tried to cut it with his dagger, but it remained intact. His mouth opened in shock. "What is this jutsu?"
He jumped back as the tendril attempted to assault him again. Knowing he had no other choice, he focused his eyes and performed the appropriate hand seals. He cupped his left palm, and allowed the blue chakra to gather and spark there. Once a sizable orb had formed in his hand, he ran, gathering speed to give his arm the blade like effect. His voice vibrated low in his throat as he cast his hand forward, charging at the monster. The chidori never failed him.
An energy tentacle flared in his path. He kept running, attempting to cut through. The high pitched chirping that had accompanied his movement stopped abruptly. After a second of disorientation, he realized that he, too, had stopped. Looking at his arm, he saw that the energy from the shape shifter had wound itself up to his elbow, causing a prickling sensation. The chakra he had gathered in his palm swirled and merged with the energy tentacle. The tingling he felt morphed into searing pain. He cried out, and pulled on his captured appendage. It clung to his chakra, forcing him to deactivate his sharingan and release the incomplete jutsu.
His arm pulled out with the energy change, and he stumbled backwards, clutching it. His master technique had failed.
"Ay-Yah!" Sasuke threw his thrusting arm back, and then surged forward. The blue chakra in his hand sparked and chirped until it connected with the large bolder. It exploded into small particles.
Sasuke stepped back, surveying his handy work. His shoulders shook with his unsteady breath, but he ignored it. All there was was his training.
"Impressive. Your chakra control has increased."
Sasuke wasn't surprised when Kakashi spoke. He'd noticed the Jounin leaning against the spruce tree earlier, but hadn't cared to say anything. "What are you doing here?"
"Since normal training sessions seem so pointless to you, I thought I'd come and see how you've been spending your time."
Sasuke turned and walked back to where he'd started his original run. He turned, and stood ready, hands in the appropriate position for the first seal.
Kakashi moved directly in his path.
"What are you doing?"
"If you insist on training by yourself, I insist on making sure you don't injure yourself."
Kakashi folded his arms. "How many gates have you opened?"
Sasuke looked down. "None."
The Jounin stepped forward. "Do not lie to me, Sasuke."
Sasuke looked up at his teacher with irritation. "Two."
"As I suspected." Kakashi's visible eye looked at his student with a mixture of concern and disappointment. "Perhaps it was a mistake to teach you that technique. I overestimated your ability to use discretion."
"I don't need a lecture, Kakashi."
"I know. You were never one to listen to lectures. But this is not a lecture. It's a warning. If you continue as you are, you will aggravate the curse seal."
Sasuke stiffened at his words.
"And Sakura isn't here to patch up the damage you inflict on your body."
Sasuke's eyes widened, surprised.
"You thought I didn't know. That I was oblivious to how much you were, and still are, over exerting yourself. Sakura was becoming very good at healing, and she would gladly use her talents to help you every time you asked." He looked at Sasuke to see if his words were having any effect. The boy was making a conscious effort to not look back.
"I wasn't doing anything wrong."
"No, I suppose you weren't. But she was always careful to make sure you didn't stimulate the seal. Your well being was very important to her; I trusted that she wouldn't let you take things too far. But she's gone now."
"I know she's gone."
"Hn. I was beginning to wonder if you'd realized it or not."
"Don't patronize me. I'm not a child."
"Then stop acting like one."
Sasuke clenched his jaw. "I don't have time for this. I have more important things to do."
"Ah, yes. Your training." The Jounin opened the weapons pouch on his leg, and extracted a blade lazily. In a flash, his feet planted themselves in a striking pose, and he threw the weapon at Sasuke. The boy barely had time to dive.
"What are you doing?" He demanded.
"Training you, of course." His voice was mellow and lethargic. "Fight me, Sasuke. I may present more of a challenge to you than a boulder."
Sasuke didn't have time to argue before five more daggers flew in his direction. Kakashi was forcing this, one way or another. Fine. He planted his feet, and his right palm closed around his left forearm. "I'm ready."
"Aa, I forgot to set the ground rules." Kakashi shook his head absentmindedly.
"What ground rules?"
"During this training, you will not be allowed to use any genjutsu or ninjutsu."
Sasuke blanched. "What?"
"No illusionary techniques, no fire element jutsu, no sharingan, no chidori--"
"I know what's being restricted," Sasuke snapped, visibly annoyed.
"Good, good," Kakashi replied, ignoring Sasuke's frustration. "Then there should be no problem. Unless you don't think you can win without those little tricks."
Sasuke grunted, dropping his arms to his satchel and extracting two kunai. "I can take you with just these."
"Oh yes, I forgot." Kakashi said, tapping his forehead twice, "No weapons."
"Hai hai, you may put those away."
Sasuke threw the blades down dramatically. "What sort of useless training is this then?"
"Everything is so pointless to you these days. Humor your old sensei, Sasuke." All laziness was gone from his voice. "This is the most important lesson I will ever teach you."
Sasuke stared at his teacher, trying to determine whether this exercise was a waste of his time or not. Kakashi met his glare evenly. Grudgingly, Sasuke nodded slowly.
"Let us begin then." Kakashi raised his arm, palm up, towards Sasuke. He bent his fingers to his hand twice, beckoning his opponent. "Come."
With a low rumble in his throat, Sasuke charged forward. He allowed his speed to increase-- Kakashi hadn't forbidden taijutsu, after all-- until his body movements were nothing more than a blur to any observer. He angled sideways, coming in to attack from behind. Kakashi's back got bigger as Sasuke approached. This attack would be hard for even the Jounin to detect without the use of his sharingan eye. He allowed himself a small smile.
That is, until his teacher turned and stared right at him, sharingan unmasked. Two shining objects were also heading straight at him. Sasuke swore, and dove out of the way of the shuriken. He rolled into his landing, and pushed himself up, glaring at his teacher who was still a good six feet away from him. The ninja stars hit the spruce tree, one after another.
"You cheated," Sasuke growled.
Kakashi raised his eyebrows. "No, I didn't."
"You used weapons and your sharingan."
"Hai, I did. I never said that I couldn't use these techniques. You were the only one with restrictions."
"How is that fair?" Sasuke quickly gathered chakra at his feet and repelled upward as a few more daggers flew in his direction. He landed on a tree branch, now even further from his target than he had been before.
"Fair?" Kakashi called up to him, spinning the handle of a kunai around his index finger. "Who said anything about fair?"
Sakura watched the movements from her position behind the tree. From the years of working with Team 7, she knew that her most important contribution to missions was her intelligence. She'd be of no use to Sasuke if she tried to fight. She'd only get in the way. So she'd just have to find a way to defeat the yajuu from here.
She saw Sasuke perform the hand seals for a fire jutsu, but the tendrils intercepted and absorbed the flames. He tried again, using the Goukakyuu no Jutsu this time. Three more tendrils emerged from the chest of the shape shifter, dispelling the flames. Sakura's eyes lit up. Bingo.
She observed for a few more minutes, noting that all the energy seemed to be focused on that central spot on his chest. If they wanted to attack, that would be the best location. But how? The creature was able to intercept all jutsu. It'd have to be a direct attack then. If they thrust an exploding kunai there, that would do the trick. It wouldn't stop the weapon from being extracted though. Pulling her satchel forward, she dug through the scrolls within it. Her hand closed around the one she wanted: a blue and red binding scroll. She would be able to bind the kunai to the yajuu, provided that Sasuke could buy her enough time.
She peaked out from behind the tree again, trying to see how he was fairing. As if on cue, he landed next to her, pressing himself against the wood. His breathing was heavy, and he'd used up a lot of chakra despite opening two of his gates.
"I'll have to open the third gate soon," he told her, his shoulders moving up and down.
"Ne, it's too dangerous. You'll hurt yourself."
"There's no other choice."
She shook her head vehemently. "Can you keep him distracted for five minutes?"
He tilted his head towards her. "What are you planning."
"I think I know its weakness," she said, tapping the middle of her chest. "If I can tag him there, and bind the weapon to the body…"
"I should do it. I can use the chidori."
"No, you've used too much chakra already. And the curse seal…" She cut herself off. He was aware of the consequences. "And you'd never gain any thrusting speed at close range." They'd both seen what happened when he tried to use the chidori earlier.
"I should still go, since this is close-range, and I'm better at taijutsu."
"Skill in taijutsu won't help in this situation. Besides, it's after you. It hasn't come after me."
"Someone needs to distract it. We both know I wouldn't be able to provide a distraction for very long. I'm no match for it. You'd never have time to approach him and perform the binding justu."
"Getting close to him is too dangerous for you."
"This has more of a chance of succeeding if I go." She made her voice brave. "I won't fail you, Sasuke-kun."
He paused, looking at the ground, before looking back at her. "Five minutes?"
He nodded, before launching himself back into the trees and into the battle. She gathered the scroll, an exploding note and her kunai, treading lightly in the opposite direction as him "Good luck, Sasuke-kun," she whispered as she made her way to the monster.
"What's the matter, Sasuke? You haven't yet been able to hit me."
Sasuke listened to Kakashi's reproach from his hidden position within the trees. He clamped his teeth together. This training session was unfair. For the past forty minutes, he'd launched every attack he could think of against his teacher. But he was at a serious disadvantage, and nothing he tried had gotten close to even touching a hair on the Jounin's head.
He, on the other hand, had not been so lucky. The cut above his right eyebrow and been steadily dripping blood down his face, into his eye. He wiped at it, reddening the bandages on his arms, and only now had it begun to clot and dry. He ignored the pain in his side as he breathed. The last kick from Kakashi had no doubt bruised a rib or two. The sweat that had covered most of his body was mixing with the blood from various other injuries, and he hissed as they began to sting. This was not going well, and he had very few options.
Kakashi, it seemed, wasn't done with his speeches. "It's getting late, Sasuke, and while I could continue this for a while, I doubt you'll be able to take much more." The Jounin was rubbing the back of his head, making his boredom quite evident. "You could try attacking me from behind again, but I'll be able to detect that as I did before. None of your aerial attacks succeeded either. Try again, and you may get impaled by my weapons. It is too bad you cannot attack me from under ground. That could have possibly worked."
Sasuke, tried to tune out his teacher, but couldn't get his ears to comply. What mind games was Kakashi playing? He changed his position, jumping quickly to a tree on the other side of the training ground.
"I suppose there's not much else you can do, since you are so injured."
Sasuke unconsciously touched his tender ribs, but kept his eyes focused on Kakashi. He had to find a weakness to exploit.
"Hiding is the safest thing for you now."
You cannot hide from me, shinobi!
Sasuke tensed as the voice invaded his head. Was Kakashi using the Sharingan to hypnotize him? No, he'd made no eye contact. It wasn't possible.
Shaking out his nerves, he tried to plot out his next approach. He need to get close for hand to hand combat, but Kakashi never allowed him within five feet before deflecting his attack. He needed to divert attention somehow. An exploding tag would have been ideal, but he couldn't use weapons.
There was some twittering above his head, before something white splashed on the branch before him. He looked at the dropping that had narrowly missed his foot, and then up at the birds that were perched above him. There must have been at least a dozen crows, oblivious to the battle that was being waged below them.
It gave him an idea.
Changing his position again, he skimmed the ground to grab one of the small rocks mixed with the soil. Repositioning himself so that he was now on a tree directly in front of the Jounin, he took aim. The rock cut quickly through the air, pelting the wood under one of the crows. It was enough to startle the bird into a screeching flight. It's companions, reacting to the action, also began flapping their wings and crowing wildly. The fleet swarmed out of the tree in random directions.
Kakashi turned his head at the ruckus. Seeing his opportunity, Sasuke lunged out of his position quickly and charged. He easily cleared seven, six, five, four, three feet. It was the closest he'd gotten that afternoon. His hands fisted and flew towards the two critical points on the jawbone and chest.
Kakashi's defense kicked in again, and he raised his arms, blocking both fists while pushing back. "What good is a direct attack, Sasuke? We both know you cannot win with this strategy."
Sasuke ignored him, trying to maintain his close range. He ducked and turned around his teacher's back, sliding low. "I will not fail," he told the Jounin, brining his foot up to connect with the masked jaw from below. A gloved hand gripped his ankle before it could make contact. Planting his palms on the ground, Sasuke tried to make the blow with his other foot. It, too, was caught, and he was trapped in an awkward handstand. Kakashi pulled with enough power to flip Sasuke and propel him back.
"No," Sasuke hissed, realizing he that the distance between them was growing again. If he lost that one advantage, it was over. His instincts took over. His feet barely hit the ground before he was charging again. He couldn't lose the distance.
Kakashi sighed, waiting for the wasted attack. "Tch. You are making this very hard, Sasuke," he said, not talking about the fight. He withdrew a kunai from his holster and flung it loosely, making sure his aim was slightly off. It grazed Sasuke's cheek, forming a thin red line that soon smeared down his face. The blood was ignored. "Apparently, this lesson has been lost on you."
Extending his arm, he inflicted a blow to Sasuke's chest before the boy could see the attack. It stopped his forward motion. Kakashi easily spun behind him, grabbing his arm and pinning it behind his back. He dug his knee into Sasuke's spine, and pushed him down and back into the ground. The rest of his weight was used to restrain the boy's legs. Sasuke grimaced when his bloody cheek roughly met dirt.
Kakashi sighed on top of him. "I was expecting a bit more from you. But I suppose this is all you know." Suddenly, he released Sasuke's arm, and withdrew his knee. "Training is over." He stood, looking down at the boy.
Sasuke braced his weight on his forearm and shakily pushed himself to his knees. He kept his mouth down, spitting blood and saliva onto the ground. His ear twitched as the Jounin spoke.
"Perhaps I had too much confidence in your abilities, Sasuke. Or perhaps you just peaked early." He turned, moving to retrieve his fallen kunai. "If that is the case, you probably will not advance past this level." He spoke apathetically, as if the Uchiha was nothing more than a worn out shoe.
"Shut up." Sasuke fisted his hand, grabbing stray pieces of grass as he did. "Your training…was unfair."
"Do not blame me for your failure, Sasuke."
"The situation was impossible."
"You should have still found a solution." Kakashi folded his arms and shrugged, "How will you protect your precious people if you can't even complete this simple training?"
Though he tried hard not to let Kakashi's words offend him, they swirled through his head, gnawing at his already worn temper. As if trapped in an echo, Sasuke couldn't help but hear all the sounds, sentences and accusations reverberate in his brain.
How will you protect your precious people? Coward. Arrogant jerk. No options. Unfairunfairunfair. You can't hide from me, shinobi.
His mouth twitched as a drop of sweat trailed past his lips. It tasted of salt and blood.
Baka.it's no use.i won'tsee another preciouspersondie.
The voice soon became two, then three, and a thousand, all yelling at the same time.
His head swam against the assault, and he let out an involuntary gasp. And then, just as soon as they came, the chorus coalesced into one voice that he loved and hated and missed and feared at the same time.
I won't fail you, Sasuke-kun.
It froze his dizziness, and pushed his body into cold, mechanical motion. "I will protect them," he said hoarsely, steadying his muscles.
Kakashi shook his head, closing his eyes. "Do not be foolish…"
Foolish little brother…
"…you can barely protect yourself right now."
I won't fail you…
"Shut up!" Sasuke sped to his weapons pouch, and grabbed a kunai. Releasing a guttural sound from his throat, he was on his feet and charging at Kakashi. The Jounin turned his head as he heard Sasuke's approach, but did nothing else.
"You restricted all my techniques, while you used all of yours! There was nothing I could do against that," Sasuke growled like a mantra, "there was nothing else I could do, nothing else I could do, nothing else I could--"
I won't fail…
…but I did.
Clarity suddenly blinded him, and he jerked to a halt, kunai extended.
Kakashi turned fully this time, not flinching at the blade pointed a few centimeters from his neck. He was more focused on the boy in front of him, breathing shakily with blood shot eyes. The hands holding the kunai trembled. Kakashi had barely lifted his fingers to Sasuke's before the weapon tumbled and struck the ground. The mantra was still on Sasuke's mouth, though just a whisper. "…nothing I could…do…" He wasn't complaining about the training any more. So this had been Kakashi's true mind game, and he'd slipped easily into it.
Kakashi physically pulled the boys hands down from their frozen position at his neck. "It was an impossible situation, Sasuke. Shinobi are faced with those far too often. And the hardest thing to do is accepting that sometimes there is nothing you can do. Remember that. And remember that her death was not your fault."
Sasuke stared at him, but slowly shook his head. "I don't know what you're talking about." He didn't sound convincing, even to himself.
"I recognized the attack pattern you were using earlier, before I interrupted you." Kakashi put his hand on Sasuke's shoulder, forcing him to step back. "Stop looking for a way to save her, Sasuke. It won't bring her back. And the obsession will consume you." Like your thirst for revenge still does, he didn't add.
Sasuke shrugged off the hand, and put some distance between them. He still hadn't looked his teacher in the eye. "That's what all this was for. To teach me that lesson."
"Traditional methods have never worked with you. And I don't think tying you to a tree would have worked this time."
Sasuke kept walking. "You've wasted your time, because this isn't an obsession."
"Then let it go."
Sasuke kept walking. "I can't."
"She'd want you to let it go."
Sasuke stopped walking, and puffed out a breath. "Hn."
"I know how you work, Sasuke. You are narrow-minded and stubborn. And you cannot deal with death."
Sasuke turned in a flash, muscles tensed and eyes furious. "I've dealt with death my entire life."
"No, Sasuke. That tragedy made you live a dark life. It wasn't so long ago that it set you on a path where all you knew revenge and power. You focused your pain into Itachi."
Kakashi could feel Sasuke's thirst for blood at the mention of his brother's name. He knew that was something Sasuke would never be able to let go of, even if he did someday kill his brother.
"But now, who is there to blame Sasuke? You dismiss her death when you're with others, but let it haunt you when you're alone. Why?"
Kakashi watched as Sasuke's shoulders rose and fell rhythmically. There were only two ways to get the boy to talk, he'd learned: baiting and waiting. And they'd waited for long enough. "What are you trying to prove?" Kakashi's eyes narrowed. "What are you trying to prove to yourself?"
"That you're strong? Well, let me help. You are obviously very strong. We all know that much."
"I don't have time for your--"
"That you can save her? You can train as hard as you want. Relive that day as much as you want, but it will change nothing."
"Stop." His tone was deadly; the right nerves were being hit.
"You've been taking out your frustration on anyone who crosses your path. Ignoring their concern. Pushing people away."
"Even in training, you refuse to depend on anyone but yourself. And you goad Naruto when you know how easily he is provoked."
"He is your teammate, and beneath all your juvenile rivalry, your friend. Yet you've allowed your relationship to decay."
"I said enough."
"So now instead of losing one teammate, you're about to lose two. Is all this worth that?"
"I don't have to justify anything to you."
"I know that. But I don't think you do--"
"Shut up, Kakashi."
"So I'll ask again. What are you trying to prove? Why won't you let her death go?"
"You trap yourself in this situation, day after day, playing out that battle--"
"Shut up. Shut up! Shut u--"
"--as if you can change the out come. Why won't you accept the sacrifice she made--"
"Because it should have been me!"
Perhaps it was just their imagination, but Sasuke's words seemed to echo endlessly in the silence that had now gripped the clearing. Kakashi tried to read the expression on his face, but couldn't decide if it was shock at the words he'd said, or appall at having revealed weakness. In either case, the truth had finally come.
Kakashi watched Sasuke's breathing falter, but didn't say anything. He would wait.
After minutes of silence, the boy final resigned himself to speech. "The situation was too dangerous," he said, voice low but level. "I shouldn't have allowed her near it."
"I understand your need to protect those important to you, Sasuke, and I understand the guilt you are feeling. But she was a shinobi, and she knew the risks that came with that title. You said so yourself. You were not her guardian, and no one blames you for what happened."
"Words are easy to say, Kakashi. But she was with me, under my command. The responsibility is mine."
"Hai, this is true. But you must learn the difference between responsibility and fault. Yes, you outranked her, but this was not your mission alone. It was a team mission, the final for our squad before it was to be disbanded. You are not to blame."
Sasuke didn't say anything.
"And as hard as it is to accept, sometimes our best efforts are still not enough to protect those we care about. It is unfair, but that is the nature of life." He couldn't see the expression on Sasuke's face. His black forelocks were obstructing and casting shadows. But the boy hadn't mouthed off yet. And he was still there. Positive signs.
"As I see it, you have two options. You can let her death plague your existence as you are now. Looking for ways to save her. Reliving the choices you made that day till you have nothing left of her but sorrow."
Sasuke's head dropped further, before it tilted slightly, listening. It was the only indication he'd give that he was waiting to hear what Kakashi had to say.
"Or, you can stop blaming yourself and can remember her for how she lived. And for what she gave up for you. For us all."
"What if I don't know how to do that." It wasn't a question.
"Then you learn."
She dodged the tentacle that tried to decapitate her. She'd made it close to his chest, but hadn't failed complete detection. It'd take a little longer, but she had to succeed. So many were counting on her.
On the outside, she could tell that Sasuke had upped his attacks; the warmth of the fire stream was causing perspiration of form on her neck. She didn't know how much longer he'd be able to hold out. She unrolled the binding scroll with a flick of her wrist, and angled the kunai and tag, ready to plunge it.
She'd barely heard Sasuke scream her name before she felt a blinding pain wrap itself around her body. She looked down to see that one of the tentacles had wrapped itself around her. She opened her mouth, both a cry and blood emerging. Instinctively, she tightened her grip on the kunai and scroll. She couldn't fail. Not now, damn it! Not now.
Her eyes blurred and focused, seeing Sasuke throw what seemed like his entire arsenal of weapons at the energy arms. "It's no use, Sasuke-kun," she wasn't sure if she was speaking aloud or not, "that won't hurt him."
The tendrils had quickly woven their way up her body, hunching her shoulders forward as it lifted her. She needed to act soon, before she lost the ability to use her arms. The characters on the exploding tag had already activated. Good. This would happen soon. Re-angling her throwing arm against the pain, he launched the kunai. It implanted itself in his chest, and he howled in pain. She smiled dizzily-- it was a critical point after all. The energy began to snake past her shoulders. "Not yet," she slurred. There was more thing to be done. She willed her other hand to bring the scroll to her face. She gripped it between her teeth, and pushed her hands together further to perform the necessary seals. Bird, horse, sheep…
The scroll began to glow.
…monkey, frog, tiger.
She opened her mouth, letting the scroll drop into her waiting palms. "Baindingu no jutsu." The kunai turned red, as did the area surrounding it on the shape shifter's body.
It howled louder, and the tendrils began to tighten around her. "Release me," it demanded, as blood dripped out of her mouth. She heard the bones in her arm begin to snap. The scroll dropped from her hands. It didn't matter. The binding was complete. "Release me, or we both die!"
She looked at the exploding tag. The last character was burning. It must have been the searing pain, because she managed a small laugh, which turned into a fit of bloody coughs. The bones in her arm had been broken, and she was beginning to feel the same pressure on her spine. In her daze, her eyes became glassy, and the water spilled down onto her cheeks. She sent a silent message of love to everyone she cared about. Mother. Father. Kakashi-sensei. Naruto. Sasuke-kun…
The tag lit up.
He snapped her spine.
Naruto sat cross-legged in front of the teal monument. The evening wind gently ruffled his hair, dropping leaves and petals it had picked off the nearby trees into his blond spikes. He reached up and plucked the foliage out, releasing the shrubs back into the stream of air.
He turned his fingers back to the monument, reaching out to trace the outline of her name. It had become something of a ritual when he came to visit her each evening. It helped him remember that she had been real. And that she would never be forgotten.
He used to talk to her, tell her about his day, about the things that had happened in Konoha since she'd been gone. But recently, he'd found that just sitting quietly (something he'd never been able to do before) with her memory was enough.
The wind picked up again, assaulting him with stray leaves and flowers. But this time, it carried a familiar chakra as well, one that he would not have expected to be here. He pivoted his head around, eyes showing his surprise at being right. "Sasuke?"
The Uchiha was standing a few feet behind him, ignoring the breeze that swirled around his body. There were bandages around his torso, and a gauze patch taped above his eyebrow and on his cheek. His face wasn't etched into its usual stoic pose. Instead, there was something Naruto couldn't quite identify.
Yes he could. Sasuke suddenly looked nothing like the arrogant jerk Naruto had been mad at for the past few weeks. He looked…like a normal boy, hurting over the death of a good friend. Just like Naruto was. They were the same.
Sasuke looked at Naruto before slowly walking up next to him. Pulling his hands out of his pockets, he hesitantly lowered himself to the ground, settling on his legs. Naruto furrowed his brows in confusion, staring at Sasuke, waiting for an explanation. Sasuke just stared forward at the monument, lips drawn in a thin line. Naruto let the tension slip away from his eyebrows, realizing that he'd already gotten his explanation. Sasuke was here, wasn't he? He let a small smile form at his lips as he turned his attention to the monument too, softly asking the question that would reconnect them.
"Do you miss her?"
Neither spoke after that, allowing the rustling air to be the only noise in the clearing. When the wind finally settled, it deposited the soft pink flower it had been carrying on the ground between them. It was a cherry blossom.