Sotto Voce
Rated for minor language. Related to Dialects and C Sharp. Sasuke-centric. Set at the end of ch. 238. Definition of 'sotto voce': Softly, in an undertone.

Sometime after Sasuke arrives at Sound, he walks in on Kabuto systematically emptying out a small kitchen. He can't tell if the food is spoiled or not; the way Kabuto's tossing boxes and cans indiscriminately into oversized paper sacks, it looks like the doctor's packing supplies for escape.

But Kabuto, when he's done, only dumps the bags in the hallway after writing the word trash on them in big, thick-print strokes. He adds the marker on top, wiping his hands clean of invisible grime, and then walks away without a single glance back.

The kitchen table is collapsible. Kabuto measures out powders on it and keeps accidentally kicking one leg whenever he shifts positions to keep from cramping, hunched over his work. He's plugged in a lamp and continues to reposition it by fractions, huddled in front of the tiny yellow sun.

Sasuke watches him. At first it's because he doesn't know what the doctor is up to, and then it's because he has nothing else to do until Orochimaru comes out of hibernation and summons him.

Around noon, Sasuke looks over to realize that Kabuto is making small clicking noises with his tongue. The sounds are so minute that it comes as a surprise; Sasuke had thought that a door was loose down a hallway, or a stove-top was left running.

Kabuto glances up while reaching for the lamp, and catches Sasuke staring.

"Sub-vocalizations." Finishing with another batch, Kabuto wraps the rice paper sheet into a small bundle, pinching off the top. "It's a code that all Sound jounin learn--"

"I'm not interested," Sasuke snaps out, before Kabuto even has a chance to offer.

This earns a bitter demon-smile from the doctor. "I wasn't planning on teaching you," he replies. "I was only talking aloud to myself, since I'd forgotten you can't understand."

The statements don't make sense, contradicting themselves around loops of Kabuto-logic. Sasuke decides not to take the bait. "How many jounin are left?"

"Not very many," Kabuto answers, which Sasuke interprets to mean anything from a hundred to just Kabuto himself, sitting at the cheap dining table with the fold-up legs and mismatched bar stools. Sasuke's seen the score; he knows how humiliating it must be for five of the very best Sound jounin--the only best, the sacred team known as the Sound Five or Sound Four depending on who you asked--to have been taken out by Leaf rookies. And Sand.

Kabuto continues sectioning out the powders into paper twists. Sasuke is bereft of anything to insult. He results to blind stabs.

"Do all the jounin use this kitchen?"

The question sounds naïve, weak and limpid in the silence between them both.

"No." If Kabuto hears the opportunity to counterattack, he discards it. "This room is saved for the elite. In fact," the doctor points out, "you're sitting in Kidoumaru's seat right now."

Sasuke scowls down at the strange green stain on the plastic, right next to his hand. "Great." He's heard the name, but, having never dealt overlong with any of the Sound Five, he doesn't care. Sasuke only met them once, and there it hadn't been time to socialize. Now he's heard he'll never meet them again; they died in the attempt to bring him back to Orochimaru, their purposes fulfilled in bottling Sasuke into his coffin-cocoon.

They delayed Leaf. They died. That's enough, and probably why Orochimaru doesn't spit when he says their names. It's hard to tell. The Sannin says everything with disdain.

After thinking about this, Sasuke realizes that the foodstuffs that Kabuto just evacuated from the kitchen must also have belonged to the Sound Five. There was so much snack food. They must have eaten a ton. Maybe it all belonged to the fat-man, everything except the seaweed sheets which were still primly wrapped in their plastic baggie and contained no sugar content.

With the cabinets emptied, any bugs which nested there are also discovered. A pair of moths flutter around the kitchen before they wobble successfully to one of the doors, losing themselves in the halls of Sound. An ant wanders its lonely way back to its nest. Watching the insects entertains Sasuke, but not for long.

Kabuto doesn't stop the teenager from reaching over and slamming the handle-ring of his kunai onto a centipede, but when Sasuke starts to grind the insect into the wooden counter, Kabuto finally sticks out a hand. It's too late to save the thing, its body crushed open in a pool of clear ichor, so Sasuke doesn't know what Kabuto's game is.

"No," is all the doctor says, an opposition so mild that Sasuke isn't sure if his ears were playing tricks on him.

Kabuto scrapes the centipede off the countertop. He's not perfect; a leg is left behind, which the doctor doesn't seem to notice as he pops open a small metal box from one pocket and dumps the insect's remains inside.

Sasuke doesn't kill anything else after that, and Kabuto doesn't explain.

The next time Sasuke stops by the kitchen-cross-dining room, it's because he's forced to. He's hungry. Orochimaru has killed half the servants again and while they're waiting for more genin gullible--or desperate--enough to fill the position, Sasuke's on his own.

He searches with increasing annoyance through the remains of the cabinets. Hunting food here is like picking over a skeleton when the muscles have been gnawed away and scavengers have scattered the bones, glimpsing a shape of the original beast through the fragments left behind. Baking chocolate. A leftover carton of noodles, spice flavor. Some condensed milk.


He's examining the expiration date of a tin of sardines when Kabuto walks in on him.

Kabuto was the first thing Sasuke saw when he arrived at Hidden Sound. The doctor had been waiting at the entrance, hands in his pockets, rocking gently back and forth on his heels. Kabuto must not have expected the boy to show up completely alone, because his eyes kept going back over Sasuke's shoulder while he talked, mouthing empty, distracted introductions to Sasuke's new home. Finally the spy tapered off, staring at the horizon as he asked, "Is it really just you?"

Cooking for one is easier than five, even when nutrient bags are included in the bargain. The kitchen is limited in its supplies, which have to be stretched to fit two after Kabuto's impromptu clean-up. Sasuke doesn't know where anything is located, so he grabs haphazardly at the cabinets. Upon discovering that the teenager is just as likely to throw random instant-meal boxes together as he is to read the directions, Kabuto sighs and reaches for the frying pan.

Kabuto, Sasuke discovers, prepares his own food. He does this with the same disinterest of a latchkey child or lifetime bachelor. When Sasuke scowls up from a bag of stale crackers, arrogant sneer demanding to be fed faster, Kabuto says something under his breath and opens up the fridge to look for the milk.

There are five eggs remaining in the kitchen. Kabuto scrambles them with his chopsticks. He holds the bowl at an angle, wrist-whisking until the whites lather and the yolks turn pastel, and the motion is so graceful that Sasuke decides Kabuto learned by imitating one of his parents.

"You should learn to take better care of yourself, Sasuke," he suggests, sliding a fresh omelette onto a plate and handing it out to the boy.

"I did for years." Sasuke bristles automatically, yanking the meal away and dropping it on the table with a ceramic clunk. "You're only a convenience."

Kabuto smiles away the implied offense. "I'm telling you this for your health. Would you really eat anything in this village that wasn't prepared by yourself?" White eyebrows shape polite arches of doubt. "For all you know, someone could poison you."

Sasuke stops chewing his mouthful of egg.

"You wouldn't kill me," he says, more confident than he feels with half a stomach of Kabuto's breakfast inside him.

Kabuto just looks at him, and for once, there's no smile. There's not even the illusion of one about to appear, popping out like a trapdoor spider to say boo.

The first thing Sasuke thinks is got you, asshole because it's the only time he's ever seen anything close to honesty on Kabuto's face, and the second is a resounding goddamnfuck because it had borne a suspicious resemblance to pity.

Several weeks later, Sasuke wakes up one morning and thinks that his eyes are swelling out of their sockets. They're not. No more than his breath is freezing in long plumes when he puffs a long exhalation, or his feet are sticking to the floor when he climbs out of bed. Humidity is simply so low that the air sucks water from people's skin, and Sasuke keeps squeezing his lids closed in a futile attempt to rehydrate his birthright.

Winter means feeding all kinds of beasts in Sound. Upon discovering that the kitchen is abandoned and dark, no sign of early-morning cooking, Sasuke goes looking for the doctor.

He ends up outside. It's so cold that Sasuke shoves his hands under his armpits just to try and warm them up. The kennel dogs huff steaming breaths into the frigid air while Kabuto shovels out scoop after scoop of granulated kibble, filling white plastic dishes. Their muzzles are frost-lined; their spit congeals quickly when it hits the ground.

Kabuto takes his time going down the line of bowls. In the meantime, Sasuke stamps his feet and glares. He wasn't invited to join the doctor on this errand, but he'd had caught sight of Kabuto with a bag of dog-food in his hand, and followed. Now Sasuke is incubating a specific rancor for the Sound-spy the longer they both stay outside. It would be too much like failure if the teenager gives up and retreats to the kitchen even a second before Kabuto does; Sasuke's pride demands nothing less.

Dog care isn't a chore Sasuke expected to see Kabuto perform. Maybe the doctor is only dealing with the animals because he's sizing them up for mittens. It wouldn't surprise Sasuke by now if Kabuto flipped one of them over, whisked a scalpel over their stomach, and then slid his hands inside the ninety-something degree heat.

Just because Kabuto hasn't shown any sign of doing so yet doesn't mean that he won't.

Cold hands. Mittens. Eventually Sasuke realizes that the reason he keeps fantasizing Kabuto performing an informal vivisection on the nearest dog is because Sasuke himself wishes he could do the same, do anything to warm up fingers that have turned into frozen chunks of lead. The callous violence surprises him until he decides it must be Orochimaru's influence. The Sannin is rubbing off on him after only six months.

The dogs all jingle. Their collars have bells, color coded, with big fat letters stamped on the sides. There aren't any names--just F's, G's, B's. Musical notes, each in set. They range in size from cherry-stones to doubled walnuts, each of them ringing different notes as the beasts collide in pack.

"They're counter-tracking agents," Kabuto explains when Sasuke asks, coughing out the question into the desert-dry air. "If we suspect that other ninja are using scent to find us, these dogs are released to provide a diversion. It's my job to neutralize the canine odor and then apply human pheromones to them, so intruders will be fooled."

The idea strikes Sasuke as stupid, but he doesn't admit it. Instead, he watches as Kabuto pours an extra scoop into one of the bowls and jabs his hand into the furry crowd, hooking a wriggling creature by the collar and hauling it forward. At first, Sasuke can't identify what the doctor's caught, and then he sees the shape uncurl. A-tag jingling--it's a young dog. It couldn't be more than a month at best, two months if time was generous.

"Is that one your favorite, or something?" Sasuke's scowl does nothing to warm him up, but he can hope.

Kabuto shakes his head.

"It's just the runt."

The puppy is no larger than a game-ball, round as Sasuke's skull. Patient, the doctor squats at the food dish, batting away the forceful inquiries of the larger dogs. His arms make a protective halo around the bowl while the tiny creature stuffs its face. Two of the hounds nip at each other too hard--greedy, indiscriminately jealous--and a scuffle breaks out, furry lips pulled back from curving teeth, barks clashing in the air. Kabuto ignores them.

One dog slams its weight into the other and they both roll, a clash which begins to spread as the other canines become excited.

"Shouldn't you separate them?" Sasuke asks, having to shout over the feral snarling.

"Why should I?" Kabuto doesn't look up from his vigil over the puppy. "It's what they're kept here for," he adds, and then shapes something else too quietly for Sasuke to hear, a mere elaboration of his lips.

Grudgingly, Sasuke reaches over to gingerly pat one of the dog's flanks in hopes to calm it down.

It bites him. Hard.

Getting injured isn't the worst highlight of the day. That comes later, when Kabuto doesn't stop smirking while he's putting in the stitches.

Sasuke burns for a month before physical health overrules his thirteen-year-old stubbornness. The Curse Seal spreads at any opportunity it can steal, crawling over Sasuke's fingers in a living ivy-weave of malice, pitting his vision black and watery. It likes it when he's angry; it loves it when he's cold, because then Sasuke's always hateful, always envisioning arson as a viable option to warm himself up with.

Orochimaru eventually tells Sasuke point-blank to see the doctor. Sasuke refuses to obey. Two guards carry his body when he passes out the next day; he wakes up on the medical bed just in time to watch them leave.

Kabuto is already there. This isn't surprising. The doctor clears away metal trays of ominously-colored syringes, dumping them aside with the same dispassion that he used to clean up the kitchen. He assembles a clean set of tools, and labels the new batch with Sasuke's name. The fresh metal gleams under florescent hospital lights.

The fact that the room was used to house a previous patient is obvious. The air isn't freshened up, and there's a stale heaviness to it all that stinks like someone's ghost. Sasuke doesn't ask who the occupant was before him. Whoever they were, they must be far beyond the need for medical care now.

Sasuke's appeared at Sound after what he senses is a loss of its inhabitants, and he knows why: he helped create it. He doesn't know why Kabuto keeps looking out the windows, but hopes it isn't from the expectation that one of the Sound jounin will miraculously appear. That would be pathetic.

Besides, there's only Sasuke now, only him, and Kabuto's behaviors never make sense anyway.

The Curse Seal is trying to make Sasuke grow up. Fast. It demands protein; it needs iron for blood cells, calcium for bone. One week, Sasuke starts craving eggs from sun-up until midnight. The Sound genin who are ordered to raid nearby farms grumble when they haul back their prizes, white puffy chickens under their arms, expressions cross at the humiliation of having to carry the loudly squawking creatures all through the forest. At one point Sasuke is so hungry that he tries to rip open one of the larger hens to extricate the eggs prematurely; what he found was a mass of half-formed shells, a goopy protoplasm that had yet to incubate in her body.

He burns himself the first time he tries to make soup in the Sound-jounin kitchen. The noodles are cool, but the broth itself is scalding when he tilts the bowl to shovel his lunch down. For hours afterwards, the numb tingling of Sasuke's mouth reminds him of all the cheap, impatient meals he'd heated up in the Uchiha home, listening to the empty house age around him.

Hidden Sound is pregnant with the same ironic silence as the Uchiha grounds. Half the rooms Sasuke sees are filled with personal possessions overlaid with dust, mementos of shinobi who will never return. The quarters assigned to Sasuke here are familiar because they are surrounded by unused storage chambers; the rest of the Village is boarded up, populated by strays and ghosts.

In Konoha, Sasuke gulped down boiled noodles too fast and thought bitterly about Grand Fireballs. In Sound, he cooks eggs. Out of annoyance for Kabuto, Sasuke makes his own meals half the time now, if he can be bothered. They're always the same dish.

Heating up the noodles on the stove, Sasuke watches as the thin snot-trail of battered yolks drips into his ramen, fluffing into runny yellow clouds as he stirs them up. The entire kitchen reeks of sulfur. Intestinal gas, poor digestion--stupid jokes, the way Naruto would always slurp his ramen extra-loud and belch in Sasuke's direction.

Kabuto is nothing like Naruto at meal-times, or even Sakura. The doctor is unaccountably quiet, which Sasuke first thinks is normal and only slowly comes to realize is irregular behavior for the spy. He understands this by hearsay--Orochimaru's little jabs at the doctor about how Kabuto hadn't been talking as much as usual, and if something wasn't on his mind?

The first time, Sasuke ignores it. The tenth, he starts paying attention.

Kabuto isn't Sasuke's teacher--that would be Orochimaru and everyone in Sound knows not to imply otherwise--but Sasuke realizes he's learning things from the doctor anyway. Watching how Kabuto handles the Sannin's whip-fast changes in temper, the way Kabuto lowers his head but keeps his eyes rolled up like a boy taught to bow in alleyways instead of practice mats. Sasuke's getting more out of Kabuto's silences than he is Orochimaru's lesson plans.

Eggs, kitchens, and chopsticks. The more time he spends with Kabuto, the more Sasuke thinks about Kakashi. Namely, the way that he couldn't get the hang of his former teacher's words for so long because he kept trying to watch the man's lips. The cloth muffled motion; Sasuke never caught Kakashi with it off.

He used to miss a lot that way, when he would zone out during Kakashi's lectures, automatically trying to keep up just by watching the man's invisible lips. He never thought any of the material was important anyway; more talk about comrades or rules or teamwork, things that would never up on a test.

Sasuke remembers thinking at one point that if he ever saw Kakashi without the mask, he wouldn't recognize him, and wouldn't understand what the man was saying. Not with his lips in plain view; not with his mouth making words for all to see.

In a strange reversal of Sasuke's former teacher, Kabuto likes to speak when his mouth is visible, but eyes closed. With his bloodless hair and his glasses off, Kabuto looks almost like Kakashi if Sasuke squints at him right.

When he's quick enough, Sasuke can see Kabuto's throat pulsing as the doctor pushes air through it, breath fleeing barely-parted teeth. Sub-vocalizations. Jounin code.

"You should learn about noise," Kabuto says one day over the dinner table, as Sasuke swaps between Tayuya and Sakon's chairs, disliking the shape of both. The doctor's face is turned up to the overhead light. Even his lashes are pale. "It's like sonar. Speak, and see what comes bouncing back. It's useful," he states, patiently blind, "for the times when you can't see."

Sasuke tries it once, but opens his eyes immediately. Ever since fighting Naruto, he can't endure blackness without thinking of his former teammate, the last time he saw the fox-boy unconscious in the rain.

Orochimaru was disappointed to find out that Sasuke left Naruto alive. Reason being, Orochimaru is greedy, and even with a mastered Sharingan, there's still more for Sasuke to learn. Years of it. The Mangekyou is an unspoken argument between them, and might always remain so. The last time the Sannin brought it up, Sasuke snapped out that the reason he came to Sound was for power, and why was the old man blathering on like this?

"You'll have to learn it someday," Orochimaru says, a peculiar stress on the word. "The next time you see Naruto, I expect that you'll kill him."

Sasuke doesn't like taking orders. Naruto is not the Sannin's best friend, and Orochimaru defeating Naruto would mean nothing, which means that Naruto is perversely guaranteed life so long as Sasuke doesn't make any other close acquaintances in the meantime.

Out of spiteful realization, he asks Orochimaru why the Sannin hasn't murdered Jiraiya yet, if killing old friends is so important.

It's an angry retort, but Sasuke means the words. He mulls them over while he's recovering from a newly-broken arm afterwards. The knowledge is bitter, but Sasuke is aware that Naruto, in his own clumsy way, did provide a means of escaping Orochimaru. All it would have taken would have been to cut Uzumaki's throat.

That's why it's important to fight your friends, Sasuke decides, wincing against his arm-splint. That's the reason, right there.

The problem is, as long as Itachi is alive, Sasuke doesn't have many options. He hasn't ever since he first got assigned to his team. That didn't stop Sasuke from trying to escape the restrictions of the Mangekyou anyway, hoping that Naruto would eventually abandon the declaration that they were comrades, would stop talking about how he'd stay with Sasuke no matter what.

And Sakura, always chasing after him, never realizing that to come too close would be a death sentence.

Sasuke didn't run away from Konoha. He ran from his team.

Kill Naruto and use the Mangekyou to defeat Itachi. Travel the rest of the way to Sound and find an alternate power through the Curse Seal. Sasuke talked a lot about the former when he last met his fox-boy teammate, talked again and again until he almost convinced himself he could, but when it came down to it, there had just been too much rain.

Cold rain. Prickles of it, stinging his face and hands. It bled into his eyes, onto Naruto's unconscious, vulnerable face, while Sasuke looked at his choices again and picked one.

When it comes down to it, when everything comes down to the wire, Sasuke figures, it happens during bad weather.

Killing people you didn't expect to care about. Leaving them behind.

Being left by them.

Kabuto doesn't like the rain either. He tells Sasuke this once to explain why he closes the kitchen window during a bout of black thunderclouds, but then later on, Sasuke sees the doctor sitting outside on one of the benches. Kabuto's spectacles are covered by water. Sasuke isn't able to see his eyes, or anything else on that carefully subdued face save for a pair of distantly moving lips.

Steam hazes the glass near Sasuke's chin as he stares at the world clouded by ill weather. The image of Kabuto melts; light chases off the windowpane and overlays an image of Sharingan eyes, Sasuke's own reflection sheered at an angle of refraction.

Hidden Sound is hushed under the shroud of the storm. Mist crawls up the cold panes. Eventually, Sasuke notices that it's generated from the humidity of his breath condensing when he speaks. He's been whispering to himself, repetitive as Kabuto at the dinner table, and then Sasuke realizes he's been quietly cursing Naruto's name, over and over. Hating his teammate for being someone he liked without wanting to. Hating him more because Sasuke doesn't want him to die.

Prayers against the glass. Over and over, narutodamnyou, and Sasuke says it softly enough that it could be a jounin code all its own.

Outside, Kabuto's bangs are plastered around his face. The rain paints clothes to his body, darkening his hair to grey and leaving his whole form gleaming with ice-water. Small muscles inflect his mouth, making words that will never be heard.

Sasuke's own breath runs out after the twenty-hundredth narutodammitnaruto. He ends the mantra with a hollow cough and then leans away from the windowsill, away from the doctor in the rain whose face is upturned and whose eyes must be closed even though Sasuke can't see them.

Away from Kabuto, who is speaking a language that no one else is alive to understand anymore.