AN: Nothing much to say about this chapter except that it was satanic to sit down and actually poke myself into writing it, ugh. I procrastinate like crazy, and it's terrible! Hugs and candy to all my reviewers, and thanks for your support! They make my day and it's always nice to know my work is appreciated.
Please forgive me for who I am,
And what I have to do,
Please forgive me for my sins,
I'll put all my faith in you.
Desert of Discarded Dreams.
Sasuke was waiting in the clearing. A scant while earlier, Sakura and Kakashi had battled all-out here, won and lost on equal ground. According to Kabuto, Kakashi was dead. But then again, Sasuke had never put too much stock in what Kabuto told him.
And believing that Orochimaru's underling would lie to him was far easier to accept than the death of his teacher. Former teacher, he reminded himself after a moment. Orochimaru was his sensei now.
You need to go back.
There was little that could have annoyed Sasuke more than that single statement. He'd walked through fire to get to where he was; lost what few friends he'd had and had very nearly sacrificed both pride and dignity. He'd emerged with his head still held high because he was an Uchiha and that was what they did. And now Kabuto was telling him to go back to the dream he'd forsaken, back to the people he'd alienated, and pretend everything was over, that everything was fine. And he'd have to stand there and eat shit in front of an entire village just to satisfy his own demons. When you return, you'll be taught Orochimaru's most powerful jutsu technique...with that, surely, you can defeat Itachi.
Sasuke had told the other man to fuck off, but he'd returned anyways. Back to a clearing that had almost killed two of the people who knew him best in the world. He didn't feel remorse, or regret, or even much of anything. He felt the same he always felt these days. Tired. He'd stopped feeling anything else the same time he'd bent over Naruto and contemplated his options. He could have killed him and didn't, but he had made a choice. Either he killed Naruto and lived with regret (he didn't like to admit it, but he knew it was true) for the rest of his life, or he let him live and killed all emotion. He'd chosen the latter because it had seemed easier at the time.
Now, he wasn't so sure.
Sasuke was waiting in the clearing, when Team Eight located him. Hinata saw him first, her Byakugan engaged and primed for any unfamiliar chakra patterns. Sasuke, despite having been missing for as long as he had, was anything but unfamiliar. Hinata held up a hand and her teammates, having come to rely on her scouting technique, stopped at her command.
"Yo, Hinata?" Kiba questioned, touching a hand to her shoulder as if by physical contact he could abridge the potential answer. Akamaru, nestled in Kiba's jacket, sniffed the air and whined, a sure sign that he already knew what she was about to say. Kiba, taking note of that, did the same, and his frown deepened immediately. Shino, to her left, merely tilted his head. A kikai bug crawled across the bridge of his nose as if in question.
"Sasuke…Sasuke-kun…" she murmured softly, for Shino's benefit. "He's in the clearing ahead of us."
Kiba growled in a pitch so animalistic that if Hinata hadn't have been watching him, she might have thought it was his canine companion. And he, without preamble, he struck out through the trees in Sasuke's direction, his purpose and intent plainly branded across his face.
He was going to kill Sasuke, or die trying.
Shino, sensing this, caught Kiba up by the back of his jacket, tripped him neatly with one well-placed foot and restrained the Inuzuka effortlessly. Kiba fought but he was obviously unwilling to harm one comrade just for the sake of maiming another. "If he is there, we should consider merely restraining him for questioning," Shino lifted his face to catch Hinata's eyes, and he nodded towards their intended direction. "Not kill him."
"Gonna killhim anyways! I'll just beat a confession out of the stupid bastard first!" Kiba snarled. "Don't you remember what that fuckin' bastard did to us!"
"K-Kiba-kun…" Hinata tugged at his jacket sleeve, which seemed to calm him marginally. She'd always had that effect on him, and although he was still glaring when he looked down at her, she knew it wasn't for her. "Shino-kun is right, we should…"
"Stop talking about me, perhaps?" The three had been so immersed in their discussion that they hadn't noticed the approach of the young Uchiha heir, at least not until he was standing directly above them, half-camouflaged by the foliage of the surrounding trees. He had that dryly amused look that he sometimes got when other people insisted on making fools of themselves, and wasn't bothering to hide it. Immediately, Kiba jerked free of Shino's restraint and started moving his hands rapidly through a jutsu technique. Hinata squeaked, dove between Kiba and his intended target and held her hands up to stop him.
"Kiba-kun!" She was glad to see that her tactic worked, at least, because Kiba lowered his hands. "Kiba-kun, stop, please." She turned to look in Sasuke's direction, tried to smile just to hide her frown. "Sasuke-kun, will you…are you going…?"
"I'm not going to fight you, if that's what you're worried about." He crouched down on the branch and then shifted into a sitting position, dangling one leg over the side, looking perfectly at ease. "You're not worth my time."
"Hey, wait one second, ya fuckin' asshole-!" Kiba snarled and shoved Hinata out of his way, she stumbled and smacked into Shino, who held her steady just long enough for her to regain her balance before stepping back.
"Don't," Sasuke said warningly, and Hinata noted that already his eyes were the red-crimson of the sharingan. Even Hinata's Byakugan would be useless if she couldn't get close enough to fight him hand-to-hand. They had strength in numbers, but Sasuke had experience and a source of chakra so enormous that Hinata almost had trouble fathoming it. Almost, because she'd seen one other such source once before, in Naruto. Akamaru whined inconsolably and that seemed to quell Kiba just enough to take his attention away from their…what? Comrade? Enemy? He wasn't threatening them, but neither was he making their life easy. Hinata summoned up her courage and reminded herself why they were here in the first place.
"Sasuke-kun," she said quietly, and the boy turned his eyes upon her. She didn't flinch. "Sasuke-kun, we're looking for Kakashi-san…have…have you seen him?"
His expression hardened, closing off all emotions, leaving him so without so much as a single glimmer of animation. He'd been hard to read before, now he was impossible. Hinata doubted even Neji could have determined what his façade was hiding. "No," the boy said sharply, and he bit out that single word in a harsh staccato.
Hinata looked back and forth between her two teammates, made startlingly easy seeing as how her Byakugan was still engaged. Shino's face betrayed nothing, Kiba was still snarling quietly after Sasuke, but since Akamaru's protest, seemed to have gained a better sense of self-control. The poor pup was still trembling, and Sasuke's eye fell upon the pair with obvious scorn.
Hinata cleared her throat. "Sasuke-kun, I…I'm…sorry, b-but…"
He held up a hand to stop her. "I already know what you're going to say. 'You're an S-class missing-nin, we can't let you leave, we'll fight and die if necessary but at least we'll do our job.' You don't have to worry; I'm going to go with you of my own free will. I'll even let you tie my hands." He smiled, and it was not a very pleasant smile.
Sakura was still breathing. Shallowly, desperately, but surely. Naruto watched her chest rise and fall, fully prepared to alternately smack her or run for a medic if that simple motion were to cease. Tsunade herself had looked over the young girl, tersely informed him that she would live, and had said little else on the subject. Presently, their Hokage was holed up in her room poring over any number of medical texts that might be of some help. All in all, things didn't look very promising. Sakura was swathed in bandages, and apparently her rib-cage had been almost completely crushed. Tsunade was worried an operation would be necessary to dig bone shards out of her soft-tissue. Naruto had overheard that there was less than a thirty percent chance of success.
But Naruto wasn't worried. Hah! Naruto never worried. And not about Sakura, not ever. Because Sakura would hit him for it. It would almost be a relief, even though she was hitting hard these days. Naruto didn't really care if she beat him into a pulp at this point, because it would mean that she was feeling better.
Providing she was ali-
No, no. Sakura-chan would be fine.
There was a flash of something in the hall, a flash of something that looked very familiar. "Oy! Tsunade!" He heard the skidding of shoes outside the door and he leapt to his feet and chased after her. Tsunade hadn't stopped, and damn, for a fifty-some odd-year-old-hag, she sure could run.
"Stay here, Naruto, and you can consider that an order from your Hokage," she called firmly over one shoulder before resuming her mad dash to...wherever she was going. Shizune pelted past in the same direction and this time Naruto couldn't resist. He chased after the Hokage's assistant and tackled her to the ground, sending the omnipresent Ton-Ton squealing in indignation from her arms. Shizune kicked him off with little effort but paused long enough to help him up.
"What is it?" she asked, her voice low and careful. She had treated Sakura in those twilight hours when Tsunade had fallen asleep at the girl's bedside. Only Naruto had kept an around-the-clock vigil, and if Shizune understood one thing in her life, it was determination and devotion. Naruto had both in spades.
"Where the hell is that hag going?" Naruto demanded, pointing off down the hallway in the direction that Tsunade had left. "And why won't she tell me anything?"
Shizune flinched. She'd known that question was coming, but it didn't make it any easier to answer, or to hear.
"It's…hard to explain. Just come with me, and I'll see what I can do."
Naruto growled. "The hag told me to stay here." Never mind that he'd already made plans to disobey her orders, but he saw no reason to lie to Shizune about Tsunade's words.
The dark-haired woman offered a slight smile. "I'll take responsibility. Just come on."
Kiba and Shino had escorted Sasuke back to the village, and they'd sent Hinata ahead as fast as she was able to tell the residents what was happening. The Godaime Hokage had been alerted, ANBU squads had been scattered and as many of Konohagakure's young elite that weren't presently occupied with missions had been assembled at the gate, a wary court of jackals waiting for the return of the lion prince.
Sasuke, true to his word, hadn't fought the bindings that Shino had put on him, although he had protested the strategic placement of Kikai bugs over the chakra paths that Hinata had pointed out. Kiba had told him ineloquently to shut the fuck up, and Shino assured the shorter boy that the bugs would not attack save by his command.
Ino, waiting by the gates, fidgeted. It was not with nervousness, but with anticipation. Her childhood crush on Sasuke had faded completely, now there was nothing left but a sort of smoldering resentment. He'd almost cost her two of her closest friends, when he'd pulled his little stunt in leaving Konoha, years earlier. She had borrowed her father's katana for the occasion and her hand was sweating on the leather-bound hilt. Everyone present had swords, and beyond them, there was a row of genjutsu specialists, intermingled with people of various bloodline limits. The Hyuuga had donated several of their most competent members to the procession.
Sasuke would walk into the village and straight into the arms of an ANBU regiment, and he would be detained until further notice. But no one believed that his return was benign. Some had argued that it would be easier to kill him; some wanted to see him hung out to dry for what he'd done. Some still harbored some fond memories of Sasuke and wanted to give him an opportunity to speak for himself. Ino wasn't sure what she wanted.
Tsunade showed up scant minutes before the gate was opened, and from the sharpness in her eyes but the blurriness around the edges, she'd probably been sleeping when she got the message. She looked bedraggled and miserable, and had probably gone days without a decent night's rest. Ino knew she certainly had.
Trailing behind the Godaime Hokage was Shizune, in itself unsurprising, but behind her, Naruto had secured some sort of honor-guard's placement. Ino stared, because she couldn't really do anything else. Naruto, here? If he didn't attack Sasuke as soon as he came through the gates, he may certainly lead to aggression on Sasuke's behalf. Ino had heard fragmented reports of what had happened between the two recently, but never the whole story. Tsunade seemed to be trying to keep it under wraps.
Ino slid her naked katana back into its sheath at her waist and began forming the seals for her mind switching technique, holding off on the last one until things showed any sign of being problematic. She'd only have one chance, but if she could center in on either Naruto or Sasuke, she might be able to prevent some damage, for a few minutes at least, until ANBU had things under control.
She hoped it wouldn't be necessary.
Sasuke entered Konohagakure like a visiting prince, an emissary from some rich, wealthy country of splendor. He didn't enter like a fugitive, come home with his tail between his legs. He wasn't glaring at anyone, but his haughty gaze transcended mere condescension. He was completely ignoring them, as if he had failed to notice their presence.
However, his countenance changed the instant he saw Naruto. His shoulders stiffened and his jaw went rigid, and Naruto, upon observation, looked…smug.
"Hah!" Naruto called across the complex, although there was at least fifty feet between them. "Told you so!"
Sasuke flexed his shoulders a final time, testing the bonds, but Kiba's handiwork was strong, and he reasoned that he wouldn't be able to break them before half a dozen people pounced on him. He settled for looking sideways and standing with half-lidded eyes, unobservant. But everyone close enough to him noticed the pinwheeling of his sharingan, and everyone's tension was immediately cranked up another few notches.
Tsunade, hands on her hips, stared Sasuke down. He eventually turned his attention back to her, she was rather hard to ignore. Her chakra was flaring intermittently, the way a person's could when they were angry, and her eyes were hard.
"What…" She paused, and Ino found herself imagining that the Godaime was editing out several choice expletives. "What do you have to say for yourself?"
If anyone at this point hadn't been looking at Sasuke, they were now. He shifted from one foot to the other, but Ino doubted it was out of uneasiness. And then he eased his bound arms upwards into a shrug, and smirked in that little way that all the girls had found so alluring, back when he was an academy student. "Orochimaru's dead."