A/N: Sorry I took so long to get this out. But it's done now!
On this path no effort is wasted,
No gain is ever reversed;
Even a little of this practice
Will shelter you from great sorrow.
-Chatper 2, verse 40
Konoha: Three Weeks Prior to Capture
Sasuke dodged, manipulating their chakra into a barrier at the precise moment and angle to send the shuriken aimed for him back at their attacker. Orochimaru took the point position, attacking with both hands turned into writhing snakes, and the nin finally fell under their onslaught.
Two down, Sasuke thought, One to go.
Stop chattering, boy. Here comes the last.
Shooting upward with a boost of chakra, they flipped over in mid-air and kicked off, turning their chakra into something like a magnet's poles and rocketing in separate directions, off the walls of the training arena, and towards their foe. Orochimaru was being dramatic, and Sasuke scowled.
He's moving through water. No need to be flashy.
No need not to.
Their hits connected in a burst of bright light—they thought. A powerful Kaiten tore them backwards again but they regrouped.
It's a waste of chakra to do that, and it got us nowhere. Told you so.
Shut up. Orochimaru's mental voice had grown stronger over the time they'd been using it, and it carried a snappy edge right now. Shooting a look at his partner, Sasuke pulled the sword from its sheath on his back and darted forward with Orochimaru's snakes clearing the way for him. This last one was especially tenacious and had created bunshins to distract them—the Kaiten indicated that he or she was a Hyuuga of some level, probably a jounin at least, and—
Suddenly, Orochimaru was gone. Frantic, Sasuke looked around, saw Orochimaru come around in front of him but couldn't feel the older man in his head, and panicked. Their whole fighting strategy centered on their ability to communicate freely along the lines of the tri-marga, and without that communication, they couldn't coordinate their attacks and change without lots of trouble. And then he noticed that the tri-marga was retracting, their chakra disentangling and flowing back their bodies.
He saw that this strange development affected Orochimaru as well; he was scowling and as he retracted the snakes and his arms reformed, his hand-to-hand timing was off. And even though Sasuke recognized the move and performed it running purely on memory, he knew his timing was wrong, too. The Hyuuga fell, but as he did, the sannin and his partner looked at each other and frowned.
From the walls of the arena, Tsunade clapped her hands. "Well done. That would be a mission accomplished for both of you." She looked between them, fighting back a devil's grin at their identical confused expressions. "Is something the matter?"
"The seal, it—"
"—retracted," Orochimaru finished. "And we didn't trigger it." Again a look passed between them.
Tsunade shrugged. "You two are the experts, not me. Why don't you go home now? You have a mission tomorrow, don't you, Sasuke? Go rest, and recover your strength."
Without a word, Orochimaru and Sasuke departed, leaping above the crowded marketplace streets near the shinobi training complex to their apartment. It was disconcerting, not being able to communicate as they'd been able to up to this point. Usually after Tsunade called them in for a demonstration they would pick their performance with the tri-marga apart, finding weak points in their strategies and then spending more hours in the practice rooms, fixing them. But now, even though they couldn't communicate, Sasuke knew what was running through Orochimaru's head.
What in the hell was that?
Tsunade looked down at the masked Hyuuga on the sandy floor of the arena. "So what do you think, Hyuuga Hiashi?"
The head of the Hyuuga clan pulled off his mask, breathing hard. Their speed even just at Karma level had been overwhelming, and he'd been hard-pressed to find an opening when they'd progressed to Bhakti. "It's not like anything I've ever seen…but as all things, it has a weakness."
"The chakra paths that run between the two of them—you severed them, then?"
"It took all Jyuuken's formidable strength to do so. But I'm sure you noted the change in their movements, as did I. They were less fluid and less synchronized. Break those chakra paths, and they're nothing more than what they are by themselves."
Tsunade nodded. "Thank you, Hiashi-san."
Ibiki had fallen silent at this point. "So that's its weakness."
Sasuke nodded. "And the reason for putting us in the special chakra-blocking cells, and continually draining us of whatever chakra built back up, I'm sure. Without chakra, we can't activate the tri-marga. Or restore it. You were in formed of that, though." His tone was rueful.
"And Jnana level—"
"We haven't been able to activate it. Every time we came close in practice, we couldn't boost it enough. Even without being in the heat of battle. I guess our chakra reserves just aren't high enough, even with a clan-nin and a sannin paired. I don't know what the teams ANBU started testing on can do. I've never seen them in action."
"From all accounts, this first level—Karma level, you called it—is all they've been able to manage."
"Perhaps having the curse seal helped."
"I doubt the Hokage would allow Orochimaru to traipse about ANBU's ranks, merrily marking whoever he thought could survive."
"I doubt he'd want to."
Ibiki shrugged. "In any case, we're getting down to the wire. Tell me about the night of the attack. I've got information on that you might like to hear."
Sasuke had perked up at this, and eagerly sipped at his water before continuing on.
Konoha: The Day of Capture
The sun hit him full in the face every morning around eight, except when Orochimaru got up early and closed the blinds. So this morning, Sasuke's body woke him up around an hour late, and as soon as he'd come out of his dreamy haze and realized what time it was he scrambled for his clothes. Of course, he'd just gotten back from his mission last night and in the thrall of the tri-marga he'd scattered them to every corner of the room, so it took far longer than it should have. Every two minutes he looked over at the clock and scowled. It wouldn't do to be late today.
Running out into the main living area, Sasuke grabbed his gear and fastened it on as he skittered into the kitchen. Orochimaru smiled vaguely at him over a plate of toast, dressed in his jounin clothes and hair tied up from his morning run. "Sleepy today, Sasuke?"
"Shut it," the Uchiha snapped, shoving the toast into his mouth as he taped up his thigh and buckled the holster onto it. Stomping into his sandals, he threw open the window and crouched on the sill a moment.
"Don't be late tonight, Sasuke," Orochimaru called after him. "Even if you are nominated to take the chuunin exam!"
Sasuke nearly fell off the sill. "How did you know?!" he yelled back into the apartment.
Kakashi told me.
Making an audible and mental sound of disgust, Sasuke bolted with the ripple of his partner's amusement in his head. He was going to be late, he knew it—
"Oi, Sasuke! Trying to turn into Kakashi-sensei, eh?"
Panting, Sasuke sat on the grassy knoll. "Hi, Naruto."
"Snake bastard didn't wake you up on time?"
Sasuke shot Naruto a look, and the blond grinned back at him.
/Orochimaru's breathing was heavy in his ear, and Sasuke arched his back upward, trying desperately to get the older man to stop teasing him and be serious about this for once. Even as that thought floated up hazily he cried out as Orochimaru angled his thrusts over Sasuke's prostate—atfuckinglast, he thought, before burying his face in the pillows and giving in to—
"Oi, bastard! Everything okay? I keep—"
Naruto's voice became a kind of strangled screech as he unashamedly and without warning wandered into the bedroom. They'd already yanked the covers up and Orochimaru had scooted away over the bed, leaving Sasuke achingly unfinished. In that moment, if Naruto had been any other shinobi, the Uchiha heir thought he would very well have struck Naruto dead. As it was, the look of utter horror on his friend's face was enough.
Moving his lips without speaking, at last Naruto fled. The seal-thrall momentarily assuaged, Sasuke had curled up around his throbbing crotch and tried not to scream./
It had taken some weeks before Naruto could look at Sasuke, but after that had finished, Naruto had come up to Sasuke and very seriously sworn himself to secrecy about having ever seen anything at all.
"Quiet, you two," Sakura said wearily. The boys had made a solemn vow to never tell her; despite that she'd moved on to other men, she still harbored an affection for Sasuke that randomly manifested itself, and if she knew they feared what she'd do to herself, or them. Sakura had grown mightily strong under Tsunade, and not just in the healing arts.
Lounging around on the grass like this was something he'd missed in Sound and the subsequent years of wandering. Listening to Naruto yell about what he'd do to their chronically late teacher, and Sakura tell him off for yelling—it was almost like normal.
Sasuke scowled. Don't you have someone to terrorize today?
Not until later. I'd rather terrorize you anyway.
You are unbearably weird.
You're stuck with me—it was your idea to take the seal, after all. That aside, Sasuke…be careful.
The young man's scowl turned into a frown. Years of living on the edge of being caught had only sharpened Orochimaru's paranoia, but not all of that was unfounded. The man had an uncanny way of being able to sense things; if Sasuke didn't know better he'd call it clairvoyance.
What are you thinking?
I don't know…just watch.
"Hey, Sasuke! Whatcha thinkin'—oi, Kakashi-sensei! You're late!"
"I was beset by a herd of—"
They groaned in unison. "Let's just go," Sasuke muttered. Orochimaru's mood was transferring to him, making him jittery; he'd need to work off this adrenaline or he'd be worse than useless if something did happen. Kakashi debriefed them on their mission and then set them to training, sparring against each in turn. Even without being part of a fighting pair, Sasuke was still strong and gave Kakashi a lot of trouble, and when they both bowed out they were breathing hard and covered in sweat.
The training had gone most of the day, as it usually did, and Sasuke moved through his usual routine. He stopped by the market and picked up food for dinner, then leapt back along the rooftops and climbed in the windowsill. Orochimaru was off somewhere, so Sasuke got dinner started. He wasn't the same kind of cook that his partner was, but he could cook and make it edible at least, and often they were both so tired from their day that they'd wordlessly eat and then go to sleep.
He was setting dinner out when Orochimaru got back, and gave the other a rare smile, got one in return, and sat. Orochimaru looked exhausted; probing along the recently-regenerated lines of the tri-marga, he felt the other's chakra-exhaustion and absently pushed a little of his own in. The sannin looked up from his food, and Sasuke raised an eyebrow.
"You're chakra-sick and tired," he said. "Unless you'd rather I do nothing?"
Orochimaru shook his head and continued eating silently. Sasuke's chakra was cool water running over every chakra point in his body; he shivered pleasurably and when he'd had enough, looked up again. The flow ceased.
They cleaned up together and after about an hour more of studying the second scroll and bouncing ideas off each other as to why they weren't able to activate the last level, they went to bed.
Sasuke awoke to something in his head, like an insistent mental poking. Shifting under the covers, he turned over and nestled closer and shrugged it off.
Sasuke. Wake up but don't open your eyes.
A heady wave of fear came with his full consciousness, but he kept his eyes closed and his body relaxed.
What's going on, Orochimaru?
Intruders. Four of them. Two are ANBU.
I don't know.
Sasuke felt Orochimaru's arm shift; one stayed securely over his shoulders, but the other was going for a store of senbon needles he kept there. As he did, Sasuke could feel the chakra of the intruders getting closer along the spiraled hallway. They were wary; no doubt they'd felt the spike in his chakra upon waking up, although the pervading power of Orochimaru's hopefully masked it out. To his horror, he recognized some of them.
Shikamaru…that ANBU who was with Naruto and Sakura…one more I don't recognize.
Suddenly they were in the room and Orochimaru had flung the needles at the unknown ANBU, striking him in shoulder and neck. He fell over, gurgling blood, and the sannin had shoved Sasuke behind him on the bed and gone into a crouch, leaping forward to attack the artist-nin. Sasuke scrabbled for his thigh holster on the nightstand, rolled off the bed to dodge a kunai, and snatched it up. Snapping it open he flung handsful of shuriken at Shikamaru.
Boosting his chakra to his feet, Sasuke followed the blur of movement that was his fighting partner and they crashed through the nearest window they could, leaping out into the wide street under their apartment.
Orochimaru stood. His exposed chest shone with sweat under the moonlight, the same light that caught all the blue highlights in Sasuke's hair as he landed and rolled, the same light that illuminated Shikamaru leaping out the window as well as the ring of ANBU that appeared out of the shadows.
Pushing through the seal, they activated Karma level and let their combined chakra roil around them. Some, they saw, were intimidated but most looked to Shikamaru, who sighed.
"Man, I don't wanna hafta do this," he muttered. But his hand fell forward in the gesture that meant attack.
Sasuke sat calmly in his cell, meditating.
A Hyuuga came at them, flat, open palms giving her away. In the middle of blocking another attack, Sasuke turned an instant too late.
He felt the bonds beginning to break.
"But she knew that if she did not, they could supplant her and put someone less suitable in her place. She did what she had to do, Sasuke."
In his cell, bound in the dark, Orochimaru closed his eyes.
Their bonds had been broken, and they fought together but alone at the same time. ANBU surrounded them; they'd only managed to kill two, the bodies cooling at their feet. Sasuke was drenched in the blood of one; he'd cut the jugular and hot liquid had spurted over him. Orochimaru felt out his partner's chakra and they tried to coordinate, but the ANBU attacked them from all sides at that moment and he lost his focus.
Suddenly, Sasuke exploded into his head. He was there, more intimately than anything they'd known from the seal, more than when they were in thrall of the tri-marga and each other's bodies. Slowly, his vision faded into the ghostly shimmering of the Sharingan; he could see the genjutsu hiding more ANBU in the shadows; he could see his own body glowing with it.
Sasuke saw the world from Orochimaru's side as well; it was like having a full circular view of the world around him. He felt the blood rushing through Orochimaru's veins and the chakra pulsing through his skin as if they belonged to him. In turn, Orochimaru felt Sasuke's will beating behind his own heart. From that point on, they knew everything the other knew.
They had reached Jnana level.
"Based on the evidence given, would the accused like to say anything before the council passes judgement?"
C'mon, bastard, Naruto thought, gripping the railing hard. Sasuke looked like a statue, perfect and gleaming in the prisoner's dock. Unmoving, and unmoved.
Sakura's grip on his arm tightened. Sasuke had raised his head.
Sasuke ground his teeth together, glaring at Ibiki. "Why weren't we told? If everyone know we were innocent, that we only defended ourselves, why—"
"It's for the good of the village, Sasuke."
"You hypocrites," Sasuke drawled. His eyes were blue-black, snapping with anger as he glared at the councilors and then at the kages seated above them. "You goddamned hypocritical bastards. You say you do this to preserve what it is to be a shinobi. You say you do this for the good of the village."
In the crowd, Ibiki sighed.
"You know why you do this?" Sasuke continued. "You do this because you know that this world is what you want to preserve. Shinobi are art pieces, things to put away in museums and galleries and on shelves and walls. They're trained to be showy; there's no honor in it anymore. Shinobi have become corrupt. This—" he shoved his sleeve up, showing the gleaming black seal on his forearm "—this is what we were meant to be. We are meant to become a team, all of us. And you seek to keep us separate, keep us showpieces. For years, I believed your lies. But my eyes have been opened."
There was a moment of stunned silence. Then through the silence, Tsunade's voice was calm, quelling the whispers that swept through the huge room.
"We will now pass judgment," she said. "Starting on the left – councilors, please?"
Sasuke smirked. He understood what it was that he had to do.
Looking at the seal, he calmed himself and stared defiantly up at the councilors.
The second councilor raised his hand. "Death."
The third: "Death."
The council passed a unanimous vote of death. Tsunade's voice had a little tremble in it this time. "Kages, if you please. I will go last."
The Mizukage raised his hand. "Death."
The Tsuchikage: "Death."
The Raikage: "Death."
The Kazekage – Naruto looked up at Gaara helplessly. Their eyes met across the room, but even Gaara had fallen prey to the ways of the world.
Tsunade gave one long, hard look at Uchiha Sasuke, looking up at her with ocean eyes that were not glazed with anger or clouded with revenge.
The room was silent, shocked. Two ANBU appeared to stand on either side of the dock. Sasuke looked haughtily at both of them. Naruto bit back tears. At last, when he knew he was leaving them for good, he regained his old self.
"Uchiha Sasuke, you are sentenced to death, to be carried out tomorrow at dawn."
Standing up, Sasuke walked out of the room and left Konoha forever.
"Do you see now what you are supposed to do?" Orochimaru had asked him in his dream. Why his guide had taken the shape of his lover, Sasuke didn't know, but it was a shape he was familiar and comfortable with, and he supposed that had something to do with it.
Looking out over the garden that seemed bathed in light now, Sasuke sipped his tea and smiled. It was the tea his mother had always made them. Well, this was a dream world, so anything was possible.
"I understand," he said.
The next day dawned cold, but people bundled up in the predawn half-light and filed out to the killing grounds. Sasuke was standing in a simple yukata, freshly scrubbed lest he leave a dirty corpse to burn.
Sasuke's transgressions were read once more, and he was led to the block of wood in the center of the ring. Inside it were the kages, the councilors, and his old teammates. Sakura wept in Kakashi's arms. Naruto's face was unreadable.
They paused as the sun's rays came up over the hills surrounding Konoha. And then the sword was raised, and the ANBU wearing the executioner's mask set himself, and brought it down.
Nobody anticipated what happened next.
The sword sank into Sasuke's neck—and then he vanished, leaving behind only clouds of white smoke.
Sasuke watched the whole thing from the crown of a tree. He watched his clone disappear, and smirked, flexing his fingers. All his jutsus had had more power since they'd been able to go to Jnana level; that clone had lasted days.
"Thanks, Tsunade," he muttered, seeing her gather order amidst the uproar. She knew she'd probably lose her position in this, but she'd been willing to take that risk.
You did something to him that none of us could, she'd told Sasuke. I was wrong to do what I have. But there is only one way to change it now.
Sasuke. Are you coming? We have to get moving now.
Leaping down from the trees, Sasuke felt the ripple of power and on that, curiosity and annoyance. "We've got time."
"Not enough. Let's go before they send out ANBU."
Leaping through the trees, they set out west.
Some Months Later…
"Tsunade. A package for you."
The aging sannin took it from the courier, paid him, and examined it curiously while walking back to her house in Mist. Nobody knew she was here, nobody knew where she'd gone after the incident…nobody but them.
Sasuke looked up from his cot. "Tsunade-sama," he said, almost mockingly. "Come to interrogate me more? Did what you saw from behind that two-way mirror not satisfy you?"
"Be quiet before I change my mind," she snapped as she deactivated the seals on his wrists and undid the bindings. "Leave a clone here and come with me."
Swiftly he complied, feet padding quietly as she wound through the halls of cells. Unbolting a particularly thick one, she gave Sasuke a Look. "Stay here."
He tried to peer into the darkness, feeling a familiar tickle and excitement building in his chest; and when Tsunade led Orochimaru out, a strip of cloth over his eyes so the sudden light wouldn't damage them, she let Sasuke step up and embrace him, calm energy roiling in him. Awkwardly and slowly, Orochimaru let his arms settle over his partner.
"It's been a while, Sasuke," he muttered.
Tsunade gave them some of her personal apartments to stay in, letting them regain their strength and reattach the bonds of the seal that had been broken the night of the attack and had been kept in that state through lack of chakra to rebuild them. When she gave them the number of the place she intended to stay in Mist and watched them walk away in the night before the execution was to take place, she could almost see those links of chakra and thought.
They had walked out of Konoha, and she had not seen them since. And now she recognized Orochimaru's neat handwriting on the brown paper that the package was wrapped in. There was no return address.
Opening the package on her table, she pulled out a bit of folded…something. It was unlike any material she'd felt before, smooth and firm. A slip of paper fell out between the two folded halves and she retrieved it off the floor, seeing Sasuke's scrawl now.
1. Flip it open when it rings.
Suddenly, the device emitted a shrill ring, and Tsunade dropped it on the table. It sprang open and stopped ringing, and gingerly, she picked it up.
2. Put the holes above the screen to your ear, and the holes below the buttons to your mouth.
She did so.
"Sasuke? But how?"
This thing's called a telephone. When we're done, you're going to need to press the 'End' button, it'll be red. Then I suggest you toss it somewhere far away within the hour. It'll blow up. Shinobi aren't supposed to have this kind of thing yet.
"I don't understand—"
Don't worry, neither do we. We've come back to where we found the tri-marga, a land of steel and concrete. You wouldn't like it here. I'm jittery, to be honest, but it's a far cry from being dead.
"You are together?"
There was a deep conviction in Sasuke's voice now, and Tsunade got the impression he was looking at Orochimaru. Nothing could separate us now.
"Good. Should I…should I expect any more communication from you?"
Every now and then. Maybe. This world has much to offer us.
"I imagine. Sasuke, Orochimaru…take care."
Don't we always, Tsunade?
"Will you ever return?"
A low laugh. That's a choice we leave to you.
The sound cut out, and after she pushed the 'End' button, a counter ticking down from sixty minutes appeared on the screen. Taking up her coat, Tsunade put the phone in her pocket and went out for a walk in the woods. She threw the phone off a cliff, and watched it burst into a flower of destruction.
Sasuke hung up his own phone, and slipped it into a pocket of his coat.
"Nice line at the end there," Orochimaru remarked, taking another bite of his lunch. "Been rehearsing that?"
"A little. Did it feel rushed to you?"
"Not at all."
"Where do we go now, Orochimaru?"
The sannin shrugged, and fascinated, Sasuke watched. The strange clothes accentuated his body in all the right places, the ripples of muscle. The tri-marga would be bared, if he hadn't been wearing the coat.
"There's a place I hear of, north of here," Sasuke pressed.
"North it is, then." Orochimaru offered his hand. Sasuke took it, and together they walked away.