Title; A Dream of Rain
Summary; They do call it fire country for a reason. Sasuke waits for the rain.
Author's Note; Ermm…not sure about this. Still waiting for school to get out so I can have my muse back, but it's something anyway. Anyway, for Laur—she's wanted something for awhile, but it's nothing at all what she asked for, I'm afraid… Congratulations on finishing your first year in vet school, Laur!
Summer saunters in with a wounded sun, and a heat wave. The heat rolls like a thunderhead coming to rest over the mountains; eventually it trickles down into the valleys and riverbeds, skulking, creeping like a heavy gas or predator, patient and waiting.
They spend the first months sweating on the veranda, hoping for a breeze or a cloud, looking up at birds that blot out the sun and trick their eyes, just for a moment. There is nothing worse than waiting, and Sasuke has never really been content to wait, but does anyway. What tempestuous sparks of his personality have settled into patience over the years perk up every now and again in the heat, hone in intently upon the rustle of leaves, the distant fumble of rocks down a mountainside that sound like rain.
Neji fares better, but barely. He keeps his eyes to the horizon, his impenetrable cloudy gaze masking the blue whenever Sasuke needs a retreat. Looking into Neji's eyes, he can almost imagine a storm. But clouds are sometimes just a suffocating blanket, trapping heat and air, making them ache with the stillness.
Their movements stir the dust, but neither of them dares to sweep.
And then the sun begins to burn the grass.
The wall of green that makes up the forest behind their home swells one day, the leaves stretching, billowing out like a curtain in the wind. They walk through the clear dark and light among the trunks, the air painted with chlorophyll and bright, slanted lines pointing toward heaven. They examine swollen leaves, drunk with water, puffed with hope. Even under Neji's gentle fingers, they crack around the edges.
To Sasuke, it sounds like the crackle of Katon in the silence of battle. It sounds to him like the cry of a thousand birds, their voices trapped in the lightning he wields and wears like a favorite cloak. It sounds like Amatarasu, just before the plunge.
He knows that for Neji, it is something different. The creak of a familiar house settling into an empty silence, the murmur of voices, whipping and cracking, snapping like ice. The crunch of leaves is the crush of a stolen goodbye.
The leaves do not win out against the sun. At night, they fall like wraiths to the ground; they rest in stacks of crumpled skeletons, curled tips reaching toward the sky as if begging for rain, even in death. Sasuke watches Neji move about the yard in the evenings carefully, the Hyuuga's respect for the dead sighs of humility in the careful shift of cloth, the bare feet that brush past all that the sun has claimed. Well aware of what heat can do, Neji holds the desolation close, treats it like a lover as he gathers the stiff bodies and places them at the foot of an early grave. Reverent.
Dawn chases away what hope of respite darkness gives them. As the light creeps along the foot of the bed like a shunned dog, Sasuke watches the dark rafters of the house and hopes for rain. When Neji shifts beside him, it almost sounds like the ardent rush of a waterfall, and then the sheets beneath him are dried up and coarse again, silent in the wake of a muttered breath.
Rivers run low. Sasuke parts Neji's hair at the nape of his neck and kisses the flushed skin there. He touches the arch of a vertebra, searching for delicacy or weakness, the adverse effects of an element so unlike Neji himself.
The cells defy. Sasuke can imagine Neji's skin cool to the touch, the enduring iceberg to his own ever-present torch. But these nights, Neji seems to curl away, tundra of ice shrinking from climate change. He leans into the touch, but the body doesn't fool Sasuke.
Tenten comes at midmorning, when the sun pours onto the rusty hills and dry riverbeds and also onto them. She comes when the sun is nearly at its apex.
Neji's former teammate stands on the porch and watches Sasuke's shadow as she speaks to Neji about her yard, all the while listening for the crack in his voice, trying to say the words that will incite his voice to crack. Neji's speech is fluid, though, and it defies her by becoming a river.
A snake. Sasuke would like to think he taught Neji that—and then comes the brief and surprisingly painful thought that maybe he did.
"It's like a bird's nest, you know?" Tenten says, disappointment wrought in the hands on hips, brown eyes like their world fixed on where Sasuke isn't. "Except there are no birds, right? I haven't seen a bird for weeks."
"You're worried about your lawn?" Neji replies, voice dry as the air.
Sasuke stays because he knows it unnerves her. Tenten has never fully accepted his existence, mostly preferring to consider him a figment of the imagination.
Knowing this, his lips curl as he listens to the conversation float in and out of the house, and after a few moments, Sasuke shifts his focus from what is being said to how it's being said. The high-pitched spikes of Tenten's voice, the distant rhythm of Neji's answer. She plays like lightning and thunder against a mountain, and Neji echoes back what she wants to hear.
They stop, and Sasuke feels Tenten's shift in the floorboards.
"Neji?" she says once. And then, again.
Sasuke tilts his face out of the eavesdropping position, eyes finding Neji's shoulders and back through the crack in the door, an insight framed in wood that just leads to a larger puzzle. Then Neji moves, the door opens further, and then the Hyuuga is searching for him, looking for the body that's been hiding. Suddenly searching out Sasuke's eyes.
In Neji's there is smoke. It sits on the horizon of his face like an omen, and Sasuke doesn't have to ask.
Tenten does. She asks as they make their way up the hill, where Neji can get a better look. She asks until she sees the long, thin line of gray against the otherwise unmarked blue sky. Distant but not. Too close for comfort.
Tenten runs. She cuts through the lifeless grass like hell is snapping at her heels—but it's not, it's on the horizon and Sasuke can feel its call all the way from here. Like an obligation, it tugs just beneath his breastbone, latches on and won't let go. The promise of fire sinks in like a sickness.
"We need a firebreak." Neji turns, and on the edges of his whirlwind is the first waft of smoke.
The wind picks up for the first time in weeks. It teases at Sasuke's hair, mischievous and playful for a moment before a gust takes over and scatters the paper thin bodies of leaves across their path, a reminder of death.
"It won't work," Sasuke says, firm in his knowledge of wildfire, of any fire. Neji knows just as well, but he isn't surprised when the Hyuuga takes a step forward and lifts his chin.
"We have to try."
"Tch…is that what you think?"
Recognition flutters over Neji's features as Sasuke watches. In those moments, he summer the summer drain from Neji the last of what it can, everything Neji's been fighting against, everything Sasuke has been waiting for. Control slips in those moon-white eyes and for a moment, Neji lies raw before him. That face is the face in the mirror that Sasuke used to see.
"Sometimes you just have to let it burn, Hyuuga."
"I can't," Neji says, and it isn't a lie.
By the time Sasuke has made the rounds through the village, spread the word and gathered as many as he can, the air is thick with smoke. The blue sky has turned a mottled gray, ash peppers the rooftops of the houses, clusters in the gutters, and stirs with dust in the wake of their footsteps. People cough in the streets as they flee with their belongings.
When he makes it to the forest, the snap of the fire sounds like a thousand breaking bones. A split in the trees marks the edge of the natural firebreak—an empty path of crisp grass and wilted vegetation. A crack in the crust about a foot wide cuts its way down the natural highway, an upheaval of earth and rock marking Sakura's point of entry at the end.
The earth bares other gashes and sutures. Other scars.
Crisp zigzags of dirt where Tenten has cut away the grass, thick mounds of soil already disappearing in the wind: it is a manmade devastation of wilderness, not nearly enough to save them with not nearly enough time to try.
The only evidence of Neji is in the designs drawn on the forest floor. Clean cut spirals, waves, etching in the dirt that could only have ever belonged to him. It is the Hyuuga's chakra control alone that could have made such destruction into art, the twist of the beautiful Kaiten. Sasuke imagines Neji's blue chakra bursting through the shift of smoke and ash to dare the fire, "Jump."
It is not enough, and Sasuke tells Sakura, "Wider."
"I'm almost out of chakra," she tells him with a pant. "The break is nearly ten miles long."
Neji, somewhere along those ten miles. The fire, stretching at least twice that.
Sasuke blinks, and Sakura catches the red gleam in his eyes just a second before he launches into Amaterasu. Shinobi hurl themselves out of the way of the black flames that sear 150 meters through the undergrowth and scour a barrier twice as big as the one already established. The vegetation on either side smolders and seems to cauterize as if the flames themselves were a living, breathing creature, tamed by Sasuke alone.
After the rush of air and fire, there is a sudden silence as people pick themselves up. And then the forest behind them heaves and brightens, and the angry mouth of the fire gnashes its teeth and surges closer. Meters in mere seconds.
"Where the hell is Neji?" Sasuke shouts over the bellow of the beast.
"He and a bunch of others are up the hill—"
Before Sakura can finish, Sasuke is burning orange flame with black, stepping over the useless border and yelling for them all to get the hell away from here. The wind has shifted, and it's no longer their wind, but something that belongs to the fire. The fire has created its own atmosphere, its own universe of laws and life, and all they can do now is run and run and pray for rain.
It does not rain, but the wind stops. The fire does not stop, but it slows. It shines in the night like a row of candles, or a porch light. In inky black, the fire welcomes home.
Neji does not come back, along with ten others.
After hours of searching the hillside yet untouched by fire, they retire into an abandoned lookout cabin on the ridge.
Sasuke does not sleep. Instead, he counts the hours and again imagines the cool of Neji's blue chakra cutting through the smoke and ash, cutting through the grass, cutting a way to salvation. He dreams awake to the chatter of a thousand birds, the snap and crackle of a hell that should've been his own.
In the morning, there is dew, and feeble light through the smoke. Sasuke takes Kakashi with him out up the blackened hill and searches the blank face of ruin for any sign of Neji's location. Two hundred meters from the creek bed that stopped the fire is a perfect circle, a dab of brown in a sea of black. Inside, Neji rests as a fetus in an earthly womb.
Kakashi pulls to a halt, and the charred grass around them flakes into the still air as Sasuke drops to his knees at the edge of the protective circle. His hand feels leaden as he pulls the ash-stained hair away from Neji's face, and he has to ignore the sudden shift of heartbeat as his fingers brush too-cold skin.
But he has never been so relieved to see that marked brow, that brutal symbol that is revealed with the movements of his hands. Each pronged corner of the manji seems to stab solidly at his resolve, already shuddering.
"Hmm," Kakashi says, almost startling him. Sasuke's stomach is assaulted by a hundred greedy vultures as his former teacher looks down and toes at Neji's safety line. Sasuke has to repress a snarl.
"He's alive." It twists out like a defense.
"Tch." It is shut the hell up, but nearly polite. A downgrade for a man he respects—yet a vivid punch to the face in the fading light of it all. Sasuke checks Neji's pulse and finds it weak, but there. The drawn lines of the Hyuuga's face, his egg-pale skin, all suggest that chakra exhaustion is the likely culprit.
"You know, his father—" Kakashi begins again.
"If you're not going to help—" Sasuke almost snarls it, and Kakashi holds out his hands in defense, a soothing motion meant to tame.
"I didn't think you'd let me touch him."
He does snarl this time. And doesn't let Kakashi do a damn thing.
Neji sleeps in fifteen minute bursts. Sasuke has it timed, and soon he begins to sleep in fifteen minute intervals as well. His eyelids flutter in the twitch of a distant earthquake half a second before Neji rolls over in bed. The white eyes open as if he hasn't' been asleep at all.
Sasuke can still smell the smoke on him, though it was washed away days ago—soot and debris blotted out with a delicate cloth, the meager amount of water saved instead for the long locks that had so completely veiled Neji's face. Even so, he still smells smoke.
And when Sasuke looks into the calm of Neji's eyes, he still sees it. Tonight, there is a flash of red buried in those dulcet hues, a reflection of his own eyes. He moves his hand slowly up Neji's bare side and wonders which is more dangerous—the flame that hides, or the one that settles bold and bright for the world to see. Neji closes his eyes and breathes out low and soft, and Sasuke shifts a little closer, condensing the firebreak.
"The fire was the air," Neji whispers. Under his hand, Sasuke feels the sudden prickle of goose bumps. In the room, it's almost too hot to breathe—for a moment, he isn't sure he wants to.
"The Hyuuga compound almost burned," he answers.
"I would've let it fall to ash." Neji's lips curve, but they aren't apologetic, even if what he's said is a lie. Maybe not, either way, it's the saddest thing Sasuke has heard for a long time.
"You almost did."
Neji's eyes open again, his gaze steady and serious. He's calm as a still lake and this is what has always unnerved Sasuke about him—maybe what has attracted him. It's the Neji that disappeared into the summer, nowhere to be found behind the billowing gray. Lost in the firestorm.
It has been eleven years and four days since Hyuuga Hizashi took his last breath, and Neji's eyes are still like ashes.
"I know how to handle fire, Uchiha."
Sasuke's smirk is ready, but it never lands. Instead, he presses his lips against Neji's, lets his hand trail down over cool, smooth skin. They fit their bodies together, and Sasuke closes his eyes. On the back of his eyelids, he sees the perfect circle of Neji's Kaiten on the hill, and the wings of chakra stamped into the desolate ground.
The cool pressure of Neji's fingers against Sasuke's spine reminds him of the rain.