AN: ::Waves nervously:: Um, hi? I'm still alive? I know some of you must have thought otherwise. And I am still writing and this is still the main story I'm working on. I've just slowed down from writing a chapter every few weeks to only managing to write a few sentences a week. I promise I am still trying though.
Hopefully this was worth the wait and once more I can't thank you enough for all the support. This story is the longest thing I've ever written and I've only stuck it out like this cause of all your great encouragement.
The corpse was burnt so bad it was blackened and still smoking. Regardless, Sasuke was not going to take any chances. Dropping to one knee on the man's chest, he flicked a kunai into one hand and slashed it across the man's throat. If he had had the time, he would have been even more thorough. Over the years he had encountered several various nin that one should never assume were dead. Not until the body was torn apart and each piece burned until all that was left were ashes. Considering all of the trouble these wizards had caused him, how unpredictable and foreign each of their attacks had been, Sasuke was not completely comfortable making any assumptions about their abilities. But beheading a body with only a kunai took time.
There was never enough time in his life these days. After years of waiting and training for his revenge, of eagerly awaiting that one day, it was maddingly frustrating to now constantly feel like fate was rushing passed him faster than he could run to keep up. He had barely even managed to keep up with this idiot. A kill that should only have taken him seconds had stretched out far longer than it should have and still left him injured. Sasuke snarled down at the dead body beneath him. Idiot indeed! He knew better than this! Never underestimate an enemy. Always assume the worst. The unknown is far more dangerous than the known. Look underneath the underneath. Trust no one. How many times had he had those lessons repeated to him? How many times had he tried to do the dobe a favor and beat them through that thick skull of his? And yet Sasuke had still treated this entire situation as if it was one under his control. Hah! When had he ever had control over anything? Whenever he was beginning to think he had power over something, someone else had to come and rip it out from underneath him. And this time he had no one to blame but himself.
With a scowl, Sasuke pushed himself up to his feet. Both his left shoulder and his right forearm were badly burnt, and each time he moved, the skin tried to stretch and instead sent pain shoot down to the tips of his fingers before twisting its way back up to run across his shoulders and down into his spine.
"Burns are the worst," Sakura had told him once. "Your very nerve endings are damaged, and it's more than just the pain. Functionality drops significantly, and don't get me started on infection. I've seen gut wounds that weren't as debilitating as a bad burn."
Sasuke had been singed a time or two in his life. Anyone who worked with fire always was. But those burns had been nothing more than superficial. An annoyance. This was more. He could feel it in the way his skin pulled tight only to grudgingly tear loose again when he swung his arm through a full shoulder movement. It hurt, badly. But the pain was a good sign. If it hurt, then the burn did not extend passed the top layer of skin. It didn't stop him from keeping his grip tight on the kunai in his hand.
He turned away from the body at his feet and stared down the empty road. There was only silence now. No distant explosions, not even the sound of running feet. He knew roughly what direction his cousin had headed towards, but the buildings made it difficult to pinpoint that location. Too many things to hide behind, too many things blocking the path. Sasuke stood perfectly still. Between one breath and the next, he evened his breathing pace out. After the next measured inhale, he stopped breathing all together and listened.
Over the sound of the wind rushing between the buildings and the distant murmur of the compound's stream, Sasuke swore he could almost hear the sound of Naruto's laughter. But surely that was too much to hope. Even though Sasuke had been expecting the other boy to return soon, and even though the sounds of a battle would have brought his friend faster than even the allure of fresh ramen, it was still far, far too much to hope that there was something worth laughing over tonight.
Sasuke exhaled in a gust of frustration before the four figures dropped out of the sky.
"What in the hell took you so long!" Sasuke snapped sharply without turning to look at the four ANBU standing as silent and still as shadows behind him.
There was only the briefest hesitation before one of them murmured softly, "our apologies, Uchiha-san. There has been a…disturbance?"
If it hadn't been for the fact that he might still need each and every one of his kunai, Sasuke would have stabbed the man.
"The disturbance is still happening," he hissed, instead. "My cousin is still-"
"Uzumaki has already intercepted your…cousin," one of the faceless men replied. Both the name Uzumaki and the term cousin seemed to give the man some trouble. Sasuke flicked his eyes over once, taking in which of the four of them it was, his height and build. He knew most of the ANBU on sight these days, even if he didn't know what exactly their faces looked like or what their names were. There were only so many high ranking nin in the village after all, and Sasuke never forgot.
"Was this before or after you decided to grace us with your presence?" Sasuke replied. "It certainly was not during the actual attack in the middle of the fucking village."
There was a tightening of shoulders, the slightest shifting of feet, before the first ANBU to speak sliced one hand downward as sharp and unrelenting as any knife. The silent command was instantly obeyed, and whatever insipid reply the other man had been about to make was professionally swallowed whole. "I apologize, Uchiha-san," the team leader continued. "There were some slight complications with our wards. The matter is already being investigated. Are you in need of assistance at this point?"
Sasuke snarled back at the man and his infuriatingly "What I need is the guarantee of the safety of my cousin!"
"Every reasonable measure is being taken, Uchiha-san," the ANBU captain replied softly, as if speaking gently would somehow miraculously calm Sasuke. He ought to know better.
"That is not enough!" Sasuke shouted back.
The captain did not even flinch. It was a voice from the back of their little group that muttered darkly, "now he wants the help of this village."
"Silence!" the ANBU captain roared back, for all the good it would do. It was clear that the man did not have proper control over his troops. Standards must be slipping.
Sasuke breathed deeply through his nose and resisted the urge to kill someone. The Hokage would be more than a little miffed if he offed one of her finest. "If this is the kind of support," Sasuke spat back, sneering the last word until it was something twisted and sharp, "of the great village, then maybe I was not too far off after all."
The ANBU captain's shoulders stiffened, but he had finally managed to gain control over his soldiers and none of them so much as flinched. "I'm sure Uzumaki-san would not appreciate hearing you say that, not after he risked himself to save your cousin."
Sasuke snorted. "Uzumaki's different. Idiot's always been different," he muttered before turning away. He had wasted enough time on these failures. Curling his hand in closer to his torso, he sprinted away from the circle of ANBU and the dead body. Let them clean up the mess. He would be having words with the Hokage at a later date about the type of incompetents she placed in charge of the village's defenses. Claiming there had been a "complication" with the wards as justification for a delay that could have been very fatal was not acceptable. The wards were only supposed to serve as a warning system anyway. They should have still been able to react immediately to the first sign of there being a problem.
Sasuke was not interested in excuses.
He slid around another corner, following the growing trail of destruction. There as a brief moment of panic seeing just how bad things had gotten, knowing that his cousin had been the one such attacks were aimed at, before his brain caught up with the rest of him and he remembered that Harry was safe. Naruto had him. It would take a disaster of global proportions to prevent Naruto from making sure Sasuke's cousin was safe.
Sasuke had absolute faith in that. What did he need a village for?
At the end of the street, walking calmly side by side, were the two biggest troublemakers in Sasuke's life. Sasuke sucked in another deep lung full of air and quickly took stalk of both of them. Naruto was the same as always. A little singed around the edges maybe, and even from a distance Sasuke could feel that slight hint of ozone that seemed to follow Naruto around after a particularly explosive fight. But he was not limping, there was no obvious blood, and his eyes clear blue and crinkled up in a ridiculous grin.
Harry was not in as good of condition. HIs clothes were torn and burnt and stain with what might be blood, but which certainly included mud. He had a collection of small scraps across one arm. He was favoring his left leg just slightly. A pulled muscle maybe, nothing too serious but it was slowing him down. He had bruise running across the side of his face that was little more than a angry red mark now, but would certainly bloom into something purple and nasty in a day or two. But his face was relaxed, a faint hint of what might have been a smile still lingering. He kept glancing at Naruto as if the other boy had done something particularly interesting. As if he still was.
At the same time, Sasuke did not miss the way Harry carefully glanced away from the damage surrounding them. Being aware of that, however, did not explain it or what Sasuke was supposed to do about it.
"Oi! Sasuke!" Naruto shouted out across the distance, waving one whole arm back and forth enthusiastically. "Look what I found! Safe and sound!"
Harry's head shot up and his eyes fixed on Sasuke. Even from behind those ridiculous thick glasses, Sasuke could see the way Harry's eyes widened, before sweeping over him thoroughly. Without waiting for any other sign, or even for Naruto, his cousin suddenly broken into a jog coming towards him. He was definitely favoring his left leg. It did not slow him down, surprisingly, but it was plain in the way his whole body would tense up before his weight came crashing down on it, only to relax once more after he pushed off of it. With an annoyed hiss, Sasuke crossed the distance between them, bringing Harry to a startled stop.
Sasuke opened his mouth without thinking, ready to call Harry all sorts of names, starting with stupid and probably not stopping until he ran out of breath.
"Are you alright?" Harry gasped immediately.
If it had not been so terribly counterproductive he might of had to strangle his own cousin. "Am I what?"
Harry barely seemed to hear him. His eyes had already fixed on Sasuke's shoulder and arm. It was too late for Sasuke to tuck it behind his back, and there was no hiding the state of his shirt, or the tender skin underneath.
"Oh, god," Harry practically whimpered. He reached out with his hands as if to take ahold of Sasuke's wounded arm. If it had been anyone else, Sasuke would have sent them flying the other direction, or at the very least flinched back, but he managed to hold himself perfectly still. At the last moment, Harry stopped and yanked his hands back.
"This never should have happened," Harry whispered.
Well, at least there was one thing they could agree on. Sasuke felt the heat of shame slowly build its way across his face and resisted the urge to growl at something, or even worse, tuck his head down. There were so many things about this situation that never should have happened that he did not even know where to begin with what he did wrong first. Other than an overall, genera failure to protect his family. Again. It did not matter that Harry was alright in the end, nor that Naruto had been there to pick up the pieces. None of it ever should have happened.
"This is all my fault," Harry continued, his voice faint at first but growing more and more frantic. "I'm so sorry. The last thing I wanted to do is cause trouble. I shouldn't have stayed here. I - I tried to lead them away. I know that doesn't count for much, you still got hurt. I'm sorry. It should have been me. How - how bad is it? You're not hurt anywhere else are you? We should take you to a doctor, or a healer, or something. Shouldn't we? Naruto? What do we - I mean, we need to help him." Harry turned to Naruto, clearly seeking some guidance, but Naruto could only stare back at him dumbfounded.
Sasuke suspected he looked the same way. It took him a good half a minute to even begin to process parts of his cousin's long ramble of an apology. "You!" he growled out, feeling angry, relieved and confused all at the same time, and only too willing to go with the one he understood best.
Harry flinched back. His shoulders hunched in as he flushed darkly. One hand was already reaching up to smooth his bangs down. But it did not stop him from still inspecting Sasuke carefully from head to toe once more, his eyes lingering on one particular spot as if he couldn't stop staring at the red, blistered skin.
Without thinking about it, Sasuke twisted his arm around and back behind him, ignoring the tight pull of damaged skin and the sharp rip of pain that flared up the arm. He kept his face carefully blank until the worst of it had past. It cleared some of the left over fury from his mind - which only left him with confusion and feeling like academy student that had wandered into a genjutsu match. "Naruto-" he started.
"Oh, hell,no!" Naruto exclaimed back before he had gotten any further. "No way! I am not getting into this one. You two figure it out." And with that, he crossed his arms over his chest and turned his back to the two of them. His eyes must have caught the shadows of the ANBU team still lurking nearby, because he suddenly stuck his tongue out at them with a look in his eyes that promised a not-so-good-natured prank was coming to someone soon. Apparently, Naruto did not need Sasuke's help in keeping track of which certain village members were less trustworthy than others.
Which really meant that Sasuke had one less thing to worry about, but it did not help him any with the bigger problem he currently had to deal with.
"I am really sorry," Harry repeated quietly, his eyes now fixed on the ground and a look on his face like he was thinking of the worst thing possible. "I know that doesn't change much." He flinched again at his own words. "God, but I wish I could change the things I'm sorry for."
Sasuke huffed. While he normally had no problem yelling at an idiot, it did take a certain amount of satisfaction out of it when the idiot in questions did not even know he was being an idiot. Taking a deep breath, Sasuke tried to focus on the facts. "You knew those men were after you?"
"Yes," Harry replied, sounding miserable. "They're wizards, like me. I mean, we not alike. They're a bunch of murderous bastards, following an even bigger murdering bastard of a lunatic, but yes."
Another deep breath and the next question. "And you knew I was nearby, in the house?"
Somehow his cousin managed to look even more miserable. If more kunai lessons were in order, then learning to keep a stoic expression in the face of any question was the next thing in the list of skills his cousin desperately needed to learn fast if he was going to survive in a ninja village.
"Well?" Sasuke demanded.
"Yes, but I thought they'd all follow me! None of them were supposed to stay behind and hurt you!"
"And did it ever occur to you to ask for help?" Sasuke shouted back, feeling his rather tentative hold on his temper snap like a rusty kunai.
Harry's head snapped up, his wide green eyes meeting Sasuke's own unnaturally red ones without hesitation. "No," he said. "I couldn't."
"Would not," Sasuke snapped back, feeling furious, and frustrated and oddly dismissed. "I was right there. I could have helped you. I would have helped you. I was supposed to be there to help you!"
"I couldn't!" Harry yelled. "I'm not going to get anyone else killed! I'm not!" Sasuke wanted to snort at that, but something stopped him at the last moment. Being responsible for another's death was never something to make light of, he guessed. "I am not that easy to kill," he announced instead.
Harry did not feel the need to resist giving him a sarcastic look back and staring very pointedly at the arm Sasuke still kept hidden behind his back.
And damn, if he was not flushing again. "A miscalculation, nothing more. One that will not happen again, I can assure you of that." There was a scuffle of noise from the side and Sasuke did throw one of his last remaining kunai. "Shut up, Naruto!" The other boy caught the blade by the ring and twirled it lazily around one finger. "I said nothing," he sang back without turning around.
Harry ignored Naruto with an impressive single-mindedness. "This is all my fault."
Sasuke glared back at him. "Yes, it is," he agreed. "And if you ever do anything as moronic as not coming to me for help again, so help me, you are never seeing daylight again." Harry opened his mouth to argue about something, but Sasuke cut him off with a sharp jerk of one hand. "I assure you, it will bring me little satisfaction to kill your enemies if you are already dead. We are a clan. We fight together. You do not, will not, face these enemies of yours again alone, do you understand me?"
Harry shook his head. "You don't know what they're like, what they're capable of."
Sasuke jerked his bad arm back out in front of him, holding it up dispassionately so that everyone could see just how badly his last fight had gone. "I am learning," he announced with great solemnity. "I will not be caught so unprepared next time."
"Do not tell me what I can or can not do!"
"Then don't tell me, either!" Harry shouted back.
Sasuke jerked his head back and forth. "This is not negotiable," he announced with as much finality as possible, before forcing the last of his anger out in a gush of air and resorting to fighting dirty. "Harry, please."
"But-" Harry tried to argue.
There was one long moment as the two of them stared at each other before Sasuke won.
"This isn't a good idea," Harry insisted.
"Your judgment is clearly impaired."
"That's not fair."
"Sasuke!" Harry hissed back, clearly frustrated that he was not getting anywhere, and apparently not cluing in yet that he had already implicitly agreed.
"Harry!" Sasuke mimicked back, before grimacing. Heavens above, were the two of them really bickering about this? That was not something he was going to participated in. No way. Not even in an attempt to manipulate his cousin into doing what he wanted.
Someone snorted so softly one might have mistaken it for something other than laughter.
"Shut up, Naruto!"