Title: cabbage patch
Beta-ed by: MelissaRose85
Characters/Pairing: Haruno Sakura and Uchiha Itachi
Type: Continuous (InComplete)
Word Count: 13,317
Theme: LJ Community, 50-shinobi theme #23, cabbage patch
Rating: T (Contains content not suitable for children)
Disclaimer: Naruto belongs to Kishimoto-san.
Summary: Non-massacre AU. Their story began long before anyone could realize it. The story of a little pink-haired girl child, and a stoic young boy.
Created on: 30/05/13
Completed on: 26/06/13
Chapter Last Revised on: 02/08/13
Itachi-chan was not a happy camper.
Find help, his mistress Sakura had commanded him, and so he had no choice but to scamper off and do exactly as she dictated, never mind that they were in the middle of the woods and it wasn't as if help was growing from the trees in great abundance. His owner clearly had no idea how difficult it was for a cute, two feet long little weasel like himself to fulfill her impossible demand. Where was he supposed to find help? And running through the dense forest when you were only so big was no walk in the park either; the village center was so far away, and even if he did manage to run into someone, how on earth was he supposed to communicate that his mistress was in trouble? He didn't speak human gibberish!
Really, his owner was completely unreasonable sometimes! If not for the yummy food and the nice belly rubs and the adulating worship and luxurious fur brushing that the pink-haired girl constantly lavished on him, he would have run off a long time ago. But no, and since he wanted to be back home in time for supper (it was Gyudon night), he would have to work his furry little tail off to earn his meal this evening.
Not to mention, he had left his human behind to face what was possibly the largest cat he had ever seen. Just looking at the huge beastie from afar was enough to cause himto quiver in fear, and even though his owner clearly felt the same, instead of running away like any sane being would, his crazy human ran off to confront it instead.
Itachi-chan really hoped that his mistress was still alive and kicking by the time he returned with help, because if not he was going to be one very angry weasel, especially after all the effort he was putting into fulfilling her request.
Chittering indignantly, the black mustelid nipped sharply on the right ear of the help that it eventually found three training grounds away from the one he had left Sakura behind in. Needless to say, it was the nearest of the small handful of humans who would recognize him and pay attention enough to try to interpret his weird attempt at weasel Charades.
Uzumaki Naruto did not take well to being the weasel's living chew toy. The young blonde yowled and pinched the tip of the weasel's tail in retaliation, only to promptly receive a paw of sharp claws to the face for his efforts. Boy and mustelid proceeded to brawl it out for about five minutes before they grudgingly came to a truce. By then, the whisker marks on Naruto's cheeks looked more like a Tic-Tac-Toe grid and Itachi-chan was missing several tufts of fur from his tail.
"Quit biting me, stupid," Naruto snapped at the weasel only to be slapped in the mouth by the equally irritated animal. Still, he grudgingly turned down the dirt path on the right as the mustelid had dictated, complaining as he did so. "Can't you just point me the right way? If you bite me again, I'm gonna shave you bald, Ita-chan."
Perched on the boy's shoulder, the weasel huffed haughtily in response, as if saying 'Let's see what my mistress will say about that.'
Naruto grumbled, then picked up his pace once more. The golden-haired fox child had been trying to practice his taijutsu on his own in a quiet, out of the way training field when Sakura-chan's pet weasel had suddenly burst in on him. The animal was usually quite reticent towards him, but for some reason it was climbing all over him this time, and dense as Naruto usually was, it didn't take the boy long to pick up that something was not right in this situation – namely, the conspicuous absence of Sakura-chan.
It wasn't long before the mismatched duo stopped before the huge gates of Training Ground Number Forty Four.
"You've gotta be kidding me."
Naruto surveyed the tall, military grade fences with the trained eye of an experienced prankster. This place was known for its scary horror stories. It was also forbidden to civilians. He had only been in here once, when he was seven years old, curious as heck and apparently none the wiser. Unfortunately, he hadn't gotten very far in before he was caught by a passing nin, and Old Man Hokage had chewed him out thoroughly when he learned of the incident. Even now, Naruto swore that his ears still rang from Jii Jii's two hour long lecture.
The golden haired boy side-eyed his animal companion. "You're trying to tell me that Sakura-chan's in there?"
If Naruto wasn't already used to the weasel's bemusing ability to understand human speech, he would have been stunned by the vigorous nods he received from the little mustelid.
In fact, Ita-chan was so vocal about it that he quickly let loosed a series of angry chirps and squeaks, as if furiously berating the lunk head he was sitting on for not moving fast enough to go help out his mistress.
Sensing another impending tantrum exploding from the high strung weasel, Naruto cast one last look around him and then started to climb the fence.
"Fine. But if Sakura-chan's not in there, then your furry ass is mine."
The trio of Uchiha children looked uneasily at each other as they stood before the property of their clan head. By now, dusk had settled over Konoha, and all around the clan compound, the windows of houses were alit from within.
"H-hey, so how are we going to tell F-Fugaku-sama?" one of them stuttered, already perspiring from the stress and anxiety of having to inform their leader that they had lost his second son.
The oldest boy of the group swallowed and tried to put on a brave face. "We'll just say that Sasuke rushed into the training ground before we could stop him. It's our word against his; if all of us maintain the same story, then the adults will definitely believe us!"
"But…that's not fair to Sasuke, right?" the last one remarked cautiously.
The leader paused guiltily before he quickly shook off his doubts. "It's okay! Sasuke is Fugaku-sama's son; he will not be punished! We should worry about ourselves first!" Then the boy scoffed, looking quite irritated. "Honestly, this is such a pain. If I knew that brat would be so bothersome to get along with, I'd have ignored my parents' wishes and avoided him altogether. He's nothing like Itachi-san but yet he is so full of attitude – no wonder he doesn't have any friends."
The other boys timidly murmured in general assent, though they looked vaguely uncomfortable about outright saying it.
"So…do we all agree that it was Sasuke's fault that he got himself lost in the Forest of Death?"
It was then that the temperature around them suddenly plunged drastically. It was not the cold from the ambient atmosphere, it was not the chill of the encroaching night; no, this was a different type of blood curdling sensation altogether.
It was killing intent.
The two youngest Uchiha felt their faces bleach of all color when they saw the person standing behind the unofficial leader of their small group. The oldest child was still frozen in place, his back turned towards the unknown entity that his instincts were screaming in terror over, the unfortunate recipient of the mild Kanashibari no Jutsu that had been cast on him.
In the shadowed, moonlit recesses of the front yard of the Uchiha Main house, the cold, hard stare of Uchiha Itachi was positively deadly as he watched his younger cousins without a word, even though he hardly looked it. He was dressed in civilian wear, his stance perfectly loose and unthreatening, his stoic, angular features neutral and expressionless, but yet, his anger was nearly palpable.
Even without the physical manifestation of the Sharingan, his dark eyes glowed with quiet, protective hostility.
The fear in the boys' gaze grew exponentially, and then they were all but hyperventilating, their hearts racing madly in their chests as they suddenly realized just how intimidating their quiet, mild mannered genius of a cousin could be.
No, Itachi-san was terrifying, and he hadn't even done anything yet. That might change very soon, though.
The young ninjas-in-training felt the hairs at the back of their necks stand straight up when the heir of their clan finally spoke, his voice icy calm and not an octave above his usual low tenor, but there was no mistaking the razor edge in his deceptively mild tone.
"What did you do to Sasuke?"
The two children stared at each other for a long while.
An expression of surprise crossed Sakura's face. She had not meant to blurt out what she had.
"Lies," Sasuke hissed. "You are lying! My brother- Itachi- he hates me! He doesn't want me! I'm not good enough! I-"
"You are wrong!" Sakura cut in again before the boy could get too far into his bout of self-pity and inadequacy. "If you are not good enough, then what are Naruto and I? You are the top of the class, aren't you? You could perform the Goukakyuu no jutsu a long time ago, right? If you are not good enough, then why are Naruto and I trying so hard to catch up to you?"
"Because I'm not a good Uchiha!" Sasuke bellowed then, verbally articulating his insecurities for the very first time. The boy was red faced and wild eyed, and even he looked momentarily shocked that he had revealed such a thing. Sakura stared at him in astonishment.
"I'm not good enough! That's why Nii-san hates me! Nii-san was already a Genin when he was nine! He was already training for the Chuunin Exam! I'm still in the Academy! Otou-sama is always telling me that I should be more like Nii-san, that I should try harder, but I can't! I tried! I already tried my best! But I'm still not good enough!"
The boy's dark eyes were shimmering with tears, the stress and anxiety that he had kept bottled up in him exploding outwards in a surge of cathartic outburst. "I will never be good enough," he whispered, his composure crumbling. "I'm the worst, and I hate myself the most! No wonder Nii-san doesn't want me anymore; I'm useless, good-for-nothing, just a disgrace-"
Sasuke sounded like he was just repeating what other people had told him, and Sakura's eyes were wide with shock.
"Sasuke-" she whispered, but he was not done yet.
"And then I thought- I thought that you guys really wanted to be my friends," the young Uchiha continued softly, ruthlessly. "I- I was happy. Really happy. I thought, if I'm with you guys, then maybe it will be okay." His eyes met hers and held. His tone turned weak but vicious. "But it was just a lie, wasn't it? You all just pretended to befriend me, but you never even wanted me in the first place. I'm not even good enough for you two; you only cared about my brother too-"
Sakura could not bear to hear the broken words coming out of Sasuke's mouth anymore, and so the girl did the first thing that came to mind.
She stretched her hand over and jabbed him right between the eyes. She misjudged the strength needed for the maneuver and might have used a bit more force than necessary, for his head snapped back from the contact and a cross-eyed look of surprise flitted briefly over his face.
"Baka!" she scolded fiercely. "You are already good enough as you are, Sasuke!"
Her honest, unhesitating words made him freeze and stare at her in shock. Sakura did not notice, though; she was on a roll and wasn't about to be stopped now. She could not believe that Sasuke – the Sasuke – had always harbored such negative thoughts about himself. He hid it so well that none of them had thought he could feel this way – he was a member of the great Uchiha clan, after all, how could he even think that he was unwanted?
"Even if no one wants you, we want you! You are already our friend!" Then, just for good measure, she jabbed him in his forehead one more time, in case her words had not gotten through his thick skull the first time around. "You promised we would be friends if we managed to get down the Goukakyuu, didn't you? Let's go. Let's get it done. Right now." Green eyes glowing with determination, Sakura grabbed Sasuke by the hand decisively and started to tug him along with her in a purposeful trot.
Surprised by the no-nonsense, take-charge manner that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere, Sasuke stupidly stumbled after the girl. His forehead felt slightly tender from all the abuse she had heaped on him, but somehow or another, he did not – could not – shake away the warm hand that was wrapped so firmly around his wrist. "We will find Naruto right now," Sakura declared decisively, and it was enough to jolt the dark-haired boy from his momentarily dazed stupor.
Sakura frowned slightly at his address of the blonde. "Don't call Naruto that," she reproached lightly. "But yeah, we will go to him, and just you watch; we will prove to you that we are good enough to be your friends! Then, we will go and look for Itachi-kun after that, all of us."
This time, Sasuke visibly baulked at her suggestion, his bewildered expression darkening with the stirrings of stubborn pride…and rising panic.
"No! I won't see Nii-san!" There was genuine apprehension in his wild gaze now – his last confrontation with his older brother had left him broken and devastated, and the last thing he wanted was another repeat encounter with this person whom he admired so much, and who could hurt him so easily.
Not surprisingly, Sakura was having none of it. The young kunoichi-in-training had also seemed to gain the strength of an elephant in an instant, and bullishly towed him along even as he started to resist. When on earth had the pinkette gotten this strong?
"Oh, for goodness' sake, Sasuke, don't be ridiculous! We should clear up this misunderstanding quickly!"
"I already told you; Nii-san hates me!"
"No, he doesn't!" Sakura refuted immediately. "You weren't there to see Itachi-kun when-" she cut herself off abruptly only to frown at him. "Well, you just weren't there to see! And besides, who was the one who was angrily yelling hurtful things and then brashly running off in a snit before we could even explain what was going on?"
"Who was the one-" Sasuke broke off, his ears turning red. The pink-haired girl gave her friend an exasperated glower.
"That was you, baka!" It was her new nickname for Sasuke, and somehow it fit to a tee; she still could not believe that the boy could be so silly sometimes.
But the Uchiha was still obviously resistant to the idea. "I don't want to see Nii-san," he insisted mulishly. There was a sullen undertone to his refusal.
"Sasuke," Sakura reasoned clearly. "Even if you ignore Itachi-kun, the hurt will never go away! It will still be there unless you do something about it, right? Why don't you hear what he has to say?"
"I have already heard what he has to say!" Sasuke burst out at last, losing his temper. "He just doesn't care at all! I'm not important enough to matter!"
Sakura paused at that and just looked at the frustrated boy.
"Is the Itachi-kun you know really somebody who would think that?" she asked quietly at first, the volume of her voice becoming higher and higher as she grew more passionate about the subject. "Because the Itachi-kun I know is not like that at all! Sasuke, come on, think! He's your brother! You know him best!"
And Sasuke fell silent, his brow knitting, turmoil swirling in his eyes. The adored sibling he knew and the complete stranger he spoke to the last time were not one and the same. He was blinded by jealousy and hurt and anger back then, but now that Sakura was forcing him to clear his thoughts, the boy could not help but admit that there was something off with Itachi – Nii-san was not someone who was deliberately cruel. The brother he knew was the same as the one Sakura had such faith in – he was kind and gentle, and Sasuke knew that his brother had loved him very much.
The boy's eyes watered slightly. He missed his aniki.
Sakura looked hopefully at her friend. "Sasuke?"
There was a long pause, and then Sasuke finally turned his attention back to her. He looked like he had just made up his mind, and was about to open his mouth to speak when something else caught his attention. His eyes widened. He stiffened.
The large shadow was moving towards them at an extremely great velocity, and his pink-haired companion did not notice its dangerous approach as her back was still turned to it. Sasuke could not quite make out the features of attacking entity, but he could see that it was humongous, even larger than the tiger that they had just escaped not too long ago. There was no time to even call out a warning to the still oblivious girl.
Sasuke did the first thing that came instinctively to his mind.
The boy shoved his friend out of the way.
One moment, Sakura was standing in front of Sasuke and looking at him, the next he had checked her bodily without any warning whatsoever, and her breath was knocked right out of her as she was forcefully thrown to the side. Her large eyes revealed her surprise as she stared bewilderedly at the Uchiha, and then they turned wide with horror and belated shock when she saw the huge creature that passed her overhead, so near that she could see the full grotesque detail of its undulating segmented body and numerous long, spindly legs as it blew by her at an astounding speed.
It was an omukade, the gigantic man eating centipede that was supposed to be found only in myths and legends. It was a fiendish creature whose name was often evoked to cow little children into obedience, but now, as Sakura stared at the hideous form in slacked mouth terror, she realized that those stories had done the real thing no justice at all.
Up close, it was a living nightmare come to life.
And Sakura could only watch in suspended fear, her heart in her mouth, as the thing smashed full force into Sasuke.
The impact was powerful enough to bodily lift the dark-haired boy and send him soaring back a hundred feet, and only a timely collision with a tree had stopped his brief flight cold.
The sickening thud as his body slammed hard against the unyielding trunk made Sakura's stomach turn into itself. Then, she had to watch as her friend who had sacrificed himself to get her out of harm's way dropped limply onto the ground like a puppet with its strings cut. He did not move after that.
Naruto had been trudging through the dense forest for the past twenty minutes or so and already the disgruntled boy was starting to think that he had been trolled by Sakura-chan's living fur wrap of a pet. It was already completely dark out; the sun had set not too long after he had stealthily snuck into the restricted training ground. It was fortunate that the moon tonight hung low and pregnant in Konoha's night skies, for if not he would be bumbling clumsily – even worse than he already was – though the thick undergrowth that kept threatening to scratch and strangle him with thorny vines at every turn.
The young fox boy was convinced that the bossy black weasel that shared Itachi nii-sama's name was playing a trick on him, but even though he believed that, Naruto was reluctant to turn around and leave right away. There was a niggling doubt sitting in the back of the blonde's mind, and if Sakura-chan was really stuck somewhere in here, then he did not want to chance it and leave her all alone in this dangerous place.
Besides, Itachi-chan was acting unusually antsy, and the normally lazy (and increasingly fat) animal was actually scurrying swiftly ahead of him, putting quite a bit of effort into his movements when he was usually more laidback and would rather just hitch a ride from the humans instead.
"Oi, furball! Slow down a bit, will ya?" Naruto demanded of the twitchy creature, looking visibly annoyed and ruffled. "I can't see where you are going!" As it was, Itachi-chan's sleek black fur was blending in almost seamlessly with its surroundings, and even Naruto's above average night vision was having some trouble keeping the small, quick animal continuously in his sight.
It was then, when the two heard the shrill, panicked shout carrying from a distance. Boy and animal stilled immediately, and their heads snapped to the direction the pitched sound of pure distress had come from.
That was Sakura-chan's voice. Naruto was very sure that it was definitely Sakura-chan's voice!
The boy wasted no time turning in the direction he had heard his friend's troubled cry echo from, plunging straight through the thick forest foliage and quickly hauling ass to where he believed her to be, Itachi-chan in tow. The weasel swiftly overtook him and was very soon leading the way once more, and Naruto no longer complained about his difficulties in tracking the smaller animal. In fact, he was following so closely that he was very nearly on top of the black mustelid, and almost trod on its long tail a few times in his haste to reach his friend ASAP.
Naruto's heart was in his throat, pounding so hard that it felt as though it was going to burst right out of him at any minute. He was running like he had never run before – at his fastest speed and more. He had never heard anything as hair raising as Sakura-chan's desperate plea for help earlier – his friend had never made that sort of sound in all the years that he had known her, and Naruto just knew that Sakura-chan had to be in great danger for her to be screaming like that.
When the heavily panting boy broke through the foliage and finally burst into the clearing, the scene he saw before him both stunned and terrified him. Standing at the farthest edge of the clearing was the largest arthropod that he had ever seen, and even though a small part of him was in awe at seeing such an unbelievably huge specimen, the rest of him quickly turned cold with dread when he noticed the significantly smaller figure that was bravely confronting it.
It was impossible not to see Sakura-chan. In the moonlit darkness, the lightness of her pink hair was like a beacon that drew the eye. His best friend looked disheveled and dirt streaked even from afar, nothing like her usual immaculate, well groomed self, but Naruto could see the metallic flash of a kunai gripped firmly in her hand, the firmness of her stance and the fierce determination blazing in her bright green eyes – Sakura-chan was not going to back down.
Naruto did not understand at first; this was not the usual behavior of the Sakura-chan he knew. Why was she purposely picking a fight with the huge centipede? That thing was taller than a house and getting higher by the second as it continued to rear up, balancing on its many hind legs, hissing menacingly as it did so. By rights, Sakura-chan should be beating a fast retreat – there was no way she could win if she took it on with nothing but the throwing blade in her hand – so why…?
Then, the slight stirring of the figure behind her – whom she was protecting – quickly drew his attention. That unknown individual had been well camouflaged by the shadowed darkness of the forest, partly due to the nondescript navy blue of his clothes and his raven black hair. Naruto squinted, and then, his eyes widened in realization when he saw that unruly hair that vaguely resembled a duck's behind.
Everything suddenly made sense. Naruto was moving even as he frantically processed the situation in his mind, and it was a good thing that his frequent pranking episodes had taught him the value of thinking on the fly, for that trait was coming in very handy right now. There was no time to be terrified. The boy stampeded over with a loud yell of his own, his hand simultaneously reaching into the pouch at his side as he readied himself to enter the fray. His fingers quickly found the items that he needed – he had actually been saving them for an elaborate prank but this was clearly more important right now.
"Hey, ya stupid overgrown bug! Get away from there!"
Sasuke was in a world of pain.
His head was throbbing madly, his ears were ringing hollowly, and his body was hurting so much that he couldn't quite seem to will it to move at all. He felt as if somebody had tried to make minced meat out of him, and for a moment, he was so completely out of it, so disoriented, that he had to struggle to get back his bearings and try to figure out what had happened to land him in such a bad position.
There were a lot of loud, unbearable sounds going around him and he grimaced irritably – the dark-haired boy wanted nothing more than to be left alone and allowed to close his eyes and drift off, but with all the racket happening over his head he could not possibly return to the sweet oblivion of unconsciousness.
For some reason or another, there was a lot of yelling going on, and he wasn't amused when rough hands suddenly grabbed him by the shoulder and started to shake him violently back to full consciousness. All hopes of sleep were immediately dashed. His eyes shot open and he was immediately treated to the rather disagreeable sight of one Uzumaki Naruto. He started to scowl, a sour expression that the blonde was only too happy to reciprocate.
"TEME! THIS IS NOT THE TIME TO HAVE YOUR BEAUTY SLEEP! WE NEED TO MOVE, NOW!" The urgent demand in the loud bellow was further expedited by a hard, helpful cuff to the head by said boy, and suddenly, all of Sasuke's pains from earlier paled in comparison to his blinding need to reach over to throttle the annoying blonde.
He would have gladly sacrificed the last of his strength to the noble cause if not for his attention being diverted by the scene behind Naruto. The sight of the humongous, rearing centipede was enough to sober Sasuke, and eyes widening, the Uchiha quickly remembered the events that had transpired before his involuntary nap. He had pushed Sakura out of the way only to be sent flying by the unreasonably huge creature – just what was wrong with this forest, anyway?
And speaking of which, what had happened to the pink-haired girl after he passed out? He would be very displeased if she had somehow still gotten herself eaten after all the effort he had put into keeping her alive.
"Sakura-" Sasuke croaked out – he seemed to be having some difficulty controlling his voice – but his meaning was clear and Naruto easily understood what he was asking. The fox boy's irritation at the Uchiha subsided a bit and he shifted slightly to the side, revealing the answer to the latter's unasked question. Looking significantly disheveled but relatively unharmed, their pink-haired friend was situated a short distance away, her back turned to them both, and Sasuke did a quick double take when he realized that she was engaging the centipede all on her own.
"Hurry," Naruto hissed sharply before he could ask what was going on. "Oi, can you walk, teme? We need to get moving while Sakura-chan is distracting that thing."
Sasuke was still too busy gaping at the incredulous sight of the slight nine year old girl bravely standing her ground in front of the monstrous creature, periodically throwing an unidentified item right in the face of the angrily hissing, thrashing creature. Why was she still here? Why were they still here? They should have been gone by now, just like his cousins who hadn't even bothered to come to his rescue in the first place –
But they were here. They were still here.
They hadn't left him behind.
"What's she doing? What's she throwing at it?" he whispered dazedly even as he struggled to help the grunting Naruto by weakly pushing himself up. It seemed that his limbs were not heeding his commands very well at all and he could barely sit up on his own as it was.
"Stink bombs," Naruto replied without a pause. The boy was more preoccupied with trying to get Sasuke back onto his feet as per his promise to Sakura-chan. "I was going to set 'em off in the Academy – they were the really good stuff, too."
It was then that Sasuke's olfactory sense suddenly decided to kick in and he stiffened at the horrendous smell that was assaulting his nose. The scent was so bad that his eyes started to water and even the air tasted noxious on his tongue. It was no wonder that the huge centipede was keeping its distance for now, though it looked dangerously angry at being denied its prey. Sasuke had to fight not to gag at the atrocious atmosphere – what was it with these two and using weapons that attacked the senses of their unwary opponents?
Naruto muttered an expletive then. "Oi, you really can't move your ass at all, can you?"
Sasuke's pale cheeks flushed but he could not deny his current handicap. His limbs felt completely leaden and were as impossible to control as if they were made of jelly. He was just a dead weight and he felt about as useful as a teat on a warthog. Naruto swore again.
If Sasuke could not even move, then their escape plan was a bust. While Naruto was confident that he could travel with the additional weight of the Uchiha boy with little trouble, he was not so sure that he could do it fast enough to keep ahead of that huge ass centipede chasing them the entire way out. That thing was fast, and right now, the only thing keeping it at bay was the stink bombs. Perhaps they could try to avoid the creature by taking to the treetops instead, but the young Jinchuuriki did not know if it was determined enough to follow them all the way up as well – that would be both disastrous and deadly.
It was then that the arthropod finally lost its patience with the situation, obviously tired of the morbid game of keep away. It had already acclimated to the overpowering stink wafting over the area, and it wasted no time lunging over, hissing furiously, its deadly pair of bladed mandibles dripping with acidic purple venom as it did so.
"Shit!" Naruto cursed once more and promptly let go of Sasuke, whom he was in the process of helping to his feet. Not surprisingly, the dark-haired boy dropped like a rock, and though immobile, he was quite vocal with his displeasure at such shoddy treatment. But Naruto was already on the move, racing back towards his secret sister like his life depended on it, yelling as he did so.
"Sakura-chan, switch!" The golden-haired nine-year old reached into his pouch and pulled something out of his bag of tricks once more. It was a spool of ninja wire, and even though he was only very recently starting to learn its usage, it was the only item left in his arsenal that might possibly stand a fighting chance against the large centipede. Quickly unrolling the wire, the boy planned his approach in his mind and determinedly rushed the beast that was trying to make supper out of all of them.
To the wide eyes of his friends, it looked as if Naruto was running right into the jaws of death.
The dual tones of Sakura and Sasuke's yells could be heard well above the clamor of the creature's loud hisses and clicks, and Naruto called back, "Don't worry! I have a plan!"
The boy charged low, at the same time swinging the wire over his head like a lasso, a kunai tied to its end acting as a razor-sharp, pendulum weight as he whipped it faster and faster, gaining both speed and momentum as he plunged ahead, leaping at the last second as he loosed the metallic string with a shout and cast his makeshift snare towards the towering centipede. The kunai caught onto one of its wicked looking antennae and proceeded to loop around it several times in quick succession, and then the thin tensile wire that the throwing blade was adjoined to went taut as the connection was made. Naruto mulishly dug in his heels and prepared for the battle of his life.
The dobe's 'plan' was suddenly very clear, and Sasuke groaned. That idiot! He meant to subdue the creature by force!
"Naruto!" Sakura called out anxiously again. The girl looked as if she wanted to jump right in to assist but wasn't quite sure exactly how to go about doing it. For one, she had already run out of the stink bombs her golden-haired friend had hastily passed into her hand when he had abruptly crashed into the clearing, and even though there had been no time to explain the situation (or ask how he had found them), Naruto had still waded right in to assist, hardly even pausing at the nightmarish sight of the gigantic creature that they had no choice but to confront.
"S'alright, guys! I got this-"
"Let go of that wire, dobe!"
Sasuke's order came too late, for the centipede did not take kindly to having its movements impeded (if only very slightly) by the rough equivalent of a human pipsqueak.
The other two children could only watch in horror as the creature shook its head violently, easily lifting a valiantly resisting Naruto from the ground and then sending him flying in the air when it managed to shake him loose. Naruto sailed off into the distance, yelling the entire way, and, like Sasuke had earlier, crashed landed most abruptly against a nearby trunk.
"That moron!" the Uchiha hissed, but there was no time to worry about Naruto. Now free from its mild restraints, the beast immediately turned its attention back to its prey – or more specifically, the weakest, incapacitated member of the group.
Sasuke's eyes widened when the arthropod lunged specifically at him this time – he was literally a sitting duck right now –
His vision of impending death was abruptly blocked when a skinny, red-clad figure planted itself directly in front of him, and Sasuke stiffened.
"What are you-" he started to protest in shock only for her to cut him off.
"Shut up, Sasuke," Sakura iterated firmly. She turned her head slightly so that he could see her profile, but still kept her sight firmly on the fast approaching centipede. "You saved me earlier. Now it's my turn."
Sasuke wanted to open his mouth to speak but she had already turned her back to him. Watch me, her body language seemed to say, and really, with his current condition, there was nothing he could do but exactly that.
Sakura put her hands together in a Ram sign, concentrating on her chakra control as she stared at her mark with meditative focus, her green eyes bright with resolve. Her hand was still bleeding sluggishly but the pain helped to cement her sense of purpose even further, and she drew a deep breath to prepare herself. She would only have one shot at this and she had to make it count. By now, most of the heart pounding fear from earlier had faded away to the background, falling by the wayside as desperation and determination took over. Her friends were depending on her to not fail, and she could not let them down now.
Sakura bided her time and waited for the creature to come nearer. It was really terrifying, watching such a huge being barreling full speed towards her, but Sakura forced herself to stand her ground. Timing was extremely crucial at this point, and she could not afford to miss.
Her fingers automatically started to mold itself into a series of hand signs in quick succession, the muscle memory earned from painstaking, frequent practice kicking in to aid in her endeavor.
Tiger. Monkey. Boar. Horse. Tiger.
She gathered every available bit of chakra at her disposal to her hara, and then grimly hissed out her attack. "Katon! Goukakyuu no Jutsu!"
The converted chakra immediately ignited into a ball of roaring fire the moment she expelled it through her mouth. The blazing fireball that she had used all of her chakra to bring to life was only of a modest size, nothing like the monsters it had the potential to become, but it was just enough to do the job. Even as Sakura dropped to her knees with fatigue, pale faced and panting heavily as she did her best to overcome the lightheaded sensation of borderline chakra exhaustion, there was no hiding the stark relief and hopeful triumph in her eyes as she watched her efforts bear fruit. Thanks to her careful timing, the fiery Goukakyuu slammed face first into the huge centipede, too fast and too near for the creature to dodge it.
The gigantic arthropod's fierce, headlong charge was immediately thwarted, and it screeched in pain and fury as it backed away slightly.
Sasuke's eyes widened. It worked! Maybe another Great Fireball would do the trick-
The boy's hopes were quickly dashed when the beast simply shook off the effects of the Katon jutsu and resumed its single minded attack, smoking slightly and looking mildly charred, but still mostly unharmed by the fireball due to its heavily armored body.
All they had managed to do so far was provoke it, making it angrier than it already was. Hissing and clicking ominously, it surged forward once more, and Sakura gasped. The girl struggled to get back to her feet to defend the oncoming attack, but the Goukakyuu earlier had taken everything out of her, and she felt as if her arms and legs had suddenly turned to jelly.
"Run, Sakura!" Sasuke yelled urgently, trying to will himself to move but to little effect. He was still completely paralyzed from the earlier impact, but more importantly, Sakura was still right in front of him and he could not do anything to pull her out of danger this time. "It's coming-!"
And this time neither of them would be able to halt its headlong charge. They had run out of options. There would be no more intervention.
It was then that a screaming streak of orange raced up the multi-segmented back of the centipede and leapt unceremoniously onto its head.
"GET AWAY FROM MY FRIENDS!"
A completely disheveled, wild eyed Naruto drew his fist back and slammed the kunai that he was gripping in his hand blade first into the eye of the creature. The gigantic arthropod shrieked.
Sasuke had never thought that he would experience relief at the sight of the dobe, but that sharp feeling that welled in him could not be mistaken for anything else. Somehow, against all odds, Naruto had not been knocked out by his forceful collision against the tree, and had even gotten back up to fight the centipede once again.
The blonde's endeavor was slightly better than his previous attempt; he managed to sink his kunai hilt-deep into the beast's eye and then he proceeded to hold on for dear life as it thrashed madly and whipped its long body about in pain and fury. Naruto tried his best to hold on, but when it suddenly hit the floor and started to perform a rapid succession of barrel rolls to shake him off, the boy was forcibly dislodged like a stubborn burr, and the powerful torque from the creature's momentum was enough to peel him off and send him soaring once more, and this time, the landing was bad enough that Naruto was momentarily stunned by the impact.
And a moment was all the beast needed to complete its attack. Completely enraged by now, the gigantic centipede surged forth, and this time, there was nothing that could stop it.
Biting her lips hard, Sakura finally managed to stagger to her feet. Wobbling unsteadily, she stared down the fast approaching arthropod – it was already so near that she could see the fine hairs on its grotesque form – it was going to reach them anytime now, and all she could see was death racing towards her. Sakura's bright green eyes hardened with determination.
In the background, she could hear Sasuke and Naruto yelling her name, but she knew what she had to do. No matter what the boys said, it was obvious that they could not take any more hits from the humongous centipede. Ignoring the their frantic cries for her to get away, the pink-haired girl bravely stood her ground and threw her arms wide open – it was her turn to protect them now. The young kunoichi-to-be was white in the face and shaking like a leaf, but she was not going to back down.
Bracing herself for the impending impact, Sakura squeezed her eyes shut and waited for the inevitable. She had no more chakra to spare and no more strength to give, and this was the only thing left that she could do to protect her friends. She was scared of what would happen next, but the thought of Naruto and Sasuke being killed right before her eyes terrified her even more than the thought of her own pain, and gathering every ounce of her courage, she forced herself to open her eyes and greet her nightmare head on.
She was immediately petrified with fear. The thing was less than a meter away from her and rapidly closing in, and the dozens of black, beady eyes situated on its head reflected her horror back at her tenfold. It's huge, lethal looking front claws dripped with excess venom, and in her moment of extreme stress and duress, one desperate, last ditch plea for help flashed to the forefront of her mind.
Sakura opened her mouth and screamed it at the top of her lungs.
The Kawarimi slammed into effect so quickly and precisely that for a moment, none of the children present could understand what had just happened. The force of the near instantaneous transfer was so large that Sakura nearly suffered from whiplash as she was literally teleported out of danger's range and was sent flying backwards from the swiftly executed technique. She would have impacted rather violently with a tree trunk if not for the timely interference of another one of the newcomers.
Help had arrived.
Sasuke stiffened in shock as a familiar shadow fell over him protectively at the exact moment the arthropod surged forth and plunged its toxic-coated mandible right through its target, and a warm spray of fluid coated the boy's stunned features even as he heard the nauseating, hair raising sounds of tearing flesh and breaking bones.
The potent flood of killing intent that had been abruptly unleashed made Sasuke forget how to breathe, and all blood leeched from his face when instinctual tendrils of fear gripped him hard in icy claws and refused to let go. Something very deadly and powerful had just entered the picture, and it made the monster centipede that they were fighting for their very lives pale in comparison. That suffocating, sheer amount of ki was not even aimed at him, and already his heart was stuttering like a dying motor, struggling to keep functioning under all that overwhelming pressure. Sasuke's lips started to turn blue and a ring of darkness started to tinge his watering eyesight – the atmosphere was completely oppressing.
The arthropod that had been terrorizing them stood no chance. The immense surge of killing intent concentrated solely on the unintelligent creature exerted so much stress on its being that its heart literally exploded from utter fear. It died immediately.
Just as quickly as it appeared, the heavy air of death disappeared abruptly, and for a long moment, nobody moved.
Her shock quickly wearing off, Sakura started to struggle to be let down by the silver-haired nin who had caught her. This would be the second time that she was saved by her future sensei, but the pink-haired girl had other things to worry about right now. A few paces away from her, a bedraggled looking Naruto, too, gaped in shock, his head spinning at the unexpected turn.
Sakura's huge emerald eyes were fixated on the scene before her, and it was all she could do not to start crying.
For standing in the place where she had been sheer moments ago was Itachi-kun, the youth having appeared as magically as if her cry of distress had summoned him, and if that was really what happened, then Sakura was already regretting her rash impulse to open her mouth and call for him.
He had taken her place, and had paid the price in her stead.
One of the large centipede's bladed, venomous mandible had pierced right through his chest, and even from afar, she could see the blood that glistened darkly against that unmoving, curved claw that protruded from his back. Itachi-kun's blood.
He had taken her place.
Tears of panic and fear threatened to roll down her cheeks. "Itachi-kun," she whispered, terrified. "Itachi-kun!"
Sasuke's eyes were huge as he stared up at the hovering form of his brother. Itachi, the sibling whom he had claimed to hate, had protected him. Trembling fingers reached up to touch the drops of wetness that coated his face and they came away viscous and sleek. It was still warm.
Sasuke's pupils dilated at the traumatizing realization.
"Nii…san," he whimpered helplessly.
There was a sickening, stomach turning sound as Itachi pulled himself free of the dead centipede's mandible. He had taken the hit right in the chest and it had likely punctured a lung, and blood dribbled down his chin as he struggled to regulate his breathing and control his pain. Turning around slowly to face the shell shocked form of his younger brother – little Sasuke, who was always trying so hard to find his own place – he reached out slowly to wipe away the traces of clear, liquid guilt that were leaking from the boy's wide, unblinking eyes.
"Sasuke," Itachi rasped softly, tenderly. "Are you hurt?"
All Sasuke could see at the moment was the huge, gaping wound that sat obscenely on his brother's chest, gained in his defense. Regardless of all the horrible things that he had said, his nii-san had still come for him, and in doing so, had gotten so grievously injured that he didn't quite understand how his Aniki was still standing.
I-If he hadn't been so stupidly prideful, i-if he hadn't thrown his immature, childish temper tantrum, if he hadn't come in here in the first place and hurt his friends and beloved brother and put all of them in danger, then this would not have happened.
Nii-san would not be standing over him right now with a hole in his chest – oh god – there were so much b-blood and, a-and Sasuke had never seen such a serious injury before in his entire life –
Sakura was right; his brother loved him, and here was the proof, paid and proven with a very steep price.
How could he be so stupid?
Panic, fear and remorse threatened to strangle the boy and his tears flowed even faster. Sasuke did not trust himself to speak. He shook his head quickly in response to Itachi's question, and it nearly killed him inside when he watched his brother's dark eyes lighten with stark relief.
Then, he collapsed.
Sasuke felt his heart drop to his stomach in that very instance.
Miharu burst through the doors of Konoha's General Hospital, her features tense with anxiety and unease.
The golden-haired woman had just gotten home from work when she received the message that her daughter was hurt. Apparently, there had been an accident of sorts and her presence was needed at the hospital. Putting two and two together, the single mother had quickly dropped what she was doing and rushed off immediately to see her injured offspring. Fear and worry had gnawed at her insistently, and her apprehension would not settle until she had personally laid eyes on her child and ascertained for herself that her little one was not in mortal peril.
When she finally hurried into the waiting area of the emergency unit, the sight of a row of quiet, recalcitrant children, plus one weasel, sitting side by side on the bench swiftly calmed her wildly beating heart. It took her less than a second to pick out Sakura and Naruto from the trio, and seeing them relatively safe and sound nearly made her knees go weak with relief.
The kids spotted her immediately as well, and their young faces immediately brightened. They leapt out of their seats and wasted no time making their way towards her even as she hurried to meet them as well.
"Oh, thank goodness!" Miharu fell to her knees before the children and swept them both up into a tight hug. Young Naruto stiffened slightly at the physical contact at first but he quickly relented, his hands slowly coming up to tightly grip the woman's shirtfront even as he burrowed deeper into her maternal embrace. A slight sniffle could be heard near her ear and even Sakura was shaking like a leaf in her arms, obviously deeply affected by whatever had happened prior to her arrival. It was a while before Miharu willingly relinquished her hold on the two children, pulling back slightly to better inspect their physical condition for herself.
The duo was completely filthy, their clothes and hair streaked with dirt, smears of what looked suspiciously like blood here and there, and god knew what else. Poor Naruto had an entire roll of bandage wrapped around his forehead and also appeared rather frumpy from an assortment of bruises and shallow abrasions decorating his face and limbs, and Sakura looked equally sorry with no less an amount of discolorations, small cuts and grazes all over her body. One of her hands was also completely swathed in sterile linen, and eyeing the amount of damage that the children had somehow sustained quickly stirred the fierce maternal instincts of the usually gentle and kind Miharu.
Eyes flashing with growing ire, the single parent wasted no time demanding for answers. "What on earth happened to both of you?! Look at you two; you are black and blue everywhere! What happened?!"
The stark reminder of what had occurred earlier made Sakura's eyes water. That was Kakashi's cue to step in, much to his displeasure. If he had known that he would have to perform this sort of damage control, he would have declined Itachi's request for assistance when the youth approached him earlier that day. Nudging a clearly reluctant Sasuke over to join his friends, the silver-haired nin finally spoke.
"Aa, Haruno-san? My name is Hatake Kakashi. I'm a Jounin. I was on hand to witness what happened to Naruto-kun and your daughter earlier. If you'll allow me to explain…?"
"Yes, please do, Hatake-san," Miharu replied sharply. Despite her polite words, it was clearly not a request. The golden-haired female's usually motherly violet eyes were hard and stern with a distinct lack of good humor. Here was an extremely unamused parent who wanted nothing more than to know why her children were in such a terrible state. Kakashi was really regretting getting involved in this entire situation, but he gamely plodded along all the same. After all, it wasn't as if there was anyone else capable of shedding light on what had happened in the Forest of Death; Itachi was still in surgery and the three children who had been involved were all in various stages of shock.
So, it was up to him to take charge and dispense with the necessary explanations.
By the time he was through, Miharu was very displeased by what she had heard. Thankfully, the woman was not someone who would shoot the messenger, and so she turned to the two youngsters under her care and jurisdiction instead. Both Naruto and Sakura withered under her intimidating stare.
"The Forest of Death, children?" she sounded very unhappy, alright. Just imagining the tragedy that could happen was nearly enough to make her hair turn white from the stress. "That place is prohibited for a very good reason! What were you both thinking?! Have you considered what would happen if nobody came to your rescue? If anything happened to you two, what would I do?"
For the two chastised children, there was nothing worse than the feeling of having disappointed the woman standing before them. Naruto and Sakura wilted further, and beside them, even Itachi-chan was cowering in a corner.
"Sorry, Mama," Sakura was the first to speak, her gaze lowered with guilt, looking utterly forlorn and downtrodden. "I went in first; Naruto followed me in when I got into trouble. It's not his fault."
Naruto clearly had something to say about that, judging by the way he was starting to open his mouth to protest. However, before he could say a word, a third voice entered the fray.
"I was the one who went in first. I did it for a stupid dare. I…I didn't know that it would be so dangerous. Sakura and Naruto…they saved me. I would be dead by now if they hadn't come for me." There, a nervous but subdued Uchiha Sasuke bowed deeply to his friend's mother and remained in his obeisance to show his sincerity and remorse. "Please don't blame them, Ma'am. It's my fault."
Naruto and Sakura stared at the humbled Sasuke like he had suddenly grown a second head.
"Who are you and what have you done to the teme?" Naruto blurted out unthinkingly, only to regret it almost immediately when Miharu ba-chan frowned at him for his potty mouth. Not wanting to incite even more displeasure from the already irritated mama, the fox child wisely kept his mouth shut and his head low – Miharu ba-chan was scary when she was angry.
Thankfully, the woman seemed more focused on the other boy who had proclaimed himself to be the one to have gotten all of them into this mess, and she was studying Sasuke with stern eyes. Sasuke, to his credit, did not flinch under the weight of her stare, and Miharu could sense the young Uchiha's firm resolve to take responsibility for his own actions.
"…You are the one who really likes okaka rice balls, aren't you?" There was precious little in her daughter's life that Miharu did not know about, so of course it made sense that she was well aware of the previously antagonistic friendship between this boy and her child.
Sasuke stiffened slightly, unsure how to respond to the woman's unorthodox query. Naruto came to his rescue, albeit unwittingly. The golden-haired youngster snorted under his breath, dispersing the tension in the air. "Okaka boy," Naruto quietly sneaked out the new moniker while pretending to clear his throat, and suddenly Sasuke's pale cheeks were suffused with color – the bright red of embarrassment and immense agitation, to be precise.
Sakura reached over and pinched Naruto's side in reprimand, eliciting a pained yelp from the boy.
"I am," Sasuke replied at last, his ears burning with mortification. "My name is Uchiha Sasuke, Ma'am."
Miharu eyed the three children before her. They all looked quite battered and exhausted from their ordeal, but despite their generally bedraggled and scruffy appearances, they only suffered minor surface injuries that were already seen to and treated by the medical personnel. However, the trauma from the evening would not be as easy to quell, and she could clearly see the shadows lurking in their eyes. Miharu's maternal instincts urged her to quickly usher her charges back home where they could be safe and have their needs tended to; now was really not the time to berate them for their folly – besides, judging by the somber air, they seemed to have already realized their mistake.
There would be ample time to reprimand them later.
"Straighten up, Sasuke-san," Miharu spoke at last, much to the young Uchiha's relief. However, it came too fast, for the blonde continued crisply. "I'm still quite displeased with you for leading Sakura and Naruto into danger like that, but I imagine that your parents will have plenty to say about that as well, so I will leave them to it." Judging by Sasuke's cringe, Miharu knew that she was right on the mark.
"I will also not lodge a formal complaint to your clan regarding this incident-" Sasuke went dead pale at that – he had forgotten about that part of Konoha's clan law – he would be in so much trouble (even more than he already was) if this entire series of events was brought to the attention of the clan elders. "-but you will have to come over to my house one day soon and offer up a formal apology, is that clear?"
Sasuke quickly nodded in agreement. "Yes, Ma'am."
Miharu leveled a strict stare at the properly chastised young boy. "My name is Haruno Miharu. You may address me as Miharu-san."
"Yes, Miharu-san." Sasuke was so uncharacteristically meek and obliging that the other two children could not help but stare at him out of the corner of their eyes.
Miharu was satisfied by how well-mannered the boy was; she could not imagine that this child was the same angry, arrogant child that Naru-kun often described – in much less polite terms, though, much to her chagrin. The pretty blonde nodded, and then unexpectedly reached out to drop a steadying, comforting hand on the young Uchiha's shoulder, much to the latter's surprise.
"Your older brother is strong, Sasuke-san. Don't worry; he will definitely pull through." Sasuke stared at her with wide eyes. Despite the elder Haruno's earlier displeasure towards him, her words were genuine and compassionate, and her kindness made the boy's nose tingle and his eyes prickle with the strongest urge to cry. He thought that he had been doing a good job hiding the desperate fear and restless anxiety roiling inside him since Nii-san had been rushed into the operating theatre, but somehow this woman with her astute violet eyes had seen through him completely.
Now Sasuke knew where Sakura had gotten it from.
The raven-haired child nodded once more and then discreetly turned his head to the side to wipe at his wet eyes with his sleeve. With another firm, reassuring pat, the Haruno matriarch let go of the boy and turned to Naruto and Sakura next.
"Come on, children; let's go back now. Naru-kun, you will stay with us tonight."
Immediately, the duo in question erupted in a flurry of protests.
"But Mama, Itachi-kun is still-"
"Miharu ba-chan, Itachi nii-sama is-"
Miharu would not stand for it though.
"Oh? And what can the two of you do for Itachi-kun by staying here?" the blonde reasoned sensibly. "And look at all of you! You are absolutely filthy, and don't think I haven't seen you lot masking yawns behind your hands. No more excuses; it's getting late! Come on, we will go back and get you guys clean and rested first, and bright and early tomorrow morning you can come back and see how Itachi-kun is doing."
The Haruno female wasn't really giving the kids a choice, and Kakashi was impressed by her no nonsense demeanor as she started to herd the children off. The efficient single parent turned to give him a gimlet stare that quickly made the accomplished ANBU captain feel a bit like a five year old who had just been caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
"You will see Sasuke-san safely home, Hatake-san?"
The silver-haired nin nodded politely. "Of course, Haruno-san."
That satisfied Miharu, and after a quick pause to allow the children to say their goodbyes, she promptly swept off with Sakura and Naruto in tow, leaving a stunned Sasuke and, to a lesser extent, Kakashi as well.
"Yes, some women are like that," Kakashi replied, not letting the young Uchiha finish his comment. "You will do well to remember not to get on their bad side."
Speaking of which…
The Hatake gestured for his charge to move on ahead of him.
"Come on, kid; you heard the marching orders. I need to get you back to your clan. I'll also need to speak to your parents."
Sasuke flinched at that, and at the moment, both looked equally reluctant to approach the Uchiha compound, even if for entirely different reasons. Kakashi had always had bad blood with that clan, and as for Sasuke, he was going to have to face the music for his actions when he got home. Also, most importantly, the boy was highly unwilling to leave his Aniki alone in the hospital, even though there was really nothing he could do to help in any way.
"Can we stay for a little longer?" Sasuke requested quietly at last, his anxious, guilt ridden gaze turned towards the firmly shut doors of the operating theatre that they had been waiting outside all the while.
Kakashi regarded the boy silently. At last, he nodded.
"…Very well then. Just for a little bit longer."
The injury dealt to Itachi in the defense of his younger brother, while not immediately fatal, had still been extremely life threatening. The young ANBU Captain had been brought in with a grossly punctured lung and several broken ribs, and aside from the extensive physical damage, the venom from the giant centipede's front claw had also attacked his system indiscriminately, nearly causing multiple organ failure, severe blood poisoning and anaphylaxis.
It was a good thing that the omukade was a native species of Konoha and therefore the hospital naturally had the appropriate anti venom in stock, the precious antidote procured from the secretive Aburame clan and their unique affinity with arthropods. Still, Itachi's action was not without lasting consequences, and his commanding officer, the ANBU Shousui, was quite angry when he learned what his apprentice had sacrificed on this foolish jaunt.
"Shousui-sama-" the fourteen year old Uchiha heir greeted raspingly the moment the Akikaze strode into his ward a mere day after he had been brought out of surgery. He had only awoken mere hours ago, and despite still being groggy and drugged up, etiquette and ANBU protocol demanded that he afford his superior the proper amount of respect that he deserved.
Kokkai waved Itachi's feeble attempt back down.
"At ease, Captain," the old man barked as he came to a stop at the foot of his protégé's hospital bed, his piercing green eyes studying the pale, wan features of the young teen. The boy's chest was swathed tightly in sterile bandages, and an assortment of medical equipment surrounded him, all either monitoring his vitals or supplying some form of treatment to his injured body.
"Hatake reported your actions to me," Akikaze's tone was razor sharp with censure as he stared hard at his apprentice, going straight to the point as usual. To his credit, the boy did not flinch from his Shousui's biting tone.
"My younger brother was in danger. I made the right call, Shousui-sama," he responded slowly.
That was not what Kokkai wanted to hear. "Do you think that I'm an idiot, boy?" the ANBU Commander snapped harshly. "If my goddamn elites cannot even take on a measly insect without landing themselves in the intensive care unit, then it means either I'm doing something wrong or Konoha has become so ludicrously weak that we cannot even handle our own bloody forest critters. What the hell were you thinking, Uchiha? Were you trying to kill yourself?"
It was a legitimate concern, for out of all the other things that the teen could have easily done to take out the giant centipede, he had deliberately chosen the one that caused him the largest amount of trauma. Since this was not the first time such an issue cropped up – it happened more often than necessary, Kokkai grimly noted – the Akikaze had every right to question his subordinate's state of mind.
The true nature of his superior's displeasure quickly occurred to Itachi. "I'm not suicidal, Shousui-sama," he answered, quietly emphasizing as he continued. "My younger brother was in danger. Necessity prompted my actions."
"Explain," the elder ordered, his tone clipped. Itachi could not disobey the direct command.
"The toxic ideals of our clan are starting to poison Sasuke's mind and influence his actions," Itachi whispered hoarsely, his eyes dulling slightly as he spoke. "He needed to see that there's more beyond the lofty ambitions of our clan elders and the muted disdain for the village. It's important that he be taught the truth now rather than later, when the clan's rigid doctrines become fully ingrained in him and become impossible to stamp out."
And then the whole story came spilling out, the facts of the situation laid out like a verbal mission report, outlined by the objectives that needed to be fulfilled and the means that had to be achieved in order for that to happen.
Kokkai closed his eyes and listened to the boy's desperate attempt to free his younger sibling from the messy entanglements of their family's longstanding discontent and dissatisfaction with their village. Then, the Akikaze wondered just where they had gone so wrong as leaders and teachers, ignoring what was plainly visible and pretending not to see the obvious for so long, that the divide between a clan and its village had become so huge and difficult to breach that his young apprentice had to go to such extremes just to teach his brother that it wasn't wrong to love both – that they should be one and the same.
The Uchiha heir had gone so far as to deliberately set his own brother up for this brutal learning experience, manipulating the younger child's perception and the events and people around him so as to force that realization out of Sasuke.
Still, Itachi's unexpectedly ruthless method would probably be effective as far as his younger brother was concerned. There was no memory more lasting to the human mind than one borne from acute emotional trauma – in one fell swoop, Itachi had ensured that Sasuke would remember this event – as well as all the feelings connected to it – for as long as he lived.
"Is that wise?" the ANBU Commander questioned bluntly at the end of Itachi's recount. "There is always the possibility that your brother will one day realize the truth of your manipulation of him."
Itachi flinched imperceptibly at that. But his eyes were steady and resolute. There were no regrets. "I did what I had to do. Sasuke has every right to draw his own conclusion. It's fine if he resents me for my actions, but he will have forged his bonds to the village by then – even if he hates me, my brother will be loyal to Konoha."
Because Itachi was loyal to Konoha, and as much as he loved his village, he also loved his brother.
This was the only way to protect Sasuke.
Akikaze said nothing for the longest time, just eyed his apprentice with meditative silence.
"I thought I already told you to drop the needless heroics and that useless self-sacrificing spirit of yours, boy," the Shousui said at last, his tone dark with displeasure. "You cannot afford that sort of luxury in the position that I'm grooming you for. In a game of Shogi, you are King; you must be the last to fall – no matter how difficult it is to watch the others do so in your stead. A King that falls first immediately dooms his men and his country to the same fate, so if you still plan to be my successor, then do us all a favor and kill that heart of yours right now. This is my last warning to you, Itachi – ANBU cannot be run by a leader who is unable to separate his feelings from his duties."
The fourteen year old teenager stared at the stern, unforgiving visage of his mentor, and then he nodded once. Sharply.
"I understand, Shousui-sama," the raven-haired Uchiha acquiesced after a pause. Kokkai's blazing emerald eyes narrowed under his thick, bushy brows.
"I mean it, Itachi. No more personal agendas. You are an asset of Konoha – an investment. You were specifically chosen – trained – to be her sword and shield. You are only allowed to incur damage in the defense or at the discretion of your village, not deliberately put yourself in danger for whatever reason not related to Konoha's cause. I have already told you – once you accept the training to be the next Shousui, you only live and die for your village and country – no exception."
There was a long pause before the Shousui continued harshly. "Yakushi Yoroi has informed me that you will never recover completely from this injury. Your lungs have always been naturally weak, and this time, you have accumulated too much damage in that particular area. The scarring left over from the Kusanagi no Tsurugi two years ago, combined with this newest injury, has effectively reduced your lung capacity by twenty-five percent. Your stamina and physical abilities will be adversely affected, and you will likely have to be medicated for your condition for the rest of your life."
The boy, though starkly pale from the news, was completely blank-faced and gave no other sign that he was affected by what Kokkai had just told him. The old man was not done yet, though.
"I can only imagine what your clan elders will do if they get ahold of this information."
Itachi's head shot up and he stiffened, his earlier shock bleeding away quickly to be replaced by defensive determination. "There is no reason to alarm my clan, Shousui-sama," his voice was sharp and unhesitating. "I can still carry out my duties effectively, with or without this handicap."
The reddish grey-haired senior eyed his protégé coolly. They both knew what would happen if the current heir was declared unfit to succeed the Uchiha House. The next in line would be forced to take over, and all of Itachi's efforts would be for nothing if Sasuke was brought under the direct guidance of the Uchiha elders.
"That still remains to be seen," Kokkai snapped, and the younger ANBU flinched. "Don't get cocky, boy; you may be good, but you are still nowhere near good enough to be considered indispensible yet. You can still be easily replaced just like anyone else in the ninja force, do you understand?"
The boy nodded slowly, effectively silenced by his superior's blunt summary of his situation.
"Good, think about that for once," the Shousui ordered. "As for your condition, I have claimed confidentiality; your medical files will be sealed away and kept out of the public eye – this includes your family – for as long as you belong to ANBU."
"Thank you, Shousui-sama," Itachi politely, gratefully, iterated.
Kokkai scowled. "I don't want nor need your useless thanks, boy. It is my duty to protect the interests of my subordinates. I will be happy if those same subordinates can be considerate enough not to cause me any more headaches than I already have, thank you very much."
Properly chastised, the raven-haired boy bowed his head. At that moment, bedridden and wounded, he looked every bit his age, unbearably young and nothing like the fearsome ANBU Captain that he truly was. Kokkai remained unmoved, though.
"This is the last time, Itachi," he spoke curtly. Warningly.
"I'm sorry, Shousui-sama," the teenager apologized, quietly and sincerely.
The Commander snorted rudely. "Sorry for your actions, or just sorry that you inconvenienced me? Even after knowing everything that would happen, if faced with the same choices now, you would still do it all over again, isn't that right?"
The Uchiha heir's silence said it all.
"…it won't happen again, Shousui-sama," the raven-haired male promised at last. There would be no need, after all. Itachi knew Sasuke like the back of his own hand; after this event, his relationship with his younger brother would never go back to the way it used to be ever again.
"Good. Because, Itachi? The next time you decide to dick around with your health or personal wellbeing again, I will drop your apprenticeship with immediate effect and show you out of ANBU myself. I'm old and tired; I do not have the time or the will to groom another Shousui candidate who won't live long enough to succeed me."
As Kokkai stalked out of his protégé's private ward, he stretched his arm out and quickly snagged hold of the small, quiet shadow that had been lurking outside the door. The young boy that the Shousui had picked up by the collar was surprisingly quiet and made no fuss as he was swiftly carried off to a more quiet area. Unlike Itachi, who had been too drugged up and distracted by his conversation with his superior to notice the presence of a young interloper outside his ward, the ANBU Commander had immediately sensed the child when the latter stopped outside the room, and the boy's chakra signature felt familiar enough to that of the Uchiha heir that Kokkai had just left the kid be.
Now though, he had to deal with the little eavesdropper and make sure to impress upon him the importance of keeping his mouth shut.
The boy was shaking slightly when Kokkai finally let him loose in a small, private meeting room. Judging by the obvious familial resemblance (as well as the Uchiha clan logo embossed on his shirt), this was obviously the child that Itachi had sacrificed himself to protect.
"Are you Uchiha Sasuke, boy?" the gruff Akikaze demanded.
The messy-haired nine year old nodded, still looking very withdrawn and quiet. His wide, dark eyes were slightly red rimmed around the edges, and he looked visibly distraught.
"How much did you overhear?"
The boy just shook his head, and instead blurted out his own question. "Nii-san…Is Nii-san going to be alright?"
Kokkai side-eyed the boy.
"Your brother is in no danger."
Sasuke was unconvinced.
"But I heard you say that his lungs are damaged!" he sounded completely frantic and fearful.
"Yes, they are damaged," the grizzled old man agreed flatly. "But he won't die immediately from it, at least not with proper medication and care. He will no longer be able to fight as long or as well as he used to, though."
The young Uchiha quickly took exception to that, his eyes flaring with fury at the perceived slight against his beloved brother. "S-shut up! Nii-san is strong! He won't die! Don't say such things!"
The boy was clearly upset, but the leader of the ANBU forces was not about to take such cheek from the little brat. Scowling, the Akikaze retorted sharply. "Of course your brother is strong, but he would have had the potential to become even stronger if he didn't have to step in and save your sorry hide, isn't that right, kid?"
Sasuke's anger quickly died and all color immediately drained from his face. His eyes started to water, his hands clenched into tight fists that drew blood as his fingernails dug deeply into his palms.
It was all his fault. Because of him, his older brother was so badly wounded that his injury would never heal properly – his health and ninja career would be adversely affected from hereon. Sasuke had been so cautiously hopeful and looking forward to see his Aniki when he had set off from home earlier, but now, he was filled with so much crippling guilt and anguish that he didn't think that he would ever recover from it. He had hurt his brother out of ignorance and stupid, childish anger, but his Nii-san did not even blame him for it, not even now. He had heard this old man harshly berating his brother when he was standing outside the ward, fiercely scolding him for committing an error in judgment that could very well cost him his position in ANBU, and all Itachi could do was apologize for saving him – for saving his useless and weak little brother who could do nothing but make trouble for his Nii-san.
It was all his fault.
Sasuke felt so wounded and raw from his realization that all he wanted to do was to sit there on the cold hard floor and howl his grief like a wild animal. He had intended to apologize to his brother earlier, but now, the boy knew that he had no right. How dare he just brazenly apologize when he did not deserve forgiveness? He did not deserve it at all, just like he did not deserve his brother. He was unworthy. His Nii-san, his kind and gentle Nii-san, had only made the mistake of loving him but Sasuke had been ungrateful and this was the result.
I'm the worst.
He was going to have to bear this guilt for the rest of his life.
Tears welled up in Sasuke's eyes, and then rolled down his cheeks in unending flow of liquid silver shine. His shoulders shook violently with the force of his emotional agony and the low, keening sounds that came out of his mouth resembled that of a beaten dog's. At that moment, he didn't even possess enough pride in him to care about his complete loss of composure in front of a stranger – all he knew was disappointment so sharp that cut so deep, disappointment in himself, disappointment that he succeeded in hurting his brother like he had so desperately wanted to, remorse, regret.
How was he ever going to face his Nii-san now?
Akikaze Kokkai watched as the boy broke down there and then and just wailed his heart out. It was not a pretty sight; snot and tears everywhere, but his anguish and shame were completely real. Since the aged ANBU Shousui was neither a fan nor enabler of dramatics, he just stood aside and waited for the upset child to stop…leaking. It took a while before the waterworks started to show signs of subsiding, and to discourage the Uchiha youngling from starting up all over again, the crotchety old man wasted no time shoving a handkerchief at the nine year old.
"Here. Take it."
Sasuke had no choice but to accept the piece of linen pushed unceremoniously at his face, and sniffling awkwardly, he sloppily tried to mop away the traces of his dishonor.
"It hurts, doesn't it?" The boy froze, but Kokkai calmly continued, watching the shaking child the entire while. "It feels very painful, right?"
A small, broken sound escaped Sasuke, and that was his confirmation.
Kokkai's piercing green eyes sharpened, and then he imparted a piece of sound advice to the young Uchiha.
Questions That I Would Like To Answer Before You Ask:
Uhm. Yes. So as promised, this is the last chapter of the Sasuke-centric arc. There will be a short timeskip after this, and if all goes well, we will be catching up to the start of the canon series very soon. Isn't that great? I'm frankly amazed that it took less than twenty chapters to get here. I'm kinda proud of myself; there were times where I didn't even think I'd actually get to this point, mostly due to the fact that I procrastinate so much and am writing for a few other OTPs on the side as well, ahaha.
Sorry for the late update; Naruto (the series) hasn't been very inspiring for me lately and I'm finding it quite difficult to keep up with the latest chapters. (Kishitmoron, what you doing?)
So, CP!Sasuke has an inferiority complex. It is very well hidden behind his layers of clan pride and grumpy arrogance, but it is there. He has his own cross to bear as the second son of the clan head, forever doomed to being compared to his genius older brother and always falling short. Note that in canon-verse, prior to the Uchiha massacre, a great amount of Sasuke's time and effort was spent trying to earn his father's acknowledgement and regard, struggling to get out from under his brother's immense shadow of achievements, and I feel that if the Uchiha coup d'état had not occurred, then Sasuke could have likely ended up inadvertently resenting either Itachi or his clan.
…I do suspect that canon!Sasuke has an inferiority complex also – it seems like he constantly has something to prove – so I'm trying to conform to that impression that I have of his character in CP as well.
Long story short, in this current arc, Sasuke lashing out at Naruto, Sakura and Itachi wasn't just due to his jealousy over the fact that his brother appeared to favor the other two children over him, it was also over the fact that he didn't think that Sakura and Naruto actually wanted him around when there was someone better, i.e. Itachi.
To be honest, the entire Team 7 is broken in their own ways. Sasuke with his clan pressures, Sakura the weak civilian child from a single parent family, and Naruto the despised orphaned Jinchuuriki. I'm really keen on the idea of them depending on and gaining strength from each other, eventually adopting an 'us-against-the-world' attitude; I'm trying my best to work out a realistic way for them to reach that sort of bond, hence this brief detour from the ItaSaku-ness.
I'm also aware that some of the readers really don't like Sasuke (I'm none too fond of canon!Sasuke myself right now, to be honest) and are complaining over why it's necessary to focus on him for the last few chapters, but it is a fact that Sasuke is very important to both Itachi and Sakura. Like it or not, he is a major concern in both of their lives, and so I found it particularly important to settle this issue before the timeskip.
Anyway, I hope some of you will grow to like CP!Sasuke eventually. He's not a bad kid, really. He's just very young and also a bit self-absorbed, but he's…learning. Besides, I have future plans for him, so it's necessary to build up his character. Do bear with it for now!
I'm not sure if any one of you have realized it, but there's a somewhat symmetrical symbolism to this entire series of events (or at least I tried and probably botched it up); Naruto showing Itachi the Will of Fire and Itachi promising to stand by Naruto in the future, Sasuke forcing Sakura to become even stronger with his ultimatum and Sakura helping Sasuke to 'see the light' – Sasuke who is Itachi's younger brother, and Naruto who sees Sakura as a beloved sister. I don't know if I was overthinking this or what, but there is an inadvertent ItaSaku link here – they are both helping and being helped by the important figures in each other's lives, and even without the blatant ItaSaku interactions, there is still that inevitable connection – see how it works out?
I hope the fight scene made sense. I originally intended to complete the entire Forest of Death scene in the last chapter, but it got too long and I had no choice but to split it. Still, I'm quite pleased with how it turned out, overall. I think it shows the potential of future!Team 7, but hopefully I didn't overdo it and superpower-ed the characters too much.
I feel extremely shameless for saying this, but I really do like Haruno Miharu as a character. She's a stabilizing presence in the lives of both Naruto and Sakura, and now, that will extend to Sasuke by default as well. If anything, I'm sure that she will put the fear of god (and women) into all of our favorite boys.
There's no other way to say this.
Itachi had basically set Sasuke up for a good hard mindfuck. The entire series of events; the deliberate isolation of Sasuke from himself as well as Naruto and Sakura, causing the emotional betrayal and trauma to bring down Sasuke's guard, in turn to make him susceptible to the inevitable advances of the opportunistic Uchiha children of the clan elders, were all orchestrated for one purpose and only one purpose in mind – to force Sasuke to see that the clan was not perfect, that he should always think for himself and not follow after the clan's teaching's like a blind sheep.
It's a very cold and cruel thing to do, but hey, it worked. For people like Sasuke, nothing gets through to them faster than trauma, and in one fell swoop Itachi had ensured that his younger brother would never forget this hard lesson.
This experience will also ensure that the brothers' relationship will shift from hereon. Sasuke's eyes have been opened, and nothing will ever be the same again.
CP is primarily an ItaSaku romance fic, but I think it's important to remember that despite being a pacifist, Itachi's character has always been brutally Machiavellian in its nature – the ends justifies the means – and that part of him will be especially highlighted in CP as he grows into a position of power as ANBU elite, future Shousui and Uchiha clan head. There's no way around this, I'm afraid. The highly manipulative nature of both clan and village politics will force him to adapt and change in order to continue to fulfill his duties to both Konoha and Uchiha to the best of his abilities.
Itachi has always been an antihero character to me; I hope to be able to embody this aspect of him in CP.
Canon!Itachi was believed to have suffered from a debilitating illness that was slowly killing him (or at least that's what the Narutopedia says) before Sasuke came along and finished the job. In CP-verse, Itachi has always had weak lungs – his physical stamina was average but his astounding fighting abilities and tactics made up for that. However, the chest injury received from Orochimaru a few years back and now the omukade would effectively weaken him even further – this is the price he will have to pay in exchange to teach Sasuke this lesson.
…And yes, I have already been planning for this since chapter 6, ahahaha. Sorry, you guys, there will be no godlike Itachi in this fic!
Also, as this is a very long chapter (just like the last few ones), I apologize on behalf of my beta and I if we missed out anything. It's really a pain in the backside to edit such lengthy works, so I seek your understanding in this matter. Feel free to let me know if you spot any grammatical or spelling errors, and I'll try to correct it ASAP.
The word length from next chapter on will likely be 10k and below (I hope), so they will be less taxing to edit.
I think that about covers it for the Q&A. Feel free to put your queries in review or PM if I have missed anything!
Oh, and before I forget (I'm always forgetting this part when I write my A/N, sorry!), uh, a bit of shameless plugging here: some of the wonderful readers have kindly contributed very cute and lovely ItaSaku fanarts for several of my fanfics – I'm always very appreciative and happy when fellow fans share their ItaSaku love with me (even though sometimes I'm really bad at showing it since I'm something of an awkward penguin in real life, ahaha). Anyway, I have already linked up most of them on my profile page; do feel free to take a look, and if you like the art, please be kind enough to leave a nice comment or message for the respective artist, thanks!
Last but not least, thanks for reading!
Your reviews fuel my passion for writing. So please leave a comment if you like this fic!