Title: An Exercise in Futility

Series: Naruto (written April 2006)

Pairing: Kimimaro/Sasuke

Summary: Sasuke is thirteen, and his is not the only heart that's breaking. (Love by Extension, or 15 Things Uchiha Sasuke Will Not Remember.)

A/N: Yup, still archiving. No one gave a shit about this story when I first wrote it, I'm sure nothing has changed since, lol. This takes place in an alternate time-line where the Sound Five don't die during the Sasuke Rescue Arc.


An Exercise in Futilty

-x-

"Nothing is easier than self-deceit. For what each man wishes, that he also believes to be true."

~Demosthenes

-x-

1.

One minute he is cocooned in a womb-like darkness, the next a piercing light is slicing through the shadows of his shelter. Between the creeping flame of the cursed seal searing up the length of his body and the white shards of light in his eyes, Sasuke is momentarily blinded. This causes him to go into a fit of suffocating panic, until he realizes that the brightness is simply sunlight, streaming luxuriantly into the hollow of the barrel now that the lid has been removed.

Gripping the wooden edge for leverage, Sasuke propels himself out of his container. The sudden movement throws him a bit, and he shakes his head blearily to clear off the hazy after-effect of the Seishingan. His vision is suddenly filled with green: the soothing calm of a silent forest. The breeze on his face feels clean and brisk; immediately, his unerring instincts kick in to inform him that he is at an unidentified location well above sea level.

A slight displacement of air from behind announces the presence of another, and Sasuke spins on his heels to see a tall white-haired boy studying him calculatingly. The boy is dressed in the manner of the Sound Nin, but Sasuke doesn't recognize him from the four who accosted him in Konoha. There is an intensity in the boy's quiet gaze that makes his blood chill.

"Kimimaro-kun. Sasuke-kun."

Kabuto chooses that moment to appear from behind a tree. Behind his spectacles, the medic's eyes are fixed on Sasuke's strange companion.

"Kabuto-san?" the boy, whose name Sasuke assumes is Kimimaro, answers.

"You were too late. Orochimaru-sama has already taken a new body."

Sasuke flinches inwardly, then relaxes. His time has been bought with exact precision; it is now up to him to spend it wisely.

"I apologize for my tardiness," replies Kimimaro, dropping his eyes. If there is any trace of emotion in them, his voice doesn't show it. "I was unfortunately waylaid by enemy shinobi."

Kabuto is silent for a moment. Then he emits a dismissive noise, and makes a show of cleaning his glasses (a delay tactic, Sasuke has deduced, to prevent others from reading his eyes).

"It is of no consequence now," Kabuto says, already turning to address Sasuke. "Sasuke-kun, you must be tired from your long journey. Allow me to show you to your new home. I'm sure Orochimaru-sama is eager to see that you've arrived safely."

Sasuke grunts noncommittally by way of reply. Kabuto doesn't seem to have heard, as he is already walking off in the direction from whence he came. Following in the medic's wake, Sasuke spares only a second to glance back over his shoulder at Kimimaro.

He is startled to meet with the same fierce look from before. Sasuke thinks this is improbable, almost outrageous, because Kimimaro's eyes are as green and serene as the forest around him.

-x-

2.

Sasuke spends his first night in Otogakure wide awake in his new bed, boring optical holes into the ceiling.

He has never been an easy sleeper, tends to sleep on his back, in fact, with his arms tightly clamped to his sides, his kunai pouch always in reach. Unfamiliar surroundings offer too many secret things that go bump in the dark, far more than his finely honed ninja sense can handle.

Earlier in the day, he watched the Sound Four trickle in one by one through the gates; some appeared near-dead on their feet, all were markedly worse for wear. Now as he lies tossing and turning in his tangled blankets, his mind is inexorably drawn, to his immense frustration, to wondering whether his former Leaf comrades had fared any better than their opponents. The thought is subsequently followed by traitorous memories of Team Seven—Kakashi's voice, Naruto's grin, and Sakura's tears—and pale-washed images of summer days and D-Rank missions, back when the world was still small.

The images sit like stillborn ghosts, staring out at him from every shadowed corner with mournful eyes, defying his many attempts to shove them away and replace them with Itachi's hateful face as he stood above the corpses of their parents. Growling at himself, Sasuke pummels his pillow angrily, and, pushing himself up with his fists, decides to go for a walk.

At that moment, he hears faint sounds of whispering wafting in from the corridor, right outside his room.

He crosses the distance in two steps and presses his ear against the thin shogi door. The voice on the other side dips and rises in octaves, urgent and irritated. He recognizes it as Kabuto's.

"You have not been following through with your treatment, Kimimaro-kun," says the medic. "I really don't have time for this nonsense, as you well know. Even if your condition is stabilized for the time being, medicines cannot be taken lightly as such."

A long silence follows Kabuto's words. The balls of Sasuke's feet begin to sting from the pressure he's applying on them in an effort to remain in position.

When Kimimaro's reply finally comes, it is spoken with the same poignant equanimity Sasuke remembers from earlier.

"Be honest with me, Kabuto-san," says Kimimaro. "Even if I do continue with the medication, how much time do I really have?"

Sasuke's brows knit together in confusion; he doesn't know what the two are talking about, but though he is half-annoyed by his own morbid curiosity, he cannot tear himself from the door.

"I'll give it until the second week of June, at most," Kabuto answers after a moment's consideration. Sasuke wonders how Kimimaro would react, whether he would remain so stiffly calm, or if his smooth, cold face would crumble and crack.

"Ah." The former, judging by the sound of that quiet reply. "It will be summer then."

Then comes the soft padding of light footfalls, growing fainter as it dies down the hallway. After a moment, Kabuto's heavier plodding follows.

Sasuke crawls back into his futon, drawing the cover tightly around him. He doesn't go to sleep, but for the rest of the night, his mind is void of past remembrances all the same.

-x-

3.

If ever asked, Sasuke would probably say that there is nothing particularly distinguishing about his days in Otogakure to speak of. In fact, his daily routines hardly seem to have changed at all. He still gets up at the same time everyday (6 AM sharp, courtesy of his unflappable inner body clock), puts on the same clothing he always wears (Sound Nin fashion being decidedly inferior), and commences his training with revenge-oriented goals in mind (ensuring, of course, that Orochimaru makes good on his promise). Uchiha Sasuke is a creature of habit, a regular dandelion child; you could pluck him up and replant him anywhere, in any clime, and he would still pop up and grow, unfurling stubbornly and determinedly just the same.

In spite of all this, it is with some surprise that Sasuke wakes on a cold November morning to a world buried beneath a thick, heavy blanket of downy white snow.

His practical mind helpfully chides that, really, it's no wonder he's caught unaware, because snow hardly ever falls in Konoha to begin with, and anyway, doesn't he remember that he's living further up north now, and on high altitude to boot? Groggily, Sasuke gets to his feet, resisting the urge to burrow back into the tomb-like cottony warmth of his quilt. His breath is rising in pearly hot clouds; the soles of his feet protest against the chilly floor, curling his toes inwards, sending goose bumps leaping up his exposed skin.

The ritual of toiletries completed, Sasuke shuffles down the exterior walkway towards the kitchen, willing himself not shiver each time a cold draft brushes across his face. He is peering distractedly at the sparkling icicles dripping from naked tree branches when something catches his eyes.

In the center of the snow-covered courtyard, Kimimaro stands gazing at the grey clouds sweeping overhead, back straight, head tilted, hands hanging loosely at his sides. With his light hair, pale skin, and lilac kimono, he seems to blend into the frozen landscape, like a shining camellia set against a pure white backdrop, looking for all the world as if he belongs there, has been there all along.

Sasuke sternly tells himself that he shouldn't really be thinking any of that. Instead, what he should be focusing on is the fact that Kimimaro is an idiot, staying out in the cold with only that light robe over his shoulders—if he gets sick then that's just more training he'd miss, isn't it? And he is very satisfied with this thought, is just about to move on when, without warning, Kimimaro springs into movement, and then Sasuke is incapable of thinking anything at all.

Sasuke has seen Taijutsu masters with perfect form, and considers himself rather proficient with the art, but the way Kimimaro is moving now still has him floored. The boy is flawless, so perfectly balanced that his feet don't appear to touch the ground (and he must have infused chakra into his soles, because the snow remains pristine and track-less). Whereas a still Kimimaro resembles a flower, beautiful and poised, a fighting Kimimaro is a butterfly, fluttering at the edge of vision, here and there again, always just out of reach.

Sasuke doesn't realize that he is clutching the railing until his knuckles are white and the numbness bites into his palms. When he looks up, Kimimaro has stopped moving, and is observing him with blank eyes that may or may not be as unnerving as before. The flush of exercise has darkened his pale complexion, giving him an expression somewhat more congenial, if not necessarily warmer.

"Were you watching my dance?"

A dance. And that has to be it, doesn't it, because what else can come even close to that level of grace?

"So what if I was?" Sasuke likes to think that his voice did not hitch, that he is not at all flustered for having been caught staring. This doesn't actually change anything.

"What do you think of it?"

"You leave too many openings," says Sasuke. "It's stupid to move in too many curves like that, letting your back and torso be exposed to attacks."

This is not untrue. Of course, what Sasuke doesn't tell Kimimaro is that, for all the superfluous strokes and lack of clean, decisive lines, Kimimaro has excelled at abandoning propriety, has made an art form out of ignoring conventions.

Kimimaro regards him coolly for a moment. Then he smiles a smile that doesn't quite reach his eyes, and says:

"I believe I don't have anything to worry about in that aspect. But if you doubt my ability, would you like to try to validate your observation by getting past my defense?"

Sasuke has thrown himself over the railing even before the sentence is finished, a kunai firmly gripped between his fingers. Despite his confident words, he knows too well that there's a huge difference between seeing an opening and being able to take advantage of it. But that is an acceptable risk, because even though Kimimaro is fast, Sasuke's pretty sure that he is faster.

So he dodges a kick aimed for his head, leaps into the air to avoid having his legs swept out from under him, and there! His kunai is headed straight for an unprotected underside, and he can almost feel the victorious smirk break over his lips. He hopes Kimimaro doesn't get too testy over the wound he's about to sustain.

Only, that doesn't happen, and Sasuke's eyes fairly pop out of their sockets when the tip of his blade is caught squarely between—he's really not seeing things—two protruding ribs. This derails him for just that one second too long, and then he is flying through air and hitting snow with a soft crunch, his chest throbbing from the impact of Kimimaro's kick.

The next moment he is back on his feet, and the world is dyed over in red watercolor wash.

"You have a blood-line limit," he hisses, a little more vehemently than is reasonable. How could he have been so arrogant as to have blatantly underestimated an opponent?

"So do you," Kimimaro says composedly. "And now shall we get serious?"

It is then that Sasuke realizes the depth of his arrogance, because, really, he knows nothing about Kimimaro's speed at all. With the Sharingan activated, he expects to see his opponent's attacks depicted in slow, stilted strokes, clearly laid out in neat details for him to counter. Instead, he can barely follow Kimimaro's movements as the older boy flits to and fro, changing directions in mid-air with the slightest shift of his body's axis.

Later, when he is once again flat on his back, aching from head to toes, Sasuke vaguely contemplates getting up, because at any moment now the snow will melt and icy cold water will soak through the layers of his clothing. But then Kimimaro is standing over him with that measuring look in his eyes, like he's sizing Sasuke up and finding him inadequate, and Sasuke can't seem to remember anything except the blood boiling in his ears.

"I really expected better of you, Sasuke-sama," says the older boy, his face now devoid of the almost-smile. "You are, after all, Orochimaru-sama's next container. You are his future. You have to be perfect for him."

Sasuke stays where he is, lying half-buried in snow, long after Kimimaro has walked away. He doesn't feel anything but the deathly chill in his heart.

-x-

4.

Sasuke begins to perceive a subtle deviation in the routines of his life, and it goes something like this:

He's improving extensively in his training, or so Orochimaru tells him, going leaps and bounds and generally proving himself to be a quote unquote worthy investment. It isn't long before the Sannin decides that, rather than allowing Sasuke to slink off to train by himself all the time, he should have his student practice with the Sound Four to sharpen his control over the cursed seal's powers.

Sasuke himself isn't overly concerned with this development. Certainly, the Sound Four are more than decent sparring partners, and he really has to figure out a way to mitigate Tayuya's combined weapon of a potty mouth and a tendency to play dirty, and soon, but for the present, he is slightly more occupied with the borderline stalkerish task of observing Kimimaro—whose clan, he learns, was the Kaguya of the Hidden Mist—and laying out his skills in precise details.

Something which he doesn't fail to notice is that, even though Kimimaro is supposedly the former leader of the Sound Four, he is never seen in the company of his old comrades. Stranger still, for all his impeccable taijutsu aptitude, Kimimaro doesn't seem to share Sasuke's training ethics. Time and time again, Sasuke has sought out the older boy in hopes of a rematch, only to find him quietly sitting down with a steaming pot of tea.

One day, when Sasuke has once again disrupted another one of Kimimaro's cultural appreciation sessions, the Kaguya merely quirks a pale eyebrow and motions for Sasuke to join him. And then, to his own astonishment, Sasuke stops vacillating between the pros and cons of it all, and settles down beside Kimimaro on the walkway, where the Kaguya calmly proceeds to pour him a piping hot cup of jasmine-scented tea.

Of course, whenever they do spar, Sasuke more often than not gets his ass handed to him. But the important thing, he reflects, is that he doesn't give up, and sooner or later, he will be strong enough to defeat Kimimaro. Until then, he'll have to persevere. The jasmine tea simply comes with the package.

-x-

5.

Nothing escapes the Sound Four's notice. Sasuke finds this out on the last day of the year—a wet and sleety Tuesday—when Kidoumaru pulls him aside after a training session and asks in that faux-polite tone that none of his teammates can quite manage if he may speak with him for a moment.

Kidoumaru is to Sasuke everything that Kimimaro is not, all dark-skinned and full of jittery energy that swells forth in the undulations of his six arms. Of course, this is only on the surface. Beneath that laid-back exterior, Sasuke suspects that Kidoumaru is more cunningly perceptive than any of them may ever know.

"So," the spider shinobi begins casually, "I hear you've been spending a lot of time with Kimimaro."

Sasuke responds with his usual I'm Too Busy And Important For This scowl, to which Kidoumaru returns an impish smirk.

"So what if I have?"

"Hmm, it's really not my business." Sasuke can't disagree with that. "But I just want to let you know that, well, you should probably be a bit more careful around him."

This is new. "And what do you mean by that? He used to be your captain, isn't that so?"

Instead of answering, Kidoumaru reaches up with one hand and plucks a leaf from an overhanging branch, twirling it between his fingers in the manner he might spin his silk.

"True. Doesn't mean he was liked. Anyway, Kimimaro, he's just really, and I mean really, devoted to Orochimaru-sama."

"Which is not necessarily a bad thing," he adds slyly, seeing Sasuke's furrowed brows. "But I'm just telling you now, so you don't regret later. Kimimaro doesn't care about anyone other than Orochimaru-sama. Not even his comrades."

Sasuke has already turned to walk away, shoving his hands in his pockets. "Thank you for your concern," he throws over his shoulder, "but I have no need for comrades." If he did, he'd still be in Konoha, listening to Naruto and Sakura chirp on and on about matters of no redeeming value whatsoever.

"Whatever you say," Kidoumaru shrugs. "Just didn't want you to get too attached to things that won't last."

Sasuke resolves to dismiss Kidoumaru's misguided warning right along with the weight that has settled in his stomach like a stone in water, but discovers that it's not as easy as he thinks. A few hours later, when he is sitting down to dine, the words are still lolling around in his head, molding themselves against the planes of his thoughts and tainting everything they touch with the shadow of doubt.

The end-of-year feast is something to be looked forward to in Orochimaru's household. On this occasion, small tables have been arranged along the inner walls of the main dining chamber after the manner of ancient courts, with Orochimaru presiding at the top. Sasuke, as the current favorite, has a seat directly to the Sannin's right, opposite Kabuto's, while the Sound Five fill out the rest of the spots. Kimimaro, Sasuke notes, is sitting at the very last table, right next to the doorway.

Orochimaru has absolutely no qualm about giving alcohol to minors, and thus, the sake flows a bit too generously throughout the meal. Sasuke has no taste for the bitter drink, so instead he spends his time watching Kimimaro watching Orochimaru making toast after toast in Sasuke's honor. He continues to watch as the Kaguya silently gets up in the middle of the feast and trails out of the room, unnoticed by anyone but him.

Orochimaru calls his name from the front of the room, head tossed back for another round of sake. Sasuke takes a perfunctory sip, and nearly chokes on the irony.

-x-

6.

"Why did you do that?" Kimimaro asks.

The question is accompanied by an expression of amusement mingled with benign incomprehension. This is likely due to the fact that Sasuke has just interrupted Kimimaro's detailed explanation of the Tsubaki no Mai to press his lips against the Kaguya's.

Sasuke flushes brilliantly, and pretends that he is immensely interested in his sock-clad toes.

"Are you in love with me?" There is a hinted note of teasing in those words, if he cares to look for it. He doesn't.

"Shut up. What does love have to do with anything?"

Indeed, Sasuke doesn't think love bears relation to anything of importance. He is thirteen years old, and in between plotting to murder his only living relative and reviving his clan, has no time for love, no time at all.

But Kimimaro speaks of love as if he understands it well—has been in love all his life—when from what Sasuke knows of Kimimaro's past, he never had anyone to care for before meeting Orochimaru. So when Kimimaro talks about the beauty of love, gets carried away by the self-sacrificing power granted to those who love, and looks at Sasuke with that feverish light in his eyes, Sasuke knows that he is thinking of Orochimaru.

Kimimaro sees Sasuke as Orochimaru's future, and maybe that's why he believes he should love him by extension. Sasuke has never had any illusion about this, or so he tells himself.

Sensing Sasuke's displeasure, the Kaguya's face smoothes over into a placating smile, and taking one of Sasuke's hands in his own, he holds the fingers up to the light.

"Your bones are very fine. Hollow and brittle, like a bird's. Very breakable."

"And you would know so much about breaking bones, wouldn't you?" The sarcastic edge of his words bites into his tongue with a pungent taste, like burnt grease.

"Just make sure to drink your milk every morning."

"Don't treat me like a child."

The sound of Kimimaro's laughter is a foreign thing, seldom heard and always unexpected. Sasuke finds the low deep melody of it strangely comforting.

"I never do," Kimimaro says, and reaches out to rest his hand against the nape of Sasuke's neck, stroking the unruly hair there. Kimimaro's fingers are long, tapered, and very soft, but the heart of his palm is rough and calloused from years of gripping the bone dagger. Its weight sends shivers down Sasuke's spine; he retaliates by stuffing cold hands into the older boy's kimono, and smiles in synchronism when Kimimaro laughs again.

Sasuke is thirteen years old, and has no time for love. But he finds it more and more difficult to concentrate on thoughts of vengeance when Kimimaro is whispering sweet nothings into his ears.

Outside, the cold wind howls between the skeletal arms of trembling trees.

-x-

7.

"I am very pleased with your progress, Sasuke-kun," Orochimaru croons with his usual crooked smile. "I was not mistaken in your latent potential."

Sasuke glowers darkly from where he sits opposite the Sannin. They have just been wrapping up another long study session on the control of seal patterns, and Sasuke's mind feels as if it has been frazzled fifty ways from Sunday.

"I don't care what you think," he retorts, "so long as you train me more regularly. With my current ability, it will be impossible to defeat Itachi."

"Ah," Orochimaru smirks, "and you do need to catch up with your brother soon, do you not?"

Sasuke's stomach lurches uneasily. He hates it when the topic of the three-year grace period is brought up. It makes him feel as if the gap between him and his brother keeps growing greater and greater with each passing day.

"But rest assured, Sasuke-kun," continues the Sannin, "that you have all the time you need. After all, you are in the peak of health. I hold strong belief that you will not go the way of my last container."

"Tell me about your last container then." Funny, how things tend to circle back to Kimimaro these days.

"But what is there to tell?" Orochimaru says cruelly. "After all, Kimimaro-kun is but an obsolete cast-off now. He used to be such a perfect specimen, but he is no longer of use to my purposes. Unless," there's a wicked flicker in the cold reptilian eyes, "you find him amusing, Sasuke-kun, in which case I'm sure I can arrange for Kimimaro-kun to be your attendant."

The words startle Sasuke, deepening his scowl. Then he silently gets to his feet and stalks out of the room.

The first thing he sees upon stepping outside is Kimimaro leaning against the opposite wall, and Sasuke wonders if the he has heard the conversation with Orochimaru. The Kaguya doesn't speak, but there is a dark smolder in his deep green eyes that fills Sasuke with disquiet.

The next day on the training ground, Kimimaro trounces the living hell out of Sasuke, and as he lies gasping in the dirt, Sasuke is quite sure that the Kaguya has forgotten that he's not actually supposed to kill him.

But then Kimimaro extends a hand to help Sasuke shakily to his feet and pulls him along, never letting go until they reach his bedroom. There he putters about gathering pots of healing balm, and applies the medicine on Sasuke's wounds himself, long fingers kneading expertly around the bruised skin in soft, fluttering touches. As the question is forming in his mouth, Sasuke's nostril is suddenly filled with the tender scent of jasmine, and a steaming cup is laid out before him. Kimimaro's eyes are soft and easy again, and the knot in Sasuke's chest unravels itself.

Oddly enough, it is these moments-in-between that he will remember most vividly, when nothing else remains.

-x-

8.

There's a little bowl that sits on a table just inside the doorway in Kimimaro's room, and it catches Sasuke's eyes every time he passes by. It is made of fine white Chinese porcelain, so exquisitely sculpted that it might fragment and come apart under too forceful fingers.

Kimimaro sees him admiring the dark blue glazing one day, and informs him that the bowl is an antique piece from the Ming Dynasty. He doesn't say that it was a gift from Orochimaru back in the early days of Otogakure, but Sasuke knows.

What really captivates Sasuke about the bowl is the fact that it is always filled with water and flower petals that change every few weeks; he would think that such a precious antique should be treated with better care. He wants to ask Kimimaro about this oddity, and so he does, one dry and frosty evening in late February when there are camellia petals drifting serenely in the water.

"In some ways, flowers are much more beautiful than antique pottery, Sasuke-sama," Kimimaro says with a strange half-smile. "All men are ruled by the terror of time, so no attained object can give lasting aesthetic pleasure. Flowers are especially unpretentious about their impermanence. The fact that their beauty is fleeting makes them ever more desirable."

Sasuke looks up from his position—lying belly-down on the tatami mats, pretending to read a scroll—and watches silently as Kimimaro gently traces the bowl's patterns with his fingers.

"Of course, most human beings are driven by their ambitions and live for the future, so it is difficult for them to understand their lacking. You, Sasuke-sama, are continually absorbed by your plans for tomorrow. Because you are only concerned by what is to come, you prefer the antique bowl that will still be here whenever you want it to the flowers that may not."

Sasuke frowns in slight confusion. He remembers telling someone, long ago, that he had no future, that his future belonged in the past. But he doesn't disagree with Kimimaro either. Is it not true that the fulfillment of his goals lies in the unrealized future? Itachi belongs in a future where Sasuke's hatred is strong enough, and so there Sasuke must lay all his hopes and dreams. It is a destiny greater than himself.

"But I have no future," Kimimaro continues, his tone noticeably subdued, "and my past holds nothing worth remembrance. I used to think that flowers had no purpose in life, that they were worthless in their fickleness." He pauses to caress a white petal between his thumb and forefinger. "But now I see that it is precisely this futile transience that lifts us from the humdrum of everyday life, and delivers us to that state of sublimity, right before we are wrenched back into the eternal suffering for which we are fated to bear."

"This was never about flowers, was it?" asks Sasuke.

"Not entirely," answers Kimimaro. "But I am fond of them. They are not as resplendent in these cold winter months, but in spring, when the sakura blooms, the choices are much more diverse. And in the summer…"

Here he falters, eyes growing distant, coughing into his hand, and Sasuke has to look away and feign interest in his abandoned scroll.

"In the summer," Kimimaro goes on after a moment, "my favorite flower is the Natsu-tsubaki. There is a lovely story behind it, if you'd like to hear."

The night grows late and cold and Kimimaro's room is warm, so Sasuke drops his chin onto his folded arms and listens distractedly to the tale of the summer camellia, under whose branches the Lord Buddha passed away. Kimimaro's voice creates a soothing, lulling rhythm that hums comfortingly in the background, rising and ebbing with the dancing flame of the oil lamp.

Sasuke doesn't remember falling asleep, but when he wakes, it is with his body rolled up in Kimimaro's thick quilt and his head bundled snugly in the crook of the other boy's arm. The pink morning light is creeping in through the slightly ajar window. Sasuke thinks he can feel Kimimaro's heart beat, even and steady, and marvels at the way the angles and lines of their bodies fit together as if formed for one another.

-x-

9.

In mid-March, Sasuke is declared the new leader of the Sound Four. He knows the title only carries as far as he can get them to follow his commands and maybe not let him be stabbed from behind when/if his Sharingan fail him on missions, but it still has to count for something.

He doesn't have much to time to spar with Kimimaro anymore. Not that it makes much difference, because Kimimaro hardly comes out of his room these days, and even when he does, he's much more likely to zone out with his tea pot than practice. He moves like a ghost, a cast-off shell that's been relegated to the sideline, which is, ironically, exactly what he is.

Sasuke still hasn't found a way to beat Kimimaro, and he's reminded of this every time he sees the older boy. But he still comes back from every mission to join Kimimaro on the front walkway and press his sore palm against the curve of Kimimaro's shoulder blade and the slight dip in his back, just to feel them moving and warm and so alive beneath his touch. The new herbal tea has a nasty sour smell that makes Sasuke's nose itch; he misses the sweet warm scent of jasmine, but Kimimaro tells him the licorice root soothes his throat, so Sasuke drinks cup after cup of the foul liquid without complaint. He'd drink a thousand cups of licorice tea if it'd stop Kimimaro's coughing.

By the third week of March, the orchard explodes into a profusion of pink and white petals. Somei Yoshino is such a common flower, Sasuke reflects, because it's found pretty much everywhere he goes. There were Yoshino trees right outside his apartment back in Konoha, and every year they'd shower the courtyard with five-petal blossoms just like the one that has just drifted into his tea cup. He studies the off-pink petals, the way they strike a stark contrast against the brown-yellow water, and thinks that, in a week, all the blossoms will be gone.

Kimimaro coughs.

-x-

10.

It's April, and the air is sultry and heavy with humidity. The back of Sasuke's collar sticks uncomfortably to his neck, and it's difficult to concentrate on chakra patterns and forbidden seals when there's sweat beading down his brows, stinging in his eyes.

One day, Kimimaro interrupts him in the middle of a highly complex scroll on the history of Kinjutsu, and asks if Sasuke would like to accompany him on a trip into town.

Sasuke raises an eyebrow at that. "Shouldn't you be resting?"

Kimimaro is already walking off. "I'm fine. Come with me."

And he does.

They come down the hill, leaving behind the rocks and trees, and suddenly the Fuuma Valley opens up before their eyes, welcoming them with bountiful arms. Rice Field Country is nestled between solid ranges of mountains, bounded to the south by a deep-flowing river. Centuries before, the valley's first inhabitants erected dams to keep the seasonal flood from ravaging their land, and within these protective barriers, green paddy fields stretch for miles and miles around, as far as the eye can see.

As they navigate their way along the podars that criss-cross through the paddy patches, Sasuke inhales deeply, taking in the raw smell of wet soil and the freshly sweet scent of the little drops of milk coalescing into rice seeds within their scratchy coatings. In the fields, peasant girls huddle in small groups with their ankles deep in muddy water, giggling at Kimimaro and him as they walk past, hiding their blushing cheeks behind wide-brimmed rice hats. Sasuke is so used to this kind of silliness that its frivolity only mildly irritates him, raises his hackles just that little bit. Kimimaro just keeps walking like he doesn't notice anything.

Sasuke observes the way Kimimaro nimbly sets one foot in front of the other like he's gliding on air, and tries not to think about the jutting thinness in his shoulders and arms, or the dullness of his wan cheeks. Kimimaro's been constantly losing weight, but he tells Sasuke that his bones have not started to deteriorate (yet), so at least something is holding up.

Even in his decline, there is something androgynous and dangerous about the Kaguya, an unearthly sort of beauty that's almost unbearable to behold. With his white hair and pale smooth skin, Sasuke thinks Kimimaro can put beauties to shame. He would be radiant with red paint on his mouth and rouge on his cheeks, swathed in colorful silks and rich brocades and swirling patterns. But Kimimaro is not a decorative piece to be gazed upon from behind glass; he is a weapon, so Sasuke imagines him as a general next, decked out in armors and shining helmets, a katana in hand like a slick ribbon, or maybe water. The Sound Nin garb in comparison seems drab and incongruous on him. But Kimimaro wears it proudly—the quiet dignity apparent in the ram-rod straightness of his back and the purposefulness in his strides—like there's nothing better in the world.

The village of Otogakure seems fairly bursting at the seams with the blooming of spring. Everywhere they go there is a bustling anticipation that streams forth from every orifice. A festival is coming, and the townspeople are eagerly swept up in its preparation. Bright colors decorate every storefront. Stalls of fruits and candies and incense and fortune tellers line every street, beckoning with merry cheers. Kimimaro wanders from store to store, peering closely at the merchandise without buying anything, and Sasuke impatiently wonders what the purpose of this excursion is.

Then the Kaguya stops in front of a small stall that sells dried fruit. Money changes hands, and the next thing Sasuke knows Kimimaro is holding a little bag of candied plums. He doesn't eat any, just holds them in his palm. When Sasuke quirks his brow in question, Kimimaro just smiles and pops a piece of fruit into Sasuke's mouth.

The sugary sweetness assaults his taste buds almost at the same time the dry texture triggers a flash of memory in his mind. Suddenly, Sasuke is five years old again, and he is dolled up in his favorite kimono, the one with the black obi and the dark blue cloth that doesn't grate on his skin. His little hand is tightly grasping that of his brother. It is spring, and the festival is teeming around them, and in the twinkling lights of lanterns and fireflies, Itachi's eyes are inky and gentle. Their mother is some steps ahead, calling for them to keep up, and when they catch up to her, she has a small bag of candied plums in her hand. Itachi doesn't want any, but he gives one to Sasuke, telling him not to eat too many or he'll spoil his dinner. And when the sugared fruit melts in his mouth, Sasuke feels so giddy that he starts laughing and has to clamp a hand to his lips to prevent the candy from falling out. He tells himself that he'll always remember this night, always remember...

When he comes to himself again, there is a tight clench in his chest, and he is choking on his own breath, struggling with the effort to stand. Somehow he's forgotten, has allowed himself to forget, and he is so angry he wants to break something, and has to bite into his knuckles to swallow the urge. The blood on his lips tastes metallic and bitter.

Kimimaro watches him with cautious, half-lidded eyes. Then he turns away and says, "You don't look well. Perhaps it's time we should go back."

Sasuke stares at the ground for a moment, then breaks into a run. Grabbing the older boy's sleeve, he spins him around to face him. "Fight me when we get back."

Kimimaro just looks at him, and Sasuke holds his breath. Then the Kaguya laces his hand into Sasuke's, cradling it gently, thin fingers catching on the fabric of his arm-warmer, and tells him, "I'll do something even better. I'll show you another dance."

That evening, when Sasuke emerges from his bath, there are white plum blossoms floating in the little bowl.

-x-

11.

One night, Sasuke wanders into Kimimaro's room without announcing himself, and immediately regrets it.

He hears the coughing before he opens the shogi door; usually it's a sort of dry, hollow, and broken sound, painful as a sob, but now there's something strange in it, wet and chafed like a salted wound, that Sasuke decides he doesn't like at all.

In the flickering light of the lacquered lamp, Kimimaro is sitting up in his futon, his blanket wrapped pitifully around his bony frame. His damp hair clings to his temples, and there's a dark flush across his cheeks that has nothing to do with exercise. His eyes widen at the sight of Sasuke, the pupils dilating wildly. And that's when Sasuke sees.

Blood.

Blood on Kimimaro's mouth and blood on his palms and blood on his sleeves. There's blood on the sheets, blood on the fucking tatami mats; Sasuke thinks he can smell it in the dense heat of the room, and damn it, why hasn't he seen this coming?

He turns and walks out of the room, shutting the door with a snap, not bothering to glance at the weeping golden bell in the bowl by the entrance.

The next morning, Sasuke wakes up and decides that he doesn't give a damn. It is also on this day that he nearly receives five shuriken in the guts on a simple recon assignment when his Sharingan conveniently become too distracted to notice the two shinobi hiding in a tree. He doesn't remember any of it afterwards, except that, while Tayuya's scathing insults were ringing in his ears, all he could think about was how the blood on his arm didn't seem as red.

-x-

12.

For the entire first week of May, it rains like the sky is weeping.

On the fourth day, Sasuke comes out to the front porch to find Kimimaro already there, leaning languidly on a pillar and watching the ribbons of water shoot from the clouds like senbon needles, breaking like sparks on the ground.

"What are you doing out here?"

Kimimaro lifts his head and smiles at Sasuke, in that infuriating way of his that means he's about to do something completely unexpected. Then Sasuke sees the bone daggers clutched in his hands, and scowls darkly.

"You're not thinking of going out there, are you? How stupid can you be?"

But Kimimaro has already moved before Sasuke can finish his reprimand. Before Sasuke's eyes, he unfurls like a starved flower, and Sasuke is reminded of just how magnificent Kimimaro's dance can be. The bone blades whirl wildly in the rain, sending sparkling droplets every which way. The arcs are forming too fast for normal eyes to follow, but Sasuke doesn't need the Sharingan to know that Kimimaro is executing kata after perfect kata, moving in a blur behind the pale watery curtain. He doubts that a single drop can get past the daggers to touch the Kaguya.

Then something unthinkable happens. Kimimaro's foot catches and stumbles and before Sasuke has had time to react, the swords go flying and Kimimaro is on the ground, arms shaking to support his body, water trailing down his face and neck.

Sasuke is beside him in a blink. He wants to reach out and pull the other boy into his arms, but doesn't. Instead, he stands very still, balling his hands into fists, and watches the tremulous shudder in Kimimaro's limbs. He tells himself that he doesn't see how the Kaguya is diminishing before his eyes, withering away into his clothing and the stormy sky.

By the time Sasuke is aware of his surrounding again, Kimimaro has gotten shakily to his feet and pasted a wavering smile onto his lips. He lifts one hand to tilt up Sasuke's chin, and gently massages Sasuke's left cheek with the other, easing the tension out of his jaw muscles.

"It's alright, Sasuke-sama. It was just a slip."

Kimimaro's mouth tastes like water, Sasuke thinks, and deeper than that he can discern the faint sourness of licorice tea, but as cold rain soaks into his shirt and hair, Sasuke feels that perhaps his is not the only heart that's breaking.

-x-

13.

By the end of May, Kimimaro has been confined permanently to bed.

Sasuke goes off to train one morning as he does everyday and levels a good portion of the forest with his Chidori. When dusk falls, he is found by Sakon lying facedown in the dirt with his bones broken in three distinct places, the black stain of his Level One cursed seal spreading like wild fire across his body.

Kabuto takes one cursory look at his injuries, and clicks open his medical kit without a word. But even if Sasuke can pretend not to notice the medic-nin's disapproving frown, he can't quite ignore the way Kabuto's fingers press a little harder than necessary when he is setting Sasuke's bones.

-x-

14.

This is what he does remember:

The ornate bowl hits the wall with a tinkling crash, splashing water everywhere. The broken pieces lie forlornly on the floor, white-blue mingling with the garish red of the rhododendron petals.

Kimimaro doesn't even blink. He lies swaddled in the folds of his blankets, too weak and atrophied to move, his chest heaving tightly with the effort to draw breaths.

"I've never lied to you about any of this," he rasps.

The blunt force of the truth hits Sasuke hard enough to knock the breath out of him. He knows it—has always known that Kimimaro has been nothing but brutally honest since the very start. And if that's so, then it's Sasuke who's been lying to himself, deliberately covering his eyes and ears. But if Sasuke is snow-blind and foolhardy, then Kimimaro is deluded. He thinks he knows what love is, but what he really sees is toasts made in someone else's name and glories that are forever out of his reach. In the end, they've both gotten their just rewards, and the gods are laughing.

Kimimaro's room hasn't been aired out in weeks. The stench of stale sheets and death makes Sasuke sick to his stomach; he reels with sudden claustrophobia.

"I don't care anymore," he spits, feeling like he's swallowing glass. "It's over." The words are ashes on his tongue, empty and weightless. Sasuke is a genius, has always prided himself on his intelligence, so he must have known it was over long before it has even begun. Words don't necessarily convey anything.

"People can't live forever in the present, Sasuke-sama," Kimimaro goes on, as if he hasn't heard anything. "You have to carry on the burden of time, and let the future move you forward."

"Then what good is living in the present?"

He has to leave, can't stay in this stifling room one moment longer.

Sasuke is already half-way out the door, stepping over broken china and crushing blood-red petals beneath his feet, when Kimimaro says quietly, "There is still memory."

-x-

15.

The following happens on a summer day, pale blue and nondescript.

Jiroubou is shuffling nervously in front of a closed shogi door. Beside him, Tayuya makes a derisive noise, suppressing the string of colorful curses playing on the corners of her lips. Sliding the door open, she pushes her teammate inside.

Jiroubou glares back at her. It's not like he's superstitious or anything, but there's something about this empty, silent room that makes him terribly uneasy, like the walls are pressing down on him. Plus, he feels a bit morbid poking around a dead man's possessions.

"Get to work, fat-ass," Tayuya barks. "We've got to find that scroll by noon or you're not eating dinner for a week."

Sighing to himself, Jiroubou buries himself in the shelves that line the walls, sneezing from the layer of dust that has accumulated there. Then he notices something unusual.

"Uh, Tayuya? Do you remember that being here when we came in to clean last week?"

"What the fuck are you talking about, moron?"

On a small table by the door, there sits a little china bowl, finely glazed in deep blue patterns. Jiroubou takes a few steps forward and peers inside. To his surprise, the bowl is filled nearly to the brim with water, in which summer camellia petals are floating tranquilly.

"There're flowers in here," he exclaims. "And they're fresh!"

"Stop talking nonsense," Tayuya snaps. "Hey, I've got the scroll! Let's get outta here, this place is so fucking creepy."

As Jiroubou trails after his comrade, he glances back at the bowl of flowers one last time. Then he looks away, and closes the door softly behind him.

-x-

the end