Title: A Heap of Broken Images
Series: Naruto (written May 2006)
Summary: [Till human voices wake us, and we drown] Of repercussions and promises that don't pan out.
Disclaimer: Naruto is the property of Kishimoto Masashi. So far from canon it's practically in another solar system. Worst fic I've ever written, even counting that Deidara one. I would totally understand if you unsubscribe me for this.
A Heap of Broken Images
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"April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain."
T.S. Eliot, "The Burial of the Dead"
In autumn, he trains in the forests of Konoha; come winter, he heads for the mountains. The highlands of Earth Country call to him in those frost-bitten months, and he goes looking for the pale refraction of winter sunlight on slabs of grey stone, like bones with shreds of meat on them. On those high plains, tufts of fine snow sift across the curdled sky, delicately clouding the air, a rare dust. They slap against his skin, swirl away like silk gauze, pile up over the opening of his soldier tent over night: a beautiful white tomb.
Someone asked him once 'When the time comes, will you still remember the promise you made to me?' He recalls it was the dead of winter, back when he still thought that the sight of solemn charcoal-grey eyes on a backdrop of plumy white smoke (that writhing snow-serpent) rising a hundred feet into the air was the most exquisite thing in the world.
Those days of January frost, of high altitude and howling wolves, lying awake at night with a small familiar boy-body tattooed against his back, so bone-old, teeth-chattering-cold not a thousand Katon Goukakyuu no Jutsu could have warmed him, are gone.
It is spring, and Kakashi has a mission.
("I absolutely forbid you to go after him by yourself," the Godaime states firmly, fists planted concretely on buxom hips, almond eyes like two identical angry suns.
Kakashi, who in all honesty has not been considering that prospect at all, lifts his eye to meet her scorching gaze and says, "Do you really think I have another choice?"
He is actually thinking about Sakura, whom the Hunter-Nin carried back from Grass Country three days ago, unconscious, laid on a stretcher, and resolutely not thinking about the fact that she had been one of four, yet was the only one they brought back. All the tendons in her arms and legs have been torn and damaged, her chakra channels clogged, and the doctors say that she will be in a wheelchair for the rest of her life. The only thing keeping her alive is her uncanny ability to control her chakra, and Kakashi regrets that he didn't commend her on it more often while he still had the chance.
"Uchiha Sasuke is one of the greatest threats to Konoha at the moment," Tsunade goes on, blithely ignoring him out of mercy, "and he must be dealt with in due time, with proper preparation. Our losses end here."
At that, she jerks her face away, so abruptly Kakashi has no time to determine whether that film of moisture in her eyes is really tears or just a trick of the light. The Hokage has lost a student and a friend (brother? son?), and Kakashi's lost three students, and of the two of them, he has to wonder whose grief is greater, who has made the bigger mistake.
"I understand," he answers at last, though he doesn't think Tsunade can hear him. His mind is already drifting back to the hospital ward where he visited Sakura the day before and found her awake, and how he wished he hadn't. Her face was half-deformed by the injury that had broken her jaws beyond repair—but that wasn't the point: she would always be beautiful to him. Rather, it was the fact that she could no longer speak, could say nothing except for garbled unintelligible sounds and, inexplicably, two bizarrely clear words.
The first is 'promise'; the second: 'snake'.
Now, as he takes his leave of the Hokage, all Kakashi can think about is how, upon saying the former, Sakura's eyes would fill with tears, but at the latter, her scarred visage would contort into a blaze of poisonous revulsion.)
In spring, the perfume that the air would bring regularly disarms him, dazes him half-blind with that fuzzy, warm freshness, like the surprise of a swift swallow-song. He has forgotten to keep an eye on the trail ahead.
He crosses over the mountain range and into the lush valley in time with the passing of an April shower and the return of the Sun, cruising gloriously on his fiery chariot over the arc of heavens. The heads of tall grass brush his kneecaps, the long green stalks stippled with dewy drops, blooms of lilacs peeking out from among the leaves, traces of white and lavender everywhere. A hushed scent flutters through the field, which is verdant with spring and newness, heady with the powdery dust from butterfly wings that dance vibrantly in the sun.
The air is busy with sounds of melodious songbirds, of animal hustles: growth and returning.
And mingling irreverently into this world of innocence is a voice, dark and slippery with poison, the serpent among droning doves, dissolving its silken malediction in the milieu.
"You shouldn't have followed me."
Kakashi smiles to himself, fingering a kunai blade lightly. "On the contrary, I think that it is of the utmost importance for you and I to have this meeting."
The tall grass rustles softly as cold laughter reverberates through the valley.
"Will you not come out and see me?" he asks casually, face raised to catch the rays of fractured sunlight breaking into hard edges on the lining of cotton clouds. The fabric of his mask absorbs the soft glow. It's a beautiful day. He wouldn't have it any other way.
"Are you sure that is what you want?"
"I insist," he says, his line of vision still fixed on a wisp of cloud. When he lowers it, there are charcoal-grey eyes watching him somberly from beneath long sooty lashes, and even without a background of snow and ice, they are just as captivating as ever, sharp enough to bleed on.
"Good day, Kakashi," Sasuke greets him with a smirk. "You seem quite well."
"Misery agrees with me," he says, nodding. "You, on the other hand, look like you could use a healthy dose of it yourself. Tell me, Sasuke, does your master order you to kill your friends, or do you just do it for your own pleasure?"
The barb is dull from disuse, but he gets his satisfaction all the same when Sasuke draws back his lips in a snarl, baring rows of perfect white teeth.
"Are you here then to correct my wrong-doings, sensei?"
He smiles again, pulling up his hitai-ate. "You always knew me too well."
All the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put everything together again, but Kakashi still has to try.
(It is raining the day they hold Naruto's funeral service, an old, tired, yellow rain tumbling away from a brittle china sky. Without a body to bury, it is only a matter of etching a new name onto the memorial stone, another line added to the ever-growing list chronicling the village's ebbs and flows. A fatalistic list: not a little morbid.
A surprising number of people show up to the wake, which is presided over by the Godaime herself. He had more friends here than one would have expected, Kakashi reflects, and He would have liked that. He would have laughed, like an irresponsible child, His laughter sharp and unheavy, like effervescent water bubbling up everywhere, little pockets of air. The sound would tinkle on the memorial marble. Kakashi thinks he hears something, but no, it is only the knocking of raindrops.
He wheels Sakura to the front, and the crowd silently parts to let them pass. Earlier that day, the nurses pointblank refused to risk wrestling her damaged body into a mourning suit, so he's draped a blanket of black wool over her hospital gown, and in the rain, beads of water latch onto its surface, adorning her sorrow with glistening sea-pearls.
He stops before the black stone and takes a step back, giving Sakura her moment. Presently, he sees her neck crane forward strenuously, her chin dropping onto her chest (she will not raise a hand to cradle her head: she cannot), and knows she's trying to sob even before the broken faded sounds expel forth. Her injury is preventing her from even giving her final respect to her teammate. But where (or may be because) Sakura has lost her voice, Kakashi thinks another is speaking up in her stead.
There are flowers in his grasp, chrysanthemum, but the rain is melting them, little bits of petal coming off on his hands, watery nectar seeping in streaks between his fingers. There is meaning in everything, even in these rivulets of yellow in the hollows of his palms, but there is no meaning in this death. What a senseless thing.
He hears it again, that ghost-voice, whispering caricature of words.
I will bring him back. It is the promise of a lifetime.
Promises have no meaning in death. Kakashi knows: he is the shinobi undertaker, and he lives on only to bury his dead.)
He is seeing the world in halves, like an oil painting over which some careless person has spilt a glass of pomegranate juice, so that one side of the canvas remains vivacious and colorfully pastel while the other is dyed a dreadful pale red, the lines and strokes done over in rough charcoal, a nightmarish landscape. Kakashi imagines that for Sasuke, this is all that he sees, and if so, then it may be an indication of the plane of his thoughts.
"It is so strange of you," Sasuke is saying as he swivels away from Kakashi, long sleeves flapping in the warm breeze, landing gracefully on his feet, "to care so much about him after all these years."
Kakashi wipes the beads of exertion from his temple, trying to catch a breath that explodes into his lungs like a wet, open wound. The field lies in waste, bruised trails of trampled grass denoting the history of their movements. The birds have gone silent, and silence drips onto his skin, thick and rotting-sweet.
"You never gave him so much as glance when he was alive," Sasuke goes on, "and here you are, risking your life to avenge his death. Do you not think it rather foolish?"
Kakashi chuckles mirthlessly. "You have misunderstood me, Sasuke. As I have told you once, I am not like you. I cannot be an avenger. That is not why I have sought you out today."
"Then what is the reason?"
"I do not seek vengeance, but the burial of the dead. You see, Sasuke, someone very dear to me has passed away, and I wish to send him to his final resting place. Rather late in the day, but, as they say, better late than never."
Sasuke narrows his suddenly animated pinwheel eyes. "I do not believe you are capable of doing that." His sword glints a cold metallic in the hot, simmering sun.
Kakashi secrets away another confident, curving smile, says "And we shall see about that, shall we not?" and the interval ends, the drama resumes.
(There are five faces carved onto the side of Mt. Monument, and Kakashi knows each and every one of them by heart, right down to every weathered line.
The first two have been around since before he was born—they are as familiar to him as the routines of mourning, relics from another age—and it is on their venerable features that the ravages of time and the signs of inferior craftsmanship are most salient.
The face to the far right fills him with dissonance every time he lifts his eye to it, and that is expected, for that is the revolt of Nature: the living is not meant to be duplicated. It is disquieting for the pair of stone eyes to be so somber and grave when he has seen their living counterparts blazing and mercurial.
The second face from the right is the one he knows best, and incidentally, the only one which he cannot gaze upon without trembling, without getting lost in the sickly smell of burning incense and funeral wreaths. He needs not look at the monument to evoke from memory a grief of sixteen years.
Really, someone should have told him all about heroes, and how you aren't supposed to love them. Heroes live for their ideals; that is their claim to immortality, their aspiration to divinity, and sooner or later, the gods will come calling for their own. Someone should have told him: that is a lesson he wishes he'd never had to learned for himself, time and time again.
Instead, he focuses on the image in the center, for Kakashi, too, has come looking for his own.
"I have thought long and hard upon the matter, and now, I think I've finally understood how you felt."
"But make no mistake, Sandaime-sama, I will not fall in your tread. I fully intend to correct my errors of judgment before it is too late."
As he walks away—and here his mind may be playing tricks on him—there seems to be a whisper drifting in the high wind (like ashes from a pyre: the wind picks them up and carries them to the end of the Earth) that keeps repeating the same question, over and over.
Are you sure it isn't already?)
Sasuke is dangerous—Kakashi learns that when you have high expectations of someone like Sasuke, he tends to live up to it—and if Kakashi isn't careful, he may well end up breaking his promise to the Godaime.
He briefly considers using his Mangenkyou Sharingan, then quickly discards the possibility. That wouldn't do, because if he knows Sasuke (and he does, Kami help him, he does), he must have spent all this time preparing for it
That leaves him with only one option.
"You should feel honored," Sasuke says mockingly. "I do consider you the last stepping stone leading up to my killing him."
"I'm touched, Sasuke," Kakashi replies, but it is difficult to talk around the blood in his mouth. He spits it out onto a clump of lilac, sees the red saliva staining pale petals, and continues, "But it seems rather ungrateful of you, after all we've gone through, to still rate me second-best."
This time he doesn't move out of the way fast enough and takes another stunning hit from the Chidori current (but who has he to blame but himself for placing that sword in Sasuke's hand?) that sends him flying backward and hitting prickly grass with a muted thud. As he lies on his back, dazed and spread-eagled, he hears feather footsteps approach, and before long, Sasuke's smirking face is hovering less than half a foot from his own.
Wait for it.
"You know what I think?" Sasuke muses aloud, pressing a long finger to the corner of his lips. "I think you would not go through with it even if you could."
He has to keep Sasuke talking, divert his attention from his hands. "And why do you think that?"
"Because you still remember," Sasuke answers, face tightening. "You cannot keep any of your promises but one, and that is the promise you made to me. I have always been the only one, isn't that right, Kakashi?."
There's a small part of Kakashi that can't disagree with that.
"At any rate," Sasuke goes on, "the burial you seek will have to wait for another day. It's such a pity that you cannot."
"So you think you've won?"
The sickle smile is back. "Haven't I?"
And Sasuke, who is clearly amused by Kakashi's rare bewilderment, throws back his head and laughs heartily—a loud, throaty sound—but it doesn't reach his eyes, which have once more faded into that intoxicating shade of grey. The knees of his trousers grind into the soft damp soil.
"Sōjasōsai no jutsu. Very clever of you to use Orochimaru's own technique against me. But did you honestly think he hasn't taught me how to neutralize it in these past three years?"
No, he didn't, not really, and this is something Kakashi knows, deep down in the black pit of his sickened heart.
Sasuke's fingers are suddenly on the back of his neck, worming their way past layers of rough fabric to seek bare skin. Before Kakashi has time to react, one manicured fingertip has located a pressure point—a jab, quick and decisive as the strike of a viper—and he feels his strength seeping away from him, the glow of his chakra extinguishing like a snuffed candle.
"You need the Byakugan to be able to see the Tenketsu," Sasuke explains casually. "But you can find them by touch if you possess an extensive knowledge of human anatomy."
"Was that really necessary?"
"Oh, yes," Sasuke says quietly, pulling down Kakashi's mask. "I believe it is."
(Winter in the mountains has the feel of a clean slate, overwhelmingly white and dead, no concave or convex, but papered flat in spite of the contours of the landscape. There is no scent, no color save for the black skeletons of rotting wood, wreckage on that graceful canvas of snow. The world feels deceptively new, un-broken-in, even though now is the season of sleep and weariness.
Sasuke's skin, like this winter snow, is devoid of colors at all times, but in the pinkish glow cast by the crackling fire, his cheeks are tinted an almost-flush. Kakashi throws another log onto the feeding flame as dusk falls and cold mist swirls over the ground, enveloping them in its chill silk.
"Your Taijutsu is very well-grounded," Kakashi says as he opens a can of soup with a shuriken, "and you are fairly versatile with new surroundings. Tomorrow, we will see how well you fair fighting on ice. The frozen lake—"
"Kakashi," Sasuke cuts in abruptly, lifting his head to unveil his eyes from behind the curtain of bangs. "Will you promise to give me whatever I need to make me strong?"
Kakashi, caught rather off-guard, blinks and asks, "Is that not what we're doing? Training to get stronger? Naruto and Sakura—"
He is interrupted a second time when Sasuke tosses off his blanket, scrambles across the space between them, and lays his cold hand on Kakashi's arm. "Kakashi," he says again, reiterating with deliberate slowness. "Promise me."
Kakashi stares at his face for a moment, and drops his gaze with a sigh. "Strength is not everything, Sasuke."
"You would like to believe that, wouldn't you?" Sasuke clips, his voice growing sullen and angry, and Kakashi is reminded forcefully that his student, precocious as he is, is still just a child. And that for children, a white lie never hurts (doesn't it?).
Quietly, he reaches out with one hand to cup Sasuke's face and turn it towards him, exerting force when it seems like Sasuke would wrench away again. In the light of the dancing flame, his eyes are luminous, wide and young, and Kakashi finds they are even more beautiful than in his thoughts.
"I promise," he says, his tongue thick and heavy against the back of his teeth. The weight of words in his mouth is staggering, but Sasuke is far too busy counting his vows to notice.
He goes to sleep, and when he wakes up in the morning, Sasuke is still there, perfect as snow (and perfect is too sterile a word; Sasuke is not), and that is what Kakashi wants to believe.)
But what Kakashi has always known, deep down, with a drowning-bitter, tongue-biting certainty, is that Sasuke is nothing but a graceful walking disaster, a slow-motion accident just waiting to be broken down by others. But while Itachi broke his life, Naruto broke his solitude, and Orochimaru simply broke him, Kakashi could never even make a dent in the surface.
This more than anything else makes him sick to his stomach.
Sasuke's kisses, Kakashi remembers, are rough and full of frenetic desperation, a strange grace.
These lips on his skin, this tongue in his mouth, they feel nothing like that.
"Make no mistake," Sasuke says vehemently. "Killing them was necessary. But this. This is personal."
Kakashi says nothing. When they kiss again, Sasuke pulls back suddenly with a sharp intake of breath. There is blood on Kakashi's lips.
"Tell me you don't want this. I dare you to tell me you don't want this, and I'll stop."
"I don't want this."
"I know," Kakashi says, speaking into Sasuke's mouth as it moves over him, seeking out his secret knots and unraveling them with a decisive snap of teeth. He is clammy with spit, sweat, and blood when Sasuke's nails finally break through his skin, and through the gash Sasuke slips into his blood stream.
Spring, he thinks feverishly, is the season of hope and buoyancy, of sprouting and growing, of beginnings. But this reunion, to him, feels more like an ending than anything.
That is because it is.
His eyes are half-blind, but his hands are not. He reaches out for something to hold on to, and grabs a cluster of lilacs, crushing them with his fingers. The bruised scent drifts into his nostrils, a vague memory of fragrance, light, sweet, and slightly noxious.
When he looks up, peering across Sasuke's silent face, the tall stalks of grass are waving indolently over their heads, and Kakashi imagines them growing over his body in tender green tendrils like clovers springing up on a fresh mound. His fingers become root tips, digging into the black soil to find the arteries of underground springs. He is growing into the earth, decomposing, the ground absorbing his presence; this is his grave, and Sasuke's mouth over his skin is vermilion red like a venomous flower.
I should have loved a thunderbird instead
At least when spring comes they roar back again
"I used to think you had all the answers," Sasuke says, smoothing out the wrinkles in his hakama with a flourish. Kakashi thinks he can detect a twinge of resentment—a wistful accusation—in those words and now isn't that funny. Isn't that just fucking hilarious. "But you never had any, did you? Not at all."
"Don't I know it, Sasuke," Kakashi laughs hollowly. "Don't I know it."
Sasuke takes a few steps backward, turning away from him, but he doesn't even think about getting up. All the strength in his limbs has gone, has leaked out into the sweet spring earth, and he is asphyxiated by the cruel fragrance of the crushed lilacs between his fingers, the resinous texture of dirt under his nails. Out of the corner of his good eye (the evil one has closed forever; that which is stolen cannot last), he sees Sasuke bend to pick up his sword from its bed of grass. He considers it for a moment, and then sheathes the steely blade silently and walks back to stand over Kakashi.
"I cannot grant you any last request," Sasuke says lightly. "But I will allow you this: to die upon your own sword. You can consider it my way of giving you back for your teaching. Rather like poetic justice, don't you think, sensei?"
And as Sasuke's fingers begin to whirl away into those familiar seal patterns (that summer afternoon on a mountain side: cursed seals, sleepless enemies, and a boy choking to death on the lump of his hatred), Kakashi thinks it's such a shame. He's been meaning to seek out his father amongst the eighteen levels of Hell, to walk up to the old man, pull up his shirt, point to his stomach and say proudly 'And this is the place where my student's blade went in hiltdeep, the place where my soul spilt out and splashed onto his hands, and afterwards he peeled off the dried pieces and ate them. Now show me yours, show me, show me…"
Really, it's such a nice day, the sun shining on his face, warm. He hears birds. The crackle of the Chidori sounds like the cries of a thousand sparrows—but no, it is not that. All the birds in this valley are singing the song of spring. That's it. He smiles, content.
"Isn't it ironic?" Sasuke asks, and the way the electric blue of his chakra highlights the lines and angles of his face makes his sneer look like a gash of shadow stretching across the space where his mouth should be. "You couldn't save me, and now, you can't even save yourself."
"Salvation is not all they make it out to be, you know," Kakashi whispers to no one in particular. "And now, Sasuke, have you ever gone training in Lightning Country in the summer? The air, the heat, the smell of burning grass imprinting on your brain--"
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