Title: Letting Go
Beta Editor: jaquiel
Warnings: Highly literary, non-linear chronology and flashbacks. Major angst. Violence.
Summary: "It's a dangerous game they're playing, but Kakashi can't give up. Won't, because he's tried to open his empty hands and let go of Sasuke's memory too many times.
He'd always known when one was coming. Could smell it in the air, the ozone thick and heavy, lightning held in abeyance in the distance. And the trees -- the way they stood in silence, waiting just before the thunder clapped and the rain began to fall. How they braced themselves against the earth and let their roots go all the way down, so no amount of wind could tear them from the ground.
Kakashi used to watch the way the leaves held themselves down. How they shook in the wind, fighting to stay on the branch. Because it's easy to get lost in a storm that large. Easy to be swept away, torn asunder. Especially when you are small and the world is too large, night too dark, and you have seen just how violent it can be out there.
Kakashi felt the shakes before he heard them, and knew instinctively what it was when Sasuke woke with a sudden jerk, his eyes snapping open. Red and black and glistening with blood and panic and something unreadable. Something that felt a little like desperation.
He knew that feeling well. The way it grips, holds on. The past has a way of sinking its claws in and not letting go.
So you close your eyes and tell your mind to stop. But memory, it's a vicious thing, hungry to relive itself. And it goes flashing before you again: the parts you think you've buried, the key thrown away. It always finds its way home.
There weren't very many dreams Kakashi had that weren't filled with loss. People falling down and growing into the ground. Blood flying through the air to ruin every sunset and sunrise. The horizon was always a haze of red. The earth, muddy with it. And he was always learning to let go while trying to hold on. Sometimes he didn't even know what he was holding onto.
But then he'd open his eyes and see them as he does in his memories. Of a time when things were still complete. When Sasuke wasn't missing, hadn't cut a hole in Team 7 that could never be filled in as long as he stayed away. A time before Naruto and Sakura crumbled at the very sound of his name.
(Should've kept him tied up in the tree that day.)
Kakashi's dreams were filled with loss except for the one that had Sasuke coming home. Back into the arms of people who cared for him and still loved him. Would never give up on him because they believed in him. Naruto and Sakura. Kakashi too.
He doesn't know if that dream will ever come true.
He can only hope.
And that is why Kakashi is using his time as wisely as he can.
Time is slipping away like sand between fingers that can't hold onto it. It is like being eight again and stumbling across a thunderstorm inside of his home with his father on the ground. The sand slipped through his fingers then, glossy and wet and growing cold far too quickly. By that time, it was too late. The blood was already running across the floorboards and coagulating. Time stopped then, and was no longer moving. The grains fell between the cracks. Just like that. And all Kakashi could do was watch.
Like he watches now. Sees the grains slipping away, and tries to make the best of quicksand. It goes quickly with the tides, dragged under the surface. And he can only hope it somehow makes its way to Sasuke's shores, that are rocky and barren with walls built high to prevent any access to him, where he stands solitary on a cliff, watching the sea, waiting for it to recede, away from his island and away from him.
This boy who stopped believing because he thought no one believed in him. Or understood.
And maybe Sasuke doesn't think there's anything left to believe in, because he was too small and walked around with eyes covered up by his brother's hands, and couldn't save them then. So he became good at breaking things instead. Like Kakashi had done when time went running out between his fingers.
It's easier to smash something apart than it is to hold on. Harder to protect a thing you love when you can lose it at any time. So you crush it to pieces and blow away the dust and swear you'll never hold on again.
At some point you lose yourself, because you are always cutting and crushing and blowing everything away.
Until there's nothing left to lose.
Until you are an island with no sea to reach your shores.
Or a boy in a tree who went running past the strings that had tied him up. Cut right through them and left them behind. Along with a teacher who never taught him anything other than how to smash through rock and hearts with lightning.
He had done that.
He had not done enough.
Didn't chase Sasuke like Naruto, because he didn't know how to hold on.
So he chases him now.
And he remembers.
There they were, lying next to a burned out campfire.
Sasuke, staring up at a starless sky with Sharingan bleeding his wide-eyed, slack-jawed expression into something raw and violent and scared shitless. Fear trembled through him uncontrollably, drained the blood from his face to porcelain white.
Kakashi only had to watch for a moment to realize that Sasuke was reliving that night. Remembering whatever hell it was he had walked in on five years ago.
They'd been training for days; the Chuunin Exams were just a few weeks away. The stress from the intense training must've been what was getting to him.
"Sasuke," he called out sharply, trying to get the boy's attention. But memory was holding on too tightly, and Sasuke couldn't hear him at that moment. The boy's eyes remained wide and frantic, fear coming out of him in sharp, short breaths as his bedroll shook with the force of the past knocking through him.
Kakashi studied him for a moment, knowing that Sasuke would hate knowing that he'd seen him like this. So vulnerable, fragile even. For a moment, the jounin considered letting his student come out of it on his own. At the rate he was hyperventilating, it'd only be a matter of time till he passed out. And sleep would come after.
They could wake up in the morning and act like nothing happened. Wake up, and get back to training.
But then Sasuke made a soft, strangled sound that was almost a whimper, wrenching a pang of guilt through Kakashi as he listened to his student's erratic breathing. Knowing exactly what it was he was reliving.
Kakashi didn't like to get involved in personal baggage, but it'd be downright cruel to let this go on without stopping. Sighing, he got up and moved to the kid's bedroll, crouching down next to him, and reached out to shake his shoulder.
There are times when Kakashi wonders what he's done with a life that has never truly been a life, but a continued existence where he can only ever break things -- lives and promises and hearts and dreams. So he stands back and watches it go by instead -- life, and the people in it, who truly live because they have a purpose that belongs to themselves and no one else. And he had seen that fire in Sasuke's eyes, burning hot with fury, with life. With everything Kakashi could only see from a distance but could not touch.
He'd be burned if he tried to reach out and grab on.
To close his hands around the pieces of promises he could never keep.
All Kakashi was ever good at was wasting time -- dragging it out, letting the minutes run into hours and days. But the sand is too fast, running between the cracks of his life.
Sasuke was alone out there. And Kakashi knows what it's like to be alone. How large, how empty the world can be. How the emptiness grows until it finds itself a home inside. Until you cannot hold on anymore because your touch is too dangerous, and will break everything you touch. So you let go instead, and keep letting go even when you do not want to. When you tell yourself you will not let go this time. But it is all you know how to do: opening your fingers and letting go, because you are not really alive, and have never truly lived, and only people who live can hold on.
So there you are, standing with empty hands that feel the weight of his absence. Closing your fingers around empty air that only hold his memory.
And you think: maybe this time. Maybe this time, I can hold on. If only for a moment.
Which is all you need. A moment, because time is a luxury you do not have anymore.
There's a war out there, and Kakashi's gone and taken Sasuke off the battlefield. Away from people Sasuke once called his friends -- even the girl who once loved him -- who want him dead. Because they look at Sasuke and all they see are the clouds of red against a night of black and the shadows that fell upon him. They don't see what Naruto still sees. What Kakashi does too: a boy who lost everything he'd ever loved because of a fucked up system that was as broken as it was corrupt, as myopic as it was good at pulling cotton over the eyes of everyone who served within it.
It only made sense that Sasuke would want vengeance. Would want to take it down. Dig up the tree at the root and burn it to ash. It was poison, that tree -- how easily it lied to everyone who grew from it. And they were so eager to believe whatever it was they were told. Konoha was all the truth and justice they'd ever known. So they would fight to protect it, and it all made sense. Even when a six year old boy slides a kunai neatly into a man's throat.
Or when a thirteen year old boy is tasked to slaughter his entire family.
So there they are, teacher and student. And some may call the student a traitor, but Kakashi knew better. Knew, too, when Sasuke woke up, with Sharingan bleeding fresh in his eyes and something that felt like murder in his chakra, what was coming next.
The blade stings when it bites his neck.
Sasuke'd moved so quickly from his inert position on the bedroll to where Kakashi was sitting against the cave wall waiting, blinking would've made you miss it. And Kakashi could've just as easily evaded, but he chose to wait instead, with Icha Icha Violence propped open in one hand. Sasuke's eyes spin red and black, filled with anger and disgust. His hand slams against Kakashi's chest, shoving him back against the rocky wall.
It almost knocks the breath out of his lungs.
"You know, you could've just said, 'long time no see,'" Kakashi manages to say, but the blade at his throat cuts off any further comment.
"Tch." Sasuke's jaw tightens and his nostrils flare slightly, his brow drawing down in undisguised annoyance. Kakashi's not sure who's doing the watching -- if Sasuke's watching him, or if he's watching Sasuke. This close, Kakashi realizes Sasuke hasn't changed all that much. Under that hardened expression, and layers of blood and dirt and bruises, Kakashi still recognizes the soft, fey features that had grown more defined over the years. Sees it, too, in the familiar set of his brow, in the way Sasuke looks at him. Sasuke's gaze has suspicion written all over it and he keeps his hand with the blade steady. As though he's expecting Kakashi to suddenly Raikiri through him.
Which would be all too easy, given their proximity.
Sasuke doesn't know Kakashi doesn't need to form seals to call up his lightning.
"You almost died," Kakashi simply explains, and Sasuke frowns a little more.
"I rescued you."
"That was stupid of you," Sasuke hisses between his teeth, his voice low, eyes flashing with anger.
Kakashi's breath slightly shakes when he lets it out. He levels Sasuke with a steady look, and says, "I know."
It was the only thing he could think of doing that could help him.
Kakashi hadn't expected how violently the genin would react to being pulled out of that waking nightmare. Hadn't foreseen the screams or the tears that came after. Or the way Sasuke had thrown himself at Kakashi, killing intent hot in his blood and tiny fists that pummeled the front of Kakashi's chest. It had taken holding him down and screaming at him to knock him out of it.
He can't hurt you right now, Kakashi said.
Hadn't said anymore, because he didn't know if one day Itachi would return. Make the kid's life even more of a hell than it already was. So he said he can't hurt you right now, because right now, Kakashi would do anything he could to protect him.
Sasuke rubbed the tears out of his eyes and smeared some dirt across his face. He'd gone and messed up his bedroll, trampled it right into the soot of their campfire. It lay in a tangled mess of fabric and cinder.
Sasuke stared at it for a long moment, then moved slowly towards it. A gloved hand in his hair stopped him.
"Come on." Kakashi said lightly, then guided the boy towards his own bedroll. It'd only be for a night, anyway, he reasoned -- and it was what Sasuke needed.
Sasuke got in without any argument, and Kakashi slid in after. He could still feel the boy shivering, knowing that he was lying with his eyes wide open. Seeing everything he had just experienced all over again.
"You need to try and sleep. You won't be able to train with no energy."
Sasuke was silent for a moment, then grunted in acknowledgment. But his body didn't relax. Neither did the trembles.
Kakashi sighed, hesitantly rolled the kid over towards his chest, and slid an arm around him.
Sasuke was so small. So tiny. It was almost incredible, the difference between them.
Had he been that small once, too?
When you were small, you used to think there was nothing worse than death.
Death, which was falling asleep and growing into the ground.
That was what dead people did back then. They took root in the earth, let it swallow them whole.
And you, standing over your father with his guts all tumbled out, and the blood running into the genkan, mixing with the rain. There were children playing outside, in that rain. They jumped in and out of puddles that were as clear as the hope in their eyes, and clasped their small hands together and danced.
You clasped your small hands together with your father's guts as you stood in a puddle of his blood.
You remember thinking: if I put it back where it belongs, it will be okay. It has to be okay because it can't not be okay. He can't be dead because his eyes are still open, and I don't know what he sees, but I know he's looking at me. And he's telling me that if I just put everything back where it belongs, the rain outside is going to stop. And he's going to sit up and laugh and tell me I did a good job.
So there you were with your small hands that did not shake, full of your father's guts as you tried to put them away.
He grew into the ground, anyway.
And that was when you realized what death really was: an absence so large it empties you out.
So you walked around all hollowed out. And then that was when you discovered the emptiness was so large, it filled you up with its very lack; the way it spread and stretched and ate up all the space inside of you.
And it was too much, and you were too small, too young, to grow so fast, so old, in a world that had everything and nothing all at once. Growing with absence, until it wasn't what was in your life, but the lack that defined it.
The absence, and the memories that spilled into it.
Death became this: an absence that rooted itself in, and grew with you until it lived and breathed and spoke in whispers that sometimes were so loud, it was all you could hear -- the weight of the silence and the empty space it filled.
Eventually, the trembles stopped, and Sasuke's breathing grew steady and slow.
Kakashi stayed awake, waiting for sunrise. Hoping that Sasuke would be stronger than he was.
He hadn't realized just how wrong he was.
Hadn't seen, because he wanted to believe in this boy with too much fire under his skin. Wanted to believe Sasuke could let the past stay where it belonged, instead of taking backwards steps every time he wanted to move forward. But the past is vindictive. Wants revenge if you forget it. So it haunts and feeds on everything you are and will become. And memory is all you ever seem to have.
Kakashi saw the cracks and how deep they went. How raw the edges, how frayed the string. But he cut that thread anyway. Even if he didn't know if he could give Sasuke what he needed, he still hoped it'd be enough. That Sasuke would look at the pieces of string and pick them up and tie himself back into the tree.
(Shouldn't have left him alone that day.)
"You know, and you did it anyway," Sasuke's voice hardens, as does his expression. His mouth narrows into a thin line, and his eyes cut sharp. They want to slice Kakashi down. Kakashi looks at him and sees the tension that goes all through him, how it tightens his grip on the handle of his katana and draws the space between them slighter. It'd be easy for that blade to slip. Easy for Kakashi, too.
But he stays where he is, with a blade against his throat, reading the intent in Sasuke's eyes that look like killing but feel like something else. Something uncertain and angry and prickles the lungs, but not killing, no.
(Sasuke wouldn't do that.)
It's a dangerous game they're playing, but Kakashi can't give up. Won't, because he's tried to open his empty hands and let go of Sasuke's memory too many times. Tried to see what everyone else saw: a killer, a traitor, a criminal. But there in the distance was a thirteen year old boy with too much fear in his eyes. And a teacher who could only wrap his arms around him and wait for morning.
So Kakashi hums softly at the back of his throat. It's a noncommittal sound that's as dismissive as it's weighed down. A heavy thing, because there's too much history here and Kakashi's too careful a man to be this careless.
Sasuke knows this and it shows in the clench of his teeth. "Why."
"You're my student," Kakashi says it like it's obvious.
"Ah, Sasuke, that's where you're wrong," Kakashi's voice is both rough and soft. Like the way he looks at Sasuke. "You'll always be my student."
Sasuke can deny him, can deny this. Can deny that there hadn't been a man and a boy sitting on the bank of a quiet river in July with the scent of lightning chakra still burning through the air like the fireflies at night. There had been a story about fireflies that Kakashi had heard when he was young -- that they were the souls of warriors. And that was why you never kill them, but let them go. Let them fly to heaven, if they can. They turn into stars up there.
Sasuke caught a firefly in his small, charred hands, and watched it glow between the cracks of his fingers.
Don't kill it, Kakashi said.
I won't, Sasuke replied, and opened his hands.
Together, they watched the firefly rise until it was just a star in the cloudless sky.
"What exactly were you hoping to accomplish?"
"I couldn't let you die like that."
"Tch. Do you always get sentimental when your enemies die?"
"No, only when people I care about do."
There are worse things than death: this is one of them.
There is living with guilt so large, it takes on life the way the absence does. Filling you up with the sound of the boy's voice who died under a rock meant for you.
This boy, who now says, you can't give up, no matter what you do. Because you cut through the thread that day and walked away. Turned your back and didn't look back. And he needed you then, but you left anyway.
You had done that.
You had not done enough.
"You really don't give a shit about anything, do you," Sasuke growls and slams Kakashi against the wall, hard. His eyes are narrowed, glittering with fire and anger and unasked questions that he doesn't want the answers to anymore. Kakashi had his chances, but he used them all up. And so here they are now, with Sasuke pressing him against the wall and a katana at his throat. "You don't care if you die right here at my hands, without even a fight. You don't care if I kill you, or if I insult you. You don't care if you die, and disappoint anyone who might be relying on you. You don't care any more than I do."
"It'd be a lot easier if I didn't care, Sasuke."
"Caring more about a traitor than your own village is sort of sad for someone who calls himself a jounin, isn't it." Sasuke's breath is hot against his ear. Hotter, when the blade slips and fabric tears.
His teeth scraping over Kakashi's pulse in a vicious kiss cut deeper than any blade ever could.
This is a story that's never been told.
The rain drowns it out -- the soft tapping of knuckles against his door.
When he opens it, he's surprised at what he sees. A thirteen year old genin standing in the middle of a storm, drenched and shivering in the cold. He'd left his hitai-ate at home, in an empty compound filled with dust and ghosts. And there's a look in his eyes that Kakashi didn't expect to see. The same look that was there that night a few weeks ago.
Kakashi sees it, opens his door and lets Sasuke in.
There's something unreadable in that look.
Something that feels a little like desperation.
There is a kind of need that doesn't know how to show itself. So people ignore it. They think it is not there because it is not seen or heard. It's a quiet thing, doesn't make a name for itself or open its mouth. It closes itself up, until it sinks down to the bottom of the lake and no one cares to pay attention to count the ripples on the surface. Or tries to plumb its depths.
They are all so caught up in their own filled-in lives, these people who look need right in the eye and miss it completely. To them, it was never there, anyway.
Just ripples. You can drown trying to count them.
Kakashi gives himself to Sasuke, because it's all he has to give. Sasuke takes him, because it's what he needs. What they both do.
There is release in this letting go, falling into one another. Finding what it is that was lost by finding themselves. And they had always been searching for something else. Something out there, in the sway of the tree in the wind, and in the rush of the leaves that went whipping by in hurricanes. That's what the world is like: a great storm of something that makes no sense. So you give it a name and call it life, and look for sense in vengeance or in the past. In memories and absence that go on and on until it becomes more alive than life itself.
It's easy to lose yourself in it. Easy to be so caught up in what's no longer there that you forget about the living part.
And then, there it is.
They come in silence.