Disclaimer: Naruto is the intellectual property of Masashi Kishimoto, Shueisha, VIZ Media, et al. No money is being made from this story and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.
Author's Note: I wrote this story for Remix Redux 8. It is based on "Put a little fixing on it," by megyal, which can be read at megyal. livejournal. com/ 376776. html. If you want more of my thoughts on this story and the process of remixing, you can find an extended Author's Note at edenfalling. livejournal. com/ 469623. html
As of 12/5/10, this story has been significantly edited to fix typos, remove extraneous commas, smooth out some of my worst stylistic quirks, include Sasuke's interactions with more canon characters, better foreshadow the NaruSasu relationship, and fill in the time jump between Sasuke's start at the academy and the climactic scenes.
Summary: Madara lied about the eye transplant's effects. Captured and brought back to Konoha, Sasuke must adjust to blindness and his unexpected survival. NaruSasu.
What Isn't Broken (Can Still Be Fixed)
There's a difference between knowing that, if Madara was lying, he might (will) go blind one day, and actually seeing - or not seeing, as the case is - the world snap from scarlet tinged hyper-clarity to black, endless nothing.
Sasuke fights on for a minute, aiming by sound and pressure and his best guess at Naruto's insane idea of tactics, but it's futile flailing and he knows it. He's not surprised when everything goes-
Funny. Usually he'd say, "when everything goes black," but everything's already black. Blank. Forever. The air goes syrupy-thick and everything goes quiet instead. First he hears a rush of crackling, meaningless noise, like his pulse in his ears turned up to impossible levels. Then a slow fade into the murmur of rain. Then nothing. Not even pain.
He hurts when he wakes, of course. Someone has healed the bloody gashes in his legs and side, and the fracture in his cheek, but the strains and bruises remain untouched. A lesson, probably, or petty retribution. Perhaps this is Sakura's work - or Karin's, if she went mad and stayed with the Leaf-nin after Sasuke discarded her.
It's not important, though.
Sasuke is used to pain.
His chakra is bound, warped and imprisoned within his body, but his limbs and mind are free. He's lying on a narrow surface - a cheap mattress, rough fabric, stuffed with prickling straw. Sasuke slides his left arm outward, as if shifting in his sleep, and finds the edge of the bed a handspan and a half from his torso. Assuming he's centered on the bed, that makes this a prison cot under Anbu headquarters. His fingers drift downward. Yes: iron frame and a granite wall a finger's width away. He's in one of the holding cells for prisoners judged worth interrogation.
Why isn't he chained?
There's light in the cell. He can feel a bar of warmth falling over his thighs, sunlight from a window. Maybe, just maybe-
Sasuke opens his eyes, hoping the overload wasn't permanent, that he still has light sensitivity or some ability to discern shapes.
He sees nothing. Just black, black, black, and little imaginary specks starting to swim in the corners of what should be his field of vision - his brain conjuring phantom afterimages (lies, illusions, delusions) where nothing exists.
He closes his eyes and decides not to open them again unless he's facing someone he can unnerve with their lack of focus.
Why isn't he chained? Even blind and without chakra, he knows six different ways to break out of this cell - he's watched Lee enough to figure out his moves and the way he works past his natural blocks, after all - and he could escape into death at any moment if he decided flight was pointless. Someone should be here, guarding him.
But there's no sound of breathing, no intangible weight of intent, whether hostile or benign. He's alone. Nobody's watching.
Do they want him to suicide? He's sure the Leaf-nin would be happier not to deal with him, and if he kills himself, Naruto won't have anyone to blame.
...As if he cares what Naruto thinks. As if he cares anything for Konoha - for the traitorous cowards who sentenced his family to death and lied and lied and lied until he thought he'd choke on the depth of their deceit. He will destroy them.
But not yet. Right now, he needs a better grasp of his situation. He might as well pretend to wake up.
Sasuke shifts, groans, then brings his right hand up to his face, pressing it against his useless, useless eyes. "Idiot," he mutters, not sure if he means Naruto or himself, or what he wants his hypothetical watchers to think he means. Then he braces himself and sits upright, ignoring the screaming pain in his joints and muscles, and the aching weariness in his bones. The stone floor is cool against his bare feet.
His sword is gone, of course. So are his clothes - replaced by a plain cotton shirt and pants, the kind that end just below the elbow and knee, giving ninja room to wrap cotton around their limbs to hide shuriken and serve as emergency bandages. Obviously he has no shuriken, nor any cloth that he might use to make a garrote or other weapon.
Sasuke touches the bed again, verifying his earlier deductions, then stands, turns sideways, and places his right hand on the wall beside the bed. He walks forward, his legs brushing against the bed - no sheet, just the bare mattress and frame - and holds his left hand out before him. Five steps to the next wall. His arm's length, stretched over the bed, is two steps. He turns left, walks four steps. Turns left, places his heel against the wall, and walks ten steps; his right hand traces over the heavy oak door with its steel reinforcements, cool under his palm except where the bar of sunlight falls and warms them. Turns left, heel against the wall, walks six steps. So. Ten steps by six steps, no furniture but the bed.
Is there a faucet or a drain? Sasuke slides his toes along the floor, sweeping between the wall and the line he paced. There is, in fact, a drain in this corner - a circle barely wider than his wrist, covered with fine steel mesh. A plain faucet sticks out from the wall an arm's length above it.
Water and a place to piss. They can keep him here for days without any human contact.
It's unlikely for a holding cell to have any other amenities. Still, Sasuke retraces his steps, sweeping his hand up and down the wall this time. He finds nothing, and returns to the hard and narrow bed. He sits near its foot and touches the outer wall, feeling for the window that must exist. It's narrow, only a handspan across, but an arm's length high. There are no bars. He doesn't push his hand through to check for wards; their presence is logically obvious.
Konoha, in its pretension at morality, does not starve prisoners to death. Someone will come to take him elsewhere sooner or later - to a quick execution, if he's been declared useless; to a more permanent confinement if someone wants to pick his brain; or, if all the Leaf-nin and clan heads have gone as crazy as Naruto, to someplace more hospitable where they can try rehabilitating him.
Sasuke lies back on the bed and waits.
Despite himself, he opens his (Itachi's) eyes twice more before the warmth of sunlight vanishes.
There is no interrogation. Not that first day, nor the next.
On the third day, as the early afternoon sun falls warm across his torso, Sasuke hears careless footsteps outside the cell, loud enough to pass through the oak and steel of the door. Then a frustrated murmur, followed by the snap and hiss of sparking electricity and a relaxation of some indefinable tension in the air. Disabled wards, no doubt.
The door swings open, pushing a faint wash of air across the cell.
Sasuke lies on the narrow bed, hands clasped behind his head in a makeshift pillow, and ignores his guest. He has nothing to say to any Leaf-nin.
More footsteps, approaching. Fabric rustles as the intruder leans down and presses something - a knee? a hand? - against the edge of the mattress. The Leaf-nin's breath is heavy, ragged with badly controlled emotion.
No way to know which emotion without sight. Sasuke forbids himself to open his eyes. The situation will clarify itself when the intruder speaks.
Finally, an indrawn breath. "Why?" Naruto asks.
Of course it's Naruto, breaking into his cell to ask pointless questions. Sasuke doesn't know why he ever thought it could be someone else.
He shrugs as best he can without sitting up or moving his hands. "Why what? If you want an answer, you have to ask more specific questions."
Naruto growls and his hands close around Sasuke's forearms, hauling him upright. Sasuke's bruises and strained muscles scream. He refuses to show a reaction. He can't hide his blindness, but he won't give Naruto another inch.
The bar of sunlight falls across his head, warming his hair and the left side of his face. It does him absolutely no good at all.
Naruto does nothing, says nothing, just sits on the bed, Sasuke's wrists pinned in his grip. Sasuke waits, and waits, and finally scowls, turning his head toward where he assumes Naruto's face must be. "What do you want, idiot? Say something or go away."
"Why didn't you come home?" Naruto says. "It's done. It's over. Itachi, Orochimaru, Kabuto, Danzo, Madara - all of it. What the fuck do you have left to fight for? Just- I miss you, you bastard. Sakura misses you. Even Kakashi misses you. For once in your life, wake up and let us help you." He shakes Sasuke by way of punctuation, his hands tight and painful on Sasuke's bruised arms.
There are approximately a hundred things Sasuke wants to say in response - beginning with, "I've tried to kill each of you, multiple times. How far do I have to go before you see me as I am, rather than as you want me to be?" - but what comes out instead is, "What home?"
How could he consider Konoha his home after what the village did to his family, after the blood he spilled when he left, after all the years when nobody could see him for himself behind the symbol of The Last Uchiha or whatever other idiocy they decided he would stand for that month?
The air sings with tension. Sasuke can feel the rise of Naruto's boiling, furious chakra even through the bindings on his own strength. He's expecting an attack. He wants an attack.
And then Naruto sighs, and slumps, and rests his bare forehead against Sasuke's shoulder.
"You never get it," Naruto says. "Home isn't just a place. It's your precious people. You're part of my home - don't you know that? If you won't stay for you, will you stay for me? Or at least for Sakura? She'll kill me if I've screwed up bringing you home again, and I'm so sick of chasing after you."
"I'm a prisoner," Sasuke says.
"Yeah, so?" Naruto growls, lifting his head. He's probably glaring at Sasuke, for all the good it does either of them.
"Prisoners can't leave of their own volition," Sasuke says. He twists his arms, slipping his wrists out of Naruto's grip, and reaches forward to press one hand against the idiot's chest, fingers splayed over the old wound just to the side of Naruto's heart. "Go away before someone locks you up for giving me a thousand chances to escape."
"Like you could ever get away from me," Naruto scoffs. "Listen, Sasuke, we don't want you to stay because you have to. We want you to stay because you want to. Nothing like- like what happened to your family will ever happen again. To anyone. I promise."
He says it so earnestly, as if he really believes he can change the world by pure willpower. The world doesn't work that way. The world is harsh and indifferent to suffering. It cares nothing for love, justice, or any other human conceits.
But. "I'll be Hokage!" Naruto used to say. "I'll be the greatest. I'll be a hero. I'll make everyone acknowledge me." He's not Hokage yet, so far as Sasuke knows, but who else of their generation could possibly shoulder the job? He promised to bring Sasuke back to Konoha, and here Sasuke is.
And Sasuke is blind.
The world gives and the world takes away. He won't believe Naruto.
"Don't make promises you can't keep," Sasuke says. He lies down again, pointedly turning toward the wall. "Go talk to Sakura. Maybe she'll believe you." Or maybe not; Sakura was ready to kill him once, even if she's changed her mind again. But if Naruto's with her, he won't be here to bother Sasuke.
Naruto sputters, moves in some fashion that makes the bed jump and creak, then grabs the back of Sasuke's shirt and starts shaking him in time to his outraged rant. It's loud, painful, and annoyingly familiar in its sheer, futile stupidity - just like Naruto's always been.
The unfamiliar part is that even when a particularly enthusiastic shove knocks his forehead into the unforgiving stone wall, setting phantom fireworks off behind his useless eyes, Sasuke almost wants to smile.
But then, he already knows he's crazy.
Apparently it runs in his family.
A fourth day without food, and a fifth, and Sasuke is tired far beyond the effects of boredom and injury. If Naruto broke in again, Sasuke would stay in his cell not because he's decided to but because he has no chance of surprising anyone when he's this weak.
He's sleeping when the wards go down and the door opens, and the change of atmosphere that ought to wake him doesn't trip his tattered defenses.
He wakes to hands pressing down on his bare chest. They are narrow and callused, and they move through a pattern of hand seals - tiger, horse, tiger again, and on and on. Something inside Sasuke loosens slightly, as if one arm has slipped free of a full-body straitjacket.
Konoha names him traitor. Why would a Leaf-nin unbind even a fraction of his chakra?
"Uchiha Sasuke, you are being released into Umino Iruka's custody," a woman says, her voice brisk and impersonal as she pulls his shirt back down. "We won't ask you to swear loyalty; your word is worthless. Realize, however, that this is your last chance. One false move and you die, no matter how much the clan heads want your bloodline or how blind the Hokage is to your poison. Do you understand?"
Her hands pull back and Sasuke sits up, pressing his bare feet to the chilled stone floor. "Yes. Why Iruka?" The bar of sunlight is absent. Morning, then; the floor isn't quite cold enough for night.
"You don't have clearance for mission details," the Leaf-nin says, a faint edge of humor threading into her voice. "Get moving. It's rude to keep your host waiting after he spent all yesterday rearranging his home to accommodate your liabilities."
Sasuke stands and walks to the open door. Then he pauses.
"Left," the Leaf-nin says. "I can give directions, or I can hold your hand."
Sasuke turns left, reaching out to brush his fingertips along the wall of the corridor. It is also stone, and cold, and slightly rough - granite, most likely, for solidity. Behind him, the Leaf-nin chuckles. "Straight on past five doors, then turn right and climb the stairs," she says. She gives no estimated number of paces.
Sasuke keeps his steps slow and even, his left arm leading his body by a handspan or two. His fingers anchor him in the drowning, fathomless black his world has become. He counts the doors and the paces between them. If they lead to separate rooms, they must open onto replicas of his cell: bare, featureless stone boxes, all alike.
The wall at the end of the corridor is where he expects it to be, based on the position of the fifth door. He turns right and walks on, slower now. He has no way to guess when the stairs will begin.
The Leaf-nin walks behind him, silent in a way Naruto could never mimic.
Sasuke finds the stairs when he swings his right foot forward and runs his toes into the first step. The momentum is not enough to cause more than a moment's discomfort, but he dislikes showing such obvious weakness. Fortunately, the Leaf-nin says nothing more than, "Twelve steps. Then straight until I tell you to stop."
"How many doors?" Sasuke asks as he climbs.
A pause. Fabric rustles. "Two? Three? I've never counted," the Leaf-nin says. Sasuke reaches the top of the stairs and feels a faint wisp of air to his right. "Three on the left side of the hall," the Leaf-nin says, her voice now coming from ahead rather than behind. "We'll take the third. Don't touch any of the doors until I disarm the wards."
Sasuke is still touching the wall. He stops moving. "What about the frames?"
Another pause. Then, "Give me your hand," the Leaf-nin says, and her callus-roughened fingers wrap around Sasuke's right wrist without waiting for a response. She pulls, gently but implacably.
Sasuke lifts his left hand and allows his captor to lead him the rest of the way. Down the hall, left through the door into a large room filled with at least three people - who stop moving and speaking when they enter, most likely staring shamelessly at the spectacle Sasuke makes - straight on through another door, turn right, through a door, up a second flight of stairs, turn left, through a door, stop in front of a desk to inform a guard that the prisoner Uchiha Sasuke has been retrieved from full custody and is now officially on parole, turn right, cross another room - this one smaller and empty of anyone but the guard - and out through a final door into warm sunlight and fresh, moving air.
The background noise of foot traffic, conversation, construction, and all the other things that make the heartbeat of a living, prosperous town fills his ears. This street, though, is oddly quiet - almost deserted - which fits with Sasuke's memories. Civilians tend to avoid Anbu headquarters.
Sasuke takes a deep breath, wondering what else he can piece together without sight. He can smell food in the wind - nothing specific, just a muddle of broth and grease and salt - and a fainter hint of pollen and the sharp green scent of pruned shrubbery. Spring in Konoha.
Strange how it still feels like home, underneath the empty ache of betrayal.
"Hello, Sasuke," Iruka says.
His voice comes from ahead and slightly to the left. Sasuke turns toward him, sliding his hand out of his escort's grip. "What's the point of this?" he asks. Iruka liked him once. Iruka still likes Naruto. He's more likely to let something slip, or at least reveal non-classified information, than the vast majority of Leaf-nin who, quite sensibly, hate Sasuke.
"Thank you for your trouble, Yui-san. You can leave now," Iruka says to the other Leaf-nin.
"He still has some bite. I'd stock up on painkillers if I were you," the woman says, that faint edge of humor back in her voice. There is a faint rustle of fabric and a movement of air as she leaves.
Iruka sighs. When he speaks again, his voice is closer. "There are several ways to answer your question, Sasuke. The obvious point is that although you betrayed Konoha and attacked Leaf-nin with lethal intent, you have not personally killed anyone whose death we wouldn't have ordered anyway. Secondly, our village had not previously lived up to its obligations to you. While that doesn't excuse your actions, it does make it more understandable that you felt a need to work outside the system."
Which is a pretty way of saying Konoha betrayed his family first, and he's been remarkably pathetic at killing anyone he used to know.
That will change.
"Thirdly, the clan heads are interested in reviving your bloodline, and Rokudaime, Naruto, and Sakura argued that your death only continued the cycle of retribution, whereas you might make constructive repayments if you lived," Iruka continues. "Therefore, I will help you reacclimate to Konoha, after which you'll begin community service."
"Rokudaime?" Sasuke asks despite himself. Has Tsunade been injured again, or did she give up her position voluntarily? Who could take over for her?
"Yes. Hatake Kakashi, the sixth duly appointed Hokage," Iruka says, sounding somewhere between bemused and resigned. "Tsunade-sama's recovery was less complete than she let on, and with Madara and the rest of Akatsuki disposed of, she chose to retire. There was no one besides Kakashi left with the necessary strength, experience, or recognition factor. Surprisingly, the village hasn't yet gone broke or been crushed under the weight of his undone paperwork."
Sasuke doesn't let himself smile.
"Give me your hand," Iruka says. "I'll take you home."
He won't, of course. Sasuke has no home. But Sasuke is still amused at the idea of Kakashi in charge of Konoha - and pleading for Sasuke's life, no less, when he of all people should know better - so he allows Iruka to grasp his hand and lead him through the streets of the village he's spent so long trying to forget.
They walk slowly. Sasuke still trips eight times before they reach Iruka's house, falls once, and collides with two passing civilians.
Iruka says nothing. Sasuke knows he ought to be grateful for the lack of commentary and the way Iruka lets him pivot around their joined hands when he needs to catch his balance.
He's never been good at accepting help. Since he's going to destroy Konoha as soon as he gets his full strength back, he sees no reason to change.
The first thing Iruka does is push Sasuke into a chair in his kitchen and feed him a thin miso broth. "To remind your stomach how food works," he says, "but hopefully not enough to cause problems. You can try some solid food at dinner."
Sasuke drinks the broth in measured silence, then begins to explore his old teacher's house. It's built on a rectangular plan, longer from front to back than from side to side. The ground floor has three rooms - the kitchen, the main living room, and a back room that will become Sasuke's. There is a small entry hall with a mail table, a shoe stand, and hooks for jackets and vests. The staircase runs along the side of the main room, leading to a narrow upstairs hallway with four doors. On the left are Iruka's study and his bedroom. On the right are a locked door and the bathroom.
Iruka has apparently been released from his normal duties for a while, since he spends the rest of the day watching Sasuke memorize each room by touch and counted patterns of steps. He tells Sasuke what's in every drawer and cupboard, mentions which way the sharp edges of the knives face, and is generally so helpful and patient that Sasuke wants to scream.
So he does. The third time he trips over the same loose corner of a tatami mat and Iruka darts forward to catch him before he smashes into the kotatsu, Sasuke yells at Iruka to back off and stop treating him like a cripple.
He expects Iruka to protest or to yell back, the way he used to yell at Naruto in the academy. Instead, Iruka says only, "If you like. I need to buy vegetables for dinner anyway," and leaves.
The house feels cavernous while he's gone, haunted by uneven floors and sharp corners. Sasuke inches along the walls and drops to his hands and knees to explore the middles of rooms, away from the anchoring presence of furniture. It's terrifying to realize how lost he is in such everyday surroundings, where nothing is moving and nothing is hostile. He can still fight - people make noise and broadcast intent, which is easier to track than silent, inert furniture, and knocking into a wall or chair can't begin to compare to the pain Naruto can inflict with a single blow - but comparatively, he's helpless.
Sasuke wants to light the house on fire.
He restrains himself.
Iruka is gone for an hour. In that time, Sasuke acquires five new bruises and a small gash on his right index finger from when he got careless opening the medicine cabinet in the bathroom.
He knows he used too much gauze and tape to bandage it, but it's hard to work both one-handed and blind. Iruka doesn't mention the white lump on Sasuke's hand. He simply puts away his groceries - Sasuke hears the thump of wood on wood as cupboards swing open and closed, and the hum of the refrigerator compensating for an open door - and asks where Sasuke cut himself. Then he goes into the bathroom and runs water briefly, cleaning up the blood.
"That was my razor," he says when he returns. "Come help me with dinner."
"I'm blind," Sasuke reminds him.
"You can still cook rice," Iruka says calmly. "Do you remember where I keep the measuring cups?"
It's like being back in the academy facing a surprise quiz. Sasuke walks over to the counter, tracing his way along the wall, past the refrigerator and the sink. Then he finds the second column of cupboards, runs his hands down the old, scuffed wood, and opens the third. "Here," he says.
"The metal one is for dry foods. It holds one cup exactly. The glass one is for liquids. It holds two and a half cups at the brim," Iruka says. There is a thump and a slight puff of dusty air rising into Sasuke's face. "Here's the rice. Choose a pot and get to work - and make extra. Naruto's coming over tonight."
"He won't eat the vegetables," Sasuke says before he can stop himself.
"That's why I add them to the ramen," Iruka says, a smile audible in his voice. "I could probably get him to eat rocks if I poured some broth and noodles over them, and made sure he wasn't actually looking at his bowl."
Sasuke reaches forward and opens the sack of rice without answering. After a moment Iruka begins his own work, bustling around the kitchen in a flurry of soft noises and increasingly interesting smells.
It's fascinating how much sensory information Sasuke never noticed when he could see. And it's frustrating how useless so many sounds and scents are. They give him a general notion of Iruka's position, but they blur over a volume of space greater than what his body actually occupies, and they're not constant the way vision is. Sasuke keeps losing track of his old teacher for seconds at a time, which results in several minor collisions as he moves, expecting Iruka to be elsewhere, or as Iruka moves and Sasuke doesn't automatically adjust his posture to give Iruka space.
Naruto's arrival is, of course, unmistakable.
The door slams open and the idiot thunders into the house, calling, "Hey, hey, Iruka-sensei, guess what? They let Sasuke out of jail today! He's on parole and he's going to live with some random chuunin until the councilors pull their-"
He stops. Sasuke turns toward the kitchen door and smiles, viciously, letting his eyes open to stare sightlessly - and probably disconcertingly off-center - at Naruto. "I thought you respected Iruka too much to call him 'some random chuunin,'" he says. "Also, the councilors are right not to trust me."
"Sasuke," Iruka chides.
"Oh, forget it, that's just what he's like," Naruto says. "Anyway, this is great - now I won't have to argue with anyone about finding out who Sasuke's parole officer is, because it's you." There is a thump, a rustle, and a great, cracking sigh as Naruto sits down and stretches. "Oh! I almost forgot I had two things to tell you. They went and promoted me, all the way to jounin! Isn't that cool?"
"Congratulations," Iruka says warmly. Sasuke presses the rice with a wooden spoon, testing the consistency. Not quite done.
"Thanks. Except Kakashi just laughed and said I'd have responsibilities now, and this was payback for everything Team 7 put him through," Naruto continues. "I think they're going to make me teach a genin team. What do I know about teaching? I'm going to screw those kids up so bad, they'll probably die on their first mission. I mean, I'm awesome, but new graduates need to learn water-walking and basic stuff like that, not advanced ninjutsu like Rasengan. And I suck at basics."
True. Naruto's answers to problems almost never involve something simple, like a kunai, a trap, or ordinary taijutsu. He only knows how to throw ridiculously overpowered ninjutsu and those weird, boneheaded "I believe in you" speeches. Sasuke is still not sure why those always make him pause and listen.
"You know how to concentrate and work hard," Iruka says. A cupboard door opens and something clinks. He's getting out bowls. "If you need help with techniques that aren't your strong point, you can always ask another ninja to help. As I recall, Kakashi passed you off to a different teacher before Orochimaru's invasion."
"And the closet pervert worked out so well," Naruto grumbles, but he shoves his chair back with a scrape of wood on the kitchen's tile floor, and the room is filled with rustling cloth and heavy footsteps as he helps Iruka set the table.
"The rice is done," Sasuke says, and he turns off the burner. "Also, I think the ramen is starting to boil."
Iruka rushes to save the food. Sasuke steps carefully away from the stove, pivots a hundred and eighty degrees, and reaches forward and down, toward his best estimate of the table's location.
Naruto grabs his hand and guides it to the back of a chair. "You sit here. Don't stab anyone with your chopsticks - and by 'anyone,' I mean me," he says, as if this bizarre situation is ordinary to the point of boredom. As if Naruto doesn't resent Sasuke at all, or pity him - he just wants to get everyone to the table.
Then again, this is Naruto. Of course he wants Sasuke at the table, since Iruka is probably the kind of person who won't let anyone eat until everyone is served.
Iruka is apparently also the kind of person who serves all the food himself. It makes sense for Sasuke, much though he hates to admit it - he has a terrible suspicion he'll spill broth on himself despite his best efforts. It makes sense for Naruto, too, if Iruka wants to sneak vegetables onto his plate and into his bowl.
"Itadakimasu," Naruto mutters, and dives noisily into his dinner.
Sasuke eats slowly: one sip of ramen broth, one mouthful of rice, a long pause to chew and breathe, then again. He wants to gorge himself - his body, primed by his minimal lunch, has remembered that he hasn't eaten in five days. But that would only make him sick. He refuses to look weak in front of Naruto.
"Have you spoken to Sakura about your worries?" Iruka asks after several minutes of slurping and chewing sounds.
There is a faint rustle of fabric - Naruto flapping his hand in negation? - and then Naruto clears his throat. "She's not in the regular jounin pool anyway - you know the hospital snapped her up like that. So it wouldn't be us panicking together, just her teasing me. She laughed when Kakashi threatened me with a team. She says I've already done the easy part, but the vacation's over and now I get to learn the hard stuff."
"Easy?" Iruka says. "In what way have the past several years been easy for anyone, let alone the three of you?"
"I know! But she didn't mean it that way. Sakura's not like that," Naruto says. "She wouldn't explain what she did mean, though."
Idiot. This isn't a logic puzzle; it's obvious. "She should have said simple, not easy," Sasuke says before he can stop himself. "You don't think when you fight. You just throw everything and the kitchen sink at your enemies and rely on luck and boneheaded determination to outlast them. That won't work during peacetime. You need patience and planning to run a team, let alone a whole hidden village. I don't think you can do that."
"Who asked you?" Naruto grumbles, and pokes Sasuke's upper arm with a chopstick. "Killjoy."
"You're a delusional optimist with the intelligence of a concussed trout. Someone has to point out your stupidity," Sasuke says. He grabs for the chopstick, and misses.
"Hey!" Naruto says. "Which of us had the completely stupid idea to kill all his friends, destroy Konoha, and help a nutcase take over the world? Because that wasn't me."
Sasuke grabs for Naruto with his right hand. The moment he catches a handful of cotton and the hard shoulder underneath, he lunges forward and drives a knife hand strike into the center of his idiot former teammate's forehead. He pulls back at the last fraction of a second to keep his fingers from breaking on unforgiving metal.
Except Naruto isn't wearing his forehead protector. Sasuke's fingers rest on warm, bare skin.
For a second, Sasuke's mind goes blank.
"That could have been ninjutsu," he says after a moment. Then he lets go and sits back in his chair, shoving down the tingle in his fingertips and the rush of adrenaline that makes him feel more alive and centered than he's felt since the world went black.
There is wonderful silence for the time it takes Sasuke to relocate his chopsticks and pick up a clump of rice.
Iruka clears his throat. "Ah..."
"That doesn't count as breaking parole," Naruto says. "He didn't hurt anyone."
"You know that's not the point," Iruka says.
Naruto bangs something on the table. "It is the point! I didn't spend years chasing Sasuke just so those old farts on the council could kill him because they're scared and pissed off and don't understand anything. They agreed this would take-"
Sasuke tunes the idiot out. The councilors understand him and his intentions perfectly. He would happily light them both on fire and watch them burn, before burning down the village as an encore. Except... why didn't he strike with ninjutsu? Why pull his blow? It's not as if he hasn't tried to kill Naruto before. Naruto has always managed to survive.
But there's a difference between an open battle and a supposedly peaceful dinner at an outsider's house. When Sasuke fights Naruto, he wants the idiot to know it.
He'll be patient. Sooner or later his captors will grow careless and trusting, and give him back full use of his chakra. He can put up with Naruto until then.
His fingers are still tingling.
Sasuke sets down his chopsticks and shakes his hand under the table, trying to get rid of the sensation. After a moment, the phantom feeling subsides.
"Fine," Iruka says, cutting off Naruto's tirade. "I'll let him slide, but only this once."
"Oh. Well, good," Naruto says after a moment. "Thanks."
Iruka changes the subject back to Naruto's hypothetical genin team and they spend the rest of the meal talking about lesson plans and basic skills. Sasuke escapes as soon as possible, but he can't shut his ears. The sound of friendly conversation follows him out of the kitchen and into his new room, despite the closed door and the pillow he jams over his head.
The rise and fall of Naruto's voice lulls him to an oddly comfortable sleep.
One week later, Sasuke has Iruka's house memorized, even the locked upstairs room that is nothing but a dusty shrine to his old teacher's long-dead parents and great-aunt. He hasn't tripped over loose tatami for two days, nor cut himself, nor walked into furniture or walls. He can clean and dress himself, cook meals, do laundry, put groceries away, and clean up after the various chores Iruka asks him to do while he goes out to run errands.
He is bored out of his mind.
As he washes the dishes after breakfast, Sasuke thinks that it might almost be worth dying in a hopeless escape attempt if only to escape the monotony and the humiliation of being, effectively, useless.
"You must be getting tired of this routine," Iruka says, as if reading Sasuke's mind. "Would you like to try something different today?"
Sasuke hopes his face hasn't become readable now that he can't check his expressions against other people's reactions. But maybe Iruka shares Naruto's annoying talent for being perceptive at the worst possible times.
He tilts his head toward Iruka's voice.
"Naruto passed his genin team yesterday," Iruka says. "I expect him to bring them here this afternoon, so we can evaluate their strengths and weaknesses and plan training regimens."
"Don't you already know their skills?" Sasuke asks.
Iruka laughs. "Last year I would have. But with all the recent troubles, and the reconstruction, I had to give up one of my jobs. I'm in administration and planning now, though Kakashi has been threatening to promote me to his personal aide so he won't have to do his own paperwork."
Sasuke is distracted yet again by the sheer incongruity of Kakashi being Hokage. After a moment, he remembers to nod in Iruka's general direction to show that he understands.
"I mentioned this because I thought you might want to surprise Naruto," Iruka continues. "I have access to the archives, and I found instructions for an earth-style jutsu that Rock-nin use to orient themselves underground. I think we could adapt it to give you a..."
He trails off, awkward about Sasuke's blindness for the first time.
Sasuke can fill in the gap. "An impression of surrounding space and the solidity of objects within it?" he says.
There's a moment of silence. Then Iruka says, a bit hastily, "Yes. Exactly."
"Teach me," Sasuke says. He fails to keep the urgency out of his voice. He suspects he's also failing to keep it off his face. He doesn't care. To see - even in as limited and exhausting fashion as this jutsu might provide - is worth any amount of humiliation. The chance to show up Naruto is nearly as attractive a goal.
"This would be easier if you could read the scroll," Iruka says, "but I'll do my best to explain. Let's go outside so you can start in a less cluttered space."
It would be easier if Sasuke could simply watch Iruka perform the jutsu while his eyes break it down and make it his forever, but if he could still do that, he wouldn't be here to learn the technique in the first place. He follows Iruka into the surprisingly large garden behind the house - which Iruka hasn't bothered to landscape beyond putting a gravel walk around the perimeter and a low stone bench in one corner under a scraggly maple tree. They sit on the recently mown grass, with its sprinkling of clover and violets, while Iruka explains the hand seals and mental patterns necessary to shape chakra into a constant echolocation pulse.
"Once you've mastered it, you shouldn't need the seals. They simply help your mind learn the trick," Iruka says as Sasuke misremembers the order for the second time. He hates fumbling like this, but he's years out of practice learning the slow way. He supposes it was a bad habit to rely so much on Sharingan. Now that choice is catching up to him, like his choices always do, no matter how sensible they seem when he makes them.
Morning sunlight is just beginning to fall into the garden, its warmth sliding around the corner of Iruka's house, when Sasuke finally makes the jutsu work.
He loses it again in a heartbeat, his concentration shattered by the sheer alienness of what he... not 'saw' - whatever that was, it wasn't sight. Perceived?
The jutsu works on the principle of echolocation - one shapes one's chakra into a sort of diffuse bubble around the body, pushes the bubble outward in a series of pulses, and uses the returning pulses to construct a three-dimensional map of the surroundings. Sasuke expected to encounter lines and edges, a sort of colorless model of the surfaces of things.
He doesn't know what he just experienced.
Iruka makes a worried noise. Sasuke immediately blanks his expression, but it's too late. "Were you trying the full spherical view?" Iruka asks. "I know you want to prove yourself and make this work, but overloading your mind won't help."
He has a point, not that Sasuke is willing to admit that aloud. Instead, he concentrates on gathering chakra only in front of his body. Then he runs through the seals and does his best not to think about the resulting jumble that floods his mind. It isn't anything he knows how to interpret. So he won't try, not at first. He'll just let the information wash through until it's not so much of a shock.
"The Rock-nin we interrogated about the jutsu claimed that most people experience it as a sort of phantom touch, as if their skin extends outward beyond their bodies," Iruka says. "That's how it worked for me when I tested it - I could feel the walls of the room and the emptiness of the air, and for a second I thought the corners of my desk were slicing into my arms. Of course, most ninja aren't blind, just as most ninja don't have Sharingan. What are you experiencing?"
Whatever it is, it's not like touch. Sasuke is perfectly aware of the difference between his skin and his chakra; those senses don't blur. It's not vision either. Sight is defined by surfaces, by solid objects - there's a reason "line of sight" is such a common phrase. Nothing he's perceiving seems to end. Iruka, sitting in front of him, is a gelatinous mass of varying density, as seen through a diaphanous swirl - the air? - and beyond him the swirl continues until something more solid interposes - the garden wall? - and beyond that...
"The Byakugan," Sasuke says suddenly. "It's like the Byakugan. I'm not seeing surfaces; I'm seeing through everything. Light is limited by solid objects. I forgot that chakra isn't."
Iruka makes a thoughtful noise, and begins to- not to glow, because this false-sight has nothing to do with light, but to shimmer with a tightly patterned corona of something. "Can you see what I'm doing?" he asks.
"You're gathering chakra," Sasuke guesses. "Do something with it."
Something shifts, patches of greater density moving through the swirls of air - Iruka bringing his hands together? Yes. Now he's running through seals, though Sasuke cannot focus tightly enough to follow the movement of his fingers. The shimmer builds, funnels into a sort of net over Iruka's body, and releases with a final burst of not-light.
Something obviously happened, but Sasuke has no idea what.
"You can't see a visual disguise, can you?" Iruka says after a long pause.
"What makes you say that?"
"Even you would react if I turned into your brother," Iruka says gently. Sasuke loses his grip on the not-sight jutsu. "I'm sorry," Iruka continues. "I know I had no right, but if you won't be honest with me, I'll do what I need to in order to get information and help you."
He cannot kill Iruka. He cannot kill Iruka. He cannot kill Iruka. It would be rash and stupid and counterproductive. He needs to win Konoha's trust. He needs to master this new false-sight. He needs to rest and recover and learn everything he can to give himself an advantage when he strikes.
Sasuke digs his hands into the earth, tearing through the hapless grass and clover.
"Naruto will be here within a few hours," Iruka says. "Let's keep practicing."
Slowly, carefully, Sasuke withdraws his hands. He shapes the hand seals again and glares at the patch of denser space that marks Iruka's body. "Stand up and move," he says. "And never, never use my brother's memory as a tool."
Naruto brings his team by while Sasuke is sleeping off the strain of overusing his limited chakra. A sensible person would let him rest, but no one has ever accused Naruto of good sense.
He sticks his head in through Sasuke's window, pulling back the curtains so the sun falls heavy and warm on Sasuke's face and torso, and says, "Hey, bastard, wake up! I want to introduce my team."
Sasuke scowls in the direction of Naruto's voice. "Close the window and go away, idiot. If you're lucky, I'll come outside to tell you how hopeless you are as a teacher."
Naruto laughs and lets the curtains fall shut.
Sasuke carefully shapes the long series of seals and waits until the dizzying rush of perception stabilizes. He walks slowly through Iruka's house, pausing every few steps to calibrate what he 'sees' against what touch and memory tell him ought to be present.
It will take more than one day to master false-sight to a point where it's useful for anything other than avoiding large objects, but Sasuke is learning, slowly and awkwardly, to fine-tune the chakra pulses to wavelengths that mimic light a bit more closely - at least in the sense of stopping at the surfaces of things. He has to pay very close attention to keep from seeing through objects, which has the odd side-effect of making anything he focuses on snap into 'solidity' while his peripheral 'vision' remains the same nauseating swirl of variable density without defined edges or borders.
That wasn't a problem when he only had Iruka to focus on, but if he has to keep track of Naruto and three hyperactive and unpredictable genin, Sasuke wants to know exactly where each of them is at all times.
He tries extending his perception beyond the normal field of vision, switching to the spherical view the jutsu provides in its full form, but that makes his headache even worse and he has to drop the jutsu and start over with the restricted view. It's not natural to see through the back of his head or into the ground beneath his feet. His brain isn't used to organizing that kind of information.
He'll learn, though. It may take years, but he'll learn.
He has to.
Sasuke tries to focus on the kotatsu and a bookcase at the same time, keeping them both apparently solid. It doesn't work; one always slides toward transparency. Whatever. He can certainly terrify a handful of genin into leaving him in peace. The only person he really needs to track is Naruto.
Sasuke walks through the main room into the kitchen. Oddly, Iruka is inside, sitting at the table with his hands pushed together in front of his body. Sasuke focuses. Iruka is holding a cup. "Hello, Sasuke. How are you feeling?" Iruka asks. He raises the cup and drinks.
"Don't use the jutsu for too long," Iruka says. "You nearly knocked yourself unconscious this morning. With your chakra limited, you don't have anything close to the stamina you're used to relying on."
"I don't need you to make lesson plans," Sasuke snaps.
Iruka shrugs - and Sasuke can see that now, can watch the rise and fall of his shoulders, even if he can't quite focus on Iruka's body and Iruka's clothes at the same time, so skin and bone are blurred by a muddle of low-density air and fabric. Naruto should never learn this jutsu, Sasuke thinks. He's far too perverted already. Teaching him to see through clothes - or 'feel' through clothes, since he isn't blind - would only be asking for trouble.
"I know you won't ask about Naruto's students, so I thought I'd brief you before you jump straight in to whatever game he's using to teach them teamwork," Iruka says. "They all have middling scores from the academy, mostly from lack of interest or application rather than lack of potential. It's too early to tell where their skills lie. As for their personalities, Kiun Midori is cheerful and impulsive, Kaihaku Misora is proud and antisocial, and Kikan Minoru is a bookworm and would-be peacemaker."
"That sounds strangely familiar," Sasuke says after a pause. Aside from the lack of obvious talent gaps and Sakura's hidden temper, Iruka might be describing Team 7 back when they first met Kakashi.
"Kakashi insisted they be assigned to Naruto," Iruka agrees. "He said something about continuity, and that maybe this time nobody would die or turn traitor." He lifts his cup and drinks again. "You should go outside before Naruto brings them indoors. I'm fond of Naruto, but I'd rather not have those four running through my house."
Sasuke walks through the kitchen and opens the back door.
Something is flying through the air toward his head. He blocks without thinking, adrenaline synching his reflexes to his perception more smoothly than hours of careful, deliberate practice managed this morning.
"What was that?" Naruto shouts, dashing across the garden to stand in front of Sasuke. "Hey! You're blind - how'd you know the ball was coming? Did your eyes start working again? Can you see me? Hey, hey, Sasuke, talk to me." He waves his arms in front of Sasuke's face. "Wait a minute, your eyes are closed. What the hell?"
Behind him, his genin are laughing.
"I'm using ninjutsu, dumbass," Sasuke says, allowing a slight smile to creep into the corners of his mouth. "Now get out of my way."
He steps forward, and Naruto slides just far enough to the side to let Sasuke pass. Sasuke walks onto the flower-speckled grass, smoothly threads his way between two of the genin, and sits on the stone bench in the far corner of Iruka's garden. "Well?" he says, facing the blob of Naruto's body and favoring the idiot with his best unimpressed expression. "Aren't you going to introduce me?"
Naruto twitches, and Sasuke narrows his focus just in time to catch a grimace flickering over his face. "Yeah, yeah, I was getting there. Anyway! Kids, this is Uchiha Sasuke, my old teammate. He's a jerk, but he's an awesome ninja, so don't mess with him. Sasuke, these are my genin. Their names are way too similar - I just know Kakashi laughed himself sick over that - so I call them the loud one, the sneaky one, and the one with glasses." He points at the three shorter, slimmer bodies one by one as he says their nicknames. "Kids, say hello to Sasuke. You can tell him your actual names if you insist, but I'm still not gonna use them."
The three genin sidle closer together and whisper fiercely. Then one steps forward. "Is it true you're a missing-nin?" she asks.
"Yes," Sasuke says, at the same moment Naruto says, "No!"
"Okay, he was for a while, but not anymore," Naruto adds after a moment. "Don't ask about that. It's personal."
"That doesn't make any sense! If he's a traitor, shouldn't he be locked up and acting all evil and trying to kill us?" the girl protests. "Anyway, I'm Midori, and I want to know if Naruto-baka-sensei was always this annoying." She flips her long hair over her shoulder and gives Sasuke what he supposes is meant as a challenging stare.
"He was," Sasuke says. "He also failed his graduation exam and only got onto my team by a technicality."
"I knew it!" the girl shouts, shaking a fist at Naruto. "Why'd we get stuck with you, anyway? We're so much cooler than that! Whoever put the teams together had to be drunk. I'm going to protest until we get-"
"I am going to trap Kakashi, pull down his mask, and take pictures for the whole village to see," Naruto grumbles into Sasuke's ear. "Also, stop making me look bad in front of my students." He drapes his arms over Sasuke's shoulders with easy familiarity.
Sasuke holds himself utterly still. When did Naruto move? He should have been paying more attention, shouldn't have let the genin distract him.
"She reminds me of you," he murmurs back in retaliation.
As Naruto squawks in denial, a second genin wraps a hand around the loud girl's mouth. "I'm sorry about Midori," he says. "I'm Minoru - or 'the one with glasses,' as Naruto-sensei would say. Pleased to meet you, Sasuke-san." He bows.
"I'm Misora," another girl says curtly. She folds her arms and looks aside. "Are we done now? I want to start the real training."
"You know, if Midori's like me, Misora's you with boobs," Naruto mutters. "She's even got the same stupid duck-butt haircut."
"So what?" Sasuke says. "She has a point. Get back to whatever you were doing with that ball."
"Bastard," Naruto says, but there's no bite to his voice. "Okay, kids, find the ball and toss it to me. And yes, Sneaky, this is real training. If you can't work together to protect each other from a rubber ball, there's no way I'm going to trust you with weapons. So stop complaining and get to work."
Sasuke rests on the bench and watches Naruto pummel the genin with disheartening ease, always recovering the ball before they have a chance to strike back. These children are pathetic. And yet, they're starting, slowly, to work together and take advantage of the brief seconds Naruto needs to grab the ball, turn, and pick a new target. Midori is doing her best to distract him from the other two, who are trying to sneak behind their teacher using Misora's speed and Minoru's small collection of ninjutsu.
Tracking four bodies and the ball is good practice. That's the only reason Sasuke hasn't gone inside, away from Naruto and this misguided attempt to make him feel like he belongs in Konoha - like he has a place in the village that destroyed his clan.
Konoha spared none of his family. Sasuke has no reason to spare anyone who might survive to rebuild the village and its traditions.
It still seems a waste to kill these children.
...How does Naruto always manage to twist him around like this?
Enough nonsense. Sasuke stands from the bench, judges his moment, and darts forward to seize the ball out of Naruto's grasp. He tosses it to Misora. "You get one free shot," he says. "Make it count."
Naruto is staring at him, an unreadable and oddly serious expression on his face. Sasuke turns and walks away.
He refuses to let Naruto win.
Sasuke spends the next month doing manual labor around the village, the sort that's too unpleasant, tedious, or humiliating even for genin teams cutting their teeth and building teamwork on D-rank missions. It has a tendency to involve sewers, after someone realizes that Sasuke won't need to juggle a lantern or flashlight to see underground.
There is always a guard lurking about, keeping him under surveillance. This is a very inefficient allocation of resources, since rather than get Sasuke's work for nothing, the Leaf-nin have tied up a high level ninja to no purpose. When Sasuke decides to break parole - and he will, eventually; he won't let Konoha wear him down - it will take more than one guard to stop him, bound chakra notwithstanding. But letting him live at all is inefficient and irrational, so an elaboration of idiocy shouldn't surprise him.
He walks home alone from his latest job - shifting lumber at one of the countless construction sites that are slowly repairing the damage from Pain's invasion - and considers stopping at a small park to sit under the trees for an hour or so, until the streets are clear of civilians heading home for dinner. So many shifting bodies tangle the diffuse chakra waves he uses to create false-sight; he has to speed the frequency of the pulses, and the higher the frequency the more energy it takes and the faster it gives him a pounding headache. Also, it's tricky enough to see surfaces when the objects are at rest. The more there are and the faster they move, the harder he has to work to keep himself oriented.
If this is really what the Byakugan is like, Sasuke is beginning to understand why it takes the Hyuuga so much longer to master their bloodline limit than it takes (took) his family to master the basic form of the Sharingan.
Also, he dislikes the way the people of Konoha flinch away when they recognize him - which is strange on two counts. First, he hates them; why should he care that they hate him in return? Second, all he's ever wanted is for people to give him space; why is he dissatisfied that his wish has finally been granted? Sasuke trudges onward through the scattering crowds and wonders why he's annoyed at the only thing in his life that's going right.
Naruto has been over nearly every night, loud and foolish and inescapable, but yesterday Iruka decided that since Naruto has been eating his food for free, the idiot should take him out for dinner in repayment. Sasuke refused to join them, which means he'll have a rare evening to himself. He anticipates a quiet dinner and the chance to catch up on his sleep. He needs more rest than he used to, since he can't rely on chakra to ease his way through physical exertion.
He sidesteps a young couple and their two daughters and turns to climb the low step in front of Iruka's door.
Sakura is leaning against the house, waiting for him.
His next step falls slightly out of rhythm, but Sasuke manages to suppress any other sign of surprise. He unlocks the door and slips into the house without speaking, but he holds the door open behind him, tacitly inviting her in. Sakura sighs and follows him inside without arguing.
The fight is only postponed, of course, but it's unseemly and annoying to air private business in public. Also, Sasuke wants to be on familiar ground when he confronts her, in case he has to let go of false-sight and save his concentration for his words.
He's not certain how he recognizes Sakura. Her body shape, hairstyle, and clothes aren't unique. He's used to identifying her by color and sound, and occasionally by the way she moves in a fight. He can't see color. She hasn't spoken. She wasn't moving while she waited. Yet Sasuke knows beyond doubt that this is Sakura.
Maybe he recognized her chakra? He'll have to analyze the theory behind false-sight in more depth on his next free day, to see if that's plausible.
Or maybe he just knows Sakura better than he thinks he does. She's chased him and fought him with as much determination as Naruto, after all, and it's never wise to discount her strength. Maybe he paid more attention to her than he thought.
It's not important.
"Dinner?" Sasuke asks, walking into Iruka's kitchen and assembling the ingredients for a salad, one by one. He watches Sakura through the back of his head; it's useful practice.
"No, thank you," Sakura says. She folds her arms and leans against the doorframe. "I didn't want to visit if you were only going to escape or suicide. You've hurt me and Naruto enough; I didn't need to get my hopes up for nothing. But you seem to be staying, so here I am." She uncrosses her arms, then crosses them again, shifting awkwardly. "What changed your mind?"
He hasn't changed his mind. He's just waiting until someone unseals the rest of his chakra.
Obviously it would be suicidal to tell that to Sakura.
Sasuke shrugs. "Where else do I have to go?" he asks, adding cucumber slices to his plate.
Sakura laughs, a faint edge of pain in her voice. "There is that," she agrees, "though common sense never stopped you before. You and Naruto are both crazy that way." She walks into the kitchen and pulls out a chair. "I don't know what to say to you anymore. Isn't that funny? I used to dream about confessing love, and later about begging you to come home and let us help you, but you're already home and- and you're one of my most precious people - you always will be - but we're not the same people we were at thirteen. And you never loved me back, not the way I wanted you to."
Sasuke makes a noncommittal noise and begins putting away the unused vegetables and dressing.
"You're not listening to me, just like always," Sakura says, a tiny smile quirking her lips. "I don't know why I expected you to change."
"I'm not asking you to kill anyone. I thought you'd consider that an improvement," Sasuke says.
"Returning to sanity is not an improvement. It's just climbing back to where you started. Learning to let people help you and letting go of your hatred would be improvements," Sakura says firmly. She draws a deep breath and rests the palms of her hands flat against the table, as if bracing herself for something. "Speaking of which, I want to examine your eyes."
Sasuke pauses, holding his salad over the kitchen table. "They don't work. What more does anyone need to know?"
"What about why they don't work?" Sakura snaps. "There are so many possible reasons for your blindness. A lot of them are fixable. A few others might be treatable with time and research. It's stupid to turn away a chance at sight just because you hate looking weak in front of me."
She sighs. "I hate seeing you like this, Sasuke-kun."
Like what? "Weak? Blind? Caged?"
"Guttering out," Sakura says. "As long as I've known you, you've always had a goal. You've always been driven. Now you're just... existing. Marking time. You used to pretend you didn't care about anything, but it was an act. Now I think it's real. I think you don't have anything left to hold on to."
She takes the salad from Sasuke's hands. "Naruto's worried about you - did you realize that? So am I. We didn't bring you home so you could lose everything that makes you you. Let me in, a little? I can't promise anything, but if I can help at all..."
The worst part is that she means every word.
"Fine," Sasuke says. He walks into the main room, leaving Sakura in the kitchen with his salad.
He is not losing his determination. He isn't. He can't. He needs to avenge his family, needs to make a mark on this sorry world that allows such betrayal and tragedy to happen, over and over, and never punishes the ones who set the deaths in motion.
He held to his purpose for three long years under Orochimaru's thumb. Less than two months in Konoha can't hold a candle to that.
(It was easy to despise Orochimaru.)
The kotatsu sits in the middle of the room. Sasuke walks past it to the sofa and claims one corner. After a minute, Sakura joins him, sitting in an awkward diagonal pose in an attempt to face him. "I wrapped your salad in waxed paper and put it in the refrigerator," she says. "Now stop being stubborn and turn around so I can see your eyes. Also, open them."
Sasuke opens his eyes and pulls his legs up so he's sitting lotus-style on the sofa, facing Sakura. She shifts until she's kneeling, facing him, and reaches forward to place the tips of her fingers on his eyebrows and temples. She shimmers in false-sight, gathering chakra.
"Let go of the echolocation jutsu," she says. "I need a baseline reading."
To sit under the hands of a medic-nin is already difficult enough - years of familiarity with Kabuto make Sasuke's reflexes scream in warning. To make himself even more vulnerable is nearly intolerable.
But this is Sakura. She had a perfect chance to stab him in the back, once, and every motivation to do so. She didn't strike then. She won't strike now.
"Please, Sasuke-kun," she says.
Sasuke drops the jutsu and concentrates on breathing. He holds tight to the feeling of rough cotton fabric on the sofa cushions, to the drag of warm air in and out of his lungs, to the slight tug and burn of tired muscles in his legs and arms. Sakura's fingers press and lift and press again on his face. He thinks he can feel her chakra worming into his head, a cool, smooth invasion, like water trickling over hot ashes and dousing their sullen smolder.
Pain lances through his head like white-hot senbon stabbing his eyes.
Sasuke's hands slash up and out, knocking Sakura's arms away. "Stop."
"No," she says. "Your reaction only identifies the location of the problem. If you want me to find anything useful, I need to keep looking."
Fabric rustles as she leans forward and touches his face again. Sasuke catches her wrists, tugs her hands back just a fraction.
"Why?" he asks. Why does she care about fixing him, after all the times and ways he's rejected and attacked her? Why won't she and Naruto leave him to follow his path alone?
"Because you're one of our most precious people, Sasuke-kun, no matter how far you run or what you do to deny us," Sakura whispers. "We want you to come home. We want you to be whole."
Sasuke drops his hands to his legs and holds himself still and silent through her examination, limiting his reactions to a hiss of breath and a slight tension around his mouth. After a while she asks him to activate his false-sight jutsu. He does, and spends the next several minutes trying to interpret the expressions passing over her face.
Finally Sakura sighs and leans away.
"There's no cure, is there," Sasuke says.
Sakura bites her lip, seeming to shrink in on herself as she delivers the bad news. "No easy one, certainly. I hoped it was only a transplant error, but it's much more complicated than that. There's degenerative damage to the eyes and the optic nerve, there are scarring patterns from chakra overload, and there's something very odd happening in the parts of your brain that process visual information, especially when you use that echolocation jutsu - and your brain didn't interpret sight the way most people's brains do in the first place. I'm not even sure we could get normal eyes to work for you if you were willing to try another transplant."
Sasuke's hands clench involuntarily into fists. He will not give up his brother's eyes. They're a link to his family, his history, his chosen path.
"I didn't think you'd want that," Sakura says sympathetically. "I'll research all the hospital and village records on nerve damage and chakra scarring, but that may take years considering how idiosyncratic those injuries tend to be. Even if I can restore some of your vision, you'll almost certainly need glasses, and you'll never be able to use Sharingan again."
He's known that since the world went black, but it still hurts to have the knowledge confirmed by an expert.
Sakura winces. "I'm sorry," she says.
Sasuke shrugs. "I made my own choices. This is one of the results. Don't claim responsibility for things you didn't control."
Sakura's sympathetic demeanor vanishes in a heartbeat. "Oh! Would you stop that? Yes, you made choices, but so did everyone else. Your clan decided to betray Konoha. Your brother decided to betray your clan. All kinds of people lied to each other, and fought, and killed, and- and nobody has clean hands, all right? We all could have done more. If I hadn't been so weak, I could have gone with Naruto the first time and we might have kept you away from Orochimaru. Or maybe not, because you're an idiot, but I'm still sorry about that, and I can blame anyone I want to. So there!"
She shakes her fist in Sasuke's face, then stands and angrily brushes the wrinkles from her tunic dress. "Go eat your stupid salad. See if I care."
Sasuke watches through the walls as Sakura stalks out of the house. She slams the door behind her.
Then she sits on the front step, wraps her arms around her legs, and presses her face into her knees.
Sasuke goes to take his salad out of the refrigerator. It is neatly wrapped in waxed paper and Sakura has also added several chunks of tofu. She really does still care about him - and unlike Naruto, she doesn't seem to be adjusting to his status as a paroled traitor, or to his blindness.
She should have stayed away.
He'll only hurt her more in the end.
Two months later, Sasuke returns to Iruka's house tired and dusty, as usual. Iruka is waiting in the entrance hall, which is not usual. His hours run into the evening, whereas Sasuke's current stint at sewer maintenance ends around midafternoon.
Sasuke sharpens his focus. It's difficult to read expressions when he can't see the expansion and contraction of pupils or the minute shifts of attention as people glance up, down, or sideways without moving their heads. But he's learning to track alternate signals. Iruka looks... not exactly worried, nor angry. Disgruntled, perhaps? And a little amused, and maybe even a tiny bit sympathetic. "What did Kakashi do now?" Sasuke asks, flatly.
"You're getting much better at reading faces," Iruka says. "Rokudaime has used his authority to change the terms of your community service. You'll be teaching part-time at the academy when the fall term begins next week."
Sasuke is sure he misheard. "What?"
"Congratulations, you're a teacher!" Iruka says, as amusement wins out over the other emotions in his voice and expression. "It's possibly one of the worst ideas I've ever heard of, but you four have a way of pulling off the impossible. If nothing else, you'll make a good object lesson on what not to do as a Leaf-nin, and who knows - if Naruto can become a passable jounin-sensei, maybe you'll be a decent replacement for me, like Kakashi suggested."
Kakashi is obviously insane.
On the other hand, this is a promising sign of trust. "Fine," Sasuke says. "There's only one problem: I'm blind. Even if I can use false-sight, I can't read. The edges and density differences between paper and ink are too fine to distinguish."
Iruka is still smiling. "Sakura raised that point during the meeting. Naruto, of all people, thought of a way around it." He lifts a shimmering bottle - ink? - off the mail table. "You know, of course, about ink that can be keyed to become visible when exposed to specific chakra signatures or patterns?"
It's not the most secure way to send messages between villages, but it's significantly better than some. Sasuke nods.
"It doesn't have to be invisible ink," Iruka says, and tosses the bottle toward Sasuke. "Give a bottle to each of your students and penalize them as much as you want for using any other ink. Since it's not a standard supply, it will come out of your salary."
Sasuke tucks the bottle into his pocket for later experimentation. "I'm getting paid for my punishment now?"
"How else are you going to afford your own apartment?" Iruka asks.
"You're only moving next door," Iruka continues, still looking and sounding far too amused for Sasuke's peace of mind. "I'll still be keeping an eye on you. But teachers need their own residences, if only so you'll have a private refuge from the insanity your new students will induce. Also, Kakashi insisted."
"...Right," Sasuke says. He waits, but Iruka seems to be done with surprises for the day. Sasuke moves past him into the main room, trying to remember where Iruka keeps his writing supplies.
"Naruto is bringing his team by in fifteen minutes. I want you to distract the genin while I discuss their performance on recent D-rank missions with him," Iruka says.
Sasuke whirls. "Why should I?"
"Because I'm your parole officer and I am giving you a direct order," Iruka says, amusement shuttered away as if it never existed. "Think of this as practice. If you can't deal with three students who are already primed to consider you interesting and worthy of respect, you'll never handle a classroom full of children who have twice the energy and less than half the discipline of new genin."
Sasuke grits his teeth. "Fine. Where do you keep your calligraphy supplies?"
"In my study. Paper is on the bookcase and the brushes and stones are on my desk. When you're done practicing, there's a curriculum book in your room. Those are always written in chakra-sealed ink, just like grade books, to keep students from getting ideas."
Sasuke manages a minimal nod of thanks and heads upstairs to get a feel for reading the ink before Naruto and his team invade. It's not very hard, as it turns out. The diffuse chakra pulses he uses to produce false-sight are enough to react with the ink and produce the tell-tale shimmer of organized chakra. It's like reading phosphorescent letters in the dark. The one complication is when he has more than one page on top of each other, like pages in a book; then the letters from the lower pages bleed up through the top pages and render everything illegible.
Sasuke is sliding blank sheets of paper between the ones decorated with his out-of-practice calligraphy, trying to find the necessary thickness to block that page-bleed, when Naruto flings the front door open and yells greetings to Iruka. Sasuke sighs. He'll figure the rest out later. For now, he shoves the bottle into his pocket and gathers four brushes and a sheaf of small, rectangular slips of paper.
"Try being louder next time. I don't think they heard you in Suna," he says as he walks back downstairs. Naruto sputters, and Sasuke turns to the genin. "You three, come outside. I'll be teaching you today while the idiot makes plans for your future suffering."
Strangely, this seems to deflate Naruto's anger. "Yeah, yeah, listen to Sasuke," he says in response to his students' questioning glances. "I'll take you out for dinner to make up for the psychological torture."
Sasuke spends the next hour teaching Naruto's team to make explosive notes. Minoru is best at it, but Misora is not far behind and even Midori manages two successful tags in the end. When Iruka calls them inside, Sasuke looks at the gathered potential energy in his hands and an irresistible idea strikes him.
He can't retaliate against any Leaf-nin without breaking his parole and losing the fragile, foolish trust they're giving him. Nothing, however, says that he can't talk other people into striking for him.
"Three each," Sasuke says, handing the explosive notes back to the genin. "Try sneaking them into Naruto's pockets. It's good stealth practice."
"For us or for him?" Misora asks, habitual suspicion lacing her voice.
Sasuke smiles. "Both."
Midori cackles. Minoru grins. Misora looks toward the doorway where Naruto is waiting, and a tiny smile quirks the corner of her mouth. "Okay," she says, and all three genin stalk toward the house with intent rolling off them in waves.
Naruto's jacket catches fire in three places at once as he ushers his team over the garden wall. His yelp is extremely satisfying.
Sasuke darts into Iruka's kitchen and slams the door before Naruto can turn and start accusing him.
...Maybe he doesn't have to kill everyone in Konoha. Naruto's genin are still innocent. Maybe he can settle for simply destroying the elite ninja, the council, and the clan heads.
No. It wasn't mercy to leave him alive when all his family was dead. It won't be mercy to leave Midori, Misora, and Minoru alive either.
Sasuke will repay the betrayal of his clan. No matter how difficult it may be.
In the meantime, he has a curriculum book to read and lessons to plan.
Sasuke skips the academy's opening ceremonies, in accordance with his personal inclination and his orders not to throw his presence in the faces of the ninja clans. He waits indoors, sitting behind the desk at the front of his assigned classroom. He still hasn't been allowed any weapons, but at least now he can buy his own clothes, which means his pants are ankle-length and he has arm guards again. All black, of course. He's never hidden his darkness, and he sees no reason not to cut as intimidating a figure as possible.
A horde of children thunders in - thirty-two students, according to his attendance roster - and swirls around the room, gradually settling into seats on the benches behind the long, narrow tables. These are not the newest students, for which Sasuke is grateful. They have four terms of experience to teach them how to behave and what kind of respect their teachers deserve.
On the other hand, they have four terms of experience to teach them that the academy approves of rule-breaking so long as the culprits can avoid being caught.
Sasuke waits, silently, as the children begin to fidget and whisper. Eventually, one girl grows careless and says, loud enough for Sasuke to overhear, "-said he's blind, and he was a traitor, and we shouldn't have to listen to him, so come on, Ami-chan, open the window and let's sneak out!"
Sasuke claps his hands.
A pillar of fire flares over his desk for three seconds, snapping hungry tendrils outward toward the children. They're in no danger - Sasuke has far too much control to burn anything he doesn't want to burn - but it shuts them up neatly.
He dismisses the flame.
"Name," he says, pointing to the careless student.
"Um, ah, Kinuko? Sensei?" she says, her voice shaking slightly.
"Thank you. My name is Uchiha Sasuke," he says. "I will be your ninjutsu and general history instructor for the rest this year, by the personal order of the Rokudaime Hokage. As you told your friend, I am blind and I renounced my loyalty to Konoha. Neither of those facts is relevant in this classroom. I expect you all to listen and learn to the best of your abilities. By entering the academy, you have declared your intent to become ninja. Be diligent in your attempts to reach that goal. Ninja without dedication are nothing but walking corpses and strangling weights around their teammates' necks. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Sasuke-sensei," Kinuko says. "I'm sorry. I promise I'll work hard!"
Sasuke stands and sweeps his attention over the class, turning slightly so his closed eyes seem to stare at each child in turn. "We'll begin with introductions, then move on to a review of your lessons from the previous term."
When he dismisses the children at noon, he thinks he may have made a decent beginning. He ought to find the teachers' lounge now and give a report to his coworkers, who are also his guards and evaluators, but he's had quite enough human contact for the day. Sasuke opens a window and slips away instead.
Naruto is waiting for him on the wall around the academy grounds, grinning and waving to catch Sasuke's attention.
With anyone else, Sasuke would demand to know how his movements have been anticipated, but it's useless to ask Naruto. He'll just say something about having read Sasuke's heart in one of their fights, and going to the place he felt Sasuke would be. It's infuriating.
Sasuke leaps to a neighboring roof, blatantly ignoring Naruto. The idiot fails to take the hint and follows him move for move.
"So, how'd it go?" Naruto asks, raising his voice so it carries over the wind of their passage.
Sasuke shrugs. "It went."
He splits his attention, half aimed forwards to keep himself from falling, half aimed sideways to read Naruto.
"Good, good," Naruto says. "There's no way you'll be as awesome a teacher as Iruka-sensei, or even as awesome as me, but I knew you wouldn't let a bunch of brats throw you off. So, what do you want to do for lunch?"
Sasuke stops dead on the railing of a rooftop balcony and grabs the collar of Naruto's jacket - not an attack, not quite breaking the terms of his parole, not yet. "What do you want from me?" he growls. "Why can't you leave me alone? Why couldn't you ever leave me alone? Haven't you ruined my life enough? I'm in this cesspit of a village, I'm following your pathetic rules, I haven't killed you in the middle of the night - what more do you want? What will it take to make you go away?"
Naruto brings his right hand up to wrap around Sasuke's. "I want you to be happy," he says. "Are you?"
Is he happy? Is he happy? In what world does that question even make sense? In what world does anyone living have the right to ask him that?
"Well, are you?" Naruto repeats, as if he actually thinks he deserves an answer.
To hell with his parole; Naruto will never turn him in. Sasuke shoves Naruto away, sending the idiot skidding back along the railing. "What do you think?"
"I think Sakura was right," Naruto says. "You don't think you have anything left to live for, so you're turning in on yourself. But you're wrong, Sasuke! You have all of your friends. You have me. And I won't let you hurt yourself anymore."
Sasuke punches him in the gut.
It's a pathetic attack, nowhere near enough force to really hurt Naruto or even send him flying, not when he's so obviously braced for it. Most of Sasuke's chakra is still bound, while Naruto has all his unnatural stamina plus full control over the Kyuubi. But that's not the point.
Naruto still thinks he knows best. He still wants to make Sasuke into the person he wants as a friend, instead of letting Sasuke make his own choices.
"I'm not you!" Sasuke shouts, striking forward again. Naruto blocks, and blocks, and won't strike back. He doesn't think Sasuke is worth fighting. He doesn't think Sasuke is worth anything.
Sasuke wants to burn him to ashes and make this town his funeral pyre.
"I never was like you and I never will be like you! I don't want friends! I don't want your stupid respect! I don't want your future! I just want-"
Naruto finally strikes: a single punch to Sasuke's gut, like he's mirroring a greeting. Sasuke reels back along the railing, gasping for breath. He's so weak. He hates being weak. He hates that he can't escape Naruto. He hates that some treacherous part of him doesn't even want to escape Naruto.
He'll never be good enough to honor his family's memory.
...He is not going to break down. Not here. Not now. Not in front of Naruto.
Naruto catches Sasuke's arm and steadies him. "Yeah, I know what you think you want," he says. "But I learned how to listen underneath what you say. I'm not going anywhere."
He falls silent and waits while Sasuke gathers his composure, one ragged breath at a time. The afternoon sun is warm and heavy on Sasuke's head and shoulders, and he opens his useless eyes - Itachi's eyes, Itachi's gift that he ruined and wasted, like he always does with the precious things people entrust to him. He looks upward into the sun, letting light pour down over him like rain.
The sun can't hurt him. He's already blind.
"You never learn," he tells Naruto.
"I do so! I brought you home, didn't I? And like I said, I'm not going to leave you alone. You're way too good at twisting yourself up when I'm not around." He pauses, then adds, a little guiltily, "Except I am leaving, for a couple weeks - my team finally moved up to C-rank missions, and we're heading down to Wave Country the day after tomorrow. It's the weirdest déjà vu, I swear. But anyway, I'll be back. I just wanted you to know."
"I hope a rogue Mist-nin kills you," Sasuke mutters, but he doesn't argue when Naruto laughs and slings an arm around his shoulders, hand brushing the back of his neck for a moment. The contact is warm.
"You can dream," Naruto says. "Now come on - tell me where you want to eat or I'm taking you straight to Ichiraku for ramen. It's bad luck to leave without making up for a fight."
Sasuke pushes Naruto's arm away and tells him, at great length, precisely how stupid he is and how much he doesn't want to eat lunch with him, let alone eat lunch with him in public. Naruto yells back at equal volume.
Somehow they end up at Ichiraku anyway.
At least the food is decent.
(So is the company.)
Naruto has been gone for nearly a month, two weeks longer than his mission should have lasted. As a direct consequence, Sasuke has rediscovered the peace of solitude, broken only by his weekly check-ins with Iruka and one further eye exam from Sakura. He has time to breathe, to sleep, and to make plans without Naruto's constant distracting presence.
It should be wonderful. It is wonderful.
But he can't seem to concentrate. He's not sleeping well. His temper is flaring at pointless, minor annoyances.
His students have noticed, though they don't have any context for his irritation. They send him sidelong glances when they think he isn't watching, and give him a suspicious lack of trouble and backtalk. Eventually Kinuko goes so far as to linger after the end of the school day, her small fingers clamped around the doorframe as if to draw strength from the wood.
"Sasuke-sensei? Are people being mean to you because you were a traitor?" she asks. "Because that's not fair. You came back home, and you're an awesome teacher - lots better than Hiroyuki-sensei from spring term! I just wanted to tell you that I believe in you."
She ducks her head and runs away before Sasuke can form a response.
She's deluded, of course. He didn't return to Konoha of his own will. He isn't staying by choice. He doesn't want to be a teacher. He doesn't even like her.
Why does this village produce so many fools who can't see him for what he is?
Unsettled, Sasuke wanders through the streets instead of heading directly to his apartment cell. He tells himself it's useful practice at maneuvering through crowds and managing false-sight in the closest conditions to a melee battle he can approximate, but the comparison falls flat. There's no killing intent directed at him - and that's odd in itself. Some people still draw back and mutter half-hearted curses as he passes, but an equal number don't react to him as if he's anything other than a normal, loyal Leaf-nin. They give him space from respect, not fear or hatred.
Do they not recognize him? Or is Naruto's madness contagious?
After a while, Sasuke finds that his feet have carried him to the hospital's main entrance. He stands outside the doors, debating whether to go in and give Sakura the misleading impression that he might, on occasion, appreciate her company.
She settles the question for him by leaning out of a third-floor window and shouting, "Sasuke-kun, wait there for a minute! I need to talk to you."
There is a brief flurry of agitated voices. Sasuke pushes his false-sight, looking through the walls to watch Sakura hand something - a scroll? - to a medic-nin who wears the full sterile uniform. The man protests, but Sakura slashes her hand through the air in sharp dismissal. Then she jumps out the window and lands in a neat crouch on the pavement.
"I was going to visit you once my shift ended, but this is more convenient," she says, hurrying to Sasuke's side. "Ino's working in communications this month - she told me Naruto sent word that he's coming home today. I want you to help me corner him when he turns in his initial report at the mission center, so we can take him out for dinner." She strips off her sterile mask and gloves and tucks them into the pouch at her waist.
"Because it's what friends and teammates do for each other, and you're our friend and teammate no matter how much you deny it," Sakura says. She grabs Sasuke's hand and pulls him along the street toward the mission center. "You can tell him I forced you to come if that makes you less embarrassed."
The mission center is in a different building these days - a hastily repurposed warehouse rather than the prosperous, organized solidity of the building Sasuke remembers from his time as a genin. "We can work from anywhere," Sakura says in response to the questioning tilt of his head, "so long as the walls are warded and there are enough filing cabinets. Infrastructure, utilities, and civilian housing are higher priority on the reconstruction list." Sasuke nods and follows her through the door, ignoring the guard's distrustful scrutiny.
The warehouse's origins are even more obvious inside: a single huge rectangular room, pitted concrete floor and walls, high unfinished ceiling, lighting fixtures that scream industrial starkness. From the snatches of conversation Sasuke can overhear, the left wall is for mission requests, the right is for client payments, and the back wall is for assignments and reports. There are three doors in that wall, presumably leading to offices and record rooms.
Sakura strides toward the back right corner, where three people are sitting behind the desk. "Hinata!" she says, surprise and happiness audible in her voice. "Shino. Kiba. I thought you were running security for the Fire Lord at the five nations' summit. Why didn't you tell me you were back in Konoha?"
Sasuke sharpens his focus, searching for quick identifying details - his old classmates have grown surprisingly competent, and he doesn't want to be caught unaware when (if) he faces them in battle. Hinata is a generic female figure, her posture still designed to minimize her impact on the surrounding world, but her chakra is nearly as well-organized and tightly controlled as Sakura's. Kiba, sitting on a bench against the wall and idly tossing a braided rope into the corner for his oversized dog to retrieve, has a broken leg - multiple compound fracture, the kind that no amount of chakra healing will fix without a long recuperation. Shino... Sasuke firms his false-sight to stop at the outer surfaces of objects. He has no need to watch insects crawling through Shino's veins and lungs, let alone burrowing in and out of his major organs.
"Kiba had a minor disagreement with a statue," Shino says dryly, his voice slightly muffled by the high collar shielding his lower face. "Hinata feels we should make ourselves useful while waiting for him to recover." Hinata stammers a demurral while Kiba snarls in the background.
"Well, it's good to see you, whatever the reason," Sakura says. "Sasuke and I are here because Naruto's expected home today. Has he already dropped off his report?"
"Naruto-kun hasn't been here yet," Hinata murmurs, looking down as she shuffles a handful of papers. "Ah. Or at least, we haven't seen him."
"We haven't seen him because he hasn't been here," Kiba says firmly. "It's not like he's easy to miss, Hinata - you'd have to be blind not to notice when that jerk walks into a room."
There is a tiny silence as Hinata and Shino turn ever-so-slightly toward Sasuke, then away, as if guilty or ashamed.
"Being blind doesn't help," Sasuke says.
The silence grows. It's true, though. Naruto has an inexplicable, infuriating knack for catching and holding Sasuke's attention. Sasuke's ability to see the idiot's face is irrelevant. Naruto's physical presence is irrelevant.
"He is something of an attention magnet," Sakura says, rueful amusement lacing her voice. "Sometimes I wonder if he can even make the dead sit up and take notice."
"Don't give him ideas," Sasuke mutters.
Sakura laughs. After a second, as if her amusement gives them permission to react, Hinata giggles quietly and Kiba snorts.
"Regardless of Naruto's hypothetical ability to wake the dead," Shino says, "he has yet to drop off a mission report without making at least a minor scene. Would you like us to send word to the hospital when he arrives, or would you prefer to wait here?"
"We'll wait," Sakura says, making Sasuke's choice for him as if his decision was never in doubt. She has no right to assume she knows what he wants, let alone to speak for him.
Even if she happens to be correct this time.
Sasuke stalks over to the side wall and leans against the chill of the concrete wall, his arms folded and his face set in a forbidding expression. After a few attempts to drag him into conversation, Sakura huffs in frustration. "Fine. If you want to play hermit instead of catching up with people who are willing to treat you like a potential friend, that's your call. I think you're being as stupid as you always say Naruto is, but it's not like you've ever listened to me."
She ambles back to the desk and hops up to sit sideways on the corner, making casual conversation with Hinata and Shino while they sort and rank new mission requests and file reports of completed missions in the appropriate dossiers. Twice someone comes up to the desk with new papers, and Sakura turns to trade jibes with Kiba or scratch behind his dog's giant ears.
Now and then she laughs. It's a bright, cheerful sound.
Sasuke wants to think that she's mocking him, but it's obvious she's not paying him the slightest attention. She's simply happy - happy to be alive, happy with her job, happy to have friends. Happy that Naruto is coming back to Konoha.
Sakura has a home.
After an hour the warehouse doors slam open, the unexpected noise drawing everyone's attention. Naruto strides into the cavernous room, his three genin trailing behind, their gait and posture speaking of exhaustion and budding pride. "People of Konoha! I would like to report that Team 4 have successfully completed their first C-rank mission, courtesy of my amazing and skillful instruction and leadership. The future of our village is in good hands!"
Astoundingly, a few of the ninja on duty begin to applaud.
Naruto is heading toward Sakura and the others at the counter when he suddenly veers sideways toward Sasuke's shadowed corner, though Sasuke is sure he, unlike Naruto, hasn't done anything to draw attention. "Sasuke? What are you doing here?"
"Ask her," Sasuke says, pointing toward Sakura.
"Okay. You come too - if she's angry, I want somebody I can push into the line of fire," Naruto says. He grabs Sasuke's wrist and drags him forward, the pressure of his hand warm and unexpected on Sasuke's skin.
Midori laughs. Sasuke opens his eyes to give her a blank, hopefully intimidating glare, infused with as much hostile intent as he thinks he can get away with while surrounded by watchful Leaf-nin.
"Sorry, Sasuke-san," the girl says, not sounding apologetic in the least. "It's just funny to see Naruto-baka-sensei excited again. He got lonely while we were away - especially when he taught us to climb trees." Her teammates nod in agreement.
Naruto walks faster. Sasuke has the strangest feeling that the idiot is flushing. He wishes he knew for certain. Some days his lack of color vision is more annoying than others.
"Hey, hey, Hinata-chan, good to see you! Kiba, Shino, you too. Here's our preliminary report," Naruto says. He tosses an untidy scroll in Hinata's general direction; she catches it neatly. "We guarded the bridge while old man Tazuna made repairs. Then we tracked down the saboteurs. It was a pair of missing-nin from Kusa looking to set up a protection racket, like that was ever gonna work. We dropped them off in Grass Country for trial, which is why it took us so long to get home. If Iruka gets on your case about me being vague, tell him I said I'd write up the details tomorrow and he can bug me instead of you."
Hinata mumbles something affirmative. Naruto grins. "See you around, guys!" he says, and turns back toward the door. "Loud, Sneaky, Glasses, let's go home."
"Congratulations, all four of you," Sakura says as she and Sasuke fall in step on either side of Naruto. "Sasuke and I were planning to take Naruto out for a celebratory dinner, but since you're all here, you three might as well join us. Unless you have something else planned, Naruto?"
He shrugs. "Eh, not really. But I don't know if they're interested in hanging around with us - did you know they think we're boring and old? Seventeen's not old and I'm never boring!"
"Predictable, maybe," Sasuke murmurs.
"What did you say, bastard?"
Sasuke hides a smile. "I said you're predictable. But not old. And not boring. Usually."
"You-!" Naruto says, flaring up like he always does... and then abruptly deflating. "You suck, you know that? But I'm in too good a mood to care. So! Ichiraku, here we come! Don't worry, kids, I'll pay."
"Ramen again?" Misora and Minoru mutter in chorus, but they and Midori fall in behind Naruto readily enough. Free food is a powerful argument.
They walk through the streets in no particular order, though Naruto contrives to be at Sasuke's side a suspiciously high percentage of the time. Some people still give Sasuke wary looks, but something - maybe Naruto's presence - stops the more obvious signs of distrust. In fact, several times people call out greetings as they pass, welcoming Naruto back to the village and asking how he's been.
"I'm great!" Naruto answers each time. "So are my team, and so are Sasuke and Sakura. Thanks for asking! How are you?"
It's been a long day. Sasuke can feel a headache lurking at the corners of his eyes, but he keeps pushing the false-sight, unwilling to let Naruto's face dissolve into a cloudy swirl. He's still tracking the idiot even when he gives up on his peripheral vision and finishes his ramen mostly by feel.
When Sakura heads back to the hospital and Naruto's students head home, Sasuke pretends to humor Naruto by letting the idiot accompany him back to his apartment. In truth, he can't focus enough to tell if he's going to crash into other people in the streets, and is relying on Naruto's arm around his shoulders to keep him on his feet. Naruto can probably tell. He's always been freakishly good at seeing all the things Sasuke wants to hide.
Naruto doesn't say anything about Sasuke's weakness, though. He just waits for Sasuke to unlock his door and says, "Thanks for putting up with the kids tonight. They look up to you, you know?"
"That's remarkably stupid of them," Sasuke says before he can stop himself.
"Yeah, well, you taught them how to make explosive notes. Apparently that makes you a friend for life. Besides, it's not like they'd believe me if I told them you were evil, not when I spent so long trying to bring you home," Naruto says, one hand rising to scratch the back of his head as he grins awkwardly. "I mean, yeah, you left Konoha and there was all that stuff with Orochimaru and Madara and whatever the fuck you thought you were doing at the end, but you're here now. With me. And I'm glad."
"That's remarkably stupid of you," Sasuke says. "But I'm used to that."
"You're also a bastard. But I'm used to that," Naruto says amiably. He flings himself out the open window at the end of the hallway before Sasuke can think of an appropriate response.
Sasuke sleeps soundly that night.
The next morning, Kinuko smiles brightly at him when he sends his class outside to the shuriken practice range. "You don't feel so prickly today, Sasuke-sensei!" she says. "Did you get your friends to help you fight whoever was bothering you?"
He doesn't have friends. Even if he did, they couldn't fight his own self-doubt.
But Naruto and Sakura did help, in a way.
"Yes," he tells Kinuko. "You don't need to worry about me. Go catch up to the others before Yukari-sensei realizes you're late for her lesson."
Kinuko darts forward and hugs him around his waist. "I'm glad you're feeling better, Sasuke-sensei," she says, and runs off to join the class outside.
Sasuke watches his students through the walls and wonders what, exactly, he thinks he's doing anymore.
Five months later, he still has no idea.
Naruto and his team have been in and out of town four more times, and celebratory return dinners have become something of a habit. Each time, Sakura has invited more people, until the last dinner involved nearly twenty people and had to be moved into Choji's house for lack of space at the ramen stand.
Sasuke doesn't know why he lets Sakura drag him to the parties. He doesn't know any of the Leaf-nin - he didn't know them well when they were all genin and he doesn't care how the years and war have changed them. He isn't one of them. He'll never be one of them, no matter how long he stays in Konoha, no matter how many children he teaches to join them. He doesn't belong to the Leaf. He can't. Giving in would be betrayal.
But somehow he ends up on the edges of the gatherings, watching Naruto and Sakura smile and laugh amongst their friends, until one or the other remembers him and wanders over to talk for a minute or an hour. Sometimes Shikamaru or Shino will stand near Sasuke's side and share his silence. Sometimes Hinata will attempt to make polite conversation about the academy - she has three cousins currently in attendance, about whom Sasuke has now heard far more than he ever cared to know. Once Lee attempted to involve Sasuke in, of all things, a thumb-wrestling competition, but Sakura shut that down before it spiraled into disaster.
The point is that these dinners are for Naruto and Sakura. Sasuke is only included as a courtesy to his former teammates. There is no imaginable reason for the other Leaf-nin to tolerate Sasuke's presence for his own sake, let alone actively welcome him.
The idea that they might want to celebrate his accomplishments is beyond absurd.
He says as much to Sakura when she stops by his tiny apartment to inform him that he'll be eating dinner at the Akimichi clan's main house tomorrow.
She glances down and sideways, and he thinks she's probably blushing. "Well, yes, it's Naruto's idea - but Choji volunteered to host us, and nobody said it was a bad idea. They're coming around, Sasuke-kun. You made it through the school year and when the next term starts, you'll be teaching full-time. That's worth celebrating."
"This is a bad idea," Sasuke says.
"You would know - you're the one who always chased after every bad idea you could find," Sakura says, before clapping a hand to her mouth and looking horrified at herself. "Sorry, sorry," she mumbles. "I didn't mean that."
She did, though. She does. She may still want to be his friend, want to bring him home, but Sakura isn't stupid. She learned to see Sasuke as an enemy, even if she's pretending not to anymore.
Naruto is the only one who was always blind.
Sakura drops her hand and sighs in response to Sasuke's silence. "No, you're right. I meant it," she says. "I know you had reasons, but you still did horrible things. I hated you as much as I loved you for a while - for what you were doing, for how you made me feel, for the way you hurt Naruto. But you're home now. You haven't run away or turned traitor again. I know you can keep on doing the right thing."
Sasuke can't help making a small disbelieving noise. He's not turning into a good little Leaf-nin. He's only biding his time, lulling his watchers into false security.
Sakura scowls and punches him lightly in the shoulder. "You're a good person, Sasuke-kun - at least when you're being yourself instead of listening to bloodthirsty lunatics. And it's much easier to make good choices when you have friends to help you out. So you're coming to this dinner and you're going to have a good time, or I'll punch you through the wall and tell Naruto you're feeling lonely."
It's hard enough to go a day without Naruto's attention as it is. If he thinks Sasuke is lonely...
"I'll pick you up at six," Sakura says, taking his silence as agreement. "Now sit down and let me see if there's been any change in your eyes."
"Nothing is going to change," Sasuke tells her, but he moves back across the bare floorboards to his secondhand kotatsu and drops his false-sight, letting Sakura in.
The next day, both Sakura and Naruto come to pick him up. Sasuke opens his eyes and glares blankly at Sakura, who smiles and shoves him so he stumbles into Naruto's side. Naruto steadies him, one arm warm around Sasuke's waist for a too-long second before he steps back and laughs. "Hey, hey, you're not supposed to get drunk until after the party! No fair starting early."
"Idiot," Sasuke grumbles, but Naruto just grins and laughs harder as they climb out the window by Sasuke's futon and head over the roofs toward Choji's house.
Sai lets them in, his face shaping into the most awkward excuse for a smile Sasuke can remember seeing - at least since the last time Sai attempted to smile at him. Sai, at least, has no childhood memories or reflexive team loyalty to cloud his interpretation of Sasuke's actions. His hands tend to hover dangerously close to his brush and scroll in Sasuke's presence.
Naruto either doesn't notice or decides to ignore the tension. "We brought Sasuke! Where's the food?" he shouts, leaning past Sai's shoulder into the warmth of the large, sprawling house.
"In the kitchen! Duh!" a female voice shouts back. As Sakura herds Sasuke inside and Sai closes the door, Ino sticks her head out of the kitchen doorway, just ahead and to the right, and flips her hair. "You're late. I expect that from Naruto, but I thought you had better organizational skills, Sakura." She nods once to acknowledge Sasuke's presence, but otherwise ignores him. Her indifference still feels odd after the way she stalked him in the academy.
"We're not late. You started cooking too early," Sakura snaps back.
She and Ino glare at each other, then break into laughter.
"I swear, I'm never gonna understand girls," Naruto mutters into Sasuke's ear. "Those two get weirder every year."
Sakura reaches back and brings her fist down on Naruto's head, knocking him to the floor. "Behave," she says. "Sasuke-kun, Sai, that goes for you too." Then she hooks her arm through the crook of Ino's elbow and strolls through the open kitchen doorway, from which rich and muddled scents are beginning to waft.
"Relax," Naruto says as he picks himself up and dusts off his jacket and pants. "We're here because of you, Sasuke - I promise nobody hates you."
Sai coughs, and Naruto frowns at him, surprisingly cold and serious for once. "Look, would you let it go already? We don't hold Root and Danzo against you. Don't hold stuff against Sasuke either. You both made the right choices in the end, and you're kind of teammates by... by..." He trails off for a second, looking like he's swallowed a too-sour pickle, and then brightens. "Step-teammates!" he says. "So you're not allowed to hate each other, okay? Now come on before Choji eats all my ramen."
Sasuke looks at Sai from behind his closed eyes. Sai is imitating Naruto's sour-pickle expression, but when he turns to face Sasuke, the awkward smile makes a swift reappearance. "If Naruto likes you, you must have some redeeming quality, though I confess I can't imagine what it could possibly be," he says, smiling even wider. "I won't kill you unless you hurt him or Sakura."
"Likewise," Sasuke says, returning an equally insincere smile.
Naruto slaps a hand to his forehead. "I don't know why I bother," he mutters. "You're both jerks." But he's grinning as he turns back toward the kitchen, and Sasuke only barely suppresses the smirk that's trying to spread across his mouth.
Through the back of his head, he watches Sai's smile turn real, and wants to burn it off the interloper's face.
He follows Naruto into Choji's kitchen instead, and spends his evening enduring congratulations from people he refuses to care about, no matter what childhood memories they share, or what dreams they spin about reforming Konoha so his clan's tragedy can never be repeated.
They're too late, after all. All the people who said they wanted to help were always too late. Protecting other clans won't bring his parents and brother back to life. Protecting other children won't erase his own suffering.
He won't forget. He can't. No matter how hard it is to hold onto his hatred, he can't just let go.
The only fitting memorial for his family is revenge.
Sasuke leans against the doorframe and listens to Naruto tell a long, ridiculous story about his students' mishaps while practicing genjutsu counters. He can afford to wait another few months. He's still not completely trusted - he hasn't seen a single clan head since his return, let alone Kakashi - and that means he needs more time.
He can wait through the next academy term, at least. He'd hate to leave Kinuko and the others to the care of their previous substitute.
Sakura shoves a cup of sake into his hands, and Sasuke lets her pull him away from the wall and over to Naruto's side, in the heart of the noisy group.
Two months into the new school year - almost exactly one year since he woke up blind and captive - Sasuke stands outside the door of the Hokage's official meeting room, waiting for his three-man Anbu escort to verify that yes, the traitor Uchiha Sasuke has been delegated to give the academy's monthly report today; yes, Rokudaime-sama has approved of said traitor's presence in the heart of Konoha's power; and no, this does not mean any Anbu bodyguards will be required during the actual meeting. Sasuke hides a victorious smirk.
When the Anbu finally give up arguing with Iruka and stalk down the corridor in disgust, Sakura digs her elbow into Sasuke's side. "I told you it'd work out. Kakashi's as crazy as ever, but he doesn't let anyone push him around."
"Whatever," Sasuke says, and steps into the meeting room. It is square and high-ceilinged, and arranged rather like a classroom, with the various chuunin and jounin kneeling on mats in front of the low dais that holds the Hokage's desk. Kakashi has ignored his chair in favor of sitting on the desk itself, legs crossed and back bent in a deceptive slouch. He seems to be staring at the open book in his hand, but Sasuke knows better than to think the man misses anything around him. He is wearing robes and a wide-brimmed hat, but other than the new clothes he looks much the same as the last time Sasuke saw him, before he went blind.
Sakura steers Sasuke left, toward two mats at the end of the last row, where they will have only the wall at their backs. It's a thoughtful gesture, considerate. Sakura is always looking out for other people before herself. It's a kind of selflessness Sasuke will never understand.
He kneels and tugs Sakura down beside him.
"Welcome, Sakura. Sasuke. You're the last," Kakashi says, nodding toward the door. Iruka shuts it and activates a minor ward to prevent eavesdropping. "Funny. You always used to accuse me of being late."
"That's because you were," Sakura says. "If you want to get out of here so badly, start the meeting instead of picking on us."
Kakashi sighs. "If I must. For those of you representing your departments for the first time, this is the monthly village status assessment meeting. You'll each present your reports, after which we'll determine the most important issues to focus on in the coming month. Shikamaru, you begin. Any trouble on the borders?"
Shikamaru stands and slouches his way forward to stand beside the Hokage's desk. "There have been no overt intrusions this month, beyond a trade caravan that cut overland to avoid reports of bandits and strayed from Grass Country into Fire Country by accident. However, there was an unverified security alert on the northern border. A patrol reported seeing a group of three figures near the checkpoint, but when they advanced for closer recon they found no tracks or any other sign of human presence. It may be nothing, but I have a feeling. I ordered increased patrols in that sector and I request that all village guards be alerted to the chance of trouble."
"Mmm," Kakashi says. "We'll do it. Anything else?"
"No." Shikamaru returns to his mat, and Kakashi calls the next person forward.
He saves Sakura and Sasuke for the end. Sakura reports on the progress of the latest apprentice medic-nin, and reminds everyone that their annual exams must be completed within the next two months or they'll be taken off active status. "That includes you," she says, poking a finger into Kakashi's shoulder. "Stop trying to weasel out."
"Yes, yes, as you command," Kakashi agrees blandly.
Sakura clearly wants to punch him, but she restrains herself. "You'd better not forget, or I'll set Naruto on you," she says, and returns to Sasuke's side.
Kakashi looks over at them with a smile. "Sasuke, you're the last. How is life at the academy treating you?"
"It hasn't killed me," he says dryly, and walks forward.
Several people in the room shimmer with gathered chakra, clearly waiting for him to snap and attack like a rabid dog. Sasuke takes petty, vicious pleasure in navigating between their kneeling bodies, refusing to show weakness, guilt, or anything else a blind traitor might be expected to feel. He's standing within arm's reach of Kakashi. He's trusted. He could do anything.
He sets that knowledge aside and begins to speak. "The ninja academy began the month with two hundred and twelve students, and ended with two hundred and ten. One dropped out of the first year, having decided the ninja's path was too difficult. The other dropped out of the third year due to injuries; she may return if her treatment progresses well. As always, many of the training weapons were destroyed, lost, or otherwise rendered unusable-"
Sasuke presents the report in a flat, careless tone, droning through the prepared text the other teachers handed him that morning. He wonders which of them is guiding his students while he's away. He wonders if the children will care that he's gone.
He wonders why any of that matters to him. When did this village and these people get their hooks into his heart again? He should hate them. He does hate them, at some times and in some ways. But he can't seem to despise them anymore.
Destroying Konoha will be a self-defeating victory at best.
"Thank you, Sasuke," Kakashi says when he drones to a stop. "Does anyone have anything to add? No? Then get out of here and get to work."
The Leaf-nin file out of the room in relatively good order. Sasuke waits by Kakashi's desk until the room is mostly clear. "Why did you make me a teacher?" he says. "It's not where my talents lie."
"True," Kakashi admits. "You're much better at destroying than you are at building. But as your teacher, it's my duty to help you strengthen your weak points, don't you think? Besides, I won't count my work done until all my little students have students of their own." He pats Sasuke on the head, then leaps out the window before Sasuke can retaliate, discarding his robes and hat behind him.
"Not again," Iruka mutters. "Sasuke, Sakura, please have a good day. I have to hunt down our esteemed Rokudaime-sama and make him sign off on the new mission assignments." He leaps out the window after Kakashi.
Sasuke scowls. Sakura giggles. "I told you Kakashi is still crazy," she says. "Come on, Sasuke-kun. Let's get some lunch and enjoy our day off."
She leads him down and out through the building and onto one of the zigzag covered stairs that lead down the mountain into the village proper. Sasuke was never familiar with restaurants in Konoha and is even less so after his years away and the chaos left in Pain's wake, so it takes him some time to realize that Sakura is leading him toward the bridge where they used to wait for Kakashi, back when they were genin.
"I don't want to reminisce," he says, when he sees the familiar wooden railings ahead.
"We don't have a lot of happy memories, do we?" Sakura agrees. "That's why I want to make new ones. Naruto said he'd be training his team in water-walking, since running water isn't the same as standing water. Let's surprise him, okay?"
The idea of dropping in unannounced on Naruto rather than the idiot barging in on him, is more appealing than it has any right to be. Sakura can apparently sense Sasuke wavering, because she smiles, presses a finger over her lips, and tiptoes toward the bridge with exaggerated caution.
As they approach, Sasuke slows. Something isn't right. He should hear splashes and voices, but there's nothing but distant birdsong and the gurgle and chatter of water over stones, echoing hollowly off the bottom of the bridge.
"Sakura-" he says.
Chakra flares behind him and he whirls, striking reflexively at his attacker. His oddly small attacker. Who is not an enemy at all, but Misora - one of Naruto's genin.
He barely manages to pull the blow so he doesn't cave in her ribs.
She grunts in pain but gamely pulls herself back up and begins a series of hand seals. Sasuke dodges the surge of ice that hurls itself toward him from the stream. His fingers itch to shape fire. He slips behind the girl, intending to knock her out by hand, but the seals that bind his chakra cut his speed too much. She ducks away from his blow.
"Sensei was right - you're good!" she pants. "Fight me for real!"
If he fights her for real, he'll kill her.
"No," Sasuke growls, and dredges more speed from pure will - out of depths of determination he didn't know he still had. He blurs forward and sends a jolt of electric chakra into her coils, disrupting the messages her brain is sending to her limbs. As she shudders and twitches, Sasuke tries to remember how to cast genjutsu without relying on Sharingan. Ah. Like that.
"Sleep," he whispers, and imagines white feathers falling down, down, down like a soft blanket of snow, until Misora's breath eases and evens, and her eyes drift shut.
Sasuke lowers her body to the ground and presses his hands to his closed eyes. "Shit."
Behind him, Sakura is swearing a blue streak at Naruto. "-were you thinking, you shit-for-brains, king of morons loser? You don't send children up against jounin with reflexes geared for war, not unless you warn us so we know to be careful! Look what you've done to Sasuke! We want to make him feel welcome, not remind him of every disaster in his life! He's been doing so much better - are you trying to screw up all our work? Idiot!"
She thumps Naruto on the head, driving him waist-deep into the soft ground of the riverbank.
"Sorry, Sakura-chan?" Naruto says meekly. "Um, can you let me go so I can take my team to the hospital?"
Sasuke looks at the other two genin, who are lying on the ground with a broken arm, a broken leg, and severe bruising - and then back at Misora, who may have nerve damage if he misjudged his attack. Disaster sounds about right.
Sakura thumps Naruto again, driving him further into the ground until only his head is visible. "No. You stay and apologize to Sasuke-kun. I'll take your students to the hospital. The bills will go on your account."
Sakura gets Midori and Minoru upright - Midori supporting her teammate on her good shoulder, so he can keep his bad leg off the ground - and slings Misora's unconscious body over her shoulder. "He's all yours, Sasuke-kun," she says, and walks off toward the hospital.
Sasuke remains on the grass by the foot of the bridge. After a minute, Naruto finishes prying himself out of the ground and joins him. "I'm sorry," Naruto says. "Sakura's right. I wasn't thinking, and that wasn't fair for you or my team."
What does fair have to do with anything? Life is never fair. But it's funny, in a twisted way, that the closest Sasuke has come to killing anyone since his forcible return to Konoha is directly Naruto's fault.
"Forget it," Sasuke says. He stands, brushes stray bits of grass off his clothes, and walks away.
Naruto follows, shedding clumps of dirt in his wake. "Really, I'm sorry," he insists. "I've gotten used to, I dunno, play-fighting, since I'm always training my genin and there's no way they could keep up with me for real. I forgot that you and Sakura haven't been sparring like that." He jogs forward until he's walking at Sasuke's side. "Hey, come to think of it, do you spar with your kids at the academy? Or no, wait, you're mostly teaching the boring things like math and reading, and baby ninjutsu. I remember we used to have separate classes for taijutsu and weapons and stuff."
Sasuke determinedly ignores him.
Naruto continues to reminisce about their years at the academy until they reach Sasuke's apartment. He unlocks the door and prepares to slam it in Naruto's face.
Naruto ducks under Sasuke's arm and flops onto the bare floorboards before Sasuke can stop him. "Will you stop sulking and talk to me, you jerk?" he says, looking up to meet Sasuke's closed eyes. "How many times do I have to say I'm sorry?"
"Until you realize how close you came to getting your students killed," Sasuke snaps, shutting the door. "You never think about consequences. When are you going to realize I'm not the person you remember from back then? I'm a traitor. I'm a killer. And I'd do it all over again, with no regrets. That's what you sent your students up against!"
His hands are shaking with fury. It's strange; when did he start to care about Naruto's students? Why does Naruto get past his defenses? Why is he giving the idiot advice when he's still planning to escape someday?
"I know you're not the same person you were five years ago," Naruto says, sitting up. He keeps staring into Sasuke's closed eyes, as if he can see through skin to the darkness that passes for Sasuke's soul. "Neither am I. Everybody changes. But when are you going to realize that you're not the same person you were last year either?"
Naruto waves his arms wildly. "Look at yourself, Sasuke! You're teaching at the academy. You spend time with me and Sakura without trying to kill us. You put up with the rest of our friends, even Sai. You did your best not to hurt Misora and then you yelled at me for putting her in danger. You got lost in the darkness, yeah, but you're finding your way back. Stop telling yourself that you're evil, because you're not!"
"You're delusional," Sasuke says.
His back hits the doorframe. When did he retreat?
Naruto stands and walks forward. His hands tangle in Sasuke's shirt, pinning him against the wall. "I am not. I know you, Sasuke. I know you better than anyone else, and I know you're scared. But letting yourself heal isn't going to dishonor your clan or your brother! What do I have to do to convince you that you have friends, you have a home, and we forgive you, you bastard? When are you going to listen?"
He's shaking Sasuke, shoving him against the wall with every phrase. He won't look away, won't stop staring into Sasuke's eyes.
Sasuke kisses him.
It's brief and messy - his teeth clack against Naruto's and there's an unpleasant amount of spit involved - but it shuts Naruto up.
Sasuke leans back. Naruto lets go and steps away in open-mouthed surprise.
Sasuke scrubs the back of his hand over his mouth, wondering when he went crazy enough that that seemed like a reasonable tactic. Then he realizes that Naruto isn't yelling about violation or germs or any of the other antics Sasuke expected. That Naruto is still here.
That Naruto is always here, with him, by choice.
"You like me," Sasuke says in dawning comprehension.
"Well, yeah - you're my best friend," Naruto says. "But that's not- what did- you just kissed me! What the fuck?"
"You like me," Sasuke repeats. "And you like me like this. You wouldn't know what to do with me if I acted like one of your grinning sycophants. You want me to fight. Fine. How far are you willing to go? Unbind my chakra and I'll push you as hard as you want. You're not innocent. I don't have to hold back with you."
"That's not-" Naruto says.
"Isn't it?" Sasuke asks. He opens his sightless eyes and smiles when Naruto's gaze flinches away. "This is who I really am, Naruto. This is who I always will be, underneath. Is this what you want?"
"No. Yes. No. I-" Something unreadable flashes over Naruto's face. He steps forward and grabs Sasuke's hands, his grip warm and strong. Then he leans in and returns the kiss. Closed mouth, this time. Sasuke holds very still until Naruto sighs and pulls back.
What exactly just happened?
Naruto leans his head against Sasuke's, forehead to forehead. The cool metal of his forehead-protector against Sasuke's skin is like a silent reproach.
"Yeah, I wouldn't know what to make of you if you went all happy-happy, like Lee or something," Naruto says. "And of course I like fighting you - you're always going to be my rival, no matter what else happens. But I hate seeing you rip yourself up all the time. Maybe that darkness is part of you, but it's not all there is and you don't have to always listen to your worst heart when you choose what to do. I don't listen to the fox when he wants revenge. I learned to forgive Konoha."
He brings their clasped hands up to hover between their bodies, then presses them against Sasuke's chest over his heart. "Can't we figure it out together? I thought you were starting to feel like you belong here."
Sasuke turns away and closes his eyes. He is bone-deep, soul-deep tired. "Maybe," he says. "I don't know. Ask me again next year."
"Does that mean you'll still be here next year?" Naruto asks, perking up.
Sasuke shrugs. "Who knows? Now let go of me, idiot."
Naruto drops his hands and steps back, grinning like the fool he is and always will be. Sasuke has hated that expression for years, has wanted to claw it off Naruto's face and make the idiot see the world for the blood-stained wasteland it really is. Nothing good ever lasts. No love is ever free.
Naruto's friendship - and whatever else - isn't free either. But maybe, possibly, the price is something Sasuke is willing to pay.
He sighs. "Stop staring at me like a starving dog and help make lunch."
He'll make sense of this tomorrow.
Naruto is waiting outside Sasuke's door the next morning.
Sasuke stares blankly at him. Does the idiot think that one- that whatever happened between them yesterday, which Sasuke has still not figured out, gives him the right to follow Sasuke around even more than he already does?
"My team's still in the hospital," Naruto says, "so I have the day free. Since we were talking about the academy yesterday, I decided I'd come sit in on your class. Besides, Iruka-sensei says there's a alert to the village guards. It's a good idea to have extra protection for the kids."
He has the bright, determined expression that means arguing with him will be like trying to lift the Hokage monument with one finger - actually it might be easier to lift the monument. "Fine. But you're not allowed to talk. And no gestures, stupid faces, or gag ninjutsu either," Sasuke says.
Naruto sags briefly, but recovers. "No problem! Hey, do you eat breakfast at home or do you buy something on your way to work? Because I wouldn't mind something to eat."
Sasuke walks into his tiny excuse for a kitchen, grabs an orange from the fruit bowl on the counter, and shoves it into Naruto's hands. "Here. I'm not buying you lunch, so don't even think about asking."
"I don't know why I thought you might stop acting like such a jerk," Naruto mutters, but he's still smiling as he follows Sasuke to the academy, and he sits cross-legged under the blackboard with no further protests. "I think it might rain this afternoon," he says as he peels his orange. "The clouds are awfully dark and it feels like thunder in the distance. What do you think?"
"I wouldn't know about the cloud color," Sasuke says, glancing over his lecture notes one last time.
"Oh yeah, right. I keep forgetting there's stuff you can't see anymore," Naruto says. "How do you figure out the weather?"
"I ask somebody who isn't blind," Sasuke says dryly, not in the mood to explain about humidity, scent, barometric pressure, and the almost tangible weight of sunlight. "Now shut up. I can hear children in the hallway."
Sasuke's students give him strange looks as they file into the classroom. Naruto waves cheerfully to each one in turn, ignoring Sasuke's orders to refrain from making gestures. At least he doesn't try to talk through the orange sections in his mouth.
"We have a guest today," Sasuke announces when all thirty-two children are in their seats. "This is Uzumaki Naruto, one of my old teammates. He's an idiot, but he's a skilled ninja so treat him with respect. Naruto, these are my students. Consider yourselves introduced."
He begins a lecture on the relative merits of fire jutsu and water jutsu, with a promise to demonstrate a basic jutsu from each style before lunch. The entire class comes to rapt attention; they're fascinated by the idea that one day they'll be able to play with the world as easily as Sasuke seems to.
He's describing the importance of breath to several fire release moves when the building trembles.
Behind him, a piece of unused chalk falls to the floor and breaks. The sound of a distant explosion rises in its wake and the building shakes again.
Sasuke pours his focus into false-sight, reaching past the walls, past the academy grounds, further and further until he's watching half the village dance with swirling, shimmering blurs. That much chakra can only mean ninja shaping active jutsu in battle. The village is being invaded. Again.
He pulls his focus back and in, just as Naruto stands and touches his shoulder. "Did you see-?" Naruto asks.
Another explosion rumbles through the air, louder and closer, and the windows rattle in their frames. "Invasion," Sasuke says. He claps his hands. "Everyone, begin the emergency evacuation pattern. This is not a drill. Stay calm; Naruto and I will protect you."
The children form two neat lines and begin marching out of the classroom, falling in behind the students from other rooms as they make their way to the roof and then up into the caves in the Hokage monument.
"I have to go," Naruto says, squeezing Sasuke's shoulder. His hand is warm, even through the fabric of Sasuke's shirt. "How many clones should I leave?"
"No more than you can afford," Sasuke says. Naruto nods. His hands flash and his body doubles and redoubles, on and on in less than a heartbeat, until his shadow clones fill the classroom. Most leap immediately out the windows, toward the noise of war. A few vault over the children still filing out the door and rush through the academy, searching for stragglers.
Sasuke waits until all of his students are in the hallway before shutting the door and following them.
Kinuko is last in line. She falls back to walk beside him, her small hand reaching up to tug on his sleeve. "Sasuke-sensei? Are we going to die?"
She's no older than he was, the night his world fell apart in fire and blood.
"Everyone dies eventually," Sasuke tells her. "But today is not your day to die. I promise." There have been enough dead and broken children. He doesn't want this girl to walk in the same darkness that's shadowed his entire life.
"Oh. Okay," Kinuko says with perfect trust. "Thank you for keeping us safe, Sasuke-sensei." She lets her hand slip downward until she's holding Sasuke's fingers. Her skin is cold against his.
Sasuke climbs faster, urging his students up the stairs and into the caves. Kinuko clings to his side as the other children pass them.
Naruto's clones usher the last children to the mouth of the cave system and then stop, turning as one to face the far corner of the village. "Shit," they say in chorus. "We have to go, Sasuke," one adds. A second later they vanish. Not dissipated in smoke. Not teleported. Just gone.
Sasuke doesn't have time to wonder about that. Something is moving up through the stone, sending a wave of cracks and vibrations ahead of its path. He looks down through the rock and watches the tunneling ninja draw closer. Three of them in that one tunnel. Who knows how many others may be deeper within the mountain.
"Kinuko, run," he says, and pushes her into the cave. "Tell the other teachers to watch the floor and the ceiling. There may be enemies in the stones. It's very important that you pass this message on."
"Yes, Sasuke-sensei," she says, and dashes into the darkness.
Sasuke takes a moment to examine the walls of the cave. If he stands in the center of the passage, he can press both hands firmly against the walls. Good. He pulls a bottle of ink from his pocket and marks a shimmering line on each wall, an arm's length back from the cave mouth. Then he stands at the top of the stairs and waits.
He has no Sharingan. He has no weapons. He has access to less than a quarter of his chakra.
He doesn't care. For the first time since his capture, he can fight without restraint.
The invaders have no idea who they're facing.
As the first ninja comes within reach, Sasuke gathers chakra in a pattern he remembers from watching Sakura. He couldn't have managed this last year, but having so little chakra has forced him to refine his control. This is all about timing.
Wait. And wait. And wait one more breath, until the rock at the top of the stairs begins to buckle. Now. Sasuke slams his fist down into the stone as he releases the pent-up force. The staircase and the cave mouth explode.
The lead ninja dies instantly, head and body pulped beyond recognition. The second and third leap into the open air and cling to the sides of the mountain, eyeing Sasuke warily as they pick shards of stone from their bodies.
Sasuke smiles. "Welcome to Konoha. Today is your day to die." He slams his hands into the ink-marked targets on the cave walls, chakra slicing out from his fingers like giant knives.
The front of the mountain sheers off on either side, sending the invaders crashing down to the earth under several tons of stone.
Sasuke turns and runs into the cave, toward the large, central caverns where the students are gathered. He's only stopped three problems. This invasion is large and well-planned, clearly aimed to rip out Konoha's heart and future as well as its current military strength. There is no way the students are safe.
He pushes his false-sight outward, probing through the mountain for the telltale shimmer of chakra where none should be.
Left and right and forward and down and up - every way but behind him, there are enemies burrowing through the stone toward the vulnerable cavern at the mountain's heart. No wonder the border guards didn't find any signs of human presence. The invaders were underground. If a few of them hadn't popped to the surface for some unknown reason, Konoha wouldn't have had even the minimal warning of Shikamaru's bad feeling.
"They're coming from all sides," Sasuke calls as he skids into the cavern. "I'll mark their approaches. One of you take each target, and the rest guard the students."
"The main passage?" a teacher asks.
"Safe for now," Sasuke says. "You, stand here; the enemy will come diagonally up through the floor right there." He marks the point with a splash of chakra-coded ink. "The next one will break through here."
He continues around the cavern, positioning the teachers, who draw weapons, ready scrolls, and prepare to destroy instead of create. A small corner of Sasuke's mind is amazed that they're listening to him, submitting to his orders. He's a traitor. They don't like him. But he has more battle experience than anyone else here, and the bloody scratches from where flying shards of stone struck him must speak to his determination to guard the students.
It seems like forever until he has every approaching tunnel marked, but it can't have taken more than a minute or two. Sasuke has time to breathe, and borrow a handful of kunai, and listen to children crying before the vibrations become so obvious nobody can miss them and the invaders break through.
They are not expecting to be met with precision strikes. Over half die immediately.
Unfortunately the remaining enemies don't care about fighting the teachers. They only want to reach the students and slaughter as many as they can.
Sasuke leaves his first target gasping and bleeding out from a neat slash across his throat and whirls to help the teacher on his left.
And then Naruto is back, hand clasped on the same shoulder he touched so recently.
"Oh, fuck," he says. "Sasuke! Keep them busy for a minute until I get the kids out of here!" His hands move and he becomes legion, one clone moving to grab hold of each child and teacher and winking out in turn.
The invaders see their prey escaping and redouble their efforts, heedless of injuries so long as they can reach and strike a child before they die. Sasuke pulls speed from his breath and blood and bones, as if he's burning years of his life to let him throw himself in the path of shuriken and send them slashing back at the ones who threw them.
He misses an interception and the whirling blades bite deep into his leg. Sasuke stumbles. One of the invaders leaps forward to finish him.
Naruto clamps his hand on Sasuke's wrist and the world blinks.
They're in the open, up high - on top of the mountain? "It's not over," Sasuke shouts, spinning to glare at Naruto with his sightless eyes. "You left the enemy alive!"
"I was saving you!" Naruto shouts back. "Sorry if I care whether you live or die."
Sasuke grits his teeth. He can't fight Naruto, not here and not now. "Where are the others? How did you do that?"
"Hiraishin, my father's jutsu," Naruto says. "He only did it with himself, but I figured there was no reason I couldn't do it with a bunch of clones since it's all my chakra to start with. Everyone else is down on the other side of the mountain. It's safer outside the walls for now."
There is another explosion from the village below. Naruto looks torn. "Go," Sasuke tells him. "I don't need you to fight for me."
"I'm fighting for you anyway. I always am. If I'm not protecting my home and my precious people, there's no point in fighting at all," Naruto says. He yanks Sasuke's face toward himself. "Hey. For luck?"
Sasuke tilts his head and lets Naruto kiss him. After a moment, he kisses back. But only for a second. Then he pulls away. "There. Now stop wasting time and go win this battle."
Naruto smiles and disappears.
Sasuke turns to face the shimmer of chakra tunneling up from the cavern. He's wounded. His chakra is nearly gone. Maybe he should have mentioned the remaining invaders to Naruto? The idiot would have been more than willing to leave a handful of clones to knock out and otherwise incapacitate these enemies.
But no. The air smells of approaching rain and he can feel electricity coiling in the sky above. He's outside, away from any civilians or buildings that might create collateral damage. He couldn't ask for more perfect conditions. He hardly needs any chakra to make this jutsu work. All he needs is his will and a target.
Sasuke doesn't need anyone to fight for him. That doesn't mean he can't fight for someone else.
The invaders have nearly reached the surface. Sasuke sheaths his left hand in a glove of electric chakra and feels for the echo in the clouds above, slowly wrestling the jagged, heavy potential of lightning toward a single spot.
Stone and earth shatter and spray from a dozen tunnels. Twelve invading ninja leap free. They watch Sasuke warily, gathering into clusters of two and three, obviously unwilling to face him alone. He takes a moment to study them - who would attack Konoha so soon after the great war?
They wear forehead-protectors but the metal plates are blank. Missing-nin, then - but in such a large group and so well-organized that they make Akatsuki seem unambitious. "What grievance do you hold against Konoha?" Sasuke asks as he raises his crackling hand.
"You should know!" a kunoichi shouts, pointing her sword at his heart. "You of all people! The hidden villages oppress the clans and enslave ninja to the will of the daimyo. They stop little battles and call themselves peacemakers. Then they lead us into convulsions like the great war that nearly destroyed the world last year. The kage are a symbol of madness. Their peace is a poison dream. The hidden villages must be torn down to let the clans go free. You know this, Uchiha Sasuke! Why do you defend those who betrayed and captured you?"
It occurs to Sasuke, quietly and suddenly, that this is his perfect opportunity to escape. Someone among these ninja must have the skill to unbind the seal on his chakra. With an army to hand, destroying Konoha seems a reachable goal rather than the bitter delusion of a lost fool. He can avenge his clan, redeem the mistakes they made in trusting the Senju and founding Konoha.
He can be free.
And Kinuko will die, after he promised to save her. Iruka and Kakashi will lose face, if they survive the day. Konoha will turn on itself, maybe even fall to civil war. Naruto's students will be murdered as they lie helpless in their hospital beds. Sakura's hope and faith will shatter.
Naruto will spend the rest of his life chasing Sasuke into the darkness.
"I defend my precious people," Sasuke says. "I defend my home."
He brings his hand down and the lightning follows.
It takes nearly fifteen minutes for any Leaf-nin to reach the mountaintop to investigate the unnatural flood of lightning. Sasuke limps methodically from one charred body to the next, stabbing and slashing to make sure any who escaped disintegration are unmistakably dead.
Then he sits on the rain-dampened grass and tips his head to the sky, waiting for his judgment. Falling rain looks very strange in false-sight: a mélange of downward-slanting ripples in the random swirling of the air. The water hisses softly on the grass, extinguishing the residual lightning-struck flames.
Naruto appears with no warning sound, his hand clasping Sasuke's shoulder once again. "You should have told me," he says.
Sasuke shrugs. "I told you - I don't need you to fight for me."
"Obviously!" Naruto says, sitting down at Sasuke's side. "That was major overkill, you know? And people say I'm a show-off."
Necessary overkill, since Kirin is the only ninjutsu Sasuke can manage with depleted chakra that has anything approaching enough power to kill a single skilled ninja, let alone a group. Naruto doesn't need to know that, though. Kakashi and Iruka will, when Sasuke writes his inevitable after-battle report, but he can worry about that later.
"The kids are safe. So are all our friends," Naruto says, changing the subject. "I'd say you're a hero, but not everyone wants to acknowledge you. A couple people saw the lightning and started saying you were too dangerous to live." He grins. "Sakura punched them. If Sai and Ino hadn't held her back until Hinata talked her down, I think she might have put them in the hospital right next to my genin."
"Hmm," Sasuke says. He leans sideways, just enough to let Naruto take a sliver of his weight.
Naruto laughs. "Yeah, she's scary when she's defending us. But anyway, Kakashi shot that idea down before it spread too far. He said that if you're this dangerous without Sharingan, your sword, and most of your chakra, think what you could do to defend the village if we decide to trust you all the way. Which they won't let him do yet," Naruto adds, sounding annoyed, "but we're working on it. After what you did today, the council and clan heads will have to listen sooner or later."
"Hmm," Sasuke says again.
"You're not listening to me, are you?" Naruto accuses. "And after I just saved your life. You're such a jerk."
"You like me for it," Sasuke says.
The rain is falling harder and nobody else seems to be coming. It's obvious how these invaders died; Sasuke doesn't need to stay and explain that to anyone. He can put the information about their motives into his report. Which he will write tomorrow.
Right now, he just wants to go inside where it's dry and warm.
Sasuke stands and holds his hand down toward Naruto. "Come on. Let's go home."
"You don't even know where I live," Naruto says, letting Sasuke pull him up.
"I don't need to," Sasuke tells him. "Like I said, let's go home. I have towels and a kotatsu and more instant ramen than any sane person needs."
Naruto, who came through the entire battle without a scratch, looks as though Sasuke has just clubbed him over the head with the hilt of a sword. "Wait- but- seriously? Does this mean you're going to stay?"
"Ask me again next year," Sasuke says, trusting Naruto to hear underneath his words to what he means.
He has something to live for instead of hollow revenge - a future as well as a past. He has a home to care for and defend. And he wants Naruto to be there with him.
Slowly, Naruto smiles.
They walk home through the rain together.
AN:Thanks for reading, and please review! I'm particularly interested in knowing what parts of the story worked for you, what parts didn't, and why.