A/N: Why. WHY. This is the first thing I post for the Naruto fandom? Really? God. Well, enjoy anyway, and try not to hate me once it's done! I appreciate you taking the time to read!
Also: don't question why it's inevitable-just accept that it's part of the story.
I don't own Naruto, and am making zero money on this story; all rights belong to Masashi Kishimoto.
Spin the Bottle
There were many theories on how the story of Team Seven would finally end.
Some predicted that their end would come at the hands of each other; that their fierce loyalty would eventually erode into something even sicker than it was now. After all, hadn't the Uchiha boy already stuffed his hand through the jinchuuriki brat's chest?
Others wagered that that same loyalty would eventually drive them back together, and they'd fall defeating some terrible enemy, and as the fabled team they'd been once before.
And some, but only a very few, foretold a happy ending for the fractured Team Seven. And even then, those eternally optimistic friends still couldn't see that outcome without the path leading there dipping down into hell first.
But it was always going to end, one way or another.
Sasuke was always going to walk away, dead-set on forging his own road to revenge. Naruto was always going to chase him, determined to drag him off that road, with roaring words of friendship and by his bitch-boy haircut if necessary. Sakura was always going to run after them both, absolutely intent on proving her worth, on not being left behind, not ever again. And Kakashi was always going to meander along at their backs, physically three steps behind but already light years ahead in terms of action and outcome.
They always fought when they finally found each other; both amongst themselves and against outside enemies. Sasuke was always so damn difficult, to use Naruto's words, and consistently surrounded by ninjas that solved problems with swords and screams. So their meetings were acted out in fights and fists and skidding in puddles of blood, and set to the background music of their shouts to each other over the sounds of battle.
(Bastard! Just stop for a second and listen!)
(Sasuke. Sasuke. Please. Stop running away!)
Well, Sasuke never shouted. He'd just lean in close and execute a technique that Naruto had since named 'that creepy, sneaky, whispery invasion of personal space thing that was apparently the only actual skill he'd inherited from that stupid snake-bastard'.
(Hn. It's not my job to listen to you anymore.)
They ran each other in circles, with Sasuke leading the charge and Kakashi bringing up the rear.
And so really, it was no surprise that when Sasuke stalked their mutual enemy (some idiot with a huge chakra reserve that the boy had been chasing after when his old team had caught up with him) into the cave he'd been using as a hideout, the others followed without hesitation.
They blasted the base clean, sometimes back to back, and sometimes three against one.
(That jerk! He died before I could hit him with my Rasengan! Sakura, can you bring him back so I can kick his ass right this time? Sakura? !)
And after it was done, and Sasuke was calmly wiping blood off of his katana, Naruto chased him up the stairs, screaming about bonds, and best friends, and promises that he'd made, especially to Sakura.
(Damn it, Bastard, stop trying to leave us behind. We're your friends!)
And Sasuke turned, just for a second, just long enough for Sakura and Kakashi to catch up at the top of the staircase, and opened his mouth to deliver yet another firm denial of their unwanted friendship.
But it never came, because before he could speak, the chakra web descended from the ceiling, golden webs snapping shut around them like spider silk.
Back in the Academy, there was a register in the back of the textbook that detailed things ninjas needed to watch out for in particular, things that spelled instant death no matter how powerful the person caught in the trap.
Chakra webs were listed at number one.
"In fact," Iruka-sensei had cautioned, "chakra webs are much more deadly to those with mass amounts of chakra. When touched, its strings immobilize immediately. The strands then drain the ninja of every last drop of chakra, ultimately resulting in his or her demise. So, a person with a massive chakra store is at a disadvantage, because the web targets the biggest prey first." The teacher's gaze had hardened as he scanned his class, as if already rubbing out the faces that would inevitably fall to such a fate, blurring their features to make the unavoidable easier to deal with. "Chakra webs can't be defeated. They can't be escaped. There is no jutsu, at any level, that can break it once it activates. I will teach you how to identify the signs of a web being cast, but if you end up caught in one, your best option is the standard issue poison tablet distributed to each shinobi."
During the lesson, Sasuke had stared out the window, his blank and bitter gaze hiding the quick spinning of his prodigy brain as he absorbed the information.
Sakura had listened with her hands folded and her eyes bright, a proper expression of horror scrunching her face.
Naruto had muscled out a truly heroic snore, and drooled a little on his desk.
"The hell is this?" Naruto demanded, crouched and wary as he regarded the golden cage surrounding him.
"That's why," Sakura was murmuring, and her green eyes were wide and blank, empty bottle-glass, broken and shattered by fear and recognition and can this be it, God, is this really the way, after all this time. "He died before we could touch him, because he used his chakra to create the web."
Naruto's brow scrunched in confusion.
"A web? Like the kind Shino's bugs make sometimes?" He laughed, a wild and rollicking sound. "What kind of pansy-ass final defense is that? Don't worry, Sakura, I'll get us out of here!"
They didn't speak, or even lock eyes. It was just like the old days, when they fought together on automatic, not as single entities but small parts of a larger whole.
Naruto wasn't the type to believe in unbeatable things.
Sakura aimed a chakra-powered fist at his leg, snapping the bone in half with a clean and powerful crack.
Sasuke reached for his right hand, the one he used to shape the Rasengan, and folded it neatly in his, until the bones bent and gave under the pressure.
Naruto buckled, his blue eyes impossibly wide.
Honestly, he wasn't all that surprised by Sasuke's actions; the boy had shattered his bones before, and other things far more delicate. But Sakura was always the one to fix him; she was the perfect princess that soothed things when they were broken.
He didn't recognize her face, so pale and hard and pressed, framed in shades of sharp pink and green and the soft silver of anguish.
"Excellent teamwork, you two," Kakashi said. The man was already sitting cross-legged on the cave floor, his orange book attached to his face. He lowered it just enough to peer at his old student. Sasuke's skin was pale, even for him, but his eyes weren't terribly bothered. "It's like you never left at all, isn't it, Sasuke?"
Sasuke watched as Sakura dropped down in the dirt beside her fallen teammate. Gently, she maneuvered his head into her lap, so that his shoulders pressed against her knees, and his over-wide blue eyes stared up into hers.
Different, he observed, almost automatically. New. She never would have cuddled him before.
Those broken bottle-glass eyes flashed to his, hot and jagged and sharp.
I would have done this for you, those eyes reminded him angrily. If you would have let me, I would have.
And Sasuke didn't answer at all, silent or otherwise, because he had known that before he left.
"Heh. Hahaha. That's a funny joke, Sakura," Naruto said, and they all pretended not to hear the tiniest tremor underneath his regular rasp. "Saying that there's no way out."
Sakura brushed the sweaty bangs from his forehead with gentle fingers and didn't answer.
Naruto didn't believe in unbeatable things.
Next to them, Kakashi continued to read. He didn't seem bothered by Naruto's injuries, or the golden threads surrounding them. His eyes were scrunched in simple pleasure as he slaved over the pages he could probably recite from memory.
Sasuke stayed standing, huddled in a corner of the cage. His spine stiff and straight, he watched the chakra strands gleam and glitter and inch just the littlest bit closer.
Ah. So that's how it would happen.
The edges of the web would creep in, inch by inch, and eventually, wrap them up tight and drain them dry.
Sasuke wondered if it would hurt worse than Itachi. And then promptly dismissed the idea.
Nothing hurt worse than Itachi.
Sakura was crooning in her corner now, soft sounds as she explained to Naruto, patiently, the way a mother might soothe a child that the monsters weren't real. Except that she was doing the exact opposite now.
"But…but!" Naruto blustered, stunned and confused and a little bit afraid, even though he'd never admit it. "Sakura, I have to try!"
"Shh," she murmured. "Shh. You don't. No, you don't, you moron. Not this time."
And, Oh God, Naruto was really afraid, because she was actually touching him, with palms instead of knuckles, and the smile on her face was small and fond, and not exasperated at all.
"We don't give up," Naruto insisted, and Sakura smiled, because he sure as hell didn't, and she sort of loved him for it. "There's got to be a way around this, Sakura."
"Remember the Third?" she asked, and continued to brush at his dirt-kissed skin. "Jutsus require balance, Naruto. You give a little energy to get a result. That man gave his life to make sure that ours would end."
"So that's balance," Sasuke said, and continued to stare at the chakra ropes surrounding him.
"You know what, Bastard? You really ruin everything with your damn hissy fit."
Naruto was still buckled in the dirt, his mouth curled in a tight grimace-smile as his bones re-knit and stretched for straight.
Sasuke didn't respond. He was sitting now, but his back was still turned towards the group.
As it always was.
"Yeah," Naruto agreed, as if Sasuke had answered. "I have this master plan, you know? I'm gonna be Hokage. Kakashi-sensei's gonna be, like, my adviser, so he can get old and fat and read his porn and still be useful."
"Mah," Kakashi protested absently from behind his book.
"And you, once you're done being all spastic, you're going to be head of ANBU. My first bodyguard. That way we can always have each other's backs."
Sasuke snorted, but still refused to respond. And he wouldn't turn around. He didn't want to see Naruto, smiling but spread on the ground and with his eyes so horribly empty of everything that made him who he was.
Somehow, the thought hopelessness shining in that bright blue stare twisted Sasuke's stomach into tight and greasy knots. Not that he'd ever admit it even to himself.
"And Sakura, she's gonna realize how awesome I am, and marry me. And we'll make lots of Kage babies." Naruto tried to wiggle his fingers, found that he actually could.
She didn't want to. She'd thought that she was over that. But even though Sasuke's smoky dark eyes weren't locked in her direction, even though they had made her furious when they had been before, a part of her still wanted to protest that no, she'd never be his, never Naruto's, she'd always belonged to someone else.
"Sounds nice," Sakura agreed softly instead and with a gentle smile, right before she reached down and broke Naruto's hand again.
"Hey. Hey, Sakura. Do you regret having me on your team?"
Naruto was huddled more securely in Sakura's embrace now; he'd tried to get up after his leg healed, and she'd been forced to rather ruthlessly rupture a pressure point in his back with a concentrated stream of chakra that turned his legs into limp, helpless pillars.
"No, Dummy. Why would you even think that?"
Naruto clicked his tongue against his teeth as he thought.
"Well, you're always calling me stupid. And hitting me."
Sakura 'tch'ed at him.
"Did you ever think that there might be a correlation between the two?" she asked teasingly.
"So, what do you regret, then?"
The girl blinked, startled. Kakashi lowered his book the barest inch, and even Sasuke gave a vague twitch of interest. He'd been forced to scoot even closer, almost within touching distance, but his back was still resolutely turned.
"I guess," Sakura said softly, "that I regret my own weakness."
"What are you talking about, Sakura? You're bitching strong!"
She laughed a little and tweaked Naruto's ear.
"Now, yes," she agreed, and there was a thin layer of pride in her voice. "But then, when you needed me to be, I wasn't. I dragged the team down for so long, because I didn't take myself seriously. I could have been more. I could have done more. I could have helped." She curled the hand that was resting in the dirt into a tight, useless fist. "Even now, I'm still not as strong as I should be, still not strong enough to keep up with any of you."
"No need to be so hard on yourself," Kakashi said cheerfully from behind his book. "It's not that you aren't strong, Sakura, so much as it is that your teammates are unfairly unique."
"Yeah," Naruto said, his blue eyes big and earnest as he stared at the girl above him. "It's not your fault that you got put on a team with a bunch of freaks!"
The softest sound, so soft it almost didn't exist at all, followed Naruto's comment. Sakura was confused by it, but Naruto heard it for the snort of derision that it was, and heaved a clumsy projectile with his left hand.
"Shut up, Bastard. Like you don't qualify, with your spinny eyes and your snake seal!"
"Moron." Again, it was so quiet that they all had to strain to hear it. But it was there.
Around them, the golden strands continued to close. They all pretended not to notice when the threads wrapped around the compass Naruto had thrown and squeezed it into a tiny bit of battered metal.
"Neh, Kakashi-Sensei," Naruto said. "It's your turn."
"My turn for what?" the man asked, without unburying his face.
"To say something you regret."
Kakashi looked up for a brief moment, and blinked one blurred and bleary eye in Naruto's direction.
"I regret that Sakura hasn't broken your mouth yet," he offered, and then went back to his book.
"Oh, nice, Sensei," Naruto said, flailing a little on Sakura's lap. "I'm hurt!"
"You will be," Sakura warned, and Naruto ceased his struggles with a sheepish smile.
"I meant a real regret!" the boy insisted. "And no stupid answers that don't actually say anything, like that first day we met."
"A real regret, huh?" Kakashi repeated, stroking the pages of his book in thought.
"I regret that I didn't fail you all during that first test."
Sakura's narrowed eyes and Naruto's outraged squawk happened simultaneously. Even Sasuke half-turned towards his old team in order to properly pin Kakashi with his hard glare of indignation over the supposed slight to his abilities.
Kakashi gave them all a happy, crescent-eyed smile.
"Kakashi-sensei!" Naruto protested. "How can you say that? We're all super powerful now!"
"Yes," the man agreed. "And that's exactly why, I think."
Sakura fisted her hands on Naruto's shoulders, until the boy yelped in protest.
"Besides," Kakashi added. "We certainly wouldn't be in this situation now if I had, right?"
"Do you wish you'd failed us because we're too powerful?" Sasuke asked quietly, his first real words since the cage had come down. "Or because we're a mirror image of your old team?"
Kakashi's cheerful smile faded, and he rested his book gently in his lap.
"Ah," he said, over the sounds of Naruto's confusion. "Who told you about Obito?"
Sasuke turned his face away and didn't answer. Sakura watched, green eyes still narrowed as she absorbed information and drew her own conclusions.
"Sakura, I don't understand," Naruto whined pitifully. "What's Bastard mean?"
"Kakashi-sensei had a team once, Naruto," the girl explained softly.
"Really? How come he's never introduced us, the jerk?"
"You've met them before, Naruto. Kakashi-sensei took us to the memorial stone."
"But what does that…Oh." Naruto's face fell as he stared at his teacher, who was still calmly considering Sasuke.
Who was he seeing, in place of Naruto's overly stupid teammate?
"Mah, Kakashi-sensei," Naruto said fiercely, and the teacher turned, mild surprise painting the visible portion of his face. "You're not alone this time, yeah? You've got your team here with you now."
For just a moment, Kakashi's face registered something other than placid calm and cheer. Something deeper, and darker, filled his visible eye.
"Yes," he said. "I suppose I do, don't I?"
And then he turned back to his book, and the others let him. It made sense, after all, that the pain of what was now impending would be less for him.
In a way, he'd already sent the best parts of himself ahead years ago.
"Hey, Bastard. You're up."
"I don't recall ever agreeing to play. Moron."
Naruto lobbed another projectile (one of Sakura's spare shuriken) at Sasuke's head. The boy dipped his head gracefully out of the way, and the metal star kept traveling until it hit the wall of golden web strands at his back. They all ignored the way it smoked and smoldered on impact.
"Come on. What's the point in ignoring us? It just makes you look stupid now."
They were sitting knee to knee, except Naruto, who was still curled up against Sakura's lap. The golden wall wasn't tight against their backs, not yet, but it was getting close. Sasuke didn't have anywhere else to turn his face away.
"I don't regret anything," Sasuke said stiffly, and Naruto snorted.
"Yeah, yeah," he said. "We know. You're an avenger, you've got your own road, blah blah, angst angst, broody stare into the distance and all."
Sasuke's flat look promised fifty different sorts of extremely slow and painful death.
"But, come on, Bastard," Naruto continued, years of practice rendering him impervious to Sasuke death stares. "There's got to be something. What have you got to lose at this point, anyway?"
"Idiot," Sasuke said. "You've always got something to lose."
Naruto rolled his eyes.
"Yeah, whatever. Thought you might say 'Sorry I stuffed my stupid bastard hand through your chest, Naruto', but noo-"
"I regret ever telling you that we were friends."
Painful silence followed Sasuke's softly spoken words.
"Sasuke," Sakura said tightly. She loved him, God she did, she always would, but that wasn't okay, she wouldn't let him get away with things like that anymore.
"Because ever since I did, you've done nothing but follow me around," Sasuke said, rolling right over Sakura's warning. "Annoying."
Sakura withered a little, felt herself fade like the flower she was named for, as she always had when those two were together. She'd gotten used to it before, but damned if she'd tolerate it now. Sasuke had left; he'd become the shadow, not her. Like hell he could just force her back into the dark.
But before she could open her mouth to deliver another, more heated reproach, Naruto started to laugh.
"'S okay, Sakura," he said.
"No, it's not! Even now, he has to be so-"
"Bastard didn't say he regretted our friendship," Naruto said comfortably. "Just that he told me about it."
Sakura sputtered uncomfortably into silence as she acknowledged the admission she hadn't heard. She watched helplessly as two sets of eyes stared each other down, emotionless dark grey, and smile crinkled blue.
She could feel the dark wrapping around her once again, so much colder after being in the light so long. She wondered if she lifted her hand and brushed at Naruto's face again, if her fingers would feel less substantial, nothing more than flower petals on his cheeks.
"You know what I regret?"
Naruto's announcement shattered a silence that had lasted for several minutes. They'd spent that time shuffling closer, useless but instinctive. They each had their knees up against their chest now, even Naruto, who'd finally been forced from Sakura's lap. She'd been careful to break all ten of his fingers before he went.
Naruto didn't believe in unbeatable things. He'd still try, even now.
The boy in question kicked his feet and gazed contemplatively at the top of their cage.
"I regret that I didn't get ramen with Iruka-sensei before I left," he continued, even though no one had encouraged his answer. "He offered, but I was so excited about finally dragging this bastard home-" Naruto jerked a thumb in Sasuke's direction. "-that I turned him down." He rested his chin on his knees, and continued to stare at the ceiling with bright blue eyes. "I really, really wish that I would have gotten that ramen. I think Iruka-sensei might have been sad that I said no."
Sasuke passed a weary hand over his face (it was beginning to sweat, from the heat of the strands creeping closer to their backs) and wondered what it must be like to regret only ramen.
"It's going to be the worst for you, you know."
Sasuke's breath was soft and moist in Sakura's ear, dampening the already sweaty skin on her neck. They were smashed together now, Sakura wedged between the two boys her own age, and their skin was weeping sweat from both their close proximity and the ever-creeping cage around them.
Somehow, Kakashi had managed to worm his book above the crush of bodies, and was still reading.
"The chakra strands will target the largest chakra pool first," Sasuke continued, for her ears only, and she shut her eyes, because it was like that night, just like that night before. "Which means that Naruto will be the first to go. And then me, or maybe Kakashi, we never got to settle who was stronger. You'll get to watch us all die before it gets to you."
Something hot and hard lodged in Sakura's chest, just under her throat, and turned her breathing harsh and ragged.
She'd been fine; she'd been brave, up to this point. A good shinobi never showed emotion, she'd learned that lesson better since she was twelve. How dare he, how DARE he, make her afraid now?
"You're not what I thought I loved," she hissed, her only answer, her last defense.
Long fingers gently stroked her neck, and oh God, oh God, she was going to SCREAM.
Naruto's voice was as steady as steel, hard and unrelenting in the face of fear.
"Do you think there's a way that Granny can get the necklace back? Because she really should give it to someone else after me; she shouldn't give up."
The bars were inches from his nose now, and creeping closer, faster and faster, as if they sensed the banquet before them.
"Who knows?" his teacher returned lazily, and out of the corner of her eye, Sakura saw that he'd closed his book, and placed it gently in his lap.
It was so HOT, she was burning already, and the limbs around her were too tight, too constricting. But that didn't stop her from wishing that for once, they could truly become one entity, instead of always trying their hardest to stay separate and do just that.
Gentle fingers tapped under her eyes, and Naruto's face filled her vision, smiling wide and soft.
"Don't cry, Sakura. Just look at me, okay?"
She seized the command eagerly, gratefully. Naruto's other hand was resting on Sasuke's shoulder, his elbow was locked tight around his neck, and the boy wasn't pulling away, and didn't that mean that Naruto was right, had always been right?
She fumbled blindly for Kakashi's hand, vaguely heard his indulgent chuckle in her ear. She locked her teeth into a tight smile and kept it, stretched it wider, until blood gritted from between her clenched teeth, even as Naruto's eyes widened, even as his mouth pulled into a grimace of pain.
She kept her eyes on him, like he'd told her to, and kept smiling.
"I love you guys. You know? I love you love you love-"
"Stop! God, God, stop! Somebody break it, already!"
High up on the dais, Tsunade stood, thumbnail lodged firmly in her mouth and her stomach a mass of twisting sick. Caught up in their own horror, her shinobi could only stare for a moment, their faces locked in shock and alarm.
"It's enough!" Tsunade shouted, and worked hard to keep the tremor from her voice. "We learned what we wanted to know. Break the genjutsu and bring them out."
It was Iruka that finally rushed forward, his face frantic, reaching for the sleeping sunny-haired ninja first.
Moving from the shadows at her back, Jiraya stepped to her side, his face as grim as she'd ever seen it.
"Well," he said slowly. "I guess that answers the question of just how far they'll go to bring the Uchiha back."
Tsunade bit down hard on the skin around her fingernail.
"The genjutsu was designed specifically to create the illusion of a hopeless situation. It was a test of their priorities. The outcomes were predetermined. They were supposed to leave the Uchiha to the chakra web, and escape with their own lives. They were supposed to put their own well-being first!"
"I guess they're even less like us than we thought," Jiraya murmured, and the woman in front of him flinched.
Tsunade stared at the large screen that they'd wired to recognize Team Seven's chakra, so that they could project the illusion for all to see. She thought of Naruto, staring down at the blue jewel around his neck, his smile sad and soft, and for her.
"Tell me, old man," she whispered. "What am I supposed to do? How can I send them after Sasuke now that I know how far they'll go?"
Jiraya took a moment to observe his bright-haired pupil, just beginning to stir, shoving irritably at Iruka's arms.
"Well, Tsunade. After what we just saw, do you actually think you can stop them?"
A/N: Yeah. Anyone who's ever read a different story of mine knows how obsessed I am with group dynamics, and Team Seven really takes the cake in that arena. They're the epitome of hopelessly dysfunctional-I find them absolutely fascinating. (And in case you were wondering why Naruto is a bit out of character-I wanted to explore what he would be like if he was literally INCAPABLE of fighting back. So.)
But this? Really. God. I'm going to go hide in a corner now and cry. Or die. Whatever.