Ascension

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They were quite a sight.

It was hard to believe they were the same two snotty nosed brats that had turned up that day to meet their sensei. But at the same time, it wasn't.

Kakashi had known, always known that Naruto wouldn't give up on his dreams. Not on becoming Hokage, and not on bringing Sasuke back. Not ever. Because he knew that the blonde boy was determined and strong and wouldn't let what other people said or thought get to him. He'd already shown that, since the day he was born. He really was a complete idiot, through and through.

And Sasuke, Kakashi had seen that spark in his eye as the young Uchiha boy had sat before him, all cool and collected and mysteriously muttering something about killing a man. Itachi obviously, Kakashi knew that too. As he had scratched the back of his head in the tense atmosphere of that first meeting he had vaguely wondered if this had been why he in particular had been placed with Sasuke. And Naruto too.

He understood the blue flames of determination in Naruto's eyes. And the dangerous spark in Sasuke's.

They were such troublesome boys. Even now as he looked upon them. They still looked so much like themselves… Even like this.

Naruto, all torn clothing and wild eyes. He was baring his demon teeth and had nothing left but one chipped and cracked kunai. The white winding was marked with chalky blood stains when Naruto unfurled his fingers and quickly replaced them as he nervously gripped his one weapon, repositioning it as his sharp eyes flicked from person to person.

There were dead bodies everywhere, the war grounds were quiet and in a different time, the jounin could imagine Naruto standing looking down on them with his face soft and sad. The soldiers of his village. The village he so loved. But right now there was Sasuke.

Sasuke, lying slumped against Naruto's side with his head lolling onto the blonde's shoulder as he was held tight around the waist. Kakashi couldn't tell if Sasuke was conscious or not, his eyes were hidden away by the mess of long hair across his face and the way he was turned into Naruto's neck. He couldn't even tell if he was alive. Naruto kept looking this way and that, making the other's body jerk up and down in a way that masked whether Sasuke was breathing or not. The only sound was Naruto growling lowly. A slow rumble as he dared any one to move.

A group of bloodied ANBU were standing at the ready, all awaiting the order to rip Sasuke's body from Naruto's arms and apprehend him; dead or alive. Kakashi stood with them and watched his boys.

Had he been there with them the day Sasuke 'died' in the Land of Waves, he would have known this face, this scene.

Naruto, exhausted but fierce had been reduced down to only the watery red cloak of the Kyuubi, none of that bright yellow light remaining, and was holding Sasuke's limp body to him as he snarled up at those who opposed him. Looking exactly how Kakashi imagined he would have facing Haku. He was crying but his face was still that of the nine tails. So no one would come forward. Or maybe it was because only Kakashi could see the pain and desperateness swirling beneath the surface. In the flick of his eyes he searched for help.

They came to rest on Kakashi. Something in Naruto's eyes urged him to step forward but another something in how he clenched his jaw tighter told the jounin that the boy understood he couldn't come to their rescue this time.

Sasuke was a mess. He'd fought and fought, Kakashi had watched them. And then he'd lost sight of the two; Naruto and Sasuke and when he'd found them again they were like this. Before, he hadn't noticed. When he'd seen Sasuke again the boy was smirking like he was himself. He looked powerful and fearsome. But now he saw that Sasuke was thin and despite his strength, his arms looked long and frail flopped in his lap. His strange clothing was loose around his slender figure. His hair that had always been that strange kind of unruly perfect was matted and dirty. And even though he was filthy and bloody, he was so pale.

Grey.

"Naruto." Tsunade was there. Immediately blue eyes snapped to her and finally Naruto unclenched his jaws to speak. When he did Kakashi wished he hadn't.

"Baachan! Tell them to stand back! It's Sasuke! It's just me and Sasuke!" His voice pitched up and jumped around anxiously. Kakashi, without looking, knew the face Tsunade was wearing. He felt the shake of her head.

And Naruto knew what it meant. His face contorted and his still red eyes filled with fresh tears. The kunai slipped from his hand and clattered noisily on the dirt as he brought both arms around Sasuke, pulling the boy close to him and burying his face in the crown of Sasuke's head, rubbing his nose into the unwashed, tangled locks.

"No… No…No…"

A few people shuffled awkwardly and even Kakashi felt like he should look away as Naruto rocked back and forth on his knees holding Sasuke, both their faces hidden away in Sasuke's hair. Tears were dripping off Naruto's chin, caressing his cheek, warm and bittersweet and then falling to the ground cold. It was like this sort of thing was much too private to be happening in front of so many people.

"NOOOO!" Screamed Naruto suddenly, lifting his head and roaring at the onlookers with such force that they felt it. A red mist rushed forward but dispersed before Kyuubi's power could touch anyone. Naruto was left all painful blue teary eyes, flushed angry cheeks and his hair that had stood on end with the monster's power lay flat and wilted. There was blood at his mouth, his forehead. God, he looked exhausted. He was shaking and he'd lost his hard grip on Sasuke, the boy now flopping backwards, mouth hanging open and long dark bangs falling off his face and dribbling toward the ground as he lay bent over Naruto's arms.

This time Kakashi did step forward and flinched when Naruto looked up at him.

"K-Kakashi s-sensei." The boy didn't growl or snarl anymore. The only way Kakashi could describe it, with Naruto's face messy with tears and his eyebrows dipped and trembling, was 'blubbering'. Which didn't seem right for the situation. From somewhere, Sakura emerged and came to join them, her sandals clicking softly as Kakashi came to kneel next to Naruto.

"Naruto… Put Sasuke kun down," Sakura murmured gently and the rest of Naruto's hold on Sasuke seemed to melt as she touched his hands and took the raven from his arms, proceeding to lay the battered boy flat on the ground. The team gathered by his sides. Sakura and Kakashi at one and Naruto on the other.

Together again.

For a long moment they simply watched Sasuke's still face. Kakashi noted the boy was in fact still breathing but he already looked dead. The space around his eyes was dark and tired. His lips were no longer that endearing splash of pink that used to drive all the girls wild. Chapped and broken. White.

"I love him. I don't want him to die," said Naruto wetly and Sakura emitted a strangled noise, clutching the front of her vest; trying to catch herself, trying to keep it together.

'He has to', hung heavy in the silence. They all knew it and not even Naruto had the strength to argue for something that surely would make Sasuke unhappy. 'I don't want to come back to the village' seemed to have finally sunk in. And if not come home, what other option was there?

Kakashi blinked slowly and then reached a gloved hand deep into his mouth. No one looked up as he brushed his fingers along his teeth, all the way to the back where he felt something hard. He rubbed the pad of his finger against it, his vision flooded with faded memories. He'd been horrified when his sempai had held his mouth open and fitted it into his tooth. Terrified he hadn't had enough training. Frightened with the knowledge of what it was for.

"Kakashi sensei?" choked out Sakura, finally noticing when the man brought his free hand to hold his jaw in place as he slipped a fingernail into the filled hollow of the tooth and levered the something out.

"This…" said the jounin softly. "Is how we will do it." A small, bone white bead rolled onto his palm, slick with saliva. He heard Sakura draw a loud breath and Naruto whimpered.

At that moment there was a low groan in the quiet and three sets of breathing hitched as in a slow and heartbreaking way, Sasuke's eyelids butterflied and then opened to reveal disorientated black orbs. He groaned again and Kakashi's heart clenched at the way Sakura leaned over him to come into the boy's vision, how Naruto's hand quickly slipped into Sasuke's, tears instantly coming to a stop.

"Sasuke kun?"

"Teme? Are you awake?"

And suddenly the three of them looked inseparable and the little pill in Kakashi's hand was so very cruel.

In the end there was no way they could fall out of love with Sasuke.

The man closed his hand tight into a fist and closed his eyes, finding it very difficult to swallow. When he reopened them Sasuke was looking at him. For a second his face was blank and empty and then, he quirked one side of his mouth into an awkward half smirk and Kakashi's chest burst into an ache of bitter nostalgia. Sad eyes noticed Sasuke's fingers (unconsciously?) closing to hold Naruto's hand too. He could barely move but somehow made the effort. But he didn't look to them. Only at Kakashi, the only one who could accept what had to be done.

"Belladonna is it, Kakashi?" the Uchiha wheezed, craning his neck a little to maintain eye contact. The jounin nodded numbly.

"ANBU have it put in their teeth incase they're captured. First they place non-lethal pills to help train them to not bite down hard enough to break the hard casing. After that they are fitted with the real thing…" Sakura looked small, uncontrolled textbook knowledge spilling from her mouth as she stared down at Sasuke. Her voice sounded mechanical.

Sasuke's head fell back onto the ground with a soft thump.

"So this is it…" he murmured, his expression returning to emptiness making the jounin shiver. Sasuke seemed caught in the twilight zone between adulthood and childhood. His face was serious; features having grown more beautiful as time had passed even with the blood and the shadows around his eyes. Sharp and mature. But his hand in Naruto's. Something in the way he was holding his mouth was like a flash from the past. A piece of the Sasuke who had been paralyzed with fear when they faced Zabuza for the first time. The boy he'd had to reassure and make promises to. Just a child. And yet he was accepting his fate so easily.

Kakashi guessed it was because the boy, putting aside his lack of desire to come back, knew he could no longer return to anywhere he had once considered home, even if he wanted to. No one would ever welcome him back without underlying suspicion, possibly not even his own team.

Maybe it was hopelessness.

Maybe it was acceptance.

It was time. Kakashi leaned over and Sasuke co operatively opened his mouth, letting the older man set it between his teeth. They watched the effort on Sasuke's face as he tried to break through the hard casing of the bead with his weakened jaw. In the end, Sakura hit a spot that made his jaw clamp closed and there was a loud crunch. Naruto held Sasuke's hand tighter. Sasuke's mouth relaxed and he opened and closed his eyes very slowly as he swallowed thickly. Kakashi could feel people watching them, interested in the complete end of the Uchiha clan. Part of him felt angry that they were there at all. He wanted them to leave.

"Sakura," called Sasuke suddenly, voice hoarse. The girl jumped and blinked a few times. In Kakashi's vision, the people standing around disappeared and only Team Seven remained as Sasuke spoke and finally turned his head in slow jerks to face the girl.

"Sasuke kun…" she breathed his name but he simply stared, eyes roaming her face until they came to rest on the pink bangs hanging around her jaw.

"Your hair," he started, voice low. "It's good short…"

Sakura sucked air in noisily through her parted lips and then giggled miserably, tears leaking from her seafoam green eyes.

"I always thought you like long hair, Sasuke kun," she replied and to other people such trivial small talk might have seemed inappropriate for the situation but the look on Sakura's face showed what Sasuke had just told her was the most beautiful and true thing he'd ever said to her in his life. More than 'thank you' or 'I love you'.

To Sakura who had grown her hair so long for Sasuke and then cut it off to protect him, it was something just for her. These last words from him. Acknowledgement of something between them. Of her feelings for him.

As he turned away from her, Sakura hung her head and finally let herself cry properly, violent sobs racking her tired figure, knowing that was it.

By now Sasuke looked like he was struggling for breath. His chest was heaving and the sound of air passing through his lungs was loud and caught in several places. He tried to move the arm that lay on Sakura and Kakashi's side but only managed to roll it sideways before abandoning the notion.

His eyes were on Naruto.

"I thought… I told you to go… first," Sasuke managed, trying to smirk, his forehead beaded with sweat and skin really and truly turning grey now. Naruto didn't smile or try to laugh like Sakura had. He wasn't crying anymore. Just watching Sasuke. Holding his hand. The raven licked his lips.

"What… are you going to do now? You… you said someone who can't even save his friend can't be.. Hokage… right, Dobe?" At the name Naruto's eyes began to swim with tears again and Kakashi thought he saw panic pass through Sasuke's features before realizing that he'd been trying to provoke Naruto into yelling or being angry, not make him cry.

He'd never seen the Uchiha more honest. Maybe the poison was making him open; eroding away walls…

They fell into silence again. Sasuke was looking up at Naruto who sat for a moment, tears wobbling across his vision before he squeezed his eyes shut and brought Sasuke's hand, gripped in both of his, to his forehead, letting out something between a groan and a sob.

"Sa-su-keee," he coughed out between wet crying noises, tears dripping onto and sliding down the pale underside of Sasuke's raised arm.

"Dobe…" The Uchiha rasped softly. The tips of long, white fingers flexed and brushed Naruto's grimy blonde hair. Naruto pulled back at the touch and looked down at Sasuke, his face panicked and heartbroken as if he were only just coming to terms with the fact that Sasuke would be gone very soon, as if he were only just registering the light fading from the other's eyes, his shallow breathing, his greying skin. Naruto's body language became jumpy and uncertain; eyes flicking back and forth over the raven's dying face.

Sasuke was blinking slowly, eyes coming closer and closer to closing each time. He was almost gone. Kakashi could see his muscles lax, lips parted just so. Naruto clenched and unclenched his jaw, whining and growling in distress.

And then, as Sasuke was about to blink again, Naruto suddenly flew from his sitting position to crush his mouth against Sasuke's in a bruising kiss. He was still holding Sasuke's hand, free hand gripping Sasuke's shoulder tightly. A muffled sob sounded behind Naruto's lips as he pressed them to Sasuke's and Kakashi saw the young Uchiha let his eyes fall shut. It was impossible to put into words the kind of emotion flowing between the two. The act was so simple but conveyed so much. A lifetime of feelings, tears, good times, bad times, loneliness and comfort. Everything they had never said.

Sakura's crying became louder and this time Kakashi really had to close his eyes and hoped everyone else had too though he could hear the surprised murmur of onlookers dull against his eardrums. With his eyes closed on he could feel his eyelids trembling against each other, the salt sticky on his skin. He was crying too.

It was only when he heard Naruto's shaky breath again that he opened his eyes. He found Naruto still leant to Sasuke, mouth whimpering over still warm lips as the other's last breath swirled on his tongue. The blonde leant his forehead against other boy's, biting down on his bottom lip hard, trying to quiet himself.

But it was too much.

Starting to cry without restraint, Naruto lifted the other boy against him again, wrapping his arms around his middle and burying his face in Sasuke's chest as the raven's top half bent over backwards, lifeless. Sakura crawled to sit near Naruto. She didn't touch either boy, just sat crying, her hands fisted in her lap. The combined sound of their grief was far too loud in the quiet death scene. Kakashi had to close his eyes again against the sight of Sasuke's perfect features, so beautiful and delicate, peaceful and still as Naruto and Sakura sobbed, features twisted and anguished, alive with pain.

He'd forgotten how much this sort of thing hurt.

After Sasuke's death, Team Seven sat together by his side until Sakura cried herself to hush and until Naruto could bear to let go of Sasuke's body. He'd kissed Sasuke's dead lips again. Only once, soft and uncertain, the way a true first kiss should have been.

Kakashi was the first to stand. He stepped back to stand next to Yamato and Sai whose face was tear-stricken and confused by his own emotions. The jounin set a hand on the boy's shoulder and nodded calmly when Yamato asked him if he was alright, unusual eyes on his tears coupled with the forced smile beneath his mask. Rock Lee came forward and gathered Sakura in gentle arms, Ino by his side taking the other girl's hand in her own. Kiba and Hinata moved toward Naruto. Kiba heaved him to his feet and Hinata slipped under his arm to help him stand. Gaara was there too but the red head didn't appear to know what to say or do. He simply walked with them.

The crowd of people gathered parted for them as Naruto and Sakura were taken from the scene. Kakashi almost expected the two of them, Naruto especially, to fight against leaving Sasuke's body to its fate but they were quiet. Numb. Sakura was staring into nothingness; Naruto's eyes were hidden in his bangs. Kakashi didn't know what to do with himself so he stood and watched the ANBU come forward and place hands on Sasuke. They'd take him away to analyze and study him. He had been, afterall, the last remaining Uchiha and a rogue ninja.

They disappeared with the body too quickly and Kakashi blinked feeling lost.

Suddenly Iruka was by his side. The other man's face was kind as always but he'd obviously been crying too. But he was stronger than Kakashi was. The sad smile on his face was genuine and warm. The other man maneuvered himself under Kakashi's arm and pulled it securely over his shoulder, gripping him around the waist. The jounin tried to tell the teacher that it wasn't necessary but as they took a few steps Kakashi realized how much he'd been fighting to stand and fell heavily into Iruka's side who grunted as he held Kakashi up. The weight was lessened as Gai too took an arm, stooping so that he was even with Iruka. For once in his life, the over enthusiastic man was quiet and simply met Kakashi with a halfhearted grin and a wink.

"Let's get you home, Kakashi sensei," said Iruka as they began again. Up ahead Kakashi could see Naruto had been moved to being piggybacked by Kiba and Sakura's head was leant on Lee's shoulder. On their way out they passed other members of the Rookie Nine and the rest of Lee's team. They touched hands to shoulders or tousled hair with comforting smiles.

Sasuke's death certainly felt like the end of the world, particularly to Naruto, but looking to the support around them, Kakashi felt himself actually smile a little. They would never stop loving Sasuke. Probably never stop missing him throughout their lives even though he'd already been gone for so long. Never forget him.

But at least Sasuke hadn't left them to bear it alone.


A/N: I KILLED HIM.