chapter title: tear me to pieces, skin and bone
summary: They die under a red sky in mud and blood and bitter regret. Team Seven at the end of the world…at least until Sasuke wakes up, twelve, sharingan-less and back on his old genin team.
dedication: here's to the dickhead who told me my writing is over the top and my characterisation of sasuke is shit. i don't expect my writing to be everybody's cup of tea, but please utilise the back button if that's the case. this story is what it is and i'm past the point of pandering to anyone, even if i am apparently crawling through this at a snails pace.
oh father, tell me, do we get what we deserve?
oh we get what we deserve
They were done.
Gaato was dead and Tazuna was safe; mission complete. Such a tidy summary for the carnage laid out in front of him and yet Kakashi didn't feel relieved. He could still feel where he'd torn through the boy with his Chidori, the same way he'd once torn through Rin; blood a slick glove coating his hand. Nothing he hadn't done before, but the kids – the kids had seen it.
Shinobi are human too, Zabuza had said. No matter how much we try to escape from that fact, we always fail.
Slowly, he clenched his bloody hand into a fist and took an imperceptible breath. He wanted so badly to disappear from the scene, from this thing he'd done in the heat of battle – he wanted a moment to be human, the sort of human Obito would have approved of. But he had to be a squad leader instead, so he pushed his own guilt and self-loathing down for later and turned to his battered students.
Naruto was standing forlornly to the side with his arms around himself. Salt tracks were still drying on his cheeks and the only red showing in his eyes now were from tears. He looked so very young – so young and so very like Minato. Of course Naruto resembled his father greatly, always had but usually Kakashi could push that forbidden thought down and out of sight where he wouldn't have to confront it.
"Are you alright?" he asked, more roughly than he'd intended.
"Yeah, sensei," the blond replied, still shaken. "I'm – I'm okay, but…"
Kakashi followed his gaze. Sasuke knelt on the ground with Sakura propped up in his arms and from the whiteness of his face and the remoteness of his dark eyes, he was clearly disassociating. Behind his mask, Kakashi winced. He'd tried to end the fight with Zabuza quickly for their sake, but he obviously hadn't been fast enough.
He squatted down to put his face at Sasuke's level, being careful not to touch him when he was so clearly traumatised. "Sasuke."
The boy didn't appear to hear him; his gaze was fixed on some distant point so far from anything he knew that he might as well have been speaking to him from the past. For all Kakashi knew he was reliving the night of the massacre all over again, so many people dying in front of him. A terrible thing that no one ever talked about.
"Sasuke," he repeated and this time those dark eyes moved to fix on him. "What happened?"
No answer; it was like he barely even heard him – like he was so lost in his own head that nothing else was registering. Not a good sign, Kakashi thought, but he needed to know what had happened to Sakura, needed to carry out a cursory medical examination to ascertain if…if she was…
"She pushed me out of the way," Sasuke said suddenly. He seemed to realise he was holding Sakura too tightly, a look of surprise crossing his pale face as he glanced down at his hands, the white-starbursts of his knuckles clutching her close.
"She wasn't supposed to do that. She wasn't supposed to be the one…It should've been me."
"She protected you," Kakashi said, trying to be gentle and firm at the same time. "She did what all good teammates are supposed to do. Remember? Those who abandon their teammates…"
"Are less than trash," Sasuke whispered, stricken. Kakashi had never seen his eyes so wide, or so horrified – he'd hoped these kids would learn this lesson less painfully than he had, as Obito had screamed at him and the cave had collapsed around them. He'd never wanted any of them to figure it out this way, the same way he, Kakashi, had.
Not now, he told himself, even as that fragile control he had threatened to dissolve. Getting lost in that day won't help. Be here, not there.
Stiffly, as though he was not used to being careful with other people, Sasuke set Sakura's lifeless body down on the wet ground and backed away – almost bumping into Naruto, who'd crept forward uncharacteristically quietly. The tears were flowing freely down his face again.
"She's gonna be okay, Kaka-sensei? Right?"
I don't know.
A brief examination was encouraging; the senbon that had pierced her were not placed where he might have expected them to be had Haku intended a lethal blow and he detected a very faint pulse in her wrist. At the very least, she was still alive.
"Naruto," he said, "I need you to pull the senbon out. Do it carefully. Sasuke, I want you to check her eyes for signs of response – if her pupils react to light. Can you do that for me?"
Both boys nodded, one more quickly than the other. Naruto wiped his eyes on his orange sleeves and set to work with gentle determination, while Sasuke moved with hesitation – as if he was not quite sure what was happening, or what he was supposed to be doing. Still, it was the most docile he'd been in the face of a command for weeks so Kakashi decided to trust them, just for a moment, while he turned his attention to Tazuna and Tsunami. He was the captain of this squad and the leader of this mission and until all under his care were accounted for, the mission was not yet done. There was work to do.
People to save, a voice that sounded like Rin whispered at the back of his head. Children to help.
"Tell me," he said, shaking off his weakness and his concern the way Pakkun shook water off his fur coat. "What can I do?"
Evening was setting in, streaks of red and gold setting the sky on fire as the sun set over the water. Naruto couldn't stand to be in the house any longer – not with Sakura lying unconscious in her bedroll, so still and pale she could have been dead.
Not with Inari crying from the pain of his severed arm.
They'd left him to bleed out on the dock, Tsunami had told them tearfully. Just left him there like he was trash – but what else could be expected from the men who had served Gaato? Every time he remembered that asshole tapping Haku's face with his cane, a deep, roaring anger washed over him – the same anger that had burned through his veins when he saw Sakura's crumpled form on the ground.
I almost lost control.
It frightened him, the power he had. There was so much of it. It was so easy to turn it loose – what if he turned it on the wrong person next time? What if he'd been wrong to turn it on Haku? He hadn't killed Sakura, after all – he'd never wanted to hurt them at all. And if he'd reached Zabuza with nothing more than words, why couldn't he reach Haku?
If we'd met in different circumstances, he thought, I think we could've been friends.
It was a rare, almost shy thought. He often looked at kids his age and yearned to walk beside them, to know that warm acceptance everyone else had. It was just a daydream, a silly, fantasy really – no one had ever really wanted to be Naruto's friend in return. Alright, he got on with Shikamaru and Chouji well enough, but…
He had the strange and distinct feeling that Haku would have accepted him as a friend. Though maybe that spoke more about the other boy's inherent kindness, than it did about Naruto. He desperately wanted to know what had happened in the mirror prison, what Sasuke thought of it all – but Sasuke hadn't spoken a word since the bridge. When Kakashi had carried Sakura inside and set about to saving the rest of Inari's arm, Sasuke had disappeared entirely.
Naruto could see him now, standing on the bridge with his face turned towards the sunset. It wasn't an unusual sight; how many times had he passed Sasuke's lone figure at the docks, back home? In those moments he'd always fancied that his rival looked as lonely as he felt, that their solitude was something they had in common. They were alike in a way that Naruto was not alike with anyone else.
Except now he was starting to wonder if they were as alike as he'd always believed. All Sasuke had done since they passed the bell test was keep them firmly at a distance, like he didn't want to know them at all. He felt guilty for even thinking it, but sometimes he wondered if Sasuke wasn't just an anti-social jerk who couldn't talk like a normal person, but someone who preferred to be alone.
No, he thought, watching his rivals motionless silhouette framed against the blushing sky. No one would ever truly want to be alone like this.
With no small amount of apprehension he approached the solitary figure on the bridge. Sasuke had to have heard him coming, but he didn't look around – only stared straight out to sea as if it held all the answers to life's mysteries out there.
"You look like you've been thrown headfirst through a wall," Naruto said, because he figured the best way to break an icy silence was by bludgeoning through it. He tossed some medical tape in his direction. "Here. Patch yourself up a bit, yeah?"
"I'm not hurt," Sasuke said, but his voice was distant rather than dismissive. He looked down at the roll of tape in his hands as if he wasn't sure how it had got there. It was better than the response Naruto had grown to expect lately anyway, so he took a seat on the edge of the bridge and waited for Sasuke to either sit or walk away. He did neither – and together, in the quiet that hung over the bay, they tried not to flinch at the muffled sounds of Inari's screams.
"I thought it'd feel better than this," Naruto said after a long silence. "We won, we saved the Land of Waves. Gaato won't ever threaten these people again…we did everything we set out to do. But I feel horrible."
From the corner of his eye, he saw Sasuke's mouth turn bitterly. "That's because it wasn't a clean victory."
"People got hurt," Sasuke said, in that same bitter voice. "Innocent people."
Naruto pulled his knees up to his chest, telling himself it was just to ward off the chill wind coming in off the open waters. What would have happened if one of them had stayed with Tsunami and Inari that morning? He understood why a man like Gaato would target Tazuna, but the idea that anyone could threaten civilians like this…kids…Naruto hadn't seen it coming.
"We were the last ones in the house," he said quietly, blinking back the tears starting to burn in his eyes. "D'you – d'you think we could've stopped it? If we'd been here?"
Sasuke was silent for a long, long time. The sun was a blood orange disappearing beneath the water when he finally turned to look at him, his eyes dark and full of some emotion Naruto couldn't understand. Despite his baby face, there was something in his expression that was immeasurably old and immeasurably tired and Naruto wondered for an uncomfortable moment if he really knew Sasuke at all.
"Yes," Sasuke said numbly, with the burning sunset reflecting off the back of his eyes, red and red and red. "I think we could've stopped it."
Naruto wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, something heavy settling in his stomach. He couldn't stop seeing Inari curled up on the wooden decking with his stump of an arm bleeding out across the planks. So much blood for someone so small; something none of them could take back, no matter how much he wished he could.
He really wished he could.
"Next time," Naruto growled, trying to pretend his voice wasn't hoarse from tears. "Next time, we'll do better. We won't let it happen again."
"You can't save everyone, Naruto."
Haku's blood-stained smile flashed beneath his eyelids, but he shook his head to clear it. "I don't care. I'm not gonna do this again. I'm not gonna be careless with other people's lives. That's my promise, you asshole – to get stronger and protect the things and people that're precious to me!" Just like Haku did.
To his surprise, Sasuke didn't sneer at him. He just looked…empty, like the fight with Haku had taken more from him than just his best skillset. Naruto wanted so badly to ask what had happened during that fight, but something inside him knew better than to ask. He would never get a straight answer out of him anyway and for once they were almost on the same page. For once, it felt like they were teammates. He didn't want to ruin it, when so many things around them had already
"I know Kaka-sensei's doing the best he can," he said, voice wobbling. "But what if – what if Inari loses the rest of his arm? What if he dies? He won't let him die right?"
"He won't," Sasuke said, but the cold certainty Naruto was used to hearing in his voice had been stripped away, stripped down. "Worry about Sakura instead."
It was on the tip of his tongue to remind the bastard that he hadn't spared much energy worrying about their female teammate recently, but he didn't have the energy or the will to have yet another argument with Sasuke. It wouldn't change the reality in front of them; the guilt sitting in his stomach like a stone, Inari mutilated for life and Sakura bloodied and still unconscious.
The sun had finally disappeared beneath the horizon. Inky darkness bled out across the sky high above them and the breeze coming in off the waves took on a distinct night-time chill, but neither boy made a move to retreat inside.
"He's going to leave one day. You won't be able to stop him. No one will be able to stop him, but you'll spend the rest of your life – short thing that it is, by the way – trying to take him back."
The battlefield was empty, but deep gouges carved into the earth showed where the fighting had been at its most intense. It was as if the fog that had descended on them had washed it clean of corpses, had wrapped them in its embrace and taken them away from view. Sakura didn't understand.
"What are you talking about?" she asked, spinning in a slow circle, searching for the source of her voice. "Who's going to leave?"
"When it happens you have to let him go. Don't chase after him. He's not lost and he's not misunderstood."
She wanted to press her hands over her ears and block the words out, but something told her it would be futile. Blocking out inner-Sakura had never worked, had it? And it was – it was her voice, she was so sure, she was so sure – just as she was sure that she'd been in this place before, had felt this pain in her ripped open torso before –
She looked down at herself, but the hole in her stomach was gone. She was whole and healed – not just healed, but unmarked, as if the wound had never been there. Of course it hadn't. It had never happened.
"I don't understand," Sakura said, wanting to cry even though she didn't know what she would be crying for. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Not yet," the voice said mournfully. "But you will."
There was so much solemn promise in those words. They landed heavily, sent her to her knees in the muck and the blood, this scorched earth she didn't remember at the end of the world. The sky over them was blood red and furious. The moon was a pinwheeling eye.
"Sakura," the voice said gently and a hand touched her shoulder so lightly it could have been the touch of a ghost. "Your heart will ache for him and you'll think the pain will kill you. It won't. Let him go. No amount of trying will drag the light back in."
The tears welled over. She could barely see herself through them, taller, older, eyes an ocean of barely restrained green fury. One of them was a dream. One of them was dead.
"I don't want this."
"I know. I know. But you have to remember this. You have to. No matter what, you have to understand that no matter how much your heart aches, you won't succeed in saving him. You have to accept that he doesn't want to be saved."
He didn't want to face it, but there was nowhere else to go – and he didn't have the energy to protest when the grumbling blond dragged him inside hours after Inari's screaming had quietened to pained sobs and then to nothing at all. The rooms were dark, shrouded in pale moonlight but the hush that had settled on the little house was awful. Sasuke knew it well. It was the private, sleepless quiet of a house in which everything had changed for the worse.
Kakashi was nowhere to be found, not that he wasted any particular time in looking for him. He was in no rush to give the report that would be expected. He did not want to rehash the disaster that had occurred in Haku's prison of ice mirrors, or examine the growing, unpleasant suspicion that he was ultimately responsible for it. There was blood on his hands.
There had been blood on his hands, he thought, for a very long time. But this time it was different, if only because he knew that this was blood that hadn't been there before. It was needless hurt, preventable damage – carelessness, Naruto had called it. But whose?
There's only one thing that was different coming into this, a little voice at the back of his head whispered as he followed the blond up the stairs to the small bedroom Team Seven shared on this mission. Only one variable that's changed in this whole situation. You know what it is.
He didn't want to face it, but the truth was looking him in the face and he couldn't close his eyes to it. For a long time, he stared up at the dark ceiling and listened to Tazuna's house creak quietly with its unfamiliar night time sounds as he replayed the entire mission in his head. Not this time – the first one, when he was just a foolish boy who still believed, deep down, in the sort of heroics Naruto would one day become known for. The broad strokes were there – the ambush, learning to manipulate chakra through his feet, fighting Haku on the bridge – but Sasuke was surprised to find that he didn't remember the details very well.
What did you expect? that same little voice mocked him. You spent years trying to forget Team Seven ever existed, of course you don't remember it clearly.
A muscle clenched in his jaw, but he couldn't deny it either. No matter how much he'd like to pretend otherwise, he'd spent the first year in Sound desperately trying not to remember what he'd left behind. There had been…if not doubts, then perhaps something that in another life might have been named regret. He'd trained himself religiously not to ever think of them, but where there hadn't been thoughts there had been dreams.
(…right up until the end, there had been dreams.)
No matter which way he looked at it, he kept coming to the same conclusion. Small changes had rippled through this version of events and he hadn't noticed, because he hadn't bothered to pay attention to the details. Right from the start there had been changes – Sakura's progressed training with chakra control, her broken arm, the fact that they started this entire mission under the threat of disbandment. Comparing the two versions of the mission in his head, Sasuke could draw a clear line through the changes and every single time it came back to a single starting point; himself.
He'd conflated the present with the past and not taken into account that he was part of it and therefore, could change it – that he may have changed it from the moment he woke up in this body, by sheer virtue of no longer being the person he was when he was actually twelve.
That boy was weak, Sasuke thought automatically, a sneer on his face even though there was no one awake to see it. It was something he'd told himself over and over, as he tried to put Team Seven out of his mind. Team Seven's Sasuke was weak and he'd had to discard him just as he discarded his team. Except –
Quietly, so quietly, Sasuke stood up and crossed to the window where he could see his reflection in the glass. It still took him by surprise to see his younger face, his smaller body – but for once he ignored his discomfort and made himself look at the boy he'd decided, so long ago, was not strong enough. Slowly, he touched the glass and watched his angry-eyed reflection mirror him. There was something mutinous, almost accusing in twelve-year-old Sasuke's face – as if he could see the person Sasuke was and despised him for it.
"You don't understand," he whispered to that ghost, the one he'd resolutely ignored since he woke up in its body. "You let them get in too far."
And you threw them away. The ghost stared him down with incandescent rage burning in those sharingan red eyes. Everything that happened is your fault. Then and now.
All you've done is make things worse.
Sasuke dropped his hand from the glass as if burned, already taking an involuntary step back and in his reflection, those red eyes continued to glare.
But you already know that, don't you?
He wanted to deny all of it; Haku's words and the proof, in Naruto's final victory years later when he stood over Sasuke's fallen body on the battlefield. He wanted to deny the feeling of his own ribcage being torn open as he lay in the mud at Madara's feet, a puppet that had outlived its usefulness, totally alone in death as he'd made himself in life.
For the first time since Madara told him the truth about Itachi, he felt the onslaught of tears burning in his eyes. He sank down to the floor and buried his face in his knees, remembering the way Sakura had thrown herself at him in the ice prison and the way he had let her run to her death, alone, in the future.
Sasuke wiped his eyes furiously, trying not to remember the flash of her back moving away from him for the last time. If he was wrong all those years ago when he left Konoha…if he was wrong and Naruto was right, then that meant all the choices he'd made, all the pain he'd taken and caused, all the darkness he'd sought…all of it was for nothing.
All of the terrible things he'd done were for nothing.
He didn't want it to be true, but it was staring him in the face. Team Seven's Sasuke was the one who'd been able to awaken the sharingan on this mission and he – more powerful and more experienced in battle than that foolish boy ever could have dreamed – could not.
And whether he wanted to or not, Sasuke was starting to understand why Naruto had beaten him the day the world ended.
When she opened her eyes it was to the pearly grey light that bloomed just before dawn. For a moment she had no idea where she was – the room was unfamiliar and she could still smell the scorched earth. Everything was red.
But then Sakura blinked and fat tears spilled over and rolled down her cheeks. Everything hurt. She felt like she'd died and been dragged back, could feel every single place the senbon had pierced her body and it hurt just to breathe. Moving was out of the question. Her throat was on fire; it took a few tries, but she managed to raise her hands to feel the bandages there, the bruised and swollen skin underneath.
"Don't," a quiet voice said, close by to her left. "You'll hurt yourself."
She turned quickly and was flooded with relief to see Sasuke sitting there, bruised and clearly exhausted but alive. Sakura tried to smile, but something about the sight of him made the tears fall even faster – silent and unstoppable as if all the water left in her body was leaking out of her in a flood. She expected derision (Sasuke had never been very tolerant of weakness), but he didn't sigh and he didn't leave.
What happened, she tried to ask, but her throat was so swollen she could barely make a sound. He seemed to understand her though, because he said,
"Gaato, Zabuza and Haku are all dead. The bridge is safe, but some of his men took hostages and Inari is…he lost an arm. You've been unconscious for about twelve hours."
No, she wanted to say. No that's not right, that's not what happened –
But even if she'd been able to speak the words dried up as quickly as they'd arrived – it made her think of snowflakes, how quickly they melted into nothingness on the tip of the tongue. Lost forever, just like in her dream.
What had she lost?
"Sakura-chan?" a sleepy voice asked. There was a rustle of bedding and then Naruto's blond head appeared above her, nervous and delighted all at the same time. "Sakura-chan, you're awake! How'd you feel? Does it hurt a lot?"
Water, she tried to say, but no sound came out. That just made the tears come faster – silent and unstoppable, as if all the water left in her body was just leaking out through her eyes in a flood.
"Hey, hey!" he looked alarmed, taking one of her hands in both of his. "Don't cry, it's all – everything's alright now. You were – you were super awesome. Wait til we get home and tell everyone, I bet Ino's never been so cool in her life!"
Not yet she hasn't, that quiet voice inside her whispered – not Inner-Sakura, but something else, something that scared her far, far more. Distracted by that simmering feeling of dread in her stomach, she didn't notice Sasuke bark an order, or Naruto drop her hand to go fetch Kakashi-sensei. She didn't notice until, looking deeply uncomfortable, her dark-haired teammate held a glass of water out to her.
It hurt to sit, but she managed to prop herself up and take the water in trembling hands. It soothed her parched, raw throat and the headache that was just starting to settle in behind her eyes.
"Thanks," she managed to croak, after a moment.
He just shrugged, eyes averted like he was already bored of this situation, bored of being in this room with her. His indifference had always been hard to bear, but something about it stung this time. She wanted to take his shoulders and shake it out of him, to shake something loose behind the low simmering anger of his dark eyes – to prove to herself and him, them both maybe, that he wasn't totally empty.
She had thrown herself in the path of Haku's senbon for him and he couldn't even look at her.
I told you, that voice whispered, so quiet she might've thought she was still dreaming if not for the sound of seagulls calling outside. It felt like a death sentence, a prophecy coming to life; the last words of a dying witch speaking doom into her dreams.
He doesn't want to be saved.
yes and they will run you down, down until you fall
and they will run you down, down to your core
yeah, until you can't crawl anymore
notes: lyrics borrowed from kaleo's way down we go which oh boy gives me such comeuppance vibes. is it bad that i really enjoy making sasuke suffer? if he's pissed you off up until now then i've done this right, starting at rock bottom the only way to go is UP.
notes2: well, some important character introspection has gone on here! Sasuke can no longer sit in denial regarding his own actions (past and present) and Sakura is…well. There is some stuff going on beneath the surface and god it is so good to finally finally finally be hitting this plot development so many years after I first sat down and started writing this fic.
notes3: also got bad news about a family member in jan so this year is already off to a shit start, so much for moving on from 2020's dumpster-fire of a year.