chapter title: raise the stakes

dedication: Sakura's Unicorn, for sound advice on how to deal with weeping, self-centred housemates. also, for endless support and encouragement getting through this chapter. thanks, C!

And oh, poor Atlas

the world's a beast of a burden

you've been holding on a long time

As the setting sun turned the Hokage's office a brilliant orange-gold, Kakashi shifted, watching Hiruzen puff thoughtfully on his favourite pipe. He'd just laid before the Hokage the issue with his troublesome, little genin team. Naruto, Sasuke, and Sakura had only been under his supervision for a matter of weeks and he was already beyond the point of exasperation.

"I don't want to let any of them down," he admitted, eyeing the panoramic view beyond the window, the unchanging scenery of the village at the heart of everything he did. "But I don't know what to do."

It was a blow to his pride to acknowledge his shortcomings – Kakashi liked to think he was a man capable of dealing with his problems alone, quietly and efficiently – but where Sasuke was concerned, he was beginning to suspect he was out his depth as a mentor.

"Well," the Hokage spoke at last, interrupting his melancholy thoughts. "It certainly seems you have a problem on your hands."

"They aren't bonding properly. Sakura is level-headed enough, but Naruto is all over the place, and Sasuke – he just doesn't have any interest in his teammates or the missions."

It was the Uchiha who worried him the most, but if he spent all his time and energy trying to reach the boy, to give him the stability he so desperately needed, what would become of the other two? Naruto needed his time and attention, too. And though Sakura did not need parental guidance from him, she certainly needed his training.

I'm already failing them, he realised. Just like I failed Rin and Obito…

Not for the first time, he wondered what advice Minato-sensei would give him if he was still alive.

The short time that Sensei was Hokage feels like a distant dream.

He tried to picture him sat in the chair Hiruzen now occupied, but the memory was blurred around the edges.

"Sasuke – he had a nightmare," Kakashi continued. "That's where the trouble started. Before that night his attitude showed signs of improvement, however small."

"And it's got worse since you returned to Konoha?" the Hokage asked.

"Yes. Is it possible he's suffering from post-traumatic stress?" Even after all this time?

It shouldn't surprise him, really. He knew a thing or two about being haunted by bad memories. At night, he still dreamt of Rin, her startled expression as he put his hand through her chest.

Sarutobi pulled the pipe from his mouth and surveyed him thoughtfully. "It is," he allowed. "But I think, perhaps, a little time away from Konoha will help pinpoint the problem. Sasuke's never been the sort of boy who's inclined to talk to strangers about his feelings."

Kakashi grunted quietly in agreement.

It's a good suggestion, he thought. Sasuke had to come to terms with whatever it was that was troubling him and he had a feeling no one had ever really been able to help – that maybe no one had ever even tried.

What do you say to a kid who lives through something like that? he wondered. How could anyone even begin to understand just how deep such damage can go?

"I'll get Iruka to find you a lengthy, C-rank mission that'll take you out of the village. I put your team together for a reason, Kakashi. Your kids need each other…even if they don't realise it yet."

He'd been in the Uchiha District for, perhaps, three hours when Kakashi finally turned up. Sasuke was sitting on the porch of his family home, where he used to wait for Itachi at the close of the day, kicking up dust with his the toe of his sandal. In the deathly quiet, it was impossible to forget just who he was and what the Leaf had done to him – how he didn't belong in this village full of liars. But the emptiness of Itachi's room reminded him just how much he needed answers.

"Sasuke," his sensei said, appearing seemingly from nowhere. He'd always had a habit of doing that, of trying to unsettle people in small ways.

Sasuke grunted.

"May I sit?" Kakashi asked, indicating the porch with a flicker of his one visible eye. He seemed to take Sasuke's silence for acquiescence, and settled himself beside him, elbows resting on his knees so that they mirrored each other. He didn't even take out his disgusting orange book.

"Why did you walk out today?" he asked, watching him intently, but not critically.

That's new, Sasuke realised, feeling distinctly thrown. He was used to – almost immune – to a Kakashi who only ever lectured him on the importance of teammates and the destructive nature of vengeance.

He talked, but he never listened.

"I don't know," Sasuke muttered, having no idea how to answer, whether he even wanted to answer at all. "It was pointless."

"Most D-ranks are. They're just a stepping stone, Sasuke. We all have to endure them to reach our goals."

I've already endured them, he almost said, and all they paved the way to was emptiness and a false sense of accomplishment built on lies.

When he didn't reply, his sensei sighed. "It's not easy for you here and I'm truly sorry about that. But you can't just walk out on your teammates."

Couldn't he? Sasuke remembered a moonlit night and the gates looming up from out of the dark. He remembered a bridge, and a valley, and the intention, both times, to kill. So he said nothing, merely hunched forward in mutinous silence and kept kicking at the ground with the toes of his sandals. Later, perhaps, he would go and practise his kunai throwing.

Kakashi sighed again and got to his feet. "Report to the Hokage tomorrow, first thing," he said, sounding suddenly tired.

"That's it?"

Kakashi looked at him flatly. "That's it. Show up, or you're off the team. As much as these D-ranks seem beneath you, I'm sure you won't get any more satisfaction out of life as a civilian."

She didn't want to get out of bed when morning came, but Sakura forced herself up and into the bathroom anyway. Downstairs, she could hear her father moving around in the kitchen, as in her parents' bedroom, her mother rolled over, taking a rare lie-in. It was peaceful – familiar and safe.

She had no idea what the Hokage was going to say to them. After how her team had behaved, it was safe to say that she was dreading it.

She showered quickly, brushed her teeth, and tried to make herself look more like a genin and less like a little girl playing at being one.

What if he disbands us? she thought, biting down hard on her lip to stop her stomach from churning queasily. The thought of being sent back to the Academy – or worse, being trapped in the civilian life her mother wanted for her – was enough to make her feel sick.

She wished she could talk to Ino…

"No, I don't," she murmured, taken aback by an impulse which had become foreign to her since she declared their rivalry to the world. How could she be expected to find her own feet if she spent her entire life hiding in Ino's magnanimous shadow?

Shaking the errant thought away, she gave up on trying to make herself look anything other than what she was – a stupid little girl. Who would ever take me seriously as a kunoichi with hair like mine, anyway?

"Sakura-chan, do you want some breakfast?"

"No, thanks," she squeaked, heading for the front door. With her stomach churning the way it was, Sakura doubted she'd be able to eat a bite. She just wanted to get this meeting over with.

Her father sent her a disapproving look over the top of the newspaper. "Make sure you eat a big lunch, then."

Nodding, she slipped out the house and into the warm, spring morning. The sun was just beginning to peek over the rooftops, but the air was pleasant on her skin. Sometimes, she thought she liked the village best like this, when it was just stirring, the streets still quiet and calm as the sun slowly rose.

Which was odd, really, because Sakura had never been a fan of early mornings. Every time she trudged to the Academy she'd been half-asleep, wishing she was still in bed, oblivious to her surroundings.

She was the first one of her team to reach the Hokage Palace. On any other day she would have amused herself with the thought of Naruto oversleeping, but she could only imagine how the Hokage would take that on top of their dismal performance of late.

What if they don't even show up? Sakura wondered, dread filling her stomach. What if I just wait outside the office all day and no one else comes?

She was just starting to really panic when she spotted a dark-haired figure approaching, hands in his pockets, a familiar dark scowl on his face. The sigh of relief that escaped her was involuntary, but luckily Sasuke wasn't close enough to hear it.

"G-good morning," Sakura said quietly as he drew closer. For a moment, she thought he was going to walk right past her into the building, but he stopped abruptly just outside the doors and turned to face her. In her years at the Academy she'd grown used to his apathetic expressions, but today, like he always seemed to these days, Sasuke looked angry about something.

Angry and tired, she thought before she could stop herself. His eyes were dark and shadowed. She could see rage in them, barely suppressed. In the warm morning air, she shivered at the intensity there.

Had he really been apathetic back in their classroom days? Or was it just now that she was learning to see a little of what was going on in his head, in his entrancing and frightening eyes? Maybe all that time she was looking at him, she wasn't really seeing anything but a pretty boy who'd once been kind to her.

"Morning," he grunted at last, spitting the word out between his teeth as if it was reluctant to escape. She thought of him thrashing around as she woke him on that mission, his mingled terror and revulsion as he shoved her away, his scream at her to shut up when he lay injured and immobilised in bed.

As usual, Sakura had no idea what to say to him. However, unlike usual, she thought it better not to try. Sasuke will talk to me if he wants to, right? She just knew that the moment she opened her mouth, she'd end up saying something stupid.

I don't want Sasuke to think I'm stupid, or unkind or – or annoying, even if I am all of these things.

But the silence that sprang up between them was thick and heavy, pressing down on her with the weight of a thousand invisible hands.

It never used to be this hard, did it? Not so long ago being in Sasuke's presence had been a joy, and being alone with him, well, that had been the stuff her best daydreams were made of.

"The idiot is late," Sasuke muttered at last, breaking the uncomfortable silence. Sakura wasn't sure if he was talking to her or himself.

She debated whether or not to answer, but a shout interrupted her before she could reach a decision. She and Sasuke glanced up simultaneously to see their teammate hurrying towards them, panicked and still groggy-looking.

Hands on her hips, she frowned at Naruto as he skidded to a stop in front of her, his hands on his knees as he caught his breath. "You overslept, didn't you?"

"My stupid alarm clock broke! It's not my fault, Sakura-chan!"

"Nothing ever is," she muttered dryly, turning on her heel and marching into the Palace. "Let's get this over and done with."

The boys followed her in – Naruto grumbling under his breath and Sasuke, she could tell without looking around, scowling in silence. She crossed her fingers and prayed they wouldn't get in another argument before they reached the Hokage's office.

Surprisingly, Kakashi was already waiting for them inside – the first time as their sensei he'd ever been on time for anything.

It really must be serious, she thought, swallowing as he looked down at them solemnly. It was amazing how someone with so little of their face showing could somehow manage to look so utterly disappointed.

Behind her, Naruto gulped.

"In," Kakashi commanded in a voice that brooked no argument. Sakura stepped into the Hokage's office feeling like she was facing her doom.

Sasuke didn't listen to a word Sarutobi said. He had the distinct impression that the Hokage was delivering a meaningless lecture on the nature of teamwork, but he'd heard this same old tune before and it hadn't meant anything the first time around.

"…our bonds which make us different from the other villages, which make us strong. Teamwork makes a strong genin team, and a strong shinobi…"

The sneer was difficult to hide. Hadn't he seen the proof of how bonds held people back? Sasuke cut his own years ago and gained the sort of power that other shinobi could only dream of.

And how did that end? a voice whispered snidely in the back of his head. A fist through your chest, wasn't it? The mighty Uchiha Sasuke, beaten by a blond idiot, and then killed by a pretender to your clan's name.

"…Kakashi tells me that you are failing as a team, but I have confidence that, in the right situation, you three can make this work…"

But Sakura and Naruto, who placed such a high value on their so-called friendship with him, their tattered, ruined bonds – they'd died too. They died at Tobi's feet, stupid little children who never got it into their heads to stop chasing him, that he didn't want to be chased.

On his left, Naruto was fidgeting restlessly, shifting his weight from foot to foot as though he was bored. Or eager to prove the Sandaime right, more likely.

But you don't, Sasuke thought venomously. You don't save the world. You don't get to be Hokage. You don't win.

"…sometimes it takes time to overcome boundaries – time and patience." The Hokage was still speaking in that slow, dry way of his which made him sound like some kindly grandfather. Sakura, on his right, was drinking in every word. Sasuke wanted to shake her, to scream in her face not to listen because it was all lies, everything. The same man who listed trust and teamwork as virtues upon which to build their careers, ruled over a village steeped in blood and secrets. And maybe – maybe Danzou was telling the truth, maybe Sarutobi didn't sign the orders which ended Sasuke's entire world in the course of a single night, but he stood idly by and let it happen. And he let Sasuke dedicate his life to revenging himself on a brother who – who…

His hands were clenched into fists, fingernails tearing into the skin of his palms. What would happen if he just killed the Sandaime, right now? Just slit his face open with the kunai in his holster. Just a few swift movements which were as effortless for him as breathing. Inhale. Exhale. One more responsible party dead.

He didn't realise how lost he was in the decision until a hand settled tentatively on his shoulder, a pretty, pink mouth shaping the vowels of his name.


"I'm fine," he said, aware of everyone looking at him strangely, the Hokage watching him shrewdly with the pipe frozen halfway to his mouth.

"Excellent," the Sandaime said, snapping his teammates' attention back to him. "No delays in setting off then."

What? A quick glance at Naruto and Sakura showed that they weren't sure what he was talking about either, but where Sasuke was confused, they looked respectively eager and anxious.

"We have a mission," Kakashi pronounced, lacking his usual bored drawl. For the first time, Sasuke noticed he didn't have that hideous orange book on him. "Since you three are so behind on your teamwork, I've asked for an extensive mission in order to rectify those particular…shortcomings."

"Alright! Where are we going, old man? It's A-rank, right?" Naruto was as excitable as ever. Sasuke wanted to hit him. "Tell me it's exciting!"

"It's a C-rank, escort mission. A little more difficult than you should be handling right now, but I believe it's the right situation for a team like yours to start functioning properly."

The Hokage's words stirred a certain familiarity, a ghost of a memory rising to the surface…of bridges, and senbon, the place where he'd first died….

Could it be? he wondered, heart palpitating with excitement.

"Your mission will take you to the Land of Waves," the Hokage told them, "escorting a bridge-builder from petty thieves and criminals on the road."

The smirk that threatened to break free was a black thing, he could feel it, but Sasuke didn't care. They were going to the Land of Waves at last, and soon he'd take that first crucial step to get his power back. In a matter of days, he'd have his Sharingan, and with it, he would once again become the shinobi that the five nations had feared.

"You will come back a successful, fully-functioning genin team," the Sandaime continued, peering down at them sternly, "or you will be disbanded."

That put paid to Naruto's enthusiastic cheering – the office went still and horrifyingly silent.

"You are dismissed. Be prepared to leave tomorrow morning."

Together, the three of them turned and shuffled into the hall, his teammates for once blissfully speechless. Still, if Sasuke hadn't been so consumed with the phantom taste of power on his lips, he might have noticed all the blood drain out of Sakura's face the moment the Hokage told them of their destination.

Cause they took your loved ones

but returned them in exchange for you

but would you have it any other way?

notes: so this one has been the most massive bitch to write. apologies, loved ones. I know this is probably not worth the wait I put you through. lyrics borrowed from What the Water Gave Me by Florence & the Machine.

notes2: I am obsessed with Florence and the Machine right now. Also if you're not watching Game of Thrones, you are doing life wrong.




oh and if you could review that would be fantastic. let me know y'all still following this shindig...