A/N: Because this wouldn't be "Ricochet" if I didn't have one more chapter about Sasuke having feelings in the goddamn forest.
Please excuse my gleeful frolicking through the flaming remains of canon. I tried so hard to make it fit exactly. Canon is very extensive. I'm very tired.
My love, always and forever, to those of you who have continued to stick with this story, despite the fact that my greatest intention with this story was to be a way for me to write Kushina the Badass and leak my feelings about Team 7 all over the place.
I do not own Naruto and am making no money off of the writing of this story.
He ran—tree branches cracking beneath his feet, a sudden storm of summer raindrops biting into his skin, ink still smeared and itching around his eyes, light stinging his already sensitive corneas after weeks without sensory input—and didn't feel a single bit of it.
Because Naruto had let him go.
It didn't matter how many times Sasuke said it, or which word he placed the emphasis on. Not a single variation of the sentence sounded real or believable.
Naruto had let him go.
Naruto. Naruto 'I will annoy you to the ends of the goddamn earth and straight on into the afterlife until I can deliver you back to the Leaf Village like a cat delivering a dead bird' Uzumaki. Had let Sasuke 'try it, bitch—I'm hide and seek champion since four years back' go.
Two entire days of running, of setting traps and leaving false trails, trying to put distance between himself and the ANBU squads that would inevitably be chasing after him once Naruto's breach of protocol was discovered, and Sasuke still couldn't get his head around it.
You're telling me to leave.
I know. Super weird, right? After everything.
It didn't make sense. Naruto never made sense. Why would he let Sasuke go, after finally getting him exactly where he wanted him? Why would he chase after Sasuke in the first place, even after they'd been enemies longer than they'd ever been teammates? Why would he continue to shout, always shouting, never settling for simply being heard when he could be understood instead, about bonds and friendship when Sasuke had made it clear, time and time again, clear as a fist through the heart and a sword to the throat, that Naruto could be as loud as he wanted, Sasuke still wasn't going to get it.
But still, the idiot had said, "We're your home, Sasuke."
He'd said, "I get it, Sasuke. I know the difference between 'I want to leave you' and 'I have to leave you'—even if you never have."
He'd said, "Come back soon, Bastard. We'll leave the lights on for you."
Sasuke didn't want their lights. Didn't want their warmth and stability or the promises of comfort and belonging that came with a home. He didn't—he didn't—the Clan had been his home, and Itachi, too, now that Sasuke knew what he'd done for him all these years. Sasuke didn't need another one. He couldn't have another one, not when 'home' meant burdening yourself with emotion and attachment. Sasuke was already carrying a bloodline's worth of aborted feelings on his back, cut down quivering and unfulfilled by a blade that had been ordered to strike against its wishes. His shoulders ached from the weight of them. He couldn't risk adding any more without fear of falling apart beneath the strain.
But still. Kakashi standing quietly at his side and admitting, "I've always seen the most of myself in you."
Sakura, stopping her punch millimeters away from Sasuke's face, just to prove that she could, that she was someone worth noticing, and saying, "I need to know if I can forgive you for this, Sasuke. Someday very far from now."
And Naruto. Naruto's eyes. Naruto's entire fucking face, as he'd stared at Sasuke, not entirely convinced that Sasuke hadn't killed his beloved Sensei, and still saying, "Go."
"Shit." Sasuke stopped mid-jump, pressing his hands against the rough bark of the tree he was occupying, heaving air in and out of his starving lungs. "Shit."
He couldn't—he knew better than this. Knew better than to let Naruto get inside his head. He'd been around the idiot long enough to see it in action—how Naruto pressed his convictions on you, steady and unrelenting like a goddamn glacier moving across the earth, until you were gasping for air and agreeing to his mindset out of sheer self-defense. Sasuke had thought himself immune. Had thought himself the exception, after three years of shaking off Naruto's shouts and threats and promises (no matter how much he itched beneath the skin in the aftermath—walking away was still a victory, no matter the side effects). But now.
Come home soon. We'll leave the lights on for you.
"Shit," Sasuke said again.
But this time, a voice responded with, "Sasuke."
Sasuke didn't startle. He was a ninja, and ninja did not startle (except for Naruto, and that one unfortunate rabbit in the woodlands of Wave Country). He spun neatly on one heel, kunai already in hand, only to stop when he saw a familiar shape lurking in the shadow of a nearby tree.
Warily (Sasuke still didn't know this man, outside of the information he'd provided about Itachi and the Leaf Village, and even that had been too late), Sasuke leapt down to Madara's level.
"You escaped," Madara said from behind the mask that Sasuke wanted to tell him was really stupid-looking, except that it would probably violate Uchiha Clan Law on respecting your (way, way) elders. "Well done. I knew you were a worthy successor to the bloodline."
"You shouldn't be here," Sasuke said back, instead of correcting him with 'they let me go' and 'I would cheerfully fall on my own sword before admitting this to Naruto's face but I am, in fact, really bad at feelings and so finding the correct one for this situation is proving difficult'. "They'll have sent ANBU squads after me. You could get caught."
"Ah." Delicately, Madara folded the sleeves of the robe that Sasuke had told Itachi was stupid-looking in the middle of their battle, which had resulted in a fire jutsu aimed directly at Sasuke's face.
It was a truly shitty example of fond memory, one that someone would want to keep close and dear. But that little moment of brotherly annoyance, only obvious in the aftermath, was one of the few that Sasuke had. He tucked it away in the warmest parts of himself, alongside his mother cutting tomatoes for his afternoon snack and making Itachi laugh (laugh for real, the kind that crinkled his eyes) when Sasuke was five and had been convinced by Shisui that the correct response to 'how are you' was 'bitching' ("And how are you today, Sasuke?" "Bitching, Father, thank you") and the hushed awe of his first fully-formed Chidori, crackling joyfully around his fist, and—
We'll leave the lights on for you.
"I doubt they'll be sending squads after you now," Madara was saying, back in the shadows of the trees, smug and satisfied certainty curled around his voice like smoke. "Not with the threat already at the Leaf Village gates."
Sasuke stiffened minutely. "Pein is there? Already? But the Sannin Jiraya was killed only days ago, and hundreds of miles away. How could Pein travel that far in such a short amount of time?"
Madara shrugged. "Pein has the ability to create copies of himself. It was they who stayed behind to deal with the Sannin, while the original forged ahead to the Leaf Village."
Sasuke stayed silent. His pulse was pounding oddly in his throat, his palms were sweating, and he didn't know what to call that, either.
"It took some convincing, to persuade the original Pein to surrender the pleasure of killing his previous Sensei." Madara laughed, a light arpeggio of sound, lighter than the birdsong in the trees above. "But it was such an amusing bit of trickery, to allow the Leaf Village hope, to fool them into thinking that they had time to bolster their barricades and muster a defense. I really couldn't resist."
Sasuke had years' worth of practice in covering any exclamation points that popped up inside his skull (Jiraya as Pein's Sensei! Pein could copy himself?! Pein attacking the Leaf Village right this fucking second?!). And so his face stayed smooth and blank, even as his head whirled.
"They'll fight," he said, flat with a certainty of his own. "No matter how little time you gave them to prepare, they'll still fight."
Naruto was in the village, after all, and Naruto was incapable of not-fighting. Naruto would knock death off of his horse whenever he came to collect with a balled up fist and a loud 'nope'.
"Of course," Madara demurred. "What shinobi wouldn't defend their village? And that Jinchuuriki; I've heard he's the fiercest fighter of them all. But, never fear. I've already cultivated a strategy to keep him docile, as I need him alive to extract his beast. A strategy that you helped develop, Sasuke—I thank you."
Sasuke furrowed his brow. "I never—"
"Not knowingly. And I regretted your involvement in it at all, as it took an…obvious mental toll that led to your capture in the first place. But the results were still far beyond satisfactory, and especially due to your participation, unaware or otherwise."
Sasuke breathed deep. "The genjutsu. The one with the fake life, the fake happy families."
"A practice run, to determine the possible effectiveness of such a solution." Madara tipped his head. "Give a man pain, and his resistance only hardens and grows. But give him joy, give him the things he most longs for—what man would leave when everything he wants is within easy reach?"
Sasuke's palms curled inward. They were still damp with sweat, and shaking now, too, tiny little tremors, a confused biological response.
"The Jinchuuriki might have stayed for the parents he never got to meet," Madara continued, musingly. "Might have kept quiet all the way back to base. But for you? For his precious team, reassembled? When combined with the fact that he is astonishingly terrible at genjutsu, I could keep him under forever if I wished. Your being caught up in my practice run was unfortunate, Sasuke, but the data yielded was invaluable."
"You could just—with the Tsukuyomi, you could—you don't have to do this."
"The Tsukuyomi would reveal my immediate presence here, something I've worked very hard to conceal. But a genjutsu, even a powerful one, could be cast by any ninja of appropriate skill and strength."
Sasuke's hands uncurled. Curled again.
"Speaking of which, I'd better return to the Leaf Village. Pein follows orders, but only to a point, and he does take great joy in the destruction that accompanies his mission statement. He knows better than to kill the Jinchuuriki, but better that I remove the temptation, yes?"
Madara stepped forward and dropped a hand on Sasuke's shoulder. Sasuke twitched backward the slightest bit, but didn't shrug him off.
"You're tired," Madara said, almost kind, like he'd been in the cave after Itachi. "And no doubt feeling conflicted, after spending weeks in your old home and with your old comrades. That's alright; it's human nature, after all. But never forget your anger, Sasuke. Never forget that the Leaf is the one who took your brother away, and forced it to be at your hand."
Sasuke breathed. Kept breathing.
"Rest," Madara said, still so fucking warm and soft. "Re-organize your thoughts. And when you're ready, come join me on the battlefield. The fall of the Leaf should be a victory shared by both of us."
He turned to go, prepared to jump. Sasuke stopped him with, "You knew I was there. In the Leaf Village."
Madara half-turned, until he could see Sasuke with his one red eye. "Yes."
"You let them think that I helped you kill Jiraya." Sasuke inhaled around the words he'd been holding back. Out of stubbornness. Spite. The slow madness of life without his eyes and the hope that maybe this would make them end it. "I didn't help you kill Jiraya."
"A favor to your reputation. That's two legendary Sannin they think you've killed now, Sasuke. Imagine how many battles will be won on the strength of your status alone."
"I might have still been there. When Pein attacked the village."
Madara tipped his head. "I had every confidence that you would escape before the battle. You are an Uchiha, after all."
Sasuke nodded back, because he knew that much, at least. "I am."
Madara's visible eye warmed with something that might have been approval, and then he turned to complete his jump. Left Sasuke there, alone in the forest, with only the birdsong for company. After a few more minutes of slowly inflating and deflating his ribcage, Sasuke climbed the tallest tree that he could find, and looked in the direction that he'd come from with eyes that still watered from the light.
There was smoke on the horizon.
The thing was, Itachi had told him once. After Sasuke had gotten careless while learning the fire jutsus of his clan and almost burned down an entire neighborhood of houses, he'd taken Sasuke aside and said, uncharacteristically stern, "A home is precious, Sasuke. You must protect it, always."
At five years old, Sasuke had nodded and internalized the lesson, shame-faced and worshipful of every word his older brother offered.
At twelve years old, Sasuke had sneered at the memory, certain that Itachi had meant it as a taunt: I told you to protect your home, but you couldn't even protect it from me, little brother.
At seventeen, Sasuke had stood on a rock beside the rolling ocean with his brother's blood still on his hands and wept because he'd failed to understand Itachi's lesson to its truest extent, hadn't realized until too late that Itachi was his home and Sasuke had failed to protect him, time and time again.
Back in the forest where Madara had left him, Sasuke found a small pond, tucked away into the trees, a glen of lush green and quiet space. Sasuke knelt at the water's edge and scooped some into his palms, scrubbing at the ink around his eyes. Every movement felt slow, wooden, when compared to the whirling chaos inside his head.
Madara had said, Never forget your anger. Never forget that the Leaf took your brother away.
But his brother had said, A home is precious, Sasuke.
And We're your home—that's what Naruto had said.
Sasuke couldn't think. He couldn't hear his own thoughts with so many others crowding the space inside his skull. Too many words, all of them conflicting, all of them carrying just enough truth to make it impossible to choose between them.
Sasuke stared at his ink-stained fingers, black smudged there like blood, and thought: No words, then. He'd been listening to the words of others, letting them slide inside his ears, for far too long if it meant that his own voice was lost. He would look at actions instead, objective and outside of himself, waiting to be analyzed without interfering.
Madara, who had saved him in the aftermath of Itachi's death. Had helped him fix his eyes and informed him of Itachi's true identity. Had given Sasuke a new purpose—destroy the Leaf—and pointed him toward pursuing it, but then failed to assist Sasuke after his capture. Had, in fact, been the reason for it in the first place. Regrettable, he'd said, but the results had been invaluable. Regrettable, that Sasuke had been taken captive by the Leaf and stripped of his eyesight, however temporarily. Regrettable, that Madara hadn't come to save him, but of course, his position couldn't be compromised, Sasuke—surely you understand?
Itachi, who had died for Sasuke's sake, had been dying for Sasuke's sake for years. Every sibilant whisper in Sasuke's ear, every carefully targeted taunt, meant to slide beneath Sasuke's ribs and gouge open the Gordian knot of his hurt, every time he laid Sasuke out in the hopes that it would encourage him to get stronger—all of it was another cut in the self-inflicted bleed-out Itachi had been inducing across a decade. Itachi, who had only ever been real before the battle and after it, in the moments when he flicked Sasuke in the forehead and smiled like he was exhausted down to his nerve endings, and someday, when Sasuke was done grieving for Itachi and feeling the loss of him like a katana cut down the chest, he was going to be so incredibly, incandescently furious with him. That he never thought to trust instead of deceive. That he never allowed Sasuke to help him carry his burdens.
And Naruto. Sakura. Kakashi. Even Sai, that asshole. Willing to chase Sasuke across continents, until their legs were aching and their feet were weeping blisters, just to shout at him a little more. Willing to believe more of Sasuke than he'd ever believed about himself—never excusing the hurts he'd caused and the hell he'd raised, but working to understand it even as they challenged him to be better. Willing to take his eyesight if it meant keeping him close, and Sasuke could never forget that. But willing to return it, too, and to let him go—after so long chasing him, after so little time reunited—if it meant keeping him safe. Waving him off with an unshakeable certainty that Sasuke would find that higher ideal that they always held him to, that he'd find a way to put his brother to rest without bloodshed, that he'd even want to.
Words again. Naruto saying, You can't keep knocking houses down and Itachi whispering A home must be protected, Sasuke.
Sasuke's chest was tightening and his pulse was tripping and the ink-stained water droplets were slipping between his clenched fists like teardrops. In the trees around him, the birds were silent, shocked out of their songs by his sudden surge of chakra.
It wasn't fair, was the thing, and the childishness of the thought only bounced his pumping chakra even higher. Why shouldn't Sasuke spill blood for Itachi's? What was so wrong with Sasuke wanting recompense for the years Itachi spent, alone and aching, carrying the weight of his murdered clan across his back? Didn't honor demand that Sasuke cut down the ones who had banished his older brother to a life of misery, of heartache, of bloodstained hands and clan killer stamped across his skin like a brand? Sasuke was duty-bound to restore his honor, to avenge his name, he had to, had to—
Ninja did not startle. Sasuke believed this, even as he was forced to turn his jump of alarm into a smooth sideways skid (that caused several birds over head to finally abandon this weird little shitshow altogether).
Naruto's voice was just so loud, was the thing. Always so loud in his ear, and Sasuke could have sworn he was alone.
"What, idiot?" Sasuke rasped, and definitely didn't think any variation of 'you're here' and 'the Village' and 'how did you get away'.
Stop with the sad-music soul gazing for a second and take stock, okay? Notice whose name keeps coming up in your little list of 'woe is me' demands. Hint: it's not Itachi's.
Sasuke ground his teeth. Refused to turn and look, because if he caught sight of Naruto's smug, stupid face, he might be forced to pummel it into the dirt and forget about his need to gather intel.
Ding, ding, ding, dickhead! It's yours. You want blood for Itachi. You want vengeance and murder and mayhem and all the other things that the crazy-eyed Uchihas put on their Christmas lists. You really think your brother would want that? The one who loved the Leaf Village so much that he became its ultimate bad guy—he would want you to eighty-six it into the ground?
"Shut up," Sasuke snapped. "Shut up, Naruto."
But of course, he didn't. Because: Naruto.
He said, True things are never really what we want to hear, Sasuke. Because wrong things make an easier road, you know?
Said, If you were really about honoring Itachi, you'd look at the first lesson he taught you. Not the ones you've made up in the aftermath to excuse your angst-raging and questionable wardrobe choices.
Said, unshakeable as ever, a glacier cracking the earth beneath it as it moved, I've never known you to quit just because of a rougher road beneath your feet, Bastard.
"Fuck you," Sasuke spat. He felt cored down to the quick, impossibly known, exposed down to the rawest, barest bits of himself. Felt like rock giving way beneath a fresh slide of ice, grasping desperately for purchase and finding only cold, perfectly clear smoothness that had built its unyielding presence across eons. "Fuck you."
Itachi's first lesson: A home must be protected.
Sasuke turns, finally turns, to launch himself at Naruto's head, launch the entirety of his weapons pouch at Naruto's vital organs, because this feels like—grief. Like mourning all over again, like Sasuke is losing something along with the ground beneath his feet, like something held so close for so long is being ripped away.
But, of course, there's no one there. Sasuke is alone in the clearing with ink-stained hands, not even birds to keep him company anymore.
It had taken Sasuke two days to reach the clearing in the woods, after detouring to lay traps and leave trails for any ANBU teams giving chase.
Without all that tedious bullshit, it took him one day to return to the borders of Leaf Village.
Except that the borders were gone. More than half of the Village was gone, and what remained was blackened and burned, stinking of smoke and spilled blood. Rubble filled the space where buildings once towered, ash covered fields where wildflowers once grew. The ocean of space was eerily silent, without even the moans of dying men to fill it.
In the wreckage of what must have been a family home, Sasuke saw a pair of mittens, tiny and pink, burned but amazingly unfrayed, obvious care in the way the stitches have held true even after the building fell down around them.
Sasuke was no stranger to battle. He had been a shinobi of the Leaf, and then a captain in Orochimaru's army. He knew the grayness that followed a fight, the stink of it, the knotted sprawl of bodies and the ugly stretches of scorched earth.
It was surprisingly difficult, to see the stamp of war on the Leaf Village.
Itachi's first lesson.
But the Leaf Village was not Sasuke's home. It hadn't been for years.
Naruto. Sakura. Kakashi.
Sasuke closed his eyes. Reached out for the familiar sparks of chakra that he'd never really been able to stop himself from recognizing.
He couldn't find Naruto's chakra, bright yellow and boiling red, hot and thick when it touched Sasuke's skin like fire pressed into concentrated power.
He couldn't find Kakashi's quick-silver chakra, either, the one that tasted like ozone on Sasuke's tongue.
But—there. A small, greenish light, warm like growing things. Three miles away, and halfway hidden.
Sasuke found them crouched inside the remains of the Leaf Village Medical Center. It was Sai who intercepted him, since Sakura was busy kneeling beside Kakashi and swearing through clenched teeth as she bled healing chakra into his obvious, open wounds.
"Oh," Sai said, mild and polite, like he was running into Sasuke at the supermarket. Like the world hadn't fallen down around them. Like Sai wasn't bruised and battered and favoring his left side in a way that suggested internal bleeding. "Sasuke."
Sakura didn't so much as turn her head.
"Where's Naruto?" Sasuke asked, stepping into their makeshift hiding place. Sakura looked tired, but devoid of any immediately life-threatening injuries.
Sakura didn't answer. Didn't glance his way.
"I can't answer your question," Sai said. He added, apologetically, "You are, after all, a traitor and an enemy of the state."
Sasuke slanted him a hateful look. "Listen. I need—"
Except that Sakura had apparently done enough to keep Kakashi alive, at least momentarily. Because she retracted her hands, settled him more comfortably on the ground, and then rushed at Sasuke, slamming him into a crumbling stone wall hard enough to threaten the already compromised structural supports.
"You need," she repeated, deadly quiet. "By all means, Sasuke. Tell me what you need."
Her hair was a mess of singed ends around her soot-streaked face. Her hands were hot and slick with blood, nearly up to the elbow, and she had star-bright murder in her eyes.
She was beautiful, Sasuke realized, with the unpleasant thump of someone who'd been missing vital information up until this moment.
Sasuke angled his head, and repeated as steadily as he was able, "Where is Naruto?"
Sakura stared at him, lip pulled back from her teeth. "Why do you care? Isn't this what you wanted, Sasuke? All along, isn't this what you wanted?"
Sasuke choked on a conflicting rush of yes and no, tangling together as they both tried to escape from his mouth.
"I know what's going to happen," he said instead. "I know what Madara is planning."
"Naruto will stop him," Sakura said, with the unshakeable faith she'd once kept for Sasuke, but deeper, somehow. This was not the belief of a child, innocent and ignorant because of it. This was the certainty of someone who had seen this particular truth proven, again and again, across battlefields and through blood and tears. "Whatever your bullshit ancestor is planning—Naruto will stop him."
"Not like this." Sasuke couldn't say 'he won't', because he'd seen some of those same battlefields that had led to Sakura's belief. "Madara's already tried this plan before. A practice run, to make sure that it would work. That Naruto couldn't break free—that he wouldn't want to. Madara could spirit him away to steal his demon, and Naruto wouldn't even say a word."
In the dim grayness of the crumbled Medical Center, Sakura sucked in an ash-choked breath. "The genjutsu."
Sasuke inclined his head.
"Sakura," Sai called. So politely, the freak. "I believe Kakashi-Sensei is starting to wake up."
Sakura's knuckles eased around Sasuke's shirt collar, but they didn't release just yet.
"He went after Pein," she whispered. "Pein stopped in the middle of his attack, like he'd changed his mind. He left."
"He didn't change his mind," Sasuke said. "He was reminded of his orders. Get Naruto alone, get him away from his comrades. Because the only ones who have ever been able to shake Naruto out of a genjutsu—"
"Is us." Sakura finally let Sasuke go. He stumbled a little, because she'd been holding him a few inches off of the ground. "We have to go. We have to find them. Kakashi-sensei!"
She turned back toward her patient.
"Madara won't have put us under alongside Naruto this time," Sasuke said, following after her. "We'll have to force our way in to the illusion. Kakashi's Sharingan won't be strong enough."
"I'm not leaving him here," Sakura snapped at him. "Do you even know how close he came—if Pein hadn't left—if I hadn't found him—"
Sakura's shoulders were whipcord tight. But they were steady. Stronger than Sasuke had ever thought they could be, just like she'd promised.
Sai busied himself with supporting Kakashi's head and Sakura took his hand, checking over her work as Sasuke crouched beside her in the dirt and ruin.
"Why do you care?" she repeated, no softer than the last time she'd said it, giving no quarter, her green eyes still hot and furious. "Why are you doing this, Sasuke?"
He didn't know how to answer. For Itachi wouldn't be quite right, and For myself wouldn't be honest or even true, when his head was still conflicted, when not seeking the blood of the council members still felt like Itachi dying all over again.
The truest answer was maybe, For the lights. Because maybe I don't want them left on for me, but that doesn't mean I want them to go out, either.
But he didn't know how to say that. It was too new. Too fresh, still carrying the weight and clean-crisp smell of ice older than ages.
So he shrugged instead and said, "Hurry up. We're losing time."
A/N: Next Chapter: Kakashi POV: Back into the genjutsu we go (circular story-telling, you absolute bitch). Happy Reading!