A/N: I feel like my whole fandom life is one big apology for my spectacular lateness. Sorry, guys! I'm trying to do better, I promise, but Real Life is the most heartless of things and it demands all of my time.
On a side note, I really have to thank TrisakAminawn for calling me on my timeline bullshit. I've been flailing under the weight of my gaping plot holes in relation to Naruto canon. But thanks to Trisak I think I've finally figured it out! This takes place in a kind of canon AU where Team 7 got to Sasuke shortly after Itachi was killed, before the Invasion of Pein arc. So Sasuke is still pretty much a giant ball of pain and emotion and has exactly zero trust for Madara. And still hellbent of destroying the Village, which will become important to this story a little later.
Also, a big thanks to everyone who came and found me on Tumblr. I had a lot of fun answering questions and killing you all with chapter teasers. You guys rock!
I do not own Naruto and no money is being made from this story.
They were quiet, his kids.
They never used to be.
Sakura had been shrill and Naruto never actually closed his mouth (Kakashi had studied this, there were notebooks, endless notebooks, with research notes and hypotheses and doodles of Naruto's face with the words What the fuck written underneath in bright purple ink) and Sasuke, even Sasuke had taken the time to snark his superiority to the world.
But now. They were quiet. Well. Comparatively, in Naruto's case. The kid still spoke like he was afraid someone might snatch that away from him, too. But after he'd returned from his years with Jiraya, he'd stayed quiet for so long (three minutes, it had been three minutes, but in Naruto time that was like half a billion centuries of silence) that Kakashi had actually spun around and sputtered things like what's wrong and was there a zombie, are zombie bites a thing and your voice is the anchor that I use to ignore all things, can't quit on me now.
The Hokage had laughed so hard she'd fallen out of her fancy Hokage chair. It had not been Kakashi's proudest moment.
But Naruto was quiet now, his mouth closed and pursed with concern. And Sakura never screamed, not anymore, not unless it was directed at an enemy and filled with rage. And Sasuke.
Sasuke's silence went deeper now than stoicism. Edged past depression and displayed broken in the black of his eyes. He'd only spoken once since sunrise. Only once, and as the sun crept closer and closer to setting in the West, Naruto's mouth curled tighter, Sakura's quiet became a little less serene.
"If you ask about my brother, I will kill you when my chakra unbinds."
Kakashi sighed and leaned against the wall of the brand new cave they'd found to camp in overnight (with Sasuke's chakra bound, he couldn't travel as far or as fast as the rest of them). He gently shoved away the laughter in his head that sounded like Obito, because Naruto was going to ask. He hadn't yet, and his whiskered face was a truly hilarious caricature of painful restraint, but of course he was going to. Naruto lived to poke into places where he wasn't wanted.
He made it all the way through an awkward dinner of field rations and some edible roots Sakura had found. An awkward dinner in which Sakura made a truly heroic attempt at conversation, Sasuke pretended everyone around him didn't actually exist, Naruto alternated between squirming and clawing at the dirt, and Kakashi outwardly eye-smiled and inwardly calculated the odds of the Hokage asking him to slit Sasuke's neck once they brought him to her office.
"I can't," Naruto finally bellowed and Sakura rolled her eyes upward like maybe she could find the answer to her teammate's stupidity on the ceiling. "Your man pain is suffocating. It is actually trying to force its way down my throat and choke me, Sasuke."
Sasuke's eyes were empty, so empty that they sent chills down even Kakashi's spine. But the tiny quirk of his eyebrow suggested that he would very much appreciate if Naruto would actually suffocate, please and thank you.
"Talk to us," Naruto demanded, because he would be the one to insist. Sakura would wait in silence until Sasuke felt like sharing and Kakashi would never actually expect him to speak but Naruto would pull it out of him with his fingernails if he had to. "Tell us what you're thinking. Tell us about your brother."
Sasuke said nothing. But the tiny, blade-sharp smile that curved his lips had Naruto jerking back a little in alarm.
It was the kind of smile you found on a corpse. The kind of smile that everyone wore beneath their skin because skeletons had smiles fixed and frozen on their bony faces. Naruto recoiled from it and Sakura looked sick to see it but Kakashi just tilted his head because he'd seen that smile on his own face before, safely hidden beneath his mask.
He wondered sometimes, also behind the mask where no one could see, if Naruto understood just how similar he was to Sasuke. If Naruto knew that he was actually running after both of them; Sasuke was just more obvious about it.
But, then. Sasuke always had been just a little bit desperate for attention. Naruto wasn't wrong about those shirts and the neck cleavage.
"Sasuke," Naruto said. "Come on. You talked to us there, in the genjutsu, you said that you didn't want to forget-,"
"You want to remember?" Sasuke said and Kakashi went very still because his voice was too sweet, his smile still too sharp. "No, you're right Naruto, let's remember. Let's talk about your parents."
Naruto shuddered like a piece of wood suddenly cracked in half by an arrow.
It was too soon. Kushina's voice couldn't be completely gone yet. Shadowed, maybe and pushed away because Naruto had practice with shutting out unwanted voices (and not just the Fox but an entire Village full of hateful whispers). But the memory of it would still be so clear and Naruto was a hero, even Sasuke couldn't argue that, but this genjutsu had been designed to hit him in his weakest spot.
And hero or not, ninja or not, Naruto was still just a fifteen year old boy in the end. One who'd grown up sad and terribly lonely.
"I don't want to talk about me," Naruto said, and tried for a grin. It was a weak and wobbling thing, a piss-poor shadow of his usual sunbeam smile. "For once, one time only offer, so jump that shit while you can, yes?"
"No," Sasuke said, still so pleasant, still so polite. Kakashi felt his skin crawl and was almost proud. "No, let's talk about you. I'm you friend, aren't I? That's what you've always said. So why don't you open up to your friend, Naruto, and tell me all about how it was to have a mommy and daddy for once."
Sakura's face went tight and pale and furious. She moved like maybe she was going to do something, shut Sasuke up. Kakashi stopped her with a gentle hand around her wrist.
She gave him a look, sharp as broken glass. I don't understand, that look said and Kakashi shrugged because she never really had.
"Why do you care?" Naruto asked, hurt and honestly baffled. "About my feelings? Because yours are really loud, Sasuke. They're always really loud, even though you never actually talk about them. It's all about your eyebrows. Your eyebrows express angst better than anything."
"But you have feelings," Sasuke said.
"Well, sure," Naruto agreed, still so confused. "But we never talk about mine."
Next to him, Sakura winced. Kakashi felt Naruto's words all the way down to his bones. The boy was always careless with honesty that should have been a big deal.
"Today I do," Sasuke said. "Tell me about her hugs, Naruto. Your mom gave great hugs. Can you still feel them, is that a part of the echo? Or is it just her voice, getting quieter and quieter? Leaving you all over again?"
Naruto stared, face curiously blank. Sasuke's smile never wavered.
"Don't," Sakura said, shaking off Kakashi's restraining fingers. "Leave him alone, Sasuke."
"You don't get to participate in this conversation, I think," Sasuke said without turning away from Naruto. It was deliberate, Kakashi knew, because Sakura had spent so much time making sure she was a person worth noticing. "You didn't carry anything out of the genjutsu, right? I can see it, in the way your eyes never go distant like you're listening to someone else. Keep your perfect little life out of this discussion, Sakura. Only people who have experienced loss allowed."
"I know loss," Sakura whispered and Sasuke's smile stretched a little. But he still wouldn't look at her, refused her that regard.
"I don't count," he said. "How long did you know me? Really know me, Sakura, and not the schoolgirl crush you invented. A few months, maybe. I was hardly even a real person to you; you don't get to mourn my absence."
As Kakashi snuck his fingers around Sakura's wrist once again (she was shaking) he realized that this was not going to be typical Team Seven scene (in which Naruto yelled and Sasuke was silently scathing and Sakura was determined and he watched and waited for an opportunity). This was Sasuke fighting back, as best he could with his chakra bound. This was him using words to hit the soft and vulnerable places that he usually targeted with fists and fire.
And that meant that Kakashi needed to brace himself because this was going to be like releasing a river with nothing to stop the flood.
"Poor little Sakura, with parents to love her and perfect grades in school and a spot on the strongest team in the Leaf Village. You can sit and talk about struggle in a room with people like us?"
"Shut up, Sasuke," Naruto said, because he would always defend her, always. "Not everyone needs to have a fucked up life like you or me to be a great ninja. It's okay that Sakura has nice things."
"Has she ever shared those nice things with you, Naruto?" Sasuke asked sweetly. "She's your friend, you say. But has she ever invited you over to dinner with her family? Or come to check in on you in that lonely little apartment of yours? Maybe she'll defend you from the others but she's certainly not going to let your fucked up life dirty her stable existence."
Kakashi watched Sakura open her mouth. But then she shut it again and her cheeks flushed red with shame.
"As entertaining a distraction this is," Kakashi said mildly, speaking up for the first time since dinner. Sasuke tensed against the other wall and Kakashi found that strangely gratifying. That Sasuke still reacted to his voice. "I think it's time to get back on topic. Which is your brother, Sasuke. If we're going to talk about fucked up lives, let's start with the most obvious in the room, shall we?"
"Sure that isn't you, Kakashi?" Sasuke asked. "Is the genjutsu echo inside your head an actual voice or just the sound of falling rocks?"
Kakashi smiled with his eyes and ignored the way his stomach rolled. Ignored not only the sound, but the smell of blood and broken skin.
"Why wasn't he there, Sasuke?" Kakashi asked back. "Why wasn't Itachi a part of your family inside the genjutsu?"
Sasuke would never be so obvious as to jerk in confusion or alarm. But the way he went still, so still, was telling enough.
"Hey, that's right," Naruto said, brow furrowed all over again. "Why wasn't he there, Sasuke?"
"I have a theory," Sakura said and her voice was cold. Because Sasuke might have treated her like the girl he knew once but Kakashi and Naruto both knew that she wasn't. "Everything in your life that hurts revolves around your brother, right Sasuke? Every bad and terrible thing can trace its roots back to him. Your family, your time with Orochimaru, and now his blood on your hands. Itachi is everything wrong with your life. So, he didn't have a place in your perfect little family inside the genjutsu."
"You don't know anything," Sasuke said, and all the sugar was gone from his voice. It was empty again.
"Neither do you," Sakura said, with a kind of calm that finally assured Kakashi that he could release her wrist. "Not about me. But it never stopped you from thinking you did."
Sasuke turned to look at her. Finally turned to look. It was a huge thing, a big moment, and even Naruto gave it about fifteen seconds of respectful silence before ruining it with his mouth.
"I know he was your brother," he said earnestly, all but falling over himself to understand Sasuke's pain, to take it away with speeches and maybe some bro hugs. "And that you still loved him. But Sasuke, remember what a dick he was? Your brother was the biggest of dicks. And now that giant dick is no longer in your life. So, from that perspective, it's a happy thing, right?"
Next to him, Kakashi could feel Sakura mouthing the words 'giant dick' with something like disbelief.
"You don't know anything," Sasuke repeated.
"But Sasuke, the dicks!" Naruto cried. "Giant, evil dick! We never talked about it when we were kids because the stick up your ass was really more of a log at that point, but if we did, I'm sure there would have been a dicks conversation!"
"Naruto," Sakura hissed.
"I want to hug you but also maybe cry about your stupid," Kakashi added.
"My brother wasn't evil," Sasuke said, and everything in the cave ground to a screeching halt.
"What?" Naruto asked, eyes impossibly wide. "Sasuke, what?"
Sasuke's face was pale, so pale, like he had never actually meant to say that out loud. Like he couldn't figure out why he had.
"As much as it pains me, deep down in my soul," Kakashi said. "I have to agree with Naruto's giant dick analogy. In which everybody knows that your brother fit the description."
Sasuke's head whipped around again and Kakashi breathed deep. Just because Kakashi never expected Sasuke to talk didn't mean that he didn't know how to make him if the situation called for it.
"Everybody is wrong," Sasuke hissed. "So fucking stupid and wrong. It was orders, it was all orders. Because the Hokage felt threatened by my family's power. And he knew Itachi was loyal, was the most loyal, and would do it if he asked. But he couldn't kill me, could only protect me as best he could." The words were tripping over Sasuke's tongue, spilling out so fast, the result of being bottled up and held back by force. Kakashi's felt something inside his chest go cold and startled, felt Sakura catch her breath next to him. "So he made me hate him, because he knew it would make me strong. And he still protected me, even though I hated him, even though he knew I would kill him in the end. It was all for me, and none of it was his fault."
Naruto's face was white, completely washed of its usual sun-warmed glow. His blue eyes were huge and bruised and horrified.
"Sasuke," he said.
"And now he's gone," Sasuke said and he was shaking hard enough to rattle the ropes around his wrists. "He's gone and I sent him away and I don't want to talk about it."
There were tears on Sakura's cheeks. Kakashi knew because one of them dropped onto his hands, cold and wet.
"Sasuke," Naruto repeated and then lunged forward to wrap his hands around Sasuke's wrists, to steady his shakes with his own hands.
"Don't," Sasuke hissed and shoved at Naruto with his shoulders, his feet, and his trapped wrists. Naruto held firm. "I…just…get the fuck off of me."
"He loved you," Naruto whispered. "Sasuke, he loved you so much."
But Naruto held on. Naruto would always hold on, and Kakashi thought that Sasuke really should have realized that by now.
He felt something grip his arm and stared down rather dumbly at Sakura's hand.
"It's okay, Kakashi-sensei," she said and he wondered how she knew, just when he had become so transparent to the kids he was supposed to protect.
Sometime after he'd failed them, probably.
"He wasn't there," Sasuke said into the silence. He appeared to have retreated completely back into himself, no longer aware of Naruto's hands. The genjutsu and the stripping of his chakra had weakened him, made him so vulnerable; it almost felt wrong to look at him like this. "He wasn't inside the genjutsu."
"It's okay," Naruto said. "We're here, Sasuke."
It was silent inside the cave after that. Because none of them knew exactly what else to say.
Afterward, Kakashi did his job. It was a mockery at this point, because he needed his kids far more than they would ever need him again. But it made him feel like less of a failure to try.
He started with Sakura. She was by the river they'd found, aggressively washing bloodstains out of Sasuke's coat. Her palms were reddened, already stained from the work.
"It's a practical coat," Kakashi remarked. "Hard to tell the difference between bloodstains and those red clouds."
"I can get them out," she said.
"And whose blood are you so focused on washing away?"
Sakura closed her eyes.
"He said terrible things," she said, after a while. "He always says terrible things."
"But that doesn't make them wrong. More right than we want to hear, maybe."
"Do you want any help? With the coat?"
Sakura shook her head.
"I can do it," she insisted. "It won't hurt me to get a little blood on my hands for once."
"Nothing wrong with cleaner hands, Sakura."
She smiled at him over her shoulder. It was not a pleasant smile.
"I think maybe there is, on this team." She turned her attention back to the coat. "I'm okay, Kakashi-sensei. Really."
"Okay," he said.
But he sat for a little while as she washed. And she kept going because she knew he would never say anything about the tears she rolled into the river.
He went to Sasuke next. Sasuke, who was alone in the cave. He hadn't been, when Sakura had left, and Kakashi made a mental note that he needed to find Naruto next.
"Go away," Sasuke croaked and tucked himself into the wall.
He looked weak. And wrecked.
Kakashi had no idea how to have this conversation.
"I didn't know," he tried. "About Itachi."
"You hated him more than anyone," Sasuke said lifelessly to the wall.
"True. I lit those candles for you. But I can light them for him now, I guess."
"Why did you light candles at all?" Sasuke asked, and Kakashi forgot sometimes, that they were all just teenagers underneath all the pain and rage and baggage. Still just kids.
"I figured you couldn't. Traveling like you were. But I thought you might have wanted to, if you'd been in one place long enough."
"Oh," Sasuke said, and then went quiet. And Kakashi let him, because what else was there to say?
But he stayed for a while with Sasuke, too. And Sasuke never turned away from the wall, because one heartfelt conversation didn't make a team whole again. But he didn't tell Kakashi to leave, either, and he was going to count that as some kind of progress.
He found Naruto up a tree, about a mile from the cave. His legs were dangling over the branch he was sitting on, hanging over one hundred feet of empty air.
"You're not going to jump, are you? Because I'm maybe the worst possible person to talk someone down from a suicide attempt and Sakura will just be so pissed at the both of us."
Naruto smiled a little.
"Nah, Sasuke would be worse," he said. "He'd get bored with my feelings and push me off of the branch, probably."
Kakashi crouched next to him, spreading his weight across the wood beneath his feet.
"I'm pretty terrible, I think," Naruto announced, almost casually. "For being sad about the wrong things."
"Oh? What are you sad about?"
"I should be sad about Sasuke's brother," he said. "Should be pissed at Granny Tsunade and all those ancient bastards on the Council, maybe. But mostly, Kakashi-sensei, I just keep thinking about how things would be so much better if we'd stayed inside the genjutsu."
"You're allowed an adjustment period, Naruto."
The boy's eyes were amused, almost, when he turned them on Kakashi's face. It was an adult kind of amusement, and Kakashi hated himself for it.
"You're a big fat liar," Naruto said fondly. "That's not what you said earlier."
"Well, you're not currently trying to turn into a fox and rip the forest apart, so."
"It's selfish, right?" he asked, after a while. "To want to be where I was happy, even though Sasuke's brother wasn't there?"
"Only if you try to act on it," Kakashi said. "Selfish would be trying to bring it back. Missing it is human, just human, Naruto. Not bad."
Naruto hummed a little and rested his cheek against the tree trunk.
"I'm still going to drag him home," he said. "Because I made a promise. And I can't give that up even though we really should change our name to Team Fucked Up From Every Angle."
"I know," Kakashi said and didn't say this is why you're better than the rest of us, not because of your power, but because of this.
"At least we can be fucked up together," Naruto offered. "Did old man Hokage do that on purpose, Sensei?"
"Slap all the broken ones together?"
Naruto stuck his tongue out and gave Kakashi a little shove.
"We're only broken if we can't fix each other, Sensei," Naruto scolded. "And there's ramen. I have so much ramen planned to heal us, Sensei, you have no idea."
"Touch me again and I'll push you out of this tree," Kakashi said sweetly. "Sakura will get over it, eventually."
"Whatever, Sensei, you'd be so lost without me."
Kakashi didn't agree out loud. Didn't say Wow, you have no idea how true that is, do you?
But that was okay because his silence said it all anyway.
A/N: Now that the angst-bomb has gone off, get ready for the nuclear winter that follows. Next Chapter, Sakura's POV: Bitches, I will crush you with my double X chromosomes.