The old three-tailed fox slid in his grasp, fur slick with blood. Sasuke shifted the animal back up against his chest as he ran; the fox didn't complain, even though he'd been a little rough. The animal wasn't heavy, mostly made of skin and bones, but tall enough to be awkward to carry.
The jounin-sensei should have been there over a half-hour ago.
The cloud of dust rising from the landslide Kyuubi had started was as good as a beacon flare. Big-scale destruction meant dangerous, higher-level fighters, but also a higher likelihood of exhausted or badly injured opponents. Only one day left for the test and those still in the running were starting to feel the need to take bigger risks if they wanted to get anywhere. Sasuke understood that. It was jus strange that they weren't.
Sasuke slanted a wary look at the girl with the katana. She was the only one with her arms free; he didn't like that. If the fox hadn't needed all its concentration to keep holding the genjutsu that hid their escape, Sasuke was sure she would have attacked already. He knew the type.
He threw a quick glance over his shoulder, sharingan cutting through the haze of the kitsune illusion. Still no sign of pursuit. Still no sign of Sakura either. He really hated this.
More than a mile away and he could still feel Kyuubi's chakra prickling his skin.
He didn't want to go any farther; it seemed a really stupid mistake not to have even a rough idea of Kyuubi's location. He stalked up to the girl, sidestepped the tip of her sword, and pushed the blood-slick fox in her arms.
She stiffened, forced to juggle the katana and the animal. The fox smothered a little pained grunt. Sasuke took a step back out of her personal space before she decided to just dump the beast on the ground and run him through.
"That's far enough," Sasuke said.
He took them in. One exhausted and rather slow-moving medic-nin, one half-dead guy, two summons -- one of them arthritic, with a crushed front paw, and the other one, the horse-sized wolf, still trembling on the edge of white-eyed panic. It wouldn't be hard for him to punch the girl unconscious and force their tokens out of them. And then, of course, the healer would have to juggle two KOed teammates as Kyuubi no Youko hunted them down, which made helping them get away in the first place rather pointless.
He was tempted to just turn around and leave. Negotiating would take time he could use to get back to Sakura and check on the situation.
He wished he hadn't let it bother him, when she asked what he'd do if Naruto were the one standing with him on the battlefield instead. He knew she was a ninja and he had to trust her to handle some of their collective shit at least sometimes, but he still wished he'd stayed.
Of course then Kyuubi would have just trapped him under another tree with admonitions to get some rest already because an exhausted Sasuke couldn't entertain that furry asshole enough, and the Grass team would be dead and Sakura would have ended up alone in front of him anyway. Sasuke tugged a leaf out of his hair, freeing a clump of dirt. He could probably afford to waste a little time extorting compensation out of them. Wasn't like he could do much back there, apart from getting beaten up again.
They kept staring at him, the girl and the giant, waiting for his demands. Exhausted and beaten and hating every single second of it.
Sasuke's upper lip curled and he turned on his heel to leave.
"Wait," the healer said.
The young man was a little pale, now that Sasuke looked closer. Especially around the lips, bloodless and pinched. No doubt he'd wasted a lot of chakra on his companion. He wasn't really that old, actually -- just large and big-boned. Sixteen maybe, though at first glance you'd have given him at least twenty.
"We won't go far alone."
"Not my problem," Sasuke countered. "You attacked us first, count yourself lucky I even bothered getting you that far."
The healer shifted his teammate's weight on his back; brown-skinned fingers clenched weakly on his shirt as the injured teenager woke halfway. The healer glanced down at those hands, squared his shoulders in resolve.
"I don't suppose you want to escort us? I'll pay you." He tapped the zippered pouch at his waist.
The girl jerked in surprise, and she put the fox down on the mossy ground a little fast, in a hurry to free her arms. "Maneki, stop right here. We will not be indebted to him."
"We're already indebted to him, Zenko."
She didn't like that, he could tell, her almond eyes narrowed to black slits. Sasuke was ready to say 'You're not going to get any more indebted than that, because I'm leaving.' But then again...
The healer acknowledged a debt. Did he feel it was big enough to owe Sasuke a way to fix that mess? That would be worth wasting a few more minutes, if he could only copy it with the Sharingan.
"Teach me how to end that jutsu and we'll be even."
The guy -- Maneki -- hesitated, and sighed. "Oh, hell. Why not. I was going to tell your teammate anyway."
He shifted his unconscious teammate's weight to the side so he could free a hand to shake on, the corner of his lip quirked up in a rueful, tired half-smile.
At his side the draft-horse-sized wolf stumbled. Sasuke's hand shot out and snatched Green-hair's wrist before the half-unconscious Grass ninja could slide boneless off his ride.
Fingers clenching weakly into dark fur, Green-hair refused to meet his eyes, to acknowledge his help. It worked for Sasuke; he did the same, turned his attention back outward, away from the exhausted wolf and its charge, away from the other two, the girl and the giant. He wasn't any happier about being here than the Grass team was.
Traveling face down on his mount wasn't very good for Green-hair, pressed along the wolf's spine, arms and legs dangling on each side with only their weight to keep him balanced up there. If he lost consciousness again the fur might smother him, and Sasuke didn't know what state his ribs were in -- he just knew the guy's shirt was one big red ruin in the front.
No one else could carry him. Only Sasuke was still unburdened, and Sasuke wouldn't hinder himself again.
Where the fuck were the jounin-sensei? There should have been some around, if only for security purposes if not for handing out those tokens. Were they all converging on Kyuubi's location? That had to be it... Because Sasuke hadn't seen or felt even a hint that one of them had been anywhere close since early this morning, and that was just wrong.
He circled the group again, went on point, fell back. Looked at them, just a glance, before going back on high alert.
The old fox sat crouched on the wolf's rump, his injured paw tucked in, and sometimes pushed his weight on one of his master's legs to keep him balanced. The girl Zenko trudged along, slender body bent almost double under the healer's weight. Her face looked chiseled in marble.
The wolf was close to just saying 'fuck it' and bolting, popping back into whatever other space or dimension it came from. Except that its summoner -- its pack leader -- still walked. So it stayed. For now.
Green-hair watched Zenko, too, the side of his face pressed on her wolf's flank. He wasn't saying anything. No one had said a thing since the ambush.
Sasuke rubbed his forearm. Flakes of crusting blood fell from razor-sharp, parallel slices that matched his shredded arm-warmer. He had tried to hold onto the cat. He shouldn't have...
... "This is Yume," Maneki said, crouched on the floor with his hand still on the summoning circle.
She was tiger-striped and sleek, with green eyes, and the tip of her lashing tail was just barely forked. She looked up at Sasuke with that indifference that was the mark of cats everywhere, goblin-cat or not.
"I can't teach the jutsu to you -- your control isn't fine enough. But Yume knows what your medic needs to know."
The nekomata leaped to Sasuke's chest, where he caught and held her only out of an old, forgotten habit. He hadn't handled a cat in so long. He felt vaguely annoyed -- reluctantly amused -- at the assumption that of course he would wrap an arm under her for her to sit on... or perhaps she didn't care whether he did or not, because she had her claws in his shirt to make sure gravity didn't pull her back down regardless.
"So? What are you waiting for?"
Sasuke snorted at the cat-summon's acidic tone, and turned around to leave without giving the Grass team a last look. He started jogging down the slope, the cat's upper body draped lazily on his shoulder.
Naruto. Sakura. He wasn't sure how he would immobilize Kyuubi long enough for Sakura to do her thing, but they'd figure something out.
Sasuke had just planned to get the Grass summoner team out of Kyuubi's immediate range, where the big healer and the girl with the katana could evacuate their own teammate. Now that it was done, the rest was their problem. He had teammates of his own to go back to.
He didn't have time to go far. Yume suddenly bristled herself to three times her size and clawed her way out of his hold, yowling. He fought to hold her back, but she was fast and too small and sleek to hold onto.
Fuck. Why the hell had he ever imagined Maneki had honor? The rest of his team didn't, and now here was his summon, escaping to get out of their deal. He gritted his teeth; he would bet they had enough time to hide again and thought Sasuke wouldn't find them, or maybe that he was in too much of a hurry to bother looking too hard.
They'd miscalculated. Sakura was safe enough for now -- anyone who got within a half-mile of her wouldn't survive Kyuubi long enough to cause her any trouble. And Sasuke hated being made a fool of.
He gave chase to the animal, keeping hot on her tail, refusing to let her lose him as she went through bushes he couldn't cross. He kept track of every movement, jumped over rocks and bounced up slopes after the madly racing cat. And then he was back where he'd left the Grass team.
He should have known the dust would attract other teams. It was like a signal flare. He should have known.
... "He's dead, Zen."
Sasuke stared ahead, like he hadn't heard Green-hair's scratchy voice. For a moment -- ten seconds, thirty -- Zenko did the same, her narrow face fixed into a surprisingly mild expression.
"I can tell," she said.
She kept going, bent almost double, Maneki's limp body draped over her back with his legs dragging in the dust.
It would have been easier to switch, his bulk on the wolf, Green-hair on her, but Sasuke had heard the crisp order she gave the beast, if they were ambushed once again -- to run away and get Kon -- Green-hair -- out of there.
And she would stay behind to fight. With the corpse.
Sasuke drifted away on the far side of the wolf's flank, put its body between him and the two teammates so he couldn't see their faces.
"He's dead weight."
Zenko kept staring right ahead, and taking one step and one step and another step. "He is."
Sasuke saw Green-hair's fingers clench in the wolf's fur until the knuckles paled.
"Hey, Leaf bastard," he called, voice almost like a growl. Sasuke had heard Kyuubi growl, of course, and it didn't compare, but it was a good attempt. A lot more raw, too. Pain and powerlessness, anger thrown at Sasuke's face like a shield. He was intimate with such methods.
"What is it?"
Sasuke went. He got there in time to catch him as the boy slipped off the wolf; he had to take most of his weight as Kon's legs wobbled. For a second the Grass ninja almost fainted.
The wolf stopped, whined quietly. Zenko took another ten step before she slowed and stopped in turn.
It should have looked kind of ridiculous, really; Zenko was only slightly bigger than Sakura, with narrow hips and long slender legs. Maneki had at least a foot and sixty pounds on her. It looked like any second she would fold under his bulk and be crushed.
Like their dragging escape from the pack of Rock-nins had proved, the body was slowing them down. Extremely so. Sasuke hadn't been about to say anything, not just yet. It wasn't his place.
"Get me there."
Sasuke pulled one of Green-hair's arms around his neck, wrapped one of his around the wounded ninja's waist, and half-carried him to her.
The two teammates stared at each other. Sasuke tried not to imagine being in their place and failed.
No, never again. Naruto dead, limp on the ground. Sakura. Kakashi. He refused. God, he wanted away from there already. He'd rather have to deal with Kyuubi.
He couldn't leave them yet.
"You shouldn't be standing." Zenko still looked studiously, determinedly blank.
The boy at his side snarled, golden eyes burning with sudden rage. "Fuck you. You shouldn't be hauling around a useless bag of meat."
Sasuke kept his face as expressionless as possible as Zenko stiffened all over, pretended he was deaf and not all that interested in lip-reading beside.
"I do not care what your kind does," she said after a few seconds, in a very quiet, very chilly voice. "I will not abandon a comrade."
Green-hair swayed a little against Sasuke's side; Sasuke got the feeling it wasn't entirely pretend. His stare stayed predatory, though a twist of his lips hinted at nausea, or dizziness, or both. "I'm your comrade too. You're abandoning me."
Kon shook his head, as if to get rid of cobwebs, let his eyes go unfocused and this time Sasuke was almost sure he had let his control go on purpose, so Zenko would feel guilty.
"I need you. He doesn't."
She shook her head, angry but silent.
"Want me dead too? Hell, maybe I'll be easier to carry when you can afford to drag me over the rocks."
The wolf flattened its ears back and crouched low on the ground, but its mistress didn't even look that way.
She was losing her grasp on her artificial cool, breath coming faster, made-up lips curling into a snarl. "Shut up, just shut up, how can you want me to leave him--"
"It's him or me!" Kon yelled. "His corpse or me, because that's not him, that's not Maneki, Maneki is dead, okay?"
He paused to regain his breath; she didn't interrupt him, though she looked furious enough to deck him if she hadn't had her arms full keeping the body from falling to the ground.
"And what do you want me to do? I can't do jack shit but depend on you."
Sasuke snorted quietly. Nice to know his attempts to mimic furniture were working. Zenko's eyes immediately zeroed in on him. It was acknowledgement enough for Sasuke to feel he could join in on the conversation. "I don't care what you two decide, but it better be sorted out soon. We can't stand in the open all evening."
Zenko's eyelids twitched at the reminder, like she wanted to scan their surroundings. Sasuke hadn't seen her do much of that since they'd left the ambush site; it was probably a good sign that she would start paying attention again.
She closed her eyes for a second, and then it was the marble face again, all smooth and empty. But her voice didn't match, trembling with something not quite like rage. "Very well. Let's find a place to bury him."
"That'll take a while," Sasuke said neutrally. She stared at him in disbelief that he'd dared remind them he was more than a ninja-shaped pack mule. "I suggest we find a hollow and block it with branches and rocks. It will be easier to recover him later."
The old fox shook himself and climbed up on his three paws. "This sounds like quite a good idea to me. We'll look. Goro-kun, come along, please."
He limped away, the wolf following hesitantly. Zenko still looked on the verge of exploding at him, for daring to suggest anything. He understood. Anything would look like an acceptable target at this point. He ignored her as he sat Kon on the ground, the boy's back to a little tree.
"I'll be right back."
He went to look, too, though he didn't drift very far, just in case. The animals had a better chance of finding something, but Zenko and Kon needed their privacy, and Sasuke needed to give them some. Get himself some.
What a fucking mess.
He couldn't leave just yet. Not without handing them over to someone else.
He didn't even like them. They'd been antagonistic from the start, and if he hadn't known the two of them had much more important shit to think about, Sasuke would have never let Kon put an arm around his neck, even injured as the guy was. Just wait a little bit for the fox summoner to pull himself together and Sasuke would have to watch his back once again.
He still couldn't bring himself to just walk away. It wasn't a sense of guilt, not really. If he had been there all along, if he hadn't left to go back to Sakura, Maneki would probably be alive -- so what? What next? Should he feel guilty every time some not-so-bad guy he'd never met got himself offed on some random mission he'd never heard of, that Sasuke might perhaps have stopped single-handedly? He'd done more than he had owed those three, had saved them from the one risk that was his to handle -- Kyuubi.
Death happened, especially to shinobi. It wasn't guilt. More like... responsibility.
A fox bark called him back. They'd found a crevasse close by, hidden by bushes, just about the right size.
Zenko closed her teammate's eyes. She didn't linger; just stared at his face for a second and then methodically went through his pockets and belt pouch. Soldier pills, explosive tags, a couple of pieces of candy -- his token, that silly little disk of copper he'd been killed for.
She stared at it, too, and then closed her fist around it and slanted Sasuke a hostile, teeth-gritted look.
"Leaf. Come here."
Sasuke's eyes narrowed a little. He went, slowly, to remind her he didn't have to.
Zenko pulled a scroll out of Maneki's pouch and shoved it in his hands, and then she stuffed the token in her own belt. Sasuke stared down at the scroll, an eyebrow arched.
"Your payment. For bodyguard duties."
When Sasuke unrolled the first inches of paper to have a look inside, he saw a paw print in black ink and a summoning seal. Farther down were a list of names. His breath caught for a second.
"Are you serious?"
Who the hell just handed off that kind of thing to an enemy, no matter the reason? She hated him on principle! For that matter, so did Kon. The only one who didn't want to eat his face was the old fox, and even then he would still dutifully go through with it if his summoner asked him to.
"What else do you want? A kunai? A roll of bandages?"
Sasuke slanted a meaningful look at her belt pouch. Zenko sneered.
"You didn't beat him. You don't get to have his token."
Sasuke shook his head, gave Kon a look, but the fox-summoner's face looked blank; he wasn't going to argue against the trade.
"...I don't want that cat scroll. I don't want anything. I didn't do it for you." He'd done it because he couldn't look Naruto in the eye anymore if he didn't. That was it. No other reason.
Zenko's hand fell to the hilt of her katana; behind her, the big wolf bared his fangs in threat. "Listen," she said quietly, with forced slowness. "It really hurts my pride when a goddamn Konoha bastard does me that kind of charity. So take the fucking scroll because I don't want to owe you a thing."
"So instead of a cheap token you'd rather give me an expensive scroll containing an important jutsu?" Sasuke snorted, a hand clenched on the half-unrolled scroll. He just didn't get the logic. Granted -- Maneki had been killed for the token. He could understand not wanting to let it go. But how was the scroll any less meaningful?
"I need the token now. I don't need the scroll."
She planned to stay in the tournament. Even now. Huh.
Zenko turned her back on him with pointed disdain. "With a little luck you'll get killed before you leave the island and I'll get it back from your corpse. Now get the hell out of here."
Sasuke let out a short sigh, rewrapped the scroll, stuffed it in his pocket, and went. Behind him he could see the girl rolling her teammate's huge body in the hole, and the old fox limping closer, dragging branches to pull over him; then he went over a ridge and lost sight of them.
The scratches Yume had left as she struggled out of his hold looked a little inflamed already. Sasuke pulled his arm-warmer around until the red lines were hidden and tried not to remember the cat's incredulous, wounded scream as she disappeared into smoke.
He'd figure out what to do with the scroll afterwards. He wasn't sure what use would a housecat be to him... Maybe one of Naruto or Sakura's friends would want it.
He remembered being on the edge of victory. Protecting those who were his, and winning, wild and free. And then a touch -- just one, fleeting -- and nothingness. Entombed in his own body.
He woke furious and it felt good. Made him feel strong, unstoppable. Ready to rewrite the world so it would never dismiss him again.
Never make him powerless him again, never get between him and those who belonged to him. And there was this enemy /prey/ just right there and getting in the middle and distracting him. It had no business being there. Trying to get in his way. Contesting his claim on his /bitch/ mate.
Not the same enemy who had dared to trap him, but in his way anyway, and that was enemy enough.
He grabbed the weapon that would have struck him, and struck back. It was so laughably easy, making him feel insulted -- had that attack been supposed to hurt him?
Never ignore me again. Never make me powerless again. Never get between me and mine again.
Blood and tears on his prey's face, realizing defeat. It just made him angrier. Should have noticed earlier.
He cocked back his claws.
-- Soft baby face. Round cheeks. Baby scent still.
Konohamaru was looking back at him, horror and betrayal already bleeding out of his face.
He was hurting one of his. Why was he hurting one of his?
/Betrayal/ he thought, almost like a question but no, that wasn't right, that wasn't why he'd been so angry. Not betrayal, it hadn't been, so why was he
not Konohamaru at all underneath him, sprawled on the ground, not Konohamaru but a child all the same, huge baby eyes and baby face and blind unconscious trust, because they'd had fun together and adversaries didn't mean enemies at all, and surely Naruto wouldn't -- Naruto wouldn't.
He was the one who'd betrayed first.
He threw himself off the child he'd been straddling, redhead little boy he'd impaled on his own spear a second ago. Gagged on the reek of blood and guts.
He wanted to kill things, he was so angry but Konohamaru was not a thing, Konohamaru was his little-buddy student almost-cub (and Naruto had betrayed him first.)
He crawled back on hands and heels. Sat. Breathed. Konohamaru wasn't here on the island. He was back home. He was safe.
Could have been Hanabi instead, though. Hey, Hinata-chan, I killed /ate/ your little sister. How much do you like me now?
God. They weren't here, either of them, but there was a child here right now and Naruto still remembered the way he'd torn that spear out of his hand and driven it right back through him, remembered the noise it made and the soft impact, almost like hitting a pillow.
"Naruto?" someone called. It took him a second to recognize the raw, wheezing voice.
He looked down the slope and it was almost worse than the child. There was blood all over his mate and she cradled her arm as she struggled to her knees. The blood he could have ignored, even a small drop spread a lot and wounds didn't have to be deep to paint someone all over, but he remembered the feel and taste of her flesh in his mouth and the sound of her bones cracking, like he might wake to remember someone's voice talking next to him as he slept.
He'd done that to her too.
He remembered her disrespecting him and for a second he was furious enough he started moving into a crouch, lifting his claws. She'd thought he was weak. Despite all his power she thought he was weak, inside, where it counted the most.
He had to prove her wrong. Being weak wasn't tolerable.
"...Are you alright?" she asked in a strangled voice.
He wasn't. God. He really wasn't. Naruto shook his head to clear it, rubbed the heels of his hands against his eyes. Everything looked too sharp, too bright. Someone was sobbing in pure terror and the first thought he had wasn't 'hurt? Help?' but /food/.
"I. Sakura. I..."
There was a pause, and he heard her start to walk up the slope, slowly, cautious. He could smell her acrid fear from there.
It made him sick with dark pleasure and interest, a misplaced sense of rightness.
"I've got to go," he decided. He pushed himself up, standing. It felt a little unnatural, exposing his stomach like this, making his stance less stable.
She was standing a dozen feet down and she froze when he moved, calculations running through her eyes, how far she should jump, where she should kick him to defend herself. "--wait. You can't. N-Naruto. You have to stay."
He laughed dryly. The way she said his name, it sounded like she wasn't even sure it was the right one. "What for?"
"You're my teammate! You've got to watch my back. That's why..."
He laughed again. Protect her? What a joke. He was the one who'd done that to them.
Sakura licked her lips nervously, took a hesitant step closer. "I'll worry if --"
He flinched. "If you can't see where I'm coming from?"
"That's not what I was going to say!"
Naruto turned away, rubbing his face again. He still had claws, they wouldn't leave. "... Sorry. I've got to. I'll stay close. Our camp, okay? Gotta... stuff. Get our stuff."
He kicked off the rock before Sakura could call him back.
He ran. There were thickets and boulders and things. No animals, not even mice, he'd scared them all away. He was frustrated and glad about that both. He overshot their camp, he was running so fast. Whatever. Landed in the river, didn't even bother gathering chakra to stay on the surface. Ran against the water.
It was cold. It dragged at him. Tripped him, rose up to his chest, sank him into deep holes with no warning, dragging him backward. Relentlessly flowed against him.
He found a rock emerging in the middle of the stream and draped his arms over it, letting his legs dangle in the current.
What the hell had happened. What the hell had he done.
What had Kyuubi done?
He felt so immensely stupid. Somehow, subconsciously, he'd trusted the fox wouldn't be that bad -- fierce and angry and hard to manage, but manageable in the end. Because they were learning to live together, weren't they? Naruto let him see through his eyes sometimes. Let him rise close when he was with his mates. Kyuubi was always sarcastic and disturbing, but possessive of them too and for that Naruto could accept a lot. He'd learned how to hunt, had embraced the pleasure that came from it -- it was a Kyuubi thing but Naruto could give some ground, couldn't he? Because he didn't really like being a jailer for someone's life sentence. And Kyuubi was someone, not just a mass of evil chakra that spoke; he had a past, and a personality, and tastes of his own.
Naruto felt so completely stupid for trusting him, even just a little. He felt dirty, too, for the rage he'd embraced so wholeheartedly. For the wariness and fear in his Sakura-chan's eyes.
For betraying first.
The sun had set at some point and he hadn't noticed. While he jogged back, Sasuke realized with surprise that the whole thing -- deciding to camp by the river, getting ambushed by the summoner team, the landslide, the escape, the second ambush that had killed Maneki, his return -- it hadn't taken more than three hours tops. Probably closer to two.
It wasn't really dark yet, though.
Sakura's tunic was spotted brown with half-dry blood. That was what Sasuke noticed first, before the small redheaded body that lay sprawled in the dust, a spear protruding from its guts.
He couldn't feel Kyuubi's chakra anywhere, but then again the fox-demon could have decided he was tired of terrifying prey into fleeing and figured out how to hide that surging flow so he could lay in wait instead.
If Kyuubi was still around, he'd deal with it. Because he could see two shell-shocked children clinging to each other as they crouched beside Sasuke's teammate, staring down at the small motionless form of their third.
Shit. Just -- shit. And after he had spent so much time and energy to get the summoner team out of harm's way. He had expected that other teams might move in to check on the cause of the dust cloud, but he hadn't envisioned that result. It was surprising the other two kids weren't in pieces as well.
He kicked loose pebbles as a warning, saw three bowed heads jerk up, Sakura's hand fly to her shuriken pouch.
Her other arm was tucked tight against her belly and he could see dried blood and a bruise that went from elbow to wrist. The wrist was a little swollen as well. Sasuke's eyes narrowed.
"Sasuke-kun," she said, and her voice sounded so strange he stopped in his tracks, still a dozen feet away from them. Exhausted was one word for it. Blank, only at the surface. Scratchy, the kind that comes from screaming.
The two genin looked completely shell-shocked, the white of their eyes showing too much, clinging to each other like children instead of like ninja. Too young for that mess, Sasuke thought, and ignored the fact that Team Seven had been just that age the first time around, when they ran into Orochimaru. He wasn't exactly a proper benchmark for trauma tolerance.
His first thought was to ask what had happened, but it was clear enough. There were more urgent things. "Where is he?" he asked, crouching on the other side of the body.
Sakura inhaled quickly and shook her head, as if to shake her brain awake. "He went to the campsite."
Sasuke blinked. "... Kyuubi went where?"
"No -- Naruto." Sakura blinked back, eyes widening in surprise and then narrowing. "He just -- woke up. I thought you'd convinced them to do something."
Sasuke broke eye contact, looked down at the small redhead pinned to the ground with its own weapon. Failure all around today. "No. We were attacked. The healer died." He raked a hand through his hair. At least Kyuubi wasn't a problem anymore. That explained why he couldn't feel him anywhere.
Shit. The kid looked even younger than Konohamaru. Naruto was going to take that so much worse than Maneki's death. Sasuke should have stayed, even if that would have meant getting beaten up --
The body was breathing.
"... Sakura?" He'd thought the ribbon tied to the spear shaft was catching some kind of faint breeze, but that wasn't it at all. "Why is he still...?"
She sneaked a quick look at the two trembling kids and replied quietly. "He's pinned. It goes all the way through into the bedrock. I can't pull hard enough to free him without putting dirt in the wound and tearing it open even wider, and I can't -- I can't heal fast enough to fix him before he hemorrhages. There's -- organs. Stuff. I never learned that." She scrubbed at her face with a dirty hand, exhausted. "Did you see any of the jounin? I can't fix this."
Sasuke didn't like this at all. They were supposed to be around, even more so than at their first chuunin exam. With all the problems regarding the integration of Mist into the alliance, how wary they'd all been that Mist's history of violence would make the test all too brutal, how the higher-ups insisted on jounin-held tokens as a way to avoid leaving no option but bloody battle -- there should have been so many jounin keeping watch over the genin they should have been unable to turn around without tripping on one.
But they couldn't afford to sit and wait to be rescued. Sasuke got up, frowned at the two other kids. He stepped over the redhead's spread legs and nudged the girl with his foot, not very gently.
"Alright," he ordered briskly. "That's enough. We need cover and warmth. Go look for wood, dry grass, anything that can burn without too much smoke."
They looked up at him in dazed confusion.
He remembered fighting the two of them, the boy with the glasses and the short-haired girl. She'd spat poison at his face even as her teammate fumbled through a textbook-correct, unoriginal kawarimi. He wasn't surprised when she climbed to her feet first.
He crouched on the other side of the boy, waited until his teammates had stepped away.
"Sakura, I'm going to cut him free. Hold the shaft."
Sakura's hands clenched tight on the bottom of the spear, just over the skin. Sasuke caught a good hold a little higher, sent a tendril of lightning-chakra down his kunai, and sliced through the wood in one clean stroke.
Getting to the part of the shaft that was underneath proved much harder. In the end Sakura moved the kid's upper body on her lap and shifted it up the shaft, gritting her teeth when that tore through the weak layer of scabbing and blood flowed again. The angle was awkward as well. Sasuke cut the shaft as short as he could, and then quickly pushed his balled-up shirt around it as a cushion, so the weight of the body wouldn't push the wood back through. For a minute, Sasuke and Sakura watched the kid's gray face, waiting, but after the first hitch he started taking shallow little breaths and didn't stop again.
"Stubborn," Sasuke whispered. Maybe he would even survive. Sasuke wiped his hands on his pants and got back up. "Let's move him against that rock to get him out of the open, and then I'll go find Naruto."
They worked in silence. It was quickly done, though, the boy moved as smoothly as possible and a quick Katon to light the fire. Sasuke finished setting up traps with his leftover wire and straightened up.
Sakura was rubbing her stomach discreetly, like she didn't want him to notice.
She caught the direction of his gaze and shrugged, looking back down at the redhead kid to avoid his eyes. "It's nothing, just reverse-backlash. I had so much chakra shoved at me for so long and then it just went poof. It feels a little weird."
Sasuke stared at her for a second, not sure he was convinced. "Huh."
She laughed suddenly, dry and humorless. "It's funny. I was so afraid Naruto would become too foxlike. I wasn't scared of Kyuubi at all -- I mean, he was even helpful with the seal, and he would never hurt the mother of his offspring, right? Heh. Heheh."
Sasuke's fingers curled into a fist. He stayed silent for a few seconds, no words coming to his mind -- none that would have been welcome right now. Sakura let out a long, shaky sigh, and watched the brunette girl come back with an armful of branches. Sasuke glanced at the younger kunoichi and then back at his teammate.
"You gonna be okay?" he asked quietly, before the girl came in range.
"...Yeah. Just -- Naruto left before I could talk to him and --"
"I'll talk to him," he assured her.
He wanted to assure her of other things. That it was over now. That things would be okay, they'd just forget and go on. He'd never been an optimist, and he wasn't a hypocrite either, so he didn't.
"We'll be back soon," he added, because that he could promise, even if he had to propel Naruto along via a kick combo to his ass.
The kid's teammates were around, but busy with other things, not looking at either of them. Sasuke wasn't sure he wanted to touch anyone after this clusterfuck of failures and dead people, but he hated to see her like that. Running on automatic, unable to break down and release her emotions. Subdued. He did it all the time but it looked wrong on Sakura.
He brushed his hand against her shoulder, standing at her side. She twitched under his hand, looked up, gave him an unconvincing little smile. It didn't even feel like she was really seeing him.
It twanged in his chest when he realized this time around his mere presence wouldn't be enough to make Sakura's world right again.
The root of this was Naruto.
He let his hand fall. The sooner he brought back that idiot, the sooner his teammates could fix each other. "Alright. I'm going."
Sakura nodded absently. "Take care." Her eyes slid back to the unconscious kid.
Sasuke turned away, went back to the river, found their camp again.
Naruto wasn't there. Sasuke felt a spike of -- some feeling he didn't want to think about. He snatched up his pack, Naruto's jacket, abandoned on the bank, and kept moving. He'd come back for the rest afterward. If some other team was lying in wait -- if they'd caught Naruto by surprise... Unlikely, but he didn't have a clue what state Naruto was in.
He went up the river, because the trees and lush grass quickly disappeared once out of the canyon and Naruto would probably want to keep to familiar surroundings.
For a second as he saw the body draped limply over that rock he thought Naruto might be dead too, ambushed and left where he'd fallen. But no, that couldn't happen. Just couldn't. To prove it, he picked up a rock and threw it; it hit Naruto's perch with a loud crack.
Naruto startled. Good. Something in Sasuke's stomach unclenched. Even though Naruto should have been aware of his presence sooner.
Naruto didn't turn around to check who was there. Not good.
"Naruto." Sasuke's voice came out curt, more than weary. He didn't know whether Naruto could tell who was behind him, but that was no reason to keep his back on him that way. It was either as if Naruto wanted to ignore him or wanted to be captured, and both were unacceptable.
He hadn't felt anything much for a while, but now he was starting to feel angry.
"Get up," he ordered, voice harsh.
Naruto's shoulders stiffened.
"You left Sakura alone, exhausted, saddled with a bunch of kids. And you're not even getting supplies?"
"... Sasuke, leave off."
"Let me think -- no." Sasuke dropped his things on the bank, walked up the river's surface, and kicked water at Naruto's bare back. It didn't make a big difference to how wet Naruto was; his hair wasn't even half dry and his pants soaked through.
Naruto whirled around so fast Sasuke jumped back into a fighting crouch without thought. His teammate's eyes were Kyuubi-red still, thick fangs in his mouth, cheeks barred with spreading whisker marks.
There was rage in his eyes. Fear, too.
A challenge, in the tilt of his chin.
Sasuke gave an unimpressed snort as he forced his burst of temper down. "Get a hold of yourself, alright."
Naruto stared at him for a few seconds, balanced on the balls of his feet like he was thinking of pouncing anyway, but the dryness and lack of fear in Sasuke's voice tipped the balance. He relaxed slowly -- very slowly, still on edge.
Still... not normal. Not right.
Which meant Sasuke couldn't get angry at him either. He'd been calm and steady for Sakura; it came easy, when he was cradled in the functioning numbness that came from seeing death, from having to keep moving anyway, to salvage things. He wouldn't have minded blowing off steam on Naruto. But Naruto needed him steady as well, and that was... unsettling, unexpected, but something he couldn't mess up even so.
"Better?" he asked.
Naruto let out a long, shuddering breath and made a conscious effort to unclench his white-knuckled hands. "...Mrgh."
"Naruto." Sasuke paused, weighing his words. They didn't have time for Naruto to have a little breakdown in private. They didn't have time for comfort. Sasuke sucked at it anyway. But being too harsh would have the opposite effect. "... Tell me what's going on."
Naruto's shoulder and arm twitched and his upper lip curled briefly in disdainful irritation. He closed his eyes, still red.
"Status, shinobi," Sasuke demanded, quiet but unrelenting.
"Fuck you, leave me alone," Naruto said, but it came with a groan, more of a plea than a real insult.
Sasuke swallowed another flicker of unease. Wrong, wrong. "You know I can't do that."
Naruto slumped on the spot, sat on the rock with a bone-jarring thump, head and shoulders bowed in what looked like defeat. "Sasuke, just--"
"I'm not leaving," he countered preemptively.
Naruto sighed and started massaging his temples.
"My head hurts," he admitted quietly. "And I'm not. I don't. I..." A deep, bracing breath. "I'm not thinking right."
Sasuke bit his tongue on a 'As if you ever do.' He couldn't have faked the right level of teasing dryness right now.
"I'm so angry," Naruto whispered. "I'm so angry."
He didn't look angry right now. Closer to terrified. Sasuke told himself to relax his jaw before he broke a tooth.
"Alright," he said; it was inane but he didn't have a clue what else to say to that. He told himself to just accept it and move on. "What do you need to keep it under control?"
Naruto flicked a startled look at him through his bangs. "What?"
"The anger. If you could get rid of it, you would. So it's not possible. Alright. But obviously you can control it." He spread his arms a little in demonstration; Naruto hadn't attacked him after all.
"I don't -- " Bewildered, Naruto shook his head. Shuddered, fists clenching and releasing.
"What do you need?"
There was a long moment of silence.
"...No challenges. None at all."
Sasuke gave a cautious nod. "That's... going to be interesting, but alright."
Naruto let out a short burst of laughter and tilted up his head. His eyes were a muddy, intermediate color -- an ugly bruise-purple, still more red than blue. The pupils were thin cat-slices.
Naruto looked away. "... I don't think I can... stay close. So I'll just... I'll take perimeter watch. Okay?"
Sasuke considered it. Someone had to do it, and he didn't think Naruto would want to be too close to the kids and Sakura yet. Anyway, night was falling fast -- he checked the sky. No, evening was pretty much there, the sun had come down almost a hour ago. He hadn't noticed he was losing colors because even when his sharingan wasn't activated his pupils still adapted well, giving him details and movements in stark clarity. But they needed to bunk down for the night. Might as well allow Naruto to calm down by doing something useful that wouldn't let him feel crowded.
"That works. Let's go pick up our things and move the camp."
He caught a scowl on Naruto's face at his words, but the blond inhaled slowly and forced himself to relax. Too much like an order, then? Damn but this was going to get frustrating. He erased a frown from his face and waited for Naruto to move first, to give a signal. He watched the blond unfold, climb to his feet.
They stared at each other for a second, before Sasuke made himself break eye contact and look over Naruto's shoulder. He should have looked down at his feet to seem properly submissive but his every instinct rebelled against that.
"This is just wrong," he commented dryly.
"Heh. Yeah." A pause; Naruto tilted his head, faintly disconcerted. "I don't think I'm gonna like it much in the long run. I want... I want to fight you. It's not -- it's too easy if I don't have to fight you."
"But it wouldn't help if we fought now," Sasuke observed. Naruto let out a strange laugh.
"No. It really wouldn't. I'd eat your face, and then I'd probably rape you. I wish to god I was joking."
"Missing a face might get problematic," Sasuke replied blandly, refusing to be impressed. It was obvious Naruto was hoping he'd be scared off and give him space. As if. "On the other hand, girls would stop sighing after me in the street."
Naruto muttered under his breath, more normal-grumpy than half out of his skin with nerves for a short moment. "Ass."
"Yeah, I guess I'd still have that going for me."
He startled Naruto into laughing, a real laugh this time around.
"Yeah... I guess it is pretty nice," he agreed, almost normal. But he kept chuckling longer than he should have, breathless and slightly tinged with hysteria. "I guess it is. ... But if you try to use it on other people I'll -- I... I'd be pissed."
Kyuubi was still too close to Naruto's mind, Sasuke noted. He'd planned to say something else. More graphic. With more threats. Sasuke nodded soberly. "I wasn't planning on it," he promised, voice quiet. "I've got a boyfriend already."
He smirked a little bit when Naruto's head jerked around at the epithet.
"He's the possessive type, apparently," he said dryly.
They stared at each other for a few seconds. Sasuke only broke eye contact when Naruto's slightly too wide, slightly too wet eyes started to narrow into a bothered stare. There, no more challenge.
"... Damn straight he is." Naruto stepped up to him slowly and bumped his fist against his shoulder in a pretend-punch that wouldn't have moved a civilian in high heels. Sasuke was neither. At this point it was almost closer to a caress.
This was getting embarrassingly sappy. But playing on Naruto's gentler side was the only way Sasuke really saw to counter the way his wilder feelings echoed off Kyuubi's.
This was probably as good as Naruto's mindset was going to get for a good long while, with his chakra still out of whack.
"We should go back to the camp," he said, sticking his hands in his pockets and gazing at the scenery around them so he wouldn't have to really acknowledge Naruto's expression again. It was too embarrassing to see him with no mask on.
They started walking down the river, Sasuke scanning the surroundings for threats, though he kept his body language relaxed and his hands tucked away. Naruto slunk along like a predator vaguely thinking about maybe going for dinner. That was much better than him actively looking around for prey; Sasuke still made a note to look for snacks to shove at him.
He tried to think of an innocuous topic of conversation to keep Naruto distracted, but could find nothing. The only things he was wondering about were Sakura and the half-dead kid and he wasn't going to bring them up.
"Man, I'm so ready to get the fuck off this island," Naruto grumbled, kicking at the surface of the water. "I hate this place."
Sasuke grunted his agreement. "Still need more tokens though. I'm not coming back in six months."
Naruto flinched and looked away. Sasuke berated himself. Yeah, bring up tokens and more teams to kill for them while you're at it. Stupid.
"... Weren't the jounin-sensei supposed to carry some around?" Naruto said after a slightly too long pause.
Sasuke was willing to ignore that in the name of keeping the conversation looking casual. He stepped on the bank. Their camp wasn't too far from there, just after this bend in the river.
"Yeah, but I haven't seen one of them for hours." He couldn't keep his irritation out of his voice. "What the hell is up with that anyway? They should have come running."
"Oh, they'll be around soon enough," said an amused voice, "but we do have a few minutes."
Sasuke froze in his tracks. At his side Naruto had gone stiff with shock. He could feel demon chakra spike against his skin.
A tall, broad-shouldered man stood in the middle of their abandoned camp.
He had a huge sword effortlessly propped up on one shoulder. On the other shoulder was slung a limp body.
That wasn't what Sasuke zeroed in on first, though. It was dark and colors were hard to see, but he knew his skin was slate blue and the clouds on his cloak arterial red.
They came as a pair. It was all Sasuke could think of. They came as a pair.
"Gaara," Naruto choked out.
"It's shameful how little security the hidden villages keep around their demon bearers nowadays, wouldn't you say?"
Kisame took a step forward, distracting Sasuke from the suddenly suspiciously empty space all around them.
"I don't suppose you'll come quietly," he said, and smiled, all teeth
[Chapter 6] [Chapter 8]