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[Naruto: the listening sky -- part 1]

Title: The Listening Sky
Fandom: Naruto
Rating: PG-13
Wordcount: 16,149 *weeps*
Notes: Finally, a Naruto fic written in full knowledge of the manga, even though this particular story should be considered AU after chapter 345. Ish. NO HEBI. ALAS. The first draft of this was part of ryokophoenix's 21st birthday present, so it's Sasuke/Naruto, and I actually found myself warming more and more to the pairing as I wrote this and explored different aspects of their personalities and motivations. It took me a while and got a hell of a lot longer than I expected -- ain't that always the way? -- but its intended recipient has now read it and blessed it for public consumption.

I'm splitting it across two posts because of a) length, and b) the fact that it's neatly divisible into two sections anyway. The first half is written from Naruto's POV; the second from Sasuke's. Epigraph from this poem by Stephen Spender.

Warning: contains extended metaphors, possible overuse of the verb 'to punch', and the author messing around gleefully with chakra theory.



The Listening Sky


Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields
See how these names are feted by the waving grass
And by the streamers of white cloud
And whispers of wind in the listening sky.
The names of those who in their lives fought for life
Who wore at their hearts the fire's center.
Born of the sun they traveled a short while towards the sun,
And left the vivid air signed with their honor.






Part I -- Cirrus


When Naruto closes his eyes he can just about imagine two moves into any hypothetical situation -- perhaps this and then perhaps that and then his attention unravels like a loose thread, because in a fight he thinks with his muscles and with the hot bright rush of chakra but never with anything so difficult as words.

"And then?" Kakashi says, testing him.

"And then I'd think of something else."

Kakashi sighs; Naruto grins, unconcerned, because perhaps he doesn't treat his battles as though he's playing a game of shogi, but it's very seldom that he meets a present moment he can't fight his way out of.

~

"Excuse me, can you -- down here? Thank you!"

It takes him longer than expected to find the house, largely because Sakura's hand-drawn map is terrible and he didn't dare point this out to her face when she gave it to him. And even when he knocks on what he thinks is the right door, it's answered by an eight-year-old in pyjamas.

"Name?" Her voice is raspy and high-pitched, yet surprisingly professional.

"Naruto." He grins at her. "What's yours?"

"Yumi! Back to bed, young lady!" The woman who appears from a nearby room, wiping her hands on a cloth, looks to be in her mid-thirties. She has the girl's brown eyes and her hair is almost as long as Neji's. "You're going to infect my clients, or make yourself sicker, or both."

Yumi's eyes swivel appealingly towards Naruto, but she heaves a sigh that degenerates into a coughing fit and then disappears through another door.

"Hyaolan Miori." The woman beckons him in with a smile and a tilt of her head. "You'll be Uzumaki Naruto, then?"

"That's me!"

"You're late."

"Ah, yeah." He chuckles. "I got a bit lost. Sorry, Dr Hyaolan --"

"Miori." She pulls a band from her wrist and uses it to tie her hair into a low ponytail. "I'm not a doctor. And I don't need to feel any older, thank you."

"Not a doctor? But Sakura said you would help heal my hand."

"I'm a physical therapist. Of a rather specialised kind."

"Okay." Naruto has no idea of the distinction, but he tries to look contrite, because the woman reminds him alarmingly of Tsunade in her snappy professional moods.

"Sit." Miori directs him into a soft, comfortable armchair and pulls a table up in front of him. "The note I got about your injury said something about overuse of a technique that requires vast amounts of chakra. It also said something about you being a stubborn idiot who doesn't know when to stop, but I assume that was Sakura venting." She gives a small smile that takes the edge off her words.

"Er." He puts his hand on the table and starts to unwrap the bandages. "Yes. I mean, I can move it all right by now, but it's still difficult to control chakra."

"First of all." Miori hands him a small familiar card. "I need you to --"

"Oh." Naruto grins and hands it back to her intact. "Wind. I'm wind."

She raises her eyebrows, looking surprised but gratified. "You wouldn't believe how many ninjas don't know their own chakra type."

As she's putting the card away in a drawer, Naruto catches sight of a picture nearby: Miori, quite a few years younger, with her head on the shoulder of a smiling man wearing the Konoha hitai-ate and a jounin vest. "Is this your husband? I can't remember seeing him around."

"Yes. Put your other hand on the table, too, please. Both palms upwards, and don't move them." She pulls another chair up opposite him and puts a few more things on the table: two mirrors hanging on small stands, and a cup full of water. For a moment she fiddles with Naruto's hands, pulling them into symmetry, her eyes fixed on the table. Then she says, "He died five years ago on a mission."

"Oh. I'm very sorry." Naruto feels a rush of sympathy for her.

Miori gives an awkward shrug. "I married a ninja. It was only to be expected." She keeps her eyes averted, carefully moving the mirrors into place over Naruto's hands, and then sneaks a quick glance at the picture. "Suyama wasn’t the best shinobi in Konoha or even one of the best, but...he worked hard. He was so proud when he finally made jounin."

"He sounds like a great guy."

"Mmm." Miori adjusts the angle of the mirrors one more time and then settles in her own seat. "He was the first ninja I'd met who didn't treat me like a civilian."

"Huh? But...you are a civilian."

"But that's not all I am." Naruto is used to people warming to him and then warming even more, but there's something disapproving in her voice now, as though she has taken a mental step backwards.

"I know!" he puts in quickly. "I...ah." He feels the urge to scratch the back of his head and look sheepish, but doesn't want to move his hands, so he settles for ducking his chin. "I certainly wasn't trying to imply that that was all you were! Or are!"

"All right, kiddo." She taps the back of his hand with her fingertips. "As well as the physical damage done to your hand, you've probably managed to scramble some of the chakra channels. This should help clear out that tangled chakra so that you can manipulate it as usual. I want you to direct chakra from your left hand at the mirror above it. Concentrate, and don’t use too much -- force isn't important here."

"Right." Naruto had been expecting some kind of massage or boring instructions about exercises; this is something entirely new. He does as she told him, and --

"I can actually see it!"

"Yes." Finally, she smiles again. A thin flow of visible, mint-green chakra seems to be coming out of the left mirror, which is angled so that the flow hits his right hand and disappears. "You'll start to feel a buildup of chakra in your right hand, and eventually you'll be able to do the same thing -- direct it upwards -- with barely more than a nudge, even though it's wounded."

Naruto bites at the inside of his cheek and concentrates. Sure enough, a familiar pressure starts to develop in his right hand, something he hasn't been able to manage since the fight. When he nudges the chakra upwards, the right-hand mirror develops its own stream of green; this one is thinner and more twisted than the one on the left, and the mirror is angled so that it flows into the cup of water. Naruto has no idea what's going on, but it's really cool.

"How does this work?"

"Do you know what this is?"

He's about to say no, but then he recognises the surface on the back of the mirror that she's indicating. "That's...that's the metal that absorbs chakra, isn't it?"

"Yes. Polish it for long enough with the right materials, and you can change its properties from absorption to reflection: the chakra hits it and becomes visible, and can be directed anywhere you like. It allows for greater directional control than if I'd simply asked you to touch your hands together, and this --" she indicates the cup "-- is a way of disposing of the tangled chakra from your wounded hand. Water has a great capacity to absorb chakra and render it inert."

"So...you're replacing the tangled chakra from my wounded hand with normal chakra from the other one?"

"Pretty much."

"That's amazing!" Naruto grins. "I've never heard of this kind of thing before."

"Well, it's not really a very useful technique for anything but therapy. A ninja can't control their chakra once it's hit the mirror, so it's no use as a weapon."

"But it looks awesome." Certainly it's different to the sharp blue of battle chakra; it's closer to the soft green of healing jutsu, and watching it ripple gently as sunlight and shadows move across it is almost relaxing.

"I'm glad you think so." She leans back in her chair, looking more at ease now. "I trained somewhere else, actually; most therapists, the ones who don't live in the Hidden Villages, use acupuncture and massage. But I see a lot of unique kinds of injury in Konoha because of the effects of particular jutsus, so I've started to develop my own techniques."

After the first few punches and scoldings from Sakura, Naruto learned to affect interest during theoretical discussions of medical techniques no matter how dull he found them, but right now he's genuinely curious. "Why did you need to know my chakra type?"

"Ah." She gives a small, rueful quirk of lips. "This took me a long time to realise, but the surface of the mirror needs to be defined for a particular chakra type, or it’ll only reflect to a very weak extent."

In most jutsu, defining something involves a concrete naming. Naruto leans closer and peers at the edges of the mirrors, and eventually he sees the miniscule symbol for ‘wind’ engraved in each corner. "What about bloodline limits?"

"They’re annoying to work with. If someone just has the ability to use more than one type of chakra, then a mirror defined for any of those types is fine. But if they can use both at once, then their chakra signature is unique. You have to define a whole new set of mirrors especially to suit them, which means a higher materials cost, which means I get accused of discrimination against the old clans..." She makes an unimpressed face. "But that’s ninjas for you."

Naruto’s about to argue against this generalisation when he remembers something. "I'm sorry if I offended you earlier. With the comment about you being a civilian."

Miori sighs. "You’ve got your prejudices, I’ve got mine."

"I’m not prejudiced!" he protests.

"What you forget, kiddo, is that you live in a village where being a ninja is the norm. It’s what the society is built on. And I’m not denying that you serve a vital function. But it can be hard to be a civilian in a Hidden Village, especially when you know what life is like in the rest of the country where ninjas are the odd ones out."

"I guess...I never thought of it like that." Wow, now he feels like a total ass.

"Look, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to attack you about this. It’s hardly professional of me."

"No! It’s fine!" He makes a decent stab at a reassuring grin. "I’m glad you’re talking to me, about the chakra therapy and the civilian thing and everything. It’s more fun that way."

"All right." She nods and the distance is gone from her voice, which is a relief. "Just keep in mind that it sometimes seems like civilians are nothing to you people until you need us to sell you a bowl of ramen or make you a new set of kunai. And that you don’t have to be a trained fighter to have strength."

"I know. There are lots of kinds of strength." He’s on familiar ground here. He looks her in the face and sits up a little straighter. "Anything else?"

"Any more bitching I want to get out of my system? Well, I never expected to find such a receptive audience in a shinobi," she teases, and Naruto feels the warm satisfaction of having won over a new friend. "To be honest, I don’t like that you’re here in the first place. You’re what, sixteen? Around there?" At his nod, she continues, gesturing towards his wounded hand. "That’s the other thing about the Hidden Village society. All of the normal childhood parameters are completely warped, so at the age when you’re supposed to just be kids, you’re being trained to expect and to accept death and danger. All Yumi’s ever wanted is to be like her father, so I couldn’t exactly keep her out of the Academy, but...it doesn’t mean I’m completely happy with her choice. "

The idea that someone might not want to be a ninja, or might not want that for their children, is so strange that Naruto can’t think of anything to say. He frowns at his hands, trying to fit Miori and her opinions into the way he thinks about the world, and in doing so he notices something alarming.

"I can't move my fingers!"

She nods. "Don’t worry, that’s normal. Have you noticed that you don’t have to consciously direct the chakra at the mirrors any more, too?"

Now that she mentions it... "Yeah. Huh."

"It acts as a chakra drain," she explains. "Once it's detected your chakra, the metal keeps sucking it away, leaving just enough for basic tissue functions. Not enough for muscle contraction, and definitely not enough that you could gather it to perform any jutsus." When she smiles this time, it’s widely enough that a pair of very faint dimples appear. They make her look younger. "If I had a big enough mirror, I could get you to sit still for as long as I wanted."

Something about that collides in Naruto’s head with what she said about unique chakra signatures and together they create...sparks. He wonders if this is how Shikamaru feels all the time, because it’s like the idea is looping itself together out of random words and potential events and dancing for his attention, and if he’s got this right -- and he thinks he does -- then all they need is a way to produce something out of thin air.

And they're ninjas, so they've already got that.

Naruto's blood is roaring in his ears and he can feel a huge grin twitching its way onto his face.

"What's gotten into you, kiddo?" Miori asks. "You look like you're about to burst into song."

"Nothing." Naruto's the worst singer in the universe but yes, he feels like singing. Like screaming. Like throwing things into the air and not caring if they ever come down.

He thinks: just you wait, Sasuke. Just you wait.

"It's nothing. I just thought of something interesting."

~

Naruto knows that half a page of one of Sai's sketchbooks contains neat jottings and more than a few sentences with lines through them, remnants of a conversation they once had about the nature of bonds.

So you'd do anything for Sakura? Sai asked.

Yes.

And what about Sasuke?

Naruto smiled. Anything.

Sai stared at the page for almost a full minute before saying, That seems incompatible.

And then he said, What if you had to make a choice?

Naruto considers himself to be not entirely unaware of his shortcomings -- he knows he can lack perception, and it was only in this moment that he realised that Sakura had carefully rearranged her priorities around his, so he never once had to make a difficult choice. Ever since his return to Konoha she had been adjusting their orbits, little by little, to ensure that Sasuke could remain at the centre of their universe.

The point...the point is that Sakura, too, was left behind by Sasuke, and Naruto doesn't think he can remember anything greater than the way it feels to be able to give her hope.

"I think this could actually work, Naruto." She's chewing on her lower lip, the wind tossing her hair across her face and the sun finding sparks in her eyes, and she looks jubilant. "What did Tenten say when you asked her about object summoning?"

Naruto stretches out on his back, wriggling a little to get comfortable in the grass. The sky has clouds scattered across it, patches of pearly grey set against a high thin blue. "She said that yeah, it’s the naming that’s important. The weapons she summons have to actually exist somewhere, they can’t just be created out of nothing, and if she carves a unique symbol on each one then she can incorporate the symbols into the summoning seals."

"I think I remember Iruka teaching us about that." Sakura looks down at him with a half-teasing, half-preaching expression on her face. "If I recall correctly, you spent the entire lesson trying to sabotage Sasuke’s notes by drawing stupid pictures on them."

"He hated that." Naruto laughs, remembering.

"He’ll really hate not being able to move." Sakura’s voice is soft; it has a question and a warning layered through it. "And I don’t like the idea of doing that to anyone, let alone Sasuke."

"This is the only way," Naruto says, just as softly. He doesn’t much like the idea of it either, but for the first time in months he is starting to feel like they could have a real chance. "I can't beat him, Sakura. I can't even find him, and even if I could, he'd just run away again. I can't make him listen to me when he's trying so hard to have nothing to do with Konoha."

Sakura winces and looks to the side, but only for a moment. "All right." Her voice gets stronger. "All right. Let's do it."

"He doesn't have to like it." Naruto finds within himself the remnants of an anger that he discovered a long time ago above a thundering waterfall; the capacity to fight, and yes, to inflict suffering on someone he loves, if it's the only way to get through to them. "He just has to listen."

~

At the next mirror-therapy session he tells Miori about Sasuke, because she told him about Suyama and it seems like a fair exchange, especially if they're going to ask her to help them bring him back. The telling takes a while -- okay, so maybe Naruto gets a little vehement in some sections -- and at the end of it Miori frowns.

"No offense meant to you, kiddo, but he doesn't sound like a great guy."

"Well…" Naruto frowns. He's never expected to have to sell Sasuke as a concept; he wouldn't even know where to begin.

Miori chuckles while he's still struggling with the idea that maybe Sasuke isn't all that great a person, because...well, he's never thought about it that way before. Sasuke is Sasuke.

"Life's really done a number on you, Naruto."

"Huh?"

"You were thirteen," she points out, and while she still looks amused it's now tempered with sympathy. "Thirteen is the age when you're just starting to redefine your social relationships to take things like puberty and hormones into account, and your most important one was left completely unresolved. You were angry at him for leaving, you were attached to him in the consuming way that adolescents get attached to things, and nothing's been allowed to change or develop since that day. No wonder you're so driven."

"I don't --" How to say this? Ugh. Naruto is starting to warm to Sasuke's method of just not talking about emotions ever. "You're making it sound unhealthy. He's my best friend. It'd be weird if I didn't want him back."

"It is a bit unhealthy." She reaches around the mirror apparatus and the streams of chakra and pats his arm. "But it's clearly what works for you. I'm not trying to tell you that you shouldn't love the guy, I'm just pointing out that you've been kind of screwed over when it comes to ever moving on and loving anyone else."

Bizarrely, that makes Naruto feel quite a bit better.

"Good morning!"

"Sakura." Miori turns her smile towards the door. "What are you doing here?"

"Naruto and I have a proposal for you."

Miori listens through to the end, tolerating their frequent repetitions and interruptions and the stilted way they toss the thread of the idea back and forth between them. Naruto explains some parts better than others; Sakura fills in pieces of the theory.

"Every person does have a unique chakra signature." Her voice goes high and breathy when she’s excited. Naruto smiles. "Some people are able to sense and identify others by it. But it’s very complex, and most aspects of it are not able to be formally defined in the same way that the elemental type is."

"And summoning only works if the object defined is unique, so for most people, trying to define their chakra signature by element type wouldn’t work: the seal would apply to everyone who is wind-type or water-type or whatever, and nothing would happen. And even for bloodline limits, the summons would apply to the entire clan. But there are only two Uchihas...so all we need to do is narrow it down from two to one." Naruto opens his hands in a triumphant gesture. "It wouldn’t work on anyone else in the world. But it might work on Sasuke."

"Fire and lightning." Sakura sounds almost awed. "I guess it’s not really surprising; the Uchihas have always been incredibly powerful."

"What type are you, Sakura?" he asks, suddenly curious.

"Water. Tsunade told me that a lot of people with the talent for medical ninjutsu are water type. It's just a slightly different manifestation of the chakra type than the water-based battle jutsus."

"I'd have pegged you as earth." Naruto grins. "What with your ability to smash cliffs."

She laughs. "No. The strength is non-specific -- it's got more to do with personal chakra control than any one element. I could smash ice just as easily. I think Sai's an earth type, though. His art techniques are about the manipulation of very small molecules."

"Wow." Naruto blinks. How neat. "Does that mean Team Kakashi has one person of each type in it?"

"Nicely balanced." Miori looks approving. "I don't know a lot about ninjutsu tactics, but I'd imagine that creates a strong fighting unit. And a strong relationship."

"It will, when we have our fire ninja back." Sakura looks at Naruto and they share something quiet, something to do with the fact that they're the only two people for whom it has always been when and never if. "But we still need something extra so that it’s a unique summons. Using his name might be enough considering that we’re only trying to eliminate one of two options, but I was thinking..." She flickers her fingers uncomfortably near her neck. "The curse seal. It’s an easy symbol to include."

"What about a personal possession?" Miori frowns. "Something that might have a residual chakra signature. Some of the people with tracking jutsus can work from a piece of clothing."

Naruto’s breath catches. "Yes -- yes," he says. "I think I have something that could work."

"I’m impressed. I never thought that you’d get so much out of my therapy research," Miori says. "I mean, I was considering trying to extend it to improving the effect of chakra transfusion by using element type -- like blood transfusions, you know -- but it could be dangerous to test and I don’t even know if it would work properly."

"But could you find out? If you had enough people, and you were testing it in a controlled environment? I could ask Tsunade about funding." Sakura's vigorous nod sends strands of pink hair flying across her face. "I think she'd be very interested, it's certainly got potential for field use --"

"I suppose so." And now they've both got that expression on their faces that Naruto recognises from Sakura's conversations with Tsunade, the ones where they start off using normal words and then degenerate into indecipherable medical terms and enthusiastic hand-waving. "If I wrote up a proposal --"

"Hey!" Naruto grabs Sakura’s shoulder and gives it a brief shake, just about fed up with the both of them: why they’re happy to keep chattering away about nothing in particular when they're about to bring Sasuke back is entirely beyond him. "Sasuke first, crazy chakra research later."

"Researching clinical applications is not crazy, Naruto! How do you think medi-nins develop all of their --" She takes a deep breath and the homicidal glint vanishes from her eyes. "Okay. Sasuke first."

"I can get the materials, though it'll take time to acquire a chakra mirror that's big enough. I'll contact you through the hospital, Sakura. And you!" Miori turns to Naruto. "Don't try anything fancy with that hand of yours. Let it heal."

"Sure, sure." Naruto will promise anything, do anything; his heart is so loud and so full that he thinks it might explode at any moment. But for now it just beats out Sasuke’s name, over and over, pulsing it through his veins.

~

The right words that he could have used to describe his feelings for Sasuke only occur to Naruto later; that’s always the way. He’s used to it. There are little things, like the fact that he knows what kind of ramen Sasuke orders and the fact that the Uchiha likes ramen a lot more than he ever admitted, because ramen was Naruto’s thing and in many ways they divided their world so that they could fight over it and share it at the same time.

And then bigger things, like the moment he realised that his own reasons for wanting Sasuke to come back were far greater than the simple need to keep his word to Sakura, even if he had no idea what those reasons were at the time.

Like knowing that everyone expected him to succeed not just because of who he was, or because of who Sasuke was, but because of what each of them became in the presence of the other.

Perhaps it would be easier to tell these things to other people, and perhaps it wouldn’t. But everyone knows that Uzumaki Naruto lives for Uchiha Sasuke; the whys and the hows and the exact emotions are incidental.

~

"So my job would be...to keep this a secret, correct?"

The truth is that for all his shortcomings Sai is one of them now, and even though a small juvenile part of Naruto wants this excitement and this project to stay between him and Sakura, they're teammates and Sai deserves their trust.

"Yes." He nods. "We want to tell Tsunade and Kakashi, of course, but...not until we can let him go. Not until we're sure he's going to stay." He doesn't say: Sasuke won't respond to orders.

He very especially doesn't say: this job is mine. Because almost three years ago, everyone he cared about expected him to be able to do a task, and he failed. And this time he's going to get it right.

Sai looks as though he's considering it, though it's always difficult to tell, with Sai. "What about this civilian woman? You trust her to keep the secret as well?"

"Yes." Naruto nods emphatically. "I like Miori, she's nice. She's good at advice. We should introduce her to Iruka!"

"Really? Because they are a similar sort of person?" Sai tilts his head. "I wasn't aware of this basis for romatic relationships."

Sakura shrugs. "It makes sense, doesn't it? Though really, Naruto, Iruka's a decade too young for Miori."

"Are you and Sasuke alike?" Sai asks him then.

"No." Naruto's face is hot; sometimes he suspects that his teammate is not quite as socially inept as he seems. "Not really."

"Oh," Sai says. "No, he didn't seem much like you. Does he ever smile?"

Naruto opens his mouth and then closes it, confused, and looks at Sakura for help. "Not...really?"

"You're right." Sakura blinks her way into looking as surprised as Naruto feels. Another of those things that they've always simply accepted and never thought to articulate. "He just looks amused. Usually at the stupidity or discomfort of others."

"Sometimes he smirks," Naruto hazards. "Does that count?"

"That isn't the point!" Sakura shoots her arm out, leaving one finger pointed at Sai with the deadly accuracy of a thrown kunai. "The point is that there aren't rules for this kind of thing. Some relationships work because the people are alike, and some...some are created by balance." She looks at Naruto with an expression that dares him to argue or to pity her. "And it's not like you and Sasuke have nothing in common. Neither of you can stand losing or backing down."

"That doesn't sound very constru--"

Sakura turns the full force of her I-dare-you expression onto Sai and he closes his mouth. "If it works," she says in a voice like cracking rock, "it works."

Naruto has the overwhelming urge to hug her, but his self-preservation instincts know better. Instead: "I love you," he blurts out, before his brain can get in the way. "You know that, right? I love you a lot. And you're very important to me."

Sakura's face is a deep pink. "But I'm not the most important. I know." She says it without any hint of anger; he still feels as though he owes her an apology.

"Sakura --"

"Naruto." She looks at him in a way which he can't decipher at all; he's never been able to read her when she doesn't want him to, not to the same extent as he can read -- well. Maybe that's something in and of itself. "It's difficult to miss the fact that you think about Sasuke more than...more than ramen."

"I bet that's not true!" Naruto protests, uncomfortably aware that Sai is gazing at the both of them as though they're a fascinating exhibit. "I mean, I think about -- oh, you were being figurative."

"Hyperbolic, actually," Sai puts in.

Sakura sighs. "I'm as committed as you are to bringing him back, you know that, I just don't want to see you expect too much and get hurt. Do you think he...?"

"I don't know," Naruto says, because that's easiest. He's not sure how to convey the fact that his face has an expression tucked away somewhere that's partly a smirk and partly a scowl and wholly elicited by his best friend's presence, that his hands remember the precise angles of battle from when they fought on the same team, and that sometimes his whole body sings, bone-deep and true, with the memory of the way Sasuke's eyes used to slice through the air and find him. That after all these years he can still call up the image of Sasuke darting between his body and Haku's needles and know that this is who Sasuke really is. Not the cold blank stare, and not the biting words, but this. "That's not important, anyway. What's important is that we get him back."

"All right. I won't tell anyone." Sai shrugs. "Would you also like me to come up with some plausible lies to explain your absences? They could include hormones, and enclosed spaces."

Sakura digs a firm elbow into Naruto's side, and he almost bites his tongue, but he does manage not to laugh or to yell in protest.

"Yeah. Sure." Naruto grins and claps him on the arm. "Thanks, Sai."

~

The mirror is enormous; it takes them almost an entire day, and Sakura asking her father a lot of awkward ‘hypothetical’ questions, to work out how to rig it in Miori’s tiny spare room.

"We can’t immobilise him immediately," Sakura points out. "He has to be using chakra beneath the mirror before it can become a drain, so it should be pointed away to begin with --"

"And then we can move it once he starts trying to fight his way out," Naruto finishes.

Miori looks up at the mirror. Her hair is coming out of its ponytail in untidy wisps. "I’ll do that. You two just make sure he doesn’t do too much damage in the meantime. I assume you’ll want him to be able to carry on a conversation, so I can angle it to cover his body only from the neck down."

Naruto frowns. "But...the Sharingan."

"Eye-based bloodline limit?" Miori shakes her head. "No. He just won’t have enough chakra in his body. He should be able to move his head, and speak, but no more than that."

"We’re going to see Sasuke again," Naruto blurts out, and wonders if he could sound any more idiotic if he tried. But the enormity of the situation has just hit him like the proverbial and unpleasant ton of bricks -- this is it, this is the day they return Sasuke to Konoha -- and all of a sudden a feeling starts squirming around in his stomach, heavy and suffocating; almost like dread, which makes no damn sense, because this is the one thing he's wanted for so long.

The one thing.

Naruto's throat closes up and he wishes frantically that for once in his life, just once, he'd bothered to plan ahead for the spaces between the present moment and the vague future day he becomes Hokage.

"Yes." Sakura's smile is simple, beautiful; spending so much time around Sai has made Naruto wary of false happiness, and hers is utterly true. Even through the rising panic, he thinks: she's amazing. "Today Sasuke comes home."

He manages to croak, "And then what?"

There have been fears and more fears in Naruto's life, but none so strange as this sudden terror of not-knowing; of not having imagined the then-what beyond a wish for things to return to the way they were, even while knowing that to be impossible -- they've changed too much, all of them, and so has the world -- and even realising in hindsight that the way they were was, for Sasuke, obsessed and unwilling to hold onto happiness.

"Idiot." Sakura hits him across the back of the head, but the blow doesn't hurt and there's a rare note of fondness in her voice. "And then life goes on, obviously."

Naruto has admired Sakura and yes, loved her, but this moment is the very first in which he is envious of her. It could be a medical thing or just a Sakura thing: this tenacity only loosely associated with optimism, the simple determination that life will continue -- should be made to continue -- for as long as possible, because anything else would be defeat.

"Okay!" He claps his hands into a basic seal, for emphasis, and to banish his own anxiety. No room for doubt or other distractions. "Let's do this."

In the end it's almost anticlimactic; like any summoning, most of the work is in the preparation. The strict, formal arrangement of symbols within the summoning syntax: fire, lightning, Uchiha Sasuke. Orochimaru’s curse seal. And the blue fabric of Sasuke's headband laid underneath the whole, the metallic edge of the hitai-ate only just visible. A personal possession, Miori had said, and as far as Naruto’s concerned this is about as damn personal as it gets.

"Ready?"

"When you are." Miori nods.

Naruto takes a deep breath, places his left hand flat on the seal, and pushes a wild burst of chakra into it.

There isn't a poof -- it's more like a sharp, painful crack, really -- but when the air stops shimmering, Uchiha Sasuke is swaying on his feet in the middle of the room.

"Fuck," Sakura squeaks, and it's so incongruous that Naruto almost bursts out laughing.

"What --" Sasuke's eyes sweep around and alight on Naruto, linger a second, and then move on, and in one swift movement he unravels the fabric from around one of his arms.

"Quick, Miori!" Sakura cries, but Sasuke is faster than ever and his right hand is already folded strangely under his left forearm. Naruto moves on instinct almost before he sees the weapons, placing himself between Sasuke and Miori -- trust an Uchiha to pinpoint the most vital person in the room even while disoriented and trapped -- and he narrowly manages to block two kunai before Sasuke sucks in a sudden, shocked breath and then collapses to the floor. A handful of unthrown shuriken clatters down with him.

"Quick on his feet, isn't he?" Miori looks taken aback as she releases her grip on the mirror's edge.

"That's Sasuke." Naruto tries to force his heartbeat down from where it is thundering in his temples, and stares in fascination at the markings on Sasuke's bared arm.

Sakura's fingers, too, rest for a moment on the markings as she carefully works her arms under the unconscious boy's shoulders and legs and then starts to lift him. "Oh," she says sheepishly, after a moment of awkward straining. "The mirror. Naruto, come and grab his legs."

For a second Naruto isn't sure why that should matter, but then he glances at Miori with her wooden bucket and realises that Sakura's bursts of incredible strength, like any jutsu, require chakra. And that while even though the draining technique is designed to target Sasuke to the point of immobility, anyone else under the mirror will still have their ability to draw on their own chakra dampened.

"Careful." Miori nods her chin towards the bed. "I'm going to have to slide the mirror across as you go, so don't move him too fast."

Naruto nods, fascinated by the sight of the pale green energy that seems to come from the mirror itself and flow outwards in a constant shimmering stream. It's much more intense than that produced by his own mirror-therapy, and instead of soaking into a limb, Sasuke's chakra is dissipating slowly into the air. Naruto moves through a patch of it and it makes him want to sneeze.

Once Sasuke is on the bed and the mirror has been fixed in position, Miori moves the bucket of water so that the chakra disappears into it without so much as a ripple. "Done," she says. "To be honest, I'm almost surprised that it worked."

Sakura dusts off her hands and goes to lean against the older woman's side. "Thank you, Miori."

"Yes!" Naruto smiles at them both. "We couldn't have done this without you."

Miori swipes her hair out of her eyes and smiles back. "Don't thank me just yet," she says. She looks tired. "All I did was help you move him. It seems to me that getting him to stay is going to be the real challenge."

Naruto nods, the doubt starting to flood back into him. He bends down to pull the headband out from under the seal.

"Chin up, kiddo." Miori leans closer and pats his shoulder. "If anyone can do it, you can."

~

Asleep, Sasuke looks -- well, not innocent. Not familiar. And yet not all that different either. What he does look is tired, exhausted to the bone, his face slowly melting from anxiety into oblivion as though his expressions are losing their elasticity. Miori has changed him out of the purple cord ensemble and into one that includes a long, loose black shirt, and his face is a pale shock between the material and the spiked mess of his hair.

Naruto tucks his legs up under his chin, perched on the edge of one of Miori's soft chairs, and tries to convince himself that somewhere behind all of that strain and dismissal Sasuke remembers why he stayed in Konoha for as long as he did. Or at least that he's open to convincing; but Naruto could spend half a day coming up with adjectives to describe his best friend and 'open' wouldn't even make the preliminary shortlist.

"He's going to be out for a while." Sakura lifts her fingertips from Sasuke's temples. "I can't sense anything but his brain, of course, but I think having all his non-essential chakra wrenched away like that was enough to send his body into a self-defensive sleep to conserve its resources."

"Mmhm," Naruto agrees, not really engaged.

"What's the matter?" Sakura's voice drops from clinical appraisal into personal concern. "We did it, Naruto."

"Miori was right." He sighs and wraps his arms more tightly around his legs. "This is the hard part. What if I can't get him to stay? Everyone keeps saying I have the power to change people, but not when it matters. Not him."

He remembers: waking up in Kakashi's arms with fire in his head and water drenching his clothes, watching raindrops gather in the leaf symbol on a discarded hitai-ate and spill down over the metal, and feeling like he would never be able to accomplish anything worthwhile ever again.

Sakura sighs and leans down to peer into his face, and for a moment Naruto is convinced she's going to rap her knuckles on his forehead and call him an idiot, but she just touches him on the cheek. "Naruto," she says gently. "Everyone keeps saying it because it's true. You have changed Sasuke -- anyone with half a brain could see that he was happier being part of our team than he was when he was a child."

For a moment Naruto hears Miori saying, you were thirteen, and thinks that maybe she has a point about the ninja world having warped parameters. When did they stop being children?

"And you might have failed to change his mind once, but when have you ever accepted a failure without trying again, and again?"

She's right; of course she's right, Sakura is always right; however, even through the flood of gratitude and relief, Naruto knows better than to tell her that. He'll admit to the single instance only. "Yes. You're right," he says, and pulls a grin onto his face.

Sakura smiles back, touches his cheek one more time and straightens up. "Besides," she adds, and now the satisfied glitter in her eyes is one that Naruto knows to be wary of, "he can't exactly run away from the sound of your voice, now, can he?"

~

There's one thing that needs to be said when Sasuke wakes up, so Naruto says it.

"I promised Sakura I'd find a way to bring you back. And I never go back on my word."

"Be quiet." Sasuke moves his head, testing the range of his mobility, and his eyes visibly follow the flow of chakra from the mirror into the water. "Interesting," he says after a while, and closes his eyes.

"It's a chakra drain." Naruto shifts uncomfortably on the chair, and even though Sasuke doesn’t appear to be paying attention at all, he explains the summoning technique and the concept of chakra signature. He doesn't mention the hitai-ate. When he's finished, there's a screaming silence in the room before Sasuke opens his eyes again and looks at Naruto for the first time.

"That's almost clever. But still pointless."

Naruto clenches his hands into fists so that he doesn’t hit the apathy off the bastard's face, because Sasuke can't fight back and there's no point to a rivalry if it's one-sided. No point to a one-sided anything, and Sasuke's just looking at him, and Naruto could slice his cheek open with a kunai with no effort at all, and for a wild moment he almost wants to do just that because at least Sasuke might react.

Sasuke laughs, low and cold, as though he knows exactly what Naruto's thinking. "Bringing me back so you can turn me into a useless piece of flesh. How brave of you."

"I told you," Naruto hisses, "I told you I'd bring you back if I had to break every bone in your body."

"And you never go back on your word."

Naruto looks at him in surprise, hope clawing viciously in his chest, but Sasuke's expression is as flat as his voice and there's no foothold there for any kind of hope, so it soon dies away. "That's right," he says anyway, but he doesn't know what to say next. There's too much and it's all too big. "You're back with us, and we've -- I mean, for so long -- you have to stay with us, Sasuke."

"I don't have to do anything you tell me to do," he says, eyes narrowed, suddenly and breathtakingly so very like the old Sasuke that Naruto's heart jerks. "What I have to do is kill Itachi."

"You will. And we're going to help you." Naruto aims for a flat statement of fact instead of than his usual I dare you to argue, because he knows better than to dare Sasuke anything unless he's in the mood for a fight.

"And then?" A brief flash of hatred and depression rises above his flat tone, but Naruto knows what it's like to lash out against that particular fear. And as a person standing in the bewildering space left by the recent completion of his life's goal, he stares Sasuke in the face with all the gravity he possesses -- turns the staring into a contest, because that's what's always worked, for them -- and knows that it is vital that Sasuke believes him in this moment. That he can convince his best friend to accept a truth he has only just begun to realise himself.

"And then," he says, "life goes on."

~

Part II -- Nimbus
Tags: naruto
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