Notes: So there's an old fic challenge where you take a fandom and add the apocalypse, and stir, and see what happens. I have always wanted to try it, and I figured a world occupied by ninjas was as good a test subject as any :D The only explicit pairings are Sasuke/Naruto and Shikamaru/Temari, though I suppose you could read a few others into it if you squinted. Warnings for character deaths both implied and explicit, gratuitous favouritism on the part of the author when it comes to POV characters, and, of course, the end of the world as we know it.
(for the curious: solfege @ wikipedia)
This one got. Um. Not just longer, but wider than I expected.
(carve us as instruments)
"I don't think so."
"No," Sasuke says, "wait, yes --"
"Oh, I see, there's a warding --"
"Move!" Naruto yells suddenly, and shoves Sakura so hard that all of her breath flies out of her when she hits the ground. A bolt of thin purple lightning snakes out of the rock and drives itself into the place where she was standing.
"Fuck," she mutters into a mouthful of wet grass. "Thanks, Naruto."
"Gnn." Naruto grunts and looks down at his left hand, which now sports a dark scorch mark across the palm. "S'nothing."
"Idiot," comes Sasuke's voice from above their heads.
"Didn't see you helping." Naruto raises his eyes to where Sasuke is kneeling on a branch, having leapt clear a split second before the lightning struck, and the two of them exchange a glance that’s older than the current danger and older than the tired accusal in Naruto's voice, so old and so familiar that Sakura smiles to herself as she stands up and brushes herself down.
"What was that?" Kakashi flickers into a solid state nearby, his visible eye widened in alarm. "I heard that all the way from --"
"Yeah, sorry." Sakura raises her hand, embarrassed. "I was a bit careless."
"Lightning wards, Kakashi." Sasuke is about as close to enthused as Sasuke ever gets, which isn't very. "I think they're woven through most of the formations here."
"Really? We'll need a subtle wind jutsu to feel it out, then, maybe attempt to disrupt it at least enough that the wards become more visible --"
"Subtle? Naruto?" and they're off, talking advanced tactics again, and Sakura tunes out and starts mentally tallying their water supplies, because the last three lakes they've passed have been tainted and the next one is two days away by Kakashi's map -- longer if she puts them on rations --
"Where the hell is Sai?" Naruto asks irritably, holding his hand out for Sakura to heal, "I bet he stopped to draw another funny-looking plant," and she laughs as she gathers chakra.
It took a long time for Sakura to realise that they cannot heal the land, but have instead become its diagnosticians. Like any good medical practitioner the first question in her mind was always why, but once the clues and the less fanciful rumours started to throw up words like biju and seven and hybrid, she closed her mouth tight and stopped asking, because not even the knowing-why was worth the fear on Naruto's face.
Besides, why has never been the most pressing question; Sakura is smart enough to realise that she threw herself into the analysis so that she didn't have to think about the fact that she was, after all those years, finally just as much an orphan as the rest of her teammates. But family is what you make it and they're alive, all five of them, even though Sakura and Sasuke will never know if they saved Naruto's life by dragging him out of the village, or if he would have just kept going and going through the burns on his arms and the smoke damage to his lungs. It was Sakura who knocked him out with a kunai to the temple; it was Sasuke who held them within a controlled radius, burning all the fuel around them until his lips were cracked and tinged with ashes, and so kept the wilder fires at bay.
"Another group of civilians." Sai interrupts her thoughts, dropping from above and into a neat crouch at her feet. "Thirty-seven to be exact."
"Locals?" She releases Naruto's hand.
Sai nods and stands up. "They're working their way back to their village. I think it's the one we passed yesterday." He pauses. "I told them it was underwater."
Sakura winces, because Sai probably delivered the news with exactly that inflection -- or lack thereof -- but there's nothing she can do about it now. "Did you tell them about the nearest camp?"
"Yes. They didn't have a map, so I drew them one." Sai blinks for the first time at Naruto, who's standing there scowling and testing the flexibility of his fingers. "Did I miss something?"
Sakura sighs. "Sasuke's worked out what killed the family we found, I think."
"Oh, Sasuke's worked out," Naruto mutters. "Sasuke, genius shinobi, in his tree."
"Very funny. Need you, now." Sasuke materialises at his side, flicks him in the forehead, and drags him away to Kakashi within the space of a single breath. Sai and Sakura are both so used to this kind of thing that neither of them bats an eye.
"Oh." Sai nods. "How did they die?"
"You'll have to ask them," Sakura says, waving a hand in the direction of the others. Kakashi appears to be trying to explain a technique to Naruto; Naruto appears to be trying to glare a hole in Sasuke's smirking face.
How did they die?
(Because why isn't the question.)
All they know for sure is that something went horribly wrong with their world, and that people are dead and people are still dying. The most pressing questions are therefore how and also who, and so they are adrift with their map and their wits and each other, at the end, just each other. There is no Akatsuki to fight, there is only the simple human element that exploits disaster, and there is panic, and there is the unpredictable pattern of chaotic elemental power that has buried itself in every corner of the land and is corkscrewing tighter with each passing day.
They are diagnosticians. They are cartographers. The land is saying, I do not want to support you any longer, and they are standing up and saying: well, tough.
"One of the civilian women is pregnant," Sai tells her, abruptly, and it looks like he's struggling with something. It's not in his face -- it never is -- but in his fingers, twitching and curling near his bare stomach. "She's having...trouble."
"I'll go," Sakura says at once, but Sai catches her arm and shakes his head, face blank, fingers tight, clearly willing her to understand.
"No," he says, "no, I think -- I think she'd prefer --"
And it's awful and Sakura will have to add it to her list of things to cry over when she finally gets a chance to breathe, but she wouldn't want to bring a child into this world either, so who is she to judge?
Ino said once that Shikamaru could understand everything about a person with a single glance. Shikamaru finds this rather an exaggeration, but he certainly likes to think of himself as observant, and more and more he is realising that people are products of their environments. He is leaf shinobi born and bred: he is accustomed to weaving as he moves, he finds absolute silence to be uncomfortable, and he is -- unsurprisingly -- at his best when his path is crossed with shadows, enclosing and familiar.
The trouble with Temari, the big overarching trouble that neatly encapsulates all of the little troubles, is that she is none of these things. Temari glares at obstacles like fallen logs as though they are a personal affront, and drinks far less water than he does, and sometimes she takes long uneven strides like she's trying to find purchase on a dune that isn't there. Even if he had no prior knowledge, Shikamaru thinks, he could tell just by observing her that her power and her personality were grown somewhere full of open spaces under open sky, air void of moisture, and brutal heat. Shikamaru would not feel comfortable in such a place, where the shadows are wide and simple and often not there at all.
Temari turns her face upwards to catch even the strongest sun. Temari's hair is a constant fair mess and when she dances from rock to rock, her fan whips a spinning roaring violence out of the air and she is beautiful. She is the sand and she is strange and she is far more trouble than Shikamaru ever expected to find himself sleeping with.
"We'll rest here for a while," she declares, swinging her fan off her back and following it with her bag. "We should reach the bottom of this valley by nightfall."
Shikamaru lets his own bags fall and stretches out on the ground, his hands linked behind his head. She directs. He follows. It's easier that way. In another hour or so he will tell her that they're heading in the wrong direction.
("Why didn't you say something?" she snaps.
She calls him names; mostly she calls him Konoha, pronouncing the word as though it's an insult in itself, but behind it he hears the uncertain remnants of her diplomacy. They are the walking representations of their villages, and Shikamaru wonders if the truth is written in his face as clearly as it is in his mind: Konoha gone. Konoha burned.
Temari, de facto ambassador, was not there to see Sunagakure flooded, but just as Shikamaru wakes up sometimes with tears and the memory of smoke choked together at the back of his throat, he can look at her sidelong and catch the terrible fear of water in her eyes. All she knows is that Gaara escaped at the head of what remained of the village's population -- as for Kankurou, they have asked every person they come across, but they have no word one way or the other. He knows when she is thinking about her family because her hands smooth incessantly over her dress and lines appear on her forehead, and one night she watches Shikamaru without speaking as he bandages up a wound on her arm and then she leans in and kisses him without warning. Her lips are dry and she is very warm. Shikamaru knows that she's probably trying to take her mind off her brothers; he also knows that she's almost more troublesome than she's worth, but not quite, and so he pulls her to him fiercely and deepens the kiss.
The second time is when they've just escaped from a maze of crazed bushes and grasping pools of water, scratches all over their bodies, exhausted and exhilerated in the afternoon sunshine. They pant and smile and exchange glances and then they step towards each other and lift their hands to each other's faces in a single swift moment. One long hungry kiss and then, just as simultaneously, a drawing back; a drawing breath.
"Let me go," Temari spits. "Let me go right now."
Shikamaru strokes his thumb across her cheekbone in the same instant that Temari strokes hers across his. "All right," he says then, and withdraws his shadow.
Temari leans back, her narrowed eyes never leaving his face. "You're one sneaky son of a bitch, Konoha." But there's grudging admiration in her voice, and three seconds later she sticks her hand down his pants, so Shikamaru decides that feeling guilty about it isn't really worth the bother.
The times after that aren't important. It's convenient, which suits him, it's distracting, which seems to suit her, and they don't really talk about it at all, which suits both of them. Other things they don't talk about include: Choji, the chuunin exams, and the fact that her youngest brother is somewhere unknown and distant, protecting the dregs of his people, carrying the desert on his back.
Making their tortuous way through the Land of Waves, following a vague tip that sand shinobi had been seen in a particular area, they stumble across Kakashi's team almost by accident. Naruto is delighted; Sasuke nods at them both and leans against a tree, looking more like a taut wire than ever; Sakura has almost-tears in her eyes as she heals Shikamaru's wrist, her fingers probing out the month-old break that didn't set right, almost collapsing with relief when she hears that Ino is safe somewhere far north with her father. Kakashi has a map with even more details on it than theirs, and Sai has pens, so Temari sits with them and carefully marks in the known locations of dangers, and refugee camps, and friends.
Naruto hugs Shikamaru hard before they move on, telling him about a series of fire pits and shifting cliffs that they've just had to navigate, and how to find the best way across. Shikamaru used to complain a lot about the fact that he always ended up fighting girls, but right now he would spend the rest of his life doing just that if it meant he could stop fighting this huge, faceless, sexless power that is the destruction of his world.
"What is it?" Temari steps up beside him as he watches his friends disappear amongst the trees; she does not look at him, and there is no sympathy in her voice, but her arm is just touching his own.
"Huh. Nothing." He turns and looks at her, standing quiet with dirt on her face and sand in her soul, and realises that as a matter of fact he would be quite willing to spend the rest of his life fighting this girl, just this girl, this girl in particular.
He tells her this, because there seems no reason not to, but he adds: "Though considering our circumstances, I don't expect the rest of my life to be all that long."
Temari's mouth is twitching and her cheeks are pink, but she manages to rap her knuckles against his shoulder and look at him with mocking laughter in her face. "Aw, don't be scared, Konoha," she says. "I've saved your ass before, I can do it again."
The facts are these: you can't be the leader of something that doesn't exist.
And you can't protect people who have already died.
But Naruto's never had a good head for facts -- he prefers to learn things by hammering them into his muscles -- and there is a small tendon somewhere just over his heart that believes in Konoha as a thing, as an idea, as the sum of its people whereever they are, and tells him that his dreams have not yet come to nothing.
"Wake up," Sasuke says, walking past him. "No use having you at the front if you're not paying any attention."
Naruto scowls at his back and hates him, idly, comfortably. Sasuke with his way of spilling out like ink to fill the available space with his movements, his arrogance, his hair and the line of his neck, so untouchably neat. Even in a chronic state of alert and surrounded by devastation, Sasuke gives off the impression that he'd rather be breathing the air on a higher plane.
"But you're walking in the dirt," Naruto says aloud. "Just like the rest of us."
There is a very small break in the rhythm of Sasuke's steps, barely noticeable, and Naruto chuckles to himself.
"We're two days from the border, I think." Kakashi falls into step beside him.
"Already?" Naruto blinks, surprised. Time is a funny thing; they are shinobi and they read the sun, of course, and everything else that the heavens are prepared to show them -- these things at least are still constant. But the longer stretches of time have lost the meanings they used to hold, because nobody speaks within the boxes of a calendar any more, and they're lucky to have so much as a map to guide their perceptions of space. And the old time-sense is lost from Naruto's muscles because their progress is so slow these days: they can no longer leap from branch to branch, too dangerous, too much risk of changes occurring at high speed.
So Naruto takes step after step after step and looks around with tightly-wound nerves. His whole life has become a stealth mission, and time creeps up on him and tangles itself around his feet.
He knows that the work they're doing is important, and necessary, but every once in a while he envies Sakura her healing ability because that's what's immediate in the minds of the civilians they come across. They smile in gratitude at the pink-haired kunoichi with the gentle hands, and while they appreciate descriptions and safe guidance, they can never know just how hard that information was to come by. Naruto feels like dragging Sai in front of their faces and showing them the thin scar along his lower back, telling them how close he came to dying, all so Kakashi could send his chakra through the veins of slicing, animate groundwater and chart their openings.
It's frustrating, working on a scale too large to be applauded by any one person. But leaders, Naruto tells himself severely, Hokages, have to learn to think on a larger scale.
What Naruto has never told and will never tell anyone is that sometimes when they're finding the borders of a particularly intense danger area, a feeling like recognition starts to spike and ripple across the lines of the seal. Nothing he can't control -- not yet -- and he's never once slipped into the Kyuubi's chakra since...since. Because even though he's angry at how powerless he feels sometimes, it's never so personal that he loses his grip. The only people who can make a hurricane of his emotions in that way are the people who fight by his side every day.
So he's safe, he tells himself. Safe in the way that means harmless, not safe from harm, even though he himself has no scars at all. No matter what chaos has already been wrought by power that feels familiar in a deep, sick, searing way, Naruto himself will not be responsible for any more deaths.
"I hate this," he says to the cracks of darkening sky between the treetops.
"Just. All of it."
Sasuke dumps his armful of firewood on the ground, eyebrows raised. "When did you figure that out?"
"Oh, shut up, bastard." Naruto shoots him an annoyed look. "I imagined the future so many times, you know, and it was never like this. Nothing like this."
"Do you think you should have expected it?" Sasuke gives a low laugh, not too bitter, but not really humorous either. "Don't be stupid. Nobody could have."
"No, but I --" Naruto bites it off. No, he can't tell anyone, not even Sasuke, but he's far more lucky then he deserves and Sasuke seems to be working it out of his own accord.
"Don't. Don't think that it's your --" Sasuke growls, and grips Naruto's shoulders "-- not that you ever think about anything --"
"Hey." Naruto kicks his shin, but only half-heartedly, because there's something important in Sasuke's angry eyes and he can't work out what it is. "I know. I mean, I guess I know. I won't give up on my dreams that easily."
"Of course not." There's sarcasm there, yes, but Sasuke's lips thin out in a way that Naruto thinks might mean approval.
"We all have something to protect, right? Even now."
Sasuke stares at him for a moment. "Right," he mutters, and then, unexpectedly: "Even if you're still not sure if the something is your responsibility."
Naruto thinks about Konoha's citizens, scattered, and he says, "Yes."
"And sometimes -- sometimes --" Sasuke looks as though his sentence is stuck halfway up his throat and causing him physical pain. "Maybe sometimes that something is obtuse and foolish and won’t stand still long enough to realise that you're trying to protect it."
"Yes, but -- wait." Naruto frowns. "What conversation are we having here?"
"Not the one you think, obviously," Sasuke says, "try to keep up," and kisses him hard.
"Oh," Naruto says, feeling very silly, and then, "oh," his voice gone high and needy and ridiculous as Sasuke backs him against a tree and keeps kissing.
The end of the world has no blind spots.
"How's everything going?" asks Tenten.
"Fine," says Neji, who feels as though molten wax is being poured over his eyelids. "Everything's fine."
Gai tells them over and over again not to feel guilty that they were on a mission in the middle of nowhere, but Neji knows what survivor's guilt feels like, oh yes, and he knows that it hasn't found him yet. It came very close. It had its hands on him and was beginning to tighten its grasp, and then they reached the outskirts of Konoha's wreckage and found Hinata, confused and thirsty and brittle with sorrow, and something in Neji flared up and shook the guilt away. It is important to him that Hinata lives; as long as she lives, some small part of Neji's universe is intact. This has nothing to do with love and nothing to do with fate and everything to do with pride.
Hinata, of course, dutifully informed Gai as soon as the constant use of her Byakugan to scope out their surrounds began to give her headaches. (Perhaps not as soon as: Neji recognised the way her lips started to tighten into a frown whenever she concentrated, and it began almost a week before she spoke up. After that he was even more careful about his own expressions.)
"Only in emergencies," Gai told her firmly. "Neji, are you having any trouble?"
"None," Neji said, staring beyond the hills.
Neji's the one from whom nothing is hidden. Neji's an excellent liar.
And so right now Neji touches Tenten's hand and says, "Everything's fine," followed by, "but we're going to need some water defenses in about fifteen minutes. East border."
They're a well-drilled team and Hinata follows orders like nobody Neji's ever known, so even when the air is thick with flying splinters of flame and the ashy clouds are drifting perilously close to the camp, he isn't too scared for their lives. It's so fucking unfair, the fact that there is no real chance to rebuild, the fact that even the most sheltered refugee camp could at any moment be struck by shaking earth or frozen rain or some other horror of nature, and be reduced to nothing. So they do what any genin team learns to do at the very beginning of their career: they play bodyguard. They do not attack, but they neutralise, and they defend.
Lee is keeping a tally of how many civilians are in the camp -- their camp. For the most part the number increases: this, too, is a source of pride.
"Your hair," Hinata murmurs afterwards, gesturing with her hand.
Neji pulls it forward and sighs as his fingers brush the singed areas. "So I see."
There is no way to conveniently keep your hair out of trouble when it's as long as Neji's, despite years of being accustomed to it, almost relying on the whisper of it past his face. So he still finds himself pulling leaves out with painstaking care and dunking it in transient streams to wash out the dust, then enduring the chill of it against his back.
"You could cut it, Neji," Gai suggests one day. "Hinata's cut hers again."
"I know," Neji says shortly. "No."
He looks at himself in uneven puddles that shine like mirrors; he combs his hands through his hair and adjusts his headband and stares into his own eyes, pale and full of the promise of power. He is Hyuuga. No matter what.
Days weeks and months, and now the headache is a constant throbbing fact of his existence, and sometimes his Byakugan flickers out of focus for short periods. What will he do when he loses his ability altogether? He doesn't know. He'd like to think that before that day comes someone will just step in and say: that's it, you've done enough, let us take over. He'd like to think that someone will recognise that they're older but they're still not old enough, that sometimes he just wants his dad, and on these nights he draws meaningless spirals in the dust with his fingers and tries very hard not to snap at Hinata when she hands him a cup of weak, bitter tea.
"That's it," comes Lee's breathless voice from nearby. Neji takes a sip of his tea and watches as Lee adjusts the line of Tenten's arm; the girl's weapons are almost exhausted and they're barely any use against what they're fighting now, so Lee has devoted himself to getting her taijutsu up to scratch. Gai stands nearby with his hands on his hips and beams like a proud parent, and Neji thinks that it's just like old times except for his cousin's quiet presence beside him and the pain behind his eyes.
Slowly, word spreads. Lee's tally keeps growing. And then one day there's a flash of familiar red chakra in Neji's periphery, jolting him out of his reverie so violently that he forgets the pain, and two hours later the members of Konoha's seventh team stroll up to the main camp gate with smiles on their faces. Well -- three visible smiles. But Kakashi's eyes are crinkled and Sasuke doesn't look quite as bored as usual, so that probably counts.
"We've heard that this is the safest camp in the whole Land of Wind!" Naruto says after the initial greetings.
"And the largest," Sakura adds, her smile becoming a grin. "Think you've got room for a few more, at least for a couple of nights?"
The silver-haired man's visible eye widens, but he doesn't try to evade Gai's enthusiastic flying hug. Sasuke makes a small sound that might actually be laughter, which is frankly bizarre, but Neji is surprised at the strength of his own pleasure at seeing them all and finds a similarly uncharacteristic smile on his own face.
So for two days Lee shows Sakura around the camp with as much enthusiasm as if he'd built it all with his own hands, and Gai spars with Kakashi, and Sai helps Tenten set up some more advanced warding seals, and Hinata recovers from Naruto's initial joyous hug. Though at least, Neji thinks, she didn't faint.
"What do you see?" Sakura asks him, the morning her team is due to set off again.
Neji doesn’t say, I see you're resigning yourself to something, and he doesn't say, I see that the world has ended and Sasuke is still standing between my cousin and Naruto.
He says, "There's an electrical storm hidden within illusion barriers, two miles south, but I can find you a path through."
A small smile creases Neji's lips upwards at exactly the same time that the pain creases them downwards, and he prays that they cancel each other out.
"Do you mind?"
"I'm sorry." Sai shifts his bundle of fruit to the other arm. "Do I mind what?"
Sasuke makes a disgusted sound and flops his head forward, not moving his hands from Naruto's shoulder and lower back."You talk to him," he says into Naruto's hair, accusingly.
"Sai." Naruto's face is flushed and he leans even further into Sasuke's touch. "Piss off."
Sai smiles -- "Don't be rude." -- and leaves, because he's quite aware of the etiquette involved here, even though it’s amusing to keep pretending every now and again. Besides, the more he watches Naruto and Sasuke together, the deeper his understanding of why they chased the Uchiha across the world for so long becomes.
(Sakura frowns and tries to tell him that not all bonds are like this, and that really, Sasuke and Naruto are just a pair of impossible infuriating boys who shouldn't be taken as an ideal model of anything. Sai associates the tone of her voice with incipient violence, so he puts on his best listening face and makes sure to nod occasionally.)
Kakashi is no help at all: Kakashi acts more Root than Sai feels, most days.
"Kakashi and I down this side." Sasuke demonstrates, pushing tiny pebbles along Sai's quick sketch of the shore ahead. "Sakura here -- I think this is probably the riskiest position, so we need someone who can dodge -- Sai and Naruto, here."
"Sounds fine." Kakashi nods. His voice is neutral.
"What if the tide patterns change from what we've observed?" Sai asks.
Naruto grins. "Improvise."
Improvisation has become their forte, which is very strange to Sai, who grew up in a society so densely packed with discipline and guidelines that he could relax and let the rigid strength of the rules hold him upright. Rules for extricating from combat. Rules for ignoring pain. Rules for everything, so many rules that if you were in a fight you could lean in any direction and a rule would be there, and if you shuffled through them fast enough then it might almost look like improvisation from the outside.
But now, the things they do every day -- these things weren't covered in any lessons or training simulations. Shinobi are both human weapons and shields against human danger, accustomed to working against chakra that is confined to -- or at least controlled by -- another human being. And there are no rules for rocks that throw themselves at you and explode; the land is their context, not their enemy; when the land turns against you, what do you do? There are no mission parameters and no mission rankings, nothing to tell them how difficult a battle will be. This is a war that none of them has ever been trained to fight and they are learning everything by ear and by touch. The only lesson that can still be applied is this: know your teammates. Trust your teammates. Keep your team together.
And they do know each other, to the extent that Sai can define exactly how each of them has changed and is still changing in response to disaster. Sakura's violence has not diminished but it is less universal: she has honed it to a point, to be used in battle against the things that actually matter, and is less likely to strike out over minor annoyances. Sasuke too has tempered his hostility with a quiet, growing awareness of his place in the world. He will still insult them -- and often does -- but he will no longer wish them ill or wish them dead, even in his particular monotonic brand of jest. Sai knows that the stakes have been shifted: the risk is too high. Wishes should be saved for the preservation of what remains.
Naruto is still the brightest of them, which is a relief, but even he will occasionally lapse into an expression of closed maturity that sits well on his features, for all that it erases the last of his childishness.
Kakashi…Kakashi is like a man releasing his grasp from the final ace at the top of a house of cards, removing one finger at a time with slow, slow caution, and hoping that when he lifts his hands entirely clear the structure will stand on its own. But this is only apparent in little things that Sai sees because he has known him the shortest length of time, like his habit of flippantly disengaging himself from a conversation when it becomes too personal, and the way he turns towards Sasuke for approval when he finishes outlining a strategy.
Certainly Kakashi treats them like adults, lying back in the grass as they rest through the midday heat, reading aloud from his single tattered volume of Icha Icha Paradise until they all know it practically by heart and Sakura can no longer raise a blush at even the most explicit sections. Sai finds the stories interesting, but flawed, at least in his own experience. Because Naruto does not embrace his partner with barely suppressed passion, but sometimes he sits and eats with one hand and holds onto Sasuke's wrist with the other, moving his fingers in absent circles on the Uchiha's skin. Sasuke does not show signs of desperate heartache when separated from Naruto for hours at a time, but his eyes have a way of drifting through landscapes and settling on the other boy as though drawn by a magnet -- drifting away -- drifting back -- like he suspects that Naruto will have disappeared or changed shape between one breath and the next.
And Sai catches Sakura with an odd, soft expression on her face as she looks at them -- all of them -- an expression that she never shows to anyone when she is talking to them directly, an expression that can only be seen sidelong, through stealth tactics.
It seems to Sai that love, like war, can be very different to what you are taught to expect.
"What are you doing here?" Naruto demands. The boy is bristling with accusation, as though he has every right to be angry that Kabuto happens to be leaning against the railing of this particular bridge in the middle of nowhere. It's amusing; Kabuto raises his hands and smiles.
"Naruto. I don't mean you or your teammates any harm."
"He's telling the truth," Sasuke cuts in.
"Nice to see you again, Sasuke," Kabuto lies.
Sasuke looks away, and Kabuto ignores the sudden dryness of his mouth and the crawling feeling of the skin around his left eye.
"Do you have any herbs?" Sakura speaks up suddenly, boldly, her eyes on the bag that he carries at his side. "I’m running low on a few types."
"Yes, I do." Kabuto smiles again and ignores the way Naruto’s frown deepens. "What do you have that I want?"
"Information," Kakashi says in his calm, easy voice, but his hand is casually close to the pockets of his vest and Kabuto has never been one to leap into a losing battle if he can possibly avoid it. So when Kakashi adds, "I think we’ll be able to work out an exchange that seems fair, don’t you?" Kabuto swallows his annoyance and nods.
Not long after that encounter, Kabuto decides that he’s had enough of wandering, and finally gives in to the pleas of one of the refugee camps he’s visited. It’s not very large, but it’s in an area that’s been relatively stable (not that history is anything to trust, Kabuto thinks, but it’s become impossible to live a life of perfect safety no matter where you are) and there are a handful of other shinobi around to keep the peace. People like him, though they do notice the way he tends to attract snakes, and so they keep a distance out of both respect and fear. That suits him just fine.
He wears a mask over the left-hand side of his face -- copying the copy ninja, he thinks with a flash of humour, isn’t that ironic -- and never gives his true name. Old habits: there's no reason to get sloppy, even if it is the end of the world.
But is it? This malignancy of the land seems to have metastasised as far as it possibly can, and Kabuto knows that very few diseases are static: the rule is change, always change. What kept him wandering for so long, and what’s causing a mild perpetual itch of migration in his feet now, is a feeling that he should be seeking something, doing something, and some nights he has dreams that are not his own and wakes up unable to breathe. On these nights he lights candles in his medical tent and polishes his glasses five times and then works with the corpses that every camp like this has, no matter how good its medical team. People carry them in, hoping for miracles or just unable to let go, and sometimes -- rarely, he prides himself -- Kabuto’s best isn’t enough to save the injured. There’s no space for burial and Kabuto himself oversees the cremations, but he gets as much as he can out of them first, probing and learning and experimenting with new ways of working his chakra into the body systems and making them do what he wants. One way or another. Heal or hurt: knowledge is knowledge.
If he works and improves, if his skills are never as static as his feet -- change, change -- then the itch stays at a level where he can manage it, and the snakes leave him alone if he ignores them for a day, and he doesn’t go mad with the sheer tedium of living a normal life among normal, scared, boring people.
He heals for a price, but the price is always fair, and he'll never abandon an operation once he's begun it. People come to him with injuries that only a medi-nin could fix, chakra burns and cruel damage at the cellular level, and often they're things that would require four shinobi and a large operating theatre to fix. But Kabuto has always been very, very good at what he does, and he has learned to make do on his own.
Which is how he finds himself kneeling on a rough floor within his own hand-drawn symbols, gritting his teeth and with his chakra making its way inch by torturous inch along a woman’s internally twisted abdomen, sorting organ from muscle from vein from artery. He’s been going for three hours now, only letting out as much of his own energy as is sufficient for each tiny suture and cauterisation, and his hands are starting to shake. He jerks his head in command and one of his assistants runs to place the stasis ward-signs down around the woman -- she won’t get any better while Kabuto’s gone, but she won’t get any worse either, and if he doesn’t rest now then he won’t be able to finish it at all.
He slumps against a tree outside the medical tent, cradles a bowl of soup between his hands, and lets his body start to build up its own resources again. It’s a cold clear evening and the area around the camp has been quiet all day, which means that its inhabitants have had time to relax and now they’re feeling chatty. Vague social noise drifts upwards on a wind that also carries campfire smoke and a weird mixture of cooking smells, and Kabuto sets down his empty bowl, takes slow deep breaths, and starts to clench and relax his muscles one by one.
"Hey!" A man storms up to him -- dark hair -- burn tissue on the side of his neck -- oh yes, the woman’s husband. He steps up very close to Kabuto and glares down at him; his breath starts to fog Kabuto’s glasses. "What the hell do you think you’re doing? My wife could be dying inside that tent and you’re taking a dinner break?"
"Now, now," Kabuto says, just a hint of reproof in his voice. "There's no need to be impolite." He can't really afford the chakra but it’s so easy, so natural, to put a calming hand on the man's upper arm and slice neatly through his brachoradialis muscle. There is no blood; for all that he's used to it, Kabuto's never really liked blood. Such a messy way of achieving one's end.
He leaves the man choking back curses and tears of pain, and goes to save the woman's life.
A cold wind is blowing Sasuke's hair across his face, and his leg is bleeding from a cut just above the knee, and he thinks that he has never had to do anything quite so strange as kneel in the mud and push his teacher's eyelids down over his eyes: one scarred, one Sharingan, and both blank.
"Just. Just let me," Sakura says through her teeth, wrenching herself out of Sai's grasp with a desperate burst of strength and flinging herself onto the ground at Sasuke's side. She places her hands on Kakashi's chest and visibly tries to steady her breathing, but her entire torso is shaking. "I just need -- I can try something else --"
"Sakura. Don't waste yourself." What he means is don't waste chakra: responsibility has fallen like a blow onto Sasuke's shoulders and he hates it almost as much as the wild uneasy thickening of his throat, but he takes hold of her hands and moves them away. The futile stream of chakra breaks into nothingness. "There's nothing more you can do."
"No." It's the first word Naruto has spoken; there are tears running down his furious, unchanging expression, making him look like a statue left out in the rain. "No," and his voice cracks and Sasuke exchanges a glance with Sai that twists his chest a little, because they know that gone is gone.
"You idiot," Sasuke says, very quietly, and stands up and pulls Naruto away by the arm, because he can't deal with three -- he is not equipped -- fuck -- but he might be able to deal with one. Behind him Sakura finally bursts into tears, which is a horrible sound, but probably means she's going to be all right.
"Let go," Naruto mutters, pulling out of Sasuke's grasp once they're a short distance away from the others. "I'm not a child. Just because some of us are having a normal emotional reaction --"
Sasuke doesn't say anything, but he feels his face shift and settle into something new.
Naruto looks at him, eyes widening, and his furious mask finally cracks into guilt. "Sorry. Sasuke. I'm sorry. I didn't mean. Shit," he explodes, and turns to look at where Kakashi lies, Sakura still kneeling by his body. "Shit, shit --"
"Stop that." Sasuke slaps his face just hard enough to bring his gaze back around. There are no rest breaks between missions in their life now. They cannot afford to mope for a few days and eat ramen and buy flowers and hold a funeral: death is no longer enough to bring pause. It can't be. The danger is too everpresent. Sasuke can give them one night, and only one, and if any one of them falls too far apart then the whole group is at risk.
Not for the first time he half-expects to open his eyes to his brother's face and discover that Itachi is not dead and their world never tore itself apart and the whole thing has just been an illusion spanning years and years. Right now, right now -- Kakashi, how stupidly fucking implausible -- it almost seems like a tempting option. But Naruto's eyes flare red for a moment and Sasuke remembers with a tightening of his chest that no, there are some things that he's not prepared to wake up from.
Naruto lifts his hand to his face, his lips starting to curl back into a scowl; Sasuke holds his gaze and slaps him again, harder.
"Oh," Naruto says, catching on, "right," and aims a vicious kick at Sasuke's knees.
It's not really an even fight: neither of them is stupid enough to waste chakra in an impromptu sparring session, and Naruto's fast but nobody has ever been able to match Sasuke for hand-to-hand. So they keep it contained and quiet, their own private grief reaction, and as the daylight fades so does the worst of Naruto's anger, until his fighting style is no longer wild but is instead tired, sharp, automatic. When Sasuke is satisfied, he throws himself onto his hands -- twists -- works his ankle behind Naruto's back -- and is back on his feet just as Naruto staggers forwards with the force of the blow.
"Bastard," he gasps out, and collapses into Sasuke's shoulder.
"Mmhm." Sasuke knows, in almost every situation, exactly where his hands should be and what his body should be doing. This is not one of them. But after a moment Naruto's hand fumbles for his and grabs onto it tightly enough to hurt, and Sasuke sighs and lifts his other hand to press careful circles into the tense muscles of the boy's neck.
"Fucking bastard," Naruto says again, and takes a deep breath which shudders on the exhale. "How does he think -- we can't --" and now Sasuke's the one to realise that they're having a different conversation to the one he thought they were having.
"We're going to cope." Sasuke stares at the horizon, at the unglamorous, dirty scarlet streaks of the sunset, and digs his thumbnail into the centre of Naruto's palm. In their odd physical language it means exactly what his words conveyed; Naruto can be hard to convince through one medium alone. "But first we're going to sleep."
The fire is low enough not to give their position away. Sai inks scouting birds and sends them out, to return with the report that there is no acute threat in the vicinity.
"First watch. Second. Third. Fourth." Sasuke's finger darts and bends -- Sai, himself, Naruto, Sakura -- and he makes sure that his voice is clipped and brooks no argument. Night is falling in on them like the curtains of Sakura's kitchen, a deep soft blue, and Sakura herself is a dark figure as she sets traps and triggers all around their campsite. Occasionally she sniffs back tears, but her back is straight and her profile firm, and she touches Naruto's shoulder for a long moment before she lies down to sleep.
As Sasuke himself drifts into sleep he runs through his senses on autopilot: soft forest sounds and Sai shifting position, the scent of dirt and ash and blood, blood, keep going, Uchiha -- sour taste of bottled water in his mouth, busy darkness behind his eyes, and Naruto's hand still tangled in his own. Sasuke moves his fingers to the pulse below Naruto's thumb and presses down, finding rhythm and comfort and finally oblivion in the steady beat.
Sai wakes him after a few hours. Sasuke sits near the fire, one hand on the grip of his katana, one eye on the forest's wind-shifting shadows and one on the sleeping figures of his teammates. In the darkness Kakashi looks exactly like the others -- unmoving, peaceful -- and Sasuke folds his own grief into a neat package somewhere in his mind, to be taken out and dealt with at a later occasion.
He keeps watch until the sun rises.