Notes: Written for erisabesu for the oh_shit_santa Xmas exchange, largely via frantic fits of scribbling in notepads on trains across Italy. We are maybe the only two people I know who are extremely fond of Kabuto, so I leapt at the chance to write something about him.
the anatomy of need
To Sakura's credit, his hands are covered in blood. But it seems irritating and appropriate in equal measures that she doesn't give him a chance to explain what he's doing – making a last-ditch effort at saving someone's life, actually – before she slams her fist into his chest. He doesn't have time to dodge; he manages to diffuse the chakra force behind her punch by feeding it swiftly along his epidermis, but the fact remains that she delivered a physical blow. On his back in the dust, staring up at the bursting sky of a giddy summer morning, Kabuto thinks: yet another typical Konoha welcome.
"I'm not looking for trouble."
"Funny," she snaps. "Neither am I."
"I won't make trouble," he amends.
"I don't trust you."
Kabuto sighs. His shoulders ache and there's a worsening blister in the webbing of his hand from worrying the strap of his bag in moments of boredom. There have been a lot of those moments. "At this point, Sakura, who could I plausibly be working for?"
"You don't have to be working for anyone to cause trouble." But there's a chink appearing in her affront; Kabuto smiles inwardly and plays his best card.
"You need me."
Sakura twitches like there's an itch on her back, like someone is tracing the symbol of the Konoha Hospital onto her skin with the tip of a blunted scalpel.
"Fine," she says. "See the Hokage about a place to stay."
Kabuto says, "Won't that be fun."
The bare truth of it is that if he'd felt like pushing his luck or getting another twitch out of the woman, he'd have pointed out that accommodation is not going to be his biggest problem. Last night he saw the lights from the hill – the village is only hidden if you don't know the angles from which to look – and the vacant houses are obvious. Little patches of absence leaping out and hitting the retina with greater force than the cosy specks that prove inhabitance, life, one more survivor spinning their own web of guilt such that between that and the light itself, the moths are pretty well fucked. Kabuto's not sure who the moths are here: maybe the good, maybe the bad, maybe the wandering ambiguities such as himself. Call him a traditionalist, but Konoha's checkerboard existence has never been his favourite game board: light or dark, duty or disgrace, really, shinobi should know better. Kabuto worked for Orochimaru because as mad as the man was, he knew how to blur the boundaries, especially between life and death, and there's nothing as blurry as those. In Kabuto's professional opinion.
Yet here he is, back on the board, moving as directed by the rules; why?
It's not a difficult question. There is too much blood feeding the thirsty grass, too many lines of imminent loss that the people wear as though their very skin aches: he is needed, and he needs this. He's always been most comfortable around the living dead.
"Sakura told me to let you stay."
Naruto, Kaburo knows by report, has not been Hokage for long. He holds himself like a man who has bought an outfit and found it not quite as perfect as it looked in the shop, tight in unexpected places, empty in others. He wears the position with a tenacious unease and Kabuto thinks: maybe he'll grow into it. But it could take some time.
"She needs all the help she can get. The hospital is drastically understaffed."
"I know," Naruto says, impatient as ever, his eyes passing over one of the piles of paper in front of him, "don't you think I –"
"Hey," comes a voice from the doorway, and Kabuto feels a cool hand of memory stroke his intestines. He forces himself to turn slowly, years of training quenching the desire to jerk away before it can become a signal to his motor neurons.
He says, "Hello, Sasuke," in a voice you could balance sake cups on, and is proud.
Sasuke says nothing; his eyes narrow and he strides towards Naruto's desk. The rash spark inside Kabuto thinks about congratulating him on making jounin, but then Sasuke crosses his arms and balances himself on one foot and the power in the room shifts, all of a sudden. The Naruto that Kabuto knew is fighting to emerge in the form of a wide, delighted smile.
"What the hell is he doing here?"
"He's going to help at the hospital," says Naruto's voice through the smile.
Sasuke's look makes the side of Kabuto's face crawl like spiders or static or scales, but he doesn't react. "No," Sasuke says.
"We need medi-nin, Sasuke. Sakura's agreed to supervise him."
"Oh, well, if Sakura's agreed." But in addition to the sarcasm there's a softening to Sasuke's stance and, fascinatingly, the power tips back.
"Never thought I'd see you behind a desk, Naruto," Kabuto says as a farewell.
Naruto looks at him and something entirely new appears, an emotion that pulls his features into focus and brightens his eyes like a well-chosen colour; the only part of the outfit that fits him perfectly.
"I want to protect the people of Konoha," he says. If Kabuto didn't know better he'd think it was a warning.
He waits – there are stories and motives brimming in this expression, and in the remnants of Naruto's earlier, familiar grin – but that's it. He's been dismissed. He smiles and tucks his assumptions away, nice and tidy, in a place where they can be retrieved and used if the need arises. Kabuto keeps his tools handy.
The agreement they reach seems to be: we'll forget the past as long as you do the same. Easy enough. He looks normal. He acts normally (whatever that means in his personal and imposed contexts, which isn't much). There's a timbre to his voice sometimes that tastes like metal and sound exactly like it feels: a wire strung up inside his ribcage and set to vibrating at odd moments. And so the hiss of ductile iron, when he's stressed, when someone is dying under his hands without his consent. But there's too much disorder and dreaming in this place for such a little thing to set him apart, and for the most part Kabuto is nothing more than momentary salvation to them, and people who don't know him - more people than he expected - don't give him a second glance. Kabuto supposes that having worked for Orochimaru is no barrier to employment in this place; his own sins are nothing next to those of the Hokage's second-in-command, but he doesn't see anybody trying to kick Sasuke out.
Sakura isn't the type to forgive easily, but she's a realist too, and working with her is an easy habit to fall into. After less than a week, supervision is no longer the right word; they're a good match for talent, even though their specialised skills lie in different areas, and there's very little they can't handle between them, if they can afford not to spread themselves as thinly as usual. Kabuto...appreciates her. She's a minor masterpiece of a self-portrait, a study in tempered versions of his own character flaws, with a thick veneer of surprisingly warm empathy.
They stand with their hands gloved and their powers mingling inside a human body. Sakura glances at him, her eyes an aseptic, untouchable green, her hair the unlikely shade of the first flush of blood through frozen limbs coaxed back into warmth and life, and Kabuto is surprised by the realisation that he wants to do things to her body. The desire to run his fingers down the valley of bare skin between her breasts and the desire to send his chakra slicing down the same region to seek out the healed microfractures in her sternum are distinct, but only just; they are created so intimately close in Kabuto's mind that their edges begin to melt into one another.
It's unexpected, new, but Kabuto likes new. And Konoha Hospital is a good place for experimentation, because there is too much desperation and too few parameters remaining in the aftermath of disaster for it to be otherwise. As long as the lives or limbs are saved, nobody cares how he does it, so Kabuto unfolds theories and projects from their storage places at the back of his mind, and seizes his chances – the woman in a coma since Madara's attack on the village, her brain a livewire lacework of confusion and slow death. The genin boy with the accidental, self-inflicted wounds, from when he was desperate to avenge his teacher but possessed far more power than control. Everyone is a learning opportunity, and every lesson is worth learning, especially the blood-drenched ones. And the more tangled information he can absorb the easier it is to stay awake as his brain sorts it all out, which is important because of the dreams.
Kabuto knows exactly when they began and has long given up hope of them disappearing, though there seems to be no pattern to the times that they swim up from the depths of his past and swallow him. Nightmares, terrible ones that clutch and enclose his entire soul in a way that nothing has been able to do since childhood, since he learned to compartmentalise things like pain and the subjective knowledge of harm. He seldom remembers them, just wakes up tachycardic with panic sour in his mouth and hisses echoing in his ears, and most nights he forces his talent to fill the gaps, busies his intellect so that sleep is held at bay. It's not hard. Ideas crawl through his mind like ants atop a blade spun across ice, neat and savage and whirling, and when sleep does come it's a blessedly empty space; the vacuum of exhaustion.
One day Sasuke appears with a broken collarbone and sits in the corner of the waiting room while an overworked nurse (there is no other kind in the hospital) sends a too-young trainee (ditto) to fetch Sakura.
"I wouldn't," the nurse says, in response to the impatient twitch of Kabuto's hand. Sasuke looks in their direction with apathy that segues into deep unfriendliness, his arm held tight against himself and an ugly lump visible under the pale skin below his neck. Kabuto knows Sasuke's reactions to injury and healing better than anyone else alive; knows his history.
"He's broken that one before," he tells Sakura as she speeds into the room. "At least twice. It'll be weaker - the fusion will take effort."
Sakura pauses just for a moment – doesn't thank him, but nods in his direction – and then she's on her knees and cutting Sasuke's shirt off with a pair of scissors. The trainee gives a soft stifled giggle and leans against a wall to watch.
The break is terrible, well displaced and just this side of compound, and without so much as a greeting the two of them launch into an argument about whether or not Sasuke should come and lie down while Sakura sets it. Sasuke, being the same arrogantly obtuse bastard that Kabuto remembers, is against it.
"Last time I was a given a hospital bed, you wouldn't let me leave it for three days."
"Which didn't stop you from leaving anyway," Sakura snaps.
"Just set it here."
"Just set it here, he says!"
Coughs and scurrying; people are vacating the room. Kabuto smiles to himself. Sakura threatens not to set it at all, Sasuke gives what must be an agonising shrug and threatens to leave, and Sakura's capable hands, hovering just above Sasuke's arm, are starting to flicker with suppressed violence when Naruto leans into the hospital's main doorway and says, "Everything all right?"
"No," the two of them snarl, not quite in unison.
"It's a collarbone, you idiot," adds Sasuke, who was the faster. "Go back to work."
"I'm taking a break," Naruto announces, which means there's a clone doing his paperwork but he prefers to play at irresponsibility, and goes to plant himself pointedly in the seat next to Sasuke's. They make a pretty tableau, the three ex-pupils of Hatake Kakashi, even in this badly-lit and awkward arrangement. All concentration and colour, the fluid dynamics of history and the delicate nature of the present; pretty, but off-balance. Kabuto is very good at making people forget that he's there, and Sakura's guard drops like a pebble through water when she's around Naruto, so it's probably a combination of these two facts – and luck – that allows him to see the look on her face as Sasuke uses his unbroken arm to hit Naruto in the shoulder. Naruto grins. Sasuke's glare thins out like mist struck by the sun. And Sakura looks away from both of them with a bitter sorrow that rises in a wave to engulf her face, her whole being, before ebbing: practiced, quick. What's left on the sand is just a wanting smile – barely a smile at all, mostly the want – light and sharp like an itch.
His life is busy enough and his confidence strong enough that it takes months before he wonders about the ways in which he might be changing, being changed, the verb an imposition rather than an action. If he stands very still with his feet in the dirt he can feel himself becoming trapped in Konoha's atmosphere the same way he felt it when he was there for the chuunin exams - all those branches and leaves and winding forest paths, twists of rope-like clouds and the deceptive embrace of shadow.
But he's faster and more elusive than the trees. He can always walk away if he needs to. And in the meantime he's both a player and an observer, watching Naruto's attempts to learn the rules of a game that nobody thought to teach him, no matter how many times he told them what he was aiming for; they just kept piling instruction and power onto his head as though power were all it would take for him to become a political player. It's not enough. Of course not. The Nara boy, grown up tall and quiet and with eyes that miss nothing and give away even less, sits in with Naruto every morning and they talk. Iruka visits. Sakura visits. The steady stream of people in and out of the Hokage's office is such that Kabuto wonders he gets any independent work done at all, and Kabuto likes to see the truths and secrets of the world with his own eyes, so he wrangles the hospital paperwork out of the clerks one evening and sets off to deliver the reports himself. He leafs through it on the way: depressing statistics, ruthlessly balanced budgets, brushstokes that never slip into medical illegibility but stand out stark and deceptively dry, hiding emergencies that never had a chance to happen because Sakura is better at this game than anybody knows or thinks to appreciate. Kabuto runs a finger underneath her terse sentences about a contained outbreak of infection and feels a thick tendril of admiration slither through his opinions.
"-- ulterior motives not really necessary, right?" Naruto is saying when Kabuto pushes the door open, not quite all the way, keeping behind the wood. The Hokage sounds peevish.
"No, but you'd better have something down on paper to talk about, or they'll have uprooted half of Suna's officials for nothing, and they won't like that." Sasuke, standing near Naruto's chair, which Naruto himself has risen out of as he searchs the desk for something. Neither of them have noticed the gentle swing of the door.
"Fuck, fuck, fucking letter fuck," Naruto says absently, scrabbling through piles. "I suppose you're right. I'll start a list tomorrow and talk to Reiko about prioritising and – sending a copy in advance, I guess? Where is this fucking – oh."
"I'm usually right," Sasuke says as Naruto takes the piece of paper from his hand. "You're just slow to learn this fact."
"Shut up." Naruto touches Sasuke's mouth with fondness, with ink-smeared fingertips, with a smile that is years younger than the rest of his tired expression, and Kabuto surprises himself by lifting his knuckles to rap, politely, against the half-open door.
Gaara's visit to Konoha takes place sooner after that than Kabuto expected; apparently Naruto has little patience for the traditional, drawn-out forms of diplomacy. It's an earthquake of a disruption in the life of an already tumultuous community, but everyone seems to embrace the challenge. Kabuto keeps his eyes open and sees things that vary in their value, like who's trusted with which tasks and whose mouth curls in disapproval at the amount of protocol Naruto throws out the window in rushing down to embrace his friend, his robes of office flapping and gathering dirt. Like how far to attention the warriors of each village stand, disguising their tension as respect. Like the way the Kazekage's sharp-tongued sister is silenced for once by the challenging smile that transforms Nara Shikamaru's face when their palms touch; history, there, and probably a future as well, but nothing original. Kabuto moves on. He finds himself outside the meeting rooms in which great and significant things are being discussed (or possibly Naruto is enthusiastically demonstrating a new technique in an effort to make Gaara crack a smile; Kabuto wouldn't place money either way) and stumbles across Sasuke. Standing guard is well below the Uchiha's station, but Kabuto remembers how much he always hated anything that had a whiff of politics to it.
"Escaped?" he enquires, and Sasuke's customary look of active dislike has a gleam to it that means Kabuto was right. "Who'd have thought it," he adds, because he's bored too, and chipping away at Sasuke's mystery never loses its charm. "Uchiha Sasuke, willingly caught in Konoha's net."
Sasuke doesn't rise to it, but he does Kabuto the courtesy of not ignoring the history and the question behind the statement. He tilts his head to watch the play of light through the spiral streamers adorning the roof's edge, his impossibly dangerous hands tapping gently against his own leg, and then looks Kabuto in the face.
"A village is no more than the people that live in it."
It sounds like a quotation. Diagnostically, Kabuto says: "Or the people that lead it."
Sasuke looks away.
Kabuto sees many sides to Sakura, in the hospital, and quickly categorises them. Like most medi-nin he's known, she has an amazing capacity for grace under pressure, but he likes her best - he wants her most - when she is stressed and sharp and ugly at the edges with the distorting weight of her own bitterness. Which is common; even the people closest to her seem unable to spot that to a very great extent she is holding herself together with her own talent and resilience. With anyone else he'd be tempted to say that it can't last, that they will shatter sooner or later, but not Sakura: the fissures are deep but her sutures are expertly strong, and though she shows no signs of healing she shows even less chance of letting herself break apart along her lines of weakness. Kabuto adds up her symptoms and what he knows of her situation, and then arranges it in his head because he has the odd luxury of time in which to do so, in which to organise the presentation of her case history such that the diagnosis flows, inexorably, from the facts. They are logical people, both of them. She'll appreciate the effort.
He finds her alone with that coastline smile on her face and he is, like any good medic, direct and to the point. Or: like any good ninja, he strikes hard and fast in the place where it will count.
"You don't know which of them you want and sometimes you think you don't want either of them, really, but you do know that you can't bear for them to have each other because it means that you have no one, and that no one wants you. And you hate yourself for this because it's your job to make people feel better but what you want more than anything is to destroy their happiness. Even though they are innocent of everything but finding love, even though their lives have been hard beyond imagining, you wish them harm, and you think this makes you a monster."
She's just standing there. Flayed to the bone and shaking with her gorgeous, guilty anger. Kabuto doesn't touch her, even though he wants to; he smiles and he enjoys the tense balance of the silence between them.
"Really," he adds eventually, "I'd have thought that someone in our profession would have a little more imagination than that."
She doesn't pretend not to understand. Her eyes are slits of glass and she whispers, "There are different kinds of monsters. As you know."
Now Kabuto reaches out and takes hold of her arm by the wrist, watching the slits widen into shuttered windows as she turns her hand to grasp his as well. It's automatic, this double grip - a training exercise, a way of demonstrating medical techniques. It can be as dangerous as the teacher requires.
"As I know," he agrees, and gives her what she needs, which is someone to hurt.
By silent consent nothing goes higher than the elbow, but that doesn't lessen the challenge because the anatomy of the forearm is tricky. Tricky, and full of individual variation; there's something deliciously private about the forks and meandering tributaries of the cubital vein, and Kabuto enjoys the way she sparkles pain down his, using the cells themselves, a precise method he's not come across before. It probably has a clinical application. She's probably never used it this way before. But she's fast, and bursting with her destructive want, and Kabuto laughs under his breath and reciprocates. It's exhilerating, allowing a little bit of the past to trickle down into the present, opening themselves up to the possibility of revenge, playing with synapses and guilt and other invisible things. They swap swift tainted secrets in the form of weaponised chakra, more of himself than Kabuto's ever given away before, but the way she gasps as his power gets past her defences - the way her heart stirs furious blood, the way her mouth tries to suck back the sounds - is enough, more than enough, for him to consider the game worthwhile and his own losses acceptable.
She says, harsh, "You're enjoying this."
He says, "Of course I am. Does it matter?"
It's an important question. The desire to cause true suffering and the desire for violence are distinct.
Unseen lightning forms a vice around Kabuto's tendons and Sakura says, as he thought she would: "No. It doesn't."
Konoha is a web spun by the centuries. Konoha is a black-and-white board with hidden ladders and blatant snakes. Konoha is the slow birth of a galaxy and at its centre is Naruto, somehow making it work. All of it. The village rebuilding itself and diffusing into a new pattern, the ninja teams and the training of the young, even the politics, Naruto is keeping every ball in the air because between there is nothing between the black and the white of his world; nothing between duty and disgrace. Because the people around him believe it to be possible. Because he is a living fucking miracle, as far as Kabuto can see: nobody ever told him that he was a good person, the world did its best to persuade him to become otherwise, and yet he persisted in proving himself good. Worthy. Honourable. It's a mess of a story, implausible; if it were a book then Kabuto would abandon it, but it's life, so it just continues, without any need to defend the likelihood of its own existence.
Konoha is a web; Kabuto figures that as long as he is able to recognise this fact, he'll be able to walk away, but he's staying for now. He's staying for the new levels of skill he can feel at his disposal, hard-won and complex, he's staying for the angry set of Sakura's jaw and their silent wonderful battles, explicit or otherwise. He's staying because it annoys Sasuke and because the smell of wet grass stifles his dreams and because he is, despite himself – no, actually, true to himself, to his natural inclinations – intrigued by the true mad story of Uzumaki Naruto.
He's staying because of all the places in the world, this one knows how to live in perpetual anticipation of disaster. Which is the only true way to live.
"Ready?" he asks Sakura as the first body comes through the door. It could be a freak accident. It could be the first of many, omen of a nightmare week of no sleep and blood under their fingernails. It could be knowledge, opportunity, something new.
Sakura looks at him with challenge clear and sharp on her face, like the waves have worn all of her away except those parts which are hardest and most worthwhile.
"What choice do I have?" she says.