Notes: This was my entry for the latest anon challenge at oh_shit_santa and it appears that I have learned nothing from The Listening Sky, because Sasuke remains a bitch to write and I remain unable to stay within a sane word limit once I start getting excited about my own invented mythology. (Well, in this case it is a pastiche of mythology that I stole from other places and then chucked into the Naruto-verse and stood back to watch what would happen.)
In case this is not glaringly obvious: I have something of a Thing for desert stories.
The Tale of the Thousand Tales
"You should probably know that I'm not very good at telling stories."
Sasuke's first thought was: there is an excess of space in the desert.
If he stood very still and tipped his head back, squinting upwards with eyes far too used to the protection of forest shade, then the sky seemed to stretch on forever. Nine shades of blue within the angle of his vision, and sharp painful lines of sunlight slicing into his mind, and the sheer sense of height.
"Far better men than you have gone mad here," Temari said, drawing him back to himself.
"By which you mean Shikamaru."
"Quite mad," she agreed. "I question my own taste in men on a daily basis."
Sasuke didn't smile, but he came close; she wasn't bad company, all things considered, and she had no expectations of him. It was refreshing. "Has he told you the story of how his family is the basis for a Konoha myth about shadows that judge the strength of your character as they fall across you?"
"And suck the life out of you if you're found wanting?"
"His father told me." She smiled. "No wonder you lot are all so screwed up. Even your bedtime stories were little more than the propaganda of duty."
Sasuke himself had had no need of such legends as a child. There had been enough yardsticks of his strength within his own house. "And Suna has no myths?"
"Oh, we have plenty."
And she was right. Every grain of sand was a different colour and every person had a different tale to tell. The old king, when they had kings, who had to wake every morning and coax the sun into rising. The vampires, the kyuketsuki, that were more than shadows but would suck blood and stories from you nonetheless. The rogue pockets of scattered power that trapped you in illusion and granted your deepest darkest wishes, three at a time, until your mind was saturated with fantasy and your body wasted into nothing. Evil advisors; shifting mirages; sandstorms and tea kettles and carpets woven through with wind chakra and words that had the power to move mountains and open chasms, revealing the treasure within. Sasuke didn't like this last: power should come from the blood, from the individual and their strength. The idea of objects and words holding power independent of those who would use them seemed -- easy. Weak.
Kankurou, who had told him the story, did not smile. "Not necessarily. There's no point in owning a powerful weapon unless you're strong enough to lift it."
From this Sasuke assumed that there existed words that could sear the inside of one's mouth just as easily as his own Gokakyu, words too heavy to contain with ease, words with cutting edges. He changed his mind. He wanted to learn them.
Kankurou smiled, sort of. "It's just a story, Uchiha."
Sasuke said, "A lot of things are just stories."
If Konoha's myths were the propoganda of duty then Suna's were a strange mixture of cunning and temperance. Be careful what you wish for. Be careful where you wander and the words you let past your lips.
With that last in mind, what he told the Kazekage was simply: "I have business in Suna."
Gaara rested his chin in one thin hand and looked at him carefully, and Sasuke was struck by the authority in that assessing gaze. Even devoid of the demon's power and his own juvenile hostility, there was something about the young Kazekage's manner that gave pause.
"Private business, I assume."
Sasuke nodded; after a moment, Gaara nodded as well, and something that was almost a smile spread across his lips.
"We are quite accustomed to being invaded by the Leaf. Abide by our laws or I will have you thrown into a cell -- private business doesn't grant you diplomatic immunity. Talk to my sister if you require anything."
Sasuke nodded once more, to hide his amusement, and left to relocate Temari. He was fairly sure that Temari knew that he wasn't here in any sort of diplomatic capacity, official or secret; he was fairly sure that Temari knew most things, and that she handled Suna's intelligence-gathering activities in the same way that Shikamaru did Konoha's. He was also fairly sure that their relationship was one-third genuine affection and two-thirds political mindgames, and had no idea how they'd managed to avoid having each other assassinated for so long, but they seemed stupidly happy with the arrangement so he supposed it wasn't any of his business.
"I hope you're not here to kill anyone," Temari said.
"No," Sasuke said, almost certain it wasn’t a lie. "My business isn't inside Suna itself. I need to travel into the desert, to the west."
Her eyebrows shot up. "I hope you're not here to kill yourself. My brother won't be pleased if Uzumaki's first act upon becoming Hokage is to declare war upon the last place that you were seen alive."
Sasuke smiled and wondered when they all started to talk like that, like Naruto's future was carved in stone. "No, I intend to stay alive."
Temari laughed and he watched as she ran her fingers down the long line of her fan, an instinctive self-reassurance that had him reaching for his own katana in automatic echo.
"Ah, I forgot. You're a snake-charmer, Uchiha," she said, her eyes unreadable, her voice making it something between an insult and a compliment. "You'll probably blend right in."
Yet another myth of this place, Sasuke thought. Flute music and snakes rising out of the dark spaces. He blinked and found his hand resting not on his katana but against the slope of his neck and shoulder, searching for a mark long gone.
"I'm sure I will," he said.
He left in the morning with a map folded neatly in his pouch and with instructions to Temari that he should be declared dead if and only if his body was discovered. She cursed and called him a diplomatic nightmare, but shoved another two bottles of water into his hands before leaving to attend a meeting. And so Sasuke found himself again under a sky that was too high and in the embrace of an emptiness that made his skin itch. The heat was bad enough within the city walls, where shadows could be found or improvised; without the weight of civilisation the desert seemed to drift upwards, closer to the sun, eagerly lapping up its rays and letting them glare off the pale sand. Sasuke had a terrible headache within the first two hours.
In the fourth hour the sun was directly overhead and he fell over twice, deceived by the flattened angles of the sand's undulations.
In the seventh hour he could have sworn that there was a giant wave on the horizon, hovering and shimmering but never breaking. His fingers rested on the lid of one of the bottles of water, hanging at his belt, but he forced them away again.
In the tenth hour he was staring delirium in the face and trying to convince himself to surrender.
He walked until the horizon fell down around his eyes, until the sun crushed him and his mind finally let the sky rush in.
He woke up in darkness. Muscles in his neck ached and bespoke an odd angle of sleep, and his stomach stirred with the pangs of hunger as he pulled himself into a sitting position. Spears of gentle pain attacked his head from every direction.
"I haven't had a visitor in far too long."
Sasuke thought that if the rough eddies of the desert wind had a voice, they would sound like this. Thin and parched. Amused.
The voice added, "It'll be a great pity if you're as stupid as your actions would suggest."
When Sasuke stops speaking, the echoes of his own voice take a while to die away in his ears; it is no real quality of the cave, simply the fact that he is unused to speaking for such extended periods.
"And what did you say then?"
Sasuke inhales with the concentration of one conducting an experiment, still unused to the way the air slides into his lungs like a dry-skinned living thing. "I said, you should probably know that I'm not very good at telling stories."
"You were right. You're not very good: your grasp of chronological narration is hideously sloppy." The kyuketsuki moves its head; its eyes are black and dynamic like chunks of burning charcoal, but otherwise it could pass for human. Certainly human is a fluid concept -- Sasuke thinks about the scarlet destruction of Naruto's eyes, and about the way he can feel the harder, wilder forms of Orochimaru's curse seal lingering just out of his reach -- and this tall angular thing with its mahogany hair and its dusty accent could pass unnoticed in the world outside the desert. If it weren't for the eyes.
"Are you going to kill me?" he asks.
Laughter, like weeds being stripped with a knife.
"You're not very good, but you might not be irredeemably bad. And you've got some good stories inside you, I can taste them. I want those stories. Maybe I'll kill you after the next one, if the telling doesn't improve."
He shrugs. "Fair."
"Don't you have any sense of self-preservation?"
"I have a sense of purpose," Sasuke corrects. "It's not the same thing."
"Blood and stories," it says then. "Impressive. And interesting, the way the myth has been twisted."
Sasuke smiles for no reason other than that the humourless curve of his own lips brings him comfort. And maybe the thing can see him, in the dark; in his experience it never hurts to appear unafraid. "No blood, then?"
"Tcha! You organic creatures and your fixation on substance." It hisses, sharply. "You yearn for knowledge of powerful words, but you never realise that words are power. Even the least of them."
"So I see." Sasuke tilts his head from one side to the other, stretching his neck, planning his next move. "Very well: no blood. But I was told you can trap people for a thousand nights, feeding on narrative until their entire life has turned into…words."
"More twisting. Nobody has a thousand stories in them."
Sasuke raises his eyebrows. "How many do they have, then?"
"Usually? One." The kyuketsuki gives a smile so wide and so quick that it makes Sasuke's jaw ache to watch. "Just one. But it takes them a long time to tell it. And sometimes the telling kills them, it's true, but it's a painless death."
Sasuke nods slowly and finds a more comfortable niche in the rock. His body still begrudges him the torment he inflicted upon it during the day, and the telling was -- difficult. It's very easy to imagine this exhaustion piling up unto death. "I assume you want the next story tomorrow night."
"Why break with tradition?" That smile again. Sasuke closes his eyes against it.
"What shall I do in the meantime?"
"Think about how you will tell it, of course. I suspect you have a greater fondness for your own life than you will admit to, leaf-boy."
Sasuke finally lets himself drink; his throat is so dry that it almost refuses to register the sensation of liquid for the first couple of gulps. He recaps the bottle and falls asleep with his hand in his kunai pouch, knuckles brushing metal and fingers curled around Naruto's necklace, words melting into images in his head.
The decision that Taka would break its alliance with Akatsuki was one that Sasuke had been expecting to make for almost two years -- since the creation of that alliance, in fact -- but even he was surprised by the exact timing.
"We're changing sides," Sasuke said.
Karin froze with two shuriken poised between her fingers and rolled her eyes. "You might have said something sooner."
"Don't be a bitch about it." Sasuke grabbed her shoulder and turned her until she was facing in a different direction. "Get to the Hokage's offices. See if you can be of any help, but don't let Madara see you."
She let out a heavy sigh, but nodded and took off running.
"We're changing sides," Sasuke said.
A sharp grin stole onto Suigetsu's face, and the boy rubbed blood and sweat from his palm onto his shirt before grasping the hilt of his sword even more tightly. "Kisame?"
"All yours. Keep him distracted for as long as possible."
"Gotcha, captain." He grinned again and leapt upwards, already scanning the area for his target.
"We’re changing sides," Sasuke said for the third time.
Juugo looked at him for a long moment. Then he reached out with one hand and crushed one of Madara's swooping illusions within his fist.
"Keep at it," Sasuke said, and set off to find the last people in Konoha who might still believe him capable of good. Not that he'd ever had much patience for good as a descriptor. Not enough breadth of semantics, not enough allowances made for the differences between justice and law. Sasuke lived and had always lived by the strength of his convictions, and though this was a strange time for his convictions to choose to whip around and contradict themselves, he had no intentions of ignoring them.
He found Kakashi first, simply by triangulating the flashes of blue lightning that shot into the sky, and managed to avoid what might have been a truly awkward explanation by cutting down both of the man's opponents.
"Well?" Kakashi said, as Sasuke lowered his katana.
Sasuke felt like smiling, ridiculously. He managed not to. "Change of plans."
"Is that so." He didn't move. "Nice coat."
"Kakashi. I need you to trust me." Stupid, stupid, they were wasting time. Nothing for it. Sasuke steeled himself and said, "I'm sorry for everything," quiet and distinct, because he couldn't say my brother loved this village or actually, I don't think I want to watch Madara kill people who were once my friends.
My, my, my. Sasuke wondered if everyone's selfishness was so easily displayed as altruism, or if he was just…lucky.
Kakashi's eyes widened at the apology, as Sasuke had known they would. His teacher's hands were hovering near each other, very close to forming a seal, but after a moment they dropped to his sides. "Good to have you back, Sasuke," he said then, his tone light, as though it had been five weeks instead of five years and Sasuke had simply been on a holiday.
"Naruto. Madara's --"
"No. Listen." Sasuke jerked his head. "Madara doesn't care about the elders, he's attacking the Academy. And then the residential areas."
"Madara knows our Naruto well, doesn't he," Kakashi said softly, and Sasuke felt all of thirteen years old again.
"I'm going to fix it," he snapped, to hide the shame spiking in his chest. "Starting now. Madara still trusts me, and there's a gap in his technique --"
"No time." Kakashi moved, finally, and took hold of his elbow. "Tell me the plan on the way there."
Madara's techniques were impossible to mistake, and Naruto's soaring chakra was even easier to spot than Kakashi's had been. Sasuke dropped into the rubble on one side of them and felt the breeze against his back as Kakashi, hidden in gentle illusion, did the same.
"Ah, there you are, Sasuke," Madara said. "Just in time to watch the last jinchuuriki die," and Naruto spun around as though he'd been thrown off balance by a strong wind, exposing the faintest hint of red in his shocked eyes. So nothing drastic had happened yet. Good.
"About that." Sasuke said, and shrugged his cloak off, whereupon it fell into a mud puddle. It was possibly the most melodramatic gesture he'd made in a life full of melodramatic gestures, and he enjoyed it immensely.
Naruto kept staring. "Sas--"
"Duck, moron," and Naruto's instincts must have improved because he threw himself to the ground just as a shower of Chidori arrows soared through the air.
The surprise on Madara's face was worth all the pain and effort of the battle that followed, a battle in which Sasuke exhanged no more than a few glances and quick words with Naruto. No time for surprise or accusation or resurrection of the past when the present was so dangerous, and when it was over Sasuke could barely feel his hands. With great care he leaned over and placed them against his thighs, and though he could feel the pressure and he could steady himself well enough, his hands didn't quite seem to be his. Ten thin crooked lines of skin, clearly visible, with at least one broken knuckle and several chakra burns, but the mental connection of ownership was wavering. Too much had happened. Too much lost and gained.
He looked up again when he became aware of the silence around him, the silence that began with Uzumaki Naruto and then rolled away, gathering a terse momentum as it spread over the crowd of people that were trickling into their vicinity now that the fight was, to all intents and purposes, over.
There was a terrible gash on Naruto's forehead, snaking into his hairline and bleeding all over his face. Sasuke's own face tingled in an itchy sympathy: he wished the idiot would wipe the damn blood away.
"So that's that," Naruto said.
Sasuke straightened his back, stood with his feet flat on the ground of the only place he had ever called home, and held out his hand.
Naruto's eyes moved down for a brief moment, then returned to Sasuke's face. He wasn't smiling. He looked angry, and hard, and there was a strange stillness to him that Sasuke could not recall having seen before except once, one too-bright reunion day when he had laid his blade close to his best friend's neck and threatened his life. Naruto hadn't wavered. He wasn't wavering now. His expression was clear: it said, I don't owe you anything -- I certainly don't owe you this. And yet Sasuke couldn't bring himself to show anything in return; not so soon after so long keeping himself hidden. He would not plead, not even with his expression, not even with a body language invisible to anyone else.
The pause was too long, the murmurs of the crowd too judgmental. It was humiliating. Sasuke lifted his chin higher and didn't drop his hand so much as an inch.
Finally, Naruto gave the quick succession of blinks and the tiny furrow of his brow that meant he had come to a decision, and he walked forward to close the distance between them. His hand showed no indication of rising to grasp Sasuke's, and Sasuke decided in less than a heartbeat that if Naruto wanted to hit him then he wasn't going to fight back. It went against all of his instincts and all of his desires, but he'd already thrown himself open and he did nothing by halves. And yet Naruto was close, closer, neither welcome nor violence in his stance, and nothing about him changed until there was less than a foot of space between them. Then he lifted his hands -- both hands -- and just kept right on walking, and Sasuke didn't work out what was going on until his centre of gravity was yanked forward and Naruto's fingertips dug with simultaneous, painful urgency into the small of his back and the muscles just below the nape of his neck.
Sasuke froze, his awareness stunned into throwing itself wildly out to the height of the clouds and the depth of the shadows on the ground, and when his proprioception clicked back into place he found himself with his heart thudding with uneven volume and his arms wrapped tight and awkward around Naruto's back. He could smell woodsmoke and blood and sweat, the sharp tang of war, and the heat of Naruto's body was shocking in its sudden, unfamiliar proximity; his own muscles seemed to latch onto the radiating warmth and start to ease themselves out of their agonising knots. Sensation crept back into his hands, sparking pain in the clefts between his fingers.
Then, as though the pressure of Sasuke's grasp had forced it out of him, Naruto gave a ragged sigh. "You --" he said, and then -- incredible -- he laughed, quiet and almost disbelieving, his breath and his blood tickling against the side of Sasuke's face. "Bastard," he finished.
Sasuke's lips traced out the automatic parry, but he was suddenly tired, exhausted to the point of collapse, and couldn't muster the energy to make it audible. Instead he shifted a little, letting Naruto take some of his weight, and then closed his eyes and forgot past and future -- betrayals and inevitabilites -- in favour of this one immediate moment in which everything was simple.
The kyuketsuki declares his chronology much improved, and declines to kill him. For today.
"I appreciate it," Sasuke murmurs.
The story has taken them deep into the night, and the darkness should be absolute, but Sasuke has been speaking with his eyes closed and he opens them to a white glow that lacks the delicate sparseness of moonlight. This light comes from the kyuketsuki itself; as Sasuke blinks into adjustment the glow dims, and in place of the reddish hair and the charcoal eyes, Kakashi is sitting on a sloping rock very close by. It's more than just the visual likeness -- although beneath the lingering light the figure of Kakashi is far more detailed than a clone would be -- it's the position, the timbre of breath, even the smell. But Sasuke knows better than most how easily an illusion can be constructed, and so he is careful not to react beyond the initial widening of his eyes.
"I'm not reading your mind," the kyuketsuki says, seeming to do just that. "The narration makes it…leaky. Images escape. Mostly people."
"So it's an illustrated story. Charming." Sasuke reaches out in curiosity and touches the fabric of its sleeve. The feel of it brings a rush of sense-memories from childhood. "Illusion, or true shift of form?"
"Does it matter? Somewhere in between. There you go putting emphasis on substance again."
For a moment the combination of his teacher's voice and the reproving tone is so familiar that it throws Sasuke off balance; he feels less confident and, paradoxically, more alone.
"What's the point of this?" he demands. "Just amusing yourself, I suppose."
"You suppose," it says, and grins. Sasuke gives up on the question; he's learning when to cut his losses.
He sleeps. He wakes. Out of boredom, he turns his face away from the sunlight and sleeps some more; there is little to do in the daytime. Waking for the second time just after noon, Sasuke surprises himself by taking the thing's advice and teasing his past into some semblance of narrative sense in his head.
"What makes a good story?" he asks at one point.
The kyuketsuki, no longer Kakashi but back in its original form, lifts up a hand and splays the slender fingers. One by one they fold themselves in half -- not in thirds, but in half. The strangeness of it makes shivers crawl across Sasuke's own knuckles.
"Conflict," it says. "Energy. Lack of predicatability. An ideal resolution and a momentum directing one towards it."
Sasuke had been half-expecting mockery in answer, so he is unsure how to respond to that. Eventually he inclines his head and digs through his bag for some food; by all reasonable logic he should be feeling hungrier and thirstier than he is, and more often, but in the face of the kyutetsuki's offhand threats he feels strangely certain that he won't be allowed to perish from something as mundane as hunger. So he breaks a piece of brittle bread into small pieces and chews them slowly, looking out at the eternity of the desert and thinking about how easily it could kill him -- this vast, lifeless piece of land. How little his power counts for in the end.
He thinks: there is a reason why the Sand is the heart of the Wind.
Naruto's hand was clenched in his shirt and Naruto's face was close to his and there were at least five scenarios in which this could have been a favourable state of affairs but it seemed that the two of them had, characteristically, chosen self-destruction instead.
"Let go," Sasuke said coldly.
"You have no idea--" Naruto started, and gave him another furious shake, and Sasuke brought his hand down hard into empty space; Naruto had snatched his own hand back so quickly that Sasuke had barely registered the shift.
"Stop acting like a child."
"Really? Is that your advice? Anything else you think I might have missed while you were off doing such a great job of growing up?" Naruto lifted his hands like he might try to shake Sasuke again, but jerked them to lie clasped behind his own head instead, and glared like acid. By accident or design the pose gave him a couple more inches on Sasuke, adding an insolent emphasis to his sarcasm.
Everything was going all wrong, and Sasuke had no idea how to fix it. He wanted to go back to the part where Naruto was happy to see him, or back even further to the part where they killed Madara together and then stood holding each other until Sakura, sobbing, knocked them both off their feet and into the dirt with the force of her embrace. How the hell had they gone from that to this? Sasuke wanted to blame the intangible walls of the village, the supple forest sphere that bundled them together and loaded them with the weight of their history and the expectation of -- what?
Duty. Reconciliation. Friendship.
Be careful what you wish for.
So now they were shoving themselves up against each other like all it would take was the right alignment and the right speed of collision, and somehow they'd fix everything. But fix implied a return to a previous state of being, and Sasuke was starting to realise that they'd already managed that. Arguments, raw power, red anger and blue distance: oh, they'd fixed themselves right back to where they'd left off, all those years ago. Naruto was still unable to control his temper and Sasuke was finding himself still devoid of any inkling of how to react beyond cutting words and the simple act of turning away, even when his body was finding something magnetic in Naruto's molten-glass anger, in the glow and the transparency of it. His aches and desires seemed to belong in another dimension to the adolescent patterns of behaviour that they were retreading, over and over, and so he swallowed them and they simmered and mingled with his snarling frustration that neither of them could ever seem to say the right thing.
Case in point: Naruto's arms dropped with a sudden resignation, and Sasuke remembered with an equally sudden sweep of heat how it had felt when they were fighting, not against but beside each other, for Konoha and their own future. He remembered how his hands had fit around Naruto's back, and wanted to see if they still would. But he couldn't do it, because they were Sasuke-and-Naruto and they were arguing, and that wasn't how these things worked.
Naruto's knuckles were white, tight, trembling at the ends of his locked arms. Sasuke felt the contempt adorning his own face and thought: some future this is. Barely worth fighting for at all. And then the voice in Sasuke's head that had told him to change sides, the voice that sometimes tried to tell him that Itachi might have loved him but there were greater standards against which his brother's actions should be judged -- this voice spoke up. It said: you need to move forward. You need to create something new.
It failed, however, to provide any solutions. So Sasuke turned away; this was not the kind of situation to which his talents could be applied; ergo, there was no point in maintaining it.
From behind his back, as he left, there came the ringing noise of someone's foot connecting with something mercilessly immobile. After a couple of seconds Sasuke discovered that the sound had brought a tense smile to his lips, purely out of habit. Schadenfreude: how fucking constructive of you, Uchiha.
Abruptly, clumsily, as though his mind was groping through unfamiliar mist, he bumped into the idea that maybe -- just maybe -- it might be worthwhile to involve a third party. He pinned the idea down with ruthless discipline, ignoring the fact that his self-suffiency was clamouring for its destruction, and headed for the first person he could think of.
"Sasuke." Sakura's eyes widened as she looked up from her patient. "Are you alright? What are you doing here?"
Good question. Sasuke thought about it for a moment and decided that the answer was not spreading my misery but instead, "I want advice."
There was a flash of the Sakura he remembered, a flash of her confusion -- why me? -- but it didn't last; maybe he and Naruto were still the same in all the wrong ways, but Sakura had travelled and now she was somewhere distant and unfamiliar. This tall stranger with her eyes like green glass and her efficient movements turned away from him again and looked down at the bed. "I'm a little busy," she said softly.
Sasuke frowned. "He's asleep."
"He's unconscious," she shot back. "All right. There's a chair in the corner if you want to stay, but don't touch anything. I need to do an aseptic procedure, which means --"
"I know what that means." Sasuke, who had spent more than enough time around Kabuto to gain a healthy respect for the combination of clinical voices and sharp instruments, sat down. The chair was surprisingly comfortable. This hadn't been such a bad idea: Sakura clearly didn't expect anything of him, and it was always enjoyable to prove people wrong.
Sakura did something complex and deft with a needle, and blood started to creep down a length of transparent tubing. Sasuke had seen a lot of blood in his time, and he knew that something wasn't right with this thick, almost purple liquid.
"What's wrong with him?"
"Poison." She attached the tube to a bag and then splayed one hand out over the man's breastbone. Sharp light, not quite the colour of her eyes, spilled out from under her palm.
"So you're just…taking his blood away? Is that safe?"
She shrugged. "Sometimes the removal of a thing is what makes you stronger. Besides, he's got a saline drip and I'm stimulating the production of blood cells in the marrow of his sternum. Small increased risk of cancer, but he'll die without the procedure, so it's worth it."
"You sound like a textbook."
"You sound like an asshole," she said easily, lifting her hand and her chakra clear.
Sasuke felt his mouth twitch; he didn't reply, just sat and watched the trickle of tainted blood running into the corners of the plastic pouch.
"I assume you wanted to talk about Naruto," Sakura said suddenly. She turned to face him, looking as though she might have liked to have her hands on her hips if they weren't gloved and spattered with blood. "Kakashi is this close to banging your heads together. I'll help," she added with a glower. "What's wrong with you?"
"Me?" Sasuke sat upright. "I'm trying. He's the one who has to turn everything into a fight."
"He's trying too." Sakura cast one more glance at the patient as she stripped her gloves off, and when she met his eyes again her face was a challenge. "You didn't expect this to be easy, did you?"
Maybe he had. Maybe there should have been a warning: just because a homecoming was joyful, it wasn't guaranteed to be simple.
He wanted to say, no. He didn't want to lie.
"He's wanted you back for so long, but he has to hold you accountable, too. Do you understand?"
Sasuke found something like humour on his lips. "This would be a lot easier if we were all thirteen again."
Sakura's sigh sounded a lot like agreement. She threw her gloves into a bin and leaned down to kiss the top of his head, and Sasuke was so surprised that he allowed it.
He isn't in the mood for discussion of the story. The kyuketsuki says, "Adequate," in a cool, clinical voice, and Sasuke nods and curls up with his eyes half-closed against the transformative light. Only half-closed: this particular midnight the kyuketsuki is Sakura with a weapon, all grace and coconut-ice shades of pink and silver, and Sasuke can't pull his gaze from the movements of her wrist as the shuriken flickers in her hand. Hypnotic circles of metal around the bloody lengths of her fingers. It doesn't take him long to fall asleep.
"Why stories?" he asks in the morning. "Why do you exist?"
As if to punish him for not reacting adequately, the kyuketsuki has kept its Sakura-shape. Part of Sasuke is almost tempted to move closer and brush against her, maybe just lean his arm against hers, because the daylight that leaks in makes her seem younger and softer, and the urge to put the knowledge of illusion aside just long enough to draw comfort from the sense of familiarity is very strong.
The same textbook voice, tempered now with sunlight and compassion, says: "Stories are how people organise their history in order to produce an identity."
Sasuke thinks about the myths of Konoha and Suna; wonders what he would find were he to collect the bedtime stories of the other hidden villages. He says, "I suppose that holds true both on the level of individuals, and the level of whole populations."
"Very good." Sakura's smile is, he realises, quite lovely. Like a curve of shadow across his overburdened senses. "I exist because anything as important as that creates something with a need for it. The world is a balanced place."
These answers linger in Sasuke's head for a long time. He himself has been sorting his personal history into piles, stripping them until they are as neat and brutal as the arid land outside the cave's entrance, then coaxing them into shapes. Maybe the experiences are diluted by the act of replication, their edges blurred as he forces his emotions into the tight sausage-skin of spoken word. Maybe he is nothing more than adequate; maybe from the perspective of the eternal and the immortal, his life is only a brief amusement. But he can feel, behind the shards of history that he spits out, a kind of settling. Yes. He's learning who he is, and he's learning that the words that hurt your mouth are especially worth saying, and that the memory of desire is enough to pull it surging to the surface. The descriptions -- the words that barely capture the enormity of the feeling -- are enough for it to spill through his consciousness, a messy tug of sensory longing.
Words that can paint his mouth with the need to press it against someone else's skin.
Words with the power to move mountains.
"I'm trying," Sasuke said between his teeth.
"I believe you." But he couldn't read Sakura any more, so maybe she was lying.
Someone had told him once that the way to work past any stubborn blocks that arise when you're trying to master a new technique is not to try; to give up, and to return to it later without expecting anything of yourself, and let the relaxation do the work for you. But if there was one thing that Sasuke knew he and Naruto would agree on -- and there could well have been only that one thing, lately -- it's that neither of them knew how to stop trying, so the chance of easing past their problems was slim to none. Maybe once Naruto would have smashed the deadlock, would have rushed in with his emotions untied and tripped over them in his own enthusiasm, but he was changed. Something had changed him, and Sasuke knew that he was that something, and so he had nobody to blame but himself for the unfortunate mixture of old and new that kept them in conflict.
Sometimes he thought the word, love, just as an experiment, seeing it as though written on a chalkboard by an unfamiliar hand.
Sometimes he just stood vibrating at a strange frequency of desire, in spurts and then more and more often, at disabling intensity, until he was unsteady with it. And Uchiha Sasuke could gather nothing but annoyance for the things that disabled him, a fact which skewed the tone of their conversations from the start. He snapped; Naruto got angry; Sasuke fought the blood down from his cheeks and snapped some more, because Naruto's anger was like clouds racing past the sun too quickly to temper its heat. So he needled and vibrated and noticed Naruto pulling back sharp breaths in response to his anger, as icy as it was, which made things a lot more interesting but no easier to solve.
The fights were evolving, or maybe devolving: Sasuke could no longer tell which.
"Perhaps you'd prefer I left again."
Naruto glared. "Well, if you hate being here so much, then maybe you should leave."
"But isn't this what you wanted? Isn't this what you were so determined to achieve?" and the mockery in his voice was so thin, just a veneer really, because he needed to hear the answer.
"That's just it!" Naruto shouted. "I didn't get to bring you back, you just -- decided. Like it was nothing. I wasn't the reason you left and I wasn't the reason you returned, and it was obviously stupid of me to ever think I could influence your life."
That was Sasuke's cue, but he let it slide past, trying to process the sheer number of emotions and accusations there.
Naruto absorbed the break in the rhythm, and when he spoke again it was more quietly. "Well? Do you want to deny it? Did your leaving have anything to do with me?"
"No," Sasuke said.
"Did you come back because of me?"
Sasuke scraped his tongue against his own teeth with enough force to cause pain and thought about how easy it would be to lie or even sculpt a little bit of honesty to create an attractive falsehood, and how Naruto would be thrown off balance and off his high fence of anger, and how the lie might calm both of them down for long enough to find their connection again. But he'd decided a long time ago that he would adhere to the truth no matter what the cost; he'd had enough of being lied to by the people he cared about -- Itachi and Madara and all the half-truths and deceptions that steered him down difficult, futile roads -- no. He would not accept any more lies, not from anyone, not even from himself.
So he said, "No," and it was the truth, and Naruto's mouth twisted, and the distance between them gaped wider still.
"Someone else," Sasuke says, too tired and too tense to care that he is giving commands to an ancient power. "Not him."
The kyuketsuki lifts a hand and for a terrible moment Sasuke is afraid that it will poke him in the forehead, but it just pulls a strand of Itachi's hair behind its ear and blinks at him with mangekyou eyes.
"You didn't expect this to be easy, did you?"
Sasuke grits his teeth. "No."
The sand is like a thousand tiny fingers all scratching and pressing against his skin.
It should have been a sign that things had deteriorated nearly past repair when Sasuke found himself being the loud one, while Naruto kept his temper. It should have slapped him in the face that they were reaching a boiling point.
"Your opinion is irrelevant," Sasuke snapped. "I've made my decision."
"A bad decision."
"I didn't see you volunteering any alternatives."
"I haven't got any just yet." Naruto was turning a single kunai over and over in his hand, the relentless violence of the motion the only indication that he was as angry as Sasuke was. It was unnerving, the reversal of roles, but Sasuke was fatigued and sore and in the middle of a fit of resentment directed against everyone, including himself, and if there was anyone he could let himself get vocally angry at then it was Naruto. Naruto, who continued: "But it's an important mission and I think you need to reconsider --"
"Nice to know you trust my judgement." Sasuke felt the sarcasm twist off his tongue, felt the keen edge of the word trust, and faltered.
Naruto's face pulled into a tight unhappiness. "It doesn't have to be about that."
Sasuke's mouth was dry. "I'm the team leader."
"And you're wrong." Naruto didn't even look at him, still focused on the weapon lying on his palm. "I realise this may be hard for you to accept, but you make mistakes. Wow, let's see if we can think of any other anomalies. There was that one time you tried to kill me --"
"And the time you offered yourself to Orochimaru, and the time you joined Akatsuki, and the time you attacked Konoha --"
"Oh, well, excuse me," Sasuke hissed. "From where I was standing it looked a whole lot like I saved Konoha."
This was ignored. "You know, I'm having trouble thinking of anything you've ever done right in your entire. Fucking. Life." Finally, Naruto lifted his head and glared at him.
Sasuke gritted his teeth. "I'm right about this."
"It's a shitty plan."
"No. You're letting your stupid need to be perfect get in the way of the fact that you're not perfect, and neither is anyone around you, and I'm not going to stand here and let you apply the Uchiha Sasuke school of suicidal thinking to a mission that involves people other than your perfect, precious self, and if you think --"
Sasuke kissed him, just moved forward and stood between his legs and tugged Naruto's head back with one hand and kissed him with something desperate and enormous, something that felt a lot like anger but which had him noticing the way Naruto pressed back against his hands, and the way his mouth opened, and the gentleness of his own fingers alongside Sasuke's cheek; the dim clatter of metal against the floor.
"Sasuke," he said, mouth opening wider on the vowels and vibrating oddly on the sibilants, and Sasuke pressed his lower body in even closer and moved on some kind of blind instinct to get his hands on Naruto's shoulders and lean back until his eyes would focus again. To his vague surprise, his lungs were disobeying conscious command; his breaths were deep and unsteady and slowed down entirely when Naruto's gaze -- wide, startled blue -- locked onto his. "Right," Naruto said hoarsely, "yes," and locked his ankles around the backs of Sasuke's legs and yanked his head down again. There wasn't really enough time to plan out what they were doing, which Sasuke was fine with, even though it meant that his teeth kept scraping across Naruto's lips and he kept forgetting to breathe and having to take embarrassing gulps of air, and he wasn't really sure about the optimum place to put his hands --
"Sasuke." One of Naruto's hands batted him none-too-gently in the side of the head, followed by a kiss that was like the inhalation before a jutsu. Centering. Balancing. "Quit it."
"Whatever you're thinking about. Stop thinking. Never mind. Clothes," Naruto added with that same hoarse disbelief. "Off, now."
"Bed," Sasuke suggested, moving one of his hands downwards and wondering how long he'd be happy for them to just keep growling nouns at each other, because it seemed like --
"Fuck," Naruto gasped, and then shoved him against a wall, and it sounded so much like an order that the anger-lust slammed into Sasuke again and made his knees buckle; Sasuke, who had known exactly where he was and what his body was doing in every moment of his life, felt something slip out of his grasp. There was overheated skin sliding crazily against his own, far too slowly, and his joints felt too fluid to be of any use.
They managed the clothes, eventually, and the bed too, and all in all it was much easier than any of their abortive attempts at connecting through speech. Though Sasuke did gain an abrupt grudging appreciation for Naruto's voice, which he had for so long considered to be unremittingly annoying, when he discovered that it could be chased into octaves both high and low: gratifying and blood-warming respectively.
"Hold on," Naruto murmured, somewhere in the newly-awakened lower register, "just let me -- wait --"
Sasuke tried to say something, to move, but Naruto's hands were hard and burning at his wrists, as though he was trying to push through to the floor and Sasuke's skin and tendons and bone were just an inconvenient mass. Naruto's eyes were just as burning, his gaze pulled roughly down Sasuke's body, and this was taking far too long. Sasuke pressed upwards with his hips and made a sound that he would never have thought himself capable of, a filthy sound that almost made him want to bury his face in the sheets with the sheer indignity of it, but he had to move past that because it had worked like a charm: Naruto was distracted. Sasuke seized the opportunity to yank one hand free and shove hard, finding the right places to gain leverage purely through fighting instinct, until he was the one with his body pinning Naruto's down, his mouth dissolving the inevitable insults. They hadn't quite got the hang of their version of kissing yet but it didn't seem to matter because Naruto growled and bit him, his teeth dragging at the side of Sasuke's lower lip, then his neck arching to chase the bite with something frantic and deep.
This is so weird, Sasuke thought, so weird, but Naruto's tongue was moving between his lips all strong and wet and like nothing else in the world, and surely this was the kind of stupid fucking epiphany you were meant to have when you were fifteen. Sasuke tried not to think about what he'd been doing when he was fifteen, which was easier than usual because Naruto pushed him over again and flew down his body and then his lips moved and closed and he started to laugh in the depths of his throat, which was pretty bizarre even for Naruto but the vibrations were torture, considering, and Sasuke grabbed a handful of wild blond hair and managed to forget most of his life story within the space of two seconds.
Somewhere along the way the sheets seemed to lose all of their substance, the soles of his feet unable to find purchase, nothing but heat and inorganic viscosity sliding against the callouses of his heels, the small muscles between his toes cramping with the effort to contain a feeling too large for his body. Naruto made some more vibrating noises and changed the shape of his mouth, like this too was a competition, like it was the thing they'd been leading up to their entire lives, and Sasuke would probably have had given in to panic if he'd been able to hold onto a single thought for long enough because this was still weird, it was surreal, and he was pretty damn convinced of the impossibility of building anything on sex and surrealism.
But he didn't do anything to stop it. He didn't want to, and he couldn't. He twisted his body, both of their bodies, and he made sure Naruto was looking at him and he said, "I don't --" and Naruto said, "You know I love you, right? 'Cause that's -- you have to know that, by now," and Sasuke knew it, finally, all the way from the aching muscles of his arms to the sting of his split lip, and he couldn't erase the past decade so instead he nodded and let Naruto kiss him, touch him, anything. Anything to make things work.
Afterwards Naruto tumbled into sleep with an easy speed that almost made Sasuke smile, and Sasuke himself lay awake and was more afraid than he could remember being in his life. It was too easy; they had been arguing an hour ago and nothing had been resolved; something else would go terribly, stupidly wrong soon. The universe would remember that they had never done much more than fight, one of them would leave -- again -- and the other would be hurt. Again. Sasuke didn't know what the next step was, didn’t know what the future would hold, didn't even know what his feelings for Naruto actually were.
Sasuke realised that he was waiting for his next conviction to slot in and fill the gap, to lay the path out for him, and instead there was just the slow near-silence of Naruto's breathing and a cold fear coiling its way through Sasuke's chest. He forced his liquid muscles to stir and sat upright, irrationally afraid of drowning in the feeling, drowning on dry land, on just the water vapour that dangled invisibly in the air of this village -- Konoha might not have forgiven him yet. Might not. Should not. His head was so heavy, so crammed full of incomplete futures and strange dreads.
His hands moved to Naruto's neck and Sasuke watched them curiously, letting the driving memory and the fledgling plan unfold themselves in his head. The lazy thump of Naruto's pulse stroked his fingers three times as he carefully tugged the necklace over the mess of blond hair, wound it into loose circles around his own palm, and held it tight.
Clothes. Weapons. His practiced noiselessness, the subtle melting movements of his shadow against the walls and the furniture. And then, almost as an afterthought, a note.
Don't do anything stupid. I'm coming back.
Not I'm coming back to you, because that was by no means a certainty, but…back, yes. That should end up being true enough to satisfy the both of them.
From Naruto's apartment he made his way to the Uchiha compound, letting his feet find the path so that his mind wouldn't have to dwell on the past, and concentrated instead on the streak of clouds across the moon and the dull clipping sound of his feet as he climbed the stairs to a room that he remembered as being full of books. And not just books: records, and tapestries, and scrolls, old fragments of captured narrative that he was fascinated by as a child.
The memory, insistent but still faint when he was sitting in bed listening to Naruto breathe, grew stronger with every pass of his fingertips across leather bindings and wooden shelves thick with dust. It took a while, but he found it eventually, and skimmed it in the firelight that sprang from his own hand. An old scroll, one bedtime story among the many that made up the Uchiha family history, which wound backwards so far that it began to blur into legend. Like this scroll in particular: the legend of the veteran shinobi who had fought a lifetime of wars and could never sleep, never rest in one place, because of the guilt of the deaths he had inflicted. The shinobi wandered over all the lands and eventually found himself in the desert, held captive by an ancient power of the sand; he told a thousand and one stories, each story being one man that he had killed, and telling the demon about them lifted the weight of his torment off his shoulders and left his mind clear.
He remembered his mother's voice saying: in some versions of this legend the shinobi dies, at peace, but in some versions the demon is so impressed with his story-telling that it lets him go.
The scroll did not contain every story of every death, but it contained a moral. And a map.
Silence in the cave. Sasuke unfolds his stiff joints in the dessicated darkness and becomes aware, gradually, of his own terrible thirst. He lifts his hands from the sand-strewn floor and brushes them against each other, rhythmic and fastidious, not looking up.
"And here you are," the kyuketsuki says, after a while.
"And here I am," he agrees.
That soft light bounces off his skin, illuminating the parched lines of his palms, but he drags one fingernail slowly underneath the gritty curves of the nails of the other hand and keeps his eyes averted.
"I suppose I should congratulate you, Uchiha Sasuke. Nobody has ever used me like this before," says a familiar voice.
Sasuke steels himself and looks up into the face that he has been expecting ever since the first night: fond, too-bright eyes above an open smile. The smile is tempered with an edge of ambiguous admiration that is close, but not identical, to the way Naruto used to watch him sometimes when they trained; that sliver of inauthenticity is enough that Sasuke's voice does not waver when he speaks.
"Sometimes the removal of a thing is what makes you stronger. Blood and stories."
"I hope my services didn't disappoint," it drawls. "Is your mind clear?"
Sasuke smiles. "Even more so than I expected."
"It was quite a gamble." Naruto's eyes in Naruto's face crease with amusement. "Do you frequently risk your own life on a childhood story to gain a little self-awareness?"
Sasuke thinks, a lot of things are just stories.
"I think you should know the answer to that by now," he says quietly. "All things considered."
The kyuteksuki laughs -- Naruto's laugh -- and Sasuke's chest aches at the sound with something thinner and deeper than thirst. "The truth. No matter the cost."
"Were you prepared to die?"
Sasuke thinks about the helpless twist of Naruto's mouth as he was trying to say the right thing and failing, and about the cold dread that seized him in the absence of a plan for the future. "Yes," he says again. "It would have been…better. Better than staying and never being sure."
The kyuteksuki's hand, which is Naruto's hand, slides beneath his jaw; the grasp is not firm, but it promises violence. Unbidden, Sasuke's heart speeds up at the contact, the intimacy and the familiarity of it. Death hovers somewhere in the corner of his senses, but he is shinobi and he is well used to that, and he is not afraid.
"I would prefer not to," he says, wry. "Have you come to a decision?"
"Hmm." A cold, brilliant smile. Naruto has never smiled like that. "I'm tempted to keep you here as a bargaining chip. Would he give me his life story? If I offered to let you go in exchange?"
The way it drops the words into the air -- life -- story -- leaves no doubt as to its meaning. Sasuke is very grateful for the moment of uncharacteristic sentiment that allowed him to leave that note; Naruto and his impulsive self-sacrifice are a long, long way from here. "Yes," he says. "He would. Which is part of the reason why I'm going back to him."
It chuckles. "Sure of yourself, aren't you?"
Sasuke tilts the corner of his mouth upwards. "If you were going to kill me I think you'd have done it by now. I haven't got any more stories for you."
"That's a lie." The kyuketsuki lowers its hand. "Childhood like yours? We could keep this up for weeks, snake-charmer."
Silence again. Thin tendrils of wind kick up dust from the cave's floor.
"I'm not going to beg," Sasuke says finally. "I'll kill you, if I have to."
Such casual, implacable confidence. Sasuke tightens his hand about the grip of his katana and says, "But I'd try."
"Kill me, Sasuke?" says Naruto's voice, and Sasuke's heart clenches, and then the kyuketsuki laughs. But it's the old, rough laugh that sounds like the sand at the heart of the wind, so it doesn't hurt as much as it could. "Go, go. I keep my word, such as it is, and that story was worth something."
Sasuke relaxes and stands up, pulling his cloak around him as he steps out under the open sky for the first time. Once again the sheer expanse of the dimly defined horizon makes him catch his breath.
"Can you find your way?" the kyuketsuki asks.
"Yes. I lost myself to find you, but the map shows the way out. Thank you," he adds then, the words awkward in his mouth, even though he had thought his tongue loose enough by now that no words would ever be difficult again. "Thank you."
"Tcha! Thank you for seeking me out, leaf-boy." And now the eyes, too, are no longer Naruto's but the old, burning black. "Come back to me one day with the rest of your life in your hands, and I'll give you a gentle passing."
"No." He pulls his katana higher on his shoulder. "That isn't how I should die."
It gives a light, sarcastic hiss. "Shinobi. You're all the same. A waste, a waste -- you and this jinchuuriki of yours -- seems to me that you're going to weave such a good story with the rest of your life."
He smiles. Create something new. "I have no doubt of that."
The sand is strong and uneven under his feet. Grains of it are already creeping into the folds of his clothes and bringing the malicious chill of the desert dawn with them.
Sasuke turns his face into the wind, casts a glance at the fading stars, and sets out in the direction of home.