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Fandom Redemption [Closed] [Graverobber141/arbus]


"I told you!", Ari cried immediately, pointing an accusing finger at Sakura while Sasuke stretched next to him. He gave not even a glance on the figure looming over him; all traces of mistrust had vanished from his animated features, had passed with the roaring storm that had thrown the world into turmoil.

"Sasuke needed to sleep", Sakura replied. Her expression was set, but the eyes that followed Sasuke's movements were soft with concern. "We have slept well", she added at his question. She busied herself with dishing out sausages and roasted hazelnuts, which smelled heavenly. Ari snatched the plate from her as soon as she held it out to him, stuffing one of the sausages into his mouth without hesitation. "Eat slowly", Sakura reprimanded. Chewing loudly, he answered her with an open-mouthed grin.

"And close your mouth when you're eating, we don't need to see that." Then, a lingering frown still on her face, she placed a bowl of six sausages and a small tower of nuts in Sasuke's hands. "Doesn't go too well together", she said in an apologetic tone.

"I think it's delicious!", Ari proclaimed. As if to proof his point, he shoved a handful of nuts into his already full mouth, reminding Sakura of a hamster. His next words were unintelligible as he tried to expand on his culinary views. He spit crumbles everywhere. Sakura ignored the tell-tale itch in her fist that readily suggested itself as a quick fix to bad behavior. Instead, she contented herself with throwing Sasuke a long-suffering look. See what I had to put up with while you were mercifully unconscious?
Taking a bite from her own breakfast (chewing ostentatiously slow and only speaking again after she had swallowed the food in her mouth) she said, feeling a bit shy: "I can help you with that sore muscles if you like."
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A small, disgruntled, still sleep-ridden Hn grumbled in Sasuke's throat at Sakura's claim that he had needed sleep. It was a factual statement, of course, and somewhere, the logical portion of his brain not overrun by his ego acknowledged it as true, yet he still was mildly irritated at himself. Being the capable shinobi he was, who had the important duty of watching out for these two he cared for, meant he could will his body through anything, of course; he could go days without rest and still be highly functional (that same logical portion of his brain knew this was false, and was highly grateful for the sleep his body had gotten).

Taking the offered plate, he nodded a thanks, offering Sakura a second, more pleasant (though just as heavy with a lingering haze of drowsiness) hn in gratitude, along with a small smile. "This is more than fine. Thank you." Busying himself with slowly eating his breakfast, taking extra care to make sure he kept his mouth shut while chewing, he tried his best to keep the amused smirk from his lips, yet Ari's and Sakura's little spout over table manners still caused his mouth to tweak upwards. Upon catching her exasperated look while reaching for some tea, he returned it with an apologetic one akin to the expression he had given Ari the night before during their bath-related argument. He was certainly learning when and how to pick his battles as he became older; perhaps some of Kakashi's lessons had stuck.

Her offer took him by surprise. Forcibly swallowing the hazelnut that seemed to have gotten lodged in his throat coincidentally right after she made it--and right around the time his mind jumped to an image of her giving his shoulders a massage, before he remembered she had her ninjutsu--Sasuke took a long sip of his tea as he shifted his gaze, tinted with a sheepishness unbeknownst to him, onto her.

His immediate thought was to decline. The idea of her going out of her way to fix his own stupid mistake--he should have either not have fallen asleep, or had the good sense to at least lay down--was one he could not stand for, yet it was the way she said it more than anything else that made him reconsider. Small gestures, reaching out. He was reminded of the night before, their time that seemed more like a dream than reality. She had seen him break.

Clearing his throat, dropping his eyes, Sasuke slowly nodded. "I would appreciate that, Sakura."

Besides, was he not trying to set an example for Ari? And wasn't it better to spend the day without the tension in his muscles?


Sakura nodded at his reply, the non-committal comment to cover any embarrassment already on her lips, when it registered what he had actually said. She gulped down a piece of charred sausage (she had kept the worst ones for herself and regretted deeply to have always declined her mother's offer to teach her some basic cooking skills) and stared. And then, after she had caught herself staring, she blinked and felt dumb doing it. As soon as she remembered to act normally, a smile flew to her face in the way it always did to cover her bashfulness or confusion. She hoped she looked careless and nonchalant and knew she didn't by the way Ari had stopped eating and was staring at her with his huge, round puppy eyes.

Before he could open his stuffed mouth in an attempt to say something - again - she cleared her throat and put her half-eaten breakfast down with a pragmatic vigor she did not really feel. She clapped her hands and made to stand.

"Well, let's, then."

Kami, had she really just said that?

Somewhere in Konoha, Ino was probably getting a migraine right about now. Your dumbness hurts me by proximity! It's what she had always said, when they were children and Sakura had stuttered her way through conversations, intrinsically shy and afraid to make a mistake, to say something stupid and draw dislike or harsh words upon herself.

She realized she had stood to early. Sasuke had not eaten up yet, but it would look stupid if she sat down again. There was nothing to do - the fire was bright and lively, so she could not pretend to have gotten up for wood. Her cheeks started to feel warm and she willed the blush away with sheer stubbornness. At a loss at what to do with her hands, she stemmed them into her hips. It caused Ari to twitch away from her, his gaze traveling between her and Sasuke with the kind of wariness that was more comical than threatened. He had stopped chewing altogether, and instead of eating like a hamster, he now also very much looked the part. Or maybe a chipmunk? Did chipmunks stockpile sausages and nuts in their cheeks like hamsters?

She was loosing her cool. For the jutsu to work properly, he'd have to take off his clothes. She would not tell him that. She had not thought of it, when she had been sure he'd decline. He had never accepted any help from her before. Kami, she was not prepared for this.

"Well?", she asked, eyebrow twitching. There was no way she could back out now. Her gaze shifted to Ari, suddenly very irritated by the way he was staring at her. "And you." He twitched again. "Eat up." He stared, then swallowed his food in one loud and very labored gulp.


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Sasuke, while before he could only stare at Sakura in bewilderment, was quick to set his plate aside at the twitch of her brow. He was on his feet a moment later, moving with lightning at his heels, even though he had no idea what she required of him; his desire, which was more of a need, judging by the panicked alarm ringing in his head, to keep her irritation from bursting into anger was more of a motivator than the promise to be rid of the actual soreness of his muscles. In some part of his conscious, he was weighing the risk of getting clocked for a misstep against the current pain of his body, only to find it wanting, yet trying to back out now could prove to be just as disastrous. So he stood before her, shoulders hunched, trying so hard to keep the fear and confusion out of his expression.

To think this had all started as an attempt to try and ease things between them. Admitting he needed help was something Sasuke definitely was not well-versed in, and accepting help of his own volition was only more difficult. On some level it was due to his own ego and arrogance, but beneath the surface, it was more born of his own unwillingness to face his own weaknesses, to rely on others. Yet how could he expect Ari to accept their aid, when he would not do it himself? That was the main he was doing this, he thought, even as the dream-like memory of her hand cradled against his neck resurfaced in his mind.

Clearing his throat once more, trying to be rid of the lump persistent there, Sasuke rubbed the back of his neck, keeping his eyes focused on a particularly interesting rock embedded in the ground, as he quietly told her, "I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable. I just--" His mouth and brow twitched in frustration as he searched for words to explain what he felt. Tossing a look over his shoulder at Ari, feeling embarrassment wash over him like a flood, he slowly turned his eyes onto hers, lowering his voice further. "--want things to be different between us."

And it was true. He wanted to heal the wound he had created between, even if he knew a nasty scar would always be left behind in its wake. Taking this small step, accepting this small offer of her help, was at least taking some sort of action toward that goal.


Sakura deflated with a stupefied expression on her face. She felt it herself; how her shoulders slackened, how her arms lowered. Her defensiveness evaporated in the face of his honesty, as did the fluster. The heat that spread across her whole body was pleasant, as was that pull in her sternum like yearning. This time around, she did not feel embarrassed by her glowing cheeks. Because what she felt was not irritation, but fondness, so deep and intrinsic and genuine; it took her breath away.

His self-conscious demeanor was something entirely foreign, entirely ... did she dare think it? Cute.

"Eh. What are you guys doing?", Ari asked while inconspicuously reaching for Sasuke's bowl.

Sakura, who had forgotten about Ari's presence for a minute there, cleared her throat. "Well, then, lie down, please", she heard herself say as if from far away. She pointed at the bedroll Ari had been supposed to store away and had then just dragged in the vague direction of Sasuke's backpack instead. Sakura was furiously glad he had been so lazy; she did not know if she could stand it to have to unroll the bedding again in front of Sasuke's eyes. She moved over to it without looking at him, kneeling in front of it with what she hoped was the air of a professional.

She was a professional medic, for kami's sake. Get a grip, Haruno! Ino-pig's voice again.

Getting a grip, she looked over at Sasuke, and allowed the smile that kept tugging at the corner's of her mouth to spread. "I don't bite. Promise."


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Sakura had shoved her hand into Naruto's chest to save him, had knelt down beside both of her teammates to heal the wounds they had inflicted upon each other, had helped countless others before, during, and after the war, and was by every right, every definition, a professional medical ninja, the student and successor of Tsunade, a renowned doctor. With those facts in mind, why, Sasuke thought, his eyes shifting away from her as she knelt down beside his bedroll, fighting the heat creeping up his neck, was he finding this to be so difficult? All he had to do was lay still, he assumed, (and keep his mind still, intrusively whispered his subconscious). She didn't bite, as she had told him, and the chuckle that he forced past his lips in response sounded uncomfortably shaky.

Somewhere in Konoha, Naruto was laughing uncontrollably at the situation, probably to the point of biting off his own tongue.

"Help yourself," was all he could tell Ari as he passed the boy, jerking a thumb toward his half-eaten breakfast, afraid to even look at him for fear of losing whatever little composure he was able to maintain.

Kneeling down by the bedroll, feeling the clap of his katana against his back from the motion, an awkward, small smile stumbled upon his lips as he fumbled with the scabbard to discard it, before settling back against the blanket. Looking up at her for further direction, he wasn't quite sure what to do with his hand--for the first time since losing his other arm, he was grateful for only having one--so after a debate spent holding the limb gawkily over his face, he finally decided to tuck it behind his head.


Kami, he must look ridiculous. The realization made a small, more comfortable chuckle than his first rumble in his throat, and with his acceptance of that fact growing little-by-little, he gave Sakura an apologetic look, as if asking for forgiveness for how awkward he was causing this to be.


Ari jumped, guiltily snatching up the bowl and pressing it to his chest as if it was a treasure. He had no idea how Sasuke had seen him when he appeared to be entirely distracted, but he would not say no to such a generous offer. Taking a generous bite from a sausage and following it with some nuts that he popped into his mouth like popcorn, he watched the weird scene unfold in front of him with a kind of detached interest. He had no idea what was going on, but the energy in the cave had shifted from busy to something else, although what that something else was, he could not say.

Neither could Sakura, who thought about Naruto as she watched Sasuke lie down in front of her (kami what had she done how could she have suggested such a thing and he didn't even know he was supposed to be taking off his clothes kami stop that thought ah), and what he would say if he happened to be here. Probably scratch his head and look about as confused as Sakura felt. It had taken ages for that klutz to grasp Hinata's interest in him and -


A blush crept from her neck up to her hairline, and she was helpless against it. This was not that! That was not ... this. Whatever this was. No, she knew what this was: A good teammate helping another teammate with a problem. Being good teammates.


"Teammates", she said with a reassuring nod in his direction, as if she was answering a question he had posed. She hovered her hands over his chest, and the moment she pushed chakra into her palms, the moment she started the process of applying small, warm chakra pulses against his body, gauging the reaction with a keen eye, the embarrassment fell from her. Ah, yes. She was a medical expert, after all; albeit a young one. This, it had become second nature to her, and the focus it took wiped every other thought from her mind. "I'm going to assess the damage to your muscles first", she told him in her friendly bedside manners voice, eyebrows drawn together as she concentrated on the feedback loop between their linked chakra natures. "I recently learned a technique that enables me to - well, it basically amounts to reading your chakra paths. They are linked to every cell in your body. It's very helpful for diagnostics, but it's a fairly new process." Her eyes flickered up to his face as she smiled at him. "I helped with the research, you know?"


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Sasuke blinked slowly, looking at Sakura questionably as he considered her blurted assertion, spoken like an answer, trying to keep the faint pink color from spreading across his cheeks. Did she think he was--?He swallowed down the lump that had once more appeared in his throat, letting the thought drift off, because the answer to it was obvious, even as they both were scrambling hastily and carelessly in an attempt to avoid addressing it. He had never been as dense as Naruto; there were just things, things like whatever this was, he had set aside, left unattended and unacknowledged, for his own cause. And he was trying to do the same now--that guilt within that wanted to bring punishment down upon himself, the urge to protect her from his pain and the void it had created--but it had become more difficult, left without his damning certainty to guide him.

In moments like these, feeling her chakra connect with his, flooding his body like a warm summer shower, welcomed and gentle, healing and constructive, his vigilance faltered. His dark eyes, filled with an admiration akin to longing, drifted to softly study her face as she worked, taking in the way she pulled her brows together in concentration, the slightest change in her features as she immersed herself in the jutsu.

His lips twitched, tugging ever so slightly into that missable smile of his, the one that the deep waters of his mind had registered as solely reserved for her.

"Mm," he mumbled softly as she spoke to him, to affirm that he was listening. It was amazing how much knowledge she was able to absorb, and at the idea she was editing her explanation to make it easier for him to understand, he could not help but to exhale a light chuckle. He had only been able to comprehend his own jutsu to the point of enacting it, yet she dove into the theory, was able to research to create new jutsu, more effectively, for the greater good.

"You are the most intelligent member of Team 7," he answered her, his smile spreading to just crinkle at the corner of his watchful eyes, "It's impressive, Sakura, but I'm hardly surprised." Because he would expect no less from her.


"Flattery will get you nowhere", she replied automatically, too focused to think his words over. If she had, she may have become flustered again, indignant at what she had perceived as misguided arrogance earlier. She caught herself a moment later, suddenly aware of her dry tone - one she would have never dreamed of using with Sasuke, of all people - and instead of becoming embarrassed she gave him a little, conspiratorial smile, like they were sharing a joke.

A nanosecond. Only one, tiny decision, one behavioral change in her response. It made a world of difference.

Because suddenly, she felt it was easy to smile at him like that, as if they were truly sharing a joke. Maybe even about the awkwardness between them, which she felt could become something to laugh about, as easy as the blink of an eye. The way he looked at her, all open and unassuming. The way that smile softened his features, made him look so young in that it took all the bitterness from his features. She could get used to glimpsing beyond his guard like that; she found she liked what she saw, what she had always understood to be there, dormant and waiting.

Waiting for what?

For a shared joke. For fluster, and red cheeks, and the courage to not to turn away.

Her hands moved over his upper body; the air between them had grown warm with the jutsu that seeped into his tight muscles to loosen them. She worked careful, applied just a little more energy to take the fabric that separated them into account.

"I need you to turn onto your stomach", she informed him, "so I can have a look at your neck and back."


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"Heh." The chuckle that fell past Sasuke's lips was soft but genuine, warm, and filled with a little bit of pride at her response. He liked it when she spoke to him like that, when she displayed the confidence he knew she possessed, backed up by the abilities he knew she possessed. He liked how it was seemingly becoming easier for her to speak to him, how she was becoming more at ease while in his presence. He liked that they were bantering now, casually, without fear, regret, guilt, and all the other nasty things that dredged behind them looming threateningly over their conversation.

And he loved the way she smiled. Even if it was small. The expression had a way of lighting up her being, drawing attention to the divine features of her face, arresting, and so easily to become lost within. His last defenses fading within the sea that was the warmth of her chakra seeping into his muscles, relaxing them of not only the tension caused by last night's slumber, but the lack thereof of many nights before, he came to the realization that he wanted to see that smile of hers as often as he could.

He returned her smile with a playful smirk, a spark of mischief striking against the charcoal of his eyes. A heartbeat passed before he followed her direction, the span of which he spent watching her in consideration, and then he was rolling onto his stomach, settling his cheek against his folded arm, head angled and positioned so he could continue to observe her.

"Hn. You should know by now that I'm not the type to flatter." His left brow quirked upwards, as if to declare that it was her turn.


Sakura's hands traveled over the stretch of Sasuke's back. The crease between her eyebrows deepened as she detected an especially tight spot, and she pushed more chakra into her left hand, molded it to give the tight, green ball of energy which she pushed against him a spherical form. She let it roll off his shoulder, the point where it met his neck, and applied pressure to loosen the muscles.

"Is that so?", she replied distractedly, her smile diffuse but genuine. A part of her took in the unfamiliar mischief on his features, the way he allowed the space between them to grow and fill with lighthearted words. It made her feel at ease, how he craned his neck to look at her, and because she was distracted and she wanted to help and it felt so good, she allowed it, allowed it to be that easy and sweet. "I'd say, as I'm currently holding your life in my hands, you would have every reason to keep on the right side of me."

Her smile faltered as her fingers traveled upwards, stopping short over his third cervical vertebra. She gave a small hum, like disapproval, and for the first time allowed her fingers to touch his skin - lightly, with cushions of chakra between them.

"Does that hurt?", she asked.


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The sensation of her fingertips grazing the hairs of his neck would have been a pleasant one, had it not been for the damage he caused by awkwardly keeping his head angled against his shoulder the night before (a part of him inwardly kicked himself for depriving himself of this moment, while another kicked that part for having the thought that this moment could have been a moment). Instead, a strained, uncomfortable, heavy grunt rumbled in his chest in answer to her question, accompanied by a painful scowl that flashed across his features, and it was the only confirmation she would be able to draw from him. While the years and both his internal and external journeys of discovery and redemption had leashed his ego, it was still very much so a part of who he was; being as he had survived the War to End All Wars, walking away without a limb, the thought that he would complain at discomfort born from his own stupidity made that arrogance of his scoff.

Small steps.

Yet, he did admit that what she was doing was loosening his body, allowing his muscles to relax, disengaging from the locked positions he had forced them into. It was a pleasant feeling, her chakra molding into him, and he was incredibly grateful that he had actually accepted her help this time around. With so much they needed to do today, the thought of walking around stiff and sore was not one he entertained favorably.

"I merely observe facts," he claimed, after he had recovered, and his facial features relaxed once more. Then softly, his tone shifting, eyelids closing halfway, an admittance fell from his lips without his awareness, "Besides, you're one of the only two people I trust with my life." It took him a moment to catch what he had said, and in an attempt to turn the conversation back toward light-heartedness, weary of lingering too long on such thoughts, he hastily added, "And the second's a knuckle-headed idiot, which I suppose says a lot more about me."


The slow, deliberate movement of her hands faltered for a second. It was the only indication that his words had registered, that they might have hit a nerve that reverberated like pulling at a tightly wound guitar string. She recommenced to push the jutsu against the tight spots, and, ignoring both of his comments, she replied: "You really should take better care of yourself. This isn't just from a night of bad sleep--"

"How can you tell?", Ari asked next to her elbow. He was looking over her shoulder onto Sasuke's back and the soft green hue of her medical jutsu. Sakura was proud not to have winced at his sudden appearance, but if she were to be honest with herself, she had forgotten that Ari was there, watching them. She had been so wrapped up in overcoming their initial awkwardness and applying her jutsu. He made a move as if to poke his index finger into Sasuke's neck, and she shooed him away by bouncing her elbow against his ribs.

"That's the most boring jutsu I have ever seen", Ari declared, crossing his arms. "It's nothing against spitting fire!"

Sakura smiled grimly as she started to reign in her chakra, winding it down until the glow faded. "I'm going to give you fire, if that's what you want", she said sweetly. She clapped her hands against her knees once, like a signal.

"All done." And, cocking her head to look at Sasuke inquiringly, she added: "Feel better?"


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Sasuke found he was grateful for Ari's intrusion, which had saved him from having to outright dismiss Sakura's assertion that he should take better care of himself. It was something he knew was true, but a problem that would never be fixed, due to a multitude of internal issues he simply did not know how to deal with, or even begin addressing. And he wouldn't dream of lying to her, which meant letting thick silence overtake the both of them once more.

Giving a nod and small, weak smile of gratitude to Sakura, along with a mumbled thank you, to confirm he was indeed feeling better, Sasuke rolled off the bedroll before raising himself onto his knees, busying himself with packing up his bedding.

"Not everything has to be exciting," he informed Ari, sparing the boy a glance, before he was tying up the bundle of blankets with help from his mouth to keep the rope steady; he had become quite capable of only having one arm to preform such tasks with. "And jutsus like Sakura's make sure us fire-spitters are well-bodied and able to perform our flashy tricks. If you plan on being a shinobi one day, I recommend staying on the medical-ninjas' good side."

Settling back before the fire, Sasuke leveled his gaze on Ari, his facial features setting like carved marble. He supposed it was time, and once more he found himself conflicted, because part of him felt like it was still a lie: a portion of what he was about to say. "Ari, Sakura and I: we're going to help you find your mother. But to do that, I need to ask you some questions, and you need to answer me to the best of you abilities." His brow raised slightly, as if to ask if the boy understood.


Reprimanded like that, Ari looked quite sheepish, the way he glanced from Sasuke to Sakura, looking up at her from under his fair lashes. He mumbled something unintelligible that could go through as an apology if Sakura was really generous. It itched Sakura to smile; he was standoffish and wary toward her, but he was cute, too, with the way he tried to avoid offense. Sakura followed Sasuke back to the fire, because judging by the look on his face, he was about to go straight to business.

So she was not surprised when he brought up Ari's mother, but very much by his considerate choice of words. She knew he did not believe her to be alive. Studying his features for a moment, her gaze then traveled towards Ari, whose head had perked up. A sudden eager hope had washed away the mulish look on his face, the same expression he had worn when confronted with their potential kindness, the one that spoke of his naive nature.

Naruto would call him trusting, Sakura knew. Maybe she had become too cynical after all.

Ari gave a curt nod, obviously modelling his own mood after Sasuke's: He sat up straight, legs crossed and hands gripping his ankles, looking straight at Sasuke with the look of someone focusing very hard. "I really want you to help me find my mother", he declared. "So I will do my best to answer everything as good as I can." He was squinting slightly at Sasuke, as if he was afraid to miss something important.


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Sasuke felt guilt spreading through his veins like poison, watching Ari's face light up with hope. Hope was dangerous, and when the boy learned the truth...The truth was that Sasuke did not know the whole story; there was no way he could know for certain what he felt to be true beyond a shadow of a doubt...But it was naive to think otherwise. These thoughts battling in his head, it was all he could do to keep his face expressionless, to the point that the lack of kindness he had been trying to show the boy could be seen as cold.

He was ill-equipped to handle this. How could he offer emotional support when he locked his own tragedy within the depths of his unconscious, to the point it had eaten away at his very being? But this wasn't about him. The kid need their help, and this was required for them to offer it.

Inhaling to keep himself steady, Sasuke subtly glanced at Sakura out of his peripheral, before turning his attention fully back onto Ari. Though there was a hint of detachment in his voice, it was the only way he could keep it even, clean from the emotion that wanted to taint his words with doubt: "I need you to first describe how you became separated from your mother. That event in as much detail as you remember." There, like a crack in the stone of his face, sorrow seeped through in the way his lips turned downwards just slightly, within the black coals of his eyes. "Even if it's painful."


Ari watched Sasuke very closely, but his expression did not falter; nor did the light in his eyes diminish. Patiently, he waited for Sasuke to pose his question, then nodded, and, taking into consideration Sasuke's urgent-sounding request from earlier, he took his time to consider his answer instead of babbling, which came more naturally to him under normal circumstances.

He took his lower lip between thumb and index finger and pulled. It made him look funny, but it was a gesture of concentration, a tick he had picked up somewhere along the way.

"Well", he started, "I didn't get hurt when mom and I got separated, and neither did she. So it wasn't exactly painful." With a slight pop, he released his lip to give Sasuke a reassuring smile for he seemed sad. Ari did not want Sasuke to feel sad at all, because Sasuke had shown him the hand signs for the fire spitting jutsu and had promised to teach him how to do the fire spitting. Ari found Sasuke was a really nice person. He did not deserve to look sad, especially if it was on his behalf. "But it all went very quickly", he conceded after a moment.

He hesitated, and in the silence Sakura's nervous shuffle made her clothes rustle really loud.

"I remember cuddling with mom and then we were somewhere else and she got really angry and really stressed and said many things very quickly. She used her stern voice so I listened very closely and she told me to run and hide and that she would come and get me as soon as she could but then I saw a man and he tried to grab me but mom bit him really hard in the arm." Ari smiled at the memory. "And then I ran."

He was silent again, and his face fell. "I waited for a really long time, three moons, and I'm still waiting. I'm very good at hiding, so I think she might not know how to find me." He gave both Sasuke and Sakura a searching glance. "My mom is really powerful and strong and beautiful and she once told me that people want to have her power and that's why we have to be really careful. I think maybe someone was trying to steal my mom's power from her and that's why everything happened like that." He was proud of that observation; he had kept it to himself for a long time, but sharing it now seemed like a good idea.


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That feeling. The all too familiar feeling of finding it hard to breathe. The feeling of everything falling apart on his inside, while he sat motionless and emotionless, body set, eyes hard, like he was a statue. All to give the appearance that he was in control. Like a pathetic attempt to scramble, grab ahold of something to keep his emotional footing, weary--afraid--to display any hint of weakness.

Sasuke found his eyes dropping, unable to look at Ari directly in revelation of what he was told; it was enough, in his mind, to confirm what he had initially believed. And now he had all but spoken a promise to the kid to take him to his mother, a mother that was no longer--

Sasuke remembered that pain, fresh and raw, nasty and hungry. It hit him like a winter storm, chilling his core, freezing his spine. A twitch of his lips was the only indication that something was wrong. Deep inside him, it clawed at his surface, memories and repressed feelings, scratching and screaming, tearing him apart, and here he sat so still, outwardly composed, like everything was okay.

And this kid was too naive to know. Comfortable inside his bubbled view of the world, safely wrapped in blankets of his beliefs like denial.

Yet Sasuke couldn't even bring himself to think the words.

What was happening to him? This situation was hitting him a bit too close to comfort, he was sitting before this boy and relating, and even if it was self-imposed, it was raw.

He had to get it together, and keep it together. This kid was his responsibility now, and with the possibility of danger, he had to be alert, in control, and stable.

To make a gesture like he was thinking, instead of simply finding the strength to speak without faltering, he bowed his head, lifting a few fingers to press into his own forehead, unaware of how he was using only his pointer and middle fingers, drawn together reminiscently in that motion his brother used years ago.

It felt like an entirety before he spoke again, his voice laced with that same detachment, and he was unable to look up at Ari. "Do you remember who attacked you and your mom at all? Any distinguishing features? Fighting styles? And would it be possible for you to take us to the place where this attack first happened?"


Sakura watched as Ari's expression changed in the face of Sasuke's sudden coldness. His smile grew awkward, the corners of his mouth quivered slightly in an obvious attempt not to show his confusion and growing insecurity. For Sakura, the change in Sasuke did not really come as a surprise, but it told her things about him she had never quite understood; if he was aware or not, in his attempt to reign in his emotions, by drawing up the walls of his defenses, he was giving himself away to her renewed gaze on him; his inner turmoil was as plain as day to her, and she realized that it had not always been so, that something had changed, somewhere along the way.

She reached out her hand as much for Ari's sake as for Sasuke's, and her fingers were still warm from the jutsu as she enveloped Sasuke's hand in hers. She did not allow her gaze to linger on his face, because she sensed that he would not like the scrutiny. She kept the touch of her hand short, too, just a light squeeze and the brush of her thumb over his pulse, which seemed forever strong and steady.

He was like stone.

But she knew better.

"I --" Ari observed the exchange, his gaze dropping to were Sakura was drawing back her hand.

"Go on", she said, tone encouraging. "Do you remember anything about your mother's attacker?"

Ari chewed his lips. Haltingly, he said: "He had very sharp teeth and white hair and was very loud. He screeched like a bird when mom bit him and he smelled like seaweed and he had a pond in his house which I thought was really funny. But I ran really quickly because he had a huge sword." Ari spanned his arms wide to indicate how abnormally big the sword had been. "And I think he tried to pour water over me but I don't know why because that would be a lame attack, wouldn't it?" He looked somewhat hopefully at Sasuke. "Your fire spitting attack is much cooler."


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Sasuke's gaze dropped to his own hand, resting against his knee, fingers tingling from Sakura's warm chakra and a lingering sensation left behind by her touch. Inhaling, he felt his mind steadying, was able to pull himself back to the center with the reminder that he needed to focus. His features softened, but only for a moment.

At Ari's description of his attacker, one that could only be the former, loud-mouthed member of Team Taka known as Suigetsu, Sasuke's eyes shot up and narrowed, the coals of his irises blazing with an anger that could also be seen in the way his muscles coiled like springs ready for a fight, his jaw clenched tightly.

Murder. He was going to murder that idiot for having the gall to threaten this kid.

"And water is also a great conductor to lightning," he replied to Ari's statement about the fire style jutsu, offering him what he hoped was a reassuring smile, though it felt like he was grinning around the idea of shoving chidori into Suigetsu. His fingers curled inward so his hand made a fist, and while pressing his knuckles against his knee to crack them, he declared, "We're going to get to the bottom of this, Ari, and rescue your mother."

At least Sasuke now had faith she was still alive. Though he hadn't kept up with his former team after the war, he suspected they went back to working with Orochimaru; this whole ordeal had the workings of that conniving, manipulative bastard all over it. But Orochimaru wouldn't waste what he could use, and if Ari's mother was powerful, there was a chance she was alive; being experimented on, but alive, nonetheless. With a bit of luck, he would be able to settle scores with the sannin as well, once and for all.

Glancing toward Sakura he asked, "Would you mind retrieving the map for me?"


Sakura, confused by the new shift in Sasuke's mood, got to her feet and walked to the place they had stowed the backpacks to retrieve the map for Sasuke, which she handed to him with a questioning look. She felt as if she was missing something.

"Do ... you have an idea where the attack could have happened?", she asked doubtfully. She had not been able to get very much information out of Ari's description, and now she wondered if she had not been listening to him close enough. Ari had scrambled to his feet and was now by Sasuke's side to have a look at the map. It was obvious that he wanted to be in on the action. Sakura thought he did not look concerned at all; more like a boy heading for some great adventure.

"We're starting a rescue mission!", Ari declared with a huge, satisfied grin on his face. "I'm so glad I met you guys! Can you please show me the other half of the fire spitting so I can actually spit fire? I want to help with the rescuing, because mom will be furious if I just tag along without helping."


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Watching Sakura return with the map, Sasuke studied her face as he took it within his hand, fingers unconsciously brushing against her own as the scroll was exchanged between them. She did not know the full story behind his time with Team Taka, because he had never explained it. Not for a lack of desire to be honest, but because that time of his life was still a fresh wound, a topic he tried to avoid. Inhaling, he made a mental note that he would have to correct that someday: she deserved to know everything she wanted to know.

"The man Ari described is Suigetsu, formerly a part of Taka," he simply stated, hoping that for now this was explanation enough. "Which means there's a strong possibility that Orochimaru is involved." His mouth twitched, as if forming a snarl around the name. While Sasuke took full responsibility for his choices, the sannin still had been too eager to take advantage of his need for vengeance, to manipulate Sasuke for his own purposes. His eyes softening, almost apologetically, he added, "We need to focus on retrieving Ari's mother now, but I'll answer anything you want to ask later."

His gaze shifting to Ari, Sasuke's brows furrowed with concern, but for now he let the boy have his eagerness. Unrolling the map before them, he bit into his thumb to draw a bit of blood, before placing it against the parchment and channeling his chakra. Purple marks began to appear on the map, spread widely across the continents, indicating former hideouts his mentor had used. Judging their approximate location based on the red mark he had made while at the inn, Sasuke pointed to the closest known hideout to their location, declaring, "We'll check here first." The statement was aimed solely at Sakura.

Turning so his body was angled toward Ari, Sasuke reached out to gently place a hand against the boy's shoulder, looking at him softly. "Listen, Ari. With your determination and strength, I have no doubt that you'll become a shinobi known across the nations one day. But you're not there yet. And these people are extremely dangerous. I'm not going to risk having something happen to you." Smiling slightly, Sasuke raised his two fingers to give Ari a tap on his forehead. "I promise to continue working with you on the fire jutsu, but for now, I need you to promise me that you won't rush off and do anything rash."


Sakura's eyes grew wide with surprise, but she managed to withheld the gasp that wanted to slip from her lips. Her eyes flickered to Ari for a moment. She did not know much about Sasuke's time with this other team, did not know why he formed it, or even the people involved. There was a vague memory from within the chaos of war, of unfamiliar figures and faces and the unmistakable redhead, Karin, who had been a prisoner of Konoha, once. It all seemed such a long time ago now. And it reminded her of how little she actually knew about Sasuke, or the time he spent with those people.

And then there was Orochimaru.

Sasuke's assurance to answer all her questions was soothing, but she could not tell if he meant it or not; maybe he hoped she would let it go. She knew he did not like to share his private matters. All of this time, and I had no idea what you were doing. Or with whom.

She gnawed on her lip, a gesture she unconsciously mimicked from Ari. There were more pressing matters at hand right now.

"Kami", she mumbled as she watched the map unfold it's secrets hidden behind a barrier of blood jutsu. It lay heavy in her stomach, the knowledge of this other life he had lead. How easily she had allowed herself to forget all about it, for the sake of banter and jokes and an easiness between them that probably was neither deserved, nor a very good idea.

And then she watched the exchange that unfolded before her. Watched Ari's face light up like the sun coming out from behind clouds, his cheeks growing dark with pride and pleasure at Sasuke's words, which he took in eagerly, solemnly. He nodded, crossing his eyes to look at what Sasuke was doing with his fingers, and --

She recognized that gesture.

Recognized it as something fragile, and gentle, and incredibly sweet. The distinct memory of sweet morning air at the gates of Konoha, of a fluttering heart and a bittersweet parting and a hope she had not dared to feel for a long time.

"I promise", Ari said with that earnest look on his face. "I will behave and won't get in your way. I really want my mom back."


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Sasuke studied Ari for a moment to be certain that the boy had taken his words to heart; his expressions were telling, and Sasuke felt relief at the reassurance the boy's brightly lit face offered. With what they were walking into, Sasuke wanted to limit any unexpected variables as much as possible, definitely when they concerned the boy's safety. Giving Ari a pat on the head and a nod, Sasuke declared, "Your time will come." He was certainly more agreeable and patient than he himself had been at that age.

Perhaps I would make an average Sensei after all. Glancing at Sakura over his shoulder, he gave her a small smile tinged with sadness, because he still found hope to be dangerous, because the reality of his future was still ingrained in his conscious as something he deserved.

At least, in times like these, he knew how to act. He was certain in what he needed to do. He would find Ari's mother, reunite the two, and take care of any threats along the way. This is where his redemption laid, in these acts of kindness, in doing whatever he could for the people he came across.

Rolling up the map, he placed it into his weapons pouch, exchanging it for a kunai, before standing. "Well, let's finish packing, then be on our way." With a flick of his wrist, he threw the kunai at the tripwire he had set the night before, causing the shuriken to spring downward, embedding themselves into the flooring of the cave with a clatter of metal scraping against stone. After gathering up the discarded weaponry, the rest of his belongings, flinging his cloak over his shoulders, and stomping out the fire, Sasuke awaited them at the mouth of the cave expectantly, dark eyes scanning the wilderness before them, and taking in the damage the storm had caused.


Ari was watching with huge eyes as Sasuke diffused the trap. He gave a little, reverend Whoa and soon resorted to ask Sasuke all kinds of questions about traps, and kunai, and ninja tools in general. Meanwhile, Sakura finished off packing, too -- the brunt of it had taken place before breakfast, anyway, and Ari had no possessions beside his worn yukata, which she had stowed away in her backpack to wash later, and a gnarly walking stick she had mistaken for fire wood earlier and nearly thrown into the flames, which had caused a minor uproar.

In retrospect, it was a wonder that Sasuke had not woken way earlier.

She handed Ari the stick, which he took with a delighted thanks and not so much as a glance in her direction as he loped forward towards the mouth of the cave. Sakura hastily put down her hand against the cave wall and with a push of chakra deactivated her seals before they could fry Ari in his eagerness. None the wiser, the boy bolted out of the cave, whirled around with his tiny, ugly walking stick thrown over his shoulders, beckoning them to follow by flouncing this way and that.

To his credit, he did not move any further away, apparently keeping Sasuke's words in mind.

"We can handle this, right?", Sakura asked as she walked beside Sasuke, voice low. "Orochimaru, I mean. And this ... Suigetsu." She thought she remembered the name from a bingo book entry, but she was not sure. It had certainly come up in context with Sasuke's sentence. She had heard about the discussions of the Kage second-hand from Kakashi, had seen the effort he had made to convince the other Kages to drop the charges against him. And Suigetsu's name rang a bell, because it had come up once or twice during that time.

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