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Fandom Redemption [Closed] [Graverobber141/arbus]


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The sun was warm and welcoming, a nice reprieve from the cold bitterness the storm had rained down upon them the day before. In this weather, even with debris in their way, Sasuke judged they would make good time. Stealing a glance at Sakura at her question, he raised an eyebrow in something akin to disbelief, before turning his watchful eyes back onto Ari. It never occurred to him to question if this was something that they could handle, even if he was well aware of the risks before them.

"I defeated Orochimaru once. With your help, I'll do it again," he declared automatically, bitterness underneath his steady, certain tone. If the sannin had stayed dead in the first place, they wouldn't be in this situation to begin with. With a small shake of his head, and more matter-of-fact voice, he continued, "Besides, we're too far out to request reinforcements from Konoha, and the other nations still don't trust me. We have no choice but to handle this on our own. We also have the element of surprise on our side, and I might be able to convince Suigetsu to at least stay out of our way; his loyalties have always been...flexible." How he pulled his eyebrows together, the twitch of his lips downward, the slight clench of his jaw, all suggested he had other plans for his former teammate, no matter the outcome of their mission. The idiot had threatened one of his charges, and for that--Sasuke's fingers curled into a fist--he would pay.

Seemingly remembering he was in the middle of a conversation, Sasuke blinked, before tilting his head in Sakura's direction, observing her out of the corner of his eye as he kept his focus on Ari. The next time he spoke, his voice was softer but also firm, as if there was simply no room for argument in what he was stating: "Sakura...You were there beside Naruto and me during the war: the War to End All Wars. You've trained under a sannin--two Hokages, even--and mastered the Byakugou. This isn't flattery, but observation of fact. We will take care of this."


In spite of Sasuke's words, Sakura was not so sure about her own capabilities to defeat the snake sannin. She had not a doubt in her mind that Sasuke could handle him, and if Suigetsu had been in some way affiliated with Sasuke in the past, he knew him well enough to assess his abilities and the dangers he posed. And, of course, there was the tiny fact that Sasuke might just be one of the two most powerful shinobi walking the Five Great Nations.

She watched him watch Ari. It was sweet, the way he constantly kept an eye on the boy, who was strolling along a narrow, deer-trodden path ahead of them, throwing back looks over his shoulder to make sure they were right behind him. He shoved branches and small pieces of debris out of their way, even though it made little difference to the both of them, as with a little chakra enhancement, such trifles were not really obstacles at all.

"But Orochimaru helped in the war, didn't he?", she asked and hated how meek her voice sounded. In the cave, no, since their departure from the inn, things appeared to have changed, but now she caught herself falling into old patterns and had no idea how to stop it. At times, she thought, Sasuke's presence was overbearing, the sheer knowledge of his quick mind and sharp tongue and stunning abilities, the weight of his sorrow, it all made her feel small and insignificant and stupid. She gulped down the lump in her throat that made her feel like crying; why was it making her so sad, the fact he was carrying a map with all of Orochimaru's old hideouts hidden on it?

Perhaps it was the reminder that they came from different worlds, that while he had spent his time learning under the snake sannin, they had gathered in the mission room over a nondescript map of their own to find those hideouts.

"Doesn't that make him ... an ally?", she continued, talking around that stupid sadness she did not want to acknowledge or feel. "Kakashi-sensei had been in talks about a truce with Otogakure. There have been rumors of a pardon for Orochimaru, too."


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Sasuke could hear it in Sakura's voice, a shift in her tone, the difference in how she was now speaking to him in comparison to the hours before. Something was off. Trusting Ari to keep his promise, he spared a moment of his watchful protectiveness to steal a glance in her direction and studied her face carefully, dark gaze trailing over her expression with scrutiny, trying to place the exact emotion he had heard. Unable to precisely determine the cause of her hurt, yet knowledgeable of the fact that he was the source, Sasuke felt the knife of guilt twist violently in his stomach, and was left with the all too familiar taste of metallic blood on his tongue from a wound he had caused. Lips tugging into a small, missable frown, he shifted a portion of his attention back onto Ari, while continuing to observe Sakura out of his peripheral.

"He did," he finally replied, his tone of voice revealing how much faith, or more exactly, lack-there-of, he had in his former mentor. "Yet I would hardly consider him an ally: experiments on children, manipulating others to have blind trust in him, so he could use them for his own purposes--" Something about that last statement hit a cord, the faint sound of hypocrite echoing with his mind, and with his jaw clenching for a second, he stumbled as he continued onward, "--stealing others' bodies to extend his own lifespan. I don't trust him. And if he's back to old habits, I have no problem taking care of him, pardon or no, and I'll gladly take the fallout for it."

His response left a bitter taste in his mouth, and suddenly he could no longer look at her, even if it was only out of the corner of his eye. Focusing slowly on Ari in front of him, his voice dropped lower, as he solemnly added: "I'm aware of the hypocrisy of it all, and I honestly don't ever expect you to trust me again--" The evenness of his voice tilted with that last statement, the cracks in his carefully maintained demeanor showing for just an easily missed moment. "--and I would imagine that Kakashi's been keeping an eye on my movements. But..."

But what?
He paused, shifting is jaw as he made sure he had control of his voice.

"...For what little it's worth, Sakura, I regret everything I did. Everything I put you through. And after Ari and his mother are safe, I'll answer any questions you want to ask, about anything. You deserve to know."


"I know you do", she said quickly. She was not sure if the haste in her response was coming from the fear to have hurt his feelings or her current unwillingness to confront the matter. All she knew was it made the lump in her throat worse, the burning behind her eyes more pronounced. She did not now if Orochimaru was a sore a topic she imagined it to be, if Sasuke had been hurt during his time there, if it had been bad or not. But the tears threatened to well up, and she was as helpless against it as she had been against yesterday's storm.

Turning her head away as not to let him see, she chastised herself for not being stronger, for not being able to bear ... what? His pain? Or the fact that she did not know him, not really. She knew nothing, and even his offer to answer all her questions did not console her in this moment. She felt so very stupid. And a deep, desperate wish to be in Konoha, with Naruto's stupid grin and Ino's exasperation and maybe even her parents' unsuspecting, but good-willed interest in her life.

All of a sudden, it was too much.

A single tear fell from her eye onto the muddy forest floor, and it was exceptionally melodramatic and banal at the same moment, so much so that she felt the need to laugh bubble up in her. She suspected she might not have had enough to eat, or not enough sleep, and with a new resolution she trudged forward until she reached Ari, making sure to keep her back to Sasuke, who was not to see her stupidity and weakness.

"What's that stick for, anyway?", she asked in a strange kind of voice, like she had caught a cold. She would be just like Naruto, pressing on regardless, grit your teeth and get on with it until all was well again. Ari looked surprised at her sudden interest and the roughness in her tone, but he seemed happy enough to tell her all about the tales of wanderers roaming the earth his mother had told him as bedtime stories, and that he wanted just to be like them when he grew up, and that he thought such people always carried walking sticks so he had snatched one, and wasn't it perfect, all gnarly and old-looking and comfortable, too. It was idle chatter, and she only listened to it halfheartedly while she reigned in her tears and the hollowness in her breast that left her shaky and weak and instubstantial like a wet leaf.


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Her pain was evident, even as she tried so hard to shield herself away from him; he could hear it in the strained tone of her voice as she engaged Ari, see it in the tension of her body, knew it by her mannerisms. Watching her move ahead of him, Sasuke felt his stomach sink, his chest become tighter, and realized how much it hurt him to see her hurt. This. He had caused all this. Deliberately. Without second thought. Without hesitation. It had been his intention. And she did not deserve any of it; she deserved so much more.

His eyes softened with sorrow and longing. He wished he could reach out, embrace her, do something, anything to take away her pain, because by all rights it was his to bear. And because he had never liked seeing her like this, even before everything that happened to create this distance between them.

Compelled, he walked forward more briskly to catch up with the two, his footsteps made purposely loud to declare his presence, crunching sticks beneath his sandals, as he came around Sakura's side. Reaching out his hand, he sought out her own, intertwining their fingers once his palm slipped underneath hers. After a light squeeze, one that stated I'm here and I'm not going anywhere, he loosened his hold, giving her the option to easily withdraw, unless if you want me to. It was a small gesture, but the look he gave her, one that was as gentle as the way he was grasping his fingers around hers, stated it was genuine. Because even though he was clumsy at hugs, and just having one arm made them even more awkward, he would have embraced her like she had him the ethereal night before, had it not been for his reluctance to make her uncomfortable in front of Ari.

Giving her a soft and sorrow-filled smile, he turned his gaze onto the boy who had become their responsibility. In an attempt to keep Ari's attention off Sakura, he took it upon himself to engage the boy: "There are some shinobi out there who use the staff as a weapon. It can be effective in the right hands, and allows the wielder to win a fight without using lethal force."


Ari was not stupid, was, on the contrary, a very perceptive child, but if he had to choose between whatever strange thing was going on with Sakura, or the unexpected pleasure of a conversation about shinobi tools, he'd throw himself into the latter with as much enthusiasm as one could imagine. He was blabbering away immediately, voice high from excitement as he tried to impress Sasuke with his knowledge of the bo, and that he had once heard a story about a grand master using it to great effect, beheading people quite successfully and such; a story his sister had told him, but she was so nasty all the time so he had not believed her.

Sakura, in the same instance, could do nothing but trudge along, blind from the tears that were impossible to keep down with the touch of Sasuke's hand; her hand lay limb in his, like a cold, ugly, sweating fish, she thought, as finally the tears flowed over and started rolling down her cheeks. In her indecisiveness, she did not know what to do, how to react; she wanted to hold his hand, wanted to turn and hold onto him and cry, but she knew she couldn't. And then the sobs came, the smallest noise at first, but once she had started she knew it was over. She stopped, quite abruptly, and retrieving her hand from Sasuke's she pressed both palms to her face, crying with bobbing shoulders like a child, feeling stupid and overwhelmed and wishing the ground would open up and swallow her whole.

Ari's eyes grew round with astonishment.
"I don't think the story is true, Sakura!", he said hastily, clearly under the impression that he had scared her with the grand master. "My sister's a real idiot!"


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In moments like these, his body moved of its own accord. No time for thought, debate, questions of should-or-should-not. No heed taken of possible consequences, wondering if what he was doing was right or wrong. The thought of Ari being before them did not even grace his mind with a shadow. A spilt decision made in his unconscious mind: she was hurting, the sight breaking through his stoic composure, and he had to do something to try and take that pain away.

Sasuke stopped when Sakura stopped, and watching her crumble, he simply reacted. His arm wrapped around her back as he stepped to close the distance between them, pulling her tight against his body. A short, irritable thought, more like feeling, went vaguely through his head concerning his one and sole arm, which made how he wanted to embrace her more difficult. With her pressed against him, his hand moved to rest against the back of her head, fingers shuffling through her soft hair, as he gently guided her face toward his chest. All the while his chin lowered so he could place his cheek against the top of her head, breathing in her scent, keenly aware of how his own heart was beating so quickly with his ribcage.

Take what strength I have left; I will shield you from all that would bring you pain and do you harm, even if it meant taking on the entire world.

"I'm here, Sakura," he whispered softly, reassuringly, hoping it would bring her some comfort, and cursing his lifetime spent in emotional avoidance, for it had left him so inadequate during moments like these. He wanted to take it all away, this pestilence that was plaguing her heart, take it as his own, let it destroy him from the inside out, as long as she was allowed to live in peace. That realization he spent years trying to ignore, those feelings he tried not to feel, everything he had kept buried for her in fear of being vulnerable, began to rise to his surface.

"And I'm not leaving," the declaration was one that slipped from his mouth, emotional, one of those things that wasn't filtered through the carefully constructed net of mind.

"Tell me what's wrong."


It got Sakura bawling, that sudden intimacy that made everything better and worse at the same time, and she cried like the shy girl she once had been. Wave after wave of it crashed over her, and she smelled his scent and felt his warmth and heart and it was all a blur. She was only vaguely aware of her surroundings, because her instincts told her to shield her face, and before long she pressed it against him, soaking the fabric of his shirt with her tears and snot as her hands grabbed onto his back as if for dear life.

And it was like a relief, like a valve had opened and now everything, all that anger and fear and nervousness that had built up in the last couple of days was flooding out. Her voice grew hoarse and she sobbed so miserably against him, open-mouthed and unrestrained, as she pressed her body into his as if he could shield her from the world, and from herself, and maybe a bit from what was between them, too.

Impossible to get out a word like that, and she did not even register as Ari inched closer, until his hand was holding onto the hem of her top and he was pressing against her side, hugging her to the best of his abilities.

And being held like that, in Sasuke's strong grip and Ari warm against her, she sobbed: "I don't know. I don't know. I don't know." When the answer would probably have been everything, or nothing, or something in between she could impossibly name and that felt as undefinable as the horizon, or the setting sun, or Sasuke's fast-paced but steady heartbeat against her cheek.

And then, she started to calm down, and the sobs became hiccups and her bobbing shoulders slumped, but she held her eyes closed and her face against the brisk, wet fabric of his shirt, feeling empty and relieved and unwilling to open her eyes just yet, unwilling to let embarrassment flood her and make everything awkward.


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A sad smile, short-lived and spectral, tugged at the corner of Sasuke's mouth, as he felt Ari reach out for Sakura. If he had an extra arm, he would have reached out for the child also, pull him against them, but had to settle for sparing him a soft, gentle glance. Such a simple gesture, and yet the innocence and genuineness of it catalogued a reminder into his mind that there was still good worth fighting for in the world, along with the woman, who his heart was breaking for, he held against his chest.

He simply held Sakura against him, feeling her fingers dig into the fabric covering his back, her tears seep through his his shirt, and each one seemed to fracture another crack into his defenses, were like sharp wire binding his chest tighter and tighter, slicing deeply into his heart. Anyone else and he would be stiff and awkward, unwilling to be touched, to touch, of returning such sentiments, would be counting down the moments until he was free of the unwanted attention. But his hold only seem to tighten at her mumbled parade of I don't knows, and he turned his face inward, nose and drawn-together lips pressing into her hair. His eyelids drifted half-closed, suddenly too heavy to keep fully opened.

He would take it all, all of this pain, without second thought; he would consume it, let it boil inside himself until it destroyed him.

He made no move to let go of her, even as her sobs softened, the trembles in her body lessened. He would stand there as her guardian until she no longer needed to lean on him, until she was ready to pull away.

"You don't have to know," he whispered softly. "But I'm here...Whenever you're ready to talk."


Sakura sniffled softly.

Sasuke's kind words registered, but on a deeper level. The need to relect upon it would come, surely, but only when it drifted up from her unconsciousness. Like his kindness, the intimacy he allowed between them -- those things, and with it all it meant for her view on him and on their relationship, which seemed to have undergone another, not so subtle shift -- she could not think on them, not when her head was light as a cotton ball and her eyes small and red-rimmed. Not when her body sought his warmth on its own accord, because this was instinct, the way her hands relaxed and loosened their clawing grip from his shirt and came to rest there with flat palms, smoothing over his shoulder plates and up his shoulders to lightly touch his neck.

Absurd, surely, how they were standing in the middle of the forest, with its chaotic remnants of a storm that had driven them so close, in more than one manner, and that made everything a bit surreal somehow. And Ari, a weight against her; her heart clenched and unclenched at the feeling of a child's hands clinging to her, and the innocently inquiring gaze he send her, chin propped against her hipbone. Withdrawing one hand, she reached behind her, and buried it in the soft fluff of white-blond hair, tousling it with a smile on her face.

Also: An intrinsic truth was spreading from her chest to the top of her head and the tips of her fingers and the balls of her feet. That truth was that she felt comfortable against Sasuke's slender but muscular frame, which encompassed her so naturally, shoulders broad enough to shield her from the world. The smile that had tugged at the corners of her mouth on behalf of Ari's sweetness seemed particularly insistent. If she were to ignore her fear, her wariness, how easy it would be ...

What was wrong with her?

Every cell inside her seemed to play a a round of tug-of-war; this was what she had always wanted, being embraced by Uchiha Sasuke like that. This was what she had hoped for, joining him on his travels. She knew she had, and everybody else had known as well, because she remembered their looks -- this particular, lingering look, half-worry and half-amusement and with Naruto, a bit of hope too -- but she had denied the implications, denied it before herself.

"Is it better now?", Ari asked, and for the first time since they had encountered him, he sounded meek, unsure.

But this was also what she could not have, because the longing inside her was deceptive and could not be trusted. It created a blind spot that was so big and vast like the eclipse of the sun; one step and she'd fall, and then, she knew this as a fact, nothing would be left of her.

"Yeah", she croaked, steeling herself as she withdrew from Sasuke's embrace, "much better." She shot Sasuke a small, sheepish glance before she dropped her gaze to the floor. "Stupid." A word of excuse. She feared to start crying all over again, if she would look at him for too long. With his heartbeat against her body, it had been absurdly easy to forget that she had been crying on his behalf -- that the man who was holding her was the same one she fought so hard internally. What a mess.


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"No, it's not," Sasuke asserted automatically in a tone of voice that, while gentle, was also firm: a conviction behind his words that declared she had a right to feel everything that she was feeling, that it certainly wasn't stupid. Removing his hand from her head once she had withdrawn from his embrace--a gesture that in itself gave him a cold jolt, as if suddenly bringing him back to reality from the warm confines of a dream--his fingers drifted downward, between them, to carefully lift her chin upward, seeking out her emerald eyes with his own charcoal ones, so that she could see the steel behind his gaze, feel the absoluteness behind what he had so steadfastly said.

And he could see her remnant tears, how they stained her cheeks in strands, and made his eyes soften, filling with a sorrow that only deepened at the realization that there was so little he could do to take this pain and doubt of hers away; it wasn't easy, like that time before the Chunin exams, when a well-timed compliment had been enough to bring light back into her shadowed eyes. So much had changed between them, become more complicated in the intricacies of conflicting, intertwining emotions--want, regret, desire, fear. And he was all too aware of the source of it all, because it constantly loomed over them like an overbearing shadow: the consequences of his actions, which he would gladly bare, planned on baring on his own, yet broke at his core to think she was also paying for his sins.

"I'm sorry," he mumbled quietly, as he tenderly wiped away her tears, softly stroking her cheek. The words felt useless, unable to convey and hold the emotions raging inside, unable to offer her any comfort, unable to fix or bridge anything between them; they served as something to utter in absence of action, to state his regret, because he was keenly, painfully aware of how little he could do in moments like these. Pain was bitter, complicated, and consuming, and he knew all-too-well that when it went as deep as hers, a lot more was required than a few, useless utterances to begin to make it bearable.

Dropping his hand and downcast eyes, he tugged his cloak back over his shoulder, readjusting the fabric, before tucking his arm underneath. Shifting his gaze onto Ari, he studied the child for a moment, before looking back toward Sakura questioningly, as if asking if she was ready to proceed.


No matter what people say, there are times when kind words don't mean anything, when gestures of serenity are for nothing, fall on deaf ears and evaporate into thin air. And then, sometimes, they stick; Sasuke's readiness to not only accept, but validate her pain, eased something in Sakura, more so than any words of regret or the serenest of apologies ever could. It created room to breathe, to uncurl all that tightly wound sorrow that was within her. This, she thought, is kindness. This must be what drew people to Naruto, as she had seen it time and again; to think that Sasuke, in all his bitterness, with all the defenses he had built to protect himself, was capable of giving this to her -- she marveled at the realization of his growth.

There was no other word for it.

She stood and allowed him to wipe away her tears, returning his gaze while he did so. Then she blinked, and looked away as well, because between them where worlds both dark and light, and she had no name for it, but it felt heavy and weightless all at once. Another short sniff, almost comical, and she nodded, finally sparing Ari a glance, too. He looked at her in wonder, and she grimaced at him, which made him giggle in apparent relief.

"Come on", she said, patting the boy's back. "Let's not waste any more time and get to your mother, okay?"

"Okay!", Ari said as he let go of her. She felt his assessing eyes on her as they moved, but he seemed as glad as she was that the fit was over; and for the next half an hour of pathless woods, he went out of his way to keep stray branches at bay and kick loose rocks to the side for her to pass more easily. Sakura, who had kept her silence for that time, steadying herself until she felt more centered, until she breathed deep and easy and the world did not appear all that bleak anymore, turned her head to look at Sasuke.

"It's just", she began, as if continuing a conversation, "I'm feeling so terribly many things all at once, you know?"


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Sasuke's lips were graced with one of his small smiles at the sound of Ari's rich laughter, which seemed to relief some of the lingering tension in the air, and he could not help but notice the exchange between his traveling companions: how this intricately, deeply human moment had eased things between the two. Sasuke found it compelling and adorable, his soft eyes following the boy with an protective, hawklike overwatch, almost parental, as Ari hurried along ahead of their path to clear the way for Sakura.

And out of his peripheral vision, Sasuke found himself watching Sakura as well, occasionally throwing blatant glances in her direction to study her features, body language, taking her in, in her entirety, bit-by-bit. He nurtured the silence between them because it did not feel as suffocating, deafening as it had before, and he was patient, willing to wait until she was comfortable to speak.

At the sound of her voice, his gaze shifted fully onto her, soft eyes regarding her as he let her words soak in. He was aware of how his heart seemed to flutter in his chest, grateful for this conversation that was beginning between them: a thread of hope that shined like a ray of sunlight on the horizon.

"I know," he simply, softly stated at first, because he was painstakingly and rawly new to this, yet he reached his hand out from underneath the safety of his cloak, taking hers within a gentle grasp, giving her fingers a squeeze in reassurance.

Once he had found the strength, his eyes dropping to glance at their intertwined digits in a motion that was just shy of being sheepish, he admitted, "You're not the only one. It's just...This is still difficult for me." Being open. Letting himself be vulnerable. A part of him still revolted every time he pulled down his walls, because the scars ingrained within the brick were still large, deep, and embedded, could never fade, even with time, but he was trying to learn to accept their existence. "...But I want to know more, Sakura, and tell you more. When you're ready."


Sakura began to understand that for Sasuke, physical contact, like reaching out his hand to her as he did now, came easier to him than words, probably by a lot. And she came to appreciate that they had allowed the gesture to become something between them to use as a bridge, when words failed or came only haltingly. She let her thumb travel over the back of his hand, the usual tingling sensation of his lighting chakra on her skin a pleasant familiarity. The slight burn around her eyes, and the throbbing fogginess that accompanied a crying fit, lingered but did not seem completely unpleasant. "You've changed", she said quietly, "a lot."

In this moment, Ari whirled around to them, swinging his stick in a sweeping motion. When his eyes landed on their joined hands, he made a moaning sound. "You won't start smooching now, will you?", he demanded with all the righteous exasperation of a child, who, quite sensibly, could not see the point in such unseemly behavior as having a girlfriend. And this handholding business Sasuke was engaging in appeared suspiciously like that sort of thing someone would do with his girlfriend.

Even as Sakura's cheeks grew hot with what surely was nothing but indignation, she felt the harsh response bubbling up inside her, and opening her mouth to dish it to him, she --

Crack. And a flush, a wave, building over their heads even as the figure of a man came crashing down upon them, seemingly out of the sky, wielding Kubikiribocho over his head, ready for a strike, and it buried itself into the ground, splitting the forest floor the same time the wave washed over them, higher and higher as if the ocean had decided to expand. A screech from Ari, who vanished out of sight, and Sakura lost Sasuke's grip as the force of the impact washed her away, too, bubbles bursting from her mouth as suddenly everything was water.

"Saaaahaaasuke-kuuuun!" Suigetsu cried in a grin that was all teeth and a voice that tilted with reckless amusement. "I know you're a greedy bastard, but you can't have everything, you know? That's so unfair!"


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Stunned by Ari's blatant comment, to the extent that he didn't even have the thought capacity to think to let go of Sakura's hand in an attempt to soothe over the situation, perhaps because this thing between them that they both were trying so hard to dance around (awkwardly, and apparently failing miserably to hide it) was so obvious that even the young boy was able to notice it, Sasuke found himself unusually speechless; while he had always been a quiet man, that had been a conscious decision, yet now he was incapable of stringing together two coherent words.

Suigetsu's interruption was almost a relief.

Everything happened so quickly. Sasuke felt the rush of adrenaline start to flood his veins, the war drum pound in his chest, the hum as he built up his chakra. And then the wave was upon them, ripping him from Sakura, dragging him deep under the surface in a flash of water that filled his lungs, making him cough and sputter, desperate for air.

His hand moved quickly, forming the signs of the summoning jutsu, and a then the giant hawk, Garuda, was beneath him. Grabbing onto his feathers, Sasuke first poured his chakra into the bird to send a command, up!, before quickly relaying the situation as they ascended: quick, flashing images of Sakura and Ari, then the orders, 'Make sure she's safe. Find and protect the boy.'

They broke through the surface and into the air in a splash of water that danced with colorful rays of sunlight, Sasuke kneeling on top of Garuda, his fist clenched around the feathers of the bird's back.

"Understood, Sasuke-san," the hawk murmured, soaring to a nearby tree so Sasuke could nimbly jump off onto a branch, before redirecting his flight to carry out his given orders.

Channeling chakra into his feet for a firmer hold, Sasuke slid his legs apart, lifting his hand to toss off his backpack and soaked jacket, freeing himself of the weight. Hair drenched and plastered across his face, his sharingan and rinnegan glared out from beneath his disheveled bangs, both eyes narrowed, mouth pulled taunt, yet twitching into a snarl.

"You have one chance, Suigetsu," he warned, voice low and dangerous, as he drew his katana from his back, snapping it into his grip with a ripple of chidori across the blade. "To reconsider which side of this you want to be on."


"Listen, man", Suigetsu said in mid-jump, and the next moment, Kubikiribocho met Sasuke's blade as he hurled it in a flourish, "you know I respect the hell out of you. And that new fancy eye of yours, well, I don't even wanna know what that can do to a guy like me." Steel screeched, and Suigetsu grinned his big grin, leaning into Sasuke while their blades met. At the same instance, another wave built beneath them, and with a light jump Suigetsu got away from Sasuke and onto the water, skidding over the surface with ease as he rode it to bring some distance between himself and the other shinobi.

"The thing is, you can't have everything! You already have your fancy new eye, haven't you, Sasuke?"

The surface of the water boiled with bubbles, and a moment later, droplets shot from the surface like projectiles into Sasuke's direction, aiming to shoot him off his branch. Typical Konoha-nin, Suigetsu thought with a shake of his head, always climbing trees like monkeys. "I get you've lost your arm, that's real tragic and all, but don't you think you should leave at least some of the good stuff to other people, too?"

Suigetsu was no fool; he knew that to keep himself safe and sound -- a state which he much preferred over dead and cold -- he had to keep moving, engage Sasuke in an onslaught of assaults. It itched in his fingers to engage him in a sword fight, because Sasuke was a superb swordsman among all the other labels he carried, and Suigetsu very much wanted to find out how his style had evolved with only one arm to spare.

Unfortunately, though, even a hot-head like him knew his limits (or had come to learn them the hard way), and so he summoned wave after wave, flooding the forest in the process of using the water as his hiding ground; it would serve him as cover for any incoming attacks, and as a perfect platform to move quickly around Sasuke. And to think, that big a jutsu in such a short amount of time -- he would not have been capable of this three months ago, and now he held this kind of power so easily; it was heady, and he began to understand some of the appeal such power held, even though he himself preferred the finesse of swordsmanship over raw might.


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How thin Sasuke's patience was wearing was evident in the cool, unamused look in his mismatched eyes, which glared behind their interlocked blades. The former swordsman of Team Taka had always spoken too much, but now his words were like claws scratching down a chalkboard, and remembering the sound of Ari's screech, Sasuke felt what would have normally been simple irritation at Suigetsu's antics boil into a subtle anger underneath his skin.

He had stated that he would give him one chance, and this idiot was declining that offer.

And then Suigetsu was retreating, and Sasuke found himself hopping to another tree, tomoes of his sharingan turning, to avoid the water projectiles flying toward him. A few burned into his shoulder, yet gritting his teeth, he continue on, dancing ever upwards and sideways, truly like a Konoha monkey, to avoid the building waves and waterline in the forest. For now, it seemed as if he simply was on the defensive.

"And what is it that you want, Suigetsu? Besides abducting and torturing innocents?" Perhaps if he kept him talking, it would give him time. He could smell rain on the air, and for the first time since he and Sakura had departed, he was entirely glad that it always seemed to be storming in this land.

And then, suddenly, carefully considering and making a note of how much chakra he was expending, Sasuke, switching onto the offensive, stabbed his sword into the trunk of a tree, chakra-charged feet clinging to the wood, made a few hand signs, and turned toward Suigetsu, spitting a quite a few large fireballs in his direction. It was an odd choice, considering the swordsman was pratically made of water, yet he didn't seem to be the true target anyways, as the balls blazed upward into the sky.

Retrieving his sword with a quick jerk, his eyes scanned the horizon, checking to see if Garuda had been able to retrieve Sakura and Ari from the water, before he was on the move again.

He had given Suigetsu one chance, and with what he had in mind, he would only have one chance to pull it off in return.


Skidding along the water's surface with his feet that, peculiarly, seemed to have no beginning nor end, seemed indeed to melt into the water, Suigetsu pointed his finger at Sasuke, stuttering indignantly before he found his words. "What are you talking about, heh?" And, raising his voice over the roar of the water, he added: "Also, look who's talking!"

There was no time for anything more, as balls of fire seemed to head straight into his direction, so he took a deep dive under water, unaware that the jutsu was not intended for him in the first place. He did neither see the fire balls vanish into the sky, nor hear the scream of a hawk, the bird nothing but a large outline on the horizon, carrying two equally small shadows. And then, he was up again, propelled by the new source of chakra streaming through him and whooping with excitement as he broke through the water's surface in a calculated motion that send him straight in the air.

Kubikiribocho gleamed in the sun as he swung it; and there was an aura surrounding the blade, an oddity: a light blue shroud that wavered and pulsed and was cold as he heaved the sword into Sasuke's direction as if for an attack -- an arctic wind dispelled the warmth of the sun, and the temperature around them dropped as Suigetsu, in his momentum, landed on a branch a few trees away from Sasuke.

"Missed!", he cheered, but his grin was hungry for blood and a good, hefty fight. "See, Sasuke, I know I don't stand a chance, but you are so damn greedy, and that really starts to get on my nerves. Just give me the boy, and I promise I won't bear a grudge. Pinky swear."

His grip still on Kubikiribocho's handle, he started to form hand signs. It strained the muscles in his bare arms; the sword had always been much to carry, had required a huge amount of chakra and his water nature to balance out the weight, but it was easier now, so much easier it was laughable. And he had always been strong, he knew, always powerful, but this -- this was something else, a league of its own entirely. He could not loose that kind of power, now that he got a taste for it. And with a blast, he send a jet of water into Sasuke's direction, intending to cover him from head to toe, drench him in an ongoing stream.


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Swinging his sword around in his grip, sharingan watching the water's surface like a hawk, Sasuke defensively jumped back as Suigetsu broke from the surface, weapon raising to instinctively block the blow. Yet the change in temperature, which sent a chill through his body, told him that striking was not the main intent behind the attack; Suigetsu had grown smarter since the last time they had met, and by judgement of the sheer force and frequency of the jutsu the swordsman was wielding, stronger too.

What the hell had his former teammate been up to?

Landing on yet another tree branch--he wanted to avoid the water, where his opponent had a clear advantage--Sasuke narrowed his eyes at Suigetsu, gritting his teeth as the swordsman just kept. On. Talking. That grin of his was starting to really irk Sasuke, and tightening his fist around the grip of his katana, he told himself he was going to wipe it from his face forcibly.

And then Suigetsu had the audacity to suggest Sasuke should hand over Ari.

A mixture of rage and determination--because that certainly wasn't going to happen--sprawled across Sasuke's normally composed face, and the reply he gave was as sharp as a dagger: "Then it's in your best interest to stand down--" Suigetsu himself had just declared this wasn't a battle he could win. "--Because you'll have to to kill me before I allow you to lay a hand on the kid."

Quickly forming a few hand signs of his own, Sasuke stood his ground as the stream of water approached, the tomoes in his rinnegan spinning against the purple, layered pupil. He was hit hard, the force of the impact flaring pain throughout his body, and he flew backwards from the branch, grip tight around the katana's handle.

And then he was gone. In his stead left was Suigetsu's beloved sword, once wielded by Zabuza. Having used the rinnegan's teleportation jutsu, Sasuke switched places with the blade, sending chidori sparking through his own, mismatched eyes glaring behind the blazing blue light dancing across the metal, his lips pulled back into a snarl. Bringing his blade downward with momentum, he sought to slice into Suigetsu's form.



A cry of disgust was torn from Suigetsu's throat as he realized what must have happened -- and all in the blink of an eye it took for Sasuke to work his trick -- because he hated to be separated from his beloved blade, even if, as it was in this instance, it happened to his advantage. There was not much time to smirk in triumph, because doing so would have likely cost him his head, but he flashed a grin in Sasuke's direction nonetheless, as in the next moment, he was a drooping mass of water, melting away against the branch he was standing on.

Having changed form, liquidized, he dropped back towards the body of water under them. It wouldn't have been enough, wouldn't have saved him from the chidori-induced blade that was cackling like a mad old woman above him; electricity, as they both knew, was his greatest weakness, and he had always been at a natural disadvantage against Sasuke's affiliation. But he did not elude the attack, not entirely -- instead, in his liquid form he sprang against Sasuke's ankle, a splash of cold, gluey water that was Suigetsu, and in that same moment, he released the jutsu he had prepared, and his nature was water and then wind and now ice, too, and with a pulse of chakra he forced the jutsu against Sasuke's drenched body, freezing every last particle of water on his body, his clothes, in his hair, in an instant.

And in turn, he took the brunt of the chidori, not quick enough to flee and attack at the same time; a spark hit one part of him, and as it did, it hit all parts: Every last cell in his body, and he felt himself drop, down down down into the waves he had created, immersing himself in the balm that was fresh, cool water, the world above him the end of a tunnel he was withdrawing from, and fast, as consciousness wavered and left him and all there was left was electrifying, exhilarating pain.


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Sasuke knew he would not be able to pull the same trick twice; his move with the rinnegan consumed a good portion of his chakra, and it would be a greater span of time before he could use it again. And then there was the ice--when had Suigetsu learned Ice Release, he thought distantly, amazed at the quick growth of his team member--eating away at his body, freezing him to his core. Not only was his temperature dropping rapidly and dangerously, devouring his stamina, but he was unable to move, his joints locked together like hinges on a frozen door.

Chidori-charged blade smashing through the branch of the tree, colliding with Suigetsu, Sasuke was in free-fall. Hand firmly kept around the grip of the blade, because he physically couldn't let go, the only thing he could do was continue the flow of chakra into the metal, keeping the chidori running across it as strong as possible, even as the lake below neared.

There was nothing more he could do in this battle. It was over. But he would make sure Suigetsu didn't come near Ari.

And then he hit the surface of the water. And he was descending, darkness below him engulfing his vision, as his own lightning struck him with white hot pain, current sparking through the ocean around him. The lightning across his blade flickered, dying off, as his vision faltered, and he slipped from his consciousness with a smirk spreading across his lips. Because even as the pain from his own attack was overwhelming, his body frozen and chilled to the bone, he felt satisfaction at having done that to Suigetsu.


"You know that normally in such circumstances, the best course of action is body heat. So if you really want to help him, wouldn't it be sensible to strip him and lie naked with him?"

"Why, that's a wonderful idea", Sakura said sweetly over the clatter and rattling of metal. Fire was crackling in very close proximity, radiating heat. "Well, go on then."

Two voices, both female. Around them, a chamber with chalked walls and in the distance a sound like a small waterfall. No natural light, but the unsteady flicker of a well-built fire. A kettle started to rattle, and more clattering ensued. Then, the spicy smell of a herbal infusion, strong enough to clog one's nostrils. Somebody coughed pointedly.

"Yes?", Sakura asked, still in that sweet tone. "Anything the matter? You didn't catch a cold, did you?"

"Oh, no. I'm perfectly healthy, Sakura-san, thank you for asking. Say, don't you think that tea maybe a bit --"

"-- a bit what, Karin?"


There was a slight pause, in which clothes rustled as one of the two approached Sasuke's bed, in which he was swaddled in layers of blankets, so that only his head stuck out. Two hot-water bags were stuffed next to either side of his body, which was stripped naked. A hand smoothed over his cool cheek. "And don't you think I should let him ... just a bit, so he can regain his strength more quickly ..."

There was a clonk, as if somebody had put down something heavy with too much force. "No!", Sakura said sharply from across the room. "You are not going to do that! Or suggest it in my presence, ever again! It is perverse, and wrong, and you are not obliged to do anything of the sort for anyone!"

Silence followed. A light tremble ran through the hand that was now caressing Sasuke's hair. Then, Karin harrumphed. "Fine, suit yourself. I'll ask him when he wakes up."

"By all means", Sakura replied, then there were steps, and a door swung shut -- the sound of the waterfall was cut off.

"Poor Sasuke", Karin said, very close to his face. She was leaning down, far enough for the tips of her hair to brush over his skin. "You should have grilled that stupid jellyfish once and for all. But your lucky I got here in time. Let's see ..." Her presence receded, and then she heaved and puffed as if she was carrying something large. "First, I'll get rid of that yukky concoction for you. Don't worry, you won't have to drink that." And then a sound as if a rather gooey liquid was poured down a drain.


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He reached for the surface, swimming upwards within the waters of his consciousness, an urgent, yet almost drowned out, warning lingering within his medulla. Flashes of his fight with Suigetsu filled his memory, his original goal was seeping into his mind as ethereal thoughts, like drops of mist, and he was remembering Ari, Sakura, the enclosing worry about their safety rumbling throughout the dark waters of this tertiary level of perception.

He had to wake up.

He first became aware of how cold his body was, even with sources of heat nearby--which he was able to discern due to how his body naturally craved those sources and the relief they offered--and the chill that lingered within him, as if clinging to his spine, and from there, icing over every one of his bones.

Voices. Familiar. Feminine. A gear shifted within his mind, registering one of those voices, as he slowly began to seep back into the world.


Then he was aware of the dull pain underneath the cold, which seemed to spark occasionally throughout every one of his singed nerves. Mentally, he clung to that pain, let it drag him further forward and upwards with the threat of danger.

The crackling of a fire. Its warmth reached for him, eating slowly away at the chill still clinging to his muscles. The weight of blankets surrounding his body. Fingers entwining themselves within his hair. Sudden, harsh noises--clanging of metal, then the slamming of wood. He registered these things, each one knocking more heavily at his consciousness, until finally, his eyes snapped opened, black staring into the dark room illuminated only by the single source of light.

With battle the most recent memory on his mind, he could feel the sudden acceleration of his heartbeat, and he was compelled to try to sit up, move. His body complained, muscles constricting with sharp stabs of pain, yet only one thing mattered to him at the moment--well, specifically two people.

"Ari. Sakura." His voice cut through the air, even if its normally sharp edge was dulled by pain and exhaustion. "Where are they?" The inflection of the question warned that if he wasn't given an answer that satisfied him--proof of their well-being and safety, which would of course had to include a drawn map of their location, a scouting report of the nearby area, full oral and written reports on any expected enemies, along with strategies to deal with those enemies, escape routes and plans--in a in a timely manner--the next three seconds--he was about to become a very difficult patient. Difficult to the extent of giving Naruto a run for his money.

And the threat was very much so real, as he was already battling (albeit with great difficulty) the blanket wrapped around his body.



Karin whirled around at the sound of his voice, and the hopeful gleam in her eyes was thankfully hidden beneath her glasses, which she pushed up her nose subconsciously, suddenly aware at her flustered state. Her hair was a mess, having worked for hours now, and she must look horrible with the bags under her eyes. She always got those when she was working late, and Suigetsu, if present, would never leave out an opportunity to remind her of that fact. As inconspiciously as possible she smoothed her apron, creased and stained from the effort of nursing that stupid fishman with his stupid ideas, and hadn't Sakura been all high and mighty taking care of Sasuke, Karin's Sasuke, whom she had brought back to health more times she could count!

"I didn't realize you were up already!", she said, and with another clonk she replaced the large teakettle, one she needed both her hands to carry, on the wooden table next to the fire. And with a step, she was at Sasuke's bedside, swaying a little on her feet at the sight of his handsome face, all groggy and confused and determined (he wore that look well), while doing her utmost to keep her face professionally neutral. "Stay in bed, or Sakura's gonna kill me." With an exaggerated roll of her eyes, she tried to assess if he was as put out by that girl's antics as she herself was -- surely he must be, traveling with such a cold-hearted, stick-in-the-mud person. Poor Sasuke-kun.

"Listen", she reiterated at his movement, and her hands twitched behind her back. There were benefits of him getting up and losing all that blankets that covered him, although it most certainly would not benefit his health in any way. Internally debating if to let him proceed would be terribly selfish -- she had not had even one glimpse of Sasuke, and what had Sakura been doing in that room with him (all alone, mind you!), for so long -- yet, her concern won over the desire gain some insights in what Sasuke was normally hiding beneath his clothes. So she continued: "They are both fine. Suigetsu has been stupid, which comes as no surprise to anyone, I'm sure, but everyone's okay and so on. There, Sakura just went to look for another water bottle for you, but Sasuke, you must stay in bed, please?" She inched closer to the rim of the bed. "Look", she said, rolling up her sleeve to expose her bare, heavily scarred arm. "You remember how to do it, don't you?"


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One of his infamous, dismissive, disgruntled hns rumbled in Sasuke's throat at Karin's request he stay in bed, while his eyes locked on her, stare serious and waiting. Two seconds now, before he somehow forced his body to rage war throughout wherever they were until he answered his question himself, and standing in his way would be like charging a brick wall (even though, in his current condition, that brick-wall was only about ankle-high). His stubbornness--'determination', as Naruto liked to refer to his own--it seemed, had remained intact and firm over the years.

Her explanation left a lot to be desired, a multitude of questions surfacing underneath Sasuke's mind, yet worry spreading quicker. Of course, he probably would not have been satisfied unless his companions had been brought before his eyes, and he had a chance to look them over with the sharingan; his groggy mind was easy susceptible to his paranoia, his well-regarded rational thought being overrun by protectiveness.

Yet before he could protest in the form of trying to stand, a feat that was guaranteed to have been disastrous, Karin's arm was offered to him, leaving him stunned. The sight of his bite marks scarred across her skin sent chilling, sharp icicles through his veins, and for a moment he could only stare, eyes filling with a mixture of shock and shame.

He had done that. He had used her. Without thought and remorse. Then he had discarded her with a chidori through the chest. And now she was here. Helping nurse him back to health. Offering herself to him once more.

Sasuke felt sick. He had been very aware of his actions, how much he had hurt people, but seeing it now before him, what he had done to Karin, more than simply using her, but gods, causing her to want him to keep using her, jarred him to his core, sent a rage of emotions through him, made him understand on a deeper level just how far he had fallen.

He was no better than Orochimaru.

"No, Karin. Don't." Somehow he found the strength to speak, and thank Kami he could blame the unevenness in his voice on his wounds. Looking away with downcast eyes, he weakly raised his hand to brush her arm away, feeling his mouth run dry. "Don't ever let anyone use you like that again."

It was like being forced to look in a mirror, seeing the cracks he had caused in so many lives, the reflection of perhaps who he truly was, deep down, and even if he wasn't...

You've changed, Sakura had told him. But did it matter? When he had destroyed so much, ruined so much.

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