swordage: Naruto and Sasuke being friendly. (x monsters)
[personal profile] swordage
I have no idea how many years ago I started this. A lot. About five, I think? I've poked at it off and on for most of that time. It's... Well. You can tell. The first half actually got posted as its own story, but since I just kinda kept writing, I'll repost the whole thing here. It'll always have a special fond place in my heart - and in hindsight, it was pretty clearly my thing for nonhumans popping up. Huh. Also this is so, so AU. Let's see, can I add any more caveats that will make people want to avoid it like the plague...? XD I do like it though. I want other people to like it, deep down under its outer layers of shitty writing and worse plotting. I want to sit by the waterfall and croak with the bullfrogs, you know? Yeah. Anyway. SO NOSTALGIC~

WIP: Naruto, Gaara/Sasuke/Naruto (nonsexual)
Working title: Monsters


Naruto doesn’t want to imagine how much the dark seal on the other boy’s neck must hurt. He chatters pointlessly instead, talking about how he got a free bowl of ramen yesterday for being such a good customer, and how Kakashi actually let him borrow one of the Icha Icha books, and he heard about a new technique he wants to try out sometime soon. He has his paperwork spread out in front of him, attempting to keep his attention on it long enough to actually know what kind of mission he’ll be going on tomorrow, but his gaze keeps tripping on the charms and seals plastered liberally on that too-small iron cage. He has to remind himself that what’s inside that cage is not the boy he knew. It is a monster, like him - No, this is a real monster. Those manacles are for his own protection, to keep him from trying to gouge his own eyes out (again). He tries not to look at the scars from self-inflicted wounds, things that wouldn’t have occurred if they had only thought far enough ahead…

Gaara stares back until they feed him, and then Naruto has to leave. The one time he stayed, the pop-crack of bones splitting made him ill.


Naruto hates how getting ready to visit Gaara is a full-day endeavor. All traces of sand, even dirt and grime, have to be removed inside and out. All-liquid diet, and an embarrassing skin-bruising wash with high-pressure hoses, and he has to wear hospital clothes in the reinforced room Gaara lives in. He wishes he could just drop by to visit an old friend. The shinobi guards have stopped giving him odd looks when he visits; at first there had been dispute over whether he should be allowed in at all, but now they’re used to seeing him every other week like clockwork. The old hag knows better than to give him missions on Tuesdays.

He sometimes worries about the wounds he gets. They’re not the cleanest things, although they heal up fine, but he figures if Gaara really wanted to pull dirt out of his internal organs, Gaara damn well would. So he lets them wash him down and sticks to the cleansing diet and doesn’t mention that if he wanted, Gaara could still kill them all.


They get Sasuke back a year later. They managed to catch Orochimaru by surprise, and although they didn’t get the snake, they managed to grab his shed skin. Naruto splits his time between the two of them, Gaara and Sasuke, but neither one is very stimulating company. Gaara is silently insane, and Sasuke is in a coma.

He sits by Sasuke’s bed and does the same thing he does for Gaara; he talks inanely about nothing and tries to keep his eyes away from the white scar where the curse mark used to be, tries not to look at the overblown restraints meant to keep the boy from killing in his sleep. They lost three Anbu that way before he was sedated to the brink of death.


When Sasuke wakes up, Naruto is on a mission. He doesn’t even hear about it when he gets back; it’s a Monday, so he starts getting ready to visit Gaara. It’s only when he’s getting ready for the pressure-wash that he hears them muttering about it, and he pulls his clothes back on and runs to the hospital. When he gets there, they’ve already drugged Sasuke back into oblivion, and he swears until he’s blue in the face. Once he’s done, Sakura looks at him and quietly tells him that Iruka was seriously injured and might never walk again. Naruto stops objecting to the drugs after that.


He goes to see Sasuke while preparing for a visit with Gaara once. The visit with Sasuke is uneventful, but as soon as he steps into Gaara’s room, he can feel the change in that pale stare.

He tries to laugh it off and follows his usual routine, but Gaara has shifted to the front of his cage, crouched almost eagerly just shy of touching the bars. Finally Naruto sets his papers down and slowly, cautiously, approaches the cage. He offers the back of his hand, trying not to flinch or be afraid when it’s grabbed in a sudden, jerky motion.

He holds very still as Gaara scents Sasuke on his skin, and breathes a sigh of relief when he’s finally released. Then he looks at Gaara’s eyes and thinks Oh shit before there’s tearing pain in every part of his body.


He comes to in the forest and briefly thinks he passed out on a mission. Then he sees Gaara standing over him, sees the bloodied sand curling around his arm like a contented cat, and he wonders vaguely if it’s his own blood or someone else’s. He truly wakes up, sharp and heart-pounding, when he realizes that the small sounds of pain he hears are not from himself. He pushes himself up, flinching noticeably when Gaara tangles a hand in his hair, and assesses his surroundings. Just outside the village, two bodies at the gate, alarms sounding within the village walls, one body closer - Sasuke. Still alive, awake and in enough pain to immobilize him. Naruto is suddenly aware of his own wounds, tiny slow-healing punctures all over his body, where Gaara forced the sand out. He tries to crawl to Sasuke, but is jerked back by Gaara’s hand in his hair. He whimpers softly and doesn’t fight when he’s pulled back against Gaara’s side and gently petted.


The first thing Gaara wanted done was the destruction of the Sand; the first thing Sasuke wanted done was the destruction of Akatsuki. It didn’t matter what Naruto wanted; he wasn‘t monster enough to fight them for it. Gaara and Sasuke had a discussion over what they would do first, and since Gaara was the last one standing, they went after the Sand. Naruto tried not to kill, but Gaara walked through afterwards and made him slit their throats with his fingers. He made his kills clean after that, except for once when he had to fight Temari. He told her to run, but Sasuke got her instead. Gaara was upset with both of them for days, and he made Sasuke carry Kankurou’s scarecrow.


They train before taking on Akatsuki, if it can be called training. He eventually learns to be almost as good as they are. They level villages, and Naruto is sick in the bushes too often for Gaara’s impatience. He discovers that the sand can be helpful and threatening when there’s a thick wad of it holding the valve between stomach and esophagus closed. Gaara takes it out when Naruto’s eyes grow weary and resigned, but he makes a collar of sand for his pet to ensure his continued behavior. Sasuke will play with it sometimes, spinning it around Naruto’s neck until he bleeds from the rough edges. Then he’ll laugh and go to tussle with Gaara, and Naruto thinks Sasuke might be the most human of them all.


Naruto is convinced he must be insane. He’s surrounded by the few survivors of the Leaf, and he’s not fighting. He knows they will kill him. Sasuke could care less about saving his sorry ass, and Gaara is busy decapitating Kakashi’s dogs. Naruto has the fox called up, energy swirling about him in frightening ways, but he isn’t doing anything. He knows it’s throwing them off, knows they’ll draw it out from caution, knows it won’t be a clean kill. A kunai slams into his shoulder hard enough to rock him forward a step, and they all flinch back. He turns to see the brave soul who scored the first hit, and finds Iruka glaring at him, cane discarded at his side and hands full of throwing knives. Naruto can feel the smile slowly spread on his face, the first honest smile in a long time, and Iruka’s seething hate falters.

No, not you too, Naruto thinks desperately, and he lunges at the nearest shinobi. It prompts a burst of kunai in his side, knocking him off course, and he stumbles bodily into Sakura. He keeps his claws clear, turns his teeth away, wincing when his fox-ear brushes softly against her cheek. She shoves a Rasengan into his chest, and he feels a warm burst of pride where his heart used to be. He meets Iruka’s pained eyes and wonders distantly why he can hear Sasuke screaming.


Naruto suspects he should be unconscious right now. There is, after all, a gaping hole where about half his torso used to be. He can’t feel it, though, so he doesn’t really mind. He looks up at the vengeful hate on Sakura’s face and tries to feel anything other than relief.

He doesn’t realize he’s lying on his back until someone grabs his hand and physically hauls him away from the girl, nearly pulling his arm from its socket. That hurts somehow, even though he still can’t feel anything further down his body, and he looks up to find Sasuke hanging onto him, one arm dangling useless and bloody at his side. Naruto stares blankly, confused, as Sasuke snarls a red-eyed warning to the shinobi surrounding them and crouches protectively over Naruto.

It’s even more startling to look farther up and see Gaara over them on a dark cloud of sand. He’s distantly aware of someone speaking, but even if he could concentrate he’s not sure he’d understand. He hasn’t heard a human voice in years, aside from screams. He grabs onto Sasuke’s leg and tries to pull himself up to inspect the damage to himself since he doesn’t seem to be dying very quickly, and to see what their opponents are doing during this standoff. Sasuke ignores him, holding obligingly still, and he finally lifts himself enough to get a good look at himself. He feels ill when he sees how much he’s missing, but more ill when he sees that it’s healing. Slowly, organs first and the outer muscles and skin not at all, but he thinks he’ll live through this. Unless Gaara kills him for pulling that kind of stunt.

The circle of shinobi shifts slightly, catching his attention, and he blinks vaguely at the familiar faces. He’s fairly certain he knows at least half of these ninja by name, even if he can’t remember them at the moment. Ah, there, just entering the circle is Kakashi, headband pulled up to reveal his sharingan eye.

Kakashi doesn’t try to communicate with words, much to Naruto’s relief. He just looks at them, and they look back, and slowly Sasuke drops to his knees next to Naruto and they lean against each other wearily. He can feel Sasuke’s exhaustion as if it were his own, and he is somehow unsurprised when Gaara sets down next to them despite being unharmed. He thinks they might have finally accepted him as an equal, and if he wants to die here, they’ll do it together.

Kakashi is speaking softly, but not to them, so Naruto closes his eyes and tries not to shiver. He’s slowly warming, and he thinks his major blood vessels have healed, but it’s awfully cold at the brink of death. Sasuke is tense and quivering next to him, so he pushes the boy away towards Gaara and gives the two of them a meaningful look. Gaara doesn’t bother to even acknowledge the gesture, and Sasuke rolls his eyes and settles more firmly next to Naruto. Kakashi notices and frowns slightly. Naruto wishes he could communicate better, but Kakashi is not Gaara or Sasuke; they have not spent the last few years constantly in each others’ presence. He can’t speak with a twitch or a blink to Kakashi; it’s like yelling across a crowded room.

They all tense up when Sakura carefully approaches. Iruka says something to her, soft and urgent, but she just shakes her head and looks nervously between the three of them. Gaara twitches a hand when she gets too close, and she stops instantly. Holding her hands out to her sides, she summons up a sweet-smelling chakra, and they all recognize the healing intent. Gaara lets his fingers droop, and she kneels in front of Naruto and begins helping his organs along. Naruto watches curiously, content to let Gaara and Sasuke watch his back.

Then something clicks into place, and all the pain he hasn’t been feeling explodes through his body - he’s dimly aware of screaming, choked and convulsively, and Sasuke shoves Sakura away before Gaara’s sand punches holes in her. Everything is a blur of motion then, Gaara and Sasuke shielding him from the sudden onslaught of thrown kunai and chakra attacks in a cruel spiral of panicked reactions. There’s yelling and cursing and his own screaming, and it’s almost bliss when he passes out.


When he wakes, he snuggles deeper into sweet-smelling furs and makes small sleepy sounds to let Gaara know exactly what he thinks about waking this early. Gaara’s sigh of exasperation doesn’t come, though, and his eyes shoot open as his body tenses to fight.

He’s in a tent, and there’s no one else with him. He chokes back the instinctual terror and tries to get up, snarling when his legs only twitch weakly. A hand brushes the tent-flap open, and Kakashi’s cold gaze rests on him for a moment before he turns to murmur something to someone else. Sakura darts under his raised arm, and Naruto grabs her arms when she kneels next to him. Iruka makes a sharp noise from the doorway, but Sakura just puts her hand over his and says something reassuring. He doesn’t subside, though, just keeps trying to claw his way out of the tent, and finally she has to push him back down to the furs to keep him from hurting himself.

There’s a brief tussle outside the tent, voices raised in anger, and then suddenly Sasuke is next to him, ignoring the shinobi that follow angrily. They lock gazes for a moment, and then Sasuke gives him the smallest nod and he relaxes completely. Sasuke is alright, and Gaara is unharmed as well. Neither of them fight when the shinobi drag Sasuke out of the tent; they’ve said what they meant to. Sakura is talking heatedly with Kakashi, who is remarkably cold and unmoving. Naruto watches them for a little while before losing interest, instead watching an ant crawl across the long strands of fur by his face. It pauses when his breath hits it, antennae waving wildly, and he smiles a little.

Iruka touches his arm, unnoticed while the other two argue, and Naruto looks up at him sadly. Iruka doesn’t try to talk to him, and he thinks maybe Iruka understands better than the rest of them. Then the angry words are directed at Iruka, and Kakashi grabs the man’s arm and pulls him away from Naruto. Iruka says something, soft and broken, and Naruto reaches out and takes his hand. They all fall suddenly silent, and he blushes a little and retreats under the furs. He’s pleased when they resume talking, because it’s in quieter voices, not angry any more. Then Iruka peels back the furs from Naruto’s head and carefully ties his Leaf headband around Naruto’s forehead, and Naruto stares up at him with tears welling in his eyes and Sakura gasps something and he hugs Iruka as hard as he can. Kakashi says nothing.

They leave, and Iruka comes back with a steaming bowl of noodles and teaches him how to say “ramen.” He can’t eat much, and he feels a little ill from what he does eat, and he tries to assure Iruka that it’s not him or the noodles, it’s just that he isn’t used to anything but red meat now. He thinks maybe Iruka doesn’t want to understand that, because all his wild gestures garner is a wide-eyed look and a hesitant laugh.

He finds himself telling wild stories with his hands, turning the heavy furs into winding rust-colored dunes. He makes a little village out of the half-eaten bowl of noodles and demonstrates vigorously how the little finger-people fell in love and ran away together to the tall trees of Iruka’s spare kunai. He manages to make Iruka smile for real before he falls asleep, so he figures all the energy he wasted having his hands seduce each other was well-spent.

He wakes in the dark, Sasuke’s familiar breath in his ear. There’s a warm hand on his still-knitting gut, resting lightly on the thick bandages. Naruto wiggles his toes against Sasuke’s ankle and smiles at the expected huff of annoyance. Then he remembers Sasuke’s own injuries and carefully probes the arm he recalls being limp and bloodied. Sasuke growls low, but Naruto just nips his collarbone chastisingly. The arm is fine, though the shoulder is immobile with overzealous bandaging, and Naruto flicks his tongue out apologetically against the slightly bruised bitemark. Sasuke doesn’t leave, so it’s alright.

They bring him out of the tent the next morning, letting Sasuke support him as he tries to make his legs work. Said limbs are still not cooperating, and he bristles empty threats at them until Sasuke bites his ear. Then he bristles threats at Sasuke. Sakura laughs a little, surprised and amused all at once; Iruka watches nervously. They leave the camp with minimal fuss, the other shinobi never quite looking at them or crossing their path.

Naruto’s dropped unceremoniously on a rock a short distance away, and he doesn’t think very highly of Sasuke’s nursing skills. Then he realizes that they’ve brought him to a waterfall, small and gurgling but there are little side pools and yes, there, googly eyes peering at the commotion they’re making. He grins at the frogs and croaks deep in his throat, startling Iruka into a defensive crouch. He laughs at his old teacher and makes the noise again, delighted when a huge bullfrog returns the greeting. Sasuke sits at his feet, folding his arms across his chest and letting his head droop to his chest. Naruto leans over to catch some of the waterfall’s spray on his face, cool and refreshing, and then he folds his arms over Sasuke’s head and watches the frogs slowly blink back and forth. Sasuke makes a displeased noise, and Naruto ignores him happily. After a few moments of whispered conversation with Iruka, Sakura sits next to Sasuke, and Naruto obligingly drapes himself over her as well. It’s surprisingly comfortable with his head propped on tightly-folded hands, his elbows held up by their heads, and he finds himself drifting off despite the painful throb the pose sends through his chest.

Naruto wakes with a jerk, unsure of what startled him. Iruka hesitates, his hand wavering just above Naruto's shoulder, having been about to shake him. Sasuke huffs, a sound that hasn’t changed in the slightest since he left Konoha the first time, and Sakura holds in a giggle. Naruto yawns widely, rubbing his face until he's awake enough to be hauled to his feet again. The sun has barely moved in the sky; he wonders vaguely what the rush is.

The camp is bristling with activity, and Naruto stares around, taking in as many details as he can. The tents are coming down, deflating silently. It is a camp of ninja; they leave no trace, covering their marks without even thinking. Sasuke seems unconcerned, and Gaara is nowhere to be seen, so Naruto has little choice but to hobble along and whine worriedly. He hasn't the slightest idea where they're going, and no way to find out, and he's hungry. He whines at Sasuke to address the latter, hunching a little to dramatize the effect. Sasuke just snorts and keeps hauling him along. At least he knows where they're going.

Naruto's wedged beside the driver of a small cart, sick with nervousness. It's a good thing he didn't get something to eat, because he would have thrown it up by now. He clings to Sasuke's sleeve, and when that's wrenched from him, he grabs for Sasuke's hair. That elicits a snarl and teeth in his wrist, but he doesn't let go. Sakura says something sharply, worried, and reaches to pull them apart.

"He's afraid," Sasuke growls. "He doesn't understand."

Naruto lets go in his surprise - Sasuke remembers words! And had hidden it! The bastard! Sasuke steps out of grabbing range, turning slightly towards Sakura, who's stopped in her tracks.

"Can you tell him?" she asks, and Naruto whines. Not fair, not fair at all. Sasuke knows words. Maybe Gaara knows words too, but Gaara never communicates anyway, so he'd never bother, but that's not the point! Sasuke knows words!

"Maybe," Sasuke sighs. "Why?"

"Why what?" Sakura frowns slightly, having a little difficulty understanding the rough voice. "Why should you tell him?"

"Why go there?" Sasuke hushes Naruto with a look, promising an explanation. "That place is dead."

"Like Konoha is dead?" Sakura counters, upset. "There were survivors, just like here."

Sasuke huffs, moving next to Naruto again and touching a finger to the smooth skin where the sand collar used to rest. Naruto flinches back automatically. It takes him a breath to understand - the Sand. They're going to Gaara's home. The look he gives them is one of pure betrayal before he crumples in on himself, waiting miserably for the journey to begin.


They reach the grasslands a few days later, and Naruto is bored out of his mind. He stretches his legs as much as he can, sleeping awkwardly in the cart and hobbling around the camp in the dark, trying not to surprise the night watch. They don't like being reminded that even crippled, he's able to sneak up on them without trying. He stumbles across Kakashi one night, and the meeting is the most awkward thing he can imagine. He tries to apologize for everything, making himself small and unimportant, but that just makes Kakashi turn away, which makes him want to apologize more. He chokes back his disappointment and goes hunting.

Gaara joins him a few moments later, stepping off his platform of sand to walk lightly over the dry grasses. They don't find anything more than a small family of rabbits, and Gaara ends up taking down two; Naruto gamely tries to keep up, but the rodents are far more mobile than he is. Gaara waits for him to catch up, and a broken-necked rabbit is dropped in front of him; he tears into it eagerly. Days of rice and broth have left him longing for a real meal, with fur to clean his gullet and bones to crunch satisfyingly when he's done. Gaara claims the heart, deftly reaching past sharp teeth to pluck it from the ribcage - Naruto hardly notices, because Gaara always gets the choice bits and it was technically his kill, anyway.

Naruto only notices Kakashi's presence when he's done, licking the blood and tufts of fur from his hands. He uses his teeth to get under his nails, spitting out a sliver of bone, and eyes his former teacher. Kakashi stays a fair distance away, silent and motionless, which is probably why Gaara doesn't care he's there. Finally Naruto decides it's unimportant and mock-wrestles Gaara to the ground so he can clean the redhead's face. Gaara gives in with an air of indulgence, the sand quiet around them. He ends up mostly on top of Gaara, chewing a dark strand of hair contentedly. He notes absently that their hair is absurdly long, knotted and stringy, nothing like the functionally short hair of the shinobi. He thinks that maybe once he had short hair like theirs, but he likes this better. What he's caught of his own reflection reminds him of the huge golden beasts that roam the grasslands, shaking their thick manes and basking in the sun. Gaara's more like a fox than Naruto is, ruddy and slim and always sneaking in and out of his own accord. Naruto tucks his face against Gaara's neck, listening to the heartbeat that pulses against the bridge of his nose. Sasuke's hair is a smooth wave down his back, tangled into a single mass that stays out of his face, away from his deadly-important eyes. Naruto's not sure what Sasuke is like; he's just human, maybe.

The sand shifts a little, scraping the side of his leg. He looks up, not alarmed because Gaara isn't alarmed, and blinks at the shadow of Kakashi against the moon. Naruto sneezes twice and gets up, careful not to bump into his former teacher. He still isn't sure what the rules between them are, and he always feels like he's breaking them.

Gaara crouches, looking out toward the horizon, scenting another rabbit. Naruto hesitates, understanding the invitation in Gaara's hesitation, but Kakashi is still just giving him that look like he's not much more than meat in motion. He wants to fix that. The sand twitches impatiently around his ankles, coiling in a restless hiss, and he chooses. He drops into a crouch to slink along beside Gaara, stalking slow as breath through the grasses, scraping blood and fur off his tongue with too-sharp teeth.

Kakashi doesn't follow them any farther, but he doesn't leave until they've satisfied the need to hunt, half-eaten corpses scattered across gore-covered sand. He leads them back to the camp and settles Naruto back in his tent; they're both a little surprised when Gaara goes in as well, but Naruto takes it at face value; he curls up against Gaara's side and is asleep in moments.


"Food," Sasuke explains succinctly, sounding slightly harried.

"They didn't eat the last six," Kakashi says flatly, and Sakura makes a small worried noise. Naruto yawns and buries his face against Gaara's very warm side.

"Play, then," Sasuke sighs, exasperated. "Who cares? No one died."

"You still have difficulty putting your thoughts into words," Kakashi notes thoughtfully, perhaps trying to provoke a response. Sasuke just huffs, clearly tired of the conversation in its entirety.

"They're not dangerous to us," Sakura insists sharply. "Don't give me that look, Kakashi. If they meant to kill us we'd be dead a hundred times over, you said so yourself."

"Accidents happen." Kakashi is unconvinced.

"You said it was a game, Sasuke." Another shinobi - Neji, Naruto thinks vaguely, Neji of the dark hair, the tall quiet one that wears cloth over his eyes and whose arm hangs limp. "Is everything a game?"

"No." Sasuke clearly doesn't plan on saying more, but Kakashi has learned a little about them; a small commanding growl loosens Sasuke's voice. He huffs in irritation and searches for the words. "Some is serious. Food is serious. Revenge is serious. Strength is serious. Other is game."

Sakura makes a small broken sound of upset, and that has Naruto lifting his head and sniffing. The anger and frustration outside his tent is almost solid in the air, and he whines softly. Everyone keeps fighting, and he really wishes they'd stop. At least Iruka doesn't fight over him anymore.

"Killing is a game to you," Kakashi says pleasantly, dangerously.

"Some," Sasuke agrees, not caring for Kakashi's threat. Naruto can feel Sasuke's chakra rising, and that more than anything has him on his feet, nudging Gaara out of his meditation.

"Was destroying Konoha and Sunagakure a game?" Kakashi asks almost gently, and Naruto dives out of the tent on all fours, grabbing Sasuke's leg and dragging it out from under him just as he tenses to leap. Kakashi's ten feet away and halfway through the handsigns of an attack by the time he realizes who Naruto had gone for; Sasuke is just as surprised as Kakashi, which gives Naruto the edge his weak legs would have lost him.


There's no way to keep Konoha from growing. Grass ripples in the streets, trees snake through crumpled rooftops. Vines slowly pull down mouldering walls. It would be easy to trust things to be as stable as they look. Sasuke has learned once again to trust the trees - where they grow is solid enough to bear his weight. The ash has long since turned to dark soil, and Konoha is green with life. It's no place for Sasuke.

Sakura waits for him in the ruins, tending to her small garden. He settles on the wall, stacked rocks threatening to wobble beneath his feet. She doesn't hear him. He waits, quiet, no need to rush. She snips the leaves from her mint, pressing one thin leaf beneath her tongue and smiling. He tries to keep from growing impatient, but finally tosses a loose pebble to her feet. She jolts up, kunai in hand, and he frowns at her. Too late, too slow. She needs to practice.

She smiles shakily and waves him inside the little house she's shored up. She talks, low and constant, letting him get used to the sound of a human voice again. He sits awkwardly in a chair, body stiff in the unnatural pose. She boils the mint, lets it steep into the water like her words are seeping into him.

"Thank you," he says when she sets the cup in front of him. His voice is rusty, cracking from a rough growl to a whisper. He take a quick sip to clear his throat even though it's too hot. It smells good, the sweet green of fresh leaves. Sakura smiles, tucks her hair behind her ear. It's getting long, a clean straight fall of silk.

She hums as she moves around the kitchen. It's a small kindness, ignoring him while he remembers how to be like her. She's waiting for him to speak now, he knows, but he doesn't know what to say.

"I'd like to cut my hair," is what comes from his mouth. He hadn't really been considering it, but it seems reasonable. The weight of it is awkward, and he's had to start compensating for the heavy swing when he moves.

"I have scissors," she says, "but I don't think that's why you're here." She leans back against the counter and looks at him, meets his eyes squarely. Confrontational. "Will you tell me, Sasuke?"

"I don't know." It's easy to admit. He follows his instinct, and it told him to come here. He closes his eyes to smell the tea more clearly, to surreptitiously glean the clean smell of woman from the air. She smells like growing things, like earth.

"How is Naruto?" Her voice is soft and easy, not worried that he isn't there with them. She doesn't ask after Gaara.

"Injured." He doesn't miss the hiss of her breath. "Not badly. Cut leg. Healing well." He slits his eyes open to watch her shoulder slump. "He whines."

She forces a little laugh, but he knows he'll be bringing her back with him later to see to the leg. "That sounds like Naruto, alright. How are you, then?"

He shrugs. "Hunting's good. Plenty to eat." Not like the desert. They'd starved there, living on cactus and tiny bony rodents. The forest has them fat and complacent. He sips at his tea to keep the rest of the words inside, the words about how careful Gaara's become about them, how he brings back kicking rabbits for Naruto to eat, how the sand even now grinds into the creases of his skin. How it's comforting instead of frightening. How they all three pile together at night, even though it isn't cold. He looks away, out the window, watches the branches shift before the wind tugs at them. He's never aware of the Sharingan, not until he's with Sakura, not until it makes him better instead of just even. "They're slowing down."

"Is that bad?" She sits kitty-corner to him, folds her teacup between her palms. He sips, considers the answer.

"I don't know. No. It isn't weakness, just... settling."

She stares into her cup, brow furrowed like she's wishing it held the answers. "Do you think they'll stay around here?"

He shrugs. Gaara's still their leader, as much as Sasuke dislikes it some days, and Gaara has never really been predictable. He seems to like the forest well enough, but he could easily be disturbed by the number of ninja that call it home.

"Well," Sakura says briskly, "there's no sense dwelling on what could be. Just... let me know if you leave. Please."

Sasuke nods, stares into the tea. Ripples double and collapse in on themselves. He's always liked watching water patterns through the Sharingan. It's so hard to think of words, to figure out what counts as conversation - he loses track of how long they sit quietly drinking tea.

"I'll get my scissors," she finally murmurs, rising from the table. He waits, lets her come up behind him and touch his head, fingers dancing over the rough mass of hair. She hums as she works, shearing off the better part of it all at once. The sudden loss of weight is unnerving. The lump of hair looks like an animal dead on the floor. Sakura hums as she trims, brings out a bone comb and works the knots away from his skull. Sasuke waits as patiently as he can, itching to get up and move and find his new balance. Finally she steps away, turning his face from side to side, frowning thoughtfully before bringing out a covered bowl of oil and smoothing it over his shorn head.

"Wash this out later," she tells him, and then it's done.

Sasuke gets up immediately, paces twice across the room, turns sharp to face her and demands, "Fight." Then he blinks, sees the fine tremble in her hands, forces himself to gentle. "Please? It feels strange."

"Oh," Sakura laughs, slightly breathless and rueful, "of course. Yes, there's a clearing not far. I think we used to spar there when we trained with Kakashi, do you remember?"

He holds himself back, lets her lead. As he walks behind her down the path, leaping occasionally from one boulder to another, he takes a deep breath and lets the Sharingan drain from his eyes.

He feels blind, stumbles immediately. Sakura doesn't turn but his ears flush hot anyway. He catches himself squinting at her feet as if that will bring back the pre-image of their movement. It's surreal. He hasn't seen the world unaltered in years. It looks dim and simple.

"Here," Sakura says, gesturing out at a flat expanse of green nestled at the foot of a cliff that was once a tall building. "It's not much, but it's got more room than anywhere else in town."

He steps up beside her, looking down on it. She's right, it isn't much. He's not sure she understands the battles he's been in, the massacres of whole villages, the bloody murder stretching for miles. But somehow the idea of trading soft blows in a small field is exactly what he wanted. It must be nostalgia. He smiles a little at the thought.

He leaps to the bottom in one go. She follows in smaller jumps, still recklessly fast. Sakura strikes first, whirling a high kick at him that he doesn't quite expect - the strangeness of seeing it coming without seeing it coming is throwing him off more than expected. She almost lands the blow, air rushing past his nose, and then he's dropping down and striking a flat palm up towards her solar plexus. She's just good enough to evade the worst of it, bending backwards and letting it glance across her ribs. Sasuke falls back, pleased. She follows, striking well enough that he has to block. He almost finishes the move - one hand pushing aside her arm at the elbow, the other coming up to grasp her wrist and draw it back in a shattering snap - it's a move like breathing. Leaving it incomplete is shocking, a douse of cold water. Sasuke drops his grip completely, falls back and back until he feels like he can breathe again and anger rushes up to drive him forward. He strikes once and misses, over-dependent on his missing second sight, strikes again and hits hard, too hard, feels the soft crack of a rib beneath his knuckles.

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