chapter title: the ghosts we knew (will flicker from view)
summary: They die under a red sky, in mud and blood and bitter regret. Team Seven at the end of the world…at least until Sasuke wakes up, twelve, sharingan-less and back on his old genin team
dedication: lovely bf, my lockdown buddy and maker of excellent gin and tonics. make me a driiiiink.
let me photograph you in this light
in case it's the last time
that we might be exactly like we were
Just like he'd told Sakura-chan, nothing kept him knocked down for long! Out of everyone, Naruto was the first to wake. Dawn had barely broken when he sat up and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, a frenetic energy already making itself known in his limbs.
I gotta practise some more, he thought, rolling out of bed. Sakura-chan and Sasuke both got to the top of the tree faster than I did!
He took a moment to look at his team – Kakashi, leaning against the wall with an orange book over his face; Sakura, curled up in a ball and breathing softly; Sasuke-teme, that asshole, twitching fitfully in his sleep. Naruto considered giving him a good kick, but on the whole decided it wasn't really in the spirit of team-building.
Even though he would so deserve it.
"Whatever," he said moodily, slouching downstairs and letting himself quietly out of Tazuna's house. Even Inari wasn't up yet and he was known for sulking at odd times of day. Naruto felt sorry for him.
He headed back to the woods and the little clearing where his chosen tree stood. It definitely, he thought sheepishly, rubbing the back of his neck, looked a little worse for wear. Was it bad that he could trace a clear path through broken branches to see where he'd fallen?
"Boy," Naruto said, touching one hand to the rough bark, "I guess we both took a beating yesterday, huh? Sorry about that."
He was just preparing to get started when he heard a soft sound of surprise behind him – when he turned, there was a brunette girl (a really pretty girl!) standing between the trees, a basket hanging from one arm.
"What are you doing here?" she asked, tilting her head to look at him warily. Naruto figured she must be like the rest of the villagers, not used to seeing shinobi around. Probably, he struck an intimidating figure to a girl all alone in the woods.
"Just training!" he hastened to assured her. "I'm not gonna hurt you, I promise."
Those brown eyes looked at him curiously, as if she'd never even considered such a thing. There was no fear there and no judgement. Aside from his team and the people in the Land of Waves, Naruto had never had anyone look at him as if he was just a normal person. It was…nice. It was really nice.
Naruto smiled at her. "Are you gathering hebs? It's real early to be doing that."
"Yes," the girl replied softly. "And it's early to be training. What are you training for?"
"I want to be strong! The strongest shinobi in my village," he replied, wandering over to her. "Can I help you collect your herbs? Just show me what you're looking for and we can get it done faster. I'm sure you have lots to do if you're up this early."
The girl paused, took a long look at him and felt the beginnings of a blush begin in his cheeks.
"That is considerate of you."
The temperature was still cool in the woods, the rising sun not yet high enough for its rays to pierce the thick canopy of leaves above their head. It was quiet, too and he felt strangely content.
"Why do you want to get strong? For yourself or for others?"
"What do you mean?" he asked curiously.
The girl smiled at him, so soft and gentle that he definitely knew he was blushing. Oh boy.
"If you have someone close to you, I have no doubt you'll become strong. True strength," she said, "only comes when you have something precious to protect."
He slept fitfully – always did, these days. The thing was Sasuke couldn't even blame it on this impossible time-travel; he'd slept poorly since he left Konoha the first time around.
Sound had not been an environment conducive to deep slumber.
So he was surprised to wake last of all this team, surprised that he'd managed to sleep through them tidying up their bedrolls and leaving their shared room. The sun was not yet at its highest point in the sky, but still – it was later than he was used to rising.
He shot up quickly, the first true feeling of excitement he'd felt in weeks flickering through his veins. If Sasuke remembered correctly, today was the day of Zabuza's second attack on the bridge-builder.
What if he'd missed it? If Sasuke did not get to fight Haku because his team had decided to considerately let him lie in, he really thought he would kill them and consequences be damned. Nothing that could happen to him in this strange re-run could be worse than what he'd endured the first time around.
He was reaching for his shirt, impatience burning in his eyes, his chest, when footsteps stomped up the stairs and Naruto, forever an orange eye-sore, burst into the room.
"Soooo," he drawled, "you're finally up, lazy ass. About time. I've never known anyone who needed so much beauty sleep."
"Touchy touchy," the blond said, grinning. He looked none the worse for wear after his long, pathetic training exercise the previous day, which irritated Sasuke even more. It didn't matter that he now understood the reason for Naruto's unlimited stamina and energy, seeing it still pissed him off.
"We saved you some breakfast. Rice, miso soup – Inari's mom is a great cook, y'know? Sure, it's not ramen, but it's some of the best food I've ever tasted! Kakashi says to eat and then come join us at the bridge."
Sasuke was already pulling his shirt over his head. "I'm not hungry."
"Aw, come on Sasuke! Don't be an ass. No one can train on an empty stomach."
At that moment, his stomach chose to emit a loud gurgle – yet another way his body continued to betray him, he thought sourly.
He would need the energy anyway – without the sharingan, the fight with Haku was going to be a struggle. At the table he ate quickly, annoyed all the time by Naruto's watchful blue eyes. The blond opened his mouth, presumably to start another rambling, idiotic conversation, so Sasuke cut him off before he could get started.
Naruto yawned. "She's with Kakashi-sensei and Tazuna. Y'know she's already mastered walking on water? I can't wait to try, think how much easier fishing for dinner is gonna be if we can just stand on top of the water!"
"Always thinking with your stomach," Sasuke muttered, taking another bite of rice and pickled radish.
"Better than thinking with my ass," Naruto replied, which made no sense at all. Sasuke sensed there was a criticism aimed towards him in the middle of that mystifying logic, but deigned not to reply.
"Aren't you trying to make our teamwork better at all?" the blond continued quietly. "Sakura-chan is really trying, she's been so much nicer to me lately. And I'm trying to annoy her less, but it's like you're not even bothered about this team at all. D'you want to get us disbanded?"
He'd forgotten that ultimatum to be honest; perhaps because he knew how it would all turn out, Sasuke hadn't really considered the Third Hokage's words as a threat worth taking seriously. Now he gave Naruto his flattest look, because there were more important things to think about than something which he knew would never happen.
Naruto looked back at him defiantly. That damn expression, Sasuke thought, memories stirring once again, making his insides burn. It was the same way the blond had looked at him after thrashing Sasuke into the dirt, so close to the end.
"Are you happy now?" Naruto had demanded, looking down at him with such intense misery. "Is this what you wanted from me?"
"We're not going to be disbanded," Sasuke said, sharper than he should have done. It made it sound like he cared, or something and giving the blond an opening was the last thing he needed right now. "Don't be an idiot."
"You don't know that!"
Yes, I do, Sasuke thought, already bored. He stood up, leaving his breakfast half-eaten and sauntered out the door, trying to ignore the moronic child training behind him as he blinked in the sun.
It was a bright, cloudless day just as he remembered, busy with the sounds of hammering and sawing. Kakashi, Sakura and Tazuna were nowhere to be seen in that small crowd of industriously busy carpenters and workmen so Sasuke started walking, Naruto annoyingly hot on his heels.
Even as he walked confidently towards the first fight that had ever meant anything – Naruto's concerns so freshly dismissed from his mind – it didn't occur to him that this day was already starting differently than he remembered.
The bad feeling was back again.
Sakura was practising chakra control again, sticking her feet to the underside of the bridge while Kakashi kept a weathered eye on Tazuna.
"Keep alert," her sensei had told her, "It is likely the enemy will try and catch us by surprise. If you sense anything that makes you uneasy, speak up."
"Shouldn't I stay by your side then, sensei?" she'd asked, but Kakashi had ruffled her hair and smiled at her.
"You'll be close enough," he'd replied, "but you should always take an opportunity to practise Sakura."
I probably need all the practise I can get, Sakura thought gloomily. True, she was doing well with chakra-control, but she couldn't help remembering how she'd uselessly stood back while the boys held Zabuza off. Admittedly, she wouldn't have been able to do much with her arm in this state, but she had not enjoyed looking at their backs as she stood uselessly on the side lines.
All night she'd had dreams of standing behind them, trying to scream in a forest which had no sound.
Just thinking about it tied her stomach in even tighter knots.
But…was it just her imagination, or did it feel like a chill was settling in? Sakura looked at the goosebumps raising on her arms and ran back along the underside of the bridge, back in the direction Kakashi and Tazuna had wandered to.
Her breath was beginning to mist in the air.
It's happening, that anxious little voice whispered inside her, just as a boy flickered into being just ahead and threw a handful of senbon directly at her.
Sakura dove aside, heart racing as the masked boy tilted his head to examine her. It was the action of a curious bird, she thought, some mild creature that hadn't yet decided what would happen next.
"Will you fight?" he asked, as she hesitated – how was she going to get back to protect Tazuna? If the boy was here, Zabuza would not be far behind, might be attacking right now and where were the boys?
Sakura drew a kunai and tried to square up. She remembered the way her body had moved when they were first attacked on the way to the Land of Waves, how muscle and bone and sinew had reacted without conscious thought. She hoped whatever grace had possessed her that day still lingered beneath her skin.
"Get out of my way," Sakura warned him.
"I'm afraid I can't do that."
He moved – too fast for her eyes to track and somehow her arm came up just in time to block the kunai aimed for her chest. Sakura swung her leg out, aiming to kick him away and get some space between them but she wasn't forceful enough and barely got a few feet ahead when he was back in front of her.
She threw another kunai in his direction – he blocked, but missed the third one with an exploding tag attached and in the sudden blast of smoke, Sakura managed to get past him.
The mist was thickening all around them. She could sense Kakashi-sensei up ahead, almost on top of her now.
She had one foot on the railing, could see Kakashi and Tazuna retreating behind him when she sensed movement behind her – on instinct alone, she launched herself backwards into mid-air as splinters of ice slammed into the railing.
That was close!
"Kakashi-sensei, behind you!" she shouted, because for that split moment caught in mid- air, she'd seen an ominous shadow looming towards them out of the mist…a shadow with a very large sword.
Another kunai flew her way and Sakura was so busy twisting to dodge it mid fall that she forgot to summon chakra to her feet.
Instead of landing on the surface of the roiling waves like she'd planned she fell, gracelessly, beneath the water.
"Sorry I kept you waiting Kakashi."
They heard Zabuza before they saw him, his dark voice carrying easily through the thick layer of mist closing in around them. Behind him, Naruto swore vehemently under his breath.
"Shut up!" Sasuke snapped, putting on an extra burst of speed until Kakashi's lanky figure became visible just ahead, Tazuna backing away slowly behind him.
"Kaka-sensei!" Naruto called, like an idiot. Sometimes Sasuke wondered how he ever got to be as good as he was when simple concepts like stealth and the element of surprise were so clearly beyond him. If he didn't already know how this fight would end, he would have turned around and kicked the blond in the face for being so bloody stupid.
"Naruto," Kakashi sounded – not relieved, exactly, but something close to it. "Sasuke. Get ready."
Quickly his eyes scanned the bridge before them, bracing for the attack he knew was coming, but –
Where is he?
Zabuza made the first move, Kakashi deflected – and somewhere in that moment Haku appeared, that same porcelain mask Sasuke remembered still covering his face.
"Where's Sakura-chan?" Naruto hissed, standing on the other side of Tazuna in a defensive stance, but there was no time to answer, no time to consider that this was wrong, that last time it had been Sakura who stood beside him and Naruto who was absent –
Haku moved and in this pathetic, pre- pubescent body it was all Sasuke could do to keep up with him. It was a blow to his pride to admit it, but what did it matter now? He was so close to getting some of his power back, Sasuke could almost taste it, could taste it like smoke and electricity, a fire in his veins.
"Looks like you have a rival, Haku," Zabuza drawled, when Sasuke blocked a kunai to the face and turned it back on the other boy. He kicked out and sent Haku sprawling into the concrete of the bridge.
"You think you're fast?" he asked, following him into that no-man's land between them and Zabuza. He wanted to laugh, could feel the corners of his mouth twitching upwards with the first trickle of excitement he'd felt since he landed back here, twelve, sharinganless, a stupid fucking genin.
Behind him, he was dimly aware of Kakashi telling Naruto to protect Tazuna, but all his focus was on Haku, getting slowly to his feet.
Come on, he thought, dared, burned. Come on, unleash your kekkei genkai. Show me the full force of your power and I'll show you mine.
They clashed – and clashed again, ice splinters flying through the air, water swirling around their feet in a threatening dance, until finally Haku bowed his head.
"I'm sorry," he said, in a voice which Sasuke noticed for the first time was genuinely regretful. "I did not want to have to do this."
The ice grew behind his back – grew and separated into the mirrors he'd imagined so vividly recently. Sasuke remembered how his heart had thumped in his chest the first time this happened, fearful, excited, a little impressed. He had seen so little of the world then, so little of its darkness.
You're lucky, he wanted to say to the other boy, so gifted and so, so weak. You're so lucky that Orochimaru never found out about you.
Beyond the confines of the mirrors, he could hear Kakashi and Zabuza fighting. Haku stepped into the mirror directly before Sasuke and slowly appeared in all of them, somehow lonely even as he pulled senbon between his fingers.
Sasuke felt his mouth curl into a smirk.
Any moment now –
The first senbon flew. Sasuke blocked a few; not enough. He'd forgotten the sharp sting of them, how something so small could hurt so much. He focused his eyes on Haku's mirrored image, closing in on the flex of his fingers.
"Come on," he muttered, digging out a few more senbon, after the third round. Haku had thoughtfully paused, allowing him to do so and still, still – the sharingan had not appeared. Had it only come when Naruto burst in? Frantically, he tried to remember.
"It is inevitable," Haku said, in his soft-spoken voice. "No one withstands my ice mirror jutsu for long."
There was an acerbic reply on the tip of his tongue when finally, the disruptive force he was waiting for crashed through the gap in the mirrors. But it was not the orange-eyesore he was expecting.
"What the hell are you doing?"
The words hissed out before he had time to stop them. Sakura, soaked to the bone, straightened up beside him and glared at the boy in the mirror. Water dripped steadily from the hair plastered to her skin and from the hem of her red dress, gathering in a puddle on the ground beneath her.
"You again," Haku said, sounding surprised.
"What, did you think I'd drowned?"
"I hoped you'd made a sensible escape," he replied softly. "It would have been better for you not to come back."
"Sakura –" he started to say, the words get the fuck out close on the tip of his tongue, but her eyes caught his and then the blood seeping slowly through his clothes. A familiar crease of distress appeared between her eyebrows, but he had no patience for it.
"Sasuke, you're hurt!" she blurted and it was wrong, she was wrong, Sakura was not supposed to be here.
"You should leave. Get out!" You're not the one who is supposed to be here!
Her green eyes went wide with hurt – just for a moment, before they hardened imperceptibly and she turned to face Haku, settling into a defensive stance.
"I'm not going anywhere. Kakashi has got Zabuza handled and you need my help more than Naruto does. I'm not leaving you to fight alone!"
He stared at her, unable to speak. It was like being slapped, like having a fistful of icy water shoved down the back of his shirt – that feeling of being snapped suddenly and unpleasantly awake. For the first time, he had the uneasy feeling that things were happening on this second go-around outside of his expectations and beyond his control.
"Are you ready to continue?" Haku asked, breaking Sasuke from his thoughts. And it struck him again, how courteous the other boy was – how strangely unlike other shinobi he was in temperament. Then again…Naruto had never been much like a typical shinobi either.
I don't suppose it matters which one of them it is, he told himself, turning back to the fight. I'm still going to awaken the sharingan.
It was the only reason he was here, after all. He straightened up, ignoring the pain from the senbon and looked the other boy right in the eyes, daring him to think about shooting a single senbon Sakura's way when Sasuke was still in front of him.
"Do your worst," he said and meant it.
and a part of me keeps holding on
just in case it hasn't gone
(i guess i still care)
notes: must be feeling inspired or something. what the hell.
notes2: lyrics borrowed from Adele's when we were young. i usually try and pick something that complements the tone of each chapter as i'm writing it. that's why its haaaard.
notes3: poor sasuke. he thinks he can just act however he wants and things will follow the same timeline, like he hasn't already changed things by being a total dillhole. boy is in for a nasty shock and it is a-coming! anyone got any ideas how this horrible author is going to punish him?