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Claws Amidst the Cracks

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She wakes up in a massacre, drool and blood dripping down the front of her shirt as she stares emptily at the two dead bodies before her.

A part of her mind is screaming, howling at the memories of countless deaths carved into it and the burning betrayal of his brother.

The other is sobbing hysterically at the memory of hands that took and took until there wasn’t anything left to take.

-

It takes her months to come to terms with the fact that she’s not dead but alive and trapped in the body of a six-year-old little boy whose brother had massacred his entire family.

She’s followed by men and women in masks who can do impossible things and lifts her easily onto their hips when she gets too out of it and carries her home to the empty complex that had been cleaned off the blood and bodies but not the memories. 

They never speak with her and their hands are clinical and professional before they step away and vanish as quickly as they had arrived.

They call her Sasuke in the Academy where they’re teaching children to kill and she’s being followed by whispers and squeals and pitying eyes.

When she’s mentally aware enough to realize they’ve basically left a six-year-old to the wind without anyone to take care of her it’s been nearly a year.

-

Her memories are strange.

She remembers twenty-seven years as her and she remember’s six years as him .

It mixes, mashes and morphs until she just… is.

At the Academy she’s silent – spending most of the time staring out the window and tuning out the information she’s already read through during hours of nothing in an empty house.

She sleeps badly, waking up in the middle of the night to train until her muscles trembles and her breath is rasp and she collapses in a heap, too tired to think.

She wakes up every morning with the knowledge that there is a man out there who wants her dead.

-

She saves up her money and on the day the boy turns eight she drags every single furniture out of the house and dumps them into one of the many countless empty ones that surround her. 

The only room she doesn’t touch is the room of his brother.

She buys a ridiculously large L-shaped sofa that, once installed, takes up almost the entirety of the living room. In the space it frames she adds a low table and a television beside a roof-high shelf. She buys enough pillows and blankets to content a small army.

The bed she buys ends up becoming entirely for show as she stops heading up the stairs to sleep.

The table before the couch becomes both dining table and desk, piling up with paper, books and scrolls that are haphazardly pushed away to make space for food as she turns on her new VHS player and allows the dullness of the flickering pictures to fill the aching emptiness in the house until she crashes due to exhaustion.

She never replaces the mirrors.

-

She doesn’t know if it’s because she’s Uchiha or because of the massacre but there’s a strange sort of leeway given to her behaviour – almost as if it’s expected.

She’s oddly popular among the kids despite her standoffish silence – whispers of admiration, giggling and confessions that make her sink deeper into her jacket with dark eyes.

She knows all three Academy standard jutsus with three years left to graduation and scours the compound for abandoned scrolls on jutsus. Learns to walk up walls and glide over water under the moon with water spinning lazily through the air alongside her.

Her hair grows until it falls down her chest with a soft sort of curl to the ends. It’s a guilty self-indulgence that has no place in the shinobi life but she can’t get herself to cut it.

She ties it back during spars and secures her hoodie with a tightening of chakra and decides she’s allowed.

-

At twelve she graduates top of the class.

She doesn’t feel much of anything as she accepts the headband.

On the way home she buys herself a thick blue jacket with a grey hood and painstakingly stitches the fan of the boy onto the back and secures the hitai-ate to the right sleeve. It’s large enough that she can easily slip her hands into the sleeves and duck her chin into the high-raised collar when she zips it all the way up.

Falls asleep as the sun rises outside the window.

-

She’s not prepared for the feeling of chapped lips on her own.

She’s not sure who is more startled by her reaction – Naruto or herself - as she twists and suplexes him clean off the table he’d crouched on to get into her face.

Her heart is pounding too hard and too loud as she shoves her hands in the pocket of her jacket to hide their trembling as Umino yells loudly for order.

-

“My name is Uchiha Sasuke.” It feels strange to say it out loud and she studiously avoids the lingering eye of her new sensei. “I like… sleeping.” She hunkers deeper into her jacket as she stares down at her hands. “My dream…” She licks her lips. “My dream is to turn twenty-eight.” She tucks her hands away with a shrug. “My hobbies are… drawing, I suppose.”

-

She doesn’t feel anything in particular for her new team.

Uzumaki is loud, mischievous and lonely and Haruno is insecure, childish and violent. They’re both lying claim on her in their own ways, as rival and love interest, and it makes her skin crawl on a good day as she sinks deeper into her jacket and dares them to come near her.

D-Rank missions are repetitive, almost mechanical at times, and their new teacher is chronically late by three hours every morning and doesn’t seem inclined to teach them much of anything.

She trains harder, doing sit-ups and crunches until her shirt is wet from perspiration and runs hard and fast around the village until she’s gasping and trembling and stumbling to a stop with her legs on fire.

She arrives twenty minutes before Kakashi, flops down and immediately goes to sleep.

She’s abstractedly aware that Haruno and Uzumaki are building some sort of rapport with each other from hours with no-one but the other for company. She wonders if it’s Hatake’s plan all along as she takes in their comradery from across the clearing with empty eyes.

He talks about teamwork and how important it is.

She stares at the ceiling of a house occupied by dead people and raises her hand up above her, squinting at pale flesh and too short fingers.

She doesn’t understand.

-

She stares down at the dead Demon Brother, absently aware of Hatake’s eyes lingering on her form even as he interrogates their client. Uzumaki is shooting her frightening looks and Haruno is strangely quiet.

She doesn’t feel much at all and she wonders, not for the first time, if there isn’t something wrong with her.

If dying and waking up somehow robbed her of something crucial.

She’s both surprised and not when Hatake settles down beside her on the branch she picked for her watch that night.

When the boy was six his entire family was murdered before his eyes and he was sent home to a compound filled with ghosts without any sort of emotional support. The ANBU had been cool and clinical and the people who pressed her for all information were blurry figures with unsympathetic eyes buried into the depths of her memories.

But Hatake takes his place beside her with a sigh that gets swept away by the wind.

“First kill, huh?” He’s a tall man in his mid-twenties and his hair is wild and gravity defying, its colour catching the moonlight creeping through the trees. She feels small beside him and sinks low into her jacket, drawing her shoulders up defensively as she stares out into the darkness. “How are you holding up?”

It’s the first time anyone has ever asked her that since dying and for a second something strange and thick curls inside of her.

“I’m fine," she says slowly.

Kakashi looks at her for a long moment. “It’s alright not to be, you know?” His body language is lax, his head tilted slightly to bask in the moon. “We might be shinobi but we are human, too.”

She hasn’t felt very human since she died. She wakes up expecting white bones and rotten skin or the beeping on whatever machine is keeping her alive in one world and hallucinating another.

Sometimes she dreams she’s buried in a coffin underground and wakes with her nails scraped raw on the wall and a sob stuck in her throat.

She draws her knees to her chest.

“I’m fine," she repeats, firmer - because being anything but fine just isn’t an option.

He sighs, dragging a hand through his silver hair. “Okay," he says and she’s aware of his eye burning into the back of her neck as she stares into the darkness. “I’m here if you change your mind," he promises gently before he slips away.

-

Zabuza is a terrifying man and Sasuke feels strange watching him.

She feels the KI that sweeps through the mist, the hoarse voice that follows and promises pain as it counts out their weaknesses. Is distantly aware of Uzumaki frozen in place in Haruno taking a frightened step backwards while she spreads her senses, automatically curling her chakra around the signature of the man to track him.

The day she woke up in this world it had been with the pounding memory of a hand around his throat and warped eyes digging into his own, burning the death of hundreds into his brain.

It feels as vivid as any other memory of her own and the feeling of KI isn’t new but there is something strange in her chest as she absently tracks the killer in the mist.

She died at twenty-seven, two days before her birthday, in her apartment by the hands of someone she’d thought she’d loved.

The first thing he’d done was break her jaw and shove a ball gag into her mouth to prevent her screaming. He’d cut her Achilles tendons to prevent her from running and chained her on the floor like a dog, beating her back and blue, laughing as he crushing her fingers.

He’d been so angry - it had practically reeked off him as he brutalized her over and over again until there just wasn’t anything left.

Zabuza’s KI isn’t like his brother’s piercing violence or her ex-boyfriends mad savageness. Instead it sort of creeps upon her, like the mist, almost like a ghostly sort of promise of death, and she finds herself surprisingly clear headed as she reaches out and yanks Uzumaki out of the way of the water clone materializing behind him.

Hatake says something about protecting them and not letting anyone harm them before getting caught up in a water prison technique and Uzumaki and Haruno refuses to leave when he tells them to.

There is something strange about watching the blond snatch his headband back, grinning and wiping blood from the corner of his mouth before looking to Sasuke. As if her not backing him up just doesn’t cross his mind as Haruno takes up a defensive position in front of their client, her green eyes narrowed in bravado.

Sasuke throws the shuriken and pushes against it, whip-like, sending it careening towards Zabuza at double the speed as she anchors her feet against the ground with chakra.

There is something… satisfying… about seeing Zabuza’s eyes widen as Uzumaki explodes from the transformation with a smirk as the swordsman lurches back to avoid getting hit and Hatake is released in an explosion of water that splashes around him.

Before Uzumaki can crash against the water and leave him vulnerable to Zabuza, Sasuke reaches out and clenches her hand on his signature and yanks hard . The blond collides with her and Sasuke braces the impact with chakra anchored feet and makes sure the boy is steady before quickly stepping back and aside.

She shoves her hands into her pockets and sinks her chin into her jacket as Uzumaki turns to her with big blue eyes and a hesitant sort of smile.

-

She doesn’t know what to feel when Haruno and Uzumaki team up to get their chakra exhausted teacher half-supported with one arm thrown over a shoulder each after the fake Hunter-nin made away with Zabuza’s dead body. Her mind is still spinning with the reveal of the Sharingan and there’s a muted sort of buzz creeping through her brain.

“Why don’t you take point?” Haruno says with something in her eyes Sasuke doesn’t understand.

“Yeah!” Uzumaki grunts under the weight of their teacher. “Leave this to us!” He gives her a thumbs-up.

-

Sasuke dislikes their client, Tazuna. He’s a man who reeks of the sake he drinks and he’s blunt and harsh and large. He’s a civilian and he’s weak compared to herself but she still avoids him the best she can and refuses point-blank to engage in any sort of conversation with him.

“Your hair is so pretty.” Tsunami is nothing like her father and Sasuke stills as gentle, soft hands catches a curl of her hair at dinner. “You must be taking really good care of it," she muses as Sasuke stares at her. “It’s unusual to see men with long hair.” She tucks it behind her ear, gentle like. “It suits you.”

“Thank you,” she grunts, feeling strange as her hand flexes around her chopsticks and lowers her eyes to her food, suddenly not feeling very hungry at all.

She realises both Haruno and Uzumaki are staring at her and makes an excuse to check up on their sensei.

Hatake is sleeping soundly from exhaustion and Sasuke pulls her knees to her chest as she stares at the rise and fall of his ribcage as he breathes. Her teammates had stripped him off his shirt and bandaged up his ribs with bruise healing cream, leaving only the mask that covers his nose down to his collarbone and his boxers.

The room is silent, the voices from below muted by the door.

“I am not a boy," she tells him.

-

“I already know how to tree-walk," Sasuke tells Hatake who is slumping tiredly on his crutches and both Haruno and Uzumaki whips around on her in surprise. “Water-walking too,” she adds, because she might as well get it out there.

“Who taught you?” Hatake’s eye is a dark sort of grey that makes her think of storm clouds when they’re caught by the soft light creeping through the canopy.

“I taught myself." Sasuke sinks deeper into the collar of her jacket and offers no further explanation even when Hatake raises his only visible eyebrow.

He hums, shooing away the other two as he contemplates his third student. “That technique you used to get Naruto out of the water – can you describe it to me?”

Sasuke glances at the blond who is clearly struggling while Sakura presses her palm flat against the tree to measure her chakra output.

“I just locked onto his signature and yanked,” she offers with a shrug. 

Everything around her has a feeling . Everything from the rocks on the ground and the fish in the seas and the crickets playing in the grass. The larger the chakra expanse was the brighter they appeared to her. Naruto is nearly blinding with his intensity – something lurking deep in the expanse of his chakra, like an infinite stretch of power.

She realises Hatake is staring at her in surprise and looks up to meet his gaze. “Is that not normal?”

“It's a handy skill," he says instead of answering. “Is it limited to just living things?”

Sasuke reaches out and draws a pretty stone from the pool of water that lands with a smack into her palm and she turns her hand and holds it up for viewing. “I can’t push heavy things unless I anchor myself and trying to pull myself to a feather would just send it into the palm of my hand,” she explaines idly. “It’s why I pushed chakra into my feet before drawing Naruto towards me. He might be lighter than me but not by much and it would have sent us both careening.”

It is the same concept that sends her shooting into the air if she pushes too hard against the ground – the mass off the earth wasn’t about to be moved by her and the force had to go somewhere so naturally it slammed back into her. She’d broken three ribs the first time she attempted it.

“It reminds me of the Nara’s shadow technique,” Hatake murmures as Sasuke drops the stone to the ground. “At least the concept of it. You don’t happen to have an excess of either yin or yang chakra?”

“My spiritual energy is nearly double that of my physical," she admits quietly.

Hatake studies her for a moment and she stares stubbornly away.

-

Apparently she has two chakra affinities – lightning and water. He ends up teaching her the Hidden Mist technique Zabuza used on them since she can easily track through it.

Haruno masters the tree-walking exercise and spends two days walking up and down the tree to expand her chakra storage while reading a scroll Hatake had gifted her with. Uzumaki badgers her about it but she remains strangely tight-lipped and contemplative.

On the second day Uzumaki reaches the top of the tree and they join her on guard duty at the bridge where she’d been carefully spreading mist around the area and the feet of the workers to practice and prevent any hostile eyes from watching them.

-

The splatter of blood and scream of Uzumaki rings in her ear as her body lurches backwards and off the bridge with a sickening squelch and blood that splatters in a wide arc from the sword that tears her open from shoulder to hip before she crashes into the water.

She doesn’t know why she did it. She’s not supposed to feel anything for these people. But Naruto… he hadn’t deserved to die.

Not like that.

-

She wakes to lips against hers and her body twisting desperately as it spews salt water and blood from her lunges and coughs miserably. Panic heaves her chest up and down and she struggles against the arm that presses against her ribcage and into the flat expanse of a chest against her back.

“Sssh, it’s okay – it’s okay.”

Hands press against her chest and her hands scrabbles against the person who holds her, her fingers curling into the fabric of their sleeves and wrenching desperately as she snarls, half-sobs, pleading wretchedly as her heels scrabble against the ground and someone pushes down on her thighs -

-

She wakes with a start, her blanket pooling into her lap as she sits up, clutching at her beating heart and forcing her breathing to calm. The pain registers with a wince and she realises someone had bandaged up nearly the entirety of her torso, the white wraps going up and around her left right shoulder, covering the edge of the scar that traces all the way down to her right hip.

Remembers Zabuza’s sword splitting her open.

Realises she didn’t expect to wake up again.

“You’re awake.” The door creaks as Hatake closes it behind himself, his only revealed eye unreadable as he slowly steps closer and folds down by her legs. He’s holding a bowl of rice and a glass of water, the latter which he holds out expectantly.

“I don’t like being handed things.” Her throat is raw and she suppresses a wince at the rasp of it. Hatake doesn’t comment, merely places it on the ground where she scoops it up gratefully and takes a long, careful swallow.

“Both Zabuza and Haku are dead," he tells her eventually as he pushes the bowl and the spoon closer to her. “The bridge will be finished by the end of the week.”

“Naruto?” She chews carefully on the soft rice that taste faintly of plum sauce.

“He’s fine.” Hatake studies her. “Sakura, too.”

She nods without commenting and silence settles over them, broken only by the clink of the spoon as she eats. The plum is a strange addition but oddly pleasant and her throat doesn’t feel as bad when she places it aside, half-finished.

“The massacre." She tenses. “Did you talk to anyone about it afterwards?”

Her brows furrow. “They wanted to know what happened," she says eventually, curling into herself and feeling naked with only a t-shirt over her bandages. “Kept asking me to describe it.” Over and over again as the boy inside of her sobbed wretchedly. “Wanted to know why he did it.” He didn’t know, he didn’t understand why his Nii-san would-

“Did… anything else happen that night?” She stills, her fingers curled into her blanket and her eyes darting up to lock with the dark grey of her teacher.

“You panicked when we tried to heal you,” he continues when she doesn’t answer. “Sobbing and pleading for us to stop touching you.” Something cold slithers down her spine. “You wear too big clothes to avoid any accidental contact even during sparring-“

Don’t. " Something wet drops onto the back of her hand. “Don’t ask me that.” Her breath quivers and she blinks against her blurry vision. “ Please .” She quivers, her eyes squeezed shut.

There’s a moment of nothing, broken by a rustle in the silence and something dropping onto her head.

She reaches up automatically, her fingers curling into the soft fabric of her sensei’s shirt and shakes as she scrambles to pull it over her head, her hands disappearing in the sleeves and it’s long enough to pull nearly all the way to her knees, her hands clumsy and desperate before she wraps her arms around her legs and pulls them against her chest as she hunches over them.

“It wasn’t your fault," he tells her.

But it was .

She had let him into her life, had allowed him to hold her, had laughed with him, made love with him . Had blushed as they shared ice cream on the ferries wheel. Had pushed up to her toes to meet his lips in the first clumsy kiss outside her apartment and-

“It wasn’t your fault," he repeats the words firmly and she presses her hand over her mouth as tears splashes against her knees and she chokes on a sob as she shakes her head desperately in denial.

“It wasn’t your fault.”

-

Naruto stands up so violently his chair clatters to the floor and Sasuke pauses in the doorway. She’s still wearing Kakashi’s sweater, her hair is a mess and it hurts to even breathe. Her eyes are rimmed with red despite the cold water and se doesn’t even want to contemplate what picture she’s making as she takes a slow step forward and sinks into the closest chair in relief.

Sakura is eerily still, her knuckles clenched against the wooden spoon she’d been stirring the stew with and Naruto’s palms are flat and still against the table.

The blond seems to realise what a picture he’s making because he scrambles to straighten the chair up and practically falls into it. “Sasuke.” The name sounds odd coming from the blond who calls her teme with relish. “Are you… I mean, have you…” He takes a deep breath. “Are you okay?” He practically chokes on the words, going red the second they’re out his mouth.

She stares at him, caught off-guard as he ducks his head and fiddles with his shirt. In the background Sakura pulls out another bowl to add to the two already resting on the counter and starts spooning the stew into them.

“I’m… fine," she says slowly. “Kakashi-sensei says I have to take it easy until we get back to Konoha and can look at it properly but there’s no inflammation," she adds because the silence feels strange.

“That’s good.” Naruto’s shoulder slumps with relief and then immediately looks embarrassed by his reaction and yanks the bowl Sakura places onto the table with more force than is necessary, spilling hot stew on his fingers with a hiss.

Sakura pushes the third towards her and there’s something strange in her eyes, a tremble in her fingers. “I’m glad you’re alright," she says, her voice quiet, almost ashamed as she yanks her hand back and shoves it into her lap.

Lunch is a strange, quiet affair that leaves her confused.

-

Hours before they’re supposed to leave Sasuke is curled up and reading on the front porch when something flumps into her lap, startling her.

She lifts it, realises with surprise that it’s her jacket and that someone has bothered to stitch up the large tear in it after Zabuza’s sword. It’s clumsy and the thread is darker than the blue of the fabric itself.

“It got ruined because of me,” Naruto says, refusing to look at her.

She pulls it over Kakashi’s sweater and zips it all the way up to her chin. “Thank you," she says, something strange and warm in her chest as she sinks into its familiar comfort.

He huffs, slumping down against the wall on the opposite side of the door.

Sakura joins them a few minutes later, settling shoulder to shoulder with Naruto.

-

It feels strange to step back into the compound after nights of soft snores and whispers in the dark. There’s no muttering Sakura manoeuvring away from Naruto in her sleep. No crackling bonfire in the night or the radiating heat of her sleeping sensei within brushing distance of her hand in the small guest room.

She turns on a movie to fill the silence. Makes herself the biggest pizza to date and changes into sweatpants, a too large hoodie and thick polka dot socks before flumping down on the couch.

Restarts the movie as she shoves a large piece of pizza into her mouth, barely tasting it as the hot crust burns her tongue.

Drops it onto the plate and stares down at her hands in her lap with furrowed brows.

-

For once, Sasuke arrives at the same time as her teammates and ignores their startled looks as she shrugs off her jacket before dropping into the first stretch with nary a hello.

She listens absently to their voices as she stretches back, her palms pressing flat against the ground as she pulls her legs up and into the air and folds one hand against her back and starts making one-armed push-ups.

“Is this what you do every morning?” Sakura calls out.

“Hn," he offers noncommittally with a grunt as she pushes against the ground, shifting arm and continuing with the other.

“Hey! I am not getting shown up by the teme !” Naruto puffs and pushes himself into a hasty hand-stand, overcompensating and sprawls with a yelp that makes Sakura snort with laughter. 

Their voices filter into a pleasant background noise as they settle into their own stretches under loud debate and ribbing.

-

“Your nails-“ Sasuke startles at the gasp, shifting her eyes to stare at Sakura who is gaping at her feet.

Flushes.

She usually wear closed-toed boots to allow her just this one indulgence and she shifts to cover the chipped blue paint, the other reaching for the shoes she’d been removing as they stepped into the client’s house.

“It looks good on you.” She stills, startled, looking up into green eyes as Sakura folds down before her with a grin. “I thought I was the only one who liked a bit of colour.” There's no judgement in her voice as she carefully tugs the shoe from Sasuke’s unresisting grip and places them aside.

Sasuke stares at the chipped paint that matches her jacket, her mouth firmly tucked down and behind the cover of her collar.

“Would you like to-“ she stumbles on the words, her cheeks red and a hand curling into the fabric of her pants. “Maybe come over some day and-“ she struggles for words that won’t come, her throat thick as her cheeks get progressively redder with mortification.

“I’d love that.” Sakura’s voice is strangely gentle. “How about tomorrow? We can watch a movie and all. Make it a thing," she suggests.

Sasuke nods, refusing to look at her.

-

Naruto catches onto the plans when they leave for the Uchiha Compound, together, without him, and promptly invites himself along.

She’s initially cautious but Sakura’s eyes are warm and his are hopeful and she reluctantly agrees.

Sasuke makes a pizza while Sakura paints Naruto’s nails an alternate between orange and green and he shows them off proudly, toes wiggling as he bites into the piping hot crust and practically chokes on the juice to combat the heat.

Both are impressed by her VHS collection and spend a long time going back and forth over what to watch.

“You have a lot of samurai movies,” Sakura admires, picking up one of the older issues in black and white with a weeping warrior on the front as Naruto hugs at least five princess movies to his chest, starry eyed.

Sasuke finally suggests that they can choose one each and save the others for another night, completely missing the grinning looks of hope exchanged behind her back and the quiet high-five as she digs for the popcorn she’d bought for the occasion.

Sakura asks if she can do Sasuke’s nails and she’s quiet for a very long time before agreeing as Naruto queues up the movie and drops down – nabbing at least five pillows and two blankets to cuddle down with relish.

“We should make it a slumber party next time," he says, picking up the green blanket with angrily squawking ducks and immediately claiming it as his own, smothering it out happily in his lap. “This couch is big enough for all of us.” Even with his legs stretched out before him only the heels of his feet dangle over the edge of it.

Sasuke folds up in her favourite corner and Sakura settles beside Naruto with a bottle of purple paint.

On the screen the movie opens with a scene of a crying geisha folded over the dead body of her lover. Naruto makes a tiny little gasp and crams a handful of buttered popcorn into his mouth as he gets swept up into the plot.

Sasuke very carefully stretches out and puts her right foot into Sakura’s lap and tenses as hands cradles her foot. But Sakura is gentle – a soft hum as she removes the old coat with careful swipes with the cotton ball and Sasuke finds herself slowly relaxing as she loses herself in the movie.

One foot is exchanged for the other and when Sakura is done and Sasuke makes to remove her feet Sakura gives her pants a little tug until she’s lying half-curled into the corner with both her feet in the pink haired girl’s lap, one hand gently resting against her ankle.

-

Kakashi hands them the papers for the Chuunin Exam three weeks later.

-

“We should have like a… thing," Sakura says the day before the exams. They’re at Sasuke’s house again, re-watching a movie about a samurai princess that has become the unanimous favourite among the three. She’s wearing shorts and a long red shirt that nearly covers them.

“Thing?” Naruto is sprawled on his back, the bowl of popcorn balanced on his chest, his legs thrown over the back of the couch. He’s in orange shorts and a green t-shirt with a strange walrus shaped hat on his head that neither of his teammates dare to ask about.

They’re all crowded up together, Sasuke’s legs folded up with her thigh resting alongside Naruto’s arm and Sakura is slumped against the blond that, more often than not, ends up in the middle of them with the other two sort of gravitating towards him.

“Something that immediately identifies us as Team Seven," she clarifies.

Sasuke nearly chokes on a handful of popcorn when the perfect idea crosses her mind and nearly elbows the bowl off Naruto’s chest when she sits up abruptly in her hurry to share.

-

Kakashi stares at them.

“What-“ His voice is strangled and Naruto laughs, nearly collapsing against Sakura who is pressing her hand against her mouth to muffle her giggling.

All three of them are wearing perfect replicas of the half-mask that covers their sensei’s mouth.

“It was Sasuke’s idea.” Naruto heroically fights back his laughter as Kakashi shoots their broody teammate a betrayed look.

He gives up trying to contain his laughter when Sasuke raises his fingers into a sideways V by his eyes and deadpans. “Go Team Kakashi.”

-

Sasuke steps in front of Sakura and glares at Lee who looks surprised at the look she levels on him, teeth bared in a snarl.

“She said no ," Sasuke growls, chest rumbling with the force of it. “Respect it.”

Sakura’s hand pushes against her lower back and tangles in the fabric of her jacket and Lee takes a step backwards, her sharingan flaring to life as he opens his mouth to protest.

Lee’s teammates step forward to play damage control before the situation can escalate and Sasuke ignores the thoughtful eyes of the girl as she glares at the boy whose body language is setting her teeth on edge.

“Thank you,” Sakura whispers as they leave Team 9 behind them and Sasuke fights the tension in her shoulders and shudders as Naruto and Sakura carefully flanks her the rest of the way.

Kakashi pauses her outside the door, crouching down to look her in the eye, and Sasuke feels the strangest urge to push forward and closer as he reaches hesitantly, studying her carefully, before his hand lands on her shoulders with a soft squeeze.

“I’ll be watching," he tells her, and there’s a promise in his words and the warmth of his large hand.

-

It’s strange seeing their old classmates again and they’re… louder… than Sasuke remembers them.

Sakura carefully places herself between Sasuke and her blonde rival and Sasuke ends up taking a step closer to Naruto, uncomfortable with the attention.

Inuzuka is goading Naruto who looks annoyed but not overly defensive and both Nara and Akimichi has drifted closer to the duo as well. She vaguely recalls the four of them dodging out of the classroom with Umino’s furious yell hot on their heels.

Hyuuga is pushing her fingers together and glancing shyly at her blond teammate and Sasuke feels an irrational pang of possessiveness flash through her, glancing away from Aburame who pushes up his glasses as she shoves her hands into the pockets of her jacket, white-knuckled and uncomfortable.

She startles when Sakura sidles up beside her, their shoulders brushing, and Sasuke suppresses the urge to tangle their hands together again as the pink haired girl smiles in reassurance.

Realises that several of their old classmates are staring at them with various forms of surprise, confusion and contemplation, especially as Naruto drapes himself over both their shoulders and challenges the entire room with a daring grin.

-

Morino’s fierce glare scans over them and Sasuke carefully avoids his eyes, her skin crawling.

Sasuke has done enough tests in her life to recognise that the entire thing is just constructed to assess their ability to cheat – it’s all in the wording and rules and the fact that it’s all well-beyond any normal teenager.

She also knows that she can answer all the questions with some simple equations after scanning through them and shrugs before doing just that.

She ends up being the first to finish and spends the rest of the hour pretending to nap.

-

Sasuke finds herself fascinated by the woman who stands boldly at the front of the classroom in a fishnet shirt and beige trench coat that flares behind her and challenging eyes, not folding for a second under the unimpressed look of her superior.

She feels…

Hm.

-

The second part of the exams are a catastrophe.

She reaches out and snags her chakra to Sakura and hooks her feet to the tree as she yanks her unconscious teammate up and towards her only to end up pushing against the tree and snagging her half-way as Orochimaru’s neck lengthens like some mutant snake, teeth bared.

They collide, hard, and she wraps her arms the other girl and yanks them both down towards the earth and then left, her feet skidding as she bends her chakra to send them swooping along the branch and then violently up mid-movement as she flares her chakra desperately in search of Naruto, the two tomoes blooming into three in her left eye as adrenaline and a savage sort of fear burns dangerous through her body.

It’s a dangerous and uncoordinated way to move and she has to pull violently to swerve around the speed of the Sannin that hunts them with a raspy sort of voice and a smile that sets every nerve inside of her body into a mind-numbing sort of terror that threatens to send her straight into a panic attack. 

She reaches blindly for Naruto who burns as brightly as the scorching sun.

She crashes into the blond who wraps his legs around her waist and hooks one arm around her and the other around Sakura without question and Sasuke suddenly has four limbs to maneuver as Naruto hangs onto her back and Sasuke sends them careening high above the treetops with a crack as her chest caves from the pressure of the too violent push.

Naruto must have caught sight of one of the proctors because he cries the code for INTRUDER and flares his chakra in a wide-arc for attention and Sasuke’s vision is a white hot field of panic and horror as the savageness of Orochimaru’s chakra registers just meters away from them, his eyes hungry in a way that makes everything inside of her turn to ice.

“SASUKE!” Naruto’s roar burns through her and she reaches blindly for any sort of familiarity and snags the dark chakra of the Nara clan and yanks them so hard that the world blurred around them and her arm snaps and caves as they crashes into the forest floor, Naruto and Sakura lurching off her from the sheer force of it as she curls instinctively to protect her head, trembling as she chokes out the name of her blond teammate.

Naruto ignores the three shocked genins, wobbling as he drags himself onto his feet, Sakura’s unconscious body pressed against his chest.

Naruto gasps out her name and Sasuke focuses everything that she is onto his voice as she struggles onto her feet, wobbling, her breath too quick and too desperate as she seeks him out blindly through the terror.

“Naruto-“

He snaps out the INTRUDER-CODE and Nara’s face turns grim as Yamanaka and Akimichi straighten to attention.

“Hand Sakura to me," Ino tells Naruto quietly, her eyes lingering on the dark haired boy who is quickly crashing into a panic attack. “I don’t know what’s going on here but Sasuke-kun clearly needs you.”

Sasuke had always been someone untouchable. The fate of his clan, the massacre done by his brother’s hand, and being left the only survivor – the blushing shy boy with dimpled smile had turned into a shell of himself afterwards, closing himself off to everyone with a complete 180 of everything he’d been.

Her father had told her it was to be expected. That the massacre was a tremendous sort of trauma, and when she attempted to reach out she found only a deep sort of terrifying darkness staring back at her.

This is… not that Sasuke.

This Sasuke is reaching out for Naruto who kneels down, his body language open as he reaches out but doesn’t actually initiate the touch before Sasuke lurches towards him, grip white-knuckled as fingers curl into the back of Naruto’s jacket and Sasuke presses his head against Naruto’s chest. 

Naruto doesn’t hesitate for another moment, his fingers gliding into the long hair of the dark haired boy and pressing him closer, bending his head and murmuring softly as he enfolds the other.

Ino crouches with Sakura’s back against her chest as Chouji finishes checking her over, frowning. “Concussion,” he says grimly. “A bad one – nearly cracked her head open.” Ino isn’t surprised, warm blood is dripping against her bare stomach and her old friend is completely out for the count.

Shikamaru takes a step closer to the blond who looks up sharply, recognising the seriousness of the situation even as he cradles Sasuke against his chest. “Some strange creeper attacked Sasuke," he says shortly. “I was separated by a large snake summoning that ate me and when I managed to escape it was to have Sasuke and an unconscious Sakura crash into me.”

“It was Orochimaru.” Sasuke’s breath trembles on the word and there’s a wild sort of terror in his eyes that sets Shikamaru on edge.

“The Sannin?” Ino asks in shock. “What did he want?”

“Me," Sasuke rasps, pressing closer to Naruto who looks abjectly shocked but burns with determination as he pulls the other closer with a fierce sort of protectiveness.

Everyone in the clearing recognises what it means for someone like Sasuke, who lashed out so violently at being touched, to actually seek physical contact for comfort and Shikamaru feels something sick crawl down his spine at lost look in the younger boy’s eyes.

Whatever the Sannin had wanted from their classmate had pushed past every wall the boy kept between himself and the world and it could mean nothing good.

-

They hide themselves underground as per procedure. Both Naruto and Sasuke had identified the Uchiha has the primary objective of the intruder which means they have to keep him safe.

Sasuke has gone mute, curled up with his ankle pressed against Naruto’s leg and his hand entwined with Sakura’s after Ino had settled against the blond’s shoulder before her team took guard. It’s a tense sort of wait and Shikamaru remains alert as he pushes out his shadows, spreading them out in hopes of catching anyone approaching them.

He wishes, absently, for Kiba or Shino. The Inuzuka’s sensitive nose and hearing or the Aburame’s kikais would have been much less chakra leeching. Neither Ino nor Chouji was much help for tracking – one had a pin-point precision for when the enemy had been found and while the other is a heavy-hitter.

His shadow jutsu isn’t very optional either but they needed some sort of awareness on what was going on outside and the forest is more shadow than sun and light so it isn’t as bad as it could have been.

“They’ll come find us as soon as the Intruder has been located and dealt with," he says quietly as Chouji sidles up beside him to avoid interrupting the strange silence of team 7. It’s been nearly three hours now but a threat as significant as the Sannin could mean hours of waiting before anyone officially picks them up to avoid drawing attention towards them. It’s very much an unsure situation and Shikamaru sighs as he scratches the back of his neck. “So troublesome.”

“This would be so much easier if Hinata was here,” Ino complains, tense as a bowstring as she glares up at the ceiling. “We’re basically sitting ducks in here.”

Sasuke stirs, looking up. There’s faint tremors running through his frame and Shikamaru knows enough to categorize it under early signs of shock and there’s a muddled sort of confusion that’s likely a side-effect of it. “Hyuuga is 850 meters to our east," he says very quietly, so buried into his jacket he’s practically swallowed by it. “Aburame and Inuzuka are both with her," he adds as team 10 swivels around to stare at him. “As is the dog," he tacks on and Naruto reaches out and waits until Sasuke blinks and untangles his hand from the sleeping pink haired girl and reaches out to weave their fingers together.

He doesn’t really seem to truly register the world around him and Shikamaru is worried at the potential of dissociation or panic. Naruto had clearly helped ward off the worst of it, for now, but he knows there’s only a matter of time before Sasuke crashes completely, no matter how much he struggles against it.

They’re really not equipped to deal with any of this.

Still, he’s inclined to trust the information Sasuke supplied despite his state since Naruto looks unsurprised and Shikamaru weighs the risk in his mind. 

Ino is correct on the fact that they’re basically live bait and their best defence against a rough Sannin, and whatever potential backup and backup plans he might have waiting, is to run .

Every single second counted in this sort of situation.

“Are they moving away from us or closer?” This time, when he focuses, he recognises the flare of spiritual chakra from the younger boy with sharp surprise and files it away for later.

“750,” Sasuke reports quietly.

Shikamaru exchanges a look with his teammates. “You think they’re tracking us?”

“Not unlikely," he acknowledges. “I wouldn’t put it beside Shino to have tagged one of us with his kikai before the start and Kiba’s nose is sharp.”

“Unlike his brain,” Ino mutters and Naruto snorts from where he’s listening in.

Even Naruto knows that the most tactical person in the room is Shikamaru and he’s content to relegate the planning to the other while he keeps an eye on his teammates.

He doesn’t like that Sakura still hasn’t woken up but that isn’t unusual – there’d been plenty of concussions at the academy during spars and accidents. He’s more concerned by Sasuke’s state.

He could still recall the shock of Sasuke’s first panic attack on the bridge those weeks ago – the horror of watching the quiet boy completely break into a mindless state of panic as Kakashi-sensei told them to push down, to hold him, even as Sasuke pleaded heart-wrenchingly at being touched, sobbing and clawing desperately as Sakura’s trembling hands poured the blood coagulating powder into his wounds and pushed with his ruined shirt to stem the blood.

It had been slick and messy and terrifying and he’d felt like a monster at the pure, undiluted terror and it had nearly set him off right into Kyuubi as Sasuke slammed into him with the same sort wild look and a limp Sakura clutched desperately in his arms.

He squeezes the trembling hand clutching tight to his own, feeling helpless and hating it.

“200," Sasuke reports and Shikamaru closes his eyes, shadows climbing up the walls to greet the last of the Rookie 9.

-

Kiba’s face is grim as he squeezes into the underground cave, Hinata’s face nervous as she follows with a quiet greeting, and Shino nods solemntly at them.

“We were snagged up by one of the proctors and told to keep an eye out for him .” Kiba jerks his head in Sasuke’s direction. “Flashed us the INTRUDER-CODE and all.” There’s a quiet demand for information in his tone.

Team 10 quickly fills in the blanks with frequent glances at the team in the corner and Kiba huffs quietly.

“Shino, spread your kikai,” he commands finally and Shikamaru watches in fascination as the small kikai crawls out from the other's body to squeeze themselves out with a quiet of buzz as half of them took to the sky. “We’ll take guard,” he tells Shikamaru seriously before glancing at Hinata who nods and flares her kekkei genkai after one last lingering look at the blond of Team 7.

Shikamaru wonders if it was really necessary considering the 360 vision of her kekkei genkai but they were all aware, and pretending not to be aware, of the crush the Hyuuga harboured for Naruto and kept that thought firmly to himself.

“Sakura-“ Naruto’s gasp of relief zeroes every eye onto her stirring firm and she blinks blearily up at her blond teammate who looks close to tears.

“Naruto-? What are-“ Her eyes widens, “Sasuke!” she gasps in panic. “Orochimaru-“

“I’m here.” Sasuke moves for the first time since he’d slumped down against the wall with a sort of gutted relief that makes Shikamaru feel like he’s watching something intensely private and has to suppress the urge to avert his eyes. 

Because he’s still threat assessing and Sasuke’s state of mind and capability to function is high-priority at the moment.

He exchanges a look with Ino as Chouji crouches down between them as a silent sort of guardian, ready to act if either signals it.

The younger boy is cradling his broken arm against his chest and there’s a ginger sort of way to his movement that makes Shikamaru guess at least two broken ribs under the ridiculously large jacket.

Naruto presses his lips close to Sakura’s ear and says something quietly while helping her sit up and her eyes narrow with sharpness that struggles through the muddy effect of the concussion.

She gives the room a brief check before dismissing them as a secondary priority.

Shikamaru hears Ino give a slight huff beside him but it lacks any sort of real irritation.

They’re all aware of just how off the normally stand-offish boy is acting and both Kiba and Shino had turned surreptitiously to keep an eye on the situation. 

Hinata doesn’t need to move a single inch and is the least awkward person in studying the on-goings.

“Sasuke." Sakura’s attention is completely focused on the Uchiha survivor now, reaching out behind her to give the blond a comforting squeeze at the ankle before pullingl herself upright as she settles with her back against the knee Naruto draws up behind her back to anchor her. “Sasuke, can you look at me-“

“He wanted my body.” There is a complete and utter wretchedness in his face as he practically vomits the truth out, as if he’d just been waiting for Sakura to be awake and hear it. “He-“ And there’s something beyond horror in his eyes as he locks to Sakura for something and Naruto has gone white at the implication behind the two of them. “He was-“ But his tongue won’t form the words-

Doesn’t need to because Sakura has clearly picked up what none of them has and is reaching out and touching without waiting for the cue Naruto had watched for. Her hand cups the chin of the Uchiha survivor and forces him to meet her eyes. “I know," she says and he shudders as she presses their foreheads together, Naruto watching them both with a desperate sort of protectiveness. “ I'm sorry.

Sasuke opens his mouth, closes it. Swallows thickly and then gives a jerky sort of nod. Sakura studies him for a moment longer before her body relaxes back against Naruto who immediately hauls her closer to prevent her from slumping down on the ground.

Shikamaru absently registers Ino’s noise of abject shock as Sakura makes no move to protest but actually settles against the blond with a soft noise of relief.

“Just wait ‘til Kakashi-sensei gets here," Naruto says, something light in his tone now that both his team mates are awake and accounted for. “Remember Zabuza?”

Sakura snorts. “Instant kill.” She makes a little lazy slash over her throat.

Shikamaru tunes them out.

Team 7 is giving him the worst headache to date.

-

Kurenai is the first to track them down, the word of warning barely out of team 8’s mouths before the jounin is slithering down into the hole with a quiet sort of intensity as she takes in the situation.

The SAFE code is rattled and the tension in the room vanishes like a great gust of relief as Team 8 immediately sidles up beside their teacher. “You have all been passed into the next stage of the exam,” Kurenai says after listening to Shikamaru’s debrief. “Asuma are right behind me and Hatake is moving to meet you at the tower.” This she addresses to Team 7.

Sakura is secured to Asuma’s back after a brief exchange between her and Kurenai and she gives a comforting smile to her two remaining teammates before Asuma spirits her away along with the entirety of Team 8 and Team 10.

Naruto remains, tired but a steady comfort beside Sasuke who is still clutching his arm and ribs and trembling on his feet.

Kurenai studies the blond for a moment before she crouches down before the Uchiha survivor who looks so much like his brother with the long hair and yet nothing like him at all. “Sakura-san said you would be more comfortable being carried by me than Asuma," she says finally.

She doesn't like the implications of that statement. Doesn't like that something like that had happened to a boy who hadn’t even hit puberty, in his hometown, and that no-one had taken the time to notice it or help him which had to be the case if the remaining trauma was this severe. Had it happened during the massacre? She doesn't even want to contemplate the twisted, sick direction of that thought.

Makes a mental note to check in on Hatake before the end of the week.

“Sasuke." It’s the Kyuubi Jinchuuriki who speaks up, clearly having remained behind for this exact reason. “The quicker we get to the tower the quicker we can meet up with Kakashi-sensei.”

Sasuke stares at the ground, his breathing harsh.

“I’ll be right here," he continues, unconcerned by the lack of answer. “You’re practically dead on your feet. I know I am and I was only dodging a snake.” His tone is light. “I bet Sakura is going to be furious once she gets that concussion healed up. You know how much she hates getting dragged around – she’ll be beating us into the ground for weeks .” He fakes a shudder. “Not to mention Kakashi-sensei. We’ll be doing survival drills ‘til we’re blue, ‘ttebayo .”

Surprisingly, something softens in the broody boy. “I’m fine, Naruto," he says, stepping forward.

The blond boy sticks his tongue out as Kurenai crouches down and allows the Uchiha to climb into her back and awkwardly encircle her neck with his unbroken arm as her hands settles under the bend of his knees instead of back against his rump which was less straining.

His muscles are tense and his heartbeat too hard against her back as he simultaneously holds onto her while avoiding as much contact as physically possible.

Uzumaki watches her carefully with a baleful sharpness under his carefree grin as he teases his teammate and Kurenai might have taken offense if she wasn’t both amused and impressed by his gutsy dedication.

-

Her mind is a mess.

She clings to Naruto because he’s safesafesafe and then Sakura is finally there and everything is a blur or words and feelings, a fight against the roar in her soul that laps at her knees, waiting to pull her back under.

Sakura centers her – pulls her up from the hole that’s threatening to swallow her up and she clings to the words of her teammate, the sight of his orange clad back as he leads the way through the forest.

There.

Not leaving, not leaving, not leaving .

Jonah’s grinning face is dancing at the edge of her vision and she feels like a leaf in the wind, stumbling off Kurenai with a sick sort of wretchedness as she curls her hand into the back of Naruto’s jacket and clings blindly because the world is a blur and the roar in her ears are drowning out the noise around her.

And then there’s silence and Sakura is there, pink against white as she stumbles towards her and sinks down on the ground beside the bed because she can’t she can’t she can’t-

She clutches her hands over her ears and hides her face in her knees.

He had-

He was going to-

Her nails digs into her cheeks and she chokes on the memories. Of eating rotten food from a dog bowl when the hunger got too much, lapping at her own blood to soothe the dryness of her throat. Can practically feel the thick heavy collar around her throat and her broken jaw straining against the gag in her mouth as he pushes her into the rug and brutalizes her. Tears and claws and laughs as glass tears her from the inside and he fucks her with blood slickening her passages and she can’t, she can’t -

Mine ” he’d told her, over and over again. “ Mineminemine .” And he wouldn’t stop until she was sobbing her agreement, too wretched, in too much pain as he left her in a pool of her own piss and blood and semen dripping off her filthy body until-

“Sasuke.” She flinches backwards, her head colliding against the metal of the bed behind her as fingers brushes against her cheek and her eyes open too wide, too desperate as she breathes harshly through panic and tears.

“K-Kaka-shi-sen sei -“ her voice is a mess, she’s a mess, everything is a mess but Kakashi-sensei is right there and her teeth are clacking together from the quivers running amok in her body and she wants him, she wants him, she wants him-

Finds herself reaching out and curling her hand into his shirt, barely registering the lack of vest and the stains of blood as she stares at her own hand, panting.

“I am here.” He’s crouching before her, large and there and warm beneath her hand. His breathing is calm, his eyes dark like the storms she used to love to stand beneath as lightning flashed in the clouds and rain fell upon her until she was drenched from head to toe.

She had trusted Jonah. Had kissed him as the sun rose in the morning and made love as it settled in the evening. Had toasted with beer on the small boat and shared homemade sandwiches that were stolen by his dog as they argued over who'd won in cards.

She had trusted him and he had torn her apart until there was nothing left to take.

“You are safe.”

He’d kept her alive for months . Had carved his name into her flesh as pus oozed from infected wounds during moments where she could barely twitch a finger because everything was a hot feverish mess and there was no end in sight. He’d sawed her hand off as the crushed fingers turned black and left it in her bowl to eat, laughing and humming soft nothings against her neck as she sobbed.

He used to sing to her during soft moments in their apartment, before everything, her feet tucked beneath her with a book as he thrummed his guitar beside her.

Kakashi isn’t Jonah.

He isn’t-

“I’m sorry,” she sobs because she’s a mess and everything hurts and she’s so tired of being afraid all the time. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry- “ Because it wasn’t just Sasuke who died that day but **** and what remains of them both are just bits and pieces of ill-fitted scraps that she fumbles to keep together.

“Come here.” Kakashi doesn’t move and Sasuke stares at him through blurry tears and sobs as she pushes towards him, her heart stuttering inside her chest as a large gentle arm presses against her back and pulls her closer, allowing her to disappear into the warmth of his embrace, so very careful of her broken ribs and arm that dangles uselessly by her side as he hums gently, his breath warm against her ear.

Orange and red settle beside them and Sasuke cries and cries and cries until her throat is raw and she’s too tired to stay awake for even a moment longer.

-

“He shouldn’t be out in the field.”

“He doesn’t have anything else.” Kakashi flips a page in his book. “If you take Naruto and Sakura away from him and leave him alone in that large empty compound there won’t be anything left to pick up.” His dark eye lift to meet hers. “You know as well as I do that the council wouldn’t accept that last Uchiha to just fade away into nothingness.”

And that’s the crux of the matter. The Kyuubi Jinchuuriki, the last Uchiha and the brightest civilian to pass through the academy since… ages. Kakashi hadn’t been given a choice on passing his kids. 

Sasuke’s mental state is… bad. The kind of bad that should have stuck him right alongside a Yamanaka to sort it out but by his own admission he’d been offered no help, no one to talk to save the interrogation following the massacre.

Six-years-old and alone without any sort of support.

Kakashi had at least had Minato and Kushina. He couldn’t-

And it wasn’t just the massacre and he didn’t know how bad it was – doesn't know the details of what sent his student spiralling into such a messy state of mind that he hardly knew up from down.

Doesn't know the first thing about trying to fix it.

The Sandaime… Kakashi drags a hand through his hair, cautious of the direction of his thoughts and dismissing them.

“Was it your idea?”

He glances at her and her mouth twitches as she reaches up, as if to pull at an invisible seam. “The masks.”

Kakashi gives her a look.

“Asuma and I have a bet you see-“

His face practically flatlines.

-

The second part of the second exam goes something like this:

Sasuke nearly crushes his opponent clean against the wall when the boy attempts to wind himself around her with extended limbs, breaking a fair few bones and terrifying just about half of her audience at the severity of it.

Sakura gets matched up against the puppeteer of the Sand who throws his hands up and surrenders before she can get her hands on him.

Naruto gets matched up against Tenten of team 9 from the year group just ahead of them and narrowly avoids getting himself turned into a pincushion before triumphing.

Rock Lee has both his legs crushed before his sensei Maito Gai interferes and he gets sent to the hospital alongside Hyuuga Hinata who is beaten to near death by her cousin with Naruto swearing revenge with a bloody grin.

Those who pass it for the third part of the exam are the following:

Hyuuga Neji Vs. Uzumaki Naruto

Temari Vs. Nara Shikamaru

Haruno Sakura Vs. Misumi Tsurugi

Uchiha Sasuke Vs. Gaara

-

Since there was a chance of the three of them getting paired up to meet each other in the third exam as they progressed Team Kakashi had been split for the month up to the exam.

Sakura had saluted them off with a grin and Naruto had vanished away on his own adventure with a gleam in his eyes and a promise he’d be alright. Consequently, Sasuke had been left to the behest of their sensei.

Their, apparently, insane sensei who was currently forcing her to climb a mountain with one hand, the one she’d broken in the exam in a cast and her chakra completely cut off.

“I have noticed,” Kakashi says cheerily, not even looking bothered some ten meters above her. “That you very rarely bother to activate your Sharingan.”

Sasuke grunts as she snags another rock, her nails protesting against the rough treatment as they scrape against the surface. “It’s not like you do it either," she pants.

“I’m also several ranks about you.” Kakashi sprung the last bit, his hand snagging the flat edge and twisting so he landed elegantly with his legs dangling as he stares down at her. “But don’t worry!” he says loudly against the wind. “I’ll make sure you’re all comfortable with it by the end of the month!”

Sasuke swears under her breath.

-

The chidori is loud and violent and strangely pretty in its violence.

“At your level, it’s not a good technique to rely on,” Kakashi says as she strains to keep the lightning going, the chirping loud and excited. “But you’re going up against someone who claims to have the ultimate defence which means you’re going to need something with a bit of… punch.”

“Three times then," she says after a moment. “It’s probably smarter to stick with two, though.” Sasuke closes her fist, letting the lightning fade away.

Kakashi reaches out to give her a ruffle. “That’s why I like you.” He fluffed the hair on her head, snagging at a long stretch of the strands with a little hum. “And you really need to get this trimmed.”

She shoots him a long offended look.

“You really haven’t been taking care of those split ends," he continues, unperturbed. “When was the last time you actually got this cut?”

He stares when she flushes.

“Sasuke.” He draws his kunai.

“No.” She takes a step back.

“I can’t send my cute little genin before the Daimyo of the Fire Country with years worth of split ends," he says cheerily, kunai glinting.

She turns and flees.

-

“There are certain jutsus that are actually hair related,” Kakashi muses.

They are at his apartment, his student seated on a chair in the middle of the living room, feet drawn up and resting on the pins beneath the seat.

There's a noticeable mess on the floor after shortening the hair of his student from waist to mid-chest and Sasuke pulls what remained to spill over the right side of his neck as he habitually wore it, now with a slight more curl from the lessened weight.

“I think I picked up one or two of them," he continues as he swept around his student. “Jiraya-sama has this one where his hair turns into pincushions.”

“Seems messy," Sasuke offers, combing through his hair with an odd look in his eyes. “You were oddly good at that," he says after a moment as Kakashi tidied away.

“I helped my sensei’s wife cut hers,” Kakashi says after putting everything away. “Said she didn’t trust him anywhere near her hair after he cut a good chunk off in panic.” He measures out some seven inches and Sasuke huffs in amusement.

“… Is that how shinobi normally get their hair cut?” he asks after a moment as Kakashi puts on some tea.

“Hm?”

“By asking your team.”

“Maa." Kakashi scratched his chin. “Either you pick up the skill yourself or you find someone you trust.” Sasuke gives a little huh and Kakashi is getting the feeling that his poor student might actually be more socially backwards than even himself.

Even Naruto knew how to get a haircut.

Didn’t they cover this kind of stuff in the academy?

He brings the tea over to the two-seat couch and the low table before it and Sasuke pushes off of the chair and trots over to sit down beside him without complaint. Kakashi glances at him from the corner of his eye as he pours the tea and Sasuke reaches out to take three cubes of sugar.

Snags a fourth and then a fifth after a brief glance at him.

Sasuke is three sips into his tea before he seems to realize the oddity of the situation and actually sits up to look around properly. “This is your apartment.”

“So it is," Kakashi agrees, amused.

“You’ve never invited us over before," Sasuke points out. “Everyone usually comes to the compound.”

He pauses.

“Naruto and Sakura does," he amends, considering his own words. “You should come too. Naruto says that doings things together like a team is good.”

“Do you like it when they come over?” Kakashi asks curiously.

Sasuke had been the odd duckling of the team for a long time.

His idea of giving them three hours each morning had meant to do two things for the team:

First. Make sure they established some sort of connection that would make sure they didn’t just blindly follow his orders but worked as a good team which was key in the eventual situation that they would be separated in the future.

Second. Try and lure forth some kind of independent thinking in actually doing something with the time.

It ended up a bit of a hit and miss until after the mission to the Land of Waves.

Naruto and Sakura had built rapport with each other without actually doing anything else with the time.

Sasuke had thoroughly used the time but completely on his own.

It had been just a tiny bit exasperating to watch.

Surprisingly, it had been Sasuke who had reached out first after Wave. Unable to truly get the words out, fumbling to get across what he wanted as shame painted his cheeks red. Kakashi had listened, ready to step in if Sakura judged him for it, but she’d been careful, gentle, in reaching back to the Uchiha survivor.

Unsurprisingly Naruto had invited himself along, had gotten his nails done in company and all three of his cute genins had watched movies together, eating one of those odd flat breads with bits of everything that Sasuke had an odd fondness for. 

The Uchiha heir had even been socially competent enough to pick up popcorn.

Kakashi had been so proud.

He checked in on them occasionally when they had their gatherings – just for a short while to make sure they were getting along and that they weren’t pushing the boundaries in their eagerness to get closer to the Uchiha.

But there was very little left of the girl prone to lashing out with violence and the orphan boy quick to put his foot in his mouth. Pushing, yes, sometimes overreaching, but that was natural and unavoidable with someone as broken as Sasuke was most days.

“I like it.” Sasuke draws his knees to his chest, apparently not noticing or caring that he was putting dirty feet on someone else's couch. 

Considering the boy appeared to live in his own couch it wasn’t that strange (his bedroom was a dusty cave that hadn’t been touched for years and Kakashi had sort of stared into it before closing the door to it gently). 

“Less silence.” He touches his ear briefly.

Kakashi supposed that was a fair enough answer.

It was an awfully large and empty compound for a lonely boy.

-

The chuunin exam is a mess that turns into a catastrophe.

Naruto beats Neji.

Nara Shikamaru folds against Temari.

Sakura nearly decapitates Misumi Tsurugi.

Sasuke somehow awakens a monster from drawing a little blood.

She probably doesn’t help the situation when her instinctive response to having a giant sand hand fly towards her is to push down to go up and Gaara happen to be right beneath her and consequently ends up a bit… crushed.

The genjutsu going through the audience is concerning, the sound-nin slitting their throats are a warning bell, the shield folding over their Hokage is a blaring alarm to everyone present.

They’re under attack.

Two sound-jounin interferes in the arena and Sasuke anchors her feet and slams so hard that one of them gets crushed against the wall before realising what’s happening. The other is quicker and anchors her feet, becoming the heavier one as Sasuke gets flung back and lands with a smack in a crouch on the wall as she pushes against the stone to slow mid-twist.

They watch each other.

She sees Temari and Kankuro yanking their brother along in the background but Sasuke isn’t stupid enough to take her eyes off the high-ranking adversary before her as the woman grins, flipping the kunai in her hand before launching it towards her.

Sasuke snags it easily, spinning it and launching it towards the other who quickly dodges. Sasuke thuds to the ground, twisting around the fist that lurches towards her and presses her palms against the ground and locks her legs around the arm and twists while turning on her palms to send the woman flying across the area with an extra push after Sasuke sinks down and anchors her body with enough chakra to make her bones grind in protest.

The woman splatters like a fly and Sasuke gasps as she stumbles to her feet, shaking the odd feeling of having too heavy blood and bones inside of her as she flares her chakra in a wide-arc.

Naruto is holding a pug with the softest, squishiest little pink paws Sasuke has ever seen when she lands beside her team.

It just gets messier from there.

-

The Sandaime is dead.

It’s strange because she doesn’t feel anything for the Sandaime or particularly much for Konoha in itself but she likes her team and she doesn’t like the pain in Naruto’s eyes or the tears that drips from his chin as the Hokage is buried.

Their old teacher is there and Sasuke tunes him out as she stares at the coffin, trying to feel anything positive about the man but remembering only the years of nightmares after waking up in the massacre and finding absolutely nothing waiting for her but horror and loneliness and the days of interrogation when the corpses of his family hadn’t even been put into the earth.

A part of her…

A part of her is relieved .

-

Naruto confesses to having a giant fox inside his stomach and Sakura hugs him tight after he tells them. Sasuke still isn’t good with hugs but she tries and Naruto smiles against her stiff shoulder as he gives her a squeeze back before releasing her.

He snags her hand and holds it during the movie on the small hospital television while he leans against Sakura who’s climbed up behind him, her chin resting against the top of his head.

-

Naruto introduces them to his temporary teacher who turns out to the one of the Sannin which makes him the second one they’ve met within the span of a month. He’s a tall man with long white hair and red lines dipping down from his eyes. For some reason he’s wearing a headband with the kanji for Oil instead of any Konoha headband and while he’s large and intimidating there’s something relaxed, almost carefree about him.

“He acts like an older Naruto,” Sakura whispers as the duo approaches, bickering.

Oddly, Naruto is glaring at the man through the entire introduction and throws an arm around Sasuke’s shoulder and bares all his teeth.

Sasuke glances at Sakura in bemusement, completely missing the finger Naruto drags over his throat behind her back and the sweaty nervous look that momentarily flashes over the man’s face.

-

Sakura is recruited into the Hospital after the invasion (which explains the chakra scalpels during the chunin exams) and Kakashi, likewise, is busy with missions to keep up the appearance of Konoha’s strength and keep the income coming to support the rebuilding of the village.

Appearing weak would be the same as getting invaded. The world is watching to see how Konoha would handle the pressure.

Sasuke ends up awkwardly in the middle of things as a genin without a team until Naruto stops by the compound and forcefully snags her out of her couch nest the day of his Hospital release.

“Er-, Jiraiya-sensei says we’re picking up the new Godaime.” Naruto makes an odd face at the name for a moment before shaking his head. “You’re coming too.”

Sasuke nods and snags up her clothes, changing while Naruto raided her fridge for some of the ready-to-go snacks Sasuke usually kept stocked for her movies during down-time in the village.

She’s half-way out of her hoodie and into a t-shirt when Naruto turns with both cheeks stuffed full of his favourite noodle wraps and clutching about fourteen different variants of them (the result of a long sleepless night) with a look of complete and utter adoration.

Sasuke makes a noise of amusement. “If you try to force all them down before we leave we’re going to be rolling you along," she points out and as Naruto’s smile dims she nearly trips over her pants at the wrongness of it. “Fetch one of my sealing scrolls and we’ll bring them along instead," she huffs, jumping awkwardly as she adjusted the pants and bending down to bandage the ends of them.

They were actual proper ninja issued pants, courtesy of Kakashi. He’d bought her them a size or two bigger to give her room to grow and then ended up showing her how to tie the ends to make sure they didn’t snag. He’d also forced her to retire her old jacket which had practically been grinded to scraps by Gaara’s sand.

He’d muttered something about having a cha t with someone when she confessed to decorating up a jacket she bought on sale on the civilian market.

The new one was nearly identical to her first. The same high-collar and the hood that looked like it belonged to a hoodie rather than a jacket. The fabric was thicker, sturdier, and Kakashi had chatted up the owner into adding the Uchiha fan to the back for cheap and professionally hooking the hitai-ate into the sleeve by the bolts instead of her careful sewing. It pulled in at the sleeves and waist hem to insulate in a different, less-stiff, fabric that would also keep it from slipping over her hands while keeping it oversized for her comfort. 

On the right-side of her chest there were now the same sort of scroll-like pockets that were on chuunin and jounin vests since she hadn’t carried a bag since her academy days.

Instead of blue this one is entirely black.