The rain has been an insistent thing, heavy and oppressive, for days now. Sasuke watches it fall through the window of his room, eyes scanning the dark blanket of clouds still swollen with rain even after nearly three days of ceaseless torrents. Konoha hasn’t seen a monsoon this large in years.
It’s kept even the most hardened of shinobi from venturing outside for anything short of A-rank missions and runs to the grocery store, and as Sasuke knows firsthand, the downpour is capable of soaking through any number of layers in seconds. According to his alarm clock it should be dawn by now, but the dark layer of clouds has turned the day into a lasting midnight, not a ray of sun to be seen filtering through the roiling cover.
Frustration builds as he runs his hand through his hair roughly. He’s getting so sick of trying to train indoors. He’s been using the compound dojo to train these last few days, but the memories that lurk in the corners there ambush him when he least expects them to, flooding him with renewed pain and memories of his brother and father. His mother’s presence haunts the garden just outside the structure, where she used to tend flowers and poisonous plants, making that entire part of the compound a minefield of emotion.
Just as he’s resigning himself to staying in and thus another night of painful memory, his keen eyes spot something through the rain outside his window.
The mostly deserted street suddenly has a single occupant– a tall lean man with white hair and a crooked hitai-ate, a lone shinobi walking easily across the flooded pavement. Sasuke looks for indications of a rank but sees none– the man is wearing only a standard black sleeveless top with a custom mask attachment, pulled all the way over his nose, and regulation pants of the same standard shinobi variety. Other than a pair of bicep length reinforced gloves and a band of cloth wrapped around the upper part of his left arm, the man isn’t wearing anything else– no flack jacket and no cloak to protect from the rain. He walks through the downpour like it isn’t even there, no urgency in his step and no tenseness in his body language that might indicate discomfort.
He tells himself that he goes outside because he needs to go shopping fairly badly, he’s low on vegetables for stir-fry– nevermind that he forgets his wallet on his dresser.
In reality he’s curious– the man looks like a specter pacing an easy and familiar path, a ghost walking a pilgrimage.
Only when he makes it to the street does he realize he’s lost sight of the man entirely, the curtain of water cloaking any sign he might have left behind. The rain soaks through his overshirt in seconds, running down the lines of his neck and falling from his hair in fat drops. He grunts in disappointment and turns back– he has enough food to last him another day at least, when he hears a soft splash and turns to see the man standing behind him.
The tall shinobi looks at him sideways through a single silvery eye, the other covered by his lopsided hitai-ate. “Where are you going during a storm like this, Uchiha-san?” The man asks, his voice neutral and low.
Sasuke isn’t surprised the stranger recognizes him, most all of the village knows his story and by default his face. What surprises him is the complete lack of pity or curiosity or anything noticeably recognizable as an emotion on the man’s face.
“I could ask you the same.” Sasuke snaps, not extending the same honorific, but the shinobi only blinks, unperturbed by Sasuke’s complete lack of manners. The man must only be a Chunin, Sasuke decides. Any Tokujo or Jounin worth their rank would have at least tried to put him in his place.
The man hums thoughtfully. “Apologies. My reasons for being out are private ones, you understand.”
That knocks Sasuke a bit sideways. The man isn’t talking to him like the academy student he is, but like he’s an adult on the same footing, with the same understanding.
“Then you’ll understand if I keep my reasons to myself as well.” he responds, a little scathingly to cover his surprise.
Again the shinobi doesn’t react, he merely inclines his head in concession to his point. “Fair enough.” He murmurs softly, turning to continue on his way. “Your ghosts are your own, after all.”
Of all the things he’d expected to come out of the shinobi’s mouth that was nowhere on the list.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
The man shrugs a lean shoulder carelessly, not bothering to turn back. “Whatever you’d like it to mean, Uchiha-san.”
That little statement does nothing to assuage the creeping feeling that for a moment the man had seen right through his walls and into the graveyard of half-buried pain he keeps bricked up behind them.
Sasuke isn’t sure what prompts him to speak out, but it probably has something to do with the old familiar pain he’d seen lurking for a spare few seconds behind the elder man’s eyes.
The man stops and turns, and Sasuke sees it again, a flash of an unnamable ache behind strange silver irises.
“What would you know about ghosts?” he asks.
The man tilts his head, considering the question. “Enough to know that being haunted has nothing to do with the presence of the dead, and everything to do with the memory of the living.”
The words strike him like a blow to the chest.
He’d never considered someone might know, that someone might have lived through loss like he had, let alone this stranger. He finds he can’t muster the breath to speak a response.
The man regards him calmly for a long moment, then turns to the side, his body language open.
An invitation. Take it or leave it.
He follows the shinobi stranger across the expanse of training ground three, through dripping trees and grass swamped with rainwater. Eventually they come to a clearing slightly raised above the ground surrounding it, a dark monument at the center.
Sasuke has never seen the mirror-like gem that is the Memorial Stone himself. His own family is buried in the Uchiha cemetery just outside his family complex, so he’s had no reason to until now. He knows that the memorial was erected for those who died in service to the village, and more specifically, for those whose bodies were never recovered.
With all the names written on the reflective surface Sasuke can’t tell which one the man’s eyes fix on, and for some reason he doesn’t want to know. It seems too private, too personal, and he doesn’t even know this man’s name. He’s not even sure why he’s here.
After minute upon minute of silence it becomes clear that the man doesn’t intend to speak unless spoken to, more than content to stare at the same point unblinking. He’s so at ease here in this solemn place that it’s unnerving.
“You come here often.” It’s not a question, Sasuke has his pride, but it’s spoken softly enough not to be an accusation or an insult, not that he thinks the man would care if it were.
“You could say that.” Is the man’s response, and the way it’s said, wry and slightly sarcastic, tells him often is an understatement.
Sasuke’s not too stupid or stubborn to understand that such behavior speaks of catastrophic loss. To visit the same name countless times, so often it becomes ritual and routine– well.
Sasuke knows what it’s like to be hollow inside, even if it’s not to this extent. He’s filled the void in his life with anger and hurt and drive to vengeance.
This man has left it empty.
“They meant a lot to you.” It’s not a question either, but Sasuke flinches almost as soon as it’s left his mouth.
Way to state the obvious.
“Everything.” The man replies, with the same casual air as one commenting on the weather. It’s a statement of fact, not of sentiment.
“A mistake.” The shinobi says immediately. “One made in arrogance. I chose the wrong path, a path I believed to be the right one, and by the time I realized my mistake, it was too late.” He reaches up to brush a thumb over a name, and Sasuke has to turn his head away. “He died saving my life. And like the fool I am, I didn’t realize what I had until I lost it.”
Kakashi slides through Iruka’s living room window just in time to see Kotetsu and Izumo roll screeching across the carpet like a couple of manic tomcats, knocking over a lamp and jolting the coffee table sideways until they thump into Ibiki’s shins, after which Ibiki kicks Kotetsu in the nose and Izumo in the side and sends them rolling apart again.
Kakashi takes a moment to absorb the fact the Iruka’s hardly medium sized apartment is filled with shinobi; Raidou comes around the corner munching on rice crackers, Hayate and Asuma are playing Go at the small table across from the kitchen, and Anko is sitting on the floor skillfully painting Aoba’s fingernails turquoise. Almost all are either in their civs or nothing but towels.
“I missed something.” He states to the room at large, not truly expecting any response. Raidou harrumphs and gives him one anyway around a cheekful of cracker.
“You haven’t been back to your apartment all morning, have you?”
Kakashi blinks for a moment before his overwrought brain catches up to the implication, and then he scowls behind his mask. “The whole building?” He growls, because the only thing that every person in this room has in common is the fact that the all live in the same block of shinobi apartments, the one on the other side of the Hokage’s tower.
Aoba nods grimly from his seat on the floor, tilting his wrist so that Anko has better access to his thumbnail. He’s in a pair of loose sweats and nothing else, his dark spiky hair wilted down with water. “Lightning strike took out the main water pump. Hiruzen-sama sent someone to fix it, but they won't be able to get at the machinery until the weather clears up a little.” He shrugs, then winces when Anko kicks him in the shin for squirming. “Hence the get together.”
“You do realize there are showers in the standby stations, right?” Kakashi remarks mildly.
Anko scoffs and brandishes the nail polish brush at him. She’s still fully clothed, which Kakashi finds surprising. “That water pressure is so shitty it might as well not exist! Those showers are barely fit to rinse off mission grime, how am I supposed to fucking wash my hair with that?” She whirls around, barely managing to keep turquoise polish from dripping on Iruka’s carpet, leveling a glare at Raidou. “Speaking of which, when the hell is your peacock boyfriend going to be done in there? It’s my turn next and I’ve been sitting here for twenty goddamn minutes!”
“I don’t know.” Raidou says mildly, holding a cracker loosely between his fingers “When are you going to finish those mission expenses I asked you for a week ago?”
Anko blanches a little and scowls, grumbling about stupid squad leaders and soul-sucking paperwork as she fishes a clear topcoat out of the round case at her thigh.
Kakashi finishes sliding all the way through the window, pulling it shut behind him as he tries not to jostle the bag in his hand. Kotetsu and Izumo’s wrestling match rolls them into the wall with a crash, knocking a painting off its nail with a thud. Iruka’s voice sounds from just outside the kitchen.
“If you two have so much goddamn energy you can go outside and heat more water for the tank!”
Ibiki snickers when the two fling their hands in the air and call ‘not it’ like absolute children, Kotetsu a hair faster than Izumo. The later growls and shoves his compatriot in the shoulder.
“That’s not fair Ko, I went last time!”
“A shinobi’s life is never fair, Zuzu.” Kotetsu says smugly, and gets a bloody nose for the hated nickname.
Iruka appears around the corner, a vein pulsing threateningly in his temple that spells disaster for anyone in his path. “NOW.”
Both Chunin scramble to their feet and are gone so fast that Kakashi swears they leave a dust cloud in their wake. Iruka then turns to level his gaze on Kakashi, who holds his takeout bag up like a shield.
“I come bearing tribute?” he says hesitantly.
But Iruka just sighs with relief and comes forward to take the bag out of his hand. “Please tell me that’s Ichiraku.”
“Shoyu with extra egg and green onion.”
Kakashi probably shouldn’t have said that so loud, because suddenly about six sets of eyes have fixed on the little plastic bag.
“Get your own, you vultures.” Iruka snaps, and waves Kakashi into the kitchen. The only other person in the room is Kurenai, and there's a good reason for that– she’s fast asleep at the kitchen table, arms folded under her head, a mug of tea forgotten by her elbow. Kakashi would find it strange that a Jounin would fall asleep in any house not her own, especially one so loud, but Iruka, and by proxy his home, have always given off a sense of safety that somehow reaches even the most hardened and paranoid shinobi.
Iruka lowers his voice to a whisper as he pulls his takeout from the bag, somehow managing not to rustle the plastic. “You here for a shower too or did you want talk about something?”
Kakashi busies himself with finding a bowl and chopsticks for both Iruka’s food and his own. “I saw one of your students this morning.” He says quietly. “Sasuke Uchiha.”
“Sasuke?” Iruka says, surprised. “What was he doing out in this mess?”
“Wanted to get out of his house, I think.” Kakashi says mildly.
“That compound isn’t good for him.” Iruka whispers, handing Kakashi his bowl and settling against the counter with his own.
“Too many ghosts.” Kakashi agrees. “But it’s not as if anyone could make him leave it.”
“Was he all right?” Iruka says as he eats.
“No.” Kakashi says honestly. “But we… had a conversation. Not sure what he got out of it though, if anything.”
Iruka raises an eyebrow. “Oh really?” Kakashi glances away and Iruka sighs. “Fine, I won’t ask.”
About three minutes later Kakashi watches with some amusement as Iruka glances at the clock, seems to realize something, and sets his half finished ramen bowl on the table in favor of storming towards the bathroom. Kakashi eats quickly while he’s distracted, only barely managing not to scald his tongue when he hears Iruka’s voice vibrate through the walls.
“Get your ass out of there right now Shiranui or so help me YOU WILL BE DOING REPORT PAPERWORK FOR A MONTH.”
Several bangs and an undignified screech later Genma comes around the corner with a red welt on his forehead in nothing but a towel wrapped haphazardly around his waist. Kakashi follows him back out into the living room, a fuming Iruka behind them both.
Kakashi perches on the back of the couch across from Ibiki as Iruka leans tiredly in the doorframe. “Your turn, Anko. Don’t forget your conditioner, you left it under the sink.”
Anko points a finger at Aoba as she stands. “Low flame for two and a half minutes. No more, no less, capiche?”
Aoba gives her a two fingered salute and goes through a couple hands signs, careful of his still tacky nails, until his palms glow with orange fire that he moves steadily over the fingers of his right hand, then his left.
“Hey Rai, where are my sweats?” Genma asks, only to take said pants to the face when he turns towards his partner. Genma glares, and Raidou continues not-so-innocently eating his crackers.
Genma flips him off as he pulls his pants on, rubbing the now free towel over his hair. He sits down in Anko’s vacated seat on the floor, looking curiously at the nail polish case as Aoba finishes flash drying his nails.
“She got any good purple in there?”
Aoba runs his fingers over the bottles. “You want lavender, violet, royal, or mauve?”
The first thing Naruto sees when he opens his eyes is nothing at all.
He’s awake, he knows he is– no dream he’s ever had has hurt like this. His eyes are open, he can feel the flutter of his eyelashes against his cheeks as he blinks, but his eyes don’t seem to have caught onto the memo because all he can see is smooth endless black.
He draws his hands up under him, palms sliding over unnaturally smooth stone, and attempts to lever himself up. He doesn’t quite manage vertical the first time, since he underestimates how much effort it takes, but he manages to shuffle into a sitting position, one leg folded under his opposite knee. He still sees nothing but inky black, but it doesn’t alarm him quite so much as it probably should.
He hurts all over, from the skin of his arms and the back of his neck, all the way to the densest parts of his muscles. But this is a good ache, a healing ache– any sense of the creeping dull pressure of rancid chakra is gone entirely. So is most of his regular chakra actually.
He feels… different. Subtly so, like the corruption has left a mark behind, an imprint in his system, one his body seems intent on remembering. He feels stronger for his pain.
Naruto crosses his legs, placing a hand over his seal. The caustic burn is gone from what he can feel, so if the corrupted chakra has been purged from his system, then maybe...
He settles into a meditative state and drops into his seal.
After long moments in darkness even metaphysical light makes him squint, but when he blinks the splotches out of his eyes he finds he hardly recognizes his own head. The ever present water and dark prison bars are still there, but the flood of chakra seems to have given life where there otherwise was none, and the water overflows with greenery. Winding vines and aquatic plants bloom from water once toxic, curling up around the gate bars and floating in the shallows at Naruto’s feet. Blue lotus flowers bloom all around, like the kind from the pond in Jiji’s garden, a familiar and comforting sight so far from home. A mound of grassy earth rises from the water beneath Kurama, who lies across the knoll the same way he had when Naruto last saw him.
He’s not awake.
Naruto knows it was probably too much to hope for, but his heart sinks all the same. The fox looks better now though– his fur is too bright now instead of too dark, and the light pulsing out from his center along his tails looks steadier.
But he’s also emaciated– there's hardly any meat on his chakric bones, ribs stark steps along his sides, his face thin at the cheeks.
Naruto sits down in the water and takes a minute to compose himself. The corruption may be gone but that’s hardly half the battle– now Naruto has to find a way to return what Kurama has always freely given him. Now he has to find a way to give chakra to the Kyuubi no Kitsune.
He pulls back out of his head, opening his eyes to darkness again.
This time instead of searching for light, he makes his own, pulling a little of what fire chakra he’s managed to regain into his hands as his fingers flick through hand signs; Rat, Tiger, Ram.
A flash of yellow sparks and cobalt flame fills the bowl of his palm, casting haunting shadows across an expanse of glittering black stone. He pushes to his feet, holding the flare up against the wall and watching as blue light reflects in speckled patterns across the skin of his arms.
The fire in his hand dims suddenly when he steps too close, sputtering and dying until Naruto pulls his hand away and the fire flares back to life. It triggers a memory from the collective wisdom of Uzushio that’s hidden itself inside him, calling up details from a construction log from long ago.
Void stone. Chakra absorbing. To protect against sensor nin and chakric tunneling.
He turns away, making sure to keep the light of his fire away from the walls, and moves forward through the dim. The cavern narrows into a hallway long enough he can't see the end of it yet, a ceiling closing over the top where there hadn't been one before. There are recesses built into the walls on both sides of the hallway about three feet up. He investigates the one on his left and finds that the recess is lined with a different kind of stone, pale like the stone of the plaza, and filled with small translucent yellow rocks about the size of his fingertips. He plucks one from its fellows and examines it curiously, sensing a soft pulse of familiar chakra. The substance is too tacky to be glass or gemstone, and smells strongly of tree sap.
Chakric Resin. The back of his mind tells him. Flammable.
He drops the crystal back into the basin and brings his flaming hand to the recess. It catches instantly, roaring to life and racing off into the dark, lighting the path ahead as it goes. He lights the other and watches as it chases after the first, casting amber light across gleaming black. He follows the fire, watching the flames race until they split off somewhere ahead of him and disappear from sight. He follows the hallway until it opens up into an enormous cavern, big enough to hold his entire apartment tenfold under its ceiling. Lines of fire curl like ribbons around the dome, filling the cavern with warm light. Water circles the platform in the center, a mosaic of a giant stylized spiral.
Lining the edge of the platform are thirteen rashomon style gates, each one bearing the crest of a different Uzushio clan at the top and leading into another chamber. The gate directly across from him is twice as wide as all the others, and the crest at the top is that of a spiral circled by curved tines, transforming it into a sun. The Uzumaki clan symbol.
The Uzushio Repository. Holding place of all Uzushio’s treasures, knowledge, and artifacts.
If there’s a way to alter his seal, Naruto is sure he’ll find it in there.