11 - Anchor Point
Inoichi breathed a strained sigh as he watched the eight-year-old Uchiha boy take a seat on the couch directly opposite him. Orders had come down from on high directing the Leaf Analysis Team to provide Sasuke with these sessions on a regular basis, but the Jonin was at a loss as to how to proceed. The two sat in silence while Inoichi gathered his thoughts. He'd participated in special arrangements like this before, but most often with the intent to tease intel out of people rather than deal with their trauma. He and his team opted for more aggressive methods when handling captured foreign ninja or other dangerous individuals. This boy, however, would require a gentler approach.
"Good morning, Sasuke," Inoichi said, easing back in his chair in an attempt to appear less stiff.
"Mm," Sasuke replied with a flat stare.
"As you know, we're here today because of recent events. You've been through something no one should have to experience, and Lord Hokage is worried about you. Are you feeling ready to talk about what happened yet? If not, we don't have to start there."
Sasuke looked down, clenching his fists. He swallowed hard. A ticking clock on the wall punctuated the silence like a neverending metronome. An eternity later, he relaxed his shoulders and returned the blond man's gaze. "I'm ready."
"Alright." Inoichi flashed a reassuring smile. "I want you to tell me whatever you feel comfortable with, but don't push yourself. After all, this is only our first meeting."
The boy offered a stilted nod in response.
"The floor is yours, Sasuke."
Sasuke and his teammates looked up from their meal to see Kakashi enter the main room of Tazuna's household through a double door marked with the Land of Fire insignia. He stood with his hands in his pockets and surveyed the dining room table, where bowls of an unknown rice-based dish sat half eaten. Genma stepped through after Kakashi and slid the doors shut.
"Are you feeling better?" asked Tazuna's daughter, Tsunami. She was a long-haired woman with a slim frame. So far, she had shown a great deal of hospitality. She was so polite and doting that in a way, she reminded Sasuke of his own mother.
Kakashi nodded toward his colleague. "Arm's all patched up, thanks to Genma here."
Genma held up a hand. "Don't mention it. I'm just happy I showed up when I did." He looked to Naruto first, then Sasuke. "You boys gave it a solid effort, but things weren't looking good for you when I arrived."
"I had a plan," Sasuke said defensively, becoming absorbed into his thoughts as he stared at the red-carpeted floor.
Technically yes, he did have a plan, albeit one that would've put him in harm's way. Genma wasn't wrong in saying they were in trouble, but the last thing Sasuke wanted to do was admit weakness. Naruto appeared to be having a similar struggle in his head. The blond started to say something, but decided against it and crossed his arms.
Genma smiled. "I'm sure you did, Sasuke. But either way, your father would've had my head if anything happened to you two." He laughed nervously as Tsunami threw him a horrified look. "I'm only joking about that last part."
"Anyway," Kakashi said with a tired sigh, "seems we're even more in over our heads than we first thought."
"That's for sure." Sakura shuddered. "We saw two Hidden Mist assassins and we haven't even been here a full day yet!"
"But!" Kakashi held up a finger. "I'm going to prepare us for what's coming. Genma still has some time before he's supposed to report back to The Leaf, so he'll be tagging along with us."
"Where are we going?" Naruto asked, eyes wide with curiosity.
"Out into the forest for some training," Kakashi said. He staggered. "Oh, and I seem to have used my Sharingan a bit too recklessly back there. I'll recover with a little rest."
Genma hoisted Kakashi up on his weaker side. "Have you got anything to help him walk?"
Tazuna cupped his chin. "We should have crutches around here somewhere. Let me check the closet."
He exited the room, leaving the guests with Tsunami. She turned to the two Jonin with a smile. "I'll bring you two some food. Just take a seat!"
"Thank you, ma'am," Genma said. He ushered Kakashi over to an open spot by the table.
"You'll be better in no time, sensei," Naruto encouraged as Kakashi stared down at his steaming bowl of food. "Then we'll kick those Mist bad guys' butts!"
Everyone turned to see a boy no older than ten in a fisherman's hat and green overalls. He regarded the group with palpable disdain. Sasuke felt something in him stir when he saw the familiar expression on the child's face, but he pushed his emotions aside in favor of an empty stare.
"Inari!" Tsunami chided, hands on her hips. 'Inari' hurried across the room to hug Tazuna, welcoming him home. Then he turned to face Tsunami's displeased frown. "Don't be rude! These guests are the ninja who escorted your grandfather home."
Inari blinked, taking in her words. "Mom, these guys are going to die. They can't beat Gato and his men."
"Why would you say something like that?" she asked.
"Because it's true. Anyone who goes up against those thugs dies. This time won't be any different!"
He started toward the double doors Kakashi and Gemma had entered through, but stopped when Tazuna asked, "Inari, where are you going?"
"The sea...I'll be looking at the sea."
The boy disappeared through the doors so fast, he may as well have been a ninja himself.
"Inari, come back here and apologize!" his mother shouted.
He didn't return. Tsunami took a long breath and put a hand to her chest, as if holding back tears. Tazuna was quick to apologize for his grandson's behavior.
Kakashi waved him off. "No, no, it's alright. I understand how unimpressive this looks: a Jonin like me, down for the count after one encounter? Not the biggest confidence builder."
Naruto frowned and balled his fists. "But sensei…"
Sasuke looked to Kakashi, whose unassuming smile was noticeable even through his mask. He was strong, as expected of a Jonin, but using the Sharingan seemed to have taken a lot out of him. More than Sasuke would have expected. The stories about an Uchiha body being key to wielding the Sharingan to its full potential must have been true after all. Although, it was worth noting that Kakashi still somehow mustered up the energy to devour his food and put his mask back on while everyone was looking away.
"Excuse me, miss," Sakura said, raising a hand. Sasuke shook his head at her ever-present teacher's pet attitude. They weren't even in their home village anymore, let alone in class. "Who's this?"
She pointed to a photograph of the family, but with a fourth individual they hadn't met smiling next to Inari. He was a tall, dark-haired man with a body like a sturdy tree. His skin appeared firm and calloused, no doubt from a life of labor. Tsunami's eyes pooled with tears when she saw the photograph. Tazuna jumped in to shift everyone's attention away from her silent suffering, and she gave him a grateful smile.
"That man is why Inari became so worked up. His name is...was, Kaiza."
"He was my husband," Tsunami managed to get out, her back turned to the group.
The bridge builder told Kaiza's story, and the team listened with rapt attention. Kaiza was a traveling fisherman who saved Inari from drowning one day. He set an example for Inari of how to be brave, and in time began living among the people of the village. Sasuke noted how Tazuna's face lit up while he spoke. This was the first time since they met the crotchety old man that there was any semblance of that look in his eyes. Hope was a fire that could keep you going through any hardship. Sasuke knew this better than anyone, considering he lost his long ago.
In time, Kaiza married Tsunami and settled down as part of the family. He brought pride and strength back to the people of this land. He urged them to protect the things they loved with both arms. However, one day, he was taken prisoner by Gato's thugs. Kaiza was beaten and publicly executed as a message to anyone who might try to resist living under Gato's rule.
Sasuke swallowed hard at the end of the tale, then glanced sideways at Naruto. He appeared rattled by this news, and had retreated into himself for the moment. Far less surprised or shaken than Naruto or Sakura, the young Uchiha lounged on the floor, deep in thought.
Men with power always trod upon the weak. Those they couldn't subdue alone, they ganged up on. Kaiza was proof of that. Inari understood this as well, even at such a young age. Still, something about this didn't sit right with Sasuke.
While he'd rather not get involved, it seemed like the right move to act. He rose from the floor and dusted off his pants.
"I'll talk to him," he heard himself say before he had given it a second thought.
Everyone turned to him. Naruto's mouth was hanging open and Sasuke cringed at the sight of his half-chewed food. Surprise was evident in Kakashi's visible eye.
"Are you sure, Sasuke?" the Jonin said.
Caught in the spotlight with little time to think, the Uchiha hung his head. "Yeah," he whispered before walking toward the door Inari used with all eyes on him. Like it or not, he was locked into this situation now. He could only hope it didn't go horribly wrong.
The look on Sasuke Uchiha's face the moment the young boy walked through his door gave Inoichi pause. Sasuke plodded toward his usual spot on the couch and fell into place without ceremony. He didn't make eye contact. The only sound for the better part of 30 seconds was a ticking clock on the wall.
"Sasuke," the Yamanaka initiated, "what's happened?"
Sasuke hesitated before opening his mouth to say something. Inoichi would have bet several thousand ryo on the word "nothing" if past sessions, and Sasuke's current facial expression, were anything to go by. The Uchiha froze when he noticed his therapist's hard gaze.
Inoichi held up a finger. "Remember what we said."
A heavy sigh escaped Sasuke before he recited the words, "No nothings allowed."
"Right," Inoichi said, smiling at him. "Good! So go on, then."
The boy's hands formed tiny fists. "I yelled at Naruto the other day."
"Hm?" Inoichi pursed his lips. "What about? Take me through it from the beginning, like we practiced. What happened, how you felt, h-"
"How I reacted, and why," Sasuke finished with a groan. "Yeah, yeah. I know. So, we were moving the last of my things into the house..."
Minato took an empty cardboard box from Kushina's outstretched arms and put it in a corner beside several others. He made a hand sign, faced a spot on the floor where his Flying Thunder God seal was applied to a paper tag, and summoned the final two boxes. He turned as Naruto and Sasuke entered the room; the latter was slouching, the weight of his recent tragedy reflected in his body language.
"That's everything," Minato said with a smile. "Sasuke, Kushina and I will go handle the furniture in the next room. Naruto, stay here and help him unpack some of the lighter boxes. Alright?"
"You got it!" Naruto said with a toothy grin.
Sasuke's sunken facial expression brightened a little. "Thank you, Lord Minato."
"It's our pleasure," Kushina said. She tugged Minato by the arm. "Let's hurry before dinner time, ya know!"
Surveying the dozen boxes of varying sizes, Sasuke pointed to one. "I'll start with this one."
Naruto marched over to another box on the opposite wall. "Okay, and I'll open this one. We'll finish this in no time. Believe it!" Eyes flashing with determination, he tore the packing tape away and reached in to dig out the contents.
"Careful, please," Sasuke warned. His concern went unheeded until he cleared his throat.
"Oh, uh," Naruto stammered, scratching his head, "sorry."
They unpacked in relative silence. Sasuke stepped out for a moment to use the restroom, having unpacked two boxes, save for a few heavier items he would need Minato or Kushina to help lift. When he came back, Naruto was on his fourth box. This one was longer and flatter than the ones he'd opted for the last three times. He struggled a bit to lift whatever was stuck inside. Curious, Sasuke approached and peered over Naruto's shoulder. The young Uchiha's eyes widened at the sight of the object in his new brother's hands. Naruto freed it from its jammed position and raised it with a triumphant cry, grinning with pride—only to deflate in the face of the scalding expression staring back at him.
"What do you think you're doing?!" Sasuke shouted. His veins pulsed with a rush of anger that overwhelmed him in seconds. On the side of the oblong box, there was a label where he'd inked the words 'Do not open.' A label that it was apparent Naruto never bothered to read. "Don't touch that!"
The blond boy stepped back, speechless with shock. He held a polished wooden bow in his hands. Naruto didn't resist as Sasuke jerked the weapon from him and held it close to his chest. Still fuming, he stuffed it back into the box and tried to shut the flaps. The tape gave way and they sprang free again, adding to his vexation.
"Why did you open it? Didn't you read the label?" he snapped again, trembling with rage.
"What's going on in here?" asked a firm voice.
Sasuke flinched at the realization that Minato had teleported and now stood beside them, his eyes shifting from one boy to the other. Gulping back anger, Sasuke fought to calm his voice before giving an explanation.
"Naruto opened this box," he said, pointing to the self-explanatory label. "I...I don't want anyone but me touching what's in there." Kushina stumbled into the room mid-explanation.
"Hm?" Minato assessed the evidence, then leveled his gaze on Naruto. "Naruto, please apologize to Sasuke. Sasuke, I'm going to have to ask you to do the same. We don't raise our voices at each other that way in this house, no matter what's happened."
Sasuke bit his lip, guilt hitting him as the reality of what he'd just done set in. He turned away. "I-I'm sorry, Naruto."
"Hey," Kushina cut in, "hold on. You should look at each other when you apologize, ya know!"
Inoichi stood by on the opposite side of the room, watching alongside Sasuke as his recollection of events played out. A past version of Sasuke bowed his head in shame and expressed regret for his actions. Naruto did the same, with Kushina keeping a strong grip on the back of his neck to ensure he didn't try to weasel out of the situation. Having seen enough, Inoichi turned and looked down at the real Sasuke, who watched the scene with an impassive expression.
"I think we've seen enough, don't you?" Inoichi asked, waiting until the boy nodded and looked at him. "So, we've gone through what happened, and you already told me a little about how you felt. Now tell me: why did you react this way, Sasuke?"
Sasuke sighed and grumbled something Inoichi couldn't hear. He grimaced under the man's watchful gaze. Inoichi's eyebrow arched, conveying his interest in what Sasuke was keeping from him.
"I don't want to," Sasuke admitted, his lips folding to a thin crease.
Inoichi turned back to the replaying memory. "I know, but the source of your pain is what we need to tackle in order for you to feel better. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But we'll need to come back to things that cause you emotional blockage." He frowned and looked down at his client, whose eyes were tightly shut. "The fact you mentioned this to me at all means even you must recognize that it had an impact on you."
Sasuke scoffed. "You would've noticed something was off and pushed me, anyway."
The familiar caustic edge in his voice returned, but the Yamanaka allowed it this time. The boy still had a long road to healing ahead of him. It made sense that he wouldn't display the most pleasant behavior while he did the work to get there. In fact, this was no fun for Inoichi, either. He'd basically been ordered to make Sasuke get better, but without the usual quick fixes his clan used to extract information and stop or mitigate damage from enemy attacks. He would much rather have left the kid to lick his wounds for a while at first rather than force him down the path of confronting his trauma. However, The Analysis Team needed to be able to show results. That meant the occasional dose of tough love.
"You're not wrong," he admitted. "Would you like to hold off for today?"
The Uchiha shook his head. "It'll be easier to show you than tell you." He tilted his head back and swept some of his hair aside. Inoichi accepted the invitation to touch Sasuke's exposed forehead. The fabric of the memory surrounding them warped and reshaped itself into something new.
Inoichi closed his eyes to concentrate and opened them to the sight of Fugaku Uchiha's residence. The day was bright and sunny; any evidence of the recent massacre was nowhere to be seen. A smiling Sasuke hurried down the paved street skirting the grounds, the bow from the previous memory secured to his back. He ran right through Inoichi, stopping in front of the main exit. He retrieved his bow from its quiver and stood with a hand on his hip, watching the door. A voice called out "I'm off" from inside. Out stepped Itachi Uchiha, dressed in his combat gear. He paused in the doorway.
"You," Itachi whispered, stopping and staring at Sasuke in shock.
"I heard you're going on a wild boar hunt, big brother!"
Itachi slid the door shut behind him and strode down the path. Sasuke followed a few paces behind, smiling bigger than Inoichi had ever seen.
"I heard it's big like a monster," the boy went on, "and it's been tearing up fields. Isn't that where you're headed now—to take it down?"
The elder brother continued walking with purpose toward his destination.
"But you're going alone, right? Let me come with you. You know I'm a good archer. I've gone hunting with you before."
Without a word, Itachi turned and shooed him back toward the house. When Sasuke approached anyway, he reached out and gave him a light tap on the forehead with two fingers. "Sorry, Sasuke. Next time."
In a blur of movement, Itachi sped away from Sasuke and scaled a building, hopping across rooftops.
"What?!" Sasuke panicked. "Wait for me!"
Determined not to be left behind, he bolted down the path and disappeared around a corner.
Inoichi looked to his right, where Sasuke stood watching with a pained expression as the flashback played out. Seeing himself on better terms with his brother must have eaten away at him in a way that was impossible to understand. Inoichi hated being the reason for the boy going through so much pain, but if this helped in the end, it would be worthwhile. Their surroundings shimmered, almost losing form.
He snapped his fingers. "Sasuke, you're losing focus. I know this is hard for you. When you're ready, skip us forward. Remember that you control the memory. I'm just your guide."
Granted, he could force more of the memory out of Sasuke's mind if he were so inclined, but something told him what little trust he'd earned so far would vanish with that revelation.
Sasuke whispered to himself, distracted by something. Realizing Inoichi was watching him, he explained, "I said it's just like with archery, I guess."
"Hm? How so?"
A few seconds passed as Sasuke concentrated, pushing them from the Uchiha Manor to a new location. Inoichi recognized a grassy field on the outskirts of The Leaf. An out-of-breath Sasuke with the bow still strapped to his back stopped to recover. Itachi sat perched atop one of several houses, and the brothers were having a conversation.
"When you fire a bow," current Sasuke continued, "you line it up with a spot on your face. It's called the anchor point. So...that's what you are for me, right? You're my guide."
Inoichi nodded, and was surprised to see the boy's mouth curl into a faint smile. "Yes. Exactly."
Sasuke turned back to the sight of his past self ambling up the side of the building. A large boar with massive tusks and a sizable scar across its back was pacing nearby. The beast appeared agitated by something, and had already done a significant amount of damage to its surroundings. Inoichi noted that its scar was old and had healed over, so that couldn't have been the cause. Nevertheless, it continued to roar and stomp about.
Sasuke dropped his head so that hair hid his expression. "This was one of the best days I ever had with Itachi. You know, when he was still his old self. After this mission, he helped me with my shuriken training and taught me how to hit moving targets with my bow."
"And you miss it? The way things were?"
The question seemed to cut deep. Sasuke flinched and was quiet for a long moment. In the distance, the boar uttered still more cries as it charged the brothers head on.
"I didn't mean I missed it," Sasuke finally answered. "I just...I don't want to use that bow anymore. I haven't ever since what happened to the Uchiha."
The Leaf Analysis Team Lead had a pretty good idea why not, but Sasuke needed to face the truth of his own accord.
"I don't...I…" Sasuke watched the encounter with the boar play out until he couldn't bear to look any longer. "Because it reminds me of a time that was all just a lie. That wasn't the real Itachi, but even now, it seems so real to me."
Sometimes people twisted memories more in favor of their skewed interpretations. Inoichi knew there was no point saying as much, so he kept quiet.
"It makes me feel sad, like I lost something that I never really had to begin with. But that's not all. It also makes me angry."
"Is that why when Naruto touched the bow, you lashed out at him?"
Sasuke looked up again. His face was red and tears trickled down his face. He was trembling with the weight of his building emotion. The expression on his face made the answer to Inoichi's question clear. Instead of pushing him to speak, he gave Sasuke a soft pat on the back.
"Look, Sasuke. Until you move past this pain you're keeping inside and accept what is, you'll just be holding yourself back. You have skills that you should be honing, and they have nothing to do with your brother being who you thought he was or not." The Uchiha didn't answer. Sighing, Inoichi snapped again. "Alright, that's enough for today. We'll revisit this, but for now you should rest and think about what I've said."
Sasuke remained silent as he dissolved the memory and their minds returned to the present.
Sasuke ascended the stairs as quietly as possible, not wanting to alarm Inari. He was a stranger in the kid's home, after all. He took slow and measured steps. If he were being honest, the purpose of this was partially to allow himself more time to think. Why had he volunteered to do something like this in the first place? What would he even say?
He hesitated at the door to Inari's room. It was open just a crack, but enough to see inside. Out of respect, Sasuke didn't peek. He raised a hand to knock, but paused at the sound of something unexpected.
Was Inari crying?
Figuring it was better to just rip the bandage off, he knocked and waited while the boy's sniffles subsided. Soft footsteps approached the door. When it creaked open and Inari saw Sasuke, his curious stare hardened. There were streaks on his face where he'd done a poor job of wiping away tears.
"What do you want?" Inari snapped.
Taking a breath, Sasuke dove in headfirst. "I heard about...about your dad. I'm here to talk to you-"
The kid's face contorted at the mention of Kaiza. "I don't even know you. Why don't you Leaf ninja just go home?"
His harsh attitude wasn't totally undeserved in this case, but still, Sasuke couldn't help but see a bit of himself in the boy's situation.
"Inari, was it?" The boy gave a curt nod. "Well, Inari, I wanted you to know that I get it. My parents were both killed." Inari froze, taking in his words. "When I was around your age, they were killed by an evil man who wanted power."
Swallowing hard, Inari returned to his defiant glare. "Okay, so what? What's that got to do with me?"
"I'm just saying I understand. I understand why you feel the way you do about this. Like it's hopeless, but...but it's not."
Inari had inched backward during the discussion. The door was open a hair wider. He and Sasuke seemed to notice this involuntary action at the same time. Trying to save face, Inari stepped forward again, shutting the door.
"Go away!" came his muffled words.
Sasuke sighed, slipped his hands into his pockets, and started back down the hallway toward the stairs. He may have made things even worse, but at least he tried, right? This was stupid to begin with, but Kushina would probably be proud of him right now. Inoichi, too. Maybe he'd been right before about wanting to keep to himself. Kindness rarely got you any kind of-
Inari's door creaked open. Sasuke turned to see his tiny head peeking out from within.
"Hey," the boy said in a meek voice. "If you really want to come in, I guess you can."
Once again, Inoichi welcomed Sasuke into his office and waited as he settled into the same seat he'd sat in since he was 8 years old. In the two years since he started counseling sessions, Sasuke had progressed by leaps and bounds. Still, his usual aloofness remained a cornerstone of his personality.
"Good morning," Sasuke said with a deadpan expression.
He was speaking first these days. That was something, Inoichi supposed.
"Good morning, Sasuke! How are you feeling?"
However, short responses were a hill they still hadn't surmounted.
Inoichi threw him a look. Sasuke scrunched his face up in irritation.
"What?" the Uchiha said. "I didn't say 'nothing!'"
The Yamanaka wagged a finger. "No one word answers. There are no loopholes here, young man."
"Ugh, fine." Sasuke rolled his shoulders and sat up straighter. "Today has been okay so far. We had family dinner, then Naruto and I talked for a little while before I came here."
"What did you talk about with Naruto?"
"He asked me if I wanted to go to Ichiraku later." Inoichi flashed a knowing smile; almost any conversation Sasuke had with Naruto started this way and they both knew it. "He told me Lady Kushina was going on a trip with him tomorrow to see the ruins of the Land of Eddies, and he wants to train with me when they get back. Uh...yeah. That's about it. Then I headed here."
"Good job, Sasuke!"
He scoffed at the praise, rolling his eyes. "Uh huh."
An expressive lift of the eyebrows was all Inoichi needed to nudge his client in the right direction.
The boy sighed. "And how was your morning, Mr. Inoichi?"
Inoichi grinned. "There we go. Thank you for asking."
He went into a brief explanation about how he and Ino did brain training exercises before he left for work. Sasuke was able to show genuine interest, ask probing questions, and relate things Inoichi said to his own experiences as they shifted to a discussion of hobbies in general. His progression so far was very encouraging, despite the room he still had to grow. However, as they always eventually did, today was the day they were going back to the sore spot Sasuke avoided.
"So," the Yamanaka transitioned, holding Sasuke's gaze, "picked up any of your old hobbies lately?"
The Uchiha pouted. "Mr. Inoichi!"
"I told you we'll keep coming back to this, Sasuke. Every few weeks until we've cracked that shell of yours."
"I don't have a shell," Sasuke muttered, burying his face in his crossed arms.
Inoichi splayed his arms across the window sill behind him, leaning back into a more comfortable position. "I think we both know that's not true."
Silence filled the room. Sasuke kept his head tucked for a long time, and Inoichi waited with unbending patience. In past sessions, he sometimes changed the subject to give Sasuke a break. Today, Inoichi was going to push him a little.
The boy looked up, at long last, and asked in a low voice, "Are we going back inside that memory?"
"I won't force you. Except for during dangerous situations, mind transfers into the minds of comrades should always be voluntary. That's the code I live by and the one I've passed on to my daughter. Either you and I can talk about things here, or we can deal with them in there. Take your pick."
Sasuke's response was a stiff grumble. Inoichi went on.
"Of course, you can always leave for the day...but I'll keep coming back to this, as you should know by now."
Sasuke sat forward. "I'll go back in." His delivery was much more confident than expected. Inoichi held onto the hope that today would be the day of Sasuke's breakthrough.
Once again, the boar hunt was reenacted in Sasuke's mind. Inoichi watched next to present-day Sasuke in a field a few yards away. Itachi voiced his surprise that Sasuke caught up to him, as he had every time before, to which Sasuke eagerly revealed, "I've been training." He climbed the building where his older brother crouched watching the boar. They proceeded to orchestrate a plan for redirecting it away from nearby settlements.
An arrow flew through the air, missing the tail of the boar by a few feet. No doubt, the young boy's nerves had gotten the better of him. Beside Inoichi, Sasuke shivered as he watched the scene play out, shutting his eyes and gritting his teeth.
"You know what I'm going to say," Inoichi prompted.
Sasuke nodded. "Control your breathing, feel the feelings, and let them flow out of you." His fingers curled while he carried out this process. Distortions that had formed in the space around them cleared up as his breathing leveled out.
"Good," Inoichi said, nudging the boy. "You're getting the hang of this. Now, let's...huh?"
The environment around them transitioned to a new space. Wherever they were, it was nighttime.
Everything came into focus bit by bit, revealing they were on a street in the Uchiha District. A past version of Sasuke fell to one knee on a paved path, the fabric of his shirt torn at the shoulder. Abandoned ninja tools scattered around the battlefield depicted the grisly fates of scores of fallen Uchiha clan members. Fresh blood splatters adorned the walls of the buildings around them, and there were corpses as far as the eye could see. The powerful stench of death came through as clearly as if this were the real world. Any Yamanaka worth his salt knew that smells were an undeniable sign of a potent memory.
Inoichi rubbed his chin.
Why are we back at the night of the massacre?
They'd visited this point in time more than once, of course, but this particular part of it was new. Stranger still, Sasuke didn't get so shaken up over this night's events anymore. It was more in line with his reshaped view of Itachi, after all. So why were they here?
Inoichi struggled with the new dilemma in front of him. Should he stop the hidden memory from playing out, or let Sasuke explore it further? Glancing toward the boy at his side, he saw the Uchiha was trembling, eyes still shut. Whatever this memory contained, he'd kept it buried deep for a reason. This wasn't a conscious shift, that much was for sure.
Last to materialize was Itachi himself, who turned away after revealing his new and improved Mangekyo Sharingan to Sasuke. If appearances were any indication, he'd attempted to knock his younger brother out cold a moment ago, but failed. Itachi jumped to a rooftop, but was pursued without delay.
"No, wait!" Sasuke cried as his brother fled.
Inoichi noticed something unusual as the child got to his feet. Present-day Sasuke watched alongside him, just as stunned as his memory guide.
Past Sasuke's eyes activated their latent Sharingan. He snatched up a few kunai from his surroundings and gave chase, throwing them with precise aim. Itachi turned in time to see the projectiles coming, but was not quick enough to avoid being hit. He was forced to draw his sword to deflect them, but his Leaf headband fell off in the process. Landing beside it, he bent to pick the headband up and re-tied it sideways.
Behind him, Sasuke knelt, panting and watching in silence as his brother tied the fabric into a knot before turning to look back at him. Then the unthinkable happened. All of the breath in Inoichi's lungs left him. He didn't need to check to know the same was true for Sasuke.
Waking up in his own body again, Inoichi lowered his hands and took a breath. He spotted Sasuke wiping tears from his face and rising from his seat.
"Hey, Sasuke. Hold on!" The Yamanaka shook off the haze that was common when readjusting to his body, then pushed himself up from his seat and followed Sasuke. The latter's hand was already on the doorknob when Inoichi grabbed his shoulder. "This could be important. Unlocking repressed memories is a sure sign that you're making good progress."
"I don't know," Sasuke whispered. His voice wavered. "I-"
A click sounded from beyond the door and it swung open. Light from the hallway spilled into the cozy space, leaving a sniffling Sasuke fully exposed to the outside world.
"Hey Dad! I brought you lunch early, because I know you're busy, and-" Ino pranced into the room, her long blonde hair pinned up in a ponytail, a lunchbox in one hand. "Sasuke?"
Inoichi grunted. He stepped in front of Sasuke. "Sorry, Ino. Bad time. Leave it in one of the lockers, please."
"O-okay…" Ino said with uncertainty, tip-toeing out of the room. "Sorry to interrupt. Love you!"
She closed the door after Inoichi responded in kind. The deepening curiosity on her face as she turned to walk away left him concerned. How could she not be curious? No one in the village other than The Hokage and his family, The Council, and Inoichi himself knew a thing about Sasuke's therapy sessions. Not to mention that she had a maddening crush on the kid. Some days, he was all she talked about.
Refocusing, Inoichi turned to check on Sasuke. He was already stepping around him and bolting for the door.
"I can't. I can't do this!" Sasuke disappeared through the doorway, leaving Inoichi to stare at the floor in confusion.
Looks like there's more going on here than I thought.
Sasuke stood still in the hallway outside of Inari's room for a moment, overcome by genuine shock.
"Well, are you coming in or not?" the brat pressed, raising a hand to keep his fisherman's hat from sliding off.
Sasuke power-walked back the other way and let himself in. Inari closed the door behind him. Seeing his visitor standing awkwardly in the corner, Inari motioned toward a rather plain-looking bed with sea green covers.
"You can sit," he offered.
Inari was far less hostile now. While Sasuke was by no means scared of some shrimp with an attitude, it was a nice change of atmosphere compared to before. Was that how he made Naruto feel? Yet again, he found himself drawing silly parallels between himself and Inari.
"Thanks," Sasuke said as he settled onto the bed. He had to admit, it was much more comfortable than it looked. In fact, it was so soft that he almost lost track of why he was here until Inari sat down next to him and spoke.
"I'm sorry I yelled at you."
"It's no big deal. Naruto—you know, the idiot downstairs with the blond hair? He's a lot louder and more annoying."
"What's your name?"
"Sasuke. Sasuke Uchiha."
"Uchiha? You mean like...like that clan that was…?"
Sasuke was taken aback. So, it seemed that even way out here in the Land of Waves, his clan's fate was common knowledge. Shelving the pain, he nodded. "Yeah, that clan." He let the moment hang. "I came to talk to you because I've been where you are. After they were gone, and I was all alone, I remember wanting to give up, too."
Dark thoughts crept into Sasuke's mind as he reflected on the memory of his brother's betrayal. He clenched his fists, holding onto Inari's covers with a death grip.
"But you didn't give up, right? I mean, you became a ninja."
Sasuke slowed his breathing the way Inoichi taught him. He sighed, letting his pain flow out of him and flexing his fingers. When the moment passed, he turned to see Inari's curious eyes scrutinizing him.
"Are you...okay?" the kid probed, raising an eyebrow.
"Yeah. Sorry. I got lost in my head." Sasuke shook himself back into focus. "I became a ninja because I had a goal. I realized I didn't have time to be scared, or to second guess myself."
He took care to leave out that his goal was to take revenge by murdering his older brother. Something told him that wasn't the best first impression to leave on an innocent child.
"So you're saying that's what I need to do?"
"But...but I'm not brave like Dad was," Inari muttered, hanging his head. His little body shook. Sasuke didn't need to see his face to know he must have been crying again. "I'm a big crybaby."
Raising a hand, Sasuke moved it toward Inari's shoulder. He forced himself to complete the gesture, patting the boy in what he hoped was a comforting way. The same way Minato and Inoichi had once done for him. He waited for a nasty reaction that never came.
"You know," he said amidst the child's sniffles, "you don't need to cry all the time. There are different ways to deal with pain."
"Dad used to tell me not to cry, and to be brave. He was a hero." Inari's words came out garbled as he sobbed, but Sasuke caught enough of them to piece the sentences together. "How am I supposed to believe in heroes when he's dead?"
What would Minato or Kushina do right now? What would Inoichi do? Sasuke didn't know what to say, so he stayed silent.
"I saw it," Inari whispered after some time. His well of tears was all dried up, and his words came out coarse and weak. "I saw Gato's men kill Dad. He did it right in front of us, to show us all that it was pointless. Dad couldn't save us, and you guys can't either."
Sasuke hadn't come here to be a hero. He was just out to complete the mission and get stronger. Still, he felt he owed this kid some form of encouragement. "Inari, I'm not going to make you any unrealistic promises. But one thing I know is that I'm not gonna die here."
Turning to Sasuke, the boy asked, "How do you know that?"
"Because like I told you, I have a goal. I can't lose hope, and I can't die before I reach that goal." Sasuke steeled his gaze. Everything around him vanished and he saw only the piercing red irises of his older brother's face, which was devoid of emotion.
"Uh, what's with your eyes, Sasuke? They're all red."
Finding himself back in the room with Inari, Sasuke gasped. He looked away, all of a sudden conscious of his Sharingan. He hadn't meant for them to activate. In all honesty, he had no idea how to will it to happen at all. Or how to turn them off. Thinking about his hate for Itachi must've triggered them as part of an automatic response.
"Ah! I didn't mean to..." The Uchiha closed his eyes, focused all of his mental energy on making his Sharingan go away, and then looked at Inari again. "Are they gone?" When he nodded, Sasuke sighed. "That was my Sharingan."
"It looks cool," Inari said with a small smile.
Sasuke sat for a moment and pondered the comment. "Yeah, I guess it does." He'd never thought about his clan's ability that way—especially given the events of that night. "About what I said," he went on, "if you can find a goal to strive for, it won't feel so hopeless anymore. It's like how your father used to say to protect things with both arms." Inari squirmed, but Sasuke continued. "My adoptive mother always says you have to fill your heart with love to survive bad times. I think what they're both getting at is that you should hold onto the things and people that mean something to you."
His words seemed to reach the boy. Inari nodded and his eyes went vacant as he receded into his own thoughts. Sasuke hoped he'd done some good, but it was hard to tell. This kind of thing wasn't exactly his forté.
"Well," Sasuke said, hopping to his feet, "I'm gonna go back out there."
"But wait," Inari said, clutching Sasuke's wrist warmer.
"How is someone like me supposed to fight? I'm weak, and I don't have ninja training. All I know how to do is catch fish and hunt."
"There are other ways to stand up for what matters besides fighting, Inari. As for me, I decided a long time ago that I'm never going to run or hide. You have to make that decision for yourself."
Sasuke noticed a crossbow laid by Inari's bedside out of the corner of his eye. He left the room and closed the door behind him, but couldn't get the image out of his head. His many talks with Inoichi about the bow he used to practice with echoed in his mind. Sasuke descended the stairs and rejoined his team, halfway paying attention while everyone bombarded him with questions about how talking with Inari went. He scraped together the food left in his bowl, then brought it to his lips and frowned.
It was cold.
Guess that's the price I pay for being nice.
"Good morning, Mister Inoichi," Sasuke said before taking his seat on the couch that was forever marked by him, thanks to the many hours he spent sitting there. He settled into the form-fitting impression on the seat cushion and gave his therapist a slight smile.
Caught off guard by his optimistic aura, Inoichi sat forward and matched it with a smile of his own. "Good morning, Sasuke. I heard you and Naruto graduated! How are you feeling today?"
When Inoichi first sat down to speak with Sasuke, he never expected him to make as much progress as he had in their five years together. His initial visit proved him to be a very closed off, emotional mess - and justifiably so. Granted, Sasuke still dealt with his painful memories of the Uchiha Massacre, but now he could talk about it without going into a rage or shutting down. If the historical records about the Uchiha that Minato managed to dig up were any indication, then Sasuke was one bad experience away from going the way of someone like Madara Uchiha. Inoichi's long-standing orders, however difficult they might be to carry out, were to keep that from happening through non-destructive methods.
"I feel alright," Sasuke said.
"You seem better than alright. Greeting me with a smile? Saying good morning first? What've you done with my client?"
"Heh, I guess you're right. I am feeling pretty good lately. Mostly thanks to you."
Inoichi laughed, waving off the praise. "Thank you, Sasuke, but no. I can't take the credit."
Sasuke shrugged. "I only made it this far because of our sessions."
"Even so, your progress is due to the work you did here, and the choices you made. Don't lose sight of that."
"Right," Sasuke said, nodding and adopting a pensive look. "Speaking of progress, I have something to tell you."
The leader raised his eyebrows. "Oh?"
"Yeah. I think I...I think that I'm ready to stop our therapy sessions."
Inoichi took in a long breath and then let it out the same way he'd taught Sasuke. Anxiety rippled through him like tiny needles. He hadn't realized it until now, but he'd come to enjoy these hours with Sasuke quite a bit. They'd both known this day would come, but time had a way of slipping by without you noticing until moments like this crept up on you. He thought he'd learned to accept that with age, and yet now he found himself overcome with sadness.
"Well, that's quite a way to open this session," Inoichi said, laughing off his nerves to keep from getting emotional. Sasuke laughed with him. The pure ridiculousness of the moment hit like a ton of bricks. Sasuke was laughing with him!
"Well," Sasuke said, "I've been thinking about it and it just seems like that time. I'm about to go on my first away mission, I'm not having nightmares anymore, and...and I can deal with the boar thing now. So I think I'll be okay."
"Ah," Inoichi said, holding up a finger. "Though there is one unsolved mystery left."
Sasuke nodded, looking at his feet with a thin-lipped expression. "My Sharingan."
"As I've said before, I think that blocked memory of yours was keeping you from using it until now. My guess is it's tied to your inability to use Flying Thunder God without feeling sick, as well. Your eyes were probably trying to use the Sharingan as a reflex when you performed time-space jumps, and hitting a wall because of the mental Sharingan should manifest itself under the right conditions, or perhaps just with time. Which reminds me." He paused for emphasis. Sasuke craned his neck forward, paying full attention. "Be careful out there, Sasuke. I know you are strong for your age, but strength isn't all that makes a great ninja."
"If anyone knows that, it's me," the Uchiha said with a nonchalant wave. "I'll be careful out there, I promise. I'm ready."
"And does this mean you're also ready to use you-know-what again?" Inoichi asked, ending the sentence with a hopeful uptick. Sasuke's brow furrowed, making it obvious he was less than pleased.
Again, they'd both known this moment would come. The subject was always lingering at the back of Inoichi's mind, and he made sure Sasuke knew that. He wasn't about to let their sessions end without one last mention of the bow.
"Yeah," Sasuke said after a long pause. He slapped his hands against his knees, as if to psych himself up, and delivered another unusual smile. "I'm ready for that. I was planning to try it out when I got a chance."
The boy's words felt like a dream, but they warmed Inoichi's heart. He'd cracked that shell of trauma at last! Now it was time to let Sasuke leave the nest, as cheesy as that sounded.
"Well, okay," Inoichi relented, rising from his seat. "I don't see a reason to have you stay here for the full hour, unless you just want to keep this old man company."
Sasuke chuckled. "I hadn't planned to leave early, but yeah. I guess there's no point dragging it out." He froze, as if mulling something very important over. Instead of speaking, he stood up and looked at Inoichi head on. "Thank you. I know I was a handful all these years. But now I think...I think I'll be okay."
Unsure what was professional in this sort of situation, Inoichi put an arm around Sasuke's shoulder and squeezed. "You're welcome, Sasuke. Thank you, too. I've learned just as much from you as you have from me."
Sasuke nodded, his embarrassment plain to see, but he didn't shy away from the half-hug. A once in a lifetime occurrence, for sure.
"Now go on," Inoichi said, patting his back, "get out of here."
Inoichi sucked in tears that tried to fall while his client walked away for the last time. He couldn't recall feeling this proud of a child since the time he watched his own daughter take her first independent steps. Sasuke was gone now, but there was no doubt in his mind that the boy was going places. Inoichi couldn't wait to see how the cards fell.
Lord Hokage, he's back in your hands now.
"What do you mean we're learning tree walking?" Sasuke heard Naruto say on his way back from putting his used bowl in the sink.
"That's right," Kakashi said. He rose from the table, supporting himself with a pair of wooden crutches. "I'll teach you all the basics of how to-"
"Naruto and I already know how to do that," Sasuke cut in. He strode past their sensei and took his seat at the table.
"Huh?" Kakashi said. "Really?"
Genma answered for him. "Yeah. Actually, Lord Fourth had Iwashi and I work on it with them a couple of years ago. He felt they were ready."
"Tree walking?" Sakura said, a finger against her chin. "Wait, I think I remember reading something about that in our textbook."
"Well, Sakura," Kakashi said in a cheerful tone, "that's precisely what we're going to go over! Genma, since you three have already got a good rapport, you'll be teaching Naruto and Sasuke."
"Teaching them what?" Genma stood and waited for Kakashi to whisper the answer into his ear. "Ah, I see. We never got around to that. Well, come on then, boys!"
Kakashi hobbled out of the house with Sakura in tow, and Genma started after them, only to stop when he saw Sasuke heading into another room. Naruto looked between them, unsure what to do.
"Sasuke?" Genma called out.
"One second!" Sasuke said over his shoulder. "I forgot something." He walked into the room where they'd been allowed to set up a temporary sleeping arrangement and change out of their gear.
Taking a moment to concentrate, Sasuke formed a hand sign and, in the blink of an eye, went from one place to another. Looking down, he was pleased to see the Flying Thunder God seal he'd placed at the center of his room left undisturbed. He focused on the sensation of chakra coursing through him, traveling through his natural pathways until it reached his eyes. The Sharingan was active. He didn't need to see a reflection to know.
Seeing his room with these new eyes was a mind-blowing experience. Not only could he see every imperfection in the floor, walls, and furniture, or the smallest of insects crawling around in the shadows, but he could also see where he'd missed vacuuming up dust and debris. These eyes were something else.
And to think I've had them this whole time.
He let out a relieved sigh. Not feeling like throwing up after teleporting was a welcome change, too. Bonus points to Inoichi.
Staying on task, he searched his closet for the oblong box that was now caked with a film of dust and lifted it out of its crevice. He placed the box on his bed and lifted out the bow, followed by an assortment of arrows lining the bottom. He pulled open a drawer on the opposite wall where he'd stored his old quiver. Although the fit was on the tighter side, he was able to put it on. Sasuke stared at the bow for a long time before reaching out and giving its frame a tentative caress. He picked it up once more, this time attempting to assume the proper stance. Faint traces of stored knowledge and muscle memory he'd pushed away for so long seeped to the forefront of his mind.
He used to feel free, comfortable, and in his own private zone whenever this bow was in his hand. Now it felt different. Its body, an unfamiliar instrument. Its texture, like sandpaper against soft fabric. He tensed up, fighting through the initial discomfort until he found the right positioning of the bow. Sasuke's fingertips curled around the bow's frame and found their place along one of the grooves in the handle. His dominant hand pulled back. On a whim, he tried nocking one of the arrows on the bed, reached full draw, and held the position. In that instant, all of his awkwardness washed away. This felt right. Years later, and still, this felt so right.
He'd found his anchor point.
Naruto barged in as Sasuke was stowing his bow in its quiver, having just teleported to one of the kunai he left in the guest room.
"Hey, Sasuke! What's keepin' ya?" The blond stood, dumbfounded, as Sasuke turned to him with a blank expression. "Whoa. Where'd you get that? I didn't see you pack it before we left!"
"I didn't," the Uchiha explained. "I just jumped home to pick these things up and came back."
"And you didn't bring me any Ichiraku?"
Sasuke gave him a flat, unamused stare.
"Just kidding, jeez!" Naruto shook his head. "Anyway, wow. What brought this on? I haven't seen you use that thing since, well…" He went silent at the thought of Sasuke's past blowup.
"I know," Sasuke said, saving his adoptive brother the trouble of having to find his words. "All that's behind me. I'm trying something new from here on. Anyway, should we go?"
Naruto beamed and held out a thumbs up. "You bet. Believe it!"