Title: seven days
Summary: The cruel semantics of absolution.
“It must be done,” is his final answer. The words coalesce in his mouth even as his mind is rushing through the process of formulating the thoughts that would give them meaning, and he feels them rise to his lips cold and heavy as chunks of water crystal.
Strangely enough, they are already ash when they leave his mouth.
Tsunade’s face is pale, two identical furious red blotches on her cheeks, but her voice sounds as if it were encased in a soapy bubble.
“--if you are sure, dammit, I don’t have to tell you again how risky it is to attempt an experimental procedure. There is no need--”
“There is a need,” he counters. His mouth feels numb but his heart is, for once, quiet. Calm, he thinks, and smiles tiredly. “Information confidentiality, calculated liability, unacceptable risk… Conflicting interests. And those are just the terminologies I can pronounce. I’ll leave the down and dirty up to your imagination.”
“It must be done,” he repeats, and a sense of strange peace fills his insides when he sees the tight line of the Hokage’s jaw become stark and brittle.
- it is a white room with white walls white tiles white drawn curtains, but it is also the bright light right above his head (like shards of broken glass in his eyes that he can’t blink out) and it bounces sharply off the edges of sterilized scalpel-blades. He smells anesthetics, and sees Tsunade’s fingers catch on fire with the cold glow of her chakra, and it is enough to blind him and drag the second thoughts kicking and screaming from the stubborn recesses of his mind.
He’s not turning back.
- and then it is over in a flash of white light, but he knows it’s really just beginning.
Tsunade’s caution: “Seven days.”
The caution: “Do not leave Konoha. Stay indoors as much as possible, and don’t talk to anyone if you can help it. Until the process is complete, it can be dangerous.”
He has no idea what she means by that, until he gets home and the barrage of visual information hits like a vicious tidal wave. He passes out on his kitchen floor, mouth contorted in the shape of a name.
The autumn sun cascading across his body. He drowns in golden light, a feeling like being so deeply, gloriously drunk you can’t remember your own name.
And then Sasuke is standing above him, and everything is sun-gilded and blurry and Naruto thinks he's in love. He opens his mouth to say it, totally at ease, characteristically unthinking, but Sasuke puts a hand over his lips to stilt the inchoate words.
“You’re distracted,” Sasuke whispers, leaning down beside him, saronged in the white cotton sheet. He is a painting, an abstract, a marble statue coated in light. “Remember, the mission tomorrow. It’s important.”
“I know that,” Naruto insists hotly. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“It does,” says Sasuke.
He has a feeling something might be slipping his mind, leaking through the cracks of his proverbial fingers like water, but he is sleepy and content and sun-drunk and he doesn’t mind. Sasuke’s palm is warm and heavy on his bare chest. “Will Sakura and Kakashi be coming with you?”
“No. Sakura has a broken leg and Kakashi’s on a separate mission in Grass Country. It's Gai’s team and me this time.”
“Byakugan,” Sasuke murmurs.
“Nothing,” Sasuke says, and bends his head to kiss Naruto, his dark eyes full of a strange, eternal sunlight.
It is an afternoon. It is unforgettable.
Naruto wakes because the jagged edge of a broken tile is cutting into his face. He wakes and winces at the morning light and spends whole stretches of time just sitting on the cold floor of his dirty kitchen, his back to the refrigerator. Its electric vibration hums through his skin into his spine steadily, like a dull, muted tremor.
He thinks that he remembers that mission, remembers so well the looks on Lee's and Neji's faces when they died, the ambush and every single horrible detail before, during, and after, the triumph of death, and already he can feel himself disintegrating, caving in upon himself, clutching into his guts a grief of untold magnitude, the unbearable consequence of a sleight of hand.
But he doesn’t remember why.
Surprisingly, Naruto’s most vivid memory about Sasuke doesn’t directly involve Sasuke at all. He is sitting in the hospital bed where he was brought after they had taken him from Kakashi’s arms. He has just woken up and still has a little trouble breathing (and will continue to for years to come) because a hole was put through his left lung just the day before. Sasuke’s broken hitai-ate is clasped in his sweating hands, and what he remembers is hating Sasuke so much the weight of it just about knocks him over, but also, believing in him more than ever.
Now he finally understands the need for a seven-day quarantine.
Tsunade’s work was masterful, but the aftereffects of the procedure wrack his body and render him useless for hours at a time. Sometimes there is nothing but blank empty stretches in which he just doesn’t remember. His mind is a wiped slate and then he walks around in a daze and revels in the glorious peace of forgetfulness, an eternal sunshine.
It never lasts.
He’ll be reading a scroll or taking a shower or dozing in the early hours of the morning, and then something will prickle and the flood will start. It is a flood, an absolute onslaught of memories, not one at a time but all at once, and then he is incapable of doing anything but curl up into a ball in bed and repeat Sasuke’s name to himself over and over and over until his voice is hoarse and his jaws ache around the syllables. “Sa-su-ke.” Breath. “Sa-su-ke.” Breath.
But already he is getting everything mixed up. He can’t remember whether it was Orochimaru who waylaid them in the Forest of Death, or maybe it was Uchiha Itachi and a shark with a mouthful of scaly swords. Did Sasuke save him from Haku, or was it the other way around? Itachi killed his family and turned Sasuke into an avenger, and then he turned into a snake with yellow eyes that turned Naruto to stone, only that doesn’t seem right, does it?
It is in these moments that he can’t help but wonder if this is truly the right thing to do. To wake up in an empty bed, sheets cool around his legs; stretch and pad to the kitchen for a drink to wash Sasuke’s name from his lips and think, please god, let it be for good this time. But it must be done, he reminds himself. It must be done because he has important people to protect, and he can no longer allow a silver tongue to fish from his mind the secrets that will help protect them. It must be done so that from now on, whenever he steps onto the battlefield and sees that face, it will be nothing more than a face to him, a face wearing the branded mark of the enemy.
This morning he wakes up and there’s an eagle scratching its claws against his window. It bears a letter that reads: URGENT. UCHIHA SASUKE CAPTURED. DEATH BY INJECTION TO BE CARRIED OUT ON THE 5TH.
It changes nothing. “The seventh day,” he mumbles to himself, and pulls his blanket over his head to shield himself from the monochrome day, grey with an undefined sorrow, foggy with forgotten memory.
Sasuke never knocks. Sasuke never even uses the door. He just melts into Naruto’s room through the doors and windows that are always shut and fastened, and Naruto never knows when this might happen. A lot of hotel rooms shared between them, but by then, they have gone far past pretending that these visits are anything but wholly expected. Desired, even.
Once, another afternoon, and there’s rain. Sasuke steps into Naruto’s bedroom with the usual absence of noise and he’s dripping, rain running down his face and neck and leaving his dark shirt clinging. Naruto can see the lines of his bones.
He pulls the shirt off Sasuke’s shoulders, puts his face into the wet hollow of his neck and breathes in deep. Sasuke kisses him then, his fingers indenting deep bruises on Naruto’s hips as he coaxes his mouth open, and it’s like the first time they’ve ever touched. Outside it’s dark and wet and stormy, but in this room it’s quiet like a secret world, something hushed about the afternoon rain and the fluttering hope that’s keeping them afloat.
He loves Sasuke then, and every day before that, and every day after until Sasuke betrays him for the second (and last) time.
He’s made it halfway through and decides to reward himself by venturing out for a hot meal. It’s snowing, the world hurtling out of control and into a strange winter landscape, and the sky is crumbling in flakes around him. A cold, heatless winter sun peels itself out of the clouds. The sky is falling, and he feels fine.
He sees Kakashi on an empty street corner, and tries to walk past him inconspicuously. Out of what is probably pity, the older man allows him to walk on a few paces before calling him out on his act. When he speaks, his voice is as tired as his eye that Naruto doesn’t dare meet.
“What good is this doing, Naruto?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he mumbles, melting circles in the thin powdery snow with his foot. He’s keeping his eyes open, one blink at a time, because he’s afraid if he closes them the world will change again and he won’t recognize it anymore.
Maybe it’s better that way.
Kakashi says quietly, “Putting yourself through all this isn’t going to change anything anymore. He’s dying in three days.”
In three days, he doesn’t tell Kakashi, I won’t remember his existence anymore. You don’t stop loving someone because they die, he doesn’t say. You stop loving when you forget, and that’s what I’m going to do. Forget. He doesn’t say that.
Instead, he says, “What’s the point of telling me something I already know? Anyway, there’s no reversing the process. What’s done is done.”
“Not,” Kakashi counters, “if you go to see him now.”
He turns as if to walk away. Something inside Naruto seizes, his pulse coming to a standstill. He narrows his eyes, and asks, “Have you?”
“Fuck you,” Naruto yells, his voice so loud he thinks it should echo, but the sky is too wide. “What the hell would you have me do? I can’t save him anymore, and it’s stupid that it’s taken me this long to realize that. At least this way I’ll have some peace of mind.”
Even the decaying sun seems to shy away from him, disgusted. He wants to run, tripping and scrabbling through the thickening snow, run to the end of the crumbling Earth.
Kakashi speaks then, his voice barely above a whisper, the muffled words carried to Naruto on the wind. “He’s not gone, Naruto.”
Not yet, he thinks, and closes his eyes as pieces of the sky spiral down.
The memories are ripping through him now in brutal torrents, rushing madly through the broken floodgates of his mind as though making up for lost time, and he doesn’t even have the strength to pull himself out of bed.
Grass Country. Valley of End. Forest of Death. Wave Country. Too fast, too fast to hold on to, like a fast-forwarded film running backward, scenes being cut out by arbitrary hands, the frames jumping all over the place. Going, going, and then, gone. For good.
He’s running a high fever, and when the bile comes rising to his throat it’s all he can do to lean over the edge of the bed and vomit, the trip to the bathroom suddenly too long, miles upon miles of crumbling reality. But so it must be, he thinks, because Sasuke is a thousand things, beautiful things, terrible things, mundane things, broken things. He is thousand little moments, all burned into the tips of Naruto’s fingers, inked into his skin, carved into his bones.
It burns to erase a tattoo, and so it must to erase a man. And this is just like that, Naruto thinks, the tattoo-memories of Sasuke being burned out of him, being ripped from his skin, and when it’s done he will be clean. He will be empty. He will have peace.
And in the beginning, there is light.
It is a cool, breezy day in spring the first time he sees Sasuke, spying the dark head from across the sunbright courtyard of the Ninja Academy. It’s his first day of school, and past-Naruto can’t be more than six, seven years old at most.
Past-Sasuke’s face is rounded and softened with puppy fat, the lines and sharp angles of later years lying dormant below the surface of his skin, and his eyes are wide and bright and wondering. It is still two years until the incident that will turn them dull and dark and dreadful.
And as Naruto watches him, ten people-lengths away, their eyes meet for a brief second, and the dark-grey of Sasuke’s irises turn… inquisitive. Considering.
He suddenly has the desire to walk over to Sasuke, cross the distance between them and maybe put out his hand and say “Hi, what’s your name?” and “Will you be my friend?” like one of those dolls that say the same things again and again that he’s seen girls playing with on the playground. It’s strange, that muted feeling, to be happy for the first time in ages. To be hopeful.
But then he sees people – adults – crowding around Sasuke and patting his head and smiling down at him and talking animatedly. Sasuke’s eyes flit away then and Naruto has to lower his head and shove his hands quickly into the pockets of his frayed shorts, because at any moment now those happy looks will turn on to him and grow sour and hateful in a hair-split blink, and he has to scramble to put on the rough, prickly layer he’s fashioned for himself before that happens.
Past-Naruto scowls and grits his teeth, and present-Naruto doesn’t remember if he loved Sasuke then. But he doesn’t even know if this is a real memory, and in a moment it’s already gone and he’ll never find out for sure.
It’s the following day, when Naruto wakes up and feels normal and almost gets through the day, that Sakura barges into his apartment and greets him with a stinging slap.
“It must be done,” he says, choking. They are the only words that will come. He repeats them like a mantra, and he can’t make sense of them, but they are the only words that will fit through the hole his mouth is forming, the hole that used to be the shape of Sasuke’s name.
Sakura glares at him, full of an anger she can’t help, and says, quietly intense, “Why aren’t you doing anything? He’s—they’re going to do it tomorrow. Why won’t you go see him?”
He can feel her raw fury cut into him like a million blades. So he opens his mouth to explain again, to try and make her understand, except that doesn’t happen and this comes out instead, “I don’t remember him anymore.”
Sakura freezes, and looks like she's the one who's been been gutted. He continues. “I don’t remember what his scowl looked like. I don’t remember his voice when he talked to us. I don’t remember if his eyes are grey or black. But I do remember that I loved him. I can’t forget that. I don’t remember anything about him but I can’t forget that I loved him. What am I supposed to do about that?”
She is silent for a moment, and he wants to apologize when her lips begin to tremble. He doesn’t.
“Sometimes,” Sakura begins, slowly, painfully, “events aren’t in themselves important until you attach significance to them. Sometimes you choose your own emotions, and sometimes they come from within.”
The sound of the television in the background is only so much white noise. Strands of Sakura’s hair are matted to her temples, and he has a sudden desire to reach out and brush them away.
“It’s his fault, you know,” she says raggedly. “He left us, and you'd think we’d get over it eventually, but look at us. I’m going out of my mind and you’re--”
“Forgetting,” he puts in tiredly.
Sakura nods, solemnly, and he puts his arms around her and lets her bury her face into his neck when she begins to cry.
She sleeps in his bed that night, hunched crookedly on one side, the jutting sharpness of her bony shoulder digging into his arm, her face still pressed lightly to his body. He can feel her breath stirring his skin. Tears run in tracks down her cheeks in sleep, and they soak through the material of his nightshirt, hot, wet.
He lies there in darkness, sliding his palm up and down her shaking back and shushes gently into her hair when she mumbles and makes helpless noises in slumber. Eventually, when he’s sure she’s sound asleep, he carefully disentangles himself and moves to the open window.
He sits on the ledge, listening to the darkness outside, and smokes until his eyes water from it and pink morning lights begins to creep outward from the apex of the horizon.
The memories are nearly gone now, fading like the last vestiges of a passing dream, but traces of them are still there somewhere, hiding in shadowed corners. He waits for them, for a sign, for anything at all that’ll make the slightest bit of difference. None comes, and he isn’t surprised.
The day is no longer grey with an undefined sorrow, nor foggy with forgotten memory. The day is clear with understanding, sharp with determination, endless with possibility…
He can stay here, on this windowsill, and listen to the sound of his heart beating as the day drifts by.
He can go back to bed and pull Sakura into him and wait until she opens her eyes. They will stay there together, and have breakfast in bed, and talk about nothing at all.
He can go to the Hokage’s office and beg her, on hands and knees, to lift the death sentence.
He can go to the jailhouse and find the one cold, lonely cell where a man lies crushed beneath the weight of his crimes. He will look at his face and relearn the lines and angles, and maybe reach his hand through the bars and say “Hi, what’s your name?” and “Will you be my friend?” like he might have wanted to all those years ago.
But the thought passes out of his mind as soon as it arrives, and very slowly, as slowly as light comes on an overcast day, the eternal sunshine flushes through him, or maybe just the glorious memory of it, and he is absolved. He is free at last, a blank slate, as clean and unmarred as the endlessly repeated flood of morning light.
we’ve left our homes
for the dusty road
though it weighs us down to go
a/n: Written for the 'memories' challenge at sasunaru100. Inspired, rather obviously, by the excellent film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.