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Echoes of Light

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"Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. I obviously know how mine begins, and I have a pretty good idea on how it will end, but for everything in between I'm just gonna wing it. Let's see how much I can change this narrative without sending everything to hell!"

Poets often like to reference sharp contrasts in nature, and few are more favored than the paradoxical relationship of darkness and light.

Countless pieces of writing espouse flowery words to paint pretty images of the stark differences between the two while also emphasizing their strong connection. Not quite two sides of the same coin, but two irrevocable forces which can only be fully appreciated when viewed in tandem with each other. Writers assault readers with references to black and white, night and day, yin and yang—

Ultimately, the various pretty words tend to boil down to the same message:

'For there to be light, there must first be darkness. One cannot exist without the other.'

Seated at a table amid a fantastic caricature of death and destruction locked deep in his mind, Masaru couldn't help but think perhaps they had a point.

Monochrome flames of black and white danced around him in an perpetual battle for domination even as they stretched for a pitch black sky, reaching for a moon split in equally tinted halves of red and blue. Apparitions of rotting corpses littered the field around him, devoid of color and some shining brighter than others, faces frozen in agony. Wisps of screams and cries and laughter hummed in the background, an eerie chorus of whispers that constantly tickled the ear.

Once upon a time Masaru's fingers would be trembling as he lifted his cup, drops of brown liquid spilling over the rim as the tea audibly sloshed around. Ghostly impressions of the taste of bile might tickle his throat, so faint he couldn't be certain it actually existed or not. The fact that his mindscape took the form of a nightmarish battlefield deeply disturbed him, vicious carnage surrounding a simple low table with four cushions on either side.

Now, though, Masaru felt nothing as he stared at the corpses, holding the teacup nonchalantly as if he were watching a storm. A ghostly orb floated past him, flickers of movement drawing his eye to the misty images playing within the silvery haze.


Eyebrows furrowing with determination, Masaru threw the kunai and held his breath, watching anxiously as it arced across the yard. Shink! The blade embedded into the target set up by the fence, hitting the first ring just outside the bulls eye.

"Yes!" he hissed triumphantly, pumping a fist into the air as his face exploded into a smile. Sure, it wasn't a perfect throw, but it marked a vast improvement over when he first began training.

"Masaru-chan? Are you here?" He perked up at the sound of his mother's voice from within the house, and all thoughts of training flew away as he spun around and raced inside. She stood in the kitchen unloading several bags of groceries, her black braid swinging over her shoulder as she turned to smile at him. "There you are. Training again?"

"Mmhmm! I got it in the second ring this time!"

"That's great!" Sauntering over to the counter, she lifted a colorful bag and held it towards him. "I stopped at a clothing shop on my way back and got some new clothes for your sister. Do you want to take it to her?"

"Sure!" He grinned as he took the bag and bounded down the halls, dutifully heading for his sister's room. He stopped before a traditional shoji door with a simple painting of a tall black crane among tall stalks of bamboo, and he rapped on the wooden frame as he called, "Hey Akari, can I come in?"

"Yeah, of course!" came a cheerful reply, and he smiled as he slid open the door. As usual his sister Akari sprawled in the center of the room with the TV on in the corner, lazily flipping through a picture book. Cool air blasted from fans aimed at the center of the room, and Akari had her dark brown hair tucked into a small bun at the nape of her neck. Rolling over to look at him, her eyes instantly darted to the bag and she sat up. "Masaru, what's that?"

"Mom got you some new clothes," he said, and grinned as she promptly snatched it and began rooting through it. Lifting them out one by one, her dark eyes sparkled excitedly as she surveyed a black t-shirt with mesh netting around the collar.

"This looks so cool!" she squealed. "Just like a ninja would wear!" Turning it over, she then paused and frowned, her face furrowing in confusion. "Huh? The back's blank."

"That's because I still need to take it to the tailor," their mother said from the doorway, watching them with an amused twinkle in her eye. "There's not much point in having the clan crest sewn on if it doesn't fit, is there?"

"Huh, I guess not," Masaru mused, tugging at the high collar of his own shirt with a thoughtful look. Next to him Akari huffed, a dark gleam entering her eyes.

"Then if it fits, you'll take it to the tailor right away, right?" Even as she spoke she began wiggling out of her shirt, quickly tossing it aside to pull on the new one. It hung slightly loose on her tiny frame, just a little too large, but she beamed nonetheless. "Look, doesn't it look cool? I look like a real ninja!"

"You do," their mother agreed with a smile.


Masaru's gaze darkened as he watched the memory play and he quickly averted his gaze to his teacup, his fingers curling around its side. Golden dragonflies danced along the surface of the porcelain, ornate wings fluttering and buzzing against a backdrop of black as they attempted to escape their painted confines.

"You seem troubled," a voice commented across from him and he frowned, not daring to raise his gaze.

"I am troubled," he admitted quietly, and lifted the cup to his mouth. Steam wafted from the brew as he sipped in silence, phantom tastes of flowery liquid imprinting upon Masaru's tongue. Drinking tea in his dreams had always felt odd. He knew it to be imaginary, the flavor lifted from memories. A single thought could change the taste, and even now he saw the color of the tea shift slightly to gain a more orange tint.

"Chamomile," his guest identified, and Masaru's eyes sharply rose to watch the person across from him closely. They had no particular emotion visible on their face, save for a slightly thoughtful curve to their mouth. "It helps calm nerves, does it not?"

"It does," Masaru confirmed quietly, keeping his expression aloof as he sipped from the liquid. "I discovered it a while back, but I don't drink it much for... reasons. I know it's not real, but... well, if I can imagine the taste, then maybe the placebo effect will extend to my brain, too. Ah," he paused, "Would you like any particular flavor? I can only influence it to resemble ones I know, but if you have any particular cravings...?"

The person across from him made a rumbling noise deep in his throat which could be either confirmation or amusement as he studied their teacup. A mural of a dark blue sky covered its surface, rabbits circling the grassy fields on the bottom and leaping towards a golden crescent moon.

"You are a good host, child," he declared, "But I hardly crave anything. I doubt I can even tell the difference between sweet and sour anymore."

"Is that so," Masaru murmured, and glanced downwards as another ghostly orb floated past playing another memory.


Cicadas screeched loudly outside the window as Masaru laid on his futon, eyes squeezed shut with his pillow stuffed over his head in a vain attempt to block the noise. Beside him Akari slept sprawled atop her blankets in nothing but a tank top and shorts, perfectly undisturbed. Sometimes he envied how deeply his twin could sleep, nothing short of the end of the world seemed able to stir her. Conversely, Masaru felt like he could be woken by the smallest of things: a change in breathing, a shift in temperature, creaks from the house settling... or an army of cicadas.

Resigning himself to a lack of sleep anytime soon, Masaru groaned and quietly rose, rubbing his eyes as he quietly plodded to the door. Feeling mildly thirsty, he made his way to the bathroom to get a glass of water, his bare feet making little sound as they padded softly against the floorboards. Muffled voices made him pause, recognizing the calm dulcet tones of his mother laced with a sharp edge that sent chills down his spine.

Gulping, he slowly turned around and headed back to his room. As he slid back into the door he found Akari sitting up, blinking at him groggily with a large yawn. "What are you doing?" she murmured sleepily, rubbing one of her eyes.

"Mom has someone over," he reported, and she frowned.

"Clan members?" she murmured, more to herself than him. "They won't fight again, will they?"

"I don't know." He didn't mention the edge to his mother's voice even though he couldn't make out any words. Padding to his futon, he flopped onto his back and let his limbs splay freely, staring at the ceiling blankly. Several minutes passed without another word, the silence punctuated only by the shrill cries of the cicadas. "...The cicadas are really loud."

Akari gave a small grunt of agreement, and her lips quirked into a smile. "Wanna play shiritori?"

They ended up playing well into the night, their whispers drowning out the cries of cicadas and the muffled shouting coming from the kitchen.


His guest set his cup down, the clatter of porcelain against wood echoing through the void and briefly silencing the whispers. "While this small talk is admittedly pleasant, I do believe we should get to the point," he declared. "After all, our time is limited."

Masaru shrank slightly, his gaze casting downward once more. "I suppose so." His guest frowned slightly as the boy pointedly avoided looking at him, but he chose to ignore his discomfort.

"I have been observing this world for some time now," the man continued. "Even though my body lost its physical form, my consciousness persisted after death and I have watched the dawn of the shinobi world quite closely. I believe you are likely acquainted with the story of my sons?"

"Asura and Indra," Masaru murmured softly. The silvery inferno quieted around them and dwindled as he lowered his teacup, staring at his murky reflection inside the now green-tinted liquid. "Mom told us about them sometimes. About how you chose Asura over Indra, and Indra got upset... I didn't understand it back then, but..." He trailed off, and the man smiled faintly, his face growing noticeably softer.

"Indra had great natural power, but he lost his compassion and believed peace could only be achieved through force. Asura on the other hand achieved his own strength through hard work, and he never lost sight of the power of empathy. I hoped that he would help Indra regain his compassion, and then they would work together. But instead..."

"Their descendants carried it on for them," Masaru finished for him, raising his eyes to offer a feeble smile. "The Senju inherited the Will of Fire from Asura and Indra's descendants, the Uchiha got... the curse. The Curse of Hatred, I think? I think that's what my mom was hinting at, anyway," he added sheepishly. "She... didn't really make it too clear or obvious. I kinda figured it out after looking at her paintings and notes, I'm still trying to figure out if I'm interpreting some of it right. Like, that one painting of a rabbit with ten tails? Is that what the Ten Tailed Beast actually looks like?"

The man chose to neither confirm nor deny his statement, instead giving a noncommittal hum. Weathered lips quirked upwards into a small smirk, his leathery skin crinkling around his eyes as amusement flickered across his features. "It impresses me how well informed your mother was about that time. Not many people know my son's names anymore, and most of their descendants didn't even know the origin of their rivalry. What do you think of it?"

Masaru smiled sheepishly, eyes darting to the side as his thumb rubbed circles over his own porcelain cup. "I... really didn't understand it. I was really young when mom told us about it. She said the Uchiha got the Curse of Hatred, but it was more complicated—"

"Stop," the man interrupted, and Masaru gave a small start, his mouth obediently clamping shut as he looked at his guest. Ringed eyes bore into him, their intent unreadable and sending shivers down his spine. "I do not care what your mother may have said," he stated bluntly. "I am asking what you think of it." Masaru felt his polite smile fade, and his bangs fell into his eyes as he lowered his gaze once more.


"Sorry I'm the only one who came. Akari fell from a tree and hurt her leg and mom had to take her to the hospital."

Masaru apologized to the grave with a small shrug, wiping down the stone reverently just as his mother had shown him. He'd never actually met his uncle, but he'd grown up hearing stories of him from their mother and visiting his grave. He'd died in the war, she told them, not even getting a chance to reach adulthood. It struck the twins as quite sad, so they made a point to visit the grave at least once a week and tell him about their day.

"She said she saw a cat up there," he explained, expanding on his previous sentence. "She thought it was stuck and she wanted to save it, but while she was climbing one of the branches broke and she fell." Silence followed, and then he paused before adding, "Two feet. Yeah, it was a really low branch. She was totally fine, just a bit dirty."

Smirking, he set down the cloth and continued in a vaguely taunting tone. "So I bet you're wondering, 'huh, why's she at the hospital', right? Right? Well, see, when she fell..." He paused, waiting a moment for a dramatic silence to build, and then once he felt the tension had reached optimal capacity, "The cat jumped down on her and bit her. And so mom had to run her to the doctor because cat bites can actually be really dangerous!"

Masaru grinned as he finished, proud of his storytelling ability. All good stories had a twist, and he thought he did a good job at surprising his audience with the actual reason for their hospital visit. Even if his audience was an empty grave.

With the story finished, he wrung the cloth in the bucket and resumed wiping the grave, musing aloud to himself as he did so. "You know, I didn't think that cat bites could be bad, but mom says that they can be really bad. Like, you might need to get your arm cut off, or you might die."

The last part gave him pause, a thoughtful gleam entering his eyes. "...You know, maybe I should use cats when I become a ninja? I bet if they bite my enemies enough they'll die really fast! I won't even need kunai!"

Distantly, Masaru thought he heard a quiet chuckle nearby. He decided it was his imagination, and not because he was definitely alone but instead because no one would ever laugh at such an awesome idea.


"It's all... complicated," he began quietly. "The way it's told, you'd think it meant the Uchiha are bad and the Senju are good. The Uchiha were selfish and prideful, and they churned out a lot of bad people. The Senju had three separate people become Hokage though, and the first two Hokage died to protect Konoha. But... It's not that simple."

As he spoke the dwindling flames surrounding the table regained their energy, the widespread blazes surging across the battlefield to converge in a single point next to them. Black and white twisted together to form a spiraling column of silver, the dual-colored moon hidden behind it as it sprouted high into the black void. Flickering arms of light extended from the pillar as it continued to twist and morph into a mockery of a tree, monochrome embers sprouting from the branches in an imitation of foliage.

"The world isn't black and white," Masaru stated firmly, his grip tightening on the teacup even as the blazing foliage grew thicker and blotted the sky. "It's gray. Your heritage doesn't automatically define you as good or bad. There were plenty of good people in the Uchiha, just like there were bad people in the Senju. Just because one came from Indra and one came from Asura doesn't mean they'll automatically be just like them."

Bulging spheres began protruding from the branches as he spoke, the ghostly white embers parting and curling away like a flower in bloom to reveal human figures nestled in the blossom. The corpses littering the battleground flickered from existence one by one as their faces reappeared within the petals, black eyes opening to gaze at the world.

One of the branches snaked out and trailed towards the tea table, the blaze blossom parting to reveal the silvery silhouette of a girl. Hair rippled and crackled behind her as she stepped forward to circle Masaru, black sparks curling into the crescent outline of a smile framing brilliant white flames for teeth. Silver light reflected on Masaru's face as the apparition hovered behind his shoulder, arms wrapping around him in a loose caress.

"We are all your descendants," he declared, his eyes flickering and shining in the glow. "We are two branches of the same legacy, no matter how far apart we've grown. We all have the ability for the Will of Fire, and we all have the ability to bear the Curse of Hatred. In the end the paths we choose is up to us as individuals, not our heritages."


"And now make the most angry faces you can!"

Masaru and Akari stared at their mother in silence, their irritation showing in their stubbornly blank expressions. Clicking her tongue, she snapped a photo anyway and lowered her camera as she mused, "Well, you got the glare down."

"Mom, we're gonna be late," Akari deadpanned.

"Okay, okay, I get it. Sorry if I wanted to memorialize this special day so we can always remember it." The twins rolled their eyes and headed out the door with their bags, their mother trailing behind cheerfully. While they made a show of their exasperation, internally both were leaping in the air and squealing with joy. The academy! At long last they were going to the academy and were going to be ninja!


A familiar voice drew them from their thoughts, and they spun to see a stern-looking man from their clan approaching. A young boy their age trailed closely behind him, peering at the twins curiously as the man addressed their mother. "It is good to see you. Are your children already of age for enrollment?" The question could be either an insult or just thoughtful musing; his bland tone made it hard to tell for sure.

"Of course," their mother replied primly, placing a hand on each of their shoulders as she spoke. "They turned six a few weeks ago. I expected you would have realized this," she added, her lips curling into a thin smile, "seeing as you're the clan head and should be keeping track of when someone is old enough to enroll." The man merely grunted, not bothering to make excuses for his surprise.

"Then perhaps they shall be in my son's class," he said, and turned sharp eyes on them. Masaru stiffened under his stern gaze, feeling as if the man was staring right into his soul. Akari, however, blithely ignored him and bounced over to the little boy, dipping in a polite bow.

"Hello, I'm Akari, and that's my brother Masaru," she greeted, gesturing to her twin as she spoke. "What's your name?" The boy shifted slightly, hesitating to answer, but his father tapped his shoulder and he quickly offered her a small, shy smile.

"My name is Uchiha Sasuke. I-it's a pleasure to meet you!" His father grunted in approval, apparently satisfied by the greeting.

"I trust you two shall place a large amount of effort into your studies," he stated, prompting the twins to look at him curiously. "Your mother was one of our best kunoichi, so I expect you to follow her example and become a valuable claim to our name." Something about his tone prompted them to straighten up, their eyes flaring with determination as they looked back at him.

"Yes, sir!" they chorused in unison.

If Uchiha Ryoko's polite smile grew a bit more strained, no one noticed.


Across from him the Sage of Six Paths smiled, satisfaction flickering in his eyes.

"Well said, Uchiha Masaru. Well said."

"Love can be so twisted sometimes, but it can also be amazing. No wonder people write so many stories about it, the power it holds is so incredible."


Chapter Text

Chapter 1

"Birth is like a lottery. Sometimes you win and you get millionaire parents who really sincerely care about you. Oh who am I kidding? That's pretty much a myth, no family is absolutely perfect! Either way, if life gives you kumquats, find a way to forcibly transform them into lemons so you can make some sweet lemonade."


Sometimes, Masaru wondered about his clan.

Though he and Akari proudly displayed the red and white fan on their backs, their small family had never been particularly close to the rest of their clansmen. Their home rested on the edge of the Uchiha compound, the nearest two houses empty after the elderly man that lived in one died and the woman who occupied the other married and moved in with her new husband. Their mother rarely took them to clan events, and their extended relatives rarely visited their house.

That didn't mean they were ignorant of their heritage though.

As one of the founding clans of the village, the Uchiha clan had a powerful reputation attached to its name. The name alone seemed to demand respect and awe, even their enemies supposedly offering their skills grudging respect. Some people might even call them the shinobi equivalent of royalty, everyone vying to get into the clan so their offspring might inherit the incredibly powerful Sharingan.

On top of that, many Uchiha seemed to just be unnaturally beautiful and/or handsome.

Not all of them, mind you. Uchiha Tekka certainly didn't look handsome with his square jaw and heavy creases around the corners of his mouth. Uchiha Inabi might be considered pretty by conventional standards but he had a somewhat sleazy air to him which negated it, and Uchiha Yashiro squinted way too much and always looked like he was scowling.

Hmm. Maybe if they smiled more Uchiha would be considered pretty, but as it stood most of the clan seemed to have surgically altered their face to forever sever the muscles required to turn their frowns upside-down.

That said, Uchiha Masaru looked rather average compared to some of his relatives. He had unruly brown hair his mother liked to call "Indra's hair," two thick locks wrestled into cloth wrappings to keep them out of his face while they left the rest of his hair to its own devices. His face meanwhile was relatively plain and unnoticeable, at least as far as he was concerned. He grew up exposed to natural Uchiha looks, so he'd grown a bit desensitized to it. Non-Uchiha might think differently.

Alas, he never really had a chance to find out though, as fate saw fit to dump him in the same class as Sasuke.

Masaru and Akari never really spoke to their distant cousin at school, partially because they were focused on their schoolwork, but also because Sasuke spent most lunches hiding from fan girls. Their determination and persistence scared Masaru, motivating him to skulk in the background and go as unnoticed as possible. On the other hand, it thoroughly annoyed Akari since some of the girls lagged in their own studies because of their obsession.

Uchiha Akari had always wanted to be a ninja. She had grown up hearing how awesome her mother was. She never heard any actual stories because Ryoko would interrupt her relatives before they could share them, much to her annoyance, but the awe and respect her mother demanded spoke for itself. Even Uchiha Fugaku, the head of the Uchiha clan, had commented on her skills, so that had to mean something!

So to see their classmates acting so immature irritated her immensely.

"Why do they even want a boyfriend so bad!" she grumbled to her mother once. "Boys are so icky!"

"You say that now," Ryoko demurred, "But when you're older—"

"No! I won't like boys when I'm older! They're gross and smell bad! Girls are way better!" Their mother blinked once at the claim, staring at her blankly, and then smiled and said okay.

Still, her mother provided no helpful input on her current problem, so Akari was stuck watching her fawning classmates day after day. Masaru could see her resentment grow each passing day, her black eyes smoldering. Sometimes, he thought he saw a flicker of red in them, and he fleetingly wondered if she might activate the Sharingan in her annoyance over the situation. When he suggested that to his mother, she laughed.

"The sharingan is triggered by strong emotions, particularly negative ones," she mused with a mirthful twinkle in her eye. "If she activated it over annoyance at someone else's fangirls, that would be hilarious and revolutionary. I'd take fangirls any day over near-death experiences."

"Near-death experiences?" Masaru squeaked, eyes widening, and Ryoko stiffened.

"...Don't you have a worksheet to do?"

Yes he did a worksheet to do, and she never did answer his questions later, but back to the point. By the end of the second month Akari had deemed her fellow future kunoichi to be woefully incompetent, and she resolved to fix that. Initial attempts to convince the girls to try hard didn't work out well. Some of the bullies openly scorned her diplomatic attempts and called her a goody two-shoes, while others just ignored her.

Then a few fangirls accused her of being after Sasuke-kun's heart, and her social life turned to hell.

"I am going to murder them," she declared to Masaru flatly. He replied with a traditional Uchiha 'hn' response, more interested in his bento than his sister's ranting. Ooh, mom packed salmon onigiri today. Nice. Nibbling on it like a hamster, he hummed and nodded at the appropriate points as his sister ranted on about her classmates' latest misdeeds, stabbing at her own food angrily.

Funnily enough, before joining the ninja academy he'd never even seen her get angry. It was strangely relieving to know she was capable of it, her relentless cheeriness and puppy dog pouts wouldn't help much on the battlefield. It got annoying to hear it day after day though, and he was starting to worry it might become a permanent part of her personality.

Feeling a bit fed up, he cut her off by jabbing her forehead with his chopsticks, bits of rice sticking to it. "Stop thinking so straight," he chided, offering her a bland glare. "If your current strategy isn't working, then try something else." Staring at him wide-eyed, she firmly clamped her jaw shut and turned away with a huff. Masaru just shrugged and returned his full attention to his bento, missing the calculating gleam that soon entered his sister's eyes.


Walking home after classes was usually a quiet affair. Sasuke tended to stay late to practice in the training grounds at the academy, but the twins would go straight home to practice under their mother's watchful gaze. However, that day, Akari broke the pattern. After class she instead skipped to the training grounds, sneaking up on Sasuke and watching him curiously. Masaru trailed her and hung in the back, watching her with a bemused expression.

"Sasuke-kun," she called, her voice dripping sweetness. He flinched and turned to look at her, a slight grimace on his face.

"What?" he asked shortly, clearly anticipating some fangirlish screeching. Fluttering to his side, she giggled as she looked at him, rocking on her feet with her hands folded behind her back. Several sets of eyes instantly burned in her direction, futilely attempting to set her aflame.

"You're really good at throwing," she giggled, batting her eyelashes at him.

"Yeah, I guess," he muttered, looking away. Smile growing, she then glided closer and pressed a finger under his chin, prompting him to snap his gaze back to her with his eyes wide with shock. She prettily tilted her head at him, leaning in a bit closer as the tension emanating from their observers grew more palpable.

"But I'm better," she declared sweetly, and then pulled away and spun around, flinging the kunai she'd kept hidden behind her back. It soared through the air and hit the target right on the bulls eye, earning small sounds of surprise and awe from her classmates. Skipping back from a surprised Sasuke, she offered him a more mischievous grin, all traces of the lovestruck facade she'd presented wiped away to be replaced by a more feral expression.

"You know, if you have the Uchiha name, you need to be more than just a pretty face," she declared, her voice taunting and challenging anyone to disagree. "We Uchiha are warriors, the best of the best. Even the civilian Uchiha women are badass, don't you think?"

"Uh, y-yeah," he agreed, slowly nodding his head. "They are..."

"I am so glad you agree. Have fun training!" With that, Akari spun around and walked away, leaving a rather shell-shocked Sasuke in her wake as he tried to process what just happened. He glanced at an equally surprised Masaru, and the brown-haired Uchiha boy offered a small shrug and smile before chasing after his sister. Akari waited for him near the front gates, a smug smirk on her face.

"Did you just flirt with Uchiha Sasuke in front of his fan girls?" Masaru asked, and she snorted.

"Please, boys are icky. I just needed him to confirm that Uchiha women are all badass and know how to fight." He paused, shooting her a bemused glance.


"You'll see," she sang, skipping off towards home.

And the next day, Masaru did see. Word of the brief exchange quickly spread among the various classes, and as he walked through the halls he caught wisps of conversations among his female peers about "strength" and "accuracy" and "ideal wife". That day he noticed his female classmates seemed a bit more focused on the lecture than usual, and during the practical parts of the class they placed more effort.

By the end of the week, he finally figured out what she did.

"Akari is an evil genius."

Masaru sat in front of his uncle's grave with his arms crossed, a fresh bouquet of flowers resting atop the stone. Normally he'd visit on Saturdays and wipe down the stone, but after realizing the extent of her evil genius he had felt compelled to visit the grave and share his newest observation a day early. Besides, he'd already cleaned the grave on Monday, that visit prompted by the weird confrontation-flirty-thing between her and Sasuke.

"Remember how I told you about that weird kinda-flirty thing with Sasuke after school?" he asked. "Well, it turns out she was making a big scene to get him to say that Uchiha women are all strong in front of his fan girls. And I guess I forgot that if they marry him they'd become Uchiha women too, since girls take on the guy's last name. Unless the girl is an Uchiha women, and then the guy takes on the Uchiha name? Why is that? It's kind of weird. Maybe I'll ask mom."

Pausing, he shrugged and continued, "Sorry, I went random. Anyway, basically, Akari made the girls think they have to be really good kunoichi if they want to marry Sasuke, so now they're putting in a ton of effort. And none of them figured it out, not even Sasuke. So, yeah. She's officially an evil genius. Really glad she's on my side." He got up and dusted his pants, shrugging at the gravestone. "I should get back now, I have homework to do. I just wanted to fill you in. I'll see you later!"

He bowed to the grave and headed home.


One unpredictable factor in their class was the presence of Uzumaki Naruto. Ostracized by everyone for reasons largely unknown beyond "adults don't like him" and known for being a slacker, Naruto often resorted to pranking to garner attention, quickly becoming the scourge of the academy teachers. Classmates alternated between laughing at his practical jokes and following their parents' examples of silently scorning him, his standing in the classroom seeming to fluctuate from day to day. Outside the classroom he was almost always alone though, even the teachers seeming to avoid him.

While most seemed to view him with negative outlooks, not many kids went out of their way to mess with him directly. Naruto had a vengeful streak a mile wide, and combined with his penchant for pranks he proved a nasty enemy to make. The few kids who'd tried to bully him directly came to class with technicolor hair and skin colors after falling victim to paint bombs, or found their bag's contents liberally bathed in glitter. An unspoken rule existed among his peers to never get on his bad side.

Unfortunately, Masaru ended up on the sour end of it towards the end of their first year after accidentally knocking over Naruto in class. The blonde had been holding a bucket of paint for his latest prank and it promptly splattered over his front, earning jeering laughs from the rest of the class. In retrospect, Masaru probably should have apologized, but the thing is, he really wasn't good at talking to people. There was a reason he spent so much time at his uncle's gravesite, he had absolutely no idea how to interact with anyone who wasn't his mom or sister.

So yeah. Masaru just did the stupid thing and raced back to his back without a word. Looking back, he could see how that might make it look more like it was done on purpose rather than the honest accident it was.

So when he went to the classroom to get his lunch the next day and found Naruto bending over his open bento with a bottle of some undeniably yucky-looking gunk, he didn't really feel that surprised. Glancing at the bottle, the bento, and then the faded paint stain still faintly visible on his shirt, Masaru raised his gaze to stare the frozen blond straight in the eye and declared flatly, "Yeah, I really can't blame you." Then he promptly stalked over and snatched his bento away, and proceeded to take a large chomp out of the tainted onigiri.

Which was how he found himself walking home early. According to the nurse the stuff Naruto sprinkled on the rice wouldn't start to kick in until later, but he'd probably want to be home with unhindered access to a toilet when it did. Reaching his house, he paused outside to brace himself for his mother's reaction before opening the door. He expected a lot of things: angry yelling, confused questioning about why he was home early, maybe some concern or accusations about him ditching class.

What he didn't expect was to see his mother abruptly flash into the hallway before him, eyes blazing crimson as she brandished a kunai.

Masaru's breath caught in his throat at the sight, his eyes locked onto her Sharingan, his body locking up in shock. Despite being an Uchiha he'd only seen the clan's famed kekkei genkai a handful of times, and he'd certainly never seen it on his mother. Three tomoe orbited her pupils against a backdrop of red, the angry hue adding to the ferocious scowl on her face as she glared at him. As her eyes flicked over him her expression quickly softened though, the red bleeding away until her eyes regained their normal black hue.

"Masaru?" she choked, lowering the kunai. Frowning, she quickly closed the gap between them and knelt in front of him, placing her hands on his shoulders. "Masaru, what are you doing home? Did something happen? Where's Akari?"

"I-I..." He trailed off, still too shocked to respond. The overwhelming concern and panic on her face threw him off, and it only grew worse as his silence continued.

"Masaru, it's okay," she said, trying to sound reassuring. "You don't need to be scared, you can tell me anything. I'm your mother, it's my job to protect you and your sister, right?" Masaru couldn't find his voice so he settled for nodding, and she offered a feeble smile. "Good. Now, can you please tell me what's wrong?" He fidgeted slightly, feeling more and more uncomfortable by the second.

"Naruto put a lax'tib in my lunch so the nurse sent me home early!" he blurted. Silence fell, his mother's face smoothing into a stony mask as she processed his words. Masaru felt his own face heat up, wondering if maybe she'd explode after all.

Then he heard distinct laughter from behind her and jumped with a yelp.

Startled, he swiftly darted back and peered around the edge of the doorway, his gaze wary and loaded with suspicion. A teenage boy with curly black hair stood hunched over in the back of the hall, his whole body shaking with loud, raucous laughter. "Laxatives?" he wheezed. "Oh, man, that's a good one!" Masaru just stared at the stranger in silence, shooting his mother a hesitant look. Ryoko no longer had that scary look on her face, instead replacing it with a small smile that seemed to quiver.

It did not ease his nerves when she also broke into hysterical laughter.

"Mom?" he stammered, feeling increasingly alarmed and confused. Maybe he should be offended that she appeared to be laughing at his expense, but he was way too frightened by her insane cackling to care about that. As her laughs tapered away Ryoko shook her head and smiled at him, her eyes soft and fond. Then something flickered in her face, and she launched forward to pull him into a tight embrace, making him stiffen in shock.

"Masaru," she murmured, rubbing his back gently as she squeezed him. "Oh, Masaru, I love you so, so much..." Masaru just stood there in silence, too overwhelmed by the violent and extreme shifts in her mood over the past three minutes to react anymore. Vaguely he noted the stranger had stopped laughing, and when he glanced over he saw the teen watching them with a faint frown.

Later, as Masaru holed up in the bathroom in utter misery, he still didn't know if he should mention the incident to Akari.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2

"Paranoia is a totally natural and healthy instinct for a ninja. Never take candy from a stranger, or you might end up on the ground with a hole melted into your throat. Also don't show off and monologue about your awesome moves, no matter how fun it might feel to gloat in your opponent's face. That's like an evil villain monologuing about their evil plan to the hero before killing them, it just gives them time to find the flaw and foil it AND escape the death trap."

One day shortly after their second year at the academy began, Sasuke invited Masaru and Akari over to his house after class. "Why the sudden invite?" Akari asked, taking point like usual. Sasuke huffed lightly and looked away, cheeks puffing out in a childish show of reluctance.

"Father wants me to work on my taijutsu by sparring more," he explained. "I don't really know anyone at school well enough to invite them over, and you guys are the only other Uchiha my age."

Sasuke's reasoning made sense. All three of the Uchiha children had distanced themselves from their classmates, though each for their own reasons. Sasuke focused more on training than making friends, Akari had a mutual grudge with most of the girls in their class due to her low opinion of their priorities, and Masaru... still could not interact well with people. Since they usually walked to school together, he felt marginally more comfortable around Sasuke than others, though still not enough to actually talk to him.

However, the prospect of going to Sasuke's house and meeting his family petrified him.

Uchiha Fugaku terrified him. Their brief interaction on the first day of school still gave him actual nightmares, visions of his cold stony gaze waking him on more than one occasion. Beyond that, everyone knew Sasuke's older brother Itachi was a prodigy. While Masaru had actually never met the Uchiha heir due to their family's isolated location, the stories he heard left him with images of a terrifying giant of a youth with spiky hair, bulging muscles and constantly active Sharingan. As for his mother...

"Okay, sounds like a plan," Akari said before Masaru could begin to speculate on Mikoto, thoroughly disproving all theories about twin telepathy in the process. Seeing the panicked look he shot her, she shrugged and said, "Come on Masa, you know you need a better partner!"

"I guess," he sighed, accepting his fate.

And thus the Uchiha twins found themselves visiting the main household for the first time.

"Mom, I'm home!" Sasuke called as they entered the house. "I brought Akari-san and Masaru-san, too!" As if summoned by magic words Uchiha Mikoto appeared in the hallway before them, offering the three children a pleasant smile. A single glance made it clear that Sasuke took strongly after her in looks, his basic facial structure overwhelmingly similar to hers and his hair clearly inheriting its blue-tinted onyx shade from her, though his was slightly darker.

"Hello Akari-chan, Masaru-kun," she greeted warmly. "It's a pleasure to see you again."

"Again?" Akari asked, brow furrowing as she and Masaru tried to recall their previous meeting, and Mikoto laughed softly.

"Oh, don't try to remember. Last time I saw you, you weren't even two. Ryoko-chan talks about you quite often." They perked up at the choice of honorific and the word "often". Evidently their mother must be relatively close to the Uchiha head's wife, though that only raised the question of why they had never met her. Waving them in, she said, "Come inside, I was just making a snack for Sasuke. I can get something for you too, if you want."

"I'm not sharing my tomatoes," Sasuke warned, shooting them a glare, but Akari dismissed him easily.

"I can settle for an apple or orange or something," she said, and Mikoto nodded.

"Alright. Lucky for you, I have a fresh bushel of apples, just delivered to the market today. And what about you, Masaru?" Her gaze then moved to Masaru, making him unintentionally flinch. Biting his lip, he hesitated before speaking.

"Um... Do you have any peaches?" he ventured, and she rewarded him with a kind smile as she nodded.

"We do. Come into the kitchen and I'll get it all out for you." Masaru breathed a quiet sigh of relief as her attention shifted away from him, trailing behind his sister and Sasuke into the kitchen. As they scooted into the chairs around the table Sasuke shot him a thoughtful glance.

"You're really timid, aren't you?" he asked, a hint of disdain in his voice. The brown-haired Uchiha boy blinked before abruptly straightened in his seat, all hesitance vanishing from his face as he stared levelly at Sasuke.

"I'm not timid," he replied flatly. "I'm shy. There's a difference." The bluntness of his words obviously caught Sasuke off-guard, the darker-haired boy blinking in surprise before frowning.

"There is? They seem like the same thing to me." Even as he spoke Masaru shook his head though.

"Being shy means you just can't talk to strangers well," Akari piped up. "But being timid would apply to everything you do. Masaru is not timid." Timidity would be a fatal flaw for a ninja, making them hesitate at crucial moments or overwhelm them with self-doubt. Masaru didn't have that. He might not be a people person, but he knew how to handle himself in a fight.

Beside them Mikoto made a thoughtful sound as she washed off three pieces of fruit, wiping them off with a towel before serving them to each child. "Akari-chan's right. While normally being shy is part of being timid, that doesn't necessarily mean a shy person has low confidence." Handing Masaru his peach, she smiled as she added, "There are plenty of ninja who are excellent on the battlefield, but don't know how to have a normal conversation about the weather. I think as long as Masaru-kun can fight, he'll be fine."

"Oh, he can fight," Akari muttered, a mischievous gleam in her eyes as she chuckled. "He can fight." Her words had an ominous ring that made Sasuke frown, shooting Masaru a skeptical glance, but Masaru just shrugged and chomped into his peach, pointedly looking away from him.

When they moved to the backyard to begin training, Akari's meaning quickly became apparent. Sliding into the beginning stance, an utter calm washed over Masaru as his features smoothed into a blank mask, his posture loose and relaxed yet ready to pounce. While Akari had a natural aptitude for handling weapons, Masaru found his knack in sparring matches. Taijutsu and fighting in general came to him naturally, slipping into a strange trance-like state where his mind blanked out everything else.

Lunging at Sasuke, he had little trouble scoring the first win. His abrupt change in demeanor caught the other boy off-guard and allowed him to easily sweep his legs out from under him, Sasuke falling onto his back with a startled yelp. Now aware of Masaru's prowess, Sasuke approached the second match more seriously than the last, his gaze wary as he watched Masaru. When Masaru made the first move, this time he responded, blocking the punch. Punch, block, block, kick. Spin, jump, block, kick. The boys fell into a steady rhythm, endlessly exchanging blow after blow, until finally Masaru spun in a roundhouse kick before sharply jabbing his elbow into Sasuke's rib. The blow sent the dark-haired boy skidding back with a startled cry, gasping for breath as he clutched his stomach.

"H-how?" he sputtered when he got his breath back.

"Most kids at school are still doing punches and kicks," Masaru replied with a shrug, the words coming more easily than usual in his battle-induced calmness. "But your whole body's a weapon. You gotta remember that." Sasuke now stared at him with slight awe, while Akari just snorted in amusement.

"That is correct. In battle, it is important to be aware of every move you can make." A new voice spoke up behind them, making Masaru whirl around in a defensive stance and Akari straighten up. Sasuke, however, instantly lit up, his face bursting into a giant grin he never showed at school.

"Nii-san! You're home!" He launched past the twins to throw himself at the boy standing in the back door of the house, wrapping his arms around his waist. The older boy smiled fondly at the embrace, bending slightly to return it briefly before gently prying him off.

"I just returned a few minutes ago. Mother said you had some friends over." His eyes glided towards the twins as he spoke, making them stiffen. Remembering their presence, Sasuke quickly tore himself away from his brother, presumably to spare his pride.

"Uchiha Akari," Akari introduced, dropping her torso in a deep bow. "It is an honor to meet you, Itachi-sama." Blinking at her in shock, Masaru turned back and quickly mimicked the gesture, dropping into a bow.

"U-Uchiha Masaru." Not sure what else to say but figuring he should say something, he stammered a lame, "Hello, Itachi-san—sama!" He harshly corrected himself, his face turning red as he dipped his head further in shame. "S-sorry!"

"It's fine," Itachi chuckled, clearly amused. "I actually dislike having such formal honorifics attached to my name, so calling me Itachi-san is fine." Nodding, the twins straightened up to face him more fully, and Masaru found his earlier preconceptions of the clan's heir completely destroyed. Rather than a muscle-bound giant, Uchiha Itachi was actually a rather small boy, not even in his teens yet. His face even held a faint feminine quality which was only heightened by his smooth, smoky-black hair, which he pulled into a small ponytail at the nape of his neck.

Okay, this might explain why so many people rabidly claimed the Uchiha to be ridiculously beautiful.

"Your fighting style is quite impressive for your age," he commented to Masaru. "It's a bit rough around the edges though. Some of your attacks had too much motion involved. For example, you tended to throw your entire body into your punches."

"But... isn't that a good thing?" Masaru frowned, puzzled by the comment. "I mean, then it gets stronger, right?"

"Yes, to an extent," Itachi agreed easily. "But, what if your opponent doesn't try to block it?"

"...Huh?" Rather than respond right away Itachi stepped onto the grass, assuming the spot Sasuke had formerly occupied. The trio of Uchiha children watched him with rapt attention, Sasuke joining Akari on the sidelines.

"Try punching me, right now." Still confused but now a bit curious, Masaru complied without any further prodding. He didn't see a need to hesitate or question the order, especially since Itachi's reputation suggested he could more than take care of himself. Sure enough, before his fist could make contact Itachi swiftly swept to the side in a distinct gray blur of movement.

Eyes widening with surprise, Masaru yelped as the momentum of his punch carried him forward, flinging him to the ground face-first. Rolling onto his back, he sat up and rubbed his nose with a wince, gritting his teeth in pain. "Ow..."

"As you can see, all your opponent has to do is dodge," Itachi noted, extending a hand to him. Hesitating, Masaru took it and the older boy easily pulled him to his feet, explaining all the while, "Throwing all your weight into the attack will make it stronger, but that makes it harder to control yourself and stop. Beyond dodging, they could also simply be using a bunshin or genjutsu, which would make the attack ineffective and nothing more than a waste of energy."

"Right," Masaru said slowly, nodding in understanding. Folding his arms, he tipped his head back to look at the sky and mused thoughtfully, "And now that I think about it, I guess most people would try to dodge instead of blocking attacks."

"They would?" Akari and Sasuke perked up at the thought, and Masaru shrugged.

"Our clan has a giant fireball as part of our coming of age ceremony," he deadpanned. "How would you block it?"

The others' silence proved his point.

"You're correct about that, too," Itachi chuckled, his lips quirking in amusement at Masaru's wording. "In real battles, even with the Sharingan it's hard to know what your opponent's ninjutsu may do. Getting hit by an unknown technique of any sort can be lethal, and even if it's purely taijutsu your opponent's clothing or skin may be soaked in poison. Generally it's better to not get hit at all than blocking."

"But then why do our taijutsu classes at school only deal with blocks?" Sasuke muttered, frowning.

"Basic dodging can't be easily taught beyond throwing balls at you, and formal defensive maneuvers involving dodging can be fairly complex. You've only just begun your second year at the Academy, so your taijutsu classes will focus on the basics first. I expect you'll start to move on within the next month or so, so you can begin sparring. As it stands, I'd say you and Masaru-kun are likely already ahead of the curriculum. Although," he added, glancing at Akari, "I can't say the same for Akari-san since I haven't seen her sparring."

Akari perked up, and quickly moved to rectify that by challenging Sasuke. In the end, Itachi deemed her a close second to his brother in terms of skill, but declared Masaru to be the best.


When they told their mother about training at Sasuke's house she'd been initially surprised but quickly voiced her approval. "Well, Sasuke and Itachi are good boys, so it would be good for you all to be friends," she told them. Despite that and the continued training sessions, their relationship didn't seem to fall into friendship yet.

Sometimes at school Sasuke would join Masaru and Akari for lunch, but more often than not they didn't interact there. Akari couldn't have lunch with him without strengthening the loathing of their classmates, the girls convinced she also secretly pined after Sasuke despite her loud declarations to the contrary. Meanwhile, Masaru still floundered at any form of social interaction outside sparring, so their few attempts at conversation without his sister as a buffer always turned out awkwardly.

So usually they ate separately from Sasuke, and lately separate from each other as well. Surprisingly, Akari began spending more time with Hyuuga Hinata, the shy and definitely timid heiress to the Hyuuga clan. Given her stance on the rest of her female classmates' work ethic the burgeoning friendship surprised Masaru, but Akari defended her new friend easily.

"She's a clan heiress to a really stuck-up clan that's probably even stricter than ours," she pointed out. "You'd probably be the same way if you were her." Masaru thought on it briefly and then agreed she was probably right. So he spent an increasing number of lunches alone, while Akari worked on encouraging her friend to grow a stronger backbone.

Oddly enough, Masaru might be on the path to being friends with Naruto. Apparently he'd earned the blonde's approval or respect or something when he ate the laxative-drenched onigiri right in front of him. Don't ask Masaru how, he still didn't know how to view that whole interaction. Since then Naruto shot friendly smiles his way more often, though he never made any moves to approach beyond that. Masaru had no idea how to make any further progress from there though.

Did Masaru want to be friends with Naruto? Maybe. The blonde certainly had an amusing mischief streak, and beyond the pranks and immature boasting he seemed nice enough. Surprisingly, his loud nature didn't really bother Masaru as much as one might expect given his shy nature. In some ways it actually reminded him of his mother, Ryoko.


"So you think you might want to be friends with Naruto-kun?" she asked when Masaru approached her for advice. He hesitated before nodding, deciding that yes, he did want to be friends with Naruto. Maybe. He'd just like a friend, period, and Naruto probably wanted one too so why not him? Frowning, Ryoko tapped her chin with a thoughtful look before slowly saying, "I'll... need to think about it, okay?" She ruffled his hair which elicited an annoyed cry from him before she retreated to her private study, much to his disappointment.

"Why do all the adults act so wary of him?" Masaru asked his uncle's grave two days later. "All the other kids avoid him because their parents tell them to, but I don't know why. And even mom said 'I need to think about it' with this really serious look on her face. Is there really something so bad about Na—"

"Oh, there you are, Masaru." His mother's cheery voice abruptly cut off his musings, and he turned to see her standing behind him, holding a bouquet of flowers. "Cleaning your uncle's grave again?"

"Yeah," he replied, nodding. Ryoko's smile softened, her eyes warm as she studied him.

"You're such a nice boy," she murmured, kneeing in front of the grave to place the bouquet before the tombstone. "Akari-chan comes here too, you know, at least once a week. She asked me about lighting incense here, once." Incense? Masaru tilted his head, considering it. Burning incense was a traditional way to honor the dead, yet they'd never actually done it for their uncle. Maybe they should, but if they did it outdoors and it started raining it might put out the fire, which... might be bad luck? He wasn't sure, he didn't know much about burning incense since they never did it before.

"Maybe we could build a shrine in our house?" he muttered to himself. Ryoko paused, shooting him a surprised look before her face softened once more.

"You two," she breathed, her lips slowly lifting into a smile. "You two are so..." She trailed off, a misty look entering her eyes. Three seconds later, Masaru found himself trapped in another strangely tight and affectionate embrace far more intense than the usual hugs, leaving him frozen with no idea on what to do. Should he return it? Pat her back?

When she pulled away he resisted the urge to sigh in relief but then paused as she took his hand and pressed a few coins into it. "Buy some candy before school on Monday and give some to Naruto-kun," she instructed him, meeting his confused gaze with a fond smile. "He can't come over to our house, but I'm sure he'll be happy enough being your friend at school."

Masaru blinked at her in surprise, startled by the sudden approval. "O...kay?"

And so on Monday he found himself facing a rather suspicious blonde, one hand extended with an offering of a single, strawberry-flavored jelly. Naruto scrutinized the red-wrapped candy suspiciously, eventually turning wary blue eyes onto Masaru. "What's the catch?" he asked, and Masaru blinked.


"You're giving me candy," Naruto pointed out. "No one just gives me candy for no reason." Crossing his arms, he squinted at him and asked, "Do you need help pranking someone or something?"

"What? N-no!" Masaru said quickly, shaking his head frantically as he stammered, "There's—no catch. None. It's just—candy." Naruto still glared at him suspiciously, and after a while he sighed.

"Okay, what'd you do to it?" Once again Masaru squawked an eloquent "what" and the whiskered boy continued, "You're giving me candy with nothing to gain, so obviously you did something to it. So, what is it? Covered it in salt and tossed it in the microwave so it'd melt onto it? Switched it out with some homemade candy made with chili powder?"

Masaru stared at him for approximately five seconds as he processed the sheer extent of Naruto's paranoia, which frankly no six-year-old should have. Then, he closed his eyes and inhaled a deep breath through his nose before opening his mouth.


That Saturday, Akari laughed her heart out as Masaru spent a majority of the visit to their uncle's grave ranting about the numerous injustices and unfair treatment Naruto had faced in his short life.

Despite all this, Masaru and Naruto still didn't become instant best friends and spend every day together. Discovering shy and quiet Uchiha Masaru did in fact have a backbone had changed Naruto's entire view of the boy, namely to "scary" and "pants-droppingly terrifying when he's mad" and "maybe has a split personality".

They did talk more though, and Masaru was pleased to note they managed to have a couple conversations without getting too awkward.

But, hey.


Chapter Text

 Chapter 3

"Mother knows best. Unless she doesn't. Moms aren't omnipotent, they're flawed human beings just like everyone else. They just hope they know best, because if it turns out they don't, then their kids are totally screwed. Verdict's still out on my mom."

"I think my body runs hotter than everyone else's," Akari complained with a scowl as she sprawled on her futon wearing nothing but a tank top and shorts. Sweat visibly glistened on her skin even in the dimness of their bedroom, her brown hair a tangled mess from tossing and turning so much. Masaru suspected he didn't look much better, as he had stripped down to his boxers and thrown his blankets aside, and he still felt too hot. An abnormal heat wave had struck Konoha for the past two days, and now at three AM both twins felt like their room had turned into a sauna. Fans simply didn't seem to be cutting it anymore, and their house was an older one and thus tragically lacked a central air system that some of the newer houses possessed.

"Maybe we should ask mom to get an air conditioner thing for our room," he suggested, fiddling with his hair with a small scowl. Currently the unruly locks reached his shoulders, and with the heat wave the extra warmth on his neck was unbearable. Sweat rendered half the matted locks sticky and damp, the moisture probably adding to its weight. At least Akari could tie her hair into buns or pigtails, but Masaru simply lacked that option. Wrestling it into submission with a brush proved futile, he'd actually broken a couple brushes, so right now his hair was a giant tangled mess that was simply too thick to tie up.

Maybe he should cut it. Some ninja cut their hair with kunai, right? Considering it, he tugged at a strand towards the side of his head to study it thoughtfully only to wince when half his hair lifted with it with a painful pinch to his skull. Dear kami, it was worse than he thought. He could not possibly cut it when it was this tangled and unruly, there was no way to make sure it turned out even remotely nice and even. Hell, at this rate they might have to shave it all off and go with a buzz cut. His hair seemed to be just a single mass at this point, there might be no hope.

"Hair trouble?" Akari teased, and he shot her a dark scowl.

"I'm shaving it off in the morning," he declared flatly, and his mood worsened when sister giggled. Shaving his head did not appeal to him one bit. Masaru liked his hair, he thought it was the only cool thing about his physical features. His mind wandered back to his early childhood, seated on a bench with his sister as they watched their mother paint. Elegant, simple brush strokes coalesced to form a distinct figure, a regal-looking male in a high-collared kimono with heavily lined eyes and a cool and stoic frown.

"Indra's hair," Ryoko mused aloud, adding thick strokes to form a tangle of unruly locks to frame his face. "You have Indra's hair, Masa-kun."

"No fair, I want cool hair like Indra's too," Akari whined, tugging at her pigtails. Compared to the cool portrait of the super-powerful mythical son of the Sage of Six Paths, her straight brown hair felt absolutely lame in comparison. Ryoko offered her a smile, her eyes twinkling with amusement.

"Oh, shush, your hair is beautiful," Ryoko commented, shooting her an amused smile. "And besides, in a few years, your brother will probably be jealous of you."

"I doubt it," Akari huffed, crossing her arms with a pout.

Of course, as always, Ryoko was right. Right now Masaru absolutely envied his twin sister's cooperative hair. Funny how he had the most hair troubles of them when usually girls were the ones fussy about that stuff. Frankly, at this point he figured the only reason his classmates didn't mock him for his hair was because it looked cool. Metaphorically of course. If it was literally cool, he wouldn't be having this issue.

In the present his sister rose to her feet, drawing him away from his thoughts. "I'm gonna get some water from the kitchen."

"Get me one too," Masaru requested, flopping onto his back. His sister shot him an unamused look.

"Why can't you get a glass for yourself?" she questioned, and he waved a hand dismissively.

"I'm too hot to move. Besides, you're way quieter than me." Recently the frequency of late-night visitors had increased again after a long period of decline, so whenever the twins had to leave their room at night they tried to make as little noise as possible. In terms of stealth Akari had Masaru beat by a long shot, fully aware of the loudest squeaky spots on the floor boards between their room and the kitchen.

"Stop being a baby. If I can find the energy to move, so can you. No one's here anyway."

"How do you even know no one's here? They never make any noise, they're obviously ninja." Smirking lazily, she lifted a finger to her lips and winked, her eyes sparkling with smug satisfaction.

"Secret," she whispered.

That still didn't stop him from throwing a pillow at her face.

Sprawling on his futon while he waited for his sister to return, Masaru just scowled at the ceiling, mentally grumbling to himself. He loved Akari, but sometimes she really got on his nerves. She had a lot of little secrets like that, just little things she hinted at but never talked about. Masaru knew for a fact that she did not go to a friend's house almost every day after school like she told Ryoko, it's not like any of their classmates would invite her. Whenever he tried to follow her she managed to notice him, sometimes she even led him on wild goose chases. It really annoyed him.

It suddenly occurred to Masaru that he might be more irritable than usual right now because he was just too hot. Maybe he should ask their mom about moving to a house with central air.

The click of the door opening broke him from his thoughts, and he turned to face Akari expectantly. "Do you think we should move?" he asked, but then paused when he saw her hands were empty. "Akari? Where's the water?"

"I didn't get any," she whispered, stalking over to her futon and plopping down. Alarm bells went off as she tucked her knees to her chest and buried her face in them, further signifying something was wrong. Masaru quickly joined her and sat next to her, poking her shoulder with a frown.

"Akari? What happened?"

"When I was on my way to the kitchen, I thought I heard mom crying," she told him quietly, shaking her head slowly without looking at him. "I followed it to her study, and when I got closer I could hear her whimpering. It sounded like... like she was having a nightmare." Admitting it made her wince, and Masaru involuntarily flinched as well, his face distorting into a grimace. Foggy memories of blood-curdling screams and hysterical sobs in the darkest hours of night surfaced, a young toddler version of himself curling together with his sister as they waited for the cries to stop. A heavy chill washed through his body, a giant shiver coursing from head to spine.

"I thought they stopped when we entered the academy," he whispered, and Akari just shrugged, rolling her head onto her arms to stare to the side.

"Or maybe she just got better at hiding them," she replied quietly.


As the school year drew on, Sasuke grew increasingly quiet and withdrawn. A certain tension began to settle over the main house of the Uchiha clan, a sense of unease and unrest lingering in the air at all times.

Originally when the training sessions had begun, Itachi had tried to make time in his busy schedule to watch them and offer his input on their progress, but his visits gradually decreased. Eventually it reached a point where the twins almost never saw the Uchiha heir, both at the house or anywhere else in the compound. They rarely saw Uchiha Fugaku either. The stern man's time seemed to be spent away from home or in his private office, too occupied with his job as the chief of the Konoha Military Police and his obligations as the clan head to make time for three academy students. The few times he did make an appearance, he would watch them for only a couple of minutes and grunt some brief comment on their technique before leaving.

"Sasuke-kun really wants his approval," Akari noted after one visit. "Did you see the disappointment on his face when Fugaku-sama left?"

Masaru frowned as he thought back to their few encounters with the man. Honestly, he'd been too distracted by Fugaku's imposing presence to notice anything unusual about Sasuke's behavior. "I'll take your word for it," he decided, and they left it at that.

As the training sessions continued the tension in the main house gradually grew too intense to bear, so when Akari suggested moving their sessions to their own house Sasuke jumped on the idea. Ryoko welcomed the change cheerfully, treating the visits with the same enthusiasm as Mikoto. Every Friday when the three Uchiha children arrived fresh from the academy she had an apple, a tomato and a peach waiting for them on the table, and the trio eagerly devoured the snacks before heading outside to spar. Occasionally Mikoto would be there too, she and Ryoko hanging back and chatting lightly about various topics the kids didn't care for as they supervised the sparring matches.

Seeing their mothers get along so well encouraged the children to try again to strengthen their own bonds and increase their time spent together. Alas, fate had different plans though. They got through three days of having lunch together before Akari declared she hated fan girls with a passion and stomped off to plot her revenge. And of course, without her as a buffer Sasuke and Masaru fell into that awkward silence. They could only discuss sparring so much without actually demonstrating it, and attempts at conversations about other topics fizzled out for various reasons.

Aside from that, Masaru's semi-sort-of-maybe-maybe-not-friendship with Naruto seemed to be making progress (maybe), and at least proved a nice distraction from all the weird tension at home. They did have lunch together a couple times, but they didn't talk too much. Most of those periods were spent with Naruto complaining about the teachers and how boring he found the subjects, while Masaru just nodded along quietly and maybe contributed a point here or there.

Generally though, Masaru found himself still more comfortable talking to his uncle's grave than anyone with a pulse.

"I'm really weird, aren't I?" he mused aloud during one of his weekly visits. "I mean, I never even met you, but here I am visiting you every week and telling you stories. I don't even visit dad's grave this much."

His own words gave him pause, frowning slightly as he contemplated it. The young Uchiha twins had never actually met their father. Photos of the man adorned the walls of their house, showcasing his growth from a scraggly young genin proudly displaying his hitai-ate to a noble-looking young man who radiated confidence. According to Ryoko, he had died before they were even born, losing his life on a mission shortly after learning of her pregnancy. Unlike many shinobi who perished during missions outside the village, his teammates had been able to retrieve his body and bring it back for a proper burial. They visited his grave every year on his birthday, their mother preparing an elaborate picnic for the occasion made with his favorite foods and regaling them with endless tales about his jovial and easygoing nature.

Strangely, she rarely spoke about him outside of those visits though. Ryoko talked more about their uncle—who was in fact a distant cousin rather than her actual brother—but Masaru knew it had nothing to do with any distance between his parents. Deep longing glimmered in her eyes whenever she spoke about him, her mouth curving into a soft, unconscious smile filled with fondness and yearning. No, their mother absolutely loved him, and his death had left a void in her heart that still ached to his day, even the happiest memories tainted by the knowledge she'd never see him again.

"Mom once told us that the Uchiha love too much," he mused quietly, reclining on the grass to stare at the sky. Thick clouds rolled overhead and blotted out the sun, casting a grayish tint over the world that left the colors in the cemetery more muted. "She said we get too attached, and so when someone we really love dies, a piece of us dies too. I don't know if that's true or not, but if it is, I think that's sad."

It made him wonder about his clan, and how many people would have lost loved ones over the long centuries of war and carnage. Did any of them break because of it? Did anyone follow their loved ones to death? What if Ryoko—

Masaru cut his musings there, deciding his thoughts were getting too depressing. He blamed it on the weather, it just made everything feel a bit bleak and somber.

Deciding he'd stayed long enough, the boy got to his feet and picked up the bucket he'd brought to clean the grave, giving the stone slab a small bow. "I should get home, it'll be dinner time soon. I'll see you next week."

The walk from the cemetery to the Uchiha clan compound was always peaceful, the path connecting them winding through a small cluster of trees that always felt serene and peaceful. As he passed through the gates of the compound and headed down the ever-busy main street, he couldn't help but glance at his clansmen and think about just how much they felt like strangers. Sure, he saw their faces every day, but he couldn't place a name to them. They never actually interacted, never called out to him like they would for Sasuke and ask about how his day at the academy was. Despite the incredible familiarity with their appearances Masaru knew nothing about his relatives, and he suspected they knew just as little about him as—


Startled to hear a voice behind him, Masaru spun around so fast the bucket arced upwards and the water inside splashed onto him, thoroughly drenching him. He flinched as the cold swiftly seeped through his shirt and shorts, his nose wrinkling as he shivered. Wet clothes definitely ranked high on his list of most uncomfortable experiences. Grimacing, he raised his head only to freeze when he saw Uchiha Mikoto standing behind him, watching him with a concerned gaze. Oh right, someone called his name.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to startle you," she apologized. "Here, let me carry the bucket so we can go to your house and you can change." As she spoke she extended her hands to him to take the bucket, and Masaru obediently passed it to her, not in the mood to carry it any more. The damp fabric of his clothes already clung to his body, uncomfortably rubbing against his skin and squishing audibly with each step, but he pushed his discomfort out of his mind as they set off. He snuck a glance at the Uchiha matriarch to distract himself. Her lips pressed into a tight frown as she walked through the compound, and Masaru had to jog to keep up with her as she moved at a somewhat fast pace which suggested a sense of urgency that didn't fit the situation.

This wasn't right, his instincts warned. Even if wearing partially-wet clothing was uncomfortable and probably unhealthy, Mikoto's concern seemed a bit too strong for the situation. "Mikoto-san?" he ventured hesitantly. "What's going on? Is something wrong?"

He almost bumped into the woman when she abruptly halted, her body momentarily stiff and rigid before her shoulders sagged and she turned to face him. Bending forward slightly so their eyes were more level, Masaru found himself almost paralyzed as he noted the unusually grave look on her face. It only solidified the dread growing in his stomach, his heart already sinking in anticipation of her response.

"An hour ago Akari-chan suddenly collapsed in the middle of target practice. She and your mother are at the hospital right now."

Chapter Text

Chapter 4

"Four is the number of death in most Asian cultures because it's a homonym for death. I don't like four. Can we skip it? Please?"

Since it took twenty minutes to walk to the hospital, Masaru had plenty of time to worry about what he'd find when they arrived. Images of a too-pale Akari comatose in a bed plagued his thoughts, two doctors hanging in the doorway discussing her condition in low tones sparsed with theatrical gasps of surprise from a beautiful female nurse to low-key dramatic music.

In his defense, Masaru had never been to a hospital and most of his knowledge came from the medical dramas his mother liked to watch. He knew reality would probably be very different from that, and sure enough, it was.


He yelped as his sister enthusiastically tackled him in a pale blue blur, nearly toppling him to the ground as her arms wrapped around him in a tight embrace. "I'm so boooored!" she whined. "Let's go home and train!"

"Akari, no," their mother sighed, shaking her head with a long-suffering look, while Mikoto covered her mouth to stifle a small giggle.

As it turned out, Akari was fine. The doctors pinned her collapse as a result of overworking herself in the extreme heat. "She'll need to stay overnight, just to be safe," Ryoko explained. "And they want us to come back in a few weeks. They found some other things during the examination and they want to look into it. It's nothing serious," she added hastily at her son's horrified look, "They said Akari-chan is perfectly fine right now. They just found something unexpected and want to look into it some more, that's all. You don't need to be such a worrywart, Masa-chan."

She smiled and ruffled his hair before turning to admonish Akari for trying to sneak out the door during the conversation. Being in the hospital for even a couple of hours had left the young girl antsy and impatient to go back to training, much to the hospital staff's consternation.

"Don't let her become another Kakashi," she told their mom in a serious tone when she stopped by, and Ryoko just laughed and promised not to let it reach that level.

Hospital policy prevented kids from staying overnight with patients, so Mikoto volunteered to host Masaru for the night while Ryoko stayed with Akari. Dinner proved quiet and somewhat awkward, though not as tense as Masaru had expected after his last few visits to the main house. Maybe it stemmed from Fugaku's absence; he'd stayed late at the police station that night, so only Itachi, Sasuke and Mikoto were there for dinner.

Most of the conversation revolved around school, Mikoto gently prodding the two younger boys about what they'd been studying and Sasuke eagerly filling her in. Masaru contributed on occasion but mostly remained quiet, though he still talked more than Itachi, who ate in near total silence before quietly excusing himself. The remainder of the evening proved relatively uneventful, he and Sasuke not really talking aside from when they set up a spare futon in his room. When Akari and Ryoko came to get him the next morning, Masaru eagerly welcomed his sister's familiar warm personality.

While Akari was slated to return to the hospital for a more extended stay in a couple of weeks, nothing seemed wrong with her. At school Akari proved as fit and active as ever, her performance in class never slipping. "Even I don't get what's wrong," she admitted to him with a frown. "The adults won't tell me anything." It struck them both as strange, but it soon faded to the backs of their minds as they went about their days.

Life at school continued as usual, most of their time spent studying and quietly conversing with each other. Akari had some more free time after her tentative friendship with Hinata stalled due to her clan's disapproval. Apparently the Uchiha and Hyuuga had a powerful rivalry due to their competing doujutsu, and having the clan heiress consort with a lowly branch member of the Uchiha was too unseemly to support.

"The Uchiha has a branch family?" Masaru asked in surprise when Akari told him.

"That's what I said!" she groaned. Frankly, they never really thought of their family in terms of its position within the clan. While the Uchiha clan definitely had a main house and a council of elders, they didn't have a strict dichotomy between them and the rest of the clan like the Hyuuga did. The Uchiha were just Uchiha, simple as that. As long as you weren't a bastard and respected your elders, the clan cared more about your ability as a shinobi than where your parents fit into the hierarchy.

Still, though that friendship proved to be a washout, Akari didn't sulk and quickly moved on with her life. Having given up on most of the kunoichi in their class as a lost cause, she turned her sights to their male classmates for companionship. Surprisingly (or perhaps not), she had much better luck there. Initially they treated her warily due to the typical male pride that ran rampant at their age, but she quickly proved herself their equal.

Partially by beating up anyone who insulted her.

Ryoko had actually spit out her food at dinner when Akari recounted giving one snobby boy a black eye over a snide comment about her breaking a nail. "As your mother, I should not approve," she told them, trying to muffle her snickers. "But as a kunoichi and fellow woman, next time, go for poetic justice. They tell you not to break a nail, scratch them to hell and back!"

They spent a good chunk of that meal discussing similarly ironic physical comebacks, neither seeming to notice Masaru gradually sink further and further into his seat. If he seemed to be a bit more withdrawn from his sister over the next few days, she never commented on it.

As Akari's social life at school expanded though, that meant they spent a little less time together. Contrary to what some might expect, being her twin did not automatically grant Masaru membership into her new social groups. According to her, some of their classmates believed his quiet nature to be due to arrogance. "You're kidding," he deadpanned, and she grinned.

"Well, you can be pretty snobby when it comes to sparring," she teased. He responded to that by slamming a pillow at her head. She just laughed and threw one back.

That said, Masaru really didn't mind the growing distance between them at school. After all, he and Akari already spent plenty of time together outside of it, seeing as they lived together and even shared a room. Twins tended to get lumped into a single unit by other people, so they were pleased to realize they'd each managed to attain a certain level of autonomy at school. Having different friends made them feel a bit more free and independent.

If anything, it motivated him even more to try to make his own friend. To that end he had lunch with Naruto together a few more times, but as the days passed Masaru felt progress to be slow on his end. He still didn't contribute much to their conversations, letting Naruto do all the talking, and it made him feel like he wasn't putting in much effort. So when Naruto invited him to get ramen after school one day, he'd been caught by almost complete surprise.

As they headed through town he couldn't help notice the glares various civilians sent their way. Previously he'd been aware that others seemed to treat Naruto differently, but until then he hadn't realized just how bad it really was. Whispers of "fox" and "demon-brat" tickled his ears as shopkeepers glowered at Naruto, pedestrians crossing to the opposite side of the street to avoid them.

Pain flickered in Naruto's eyes at each spiteful look sent their way, yet he kept that big grin plastered on his face. His excitement as he chattered about their destination was genuine, his love for the ramen stand bordering on fanaticism. Considering how heavily Naruto vaunted it as the best in Konoha, Masaru expected it to be a grand, fancy building filled with throngs of people clamoring for more bowls.

Instead, Ichiraku Ramen operated out of a small and plain wooden building that barely stood out from the rest. Square flaps of white fabric dangled from the front of the stand to provide some privacy for the diners, each flap bearing one of the characters that made up the stand's name. Beneath them he could see the stools were empty, further shattering his preconceptions.

Viewing the surprisingly unremarkable structure, Masaru wondered if maybe Naruto had overhyped it a little. However, when Naruto climbed onto a stool and loudly announced his presence, Masaru quickly realized why the blond liked it so much when the stand's owner greeted him with the first friendly smile he'd seen all day.

"Well, if it isn't my best customer!" he laughed, the skin around his eyes crinkling as he grinned at Naruto. "I was wondering when you'd show up!"

"You know I can't stay away too long!" Naruto replied with a grin. He then turned to Masaru and patted the seat next to him, prodding, "Come on, sit down so we can order! I'm telling you, this place has the best ramen in town!"

"Oh? Who's this?" The chef turned a curious eye to Masaru as the young Uchiha climbed onto the stool next to Naruto. Instinct kicked in under the stranger's scrutiny, and he straightened his back as all the lessons in proper etiquette he'd received as an Uchiha kicked in.

"My name is Uchiha Masaru," he greeted, dipping his head politely. "It is a pleasure to meet you, sir." The formal nature of his greeting seemed to catch the man off-guard, but he quickly recovered with a hearty chuckle, flashing a cheery grin.

"Oh, so this is the famous Masaru, eh?" he teased, and Masaru snapped his head upwards to stare at him wide-eyed.

"Famous?" he stammered, but then froze. His gaze whipped to Naruto to find the blond offering him a sheepish smile, rubbing the back of his neck.

"I, uh, might have mentioned you to old man Teuchi a couple times," he admitted with a small laugh. "Sorry, it's just—it's just really cool to have a friend, you know?"


The word sent an unexpected surge of warmth through Masaru, catching him off-guard. He stiffened in his seat as he stared at Naruto wide-eyed, and the blonde's smile gradually faded as the seconds ticked by, growing increasingly nervous at Masaru's silence.

"Uh, sorry, is—is that too much?" he muttered, hesitating. "I mean, I know I'm, well, you know..." He trailed off, for once at a loss for words. Fidgeting in his seat, he turned forward and started fiddling with the hem of his shirt, his normal confident grin replaced by an uncertain frown. "I mean, I guess I can see why—why you might not think that—"

"No," Masaru interrupted, and Naruto whirled his head around to stare at him, his cerulean eyes large with surprise. Meeting his gaze straight on Masaru let his lips curve upwards, offering the blonde a small, feeble smile. Until then Masaru had been hesitant on how to classify their relationship, not wanting to put it on too high of a pedestal, but hearing Naruto use the word settled it once and for all. "It's fine. I'm just—I'm just not used to having a friend either."

Naruto's eyes widened even more at Masaru's response, his mouth dropping open, and then—

He turned into sunlight.

Beams of light seemed to radiate from him as he broke into a giant grin, his golden hair glowing like a halo and his sky blue eyes shining with pure joy. The abrupt shift in his demeanor—the pure, unadulterated look of elation on his face—momentarily stunned Masaru, his own eyes widening in shock.

Beside them Teuchi just laughed, and he placed a hand on both their heads in an affectionate pat, effectively snapping them out of the moment. "I think this calls for a celebration!" he declared cheerfully. "Two bowls of whatever flavor you want, on the house!"

Grinning, Naruto eagerly took him up on it and Masaru placed his own order. They stayed there for almost an hour, chatting eagerly as they ate. Over the course of that meal they learned a lot of things about each other. For example, Naruto could eat at least fifteen bowls of ramen in a row and still have room for more. Masaru decided that was really scary too.

"I never really had a friend before," Masaru mused at his uncle's grave that weekend after recounting the event. "I mean, I go to Sasuke's house every week, but... we don't really talk that much. And when we do, I don't know what to say and I mess it up. But Naruto doesn't need me to talk, he can do all the talking for me. And maybe that's why we get along, I guess we kinda balance each other."

He smiled at the thought, reclining on the grass and glancing at the sky. Ominous dark clouds covered it in a thick blanket of black and gray, threatening to send rain soon. Sighing softly, he turned his head slightly and a flash of color caught his eye. Mountains of bouquets decorated a nearby gravesite, the rock slab still shiny and polished with no signs of the wear and tear the others accumulated over the years.

Masaru's lips pursed at the sight, and he slowly turned his head back to its original position. "Hey," he murmured softly, closing his eyes. "Do you remember... that story I told you about when Naruto pranked me the first time? There was a boy at the house that day, another Uchiha I never saw before." He fell silent, letting it linger for a few moments as he quietly breathed through his nose.

"His name was Shisui. He died five days ago."

News of the unexpected death had sent tremors through the Uchiha clan, whispers of conspiracies and doubts echoing through the compound. When he first saw the framed photo of Uchiha Shisui draped in black, Masaru had been surprised to recognize the laughing teenager from that day years ago, his boisterous laughter easing the tension he'd felt after seeing his mother's Sharingan. Drowned in Naka River, they said, with a suicide note found on the banks while the body remained missing.

His fists clenched at his sides, his nails digging into his palms and leaving small marks. He had only seen Shisui that one time, but he suspected he visited quite often without him or Akari noticing. "Mom's... Mom's really upset," he whispered, his voice faintly quivering. "She still acts normal and has dinner with us, but she's been spending more time in her study. I think the nightmares are back, too, and I think they're even worse. She woke us up twice this week screaming."

Flinching as he recalled the blood-curdling screams, Masaru shuddered and quickly raised the heels of his palms over his eyes, pressing hard until his vision began to swim even behind his closed eyelids. Something about the sensation felt vaguely comforting for reasons he couldn't explain; maybe it had to do with his dormant Sharingan, or maybe it was just a personal oddity. He did this whenever he felt like he wanted to cry, starting way back when he was a toddler.

Over the past few days, he'd done it pretty often.

"I'm scared," he admitted, his voice barely a whisper. "I'm really, really scared."

"Masaru?" A quiet voice drew him from his thoughts, and he opened his eyes as he turned around. Spots sparked in his vision before fading away to reveal his sister standing behind him, her face far more tired than he'd ever seen. She held a bright red umbrella in preparation for the upcoming rain, the crimson color popping against the dreary desaturated hues of the cemetery.

Slowly getting to his feet, Masaru silently joined her under the umbrella, gaze cast to the dying grass. He slipped his hand into her free one as he stood by her, giving it a small squeeze. They cast the gravestone a final glance, offering it feeble, tired smiles.

"Bye, Uncle Obito," Akari called softly. "See you next week." With that the twins walked home, hoping vainly for things to go back to normal.

Chapter Text

Chapter 5

"One is the loneliest number. It's even lonelier when you're used to being one of at least two or three. Screw superstitions and bad luck, I'd happily take four over one."

Time seemed to both fly and drag slowly as the tension at the compound spiraled to new heights. After Shisui's death, the training sessions with Sasuke came to an abrupt end. He simply stopped showing up at their house, and the twins never asked him about it. They became virtual strangers once more, their interactions limited to the quiet walks to the academy every morning, and even that only because they lived in the same general area.

At home, their mother always acted cheery and helpful, plastering on a smile and asking about their days, but something about it felt strained. When they got home she'd often be somewhere else, and return anywhere from a few minutes to an hour after they arrived. Conversations at dinner, once loud and energetic, began to feel forced and unnatural, the three seeming to go through the motions as they made polite small talk. After dinner she would lock herself in her study for the rest of the night.

The nightmares had definitely returned. Sharp screams of pure horror would cut through the silence of the night and violently startle the twins awake, their eyes shooting open with gasps and hands instinctively reaching for kunai they had kept by their beds since starting at the academy. Sometimes though she'd just sob, and when creeping past her study to go to the bathroom Masaru and Akari both caught wisps of murmurs about Shisui and bad omens.

One particularly bad night, Akari had been engaged in her own nightmare when the scream woke her, and when she saw Masaru holding his kunai in her panicked still-groggy haze she moved. Cold steel sliced through his pajama sleeve and grazed his arm, drawing a thin line of blood in its wake before she realized her mistake. They automatically locked gazes and stared at each other in horror, their eyes saying everything. Eventually they silently got up and crept into the bathroom to wash the cut and bandage it. The next day he covered it under a long sleeved shirt, his torn pajama top buried in the bottom of the laundry hamper.

When they went to bed that night, they made a point to store their kunai in the drawers.

School provided a good distraction from the stress at home, and Masaru felt particularly grateful to Naruto. They had lunch together almost every day now, and while he still didn't speak much Masaru felt his silence now stemmed more from comfort than shyness. Their growing friendship provided a bright spot in his life, the blond a bright ray of sunshine in the bleak tension that dominated their home more and more. Listening to Naruto ramble about his pranks and his distaste for school allowed Masaru to push his worries out of his mind, even if for just a little bit.

With all of that going on, they focused on little else and thus they completely forgot about Akari's impending hospital visit until Ryoko mentioned it. Consulting with their teachers at the academy about the best time frame, Ryoko scheduled her visit on a week that the teachers insisted would be rather minor and easy to make up, starting on a Thursday morning and ending sometime Monday. Akari appeared and felt absolutely fine so the mysterious secret issue doctors wanted to study had slipped their minds.

"I can't believe we're still doing this," Akari grumbled as she packed the night before her stay, angrily flinging clothes into her bag. "I mean, is there even a point to this? They still won't even tell me what's wrong!"

"Well, maybe nothing's wrong," Masaru said slowly, speaking more to himself than her. Akari paused and slowly turned to face him, arching an eyebrow in a typical Uchiha-esque display of interest.

"What do you mean?" she asked, and Masaru shrugged, tilting his head to the ceiling as he fell into thought.

"Maybe they found out you have something, well, good. Like, I dunno, super-advanced chakra coils. Or maybe you have a secret Uchiha kekkei genkai that only appears once every hundred generations." As he rambled off possibilities Akari's dark eyes lit up, breaking into a giant grin. Hospitalization for some secret illness was highly undesirable, but if it was because of a genetic quirk that might give her an advantage as a kunoichi, Akari would gladly embrace it.

The next morning they bid each other farewell at breakfast and Masaru headed to the academy alone. Walking down the familiar streets of the compound and then the village without Akari at his side felt... weird. Next to him he noticed Sasuke shooting him inquisitive glances, obviously curious about Akari's absence, but his fellow Uchiha didn't ask so Masaru didn't bother to explain.

Class felt strangely empty without her. Even though they mixed with different crowds and didn't interact much, during class they sat at the same table, and his eyes continually darted to her empty seat throughout the day. Even at lunch as he ate with Naruto and listened to his friend describe his plans for his next big prank he found himself absently scanning their surroundings, looking for his sister among the crowd of boys she often spent time with.

The void left by her absence didn't really strike him until he got home, though.

Slipping off his sandals as he stepped inside, he called a traditional greeting and was answered with silence. Ryoko's absence hardly surprised him given increasing amount of time she'd spent outside the house lately, but even so the utter silence caught him off guard. As he started padding down the hall he felt conspicuously aware of his current solitude.

Normally, he or Akari would do something silly by now. Sometimes she'd pounce on him from behind, latching onto his back and forcing him to give her piggyback rides if the sudden weight didn't make him fall down. Other times he'd sneak up on her and quickly tap her neck on either side with his hands, his comparatively cold fingers sending a small shock through her and making her jump with a loud yelp. Usually within five minutes of returning home they'd be rolling around the floor wrestling and Ryoko would have to pull them apart with an exasperated smile.

Walking to his bedroom out of habit, he dropped his bag by the door and turned to leave to train in the backyard, only to pause. On a whim Masaru slowly turned back and approached Akari's futon, bending over it and running his fingers over the neatly folded comforter patterned with plum blossoms. Closing his eyes shut, he leaned over and inhaled through his nose, savoring the lingering traces of her scent. He wasn't an Inuzuka, he couldn't break down every component of a scent, but after spending his entire life with her he'd grown used to the natural scent Akari exuded and could identify it by heart.

A sudden pang filled his chest, making him sag slightly as he leaned his head atop the blanket. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he remembered his mom talking about the Uchiha's penchant for love. She said that the Uchiha loved more strongly than anyone else, so when they lost someone precious, it took a piece of their heart with them.

Right now, curled next to his sister's futon clinging to what little traces of her presence he could find, Masaru thought maybe he could understand what she meant.

School the next day proved just as empty and lonely as the previous one, perhaps even moreso because Naruto skipped that day. The Uzumaki boy had a penchant for skipping school entirely, and while he'd started hanging around a bit more after becoming friends with Masaru he still missed a fair amount of days. After classes ended Sasuke, as usual, chose to stay behind and train in the training field, leaving Masaru to return home all alone.

As he silently walked through the busy streets of Konoha he felt strangely detached from reality, his surroundings becoming dull and unfocused as his legs moved on their own. When he finally stopped, instead of the Uchiha clan compound he found himself standing before Obito's grave. His bag slid from his fingers and landed in the grass with a dull thump and after a moment he followed suit, tucking his knees to his chest as he faced the tombstone.

For a while he just sat there in silence, letting his mind roam as he leaned his head on his arms. Their mother described Uchiha Obito as a sunny boy whose smile could penetrate the bleakest darkness, a child with a rare heart of gold that remained untarnished even after seeing war for himself. More often than not his peers treated him as a joke, mocking him for his chronic tardiness and never realizing his weak-sounding excuses were almost always true, starting from the very first day when he arrived late to his own entrance ceremony at the academy because he stopped to help an old lady.

His bright personality and boisterous enthusiasm never truly fit in with the rest of their stoic Uchiha relatives. He found himself distant from everyone but his grandmother and Ryoko, who had assumed a sister-like role in his life as she helped care for her baby cousin and watched him grow. Ryoko's eyes would grow misty as she recounted how he struggled to get acknowledged, and his various declarations that he would become Hokage. He had a strong potential, she claimed, one which far outshone any of the other Uchiha in his generation, but no one else could see it. As he grew older all they saw was a failure of an Uchiha who had yet to even activate his Sharingan, and their taunting fostered a sense of self doubt which rendered Obito blind to his own potential as well.

In the end, on the day Obito finally activated his Sharingan, his pure and selfless heart also led to his demise as he sacrificed himself to save his teammates.

He had been only thirteen.

Masaru opened his eyes slightly as he recalled the one time Ryoko told them about Obito's death, his gaze gliding to the slab of stone bearing the fallen boy's name. The ground beneath it held only solid dirt, his corpse never retrieved and left to rot crushed beneath a slew of boulders far away.

"Mom once said," he began quietly, "that the Uchiha love too strongly. That it leads us to our own self destruction when we lose our precious people. But, when she told us about how you died, she said you did it right." A faint smile touched his lips, a mirthless gesture that filled with more sadness than joy. "She said you did it before you lost your precious ones, and you self-destructed in a way that saved them. You helped stop the war."

A soft breeze trickled past him, fingers of wind tracing through his unruly locks in an attempt to move it as the tangled mass stubbornly remained still. Masaru sighed softly, resting his head on his arms once more with his face turned to look to his side. Row after row of graves extended before him towards the expanse of trees surrounding the cemetery, dark slabs of stone towering above the ground to mark the final resting places of many who fell to war.

Cemeteries always appeared lonely and desolate in books and TV shows. Films gave those scenes a muted gray tint that desaturated every color, from the dull, lifeless green grass to the actors' pale and clammy skin. When he was little, the somber atmosphere of those scenes had confused him. His family's visits to the graves had always been more cheerful and light, all of them smiling and laughing whether they were telling Obito about their week or listening to stories about their dad, so it didn't make much sense.

Right now, though, Masaru could understand why media usually portrayed cemeteries as such a bleak and grim setting.

Death permeated the air, the stone markers long-lasting reminders of lives snuffed short. Corpses and skeletons rested only a few feet below the surface inside wooden coffins, the dirt above them already sprouting grass so only the tombstones marked their final resting place. Perhaps more tragic though were the empty graves, the markers only representing the people whose names they bore in spirit as their bodies rotted away far from home, never to return.

"I wonder," he murmured quietly, his breath barely louder than a whisper, "if maybe one day, when I'm a ninja, I could go find you, and bring you home. It must be lonely, wherever you are."

Movement flickered within the trees in the corner of his vision, and he lazily shifted his head slightly to try to get a better look. For a moment he thought he saw the silhouette of a person hidden in the shadows, but as he stared at it longer he eventually realized it was simply a tree. Despite it being nothing he smiled faintly at the realization. Looks like he was on the right track to developing ninja instincts. Never let your guard down, for even a few second.

After that, Masaru just sat there in silence for a long while, not feeling like saying anything else. Eventually though he hauled himself to his feet, brushing off the dirt and clumps of grass sticking to his shorts. By this point the sky had started to dim slightly, and he noted the telltale sign of dusk approaching with mild surprise. Had that much time really passed? He'd never stayed that late before, his mother must be getting worried, so he resolved to hurry home as he picked up his bag.

"Bye, Uncle Obito," he told the grave marker, offering it a small smile and raising his hand in a motionless wave. "See you tomorrow." He hitched his bag over his shoulder and headed off, his head bowed.

Thick silence hung over the woods as he slowly made his way to the Uchiha compound, the animals unusually quiet. Something about it prickled at his nerves, making him pick up his pace slightly as he glanced around his surroundings warily. Maybe it was just because he'd never walked through it so close to night, but something about it left him strangely unsettled and on edge. He gradually moved faster and faster until he was full-out running, his bag bouncing against his back with each step.

When the familiar walls of the compound came into sight relief flooded him and he slowed to a walk, his pace still brisk but considerably more casual than before. He glanced back at the woods as he moved towards the entrance, keeping his gaze firmly rooted on it for any signs of movement. Nothing happened though, and when it disappeared from his line of sight behind the walls he breathed a small sigh. He then smirked, a bit amused. Now that he was home, he felt a bit silly about how paranoid he'd been—


Masaru froze when he felt liquid splash beneath his sandal, drops of something warm and wet splashing against his ankles. Warm and wet, his mind re-emphasized. Rainwater would feel cold, not lukewarm, and even then it hadn't rained in the past few days. As the implications of that settled in Masaru subconsciously tightened his grip on the straps of his bag, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath through his nose to calm himself.

He instantly regretted it because the air he inhaled had a sharp copper tang to it.

Eyes snapping open, Masaru felt his body stiffen, a sudden chill washing down his spine and spreading to his limbs that made him want to shiver despite the heat. Heart hammering in his ears, he slowly lowered his gaze. Dark red liquid pooled around his sandals, several flecks staining his ankles from the earlier splash. As he lowered his head further to take in the full sight, he noticed something pale in the corner of his peripheral vision, and reflexively turned to look at it.

He turned his head barely a centimeter before freezing when he recognized it as a finger attached to a blood-stained hand.

Bile instantly rose in his throat when he realized what he was looking at and he squeezed his eyes shut, unwilling to let his gaze follow the hand any further to the arm. His breath hitched in his throat painfully, the stop so abrupt it made him want to cough, but he kept his mouth firmly clamped shut. If he opened his mouth he would scream, and then he would vomit, and then he would be vulnerable and expose his location to whoever caused that.

It's not real, he told himself desperately. It's gotta be a dream, or—or genjutsu. There is not a body nearby, there is not-

A sharp scream in the distance cut off his thoughts and Masaru's eyes reflexively snapped open—

—and he found himself staring right at a pair of lifeless Sharingan eyes set against a pallid face.

Chapter Text

Chapter 6

"Everyone has regrets. Everyone has something they wish they could go back and change. But no matter how much you regret it, some things just can't be fixed. I'm sorry.

I'm so, so sorry."

Masaru forcibly slapped his hands over his mouth to stifle the scream that desperately threatened to escape. Dull red eyes stared at him, the trio of tomoe still and motionless around the pupil. Unwillingly his eyes raised from the body and flickered over the rest of the street, his stomach lurching even more at the sight he found.

Corpses surrounded him, familiar faces staring at the sky lifelessly with black and red eyes as kunai peppered their forms. Deep and ugly gashes marred their bodies at various points, their skin neatly sliced open to expose the muscles and organs inside with a neat precision he recognized as a sword. Rivulets of blood streamed through the cracks in the pavement and flowed outwards until it filled every gap, forming a web-like pattern of crimson streaks that seemed to glow against the gray stone.

Chest tightening as he slowly looked over the carnage, Masaru's mind became blank, too overwhelmed by horror to think.

At seven, Uchiha Masaru had never truly encountered death. He had been to funerals, bid farewell to old clan members before their burials or cremations, but their bodies had looked peaceful. They had laid with their eyes closed as if asleep, their skin taking on an odd pallid quality with a dull sheen that reminded him of wax.

These corpses were nothing like that though. Every face he saw was contorted into a pained expression of some sort or another, frozen snapshots of the violent torrent of emotions they felt at their moments of death. So many had their mouths open in horrified screams, their eyes ranging from wide open to pinched shut to block out their death. Ferocious scowls twisted some of the shinobi's faces, tinged with varying degrees of panic, each one fueled by a mixture of fear and a fierce determination to survive, to protect, to get away—

Why? Why are they dead? What's going on? Why is there so much blood how did they all die why did they die whywhywhywhy—

Another scream cut through the silence, a feral roar ringing with furious resolve and wrath, only to abruptly cut off just like the others. More screams and shouts soon followed, each ending sharply and abruptly mid-syllable. It snapped him back to reality, breaking his momentary shock. He couldn't afford to zone out right now, he was in danger—


The thought of his mother set Masaru's blood cold in his veins, his eyes widening in horror. Before he knew it he was running, his backpack discarded as he desperately raced past the corpses to get to his house. Tears burned in his eyes as he forced himself not to look at the bloody corpses, shuddering as he heard more splashes under his sandals and felt more warm blood splatter the insides of his legs.

Their house was far from the front gate compared to others, a good ten minutes walking, but with adrenaline and fear fueling his footsteps Masaru found the trip more than halved. Screams continued to echo behind him, a horrible chorus of death and bloodshed that gradually dwindled to silence, but he ignored it. Horrible as it was, some gut instinct told him that as long as he could still hear them he'd have time, so he did his best to ignore them and moved faster.

When his house finally came into sight his feet ground to a stop, his heart sinking at the sight. Right now his house was completely dark, the interior of the windows hidden in shadows. Ryoko always kept a lantern lit in the front window from sunset to sunrise, even if she wasn't home, but right now he couldn't even see its outline against the darkness.

Stomach fluttering with dread, Masaru swallowed and glanced over his shoulder. The screams had stopped, the last one sounding about a minute ago. Whoever was responsible for it would surely be there soon. If they could kill chuunin and jounin from the Uchiha, one of the strongest clans in Konoha if not the strongest, Masaru had no doubt they'd be able to find a mere academy student. Maybe he should have run away when he saw the first body, tried to get help, but... it was a bit late for that.

He swiftly shook his head and steeled his nerves, swiftly walking towards his house.

Finding the front door unlocked filled Masaru with equal parts dread and apprehension. Mom always locks the door when she leaves. His hands shook as he quietly closed the door behind himself and bent down to unstrap his sandals, almost gagging as his fingers brushed against blood. He could adjust his weight in his steps more accurately barefoot, making it easier to move quietly, so ditching them seemed common sense.

Eerie silence filled the house as he crept down the halls quietly, every nerve in his body on high-alert and his eyes darting around erratically in search of danger. Rapidly fading natural light drifted through open doors and windows, casting everything in a faint dusty blue tint that made him shudder. He could feel the grooves and splinters in the floorboards beneath his bare feet, and he periodically cast worried glances downwards in search of any blood.

Each doorway showed him only empty rooms, filling him with a growing blend of relief and anxiety. Relief because he didn't see any corpses, no blood or signs of a fight. Anxiety because he didn't see any signs of his mother either. He faltered slightly as he passed the half-closed shoji door leading to the sitting room, hesitating before sliding it open. Three teacups sat on the low table, each given its own side, and as he slowly walked closer he recognized the painted designs on their sides.

Delicate indigo blossoms decorated one—anemones, according to his mother. A branching web of slender twigs sprouting red and gold leaves adorned the other, the sight making him freeze. When Ryoko had first painted the teacups Akari had specifically requested the one with autumn foliage be reserved for her exclusive use, and since then only she used it. It didn't make sense for it to be out, she should be at the hospital, right?


Chills running down his spine, Masaru smothered his growing sense of dread as he turned to study the final cup. Wisps of orange flames curled and twisted to resemble stylized flowers, and he noticed an amber-colored liquid glinting inside it. Hesitating, Masaru slowly dipped a finger in it and found it to be cool, suggesting it had been sitting there for a while now. A glance at the other cups revealed them to be empty.

He shook his head violently, turning and slipping back into the hall. Glancing down both directions, he turned and pressed onwards in his original route, hoping to find—what? Something? Nothing? He didn't know anymore.

Masaru just wanted to close his eyes and open them to find it was all a dream. That the main street of the compound wasn't littered in corpses and bloody weapons, that he didn't have blood splashed on his legs. He wanted his mom to come into his bedroom to gently chide him for oversleeping, for Akari to tease him about sleeping in and running late for class.


Masaru froze as he heard the low groan of something wooden come from the front of the house, recognizing it instantly as one of the squeakier floorboards by the front door.

Someone is here.

Ice filled his veins, and he swiftly ducked into the nearest open door while making as little noise as possible. He found himself in the spare sitting room they used for guests who may spend the night. Cabinets and shelves lined the walls, the sliding doors of a closet half-open to reveal folded blankets and a futon piled on the floor. Masaru practically flew to it and squeezed through the open gap, careful not to disturb the blankets as he climbed over the pile, and swiftly smoothed them of any wrinkles.

Cold sweat dripped down his face as he crouched in the corner behind the other door, slowly raising his hands and lacing his fingers over his mouth to suppress any sounds he might make. Quiet footsteps slowly moved through the house, each creak of the floorboards unnaturally loud in the absolute silence. Masaru's heart pounded erratically and painfully in his chest from the tension as they drew closer, his fingers pressing harder against his face as they paused just outside the sitting room.

Holding perfectly still, he squeezed his eyes shut and stilled his breathing, silently praying to whatever deities existed for the intruder to move on. After a long moment that felt like hours the footsteps finally resumed, continuing down the hall.

As the squeaks marked the intruder's path moving further away from his hiding spot Masaru's tense shoulders sagged slightly, releasing a large breath through his nose. Masaru held no illusions he was safe, knowing it would only be a matter of time before his hiding spot would be found, but for now he focused on regulating his breathing to soothe the tight and painful feeling in his chest. Then bloody metal stabbed through the closet door just inches in front of his face.

A strangled scream tore through Masaru's throat, stifled by his fingers which still pressed against his lips. His back slammed against the wall as he reeled fell backwards in surprise, but he barely noticed the dull pain, his gaze transfixed on the bloody blade as it slowly retracted through the flimsy rice paper door. Body going numb with fear, Masaru could only press against the wall in terror as the door slowly slid open, hands ripping away from his mouth to brace against the wall as tears streamed down his face.

A shadowy figure loomed in the doorway, dark red splashed across the whitish-gray vest and armored plates of the ANBU. Shadows concealed most of their facial features, but Masaru's breath hitched as he saw the distinct glow around their eyes, a ring of three tomoe orbiting a pupil against a backdrop of bloody crimson—Sharingan. Masaru's blood ran cold at the sight, paralyzed and unable to move.

"Uchiha Masaru," the intruder intoned monotonously, and his eyes widened as he recognized the voice.

Uchiha Itachi.

The highly vaunted prodigy and heir to the Uchiha clan, Sasuke's elder brother who would supervise their spars and help them train, always gentle in his demonstrations of techniques and his voice warm as he praised their improvements. His eyes held none of that gentle light now, the burning crimson of the Sharingan rendering them harsh and uncaring as his gaze bore into Masaru.

"Pathetic," the elder Uchiha droned, his voice flat yet sounding almost disgusted. "Faced with danger, yet you hide in a closet and don't even arm yourself. Has the academy truly taught you nothing, or have you refused to learn?"

"I-I-Itachi-s-s-san," Masaru sputtered, his voice wobbly and weak as he shrunk further under Itachi's disdainful gaze. "W-w-what's g-going on?" He could see the older boy's lips curl back in a sneer, disgust evident on his face.

"Is it not obvious?" He raised his sword slightly and Masaru's gaze instantly snapped towards it, flinching as Itachi pointed it at him. Fresh blood glinted darkly on its surface, the tip hovering so close to his throat he could almost feel it. Masaru's body stilled at the proximity, eyes slowly raising to meet Itachi's apathetic gaze. "I am wiping out this pathetic clan."

Masaru didn't speak, didn't even breathe in fear that the slight motion might cause his throat to bob and meet the blade. Just one thrust, and he would die. Skewered at the throat, neck torn asunder to expose his spine and vocal chords as he choked on his own blood. Slowly Itachi lowered the sword, moving it to point to his stomach instead. Cold metal pressed his skin through the fabric of his shirt, light enough to avoid puncturing his skin but the pressure sending chills down his spine nonetheless.

A scared whimper escaped him, his stomach muscles tensing and pulling inwards away from it. The blade withdrew slightly but kept Masaru still as Itachi crouched down, leaning forward so his mouth hovered near the young boy's ear. "You truly are pathetic," he murmured, his breath ruffling loose hairs. "I am sure Akari-chan would be much braver."

Akari. Masaru's eyes widened at his sister's name, his blood chilling even further, and then his gaze hardened. Swallowing harshly, his fists clenched at his side as he slowly turned his head to look at Itachi as the older boy pulled away, meeting his gaze directly. Flecks of black and pink visibly danced in the background of the Sharingan's red irises at this distance like a bloody jewel, the outline of the tomoe as they glided atop his corneas even more distinct.

"L-leave her alone," he growled, glaring at him hatefully. He saw a faint twitch in Itachi's features, the creases extending down his cheeks next to his nose flexing minutely as his eyelids parted ever so slightly before narrowing. His gaze seemed sharper now, even more intense than before, but Masaru still met his eyes, his own face pinched in tense resolve.

"Perhaps, you have more potential than I expected," Itachi whispered. Then a blossom of pain exploded in Masaru's stomach as the blade plummeted into him, ripping an agonized scream from the young boy.

Yanking it out, Itachi rose to his full height as Masaru hunched over with another cry, his hands flying to clutch the growing bloom of red around his abdomen. Burning pain seared from the wound, his vision blurring with tears as he gasped and choked in agony. In his periphery he could see Itachi's dark sandals retreat a half-step, and he shakily raised his head to glare at the older Uchiha.

"L-leave h-her alone!" he repeated loudly. Pain shook his voice and he hissed as he felt another tingle, but he remained firm in his resolve as he snarled, "Don't you d-dare touch her!" Hate filled his eyes as he glared at Itachi's apathetic face, catching another minute twitch in his otherwise blank features. The corners of his lips quirked upwards slightly, smirking at the pained boy.

"Yes, perhaps you will do after all," he mused thoughtfully. Then his hand shot out and yanked Masaru by the hair. The boy released a pained cry as he felt his hair sharply tug at his skin, the rest of his body jerking after it as his torso forcibly hunched over. Spots danced in his vision as the stab wound exploded into pain, eliciting another agonized shriek as he clutched it tighter and squeezed his eyes shut.

With one swift sweep of his arm Itachi had flung the boy into the air and over his shoulder, taking off almost instantly. His head and stomach throbbed as the fast steps harshly jostled his body, forcing him to grit his teeth to bite back more screams, and then he found himself roughly thrown onto something soft yet firm. Eyes opening with a gasp, he had enough time to recognize he was on top of a bed before Itachi forced his attention back to him, his shadow stretching over him as he crouched over him.

"When it comes to clans with doujutsu, there is a certain taboo regarding the eye," he began, slipping a kunai from the pack on his leg. He pressed it to Masaru's cheek just below his right eye, barely brushing the skin as the boy reflexively winced at the proximity and squeezed his eyelids shut. "Due to our dependence on it we develop an instinctual need to protect our eyes above all else. Ultimately, we begin to tie our eyes to our own value, to the point we would prefer to lose all of our limbs than lose a single eye."

Masaru's breaths grew shaky and sporadic as Itachi spoke, his body shaking violently as he began to quietly sob. Metal glided down his cheek, the cool flat of the kunai dragging a trail of icy tingles in its wake. He heard the metallic sweep of Itachi sheathing his katana before his other hand pressed his cheek, forcing the boy's head to turn onto its side so his ear pressed against the pillow.

"We begin to abhor inflicting such injuries on opponents," he whispered, his breath warm on Masaru's ear and his voice echoing in his eardrums. "We project our own insecurities onto our opponents, instinctually viewing such attacks as a torment no one deserves. We target every weak spot we can save for the eyes. It overrides other basic instincts, allowing us to give our opponents openings to attack."

Then bright pain surged from the side of his head and Masaru's eyes snapped open, gasping in shock. Warmth rolled over the side of his skull and trickled down his cheek, drops of red dripping past his eye. The elder Uchiha drew back from him and removed his hand from his skull, a blood-stained kunai dropping on the pillow in front of Masaru's face. The young boy winced and rolled his head to stare upward, wincing as he felt blood slosh around the side of his skull.

"W-w-what," he rasped, aware of how strange his voice sounded as he shakily raising a hand towards his head. His fingers threaded through his tangled locks, his fingertips brushing against sticky skin before grazing something soft and fleshy. Sharp pain exploded once more as the object shifted and he screamed, his voice sounding raw and hurt and weird and wrong.

Above him Itachi merely watched with an impassive gaze, his features blurring as tears filled Masaru's eyes. "Struggling will make the blood loss worse," he commented blandly, sounding slightly muffled and off-kilter. "You would be better to just remain still." He gripped Masaru's chin and forced the boy to meet his gaze, the tomoe spinning faster and faster until they blurred into a ring of blades, each one bent sharply and connecting directly to the next.

The world tinted red, and Masaru finally passed out.

Chapter Text

Chapter 7

"The words 'once upon a time' always bring to mind Disney-style fairy tales about princesses and heroes and magical journeys with talking animals and magic. There's a bit of trouble and some bad wizard or giant who needs to die, but at the end the good guys win and are rewarded for their efforts with gold or happiness or a wife.

Have you ever read Grimm's Fairy Tales? Most of them don't end 'happily ever after'. Disney has to add that in."

Once upon a time, a little boy who thought himself a man saw every person he loved and held dear to his heart die right in front of his eyes.

Strangled cries of dead people's names died on his lips as he'd wake in his bed in the middle of the night, his sleep-addled mind still conjuring flashes of the coppery tang of blood in the air as he sucked in sharp, ragged breaths. Flashes of familiar faces filled with pain, regret, suffering, despair stared at him from his eyelids whenever he closed his eyes, light fading from their eyes even as he looked straight into them.

Grief and remorse haunted his every step, his every waking moment, until finally he forced himself to close off his heart lest the pain become too much to bear. He decided to live the only way he could think of to honor the memories of his now-gone precious people, and thus lived solely to perform his duty to the village which so many of them sacrificed their lives to protect. The uniform of the ANBU became his armor, the mask shielding him from the overwhelming regret that defined his life.

Dried blood still clung to his jounin uniform when he visited the memorial stone that day, barely an hour after returning from yet another mission full of death and carnage. Going home to clean off briefly crossed his mind, but as usual his legs had carried him to the training grounds to greet the only reminder of his teammates.

He had seen plenty of other visitors in the past, but the sight of a little girl with a red and white fan on her back still caught him by surprise.

His covered eye burned behind his hitai-ate as he stared at the familiar crest connected to so many beautiful and painful memories, his heart wrenching with a renewed sense of regret. Outwardly he kept his cool as he approached, stopping to stand next to her without a word. Wisps of a one-sided conversation tapered away as he drew close, and the girl stood in silence by the time he reached her side.

As his eyes skimmed over the list of names he'd read so many times he could probably write them from memory, he could feel the girl fidget next to him. A downward glance from the corner of his eye revealed two black orbs peering at him curiously, and they quickly averted back to the stone. After a moment the girl spared him one more brief glance before turning away once more, and he felt a small tingle of amusement as he noted her gaze flicker one last time to the blood on his pants.

This marked the first encounter between Hatake Kakashi and Uchiha Akari, and it would become the first of many.

Over the ensuing months Kakashi would visit the memorial to find her speaking in hushed tones and trailing into silence when he approached. The presence of a small Uchiha girl admittedly piqued his curiosity, as he knew that the Uchiha clan had its own cemetery where they would erect gravestones even for those whose bodies never returned. He concluded she must be visiting a non-Uchiha acquaintance, yet even that idea seemed rather out of character for the heavily isolated Uchiha clan.

Technically speaking, it wasn't his business. But all good ninja developed a healthy curiosity, and his reached the point that Kakashi finally gave in. Sneaking up on her to overhear her conversation briefly crossed his mind, but then Kakashi realized that would be a lot of effort for a kid who couldn't be older than six. Not to mention rude, he didn't want anyone to spy on his conversations with Obito or Rin or Minato-sensei.

So for once in his life, he decided to go for a direct approach.

"You know, I see you here a lot," he commented one day, and the girl visibly started at the sound of his voice, jumping to the side with a loud gasp. Once her initial surprise wore off, she relaxed and slowly nodded.

"You too, shinobi-san," she replied, turning back to the stone, and Kakashi nodded.

"Who do you come for?" he asked, his voice dropping to a softer and more gentle note. To her credit the girl didn't really react to the question, looking thoughtful before answering.

"My uncle and dad," she replied quietly, and he felt his eyebrows rise. The mystery deepened, he thought sardonically. Her eyes flitted to him once more, and after a moment of clear hesitation she asked, "What about you?"

The question sent sharp pangs of grief through Kakashi because of course she would ask that, he should have expected that since he'd asked first. Sometimes he really hated how socially stunted he was. When he didn't answer right away, the girl quickly began fidgeting with the hem of her shirt and said, "Um, you don't have to answer. I know it's personal and probably painful."

Silent gratitude flooded him at not having to answer, and he nodded. "Thank you. Though if you don't mind me asking, then why did you answer when I asked?" She blinked, clearly caught off-guard by the question, and after a moment she turned back to the rock with a shrug.

"Well, I guess because I never actually knew them?" Her voice ended on a slightly higher note that made it sound like a question, telling him she was sounding out her reasoning even as she spoke. "They both died before we were born." 'We,' not 'I,' he noted absently, suggesting she might be a twin. "Mom doesn't really talk about dad that much, but she tells us a lot about our uncle. Masaru likes to talk to his grave, so I decided to come here to talk to him since it has his name too."

Something about the name Masaru sparked something in Kakashi's mind, dredging up some forgotten snippet of information deep in his memories, and the silver-haired ANBU began rooting through his thoughts until—

Oh, he thought lamely. She's one of Ryoko's kids.

Kakashi had met Uchiha Ryoko several times back when he still had a team, the woman often showing up at training sessions to bring Obito his forgotten lunch or dragging the perpetually tardy boy to meetings so he'd arrive on time for once. She had struck him as friendly and warm, and while she'd been taken off the roster due to a nervous breakdown following a certain traumatic event before the team's formation, even as an admittedly snot-nosed elitist brat he still held a certain respect for her.

And Kakashi also knew Ryoko and her husband Ryuusuke had no siblings.

A fresh wave of guilt washed over him as he looked at the small girl next to him, because how could he not feel guilty when he was the one responsible for the death of her uncle? His gifted eye burned even more painfully at the bitter realization that Ryoko had never truly stopped mourning for Obito if she went so far as to tell her children about him as an uncle-like figure. They probably would have grown up calling him Uncle Obito, and Obito would probably hound him and Rin with photos and proud stories of their smallest accomplishments—

Kakashi pushed the thoughts away before it became too painful, instead swallowing and slowly nodding. "I see," he murmured, his voice just slightly more strained than usual. To his relief she didn't pick up on it, and instead they fell silent as they regarded the memorial once more until he finally disappeared in a whirl of leaves.

After that, Kakashi didn't visit the memorial for a while. Just thinking of Akari filled him with sharp stabs of shame, because that little girl represented the bright future Obito could have had if he'd lived. The future Kakashi stole from Obito due to his disgraceful actions that fateful day. He couldn't stomach facing her or Obito, not anymore. Akari visited Obito enough, and surely he'd prefer to keep her company over the man who caused his death.

A month passed with Kakashi steadily avoiding the memorial, and then one day he heard a tap at his window and turned to find a gray cat staring at him with a rolled-up piece of paper tied to its neck.

Cats and Kakashi did not totally mix. Some people liked to jokingly compare him to one due to his aloof and independent nature, but Kakashi had a much stronger connection to dogs due to the fact that he summoned them. He also knew that ninneko had a connection to the Uchiha, so the presence of one made his stomach churn.

Nonetheless, he sucked it up and opened his window to let the feline visitor inside, knowing better than to ignore it. Slinking inside and stepping onto the desk, the cat sank to its haunches as its bushy tail curled around its legs, its head held high and its posture giving it an unbelievably regal air. Pear-colored eyes bore into Kakaashi as it tilted its head back to expose its neck, allowing him to untie the small piece of paper. Once he'd taken it the cat rose again and leapt out the window, disappearing into the streets.

Unrolling the small sheet, Kakashi found a somewhat brief note in vaguely familiar handwriting.

'Kakashi, my daughter Akari told me she met a shinobi at the memorial and he hasn't visited the memorial recently. She didn't know your name but I assumed she meant you since I don't know any other people have silver hair and one eye covered. Akari is very worried and thinks you might have died. I won't claim to know why you stopped visiting, and I know we haven't spoken in years, but I want you to know this:

I do not blame you. What happened that day is tragic, but Obito chose to die and gave you his eye. If I know Obito half as well as I think I do, I doubt he would want me to spend my time seething in hatred and anger at you for something he did. I also know he would not want you to suddenly avoid the memorial out of a misplaced sense of guilt. For all your fighting, I think he considered you a good friend, even if he didn't realize it.

I hope you start visiting again. Akari would be relieved to learn that you're fine, and I think Obito misses you too.

-Uchiha Ryoko'

When he finished reading it Kakashi felt numb, his mouth dry and Obito's eye stinging even more than usual as he stared at the piece of paper.

The next day he went to the memorial and found Akari waiting there, and when she turned and saw him approach her eyes lit up with a relief so heavy that he felt another wave of guilt for making her worry about him.

Once upon a time, the boy who thought himself a man met a little girl whose eyes shined so bright they could penetrate the bleakest night, and a smile so warm it could melt the ice off the mountains.

From then on, Kakashi made an effort to talk to Akari more often. Nothing deep and personal, just little comments. Fierce determination sparkled in her eyes when she spoke of her desire to become a powerful kunoichi, though not necessarily called as such. "Everyone always calls Tsunade one of the strongest kunoichi," she commented. "Like the fact that she's strong for a kunoichi is special. I don't want to be known as a strong kunoichi, I want to be known as one of the most skilled people, man or woman."

"Well, if anyone can do it, I'm sure you can, Akari-chan," Kakashi demurred, his eye crinkling in a smile, and she broke into a proud grin that filled him with warmth. He had broken into the academy at this point to peruse her records, and he could tell that even for a first-year student she showed incredible potential. Not genius-level like him or Itachi, but still well above average. She scored higher than all the other girls and ranked within the top five students.

Casual observations during subsequent encounters led Kakashi to realize she had a bit more than just that, though. He noticed that Akari would often notice him approach even when he tried to mask his presence, and on more than one occasion he noticed her gaze absently flickering to their surroundings. Every time his heightened sense of smell allowed him to catch the scent of other people in whatever direction she glanced, obviously fellow ninja using the training grounds.

After a month of observing her like that, Kakashi reached the conclusion that Uchiha Akari had a natural capacity for sensing, and that she had yet to realize it. The realization only heightened her appreciation for the girl, and he felt a growing sense of anticipation. Akari glowed with a raw potential that made his heart race as he thought of the person she could become, and for the first time in his life, Kakashi wanted to help shape that potential.

Then one day while walking through the marketplace he suddenly noticed that he was contemplating how to tell the Hokage he might be willing to take on a genin squad in a few years if it had her on it.

"Shit," he groaned aloud, banging his head on a nearby wall and startling the nearby pedestrians.

Against all odds Hatake Kakashi had grown attached to a seven-year-old girl. Obito must be rolling around laughing his butt off at his expense.

The realization he cared for Akari scared him. For years Kakashi had closed off his heart and pushed others away, erecting a wall to keep himself isolated so he wouldn't reel in the pain of loss. Right now their unlikely friendship would be fine, but if he became Akari's teacher like he apparently desired, her life would be in his hands. Every time he looked in a mirror he was reminded of his failures, and the idea of possibly making another mistake terrified him.

And as he stood in the middle of a busy street with his head leaning against a wall, Kakashi decided that he would never let that happen. He would never lose another comrade as long as he could prevent it.

So kept speaking to Akari at the memorial, letting himself become more relaxed and lighthearted around her. Gradually Kakashi stopped closing himself off from his friends, and stopped fighting their attempts to nudge him back into the fold.

He began responding to challenges from Gai rather than avoiding the boisterous man who loudly declared them eternal rivals. He accepted invitations to join Genma, Raidou and Aoba for drinks at bars. He still turned down similar invitations from Anko, but that was just common sense. Initially he found interacting with his old friends to be a bit awkward after going so long without talking to him, but they welcomed him with open arms and helped him ease back into the swing of things.

Life began to perk up for Kakashi, and for the first time in years he found himself genuinely smiling as he teased Asuma about long-standing suspicions of a possible romantic affection towards Kurenai. He even started dragging Tenzo, sweet, innocent, lovable socially awkward Tenzo, away from the confines of the ANBU headquarters into public settings to force him to interact with their peers. The icy numbness that had once dictated his daily routines began to thaw, and Kakashi basked in the warmth of his comrades for the first time in years.

Then, one night, everything changed.

In all his years as ANBU, Kakashi had seen many horrible things. He had witnessed acts of cruelty so awful, so unspeakably evil that some of his comrades immediately resigned following the mission's completion. He thought he'd numbed himself to violence, that nothing could disturb him anymore.

But as he and a full ANBU battalion stood at the gates of the Uchiha clan district, staring at corpses strewn all about the street, he realized he'd never been more wrong in his life.

His heart hammered dangerously loud in his ears in the resounding silence that filled the area, his blood colder than ice as his stomach painfully sank with an overwhelming sense of dread. The Hokage's authoritative voice boomed out orders to scour for survivors, and no sooner had the words left his mouth than Kakashi darted forward, breaking away from the ranks of ANBU.

Months had passed since his last visit to the Uchiha clan compound to fetch Itachi for an urgent mission, and he didn't know the layout very well, but he knew where to go. His legs carried him down a familiar path he hadn't visited in used in years, vaguely noticing that two of his subordinates had broken off to follow him, before finally a dark house came into sight. The partially-open door nearly tore off its hinges at the force he used to shove it open, uncaring of the damage as he raced inside.

His heart pounded harder and harder as the rotten tang of blood and death assaulted his nose, even clearer in the confined space of the house. He knew instantly that at least one person had already died here, their corpse hours old. However, beneath that he noticed a fresher scent, blood still new and exposed, and with his heart in his throat Kakashi followed it to a closed door.

Flinging it open with enough force to crack the wood, Kakashi felt his breath hitch at the sight he found. A small boy laid atop a bloody mattress with his eyes closed and his face too too pale even in the dim light, his features contorted in agony and the right side of his head covered in blood. Torn bed sheets wrapped around his torso as a makeshift bandage and a large red spot stained the white fabric above his stomach, the color vibrant and fresh. Kakashi could see his chest rising and falling, his breaths shallow and ragged, but he breathed nonetheless.

His training kicked in and Kakashi flickered to the boy's side, tearing off his porcelain mask as he began checking his vitals while one of his subordinates silently ran off to get help. Based upon the position of the blood stain and the color, the stab wound had missed any vital organs. A closer look at his head revealed the blood came not from a stab to the brain but instead the torn remains of his ear, largely sliced away from his skull and attached by a few slivers of skin, but still largely intact.

As he continued surveying the boy's condition he heard his subordinate return with more people in tow, and soon enough an ANBU agent with a badger mask appeared next to him. "I'm a medical ninja, let me look," she ordered brusquely, and Kakashi acquiesced as he stepped aside so she could take over caring for him. With the immediate risk taken care of Kakashi quickly departed the room to resume his search of the house.

He got barely three steps when he felt a hand grip his shoulder, and he turned to see the Third Hokage standing behind him, his face grave.

"Don't go any further," he ordered softly, and Kakashi stared at him in surprise before frowning.

"What? But, sir, I need to—"

"Kakashi, don't go any further," the Third repeated, and his eyes held a tinge of unmistakable remorse and sadness. Kakashi opened his mouth to question the order, because how could he not look for one of his precious people, when suddenly he heard a cry of horror from someone else in the house. Instantly he turned to pursue the source, but before he could move the Third grabbed both shoulders and held him back.

As Kakashi began to struggle to break free the Third barked right in his ear, "That's an order! Do not look any more, Kakashi, you have already seen too much!" The firm tone made Kakashi instantly stiffened and relaxed in the leader's grip, his head bowing sharply. Once he felt certain Kakashi wouldn't try to disobey him, the Third released him and ordered him to search the rest of the compound, and Kakashi obeyed without another word.

Later he would learn that Uchiha Itachi had committed the massacre, killing everyone in his clan save his brother Sasuke, Uchiha Masaru and Uchiha Akari.

Instead Akari died at the hands of her own mother.

When he read the report, Kakashi felt nothing but numbness and utter revulsion. Her head had been cleaved from her body and her eyeballs shredded to bits, shreds of the tissue found on Ryoko's bloody fingernails and her blood on the woman's sword. A deep slash in the back told them that Ryoko herself had fallen to Itachi, but not before carving out her own eyeballs with a kunai.

For what little he knew Ryoko, Kakashi had known her to be unstable. He knew she had been growing increasingly unhinged and anxious even in the short amount of time he knew her during his time on Team Seven. Killing her own child so she wouldn't suffer at the hands of a killer felt tragically and horrifically in line with her high-strung nature. No doubt she would have done the same to Masaru, too, she may have even been waiting for his return when Itachi killed her.

Perhaps Itachi had chosen to spare Masaru after seeing the gruesome sight, a sort of twisted pity for a boy whose mother had gone mad in her final moments. A twinge of a conscience which had otherwise eluded him that horrible night.

In any event though, it hardly mattered. Akari, one of his few precious people, the girl who had helped bright light back to his world, had died. Once again Kakashi found himself faced with overwhelming loss and guilt for not doing enough, for not seeing signs soon enough. But this time, as he stood at the memorial honoring her and all the other victims, he realized he wasn't alone.

Tenzo and Gai stood beside him in silent commiseration, Asuma, Genma, Raidou and Aoba lined up around him almost like a protective formation while Kurenai stood on his other side with a comforting hand squeezing his shoulder. As he slowly realized all these people had come there just to support him, Kakashi felt the walls he'd built around himself start to crumble a bit more.

His borrowed eye burned as something warm and wet began to trickle down his cheek. Before he could even realize what it was he suddenly found himself enveloped in scores of arms, soft promises of we're here for you and everything will be okay barely registering as everyone pressed against him. More warmth trailed down his other cheek from his own eye as he began shaking violently, and Kakashi just closed his eyes as he let himself sink into the warmth.

Once upon a time the boy who thought himself a man met a little girl who broke the walls he built around his heart. Then one day that little girl died, and when she did he became a boy again.

Chapter Text

Chapter 8

"You know what's soft and sweet and fluffy? Cotton candy. I want tooth-rotting sugary cotton candy, not teeth-shattering yucky charcoal-texture asparagus and broccoli. Life doesn't really give you what you want though, does it?"

Masaru woke up in a hospital bed and screamed.

Unfamiliar people flooded the room instantly, surrounding him in a sea of blurry white forms. Burning pain continued to cloud his mind, leaving him barely aware of his surroundings. His stomach, his ear, his eye, it all hurt so bad, so so bad. A swirling kaleidoscope of red and black flashed in his mind, his heart spiking in fear as he tried to lurch to his feet and flee.

Firm hands pinned his legs and arms to the mattress though, and he began thrashing and flailing against them, shrieking again in a voiceless plea for the pain to stop. Slick latex-coated fingers brushed his hair away from his face and more hands held his head down, keeping it steady as a mask slipped over his mouth.

Masaru had no memory of passing out. He simply woke up in bed feeling groggy and sleepy, his mind hazy and wanting to go back to sleep. Quiet voices murmured around him, whispering about vitals and trauma and permanent injury. Masaru ignored them and rolled onto his side, snuggling into his pillow as he tried to let sleep claim him. As he did the voices mercifully stopped, making it easier to fall asleep.

Of course they wouldn't let him though.

"Uchiha-san?" a soft voice prodded, and his eyebrows twitched in annoyance, hugging the pillow tighter. "Uchiha-san, please don't go back to sleep yet." No, he wanted to sleep. The voices didn't give him a chance though, and soon he found himself forced to roll over, the back of the bed lifting with a mechanical whir to leave him reclining rather than lying flat.

Moaning, Masaru tried to voice his irritation but found himself unable to conjugate his thoughts aloud, his voice little more than a slurred groan when he tried to speak. "Here, you need to drink," another voice said, and he felt something press against his lips, a straw. Suddenly realized just how thirsty he felt, and so he eagerly sipped it, allowing the cool refreshing liquid to wash down his throat.

With his hydration came a renewed alertness, his senses rousing and becoming clearer. He was inside a hospital room, he realized. Medical ninja flitted about the room, their baggy white uniforms and puffy hats gradually coming into focus as the last remnants of sleep faded from his eyes. An IV drip dug into his left arm, the sensation slightly uncomfortable but not particularly painful.

Frowning, he raised his other hand to rub his eyes only to wince as he felt a dull ache in his side. Glancing down, his eyes widened as he glimpsed bandages swathing his torso, several layers of thick, plushy white pads pressed against a singular spot on his stomach. Flashes of a red-stained blade flickered through his mind, the sharp pain blooming in his abdomen in time with the blossom of red—

Masaru didn't even notice he was screaming before nurses rushed forward, doing their best to soothe him.

Needless to say, the first few hours after waking up were... unpleasant.

"I am sorry, Masaru-kun."

The last thing Masaru ever expected to hear was an apology from the Hokage, but here he was, listening to the strongest shinobi in the village offering his sincerest condolences with a sympathetic look. Masaru just stared at the ceiling blankly, only refraining from curling up into a fetal position due to his reluctance to stretch the wound in his stomach further. The Hokage's words echoed in his brain, making his thoughts churn violently.

Four nights ago, Uchiha Itachi had gone on a rampage within the compound. In the span of a single night, the near entirety of the Uchiha clan had fallen to his sword, from ten-year-old rookie genin Akira to old bedridden Aunt Himiko. Masaru had returned shortly after the massacre began, yet by that time so many of his clansmen had already fallen. Itachi had shown no mercy to them, and yet—

And yet, Masaru survived.

He was battered and bleeding, his mind permanently scarred, but he was alive. He almost wished he wasn't though.

"Akari," he rasped, pressing his hands into his eyes and pushing down until spots swirled behind his eyelids. "What about, Akari..."

"I am sorry," the Hokage replied simply, and Masaru felt the world shatter.

Masaru would be spending the next few weeks in the hospital. According to the doctors, Itachi's sword had missed any vital organs, the most damage simply rising from blood loss. The wound would barely even scar, they assured him, offering him reassuring smiles meant to assuage any anxiety. Not like he particularly cared.

However, his head was another story.

Scratchy bandages wound tightly around his skull, digging into his skin and hair as they secured another white patch over the right side of his skull. He remembered how Itachi had forced his head to turn on its side, blood seeping into his vision as the world grew partially muffled. Masaru now knew it was because his ear had been sliced almost clean off his skull, attached only by a thin sliver of flesh.

Doctors managed to reattach it, so his head wouldn't look lopsided, but their repairs only extended to a cosmetic level. Irreparable damage had been done to the inner workings of his ear, physically shredded by the kunai and too delicate for them to completely repair. Perhaps someone else could fix it, but no one at the hospital had enough experience working with ears to feel comfortable attempting it.

In short, Masaru would most likely never hear from his right ear again.

The realization had been mind-numbing. Partial deafness could be a crippling blow to any ninja's career, it provided a significant handicap. But somehow, Masaru found he didn't mind too much.

Itachi's bone-chilling whispers about the importance of eyes echoed in his mind, the memory of the cold steel of the kunai pressing against his cheek just inches below his eyelid making him shudder even now. Everything about his words and actions led Masaru to expect Itachi to gouge out his eyeballs. He'd even felt a bit of pain in his right eye when he woke up that first time, his mind in utter anarchy. In comparison, losing his hearing in one ear barely bothered him.

But he'd gladly give up both eyes if he could change the outcome of that night.

A soft click drew him from his thoughts, and Masaru exhaled softly through his nose as he let his eyelids droop shut. The stream of visitors never seemed to end, whether it be doctors or ANBU guards, and it exhausted him. Footsteps approached his bedside, soft and light on the tile floor before stopping. Fingers hesitantly brushed his arm, trembling as they brushed against his skin, and his eyes snapped open in surprise to find a pair of black orbs boring into him.

Uchiha Sasuke stood beside him, staring at him wide-eyed. His hand snapped away from Masaru's arm upon realizing he was awake, so fast his arm became little more than a dark blur, but he didn't look away. "You're... y-you're..." He began to whisper but his voice quickly tapered off, unable to vocalize his thoughts.

A long moment of silence passed, neither boy speaking as they just soaked in each other's appearances. Heavy bags hung under Sasuke's eyes, suggesting he hadn't particularly slept well, and his skin seemed paler than usual. Aside from that though he seemed fine, but the look in his eyes said otherwise. Though Sasuke had always been a bit withdrawn when it came to showing his emotions, right now his eyes looked empty. Unfeeling.


Yet as the pair continued staring at each other, something sparked in Sasuke's onyx orbs. Hesitating, he reached out a shaky hand and carefully wrapped his fingers around Masaru's wrist. Reflexively Masaru's fingers curled inwards and a breath caught in his throat, the touch sending a shockwave of tingles through his body. Sasuke's hand jerked back as if shocked—and maybe he was shocked, if he felt anything close to what Msaru just felt—and he stared at Masaru with widening eyes.

"You're alive," he breathed, sounding disbelieving. Then his face scrunched up, gritting his teeth as he obviously tried to keep himself from crying. "H-how?"

The question made Masaru wince, feeling his shock fade into a blank mask as he recalled the hellish experience. The cold look in Itachi's eyes, the sharp pain that had clouded his senses, the intense terror that had dominated his entire being. The rush of memories washed over him swift and heavy, yet instead of panic and anxiety, he felt... nothing. Only numbness remained in its wake.

Next to him Sasuke stiffened, the spark fading from his eyes as his face fell blank, quickly averting his gaze. "...Don't answer," he muttered. "You... don't have to." Masaru just nodded, his gaze focused on his lap. Thick silence lapsed over them once more, this one heavier than before.

The next few weeks passed in a blur, Masaru mostly restricted to bed rest as he recovered from his injuries with daily physical therapy sessions. He missed the memorial held the day before he woke up, but Sasuke assured him he missed nothing, his voice taking on a slightly bitter note as he said so. Whether his bitterness was directed at the event, the situation, or maybe even himself, Masaru couldn't tell. But he at least knew that it wasn't directed at him.

While Sasuke treated everyone else coolly and kept them at a distance, he let the facade slip around Masaru, his cold glower softening to a simply hollow look. He visited Masaru in the hospital every day, sitting in the chair by his bedside for hours on end even if they never spoke. During this time Sasuke's eighth birthday rolled around, and they spent the day in his hospital room, both glaring at the two slices of cake a nurse brought them.

"I don't even like sweet stuff," Sasuke grumbled with a pout.

"I don't think I'm allowed to eat it yet," Masaru complained sullenly. Having a hole in his stomach meant he couldn't eat whatever he wanted, which made staring at the cake torture. All in all, Sasuke's eighth birthday was not a happy one for either Uchiha boy.

The next day Sasuke returned to the academy with promises to visit after class. Masaru still had another two weeks before the doctors would allow him to return to class, and even then he'd have to refrain from the more physical activities. The sterile hospital room felt suffocating by this point, leaving the bedridden boy feeling as if he'd been locked in a bright white prison.

When the doctors finally permitted Masaru to leave the hospital for a walk, Masaru jumped on the chance. Dressed in a clean set of clothes someone kindly retrieved from his house, he slipped into the streets and silently made his way across town, careful to avoid the busier areas. Whispers echoed around him as pedestrians glimpsed the red and white fan emblazoned on his back, the proud symbol of his once-great clan making him even more notable now that only two remained in Konoha.

Distantly, Masaru wondered where he was going, his legs seeming to be on autopilot. Sasuke would still be in class at the moment, but he didn't particularly feel like going to the academy and facing the barrage of questions. The Uchiha clan compound and his house briefly crossed his mind, but he shuddered at the memory of the corpses strewn about the streets, the overwhelming terror as Itachi easily mutilated him on his mother's bed.

Ultimately, he hardly felt surprised when his path took him to the cemetery.

Slowly walking past the rows of headstones, his gaze briefly flickered towards the large marble slab erected towards the edge of the field, the stone shiny and unworn just like Shisui's grave had once been. Mountains of flowers surrounded it in a blend of red and white, a respectful tribute to the Uchiha clan's crest.

According to Sasuke most of the clan had been cremated, their remains scattered to the wind and their names engraved on the single memorial stone. Only a precious few relatives received their own burials: those who either already had immediate family already buried there, like a child or spouse... or those who held particular importance to the two survivors.

Gaze gliding over the colorful flower arrangements decorating a handful of graves scattered about the cemetery, suddenly Masaru found blackness overtook his vision. It took a moment to realize he'd pressed his hands into his eyes again, and he gritted his teeth, allowing the spots to spin and swirl behind closed lids as he turned. His legs took a mind of their own once more, weaving expertly through the maze of tombstones as his feet mechanically traced a path he'd followed countless times before.

When he finally removed his hands and allowed his vision to clear, he stood before the empty grave of Uchiha Obito.

Masaru plopped down on the grass next to it, leaning his back against the slab bearing his deceased pseudo-uncle's name. A shuddery breath passed his lips, the young boy tilting his head back towards the sky and closing his eyes. The sounds of the world seemed to grow more muffled, the world receding into nothingness until only he and the stone slab remained.

Vaguely, he felt like someone was watching, but then, he felt that a lot when he came here. It comforted him, made him think maybe Obito was watching over him.

"I don't want to talk to them," he whispered after a long while. "I'm used to you not saying anything, but... Mom and Akari..." He trailed off, his heart wrenching painfully. He had grown up speaking to Obito only as a name on a tombstone; he had never heard Obito's voice, never actually had a conversation with him. His family, on the other hand—

He'd never his mother's laugh again. He'd never hear his sister's delighted gasps. He'd never hear their synchronized giggles carefully timed to thoroughly unnerve him. Ryoko would never wake him in the middle of the night with her nightmare-induced screams. Akari would never whisper soft lullabies to herself as she tried to ignore the raging thunderstorms.

They would never kiss him on the cheek, pull him into a tight embrace, hold his hand and whisper soft words of encouragement when he felt down. Never again would his mother lift her paintbrush and stroke life onto blank canvas, never again would Akari's shuriken hit the targets dead-center, never again would he and Akari argue over what flavor of cake they wanted for their birthday or whose favorite dinner should be served that year.

Blackness consumed his vision once more as his palms buried into his eyes, his body wracked with violent tremors.

Akari, his twin sister, his other half, his greatest friend, was dead.

No loss felt as heavy as hers, not even their mother's. He and Akari had been together from the moment they were born, their personalities growing around each other to fill in the gaps the other left. Even if they drifted towards different people at school no one could compare to the bond they shared, no one had the same magnetic pull that they felt towards each other.

Bitter tears leaked from beneath his palms and rolled down his cheeks, a choked sound escaping his lips. "Why," he croaked. "Why...?" Why was she there? Why wasn't she at the hospital? Why did she die? Why did he live? Why did he have to be the one who was alone? Why couldn't they both live? Why couldn't they both have died?

Masaru just spent hours grieving next to the grave of a man he never met, his eyes burning under his palms as he mourned the loss of his most precious person.

That night, Masaru dreamed of a boy strapped to a table in a dark room, thick cloth stuffed into his mouth and bandages wrapped around his eyes.

Delicate fingers slowly untied the knot and began unwinding the gauze one layer at a time, and when the final layer fell away the boy's eyelids twitched before the right lid slowly parted. A dark onyx orb stared blankly above, unfocused and unseeing. Flecks of crimson flickered and red swiftly bled into the blackness, spreading to fill the iris and smoothly flowing around the outlines of three tomoe.

"Live," a voice commanded in a whisper, and the eye exploded into a bloody sunburst, the tomoe stretching into slender, wispy tendrils extending from a small black sun.

The eye still burned into his mind as his eyes shot open with a ragged breath, cold sweat clinging to his skin.

Live, the whisper repeated in his head, and all Masaru could do was whisper, "How?"

Chapter Text

Chapter 9

"Grief is like getting drunk. Everyone reacts to alcohol differently, just like everyone grieves differently. Some people just blubber and wail at the top of their lungs at the littlest trigger. Others get into fist fights because they think someone blinked at them the wrong way. Though I wonder about the people who smile and laugh while grieving..."


Masaru and Sasuke didn't go back to the compound, they couldn't with the painful memories it held. Instead the village moved them into a small, two-bedroom apartment, filled with brand new furniture, new dishware, new clothes, new everything.

When Masaru first arrived, the apartment felt empty, its blank white walls cold and unwelcoming. Sasuke had already moved in earlier that week, but he hadn't brought anything from his old house, or purchased anything new aside from what the village provided. No personal traces existed, no decorations like the paintings or carvings that adorned the walls of his own home, nothing that would tell a visitor that they lived here instead of some random stranger. It made it feel even lonelier.

He and Sasuke didn't speak much those first two days, their interactions limited as Masaru continued to rest in his room on doctor's orders. Two chairs and a small wooden folding table found their way into his bedroom, Sasuke joining him for meals and working on homework in silence. More than once they would glance up and open their mouths as if to speak, but their words would die on their lips and they would lower their heads once more.

Once Monday arrived, the boys made their way to the academy in silence, instinctively walking close together. Over three weeks had passed since Masaru had last attended class, and as the string of buildings comprising the academy came into sight he felt his chest tighten. Their new apartment lay in a different direction from the compound, the angle as they approached the academy filling him with a conflicting sense of recognition and unfamiliarity.

More and more eyes focused on them as they drew closer, his head hanging lower in response. Heavy attention had always left the naturally introverted Masaru uncomfortable, hence why he usually remained quiet. With his extended absence and newfound status as one of only two Uchiha though, it was only natural everyone would suddenly notice him. He shifted uncomfortably and stepped a little closer to Sasuke, his gaze focused on his feet as he tried to ignore all the gazes.

As such, he didn't notice the yellow blur racing at him until he found himself tackled to the ground.

Falling onto his back with a startled yelp, Masaru stared at the sky with a stunned look on his face before his eyes slid to the blond blob atop him. Cerulean eyes peered down at him, bright and shiny and looking ready to cry. "Masaru," a familiar voice croaked, "I missed you so much!" Mildly dazed and confused by the sudden assault, it took him a couple of seconds to recognize the face and voice.


"Uzumaki Naruto, get off him right now!"

The loud, booming voice of one of their teachers cut through the silence, prompting Naruto to startle and jump off Masaru. Before Masaru could react the teacher appeared and grabbed the small blond by the arm, scowling at him as Naruto squirmed uncomfortably. Masaru quickly sat up, darting a brief glance at a surprised-looking Sasuke before the teacher's hiss drew his attention once more. "Don't you dare touch Uchiha-san ever again!"

"B-but, Masaru—"

"Shut up!" the man hissed, and Naruto winced as his grip tightened, giving a small whimper of pain. "You have no business speaking to him so familiarly, you damn demon brat!"

His words seemed to resonate through the schoolyard, muffling all other sounds until only echoes of his voice remained. Demon brat. Demon brat. Demon brat.

"Sorry, it's just—it's just really cool to have a friend, you know?" Naruto said, smiling sheepishly as they sat at the ramen stand.

Masaru watched numbly as Naruto struggled to escape the teacher's grip, the man's face red as he yelled soundlessly while Naruto looked ready to cry. He felt a touch on his shoulder and turned to see Sasuke looking at him worriedly, his mouth moving yet making no sound. Had his hearing failed? Or was it just shock?

Demon brat. Demon brat. Demon brat.

Taking a deep breath through his nose, Masaru closed his eyes and let calmness wash over him, willing the echoes to stop. Sound began filtering through his one good ear once more, and when he opened his eyes again he saw the teacher dragging Naruto away, still glaring and hollering horrific insults at the teary-eyed blond.

He wanted to scream. He wanted to launch his body at the teacher with an angry roar and topple the man to the ground. He wanted to claw and punch him until his face bled raw, his skin shredded to hamburger under his bare fists and his lips split open.

He'd lost so much: his mother, his sister, his right ear, his entire clan, his ability to sleep through the night without horrible visions of bloody pinwheels spinning and twisting into long blades against a crimson sky—

"I'm just—I'm just not used to having a friend either," Masaru said, offering a smile so feeble and small, yet full of sincerity.

He didn't want to lose his only friend.

So why couldn't he make himself move?

The days at the academy blurred. Whispers surrounded Masaru wherever he went, eyes constantly seeming to bore into his back, but he didn't care. Every time Naruto attempted to approach him, adults would chase him off, some subtly redirecting him with little errands while others openly growled at him to keep his distance from "that poor boy". The way they spoke to Naruto made Masaru want to be mad, to be disgusted and irritated at them, but he couldn't.

He felt... nothing.

At lunchtime Masaru would eat lunch with Sasuke, sitting in the training field watching the raven-haired boy spend lunch practicing with kunai and shuriken. Masaru still hadn't been cleared to resume training, but Sasuke seemed a bit more relaxed with him there. He noticed Sasuke became far cooler around others, withdrawing into himself and paying no mind to their classmates.

His previous numbness had swiftly evolved into a chilly, slow-burning resolve, throwing himself into his training and working for hours on end until his fingers blistered and bled, at which point he'd bandage them and resume the next day. They never spoke about it directly, but both knew it stemmed from Sasuke's desire to kill his brother, to avenge their clan. Killing Itachi had become his primary motivation, and he worked on it constantly.

Yet whereas Sasuke grew angry, Masaru just felt more hollow. His work ethic at school floundered, his grief consuming him. Weapon practice always reminded him of his sister's impeccable aim, sparring reminded him of those countless hours spent training at Sasuke's home under Itachi's watchful gaze. The scar on his stomach ached when they went over the various types of swords, his right ear throbbing in tune to the vibrations of his heartbeat.

'A ninja must never show their tears,' read one of the points on a test listing the Shinobi Rules which dictated their lives. The rules existed because a shinobi must be able to kill their emotions on the field lest they compromise the mission. Right now Masaru seemed to be doing a fine job at that, but he knew instinctively even that resulted from his overwhelming grief, his brain choosing to blank out emotion to keep him from shattering.

He thought about it a lot, lying awake late into the night and staring at the ceiling as sleep refused to come. Death would become more commonplace as he grew older and became a ninja, friends and allies heading onto the battlefield and risking their lives. Familiar faces would be reduced to mere names carved onto a stone, their smiles never to grace his life again as they'd fall one by one.

He'd always been aware of this, he spent most of his free time at the cemetery after all. Yet only now, after losing his sister and mother, did the full implications of it set in.

Everyone would die.

All the kids in his class would likely bleed to death on a battlefield miles away from home, their eyes glazed and glassy as color seeped away from their decaying bodies. The clan heirs might live, sheltered in Konoha and protected by their families so they could live to lead the next generations, but what guarantee did he have they'd still survive to old age? Old battle wounds might flare and cause them to fall late in life, their bodies breaking down and unable to bear the strain carried since their teenage years.

Why did he want to become a ninja? Masaru didn't know anymore. Part of him began aching to leave the academy, to set down his kunai forever and become a civilian, get as far away from this life of bloodshed and loss as possible. Just thinking of dealing death with his own hand made his chest constrict and his breath hitch painfully in his throat, but he knew it was not an option.

The crest on his shirt weighed upon his back, a constant reminder of his situation. Only two Uchiha remained in Konoha, the third a traitor who tore away the rest, and that made him far too valuable to the village. Even if the village let him quit, they'd want him to help rebuild the clan to keep the Sharingan in the village, and he couldn't stomach the thought of one day having kids knowing they might die at any moment.

His spirits continued to sink further and further, and within weeks of his return to the academy Masaru had almost completely shut down. He felt like he was wading through a thick fog, his movements slow and strained as he pushed against a heavy force weighing upon his limbs and mind. He barely paid attention in class anymore, mechanically turning pages in tandem with his classmates and filling out answer sheets.

About a month into his return he found himself alone at lunch, vaguely listening to his classmates' voices filter through the open window. Naruto had skipped school that day (not that they ate together anymore, teachers always herded Naruto out the door when the bell rang) and Sasuke had gone to train as usual, and this time he just couldn't bring himself to follow his only clan member to the training fields. Instead he sat alone at his desk in the empty classroom, the world seeming to vanish around him as he quietly picked at his food.

"Um... U-Uchiha-san?"

Empty eyes flickered upwards at the sound of a soft voice stutter, finding a small girl standing in front of his desk. Cherry blossom pink hair framed her face with a bright red ribbon tied at the top, her pale crystal-like green eyes shimmering with uncertainty as she fiddled with her thumbs. The name Haruno Sakura flashed through his mind, drawn from memories of their first day at the academy when everyone introduced themselves.

He cocked his head at her silently, staring at her with a blank look. The girl visibly gulped, shifting uncomfortably under his gaze, and bit her lip. Finally, she took a deep breath and blurted, "I-I'm sorry for your loss!"

Masaru didn't respond, just watched her silently as she dropped her torso into a bow. Plenty of people had approached him and Sasuke to offer their condolences, to the point it barely phased him anymore, so he saw no reason to reply. When he didn't speak, the girl straightened and glanced away, hands reaching up to fiddle with her hair nervously.

"I... I wanted to say, I respected Akari-san," she began, hesitating. "I... I wasn't always too serious about being a ninja, but—when I saw her after school that one day, throwing that kunai and hitting the target without even looking, a-and that stuff she said, it... it really stuck with me, you know?" She paused, taking a deep breath as she collected her thoughts. "It—it inspired me. I've been trying a lot harder, and-and, and made me want to get better."

She trailed off, her green eyes briefly flickering to Masaru before averting once more. "I... never spoke to her, but... I really, I guess, looked up to her. And... I know—I know it's no where near what you feel, but... I—I miss her too. So... I'm really sorry."

With that she dipped into another bow and quickly scurried away. Watching her retreat to the door where a blond girl waited, light began to flicker in Masaru's eyes, something twisting in his heart. His mind took him back to the training field that fateful day in the training field, his twin sister playfully drawing closer to Sasuke before turning and flinging a kunai at the target.

A lump began forming in his throat, the heavy pressure in his chest increasing. It had been a ploy to rile up the girls in their class, to provoke them to work harder after being frustrated by their vanity and shallow ambitions. Akari had performed her plan at the cost of alienating herself from her female peers, playing up the famed Uchiha pride and earning their hostility.

Yet here was a girl he'd never spoken to, who had never approached his sister, and she told him outright that Akari's plan had worked. The name Haruno Sakura flashed through his mind, drawn from memories of their first day at the academy when everyone introduced themselves. She had seemed so unforgettable save for her cherry blossom pink hair, just another one of those girls Akari would have despised for their lack of ambition.

Spots swirled behind his eyelids as he hunched over his lunch with his palms buried into his eyes, nonexistent colors flitting into his vision and overtaking the grayness that had consumed him. Someone else remembered her, someone else had actually taken note from her plan. Someone had been openly inspired by her to change.

Akari might be gone, but her influence still survived, her light still shining on at least one person.

The rest of the day passed in a blur, his lunch left relatively untouched and notes taken mechanically. When classes ended, Masaru did not go back to the apartment with Sasuke. For the first time since that awful night he returned to his home, returned to the blood soaked streets that haunted his nightmares. Traces of blood still stained the pavement and walls and phantom images of desiccated corpses flickered in his vision, but he did his best to ignore it as he headed to his house.

He took off his sandals at the door and ran through the halls until he reached the doors to his mother's study, throwing them open. Shelves upon shelves full of books greeted him, bearing books and scrolls as new as a year old and as old as the country. Eyes roving over the titles as he closed the door behind him, Masaru approached the shelves and rose on his toes to pull one off a higher shelf. A Basic Guide to Chakra Control, the cover said, and he sat at the desk to begin reading.

Dusk had long since fallen when the door opened and Sasuke peered inside, a pensive look on his face. "Masaru?" he called uncertainly, and the brown-haired boy raised his head from the book open in his lap, eyes flitting to the pile of books stacked next to him before looking back to his cousin.

"What time is it?" he asked, and Sasuke frowned, shifting uncomfortably.

"Almost midnight. You... you never came back, so I went looking, a-and..." He trailed off, his discomfort at being back in the compound so late clearly visible on his face. "What... what are you doing here?" Masaru glanced at the pile of books once more, and then back to Sasuke.

"Reading," he replied simply, and returned his attention to his book as his cousin stared dumbfounded.

When he got to school the next day, Masaru walked past his usual seat and straight to the back of the room, plopping into the empty seat next to a startled Naruto. As the teacher stared at them and began stuttering in surprise the young Uchiha just ignored him and pulled a book out of his bag, calmly reading as he waited for class to begin.

Live, the voice from his dream all those weeks ago repeated, pleading desperately for only his ears to hear.

No more sulking. I won't let any more of my precious people die.

Chapter Text

Chapter 10

“Sometimes, when you meet someone, you just click. You look at each other, stare in the eyes, and both of you just realize, deep down: ‘Holy crap I really hate you, why must we breathe the same air? HURRY UP AND DIE AND STOP POLLUTING THE WORLD WITH YOUR EXISTENCE!’ …I never claimed to be sane.”


"Uchiha Masaru, congratulations. Remember to return for the team assignments."

Masaru nodded and bowed to Iruka-sensei before leaving the room, his fingers tightening around the blue cloth in his hand. The metal plate bearing the stylized leaf felt heavier than he expected, the hitai-ate's weight unfamiliar as he slowly raised it and tied it around his forehead. Strands of hair brushed his forehead as his bangs bunched up under the plate, making him frown and quickly untie it.

Thinking it over, he slipped it around his neck and carefully avoided his hair as he knotted it, nodding in approval. It felt much better there, the extra weight still a little weird but far less unnatural. Satisfied, he continued walking and stepped out of the building, taking a moment to inhale the fresh air.

"Masaru," a familiar voice called, and he turned to see Sasuke leaning against the wall nearby, hands stuffed in his pockets. A dark blue hitai-ate wound around his head, the bangs on either side of his face hanging over the dark blue cloth and neatly framing his face. Studying him silently for a moment, the black-haired Uchiha commented, "Not wearing it on your forehead?"

"Bangs get in the way," Masaru replied with a shrug, tugging the thick strand that dangled between his eyes for emphasis. Sasuke grunted in acknowledgment as he nodded, and the pair began walking away in silence. Excited chatter filled the air around them as their fellow graduates proudly showed off their hitai-ate to their friends and parents, parents cheerfully congratulating their children.

The pair averted their gazes, focusing on the path ahead of them as they left the academy grounds. From his periphery Masaru spied a shock of orange, and he turned his head slightly to see Naruto sitting on the swing away from everyone else, his head lowered to avoid looking at the crowd. Traces of silver peeked from beneath his blond bangs, blue cloth tied around the back of his head.

Since the massacre the two had never truly reconnected. The adults had sabotaged any attempts Naruto made to spend time with him, going as far as to assign seating to keep them on opposite ends of the room and give the blond detention almost daily to discourage Masaru from waiting for him. Ultimately he'd had been forced to distance himself from the blond to minimize the unfair and unnecessary punishments.

But while they didn't talk, Masaru still considered Naruto a precious person and friend, even if he couldn't be sure Naruto still felt the same. Watching him sitting on the swing alone with no one to congratulate him like their classmates, Masaru felt a pang of sympathy for him. His steps faltered, wavering on whether he should approach him.

Before he could make up his mind though Iruka suddenly appeared, approaching Naruto from behind with a big grin and placing a hand on his head. The blond raised his head with a startled look, the metal of his hitai-ate gleaming in the sun as he swiveled his head around. Seeing Iruka standing behind him, his face lit up in a giant grin of his own and he jumped off the swing.

A faint smile touched Masaru's lips as he watched the two talk enthusiastically, his earlier apprehension fading. "Masaru?" Sasuke's voice drew his attention from the scene, and he turned to find his cousin watching him curiously. He offered a casual shrug and resumed following him.

Thumbing his hitai-ate nervously, Masaru stood in the back corner of the classroom as he watched his fellow graduates filter in one by one, chattering merrily as they speculated about their future teams. Small cliques formed as friends instinctively gathered together, whispering about their potential teachers and their expectations for life as ninja. Funnily enough, he couldn't help but notice most of them expected to save princesses.

A flash of orange caught his eye, and his gaze snapped to the doorway to see Naruto saunter in, beaming brightly and obviously proud of his hitai-ate. As the blonde entered his eye happened to meet Masaru's and his steps halted, surprise flashing across his features. A moment passed as they simply stared at each other, neither of them moving, but then Naruto broke into a giant grin and pointed at his forehead protector.

Masaru offered a faint smile in return as he averted his gaze, but he could still feel Naruto radiating pride at the acknowledgment. It occurred to him that he should probably approach him and strike up a conversation now, seeing as the academy instructors couldn't exactly keep them apart anymore, but... He still had that whole perpetually awkward and useless at social interactions thing going on. Time had failed to improve his social ineptitude.

Now that he was going to be a ninja though, Masaru knew he'd have to get over it pretty soon. Ninja worked in teams, and he'd need to establish good camaraderie with them since they'd be working together for a long time to come. Although, since he and Sasuke were the last two Uchiha, maybe they'd be on the same team? It would kind of make sense, except that might make them a bigger target. And even if they did, they'd still have a third teammate, and a sensei—


Did that kid just push—WAIT, DID NARUTO JUST—

Masaru's jaw dropped as he saw a boy accidentally bump into Naruto while turning around, making the blond fall forward towards Sasuke. His cousin happened to turn at just that moment and the brunette winced and covered his eyes as he realized their lips were about to meet. No one else seemed to have the same foresight though, and he heard a loud crash followed by ominous silence.

Hesitating, he slowly parted his fingers to see Sasuke and Naruto sprawled on the floor, their faces shocked. He could already hear the ominous silence emanating from all the girls in the classroom. Time had not diminished Sasuke's fan base, and he could feel wisps of murderous intent starting to radiate from various points in the room.

Sometimes, when he felt particularly dark and humorous, he'd dryly reflect how Akari might react to her classmates now. This was one of those times.

He proceeded to introduce his face to the desk as he listened to an angry horde of fangirls viciously chase Naruto about the room, groaning softly. If only they'd put that energy into actually training. As he tried to block out the sounds of stupidity, he heard the chair next to him pull out and someone sit down. Turning his head slightly, he found a girl with long platinum blond hair and pale turquoise eyes sitting next to him, smiling at him coyly.

"Hello, Masaru-kun," she greeted, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. Etiquette training kicked in and he sat up, nodding at her in (slightly wary) acknowledgment.

"Hello, Yamanaka-san," he greeted.

"Oh, don't be so formal!" she scolded, huffing slightly. "Just call me Ino."

"Uh, o-okay, Ino-san," he replied, uncomfortable about addressing her without honorifics. Ino sighed dramatically, shaking her head with a large shrug.

"That'll have to do, I guess." Then the coy smile returned, and she leaned forward with her elbows propped on the desk as she twirled a lock of blond hair around her finger. "So, Masaru-kun... Are you looking forward to getting our teams? Maybe we'll be on one together." A predatory gleam flashed in her eyes as she spoke, leaning a little closer to him and oh kami she's flirting isn't she.

Cue Masaru's brain instantly shutting down, a strained smile frozen on his face. Flirting and Masaru did not mix. People and Masaru did not mix. Talking and Masaru did not mix. Oh kami what should he do, should he try to return it but he doesn't like her or does he but he doesn't know her so how would he know if he liked her or not but oh kami she's still staring abort abort ABORT

To his eternal relief, Sasuke suddenly grabbed his arm and jerked him out of his chair and into the aisle. "Come on, we're sitting down here," he told Masaru gruffly, and the brunette flashed him a look of eternal gratitude as his cousin dragged him down the aisle to the table he'd claimed. Behind him he could hear Ino whine in dismay, and he tried to ignore the feeling of her gaze boring into the back of his skull as he slid into an empty chair.

"Thank you," he whispered as Sasuke slid into the neighboring seat, and his cousin just grunted.

"You really need to grow a spine about this stuff," he grumbled, though he didn't sound particularly irritated. He had grown used to Masaru's unusually meek personality, and his experience with fangirls left him with no small amount of empathy for how harrowing it could be to deal with them. Masaru really hoped he wouldn't be placed on a team with Ino.

At this point Naruto slid into the seat on his other side, ducking under the desk to avoid the horde of angry girls reaching for him. Fortunately for him, at this point Iruka entered the room and called the class to attention, and the girls reluctantly returned to their seats. He breathed a large sigh of relief as he settled into the chair, leaning his head back while grumbling under his breath.

The class settled down in record time as Iruka stood at the front of the room, offering a brief speech congratulating them before he began reciting the teams. Heavy anticipation hung over the room as the new genin waited anxiously for their names to be called, each unit raising a small chorus of cheers or groans from the mentioned students. Masaru sat on the edge of his seat, and a glance to the side revealed Sasuke equally on edge, even if he seemed cool and composed like usual.

"Team Seven," Iruka began. "Uzumaki Naruto," Masaru and Naruto both perked up instantly. "Haruno Sakura—"

"Yes!" Naruto cheered while Sakura sank in her seat with a small "no".

"And Uchiha Sasuke."

"Yes!" Sakura cheered, while Naruto jumped up with a loud "NO!" Sasuke just grunted, not particularly affected by the assignment. Masaru sank into his seat with a small sigh, ignoring Naruto's annoyed rant and Iruka's subsequent explanation about the team assignment. Looks like he'd be on a team with total strangers then.

"Team Eight," Iruka continued. "Inuzuka Kiba, Hyuuga Hinata, and Aburame Shino. Team Ten, Nara Shikamaru, Yamanaka Ino and Akimichi Chouji." Ino gave a frustrated whine while Masaru felt an overwhelming rush of relief. He quickly pushed it out of his mind though, glancing around the classroom sharply. Almost everyone else's names had been read, which meant the final team would be his.

Two other children sat in visible anticipation, looking at Iruka intently. One, the girl, had dark violet hair cut into an uneven bob so that part of her bangs shot out in a jagged strand that extended to her shoulder. If memory served right, she tended to bully other girls with her friends. The other vaguely resembled a mini-Iruka... and also happened to be the boy who bumped into Naruto earlier.

Masaru's shoulders slumped in dismay. He didn't even know their names, and already he didn't like them.

"Team Eleven. Ayakawa Ami, Yamamoto Tobio, and Uchiha Masaru."

Upon hearing their names the pair looked first at each other and then at Masaru, their eyes wide. He slumped in his chair, only paying minimal attention to Iruka's subsequent instructions about meeting their sensei after a brief lunch break. When he dismissed them, Sasuke quickly got up and gestured for Masaru to follow him, which he did gratefully.

They barely reached the door when they heard someone call out. "Sasuke-kun, wait!" The Uchiha boys stopped and turned to see Sakura jogging towards them, stopping next to them with a nervous and excited smile. "Hey, since we're going to be on the same team, maybe we should have lunch together?" Sasuke barely paused to consider it, his eyes flitting to Masaru before he turned and stalked away.

Sakura visibly deflated, and Masaru offered her a sheepish smile. "S-sorry, he's not a people person," he offered lamely. Neither of them were, but Masaru at least had enough manners to tell her that. That, and seeing a girl (or anyone, really) upset just made him really uncomfortable. His comment seemed to lift her spirits at least, and Sakura offered him a small smile.

"Masaru-kun!" Masaru flinched as a high-pitched voice suddenly called his name, his face growing several shades paler. Flashing Sakura a panicked look, he quickly spun and fled the classroom. Sakura just blinked as Ino darted past her in pursuit while calling his name, her pink hair fluttering in the breeze generated by their speedy departures. Sighing softly, she paused as she felt eyes on her and glanced back to see Naruto eying her with sparkly eyes.

Nope. Sakura quickly absconded, leaving the dejected blond alone.

When lunch ended and his team's sensei entered, Masaru's impression of his new team did not approve.

"We will start with introductions," Hyuuga Hoheto told the trio of genin as they assembled under a tree in the schoolyard. "State your names, likes and dislikes, hobbies, and the type of ninja you wish to become." The man had dark brown hair pulled into a high topknot, and like most Hyuuga exuded an air of strict, no-nonsense rigidity that accompanied most adults in high-ranking shinobi clans. Masaru's teammates seemed to be in awe of Hoheto's obvious clan status, given their civilian backgrounds.

Masaru just stared at him blankly, wondering why he had a Hyuuga instructor. Not that he had anything against the Hyuuga clan, but their clans' rivalry had apparently been enough to end Akari's friendship with their heiress. Ironic since at this point the Uchiha definitely did not have a main or branch house, seeing as it was down to him and Sasuke.

"We will start with you." Hoheto nodded at Ami, who smirked.

"My name is Ayakawa Ami," she began. "I like cute boys, cats, and gardening. I dislike girls who are weak or overly full of themselves," she rolled her eyes as if thinking of someone specific, "And moles, because they tend to ruin my garden. I want to be known as the most beautiful kunoichi in the Elemental Nations."

"Good," Hoheto said with a nod, and turned to Tobio. "You."

"I'm Yamada Tobio," he introduced, pointing his thumb to himself with a cheeky grin. "I like comic books, adventure novels, and enka music. I don't really like horror stories. My hobby is cooking, I guess. It's fun to combine ingredients. My goal is to work on the field for a few years and then semi-retire as a teacher at the academy!"

Suddenly his faint resemblance to Iruka took on a slightly creepy note. Masaru found his gaze unwillingly drawn to the very similar style of his ponytail, and he repressed the urge to shudder.

"An unusual goal, but it is good to know what you want," Hoheto mused, and then turned to Masaru. "And finally, your turn."

His new teammates turned to face Masaru, their eyes glittering expectantly as they awaited his answer. His hands clenched in his lap, swallowing as he felt himself break into a light sweat. Inhaling through his nose to calm himself, he breathed a soft sigh and began.

"I'm... Uchiha Masaru," he started. "I... like cats," Ami perked up, "history, and... art, I guess. I don't like romance novels, jerks, and... the color red." Hoheto raised an eyebrow at this, the others exchanging a curious glance. "As for hobbies... um, studying, I guess, and reading. And, the kind of ninja I want to be..."

He trailed off, his eyes growing distant. His mind flickered to the cemetery, kneeling in front of Obito's grave with his hands balled into fists on his lap as he spoke in low tones. "I don't want to be any specific type of ninja," he said slowly, picking his words carefully. "I don't have any big goals for my career. But... I do know what kind of ninja I don't want to be."

His vague answer garnered curious looks from his teammates but Masaru didn't elaborate. After a few moments passed Hoheto decided he had nothing else to say and cleared his throat. "Very well. I shall introduce myself now. As I said when I called you in the classroom, I am Hyuuga Hoheto. I am a member of the branch family of the Hyuuga clan. I will tell you my likes and dislikes... if you pass."

"Huh?" The three newly-minted genin turned to look at him in surprise, confusion evident on their faces. "But, we already passed," Tobio piped up, his brow furrowing.

"Yes, you passed the academy exam," Hoheto confirmed calmly. "However, that is more of a preliminary test, to make sure you have the basic abilities required to begin truly training to be a ninja. In reality, only about a third of your class will likely be prepared to become proper shinobi. The teams that fail will be sent back to the academy for further studying. It is up to the jounin instructors to decide which teams are likely to pass."

Three shocked pairs of eyes stared at him as the trio processed his words. Ami's jaw hung open with disbelief, and then her face turned bright red. "ARE YOU KIDDING!" she exploded. "I am NOT going back to the academy for another year while Fuki and Kasumi become genin!"

"I don't want to spend another six months there," Tobio whined. "I want to get some field experience already! And I just got the hitai-ate, I don't want to give it back already!"

"Complain all you want, but the fact remains that it is up to my discretion whether you shall continue as genin," Hoheto replied calmly, unperturbed by their whining. He glanced at Masaru, as if expecting him to complain too, but the Uchiha boy said nothing, his face curiously blank. His gaze flickered to his new teammates, watching Ami stamp her foot in a childish temper tantrum and Tobio just continue to whine and sulk. Then his eyes slid over to Hoheto, radiating an aura of cool, icy composure, his featureless white eyes unreadable as he stared at Masaru.

"When's the test?" the boy finally asked, prompting his two teammates to stop ranting and/or whining to look at their jounin sensei expectantly. Hoheto's lips quirked upwards, something akin to approval seeming to flash in his face.

"We can begin immediately."

Later that night, Masaru sat in the apartment watching TV eating a bowl of curry when he heard the door open. Sasuke trudged inside, an annoyed look on his face as he grabbed a bowl and filled it before joining Masaru on the couch. Masaru glanced at him from the corner of his eye, noting the even grumpier than usual expression.

After living with each other for five years, he'd grown accustomed to the subtle shifts in Sasuke's facial expressions, able to read them clearly. Right now, his slightly pinched eyebrows suggested heavy irritation. "Bad meeting?" he guessed, and his cousin grunted.

"The dobe is a dobe, Sakura squealed about ANBU, and the teacher's some lazy pervert who showed up three hours late," he ranted irritably, scowling at his dinner. "And to top it off, we still have to take the secret test tomorrow at six AM, and we're not supposed to eat breakfast before going."

"Why not?" Masaru asked, arching an eyebrow.

"He said we'd vomit from working too hard," Sasuke scoffed, making Masaru frown thoughtfully as he swished another mouthful of curry around his mouth with his tongue.

"Huh... If it'd be hard enough to make you vomit, wouldn't it be better to eat so you'd have some energy?" he mused, and Sasuke shrugged with a noncommittal grunt. They ate in silence for a while, allowing the flat jokes of the comedians on the TV to fill the silence. Eventually Sasuke glanced at him from the corner of his eye.

"You haven't said anything about your team."

"Hmm?" Masaru swallowed his curry and shrugged. "Oh, right. I don't like them." The nonchalance in his statement earned a quirked eyebrow from Sasuke.

"You got a couple losers too?"

"I wouldn't call them losers," Masaru hedged, frowning thoughtfully. "Ami's a big jerk but she has good aim and observation skills, and Tobio's really clumsy but has a lot of book smarts. I guess I'm kind of meant to balance them out. And our assigned instructor, Hyuuga Hoheto, is a pretty typical Hyuuga, he's super serious." As he rattled off the points Sasuke turned to face him more directly, a curious glint in his eye.

"You've put a lot of thought into this," he commented. "Did you already take the secret exam?"

"Yeah, we did. We failed."

Cue Sasuke's spoon dropping into the bowl, his jaw falling open as he gawked at Masaru in disbelief. Masaru just calmly continued eating, eyes glued to the TV.

Chapter Text

Chapter 11

"My family is full of idiots. That includes me."

Another year, another group of genin thrust upon him.

Hatake Kakashi had grown used to the Hokage's attempts to saddle him with a team of genin every year. Every year, he also made a point to fail them. Why? Because none of them could pass the bell test, but also because he really, really, really didn't want a team yet.

This year, though, was different.

For starters, one of them happened to be the son of his own sensei. Uzumaki Naruto, a very loud and abrasive young boy who resembled his father in appearance more than anything else. It was fitting he took on his mother's surname, since personality-wise he took after her almost exclusively. Except he might be worse, which was surprising given Kushina's already infamously brash nature. Additionally, just like her he also happened to be—

Well. No point dwelling on that right now.

Haruno Sakura's introduction had been memorable in its own way, a strange mixture of blushing at Sasuke and suppressed squeals, topped with a resolute declaration to become an ANBU captain. That... startled him. As a former ANBU captain himself, he raised an eyebrow and instinctively slid into an analytical mode, scrutinizing the young kunoichi more closely. Her work ethic seemed strong, and her file suggested some promising skills.

Her squealing and obvious fangirl nature gave him doubts, though.

Then... Uchiha Sasuke. One of two survivors of the Uchiha clan, and the top student in his class. Quiet and broody, he gave a sufficiently ominous declaration of his intent to murder Itachi and avenge his clan. On the bright side, he also included a nice, heart-warming declaration that he would protect Masaru, the other survivor.

Coincidentally, as the only Sharingan user left in Konoha, Kakashi would be expected to train both boys in their clan's doujutsu. Which meant the council would not allow him to fail this team, short of unbearable circumstances proving without a doubt that they could not work together. Politics. Phooey.

Frankly, he was just relieved he didn't have both Uchiha boys on his team—or Masaru, period. He still remembered his shock at finding the unconscious boy when his team responded to the massacre. Rushing to the house in search of Akari, only to find her twin sprawled in a bed with blood-soaked blankets swaddled around his torso, his ear half-torn from his skull—

It... was not a pleasant memory. Kakashi had many regrets, and seeing Masaru every day would just remind him of one of his largest.

Which is why when he appeared in a swirl of leaves at the training field the next day, he did not feel overly pleased to see Masaru sitting tied up next to a tree, an irritated look on his face. "YOU'RE LATE!" Naruto and Sakura bellowed.

"Sorry, a cat ran in front of me and I had to find a different route," Kakashi replied idly, his gaze focused on Masaru. Seeing as he and Sasuke lived together, Kakashi felt it a safe bet that his little genin had something to do with his presence. He glanced to the particularly broody Uchiha (who seemed slightly broodier than usual, though Kakashi had only one other interaction to go off at this point) and asked, "Why is your cousin tied up?"

"He's an idiot," Sasuke replied simply, and Masaru shot him a dry look before slumping back against the tree with a sigh.

"Um, apparently, his jounin-sensei failed his team," Sakura piped up, "So Sasuke-kun brought him here to show him how it's done." Ah, so that's why—wait, what?

Kakashi blinked as he processed her words, wondering if he heard right. Masaru's team failed? He thought the council wanted both Uchiha boys to graduate and join the active shinobi forces at the same time! Hell, he barely got away with convincing them to not saddle him with BOTH Uchiha brats! How did Hyuuga Hoheto get away with it?! This required further investigation.

Later though. First he needed to do his own test.

"Well, as long as he doesn't interfere in the test, I don't mind," he allowed after a beat. "Anyways, onto business..." With that he pulled a pair of silver bells from his pouch and proceeded to explain the rules of the tradition carried on since the Third Hokage's team.

The test Hyuuga Hoheto designed was simple.

Hoheto's original genin teammates had hidden themselves at certain points in Konoha, and the prospective members of Team Eleven must locate them using the physical descriptions Hoheto provided. Upon finding them, they would give each student a slip of paper with a different clue on it, for a total of six individual clues, which they would then use to guess the title of one of his two favorite books.

By specifying he had two favorite books instead of one or three, this instilled a natural assumption that only two people would pass—one per book—thus inciting a competitive streak within the group and prompting them to guard their clues closely. However, in reality the slips each used a basic cipher which could only become clear if they gathered all six together. Upon solving it, the true meaning of the code would become clear.

As expected a fire immediately lit in Tobio and Ami's eyes, the pair running off with eager shouts. As they departed though, Masaru calmly sat down on the grass and folded his arms. Hoheto folded his arms as he looked at the young Uchiha, a single eyebrow raised. "You are not going to look?" he questioned, and the child shook his head, reclining back to stare at the sky.

"No, I won't," he affirmed quietly. "I can't work with this team." Hoheto closed his eyes and sighed, shaking his head slowly. He'd had suspicions this may happen, the Uchiha had been known for their rather exclusionary pride, and his teammates came from rather minor families.

"Masaru-kun," he began, "I understand you may not think you like them right away, but—"

"It's not that," the boy interrupted softly, and Hoheto opened his eyes to peer at him inquisitively. Lazily sprawling on his back, Masaru continued to gaze at the sky, his face thoughtful as he watched the clouds drift by. About a minute of silence passed before Hoheto determined he wouldn't elaborate any further on his own.

"Then why do you refuse to work with this team?" He saw a minute tension enter the boy's body, his muscles stiffening slightly as his eyebrows pinched together and his mouth tugged into a small frown.

"I guess," he said quietly after a while, "This particular team brings back too many bad memories."

"Bad memories?" Hoheto echoed, and Masaru hummed, shifting a bit uncomfortably as he closed his eyes.

"...Ami is the exact kind of girl my... my sister hated," he muttered, flinching as he said the word "sister". "She's vain, cares more about appearances, has a short temper—if I were to get along with her, she... she would never forgive me. And you..." He hesitated, inhaling through his nose before resuming. "You remind me too much of... everyone else."

Hoheto frowned at this, realization dawning on him. "The adults of your clan," he surmised, and Masaru flinched slightly as he nodded.

"Y-yeah... It's—it's nothing personal, but... You seem really serious and stern, and..." He trailed off, but his point was made.

"I see," Hoheto murmured, and sighed. "And Tobio-kun?"

"He seems like he might be okay, but..." Masaru shrugged, offering a feeble smile. "Can't really have a team where I'm only okay with one person, right?"

. . .

"You're saying Uchiha Masaru sabotaged his own team's chances at passing?"

"He did."

Utter. Silence.

Sarutobi Hiruzen resisted the need to heave a put-upon sigh as Homura and Koharu stared at Hoheto in shock, their eyes wide and filled with disbelief. The Hyuuga jounin remained unperturbed as ever, the perfect picture of calm as he awaited their response. Secretly, Hiruzen thanked whatever forces existed that Danzou was not present to offer any input on the mess.

He'd expected some troubles with this year's batch of genin, given the fact they had three boys with severely traumatizing backgrounds and multiple clan heirs, but he never expected this. In his entire tenure as Hokage, only one other student had been brazen enough to purposely fail the secret test. The thought brought a wry smirk to his lips.

That boy takes after his mother in more ways than one, he thought sourly, but withheld the temptation to make the dry remark aloud as he maintained his professional demeanor. "Hoheto-san, can you elaborate on why he may have done such a thing?" he questioned.

"I spoke to him about it afterwards, and apparently the team's members elicited some bad memories of his childhood," Hoheto replied, his voice showing no particular feelings on the situation. "In particular, I reminded him of the adults of his clan, and the kunoichi, Ami, had been someone his sister would have heavily disapproved of."

Homura and Koharu exchanged knowing glances at his remark, and for once Hiruzen could sense that they were all on the same page. They had spent hours nitpicking over the arrangement of the teams for the two Uchiha boys to provide them the ultimate support.

Team Eleven, while shaky, worked on paper. Tobio's friendly nature would help bind them together, and for all her arrogance Ami had a forceful personality that could help Masaru through any slumps he may encounter. They even selected a Hyuuga instructor for Team Eleven to give Masaru at least some aid in handling his doujutsu, since Kakashi couldn't be his full-time instructor.

So Hiruzen felt utterly foolish for forgetting to take the opinions of Masaru's deceased family into account. Of course Hoheto would remind him of the Uchiha adults, the Hyuuga clan had a tendency towards cold composure that would make him very similar to the harsh and apathetic Uchiha. Meanwhile he knew of Akari's opinion on her classmates, and that she would not approve of the arrogant Ami. Twins had a powerful and unique bond, so he should have known Masaru would value her opinions even more with her gone.

"To borrow a quote from the Nara, this is quite troublesome," he remarked dryly, rubbing his forehead in mild exasperation.

"Hoheto-san, if he were to be assigned to a different team that did not raise such issues, do you believe he would still attempt to sabotage it?" Homura asked, recovering from his initial shock. The Hyuuga paused, considering it carefully.

"Based on our conversation, I would assume not. He seemed to have a problem with the specific people more than the concept of a team. However, I cannot say for certain. It would likely be dependent on who's in the team."

"Then hopefully we can work with that," Koharu murmured grimly. "The Sharingan is too valuable for us to waste it. The sooner he can start actually training, the better." Hiruzen nodded in faint agreement, even if he didn't particularly care for her exact phrasing. As the Hokage, he had to do what was best for the village, and in the end shinobi were resources. He couldn't let his feelings get in the way.

That said, he still had some more emotional stakes in seeing Masaru pass. He had been one of the few people to treat Naruto with any degree of kindness, and while they'd been forced to grow apart after the massacre, he had good reason to believe that Masaru still loved him. Naruto needed all the friendship and support he could get, and few things could strengthen their bond more than being part of the same graduating class.

Mind already running through ways to keep him as a genin, he cleared his throat and nodded to Hoheto. "Thank you for your assistance, Hoheto-san. I apologize for the inconvenience we caused you. You are dismissed."

"I am always pleased to have served you, Lord Hokage," the Hyuuga demurred with a bow, and then retreated to leave the three elderly leaders of the village alone. They had a lot of planning ahead of them.

"So in the end, we passed our test despite almost failing once, and you still failed."

"Hn." Masaru made a noncommittal noise as he continued eating his yakisoba, pointedly ignoring the dark look Sasuke sent his way.

"Why are you so calm?" Sasuke grumbled, looking at him irritably. "Don't you care at all?" Masaru just hummed and shrugged, too busy chewing to answer. He couldn't help but wonder how Sasuke would react if he ever found out Masaru failed the test on purpose, but unless he asked Masaru had no issues keeping it to himself.

Several hours had passed since Team Seven had passed Kakashi's secret exam and become genin. Initially they failed the bell test, prompting Kakashi to reveal its true purpose had been to test their ability to work together. However, he ultimately passed them when they fed Naruto against orders and defended it by citing a team must stay strong, leading to a dramatic monologue about valuing comrades' lives over orders.

Of course, Masaru got to see most of it, since Sasuke refused to untie him until lunch time. Highlights included Sakura getting caught in a genjutsu and threatening Kakashi for supposedly injuring someone to an intense degree, Sasuke getting dragged underground so only his head stuck out, and Naruto suffering the One Thousands Year of Death. That last one got Kakashi a cold threat from Masaru to never touch Naruto again or he'd tell the Hokage he attempted to assault both of them.

As Masaru reflected over the events of the day Sasuke's gaze discreetly slid upwards, eyes flitting focusing on his cousin's wrists. Angry red marks marred his skin, chafed and scratched from the ropes. Sasuke felt a pang of guilt as he looked back to his food, his eyebrows pinching together. Aggravated as he'd been to hear Masaru had failed his own test, he really didn't need to tie him up like that.

The raven-haired boy knew he'd embraced his inner rage more heavily than Masaru, his desire for vengeance often clouding all other thoughts. Yet as broken and angry as Sasuke was, he had realized long ago that his cousin was even more broken on the inside. Grief and hollow longing tended to paint Masaru's features more often than not, his body language subtly betraying how closely he lingered on the verge of shattering at any given time.

Ostensibly, they went through the same tragedy, but they each had a different, personal stake that made it impossible for either to fully empathize with the other. For Sasuke, he had to live with the fact that his brother had been the one to kill everyone. Masaru, meanwhile, lost Akari, his twin. Few bonds were more sacred than that, and Sasuke realized early on he'd likely never be able to fully appreciate the magnitude of the loss her death caused him.

While he tended to act cold and dismissive, he worried for his cousin. Masaru was the only family he had left (that man did not count), and if he died too—well. Sasuke didn't want to think about that.

(Sometimes, he dreams of finding Masaru in a pool of blood, his hair sticky and matted to his face with blood and his skin too too pale as red seeps from a gaping hole in his stomach. He tries to stop the bleeding, tries to block it, but more and more pours out of the wound until he's standing waist-deep in a sea of blood clutching his cousin's cold body and crying.

He always wakes up screaming, unable to stop shaking for the rest of the night, and he wonders how Masaru can ignore it through the thin wall separating their bedrooms.)

(Sometimes, he wakes up to the sounds of Masaru crying instead, muffled sobs drifting through the thin walls and echoing in his ears with the intensity and clarity of a loud rock concert. He wonders if Masaru can move, because he can't.)

"Hey," he said quietly, pushing the dark thoughts away. Masaru raised his head to look at him inquisitively, his cheeks still puffed with the mouthful of yakisoba he had yet to swallow. Sasuke felt a flicker of amusement at how silly he looked swirled the noodles on his plate in circles with his chopsticks, his eyes rising to meet his cousin's gaze. "After dinner, let's practice the fireball."

Masaru hummed thoughtfully, the bulges in his cheeks swishing around as he chewed the noodles before sharply deflating as he swallowed. "...Alright." Sasuke nodded and offered a small, weak smile. Surprise flickered in his cousin's dark orbs, his eyes widening slightly as his shoulders hunched with slight tension. Then his posture relaxed and he offered a small smile of his own, and after a moment the two returned their gazes to their food.

A knock on the window drew him from his thoughts, and both boys blinked in unison as they registered the 'on the window' part. Matching pairs of black eyes instantly snapped towards the living room window. Shinobi instinct took over as Sasuke ditched the chopsticks in favor of a kunai he always kept nearby, while Masaru held his chopsticks between his fingers like senbon, ready to throw at a moment's notice.

Their tense postures swiftly faded though, their faces morphing into similar looks of surprise as they recognized the silver-haired man crouched on the windowsill. Waving at them cheerfully, his one visible eye creased as he smiled under his mask before pointing to the window lock. The two boys exchanged brief glances, and Sasuke noted a heavy tension in Masaru's shoulders, his back straighter and his left eye narrowed slightly.

Anger. Irritation. Annoyance.

Sasuke almost raised a brow at the hostile intent Masaru's body language portrayed, his gaze flickering back to the window. Kakashi looked at them expectantly, and after a moment Sasuke pushed back his chair and got up. Strolling over to the window, he nonchalantly grabbed the cord dangling at the side and tugged it, causing the wooden blinds to swiftly tumble down with a loud clatter and obscure the jounin from sight.

When he turned back to the table he was satisfied to note the heavy amusement in Masaru's expression, the brunette's mouth quirked in an obvious smile as he suppressed the urge to giggle. Sasuke flashed a smug smirk of his own as he rejoined his cousin, setting the kunai on the table and picking up the chopsticks so he could resume eating.

"It's quite rude to ignore your sensei you know." Chopsticks instantly flew as the boys whirled in their seats to see Kakashi standing next to them, hands stuffed in his pockets. Noodles splattered to the floor as Masaru's chopsticks soared past the jounin's head, while Kakashi leaned slightly to the left to avoid Sasuke's. "Attacking your sensei can also be seen as rather impolite."

"You broke into our apartment!" Sasuke snapped, the chair toppling over as he sharply rose.

"Well I tried knocking, but you wouldn't let me in," the silver-haired jounin replied genially, eye crinkling in what was undoubtedly a mocking smile. Sasuke's eyebrow twitched as he glared at the man, while Masaru stared at them dumbly before looking at the noodles splattered on the floor. He banged his head on the table with a loud groan. If the others listened closely, they could hear soft mumbles of "messy" and "wasteful".

"What do you want?" Sasuke asked dryly, crossing his arms and glaring at the intruder. "Team Seven doesn't have training until tomorrow."

"Oh, don't worry, I'm not here about training," Kakashi assured him with a small wave. "I'm actually here to see Masaru-kun." Both Uchiha boys stiffened, the brunette slowly raising his head to glower at him. His expression held no subtleties this time, his hostile feelings towards the man perfectly clear.

"What do you want," Sasuke repeated lowly, stepping between them defensively. Kakashi raised his hands in a show of peace and good will. Still glaring at him, Masaru slowly pushed back his seat and got up.

"What is it?" he questioned warily, and Kakashi's eye crinkled in another smile.

"Uchiha Masaru, you are now an official genin of Konoha. Congratulations. You are to report to the Hokage's office at eight."

The hostility vanished in an instant, both boys staring at him in open shock. "Huh?" Masaru sputtered, staring at him wide-eyed. "I... How? Why? What?"

"Well, the Hokage will give you more details on that tomorrow," Kakashi demurred, stuffing his hands in his pockets once more. "He was still working out the exact details when I left, but he should have it all sorted out by the morning."

"But... I—I failed. The secret test."

"Yes, but given the circumstances the Hokage going to make an exception for you. It's pretty unorthodox to pass a single genin without a team, but it's been done before. I'm sure he'll figure out something. See you tomorrow Sasuke." He disappeared in a flurry of leaves before they could respond, and the Uchiha boys just continued to stare at the space he occupied as they tried to process this.

Sasuke recovered first and turned to look at Masaru, a single eyebrow sliding up in a silent inquiry. Meeting his gaze, Masaru just shrugged his shoulders and spread his arms around him in a blunt declaration that the world made no sense anymore.

Eyebrow raising higher, Sasuke's lips twitched into a smirk and his eyes glimmered with faint amusement.

They were broken. Even after all this time they still couldn't find many things to speak about, many shared interests to bond over, and they still had trouble understanding what went through the other's mind.

But they were family, and Sasuke would be damned if he lost anyone else.

Chapter Text

Chapter 12

 "As a kid, you spend every day waiting for graduation so you can be free. Then when you graduate, you realize you're not actually free because you still have to work for a living. At least you don't have two to four hours of homework every night though."


Reporting to the Hokage proved slightly more nerve-wracking than Masaru expected. A chuunin serving as his assistant waved him into the office with barely a glance in his direction, and when he entered he found the Third Hokage hunched over a pile of paperwork. He set it aside when he saw Masaru though, offering the boy a warm smile as Masaru stood to attention.

"Hello, Masaru-kun," he greeted. "I'm glad to see you. I'm sure you're quite anxious to discuss your future."

"A little," he allowed, nodding slowly. "Um... Aren't genin supposed to be in teams?"

"Normally, yes. Konoha values teamwork immensely, as you're undoubtedly aware, so we try to place heavy emphasis on it for new genin, hence why we only pass teams. However, in your case we are admittedly averse to sending you back to the academy." His brow furrowed, his eyes narrowing suspiciously.

"Why?" he asked after a moment. 'Is it because I'm an Uchiha?' bitterly echoed in his mind, but he would never ask out loud. While Sasuke had grown rather compliant with the constant praise and attention lavished upon the name, Masaru had quickly tired of it. It irked him that people seemed to value him based on the fan on his back rather than his own individual skills. If he got promoted due to his heritage alone—well, that might be the last straw.

"Because frankly, I do not believe it would be wise to completely separate you from the other graduates in your age group." Masaru blinked. That was unexpected. "The current batch of rookies show a lot more potential than most new graduates, and I doubt we'll encounter another group with raw talent quite like this any time soon. It would be more beneficial for you to continue to work and grow with this group.

"Besides," he added with a small smirk, "I think sending you back wouldn't help you much at this point, since you have already shown yourself to have skills that are quite close to a fresh genin."

"I have?" Masaru questioned blankly. Rather than respond, the Third reached for a folder sitting atop the mounds of paperwork topping his desk and slid it over to the boy, an amused twinkle in his eye. Something about the elderly man's face made Masaru's stomach twist, and he hesitated before taking the folder. He visibly tensed when he opened it to see a police report inside, a photo clipped to the top page showing a bed with shredded sheets and stained in ink.

Swallowing, he slowly raised his head to meet the Third Hokage's gaze, his face dull and impassive. "Mizuki-sensei deserved it," he declared flatly, his bland expression portraying no remorse. The Third arched an eyebrow.

"I take that as a confession."

"I stand by what I said." The Third Hokage smiled slightly at that, allowing a small chuckle to slip through as he took the folder back.

Over the past few years, several teachers at the academy had found themselves the victims of a mysterious vandal who had earned the moniker of the "Black Ink Vandal." The culprit would wait a few weeks between each incident, and somehow managed to avoid being seen by neighbors. While annoying, the crimes had never been serious enough to merit a full-blown investigation, and the juvenile nature suggested the culprit to be a student anyway.

In fact, Masaru probably would have gotten away with it if not for his decision to target Mizuki three months ago. Officers inspecting his apartment found a hidden drawer in his dresser with documents connecting him to Orochimaru, and that had led to the uncovering of a scheme to steal the Scroll of Seals and flee Konoha. Worse, he had been setting up Naruto to fail the exam to use as a scapegoat. It had been a nasty wakeup call for the village, and led to several more in-depth investigations around both the academy and the vandal to see if the vandal knew about it.

On the bright side though, it gave the Third Hokage the idea to have someone try to teach Naruto the shadow clone jutsu. He knew the youth had been struggling with regular clones due to his large chakra stores, but that same issue made him a natural at creating shadow clones. Because of that, Naruto had finally been able to pass the exam and become a ninja.

This boy has helped Naruto even more than he realized, Hiruzen thought wryly as he glanced at the stone-faced Uchiha boy. He'd never seen Naruto smile as brightly as he had when telling him about his new friendship, eagerly reporting every development in their budding relationship at each meeting. It had saddened the elderly Hokage when they seemed to grow apart after the massacre, but the revelation of his identity as the vandal disproved that.

After all, Masaru specifically targeted the teachers who treated Naruto unfairly, starting with the very first man to separate them on that first day back in the academy. In hindsight, the trend was obvious. Their bond posed yet another reason to keep Masaru with this year's graduates, among more... practical reasons. Hiruzen could reflect on that later, though.

"Well, in the case of vandalism the usual punishment is community service," he commented aloud. "Those jobs happen to be pulled from the same pool as D-rank missions, with the main difference being the lack of pay, so we may as well promote you to genin now so you can start padding out your records." Masaru slowly nodded, his posture relaxing minutely as he accepted this.

"But... don't I need a team?" he questioned.

"Usually, yes, but this would certainly not be the first time we passed a single genin. In times of war we occasionally assigned early graduates to apprentice under jounin, and today we still occasionally place individual graduates into immediate apprenticeships if they show a talent in a highly specialized field, such as medical ninjutsu." Masaru frowned slightly as he listened, his face contemplative.

Ninja tended to specialize in certain fields or talents, whether it be a basic fighting element such as ninjutsu or taijutsu, or a more career-oriented skill such as interrogation or infiltration. Academy teachers began encouraging students to consider their future specializations from a young age, so Masaru had spent plenty of time thinking about his own. None of the fields that interested him would merit a one-on-one apprenticeship though.

As if sensing his thoughts, the Hokage breezily continued, "However, that won't necessarily be the case here. One of my top jounin recently got injured and won't be allowed on active duty for a while, so he's agreed to train you for the next few months until we can make arrangements for a proper team. Until then, to help acclimate you to teamwork you'll assist other genin teams in running D-rank missions. Do you have any questions?"

Taking his time to absorb the small flood of information, Masaru slowly shook his head, and the Hokage smiled. "Good. In that case—Kobayashi, come in." As he spoke a man suddenly appeared at his side in a blur of motion, making Masaru jump in surprise.

The new arrival seemed rather innocuous at first glance, with short brown hair and almond-shaped black eyes and dressed in the standard jounin uniform. Bandages wound around his forehead beneath his hitai-ate and his left arm dangled in a sling held to his chest, his sleeve cut short to accommodate the bandages. "Hello," he greeted, offering Masaru a smile. "My name is Kobayashi Gaku. I'll be in charge of instructing you, Masaru-kun."

Swallowing, Masaru slowly nodded, his eyes flickering to the Hokage nervously. "Seeing as everything's settled, I'll leave you two to it," he told them. "Now if you'll excuse me, I unfortunately have to get back to work." He gestured to the piles of paperwork with a rather rueful smirk, and Masaru's new teacher nodded.

"Of course. We'll take our leave now." Turning to leave, he gestured for Masaru to follow, and the boy shot the Hokage a final hesitant glance before doing so.

"As I said earlier, my name is Kobayashi Gaku," Gaku began. "I enjoy studying architecture, and dislike oily foods. I currently live alone, and my main aspiration is to serve Konoha to the best of my ability."

Masaru nodded at the short and simple introduction, a bit relieved he didn't go into a great deal of detail. Gaku already seemed to be the kind of person who didn't waste words, which suited him fine. His teacher nodded at him, and Masaru felt a brief surge of gratitude to have been on Team Eleven if only because that made it easier to know what to say the second time around.

"I'm Uchiha Masaru. I like cats, studying history, and... looking at art. I don't like mushy romance stories, and... the color red. As for hobbies, I like..." Watching Naruto and terrorizing his tormenters, visiting Obito's grave. "...Reading and bird watching."

"Good to know," Gaku said. "You forgot one part though: what kind of ninja do you want to be?" The boy averted his gaze, chewing his lower lip.

"I'm not entirely sure yet," he replied hesitantly. "But... I know what I don't want..."

"And what would that be?" Gaku pressed, and Masaru sucked in a sharp breath, squeezing his eyes shut. Earlier with his original team he had avoided answering the question, and he was tempted to evade it now, but... This time was different. He'd be spending a lot of one-on-one time with Gaku-sensei, and even if he avoided it now he knew the topic would inevitably come up again.

"I don't want to put anyone else through this," he whispered to Obito, kneeling in front of the headstone with his hands fisted in his lap. His body and voice trembled, his unruly brown bangs falling into his gaze as his head bowed. Every person had someone who cared for them. Every time someone died, another would suffer, whether it be a close sibling or a virtual stranger who admired them from afar. "I... I don't want to ever cause this kind of pain."

Inhaling through his nose, he opened his eyes and turned to face his new teacher, his dark gaze burning with steely resolve. "I don't want to be an assassin. I don't want to be a front-line soldier expected to kill at a moment's notice. I don't want to be put in a position where I have to kill someone unless it's to protect to my life."

Gaku raised an eyebrow at his declaration. "You may have chosen the wrong career path then. As a shinobi you'll have to kill people, it's part of the job description."

Even as he spoke Masaru shook his head though, his face still set in stony determination. "I know that, and I'm not saying I won't ever kill anyone," he countered calmly. "I'll do it to protect myself and my comrades, and if I'm ordered to kill a target by the Hokage, I will. I'm not stupid, I know I'll have to kill people someday if I become a ninja. But I don't want to be in a role where I'll constantly have to choose whether or not to end someone's life."

He wouldn't cause that sort of suffering for anyone else if he could avoid it.

Gaku regarded him silently, his gaze contemplative and scrutinizing. Eventually though he nodded, seeming to accept the answer much to Masaru's relief. "Alright. You sound like you've put a bit of thought into this, so I can accept that. There are plenty of positions where you won't be expected to kill on every mission, like infiltration and sabotage. We'll worry about that later though. For now, our main priority is training so you can at least match with other genin."

Masaru nodded and straightened with a firm, "Yes, sir!" And with that, his first day of training as a genin began.

The regiment Gaku developed was surprisingly simple, and they quickly settled into a steady routine. With only one arm cleared for usage Gaku couldn't participate as directly as they might like and mainly just supervised, instructing Masaru on how to do something and providing advice and corrections as needed. That proved to be enough for their needs though, at least for the time being.

Each session started with Masaru demonstrating basic taijutsu strikes using wooden dummies as targets, while Gaku would correct his form and technique or give advice to improve it. After that they would spar with Gaku acting as a moving target and moving purely on the defensive. Befitting his jounin status Gaku had no trouble dodging and deflecting Masaru's blows with only one arm, but frankly he had no illusions of successfully hitting a jounin so he didn't feel particularly bitter about it.

He loved every second of it. Fluidly alternating between kicks and punches, leaping into the air with a spinning kick and flipping over Gaku's head. Landing and sliding across the ground while dipping into a low sweeping kick, using handstands to give his kicks extra leverage. Sparring had always been his favorite activity at the Academy, and even if he could only practice his offensive skills right now he loved it.

Mostly, though, they spent their sessions improving his aim with projectile weapons and increasing his chakra reserves.

"The Sharingan will allow you to copy numerous ninjutsu," Gaku explained as the young Uchiha sat cross-legged on the ground, several leaves sticking to his arms and face, "but that won't be very helpful if you can only use a few before passing out from chakra exhaustion. This exercise, while basic, helps build your reserves and also improve your control." Masaru merely nodded, his attention focused on keeping the leaves from falling off.

Their first week passed fairly quickly like that, the training rather basic but still leading to small, steady improvements. On the sixth day Gaku dismissed him and told him to take the next day as a break, with promises of his first joint D-rank at their next meeting. He returned home feeling a bit tired but satisfied, happy to enjoy a day off.

Sasuke, on the other hand, seemed a bit less pleased with his own day.

"Um." Masaru just stared blankly at Sasuke, unsure what to say. Mud covered him so thickly he almost couldn't see his cousin's clothes and limbs, his face the only area clear of dirt which gave Masaru a clear view of his irritation. Grunting in annoyance, Sasuke trudged into the apartment straight for the bathroom, slamming the door behind him. Masaru just stood lamely in the kitchen as he listened to the water run, highly confused by his cousin's state.

Half an hour later the water turned off, and he heard a muffled noise of frustration. "Masaru, can you get some clothes from my room?" Sasuke called, and the brunette quickly obliged, stepping into Sasuke's bedroom to grab a clean shirt and boxers. Knocking on the bathroom door, it opened and his cousin quickly snatched the clothes before shoving out his old, dirty ones.

By the time Masaru dumped it in the laundry hamper Sasuke had emerged and stood in the living room, toweling off his damp hair. "What happened?" Masaru asked curiously, and Sasuke scowled in irritation.

"We had a D-rank to catch some dumb cat," he grumbled, his eyebrow twitching at the memory. "At one point we sighted it on the opposite side of a pond so we decided to cross it to save time. It turned out to be deeper than it looked." Masaru blinked, really not expecting that. A long moment of silence followed before Masaru turned and started walking for the door, making Sasuke frown. "Where are you going?"

"I'm going to visit Uncle Obito and ask for him to watch over me on my first D-rank," Masaru replied, shooting Sasuke an impressively deadpan look over his shoulder as he opened the door. Then he yelped as he felt a fist collide with his chest, jerking back in shock and snapping his head forward. A surprised Naruto stood in the doorway, his fist hovering in the air.

"Huh? Masaru?" He blinked dumbly, and then his eyes slowly slid over to his still-hovering fist. Cue instant panic, his eyes growing wide as he jumped back with a startled shout. "Agh! Masaru! Sorry, I was trying to knock on the door! Honest! I didn't mean to hit you!"

Of course his panic made Masaru start to freak out as well, his own face screwing in alarm as he waved his hands in a reassuring gesture. "I-it's okay! I was just trying to open the door and it didn't hurt so it's okay!" As the two boys faced each other with obvious growing panic, Sasuke appeared behind his cousin to shoot Naruto an unimpressed look.

"Dobe, what are you doing here?" he demanded, and the sudden question made them stop and turn to look at him in surprise, their momentary panic gone.

"Oh, right!" Naruto quickly fished through his pocket and produced a flat, pouch-like object, shaped like a shogi tile and covered with blue silk. "After you went home I found this and Kakashi-sensei said it was yours." Sasuke's eyes widened and he quickly snatched it from him, but not before Masaru spied a silver patch embroidered onto one side with the kanji for "protection" in elegant script.

"An omamori?" he murmured, his brow furrowing. Usually people bought the amulets at shrines for good luck or protection, but as far as he knew the only shrine Sasuke ever visited was the Naka Shrine.

"Something like that," his cousin muttered, thumbing the amulet with a strangely soft look on his face. "It's... an old gift." He left it at that, carrying it to his bedroom and slamming the door.

"Gee, you're welcome," Naruto grumbled sarcastically, grinding his teeth in irritation, but paused when he noticed Masaru looking at him. For a moment they just stood in awkward silence, until eventually Naruto stepped back and rubbed the back of his neck. "W-well, uh, anyways, that's all I came here for, so I guess I'll just be... going now, eheh."

Flashing a sheepish grin, the blond turned and quickly started down the hallway. Masaru's shoulders sagged slightly, wondering if maybe he should go after him. As he tried to gather his nerves though, he heard the door to Sasuke's room open and his cousin suddenly appeared next to him, dragging the surprised brunette into the hall. "Oi, dobe, wait up," he called, making Naruto freeze and turn to look at them in surprise.

"Huh? What's up?"

"You haven't eaten dinner yet, have you?" Sasuke questioned, making both Naruto and Masaru blink.

"Uh, no, not yet," he said with a wary look, understandably suspicious of the sudden apparent concern for his diet. "I was gonna head to Ichiraku's after this—"

"Change of plans, you're getting something from that teriyaki place instead," Sasuke interrupted. Masaru gaped at him in utter bewilderment, while Naruto's jaw dropped before he abruptly clamped it shut and scowled.

"Oi, teme! What's this about? You can't tell me where to eat!"

"I can when I'm the one paying." The blunt declaration made Naruto nearly fall over, and now Masaru's jaw hung open. Sasuke? Being generous to someone other than him?

"Uh... Sasuke? Are you... Um..." Trailing off, he looked at Sasuke helplessly, too confused to find any words. Fortunately, Naruto had no such issues, crossing his arms and squinting at him suspiciously.

"What are you up to, teme?"

"Don't read too much into it," the black-haired Uchiha replied, stuffing his hands in his pockets. "I already planned to get takeout anyway, so might as well get you some too."

Approximately three point five seconds passed as Masaru stared at him before his brain finally processed the statement. Oh. Of course. Turning to Naruto, he blandly translated, "He wants to thank you but thinks he's too cool to actually say it out loud, so he's buying you dinner instead."

Sasuke shot him an irritated look while Naruto snickered. "Phew, what a relief!" he declared with an exaggerated sigh. "For a second I thought the world might be ending!"

"Shut up," Sasuke growled, smacking them both on the head before stalking down the hall. The pair exchanged glances and then broke into snickers as they trailed after him, their faces lit up with large grins.

Chapter Text

Chapter 13

"Sunshine and lollipops and rainbows - Everything I feel when we're together and... something. I don't actually remember the lyrics. But I think that song could be used as an alternate theme song for a certain young man."

Another day, another D-rank mission.

Close to a month had now passed since Masaru's promotion to genin, and in that time he'd taken two to three missions a week. A few he had run on his own with Gaku's help, like picking up litter in a small park or watering plants for a couple who left town for an evening. Generally, he worked with another team of genin though.

He had yet to work with a team from his graduating class. According to Gaku they needed time to adjust to working together before throwing in an extra person, so instead he worked with older genin. Sometimes he worked with genin from a year above, but more often than not he worked with more ragtag groups of genin whose teams had dissolved for various reasons. That tended to be a bit more awkward since they tended to be anywhere from two to five years older, but he could handle it.

Today, however, Masaru might have reached his limit.

"Yosh! Are you ready to experience the glory of your first ever mission, oh youthful Masaru-kun?"

Sunbeams radiated behind the green-clad man—like, legitimate beams of bright canary yellow light, spinning around a backdrop of bright blue which may or may not be a genjutsu. Dazzling white teeth sparkled and glowed like a glitter-covered flashlight as he flashed the young boy a giant grin, his hand extended in a thumbs up with a noticeable red swirl visible on the pad of his thumb like a cartoony fingerprint.

Some men, when faced with such a sight, would see no shame in fleeing. Even the most battle-hardened shinobi would start subconsciously mapping possible escape routes when faced with the bizarre beast. But not Uchiha Masaru.

Mainly because he was too terrified to move.

Paralyzed and rooted to the ground by mild horror, his gaze flitted past the man to a trio of genin behind him. The girl had her face firmly planted in her hands and mumbled something indecipherable under her breath, a Hyuuga boy glowered at the jounin with obvious disdain, and the final boy oh dear kami he looks like a mini-clone of the jounin oh Sage he's smiling abortabortABORT—

Shuddering in horror, Masaru aimed a betrayed look at Gaku-sensei, wondering just what he'd done to deserve this. Hadn't they been getting along well? He hadn't disrespected him on accident, had he?

'Why?' he mouthed as the spandex-wearing adult dragged him towards the large field in need of weeding. Gaku-sensei just responded with a small wave, looking faintly amused by his student's predicament.

On that day, Masaru learned many things.

One, green spandex terrified him, and for the next few days he'd be jumping at any hint of the specific shade of green worn by Rock Lee and Maito Gai. Two, the Hyuuga clan could be just as broody as Sasuke—maybe even more, Neji made Sasuke look downright pleasant and sunny. His featureless white eyes made his permanent frown seem even more unsettling, and he seemed to radiate an open air of disdain that Masaru's cousin never showed.

Three, Tenten might be the only normal person on Team Gai and she deserved great respect for maintaining her sanity in the face of her teacher and teammates. If not for her, Masaru might not have been able to survive the first mission with his own sanity intact. As it stood, he escaped with minimal mental scarring.

"How?" he whispered, his face pale as he watched two bright green blurs race around the field leaving a cloud of dust and uprooted weeds in their wake. Barely an hour had passed, and yet with eager cries of great exuberance and youth, Rock Lee and Gai had already managed to clear half the giant field on their own.

Glancing at his own meager pile of weeds which barely filled one basket, Masaru felt sorely inadequate in comparison.

Tenten shot him a sympathetic look as his shoulders sagged, smiling at him as she yanked another weed from the ground and tossed it into a basket. "Don't worry about it too much," she told him. "They tend to go all out with everything. There's nothing wrong with your effort, you're doing fine."

Masaru glanced at her as she spoke, and his eyes slowly slid to the two baskets next to her. His shoulders sagged further, and Tenten smiled sheepishly. "Uh, don't get too down about this, you'll get faster at this with more time. If you're lucky you won't even reach this point though. These kinds of missions are pretty boring. We're only this fast because we've done it so often."

"Yeah, I guess," he mumbled, averting his gaze to return to plucking weeds. He pointedly avoided looking in Neji's direction, not wanting to see the assuredly numerous baskets he would have amassed by this point. If he didn't know any better, he would almost say he could feel the Hyuuga eying him from the opposite side of the field with a mixture of smug satisfaction and severe distaste.

Yeah, compared to him Sasuke could win the title "friendliest genin in Konoha" by a landslide. For all his arrogance and antisocial nature, he at least didn't go out of his way to glower at people constantly. Meanwhile, Masaru had some doubts about whether Neji even knew how to smile.

A youthful cry drew his attention back to Lee and Gai, who now had ten baskets of weeds each and faced each other with tears streaming down their faces. "Lee, you have come so far!" Gai proclaimed, flashing his mini-clone a watery grin and a thumbs-up. "It feels like just yesterday you were a fresh-eyed genin with eyes full of determination and so much difficulty keeping up with your teammates, and now you can keep pace with me! I am so proud of you, Lee!"

Lee sniffled loudly, rubbing his tear-streaked face with his sleeve. "Th-thank you, Gai-sensei! I could not have done it without you!"




As the two embraced and merged into one giant green blob, Masaru realized that red might not be the worst color in the world.

When they finished weeding the field and Gaku suggested they spar, he almost cheered in relief when he learned Tenten would be his partner. "Lee and Neji specialize in close-range taijutsu, so they'd have too much of an advantage," Gaku reasoned aloud, earning a vigorous nod from Gai. "Meanwhile Tenten's a weapons specialist and specializes in long range, so this way she can get some work on her close combat, too."

"You make a most excellent and youthful point!" Gai praised enthusiastically, bobbing his head in eager approval. "And you even think of how to help my team as well! Truly, Gaku-san, you are a most youthful and caring member of Konoha and we are better for having you!"

"Er, thanks," Gaku murmured, clearly a bit off-put by Gai's overwhelming energy. Coughing into his fist, he turned to the genin and said, "Anyways, are you two ready to start now? Or do you want to rest for a few minutes first?" Masaru and Tenten quickly glanced at each other, their gazes appraising.

"I'm ready if you are," Tenten offered, flashing a cocky grin, and Masaru nodded.

"Yeah, me too," he agreed, offering a small smirk of his own. The sudden confidence in his expression seemed to surprise Tenten, but she quickly smiled and nodded. As the two took their positions he felt a sense of calm wash over him, his body relaxing in anticipation of the match. Gaku called the match to start, and Tenten immediately launched forward.

Ducking under her opening punch, he swung out his leg in an attempt to knock her feet from under her. Tenten jumped back before he could make contact, making him stomp his foot into the dirt to avoid falling and slide along until he stood. Barely a second later he had to dodge the side as she swung a leg towards him in a roundhouse kick, barely avoiding her foot.

As her foot rocketed past his skull he grabbed her ankle with both hands and thrust it downwards, sending her crashing with a yell. The kunoichi grunted in pain but quickly recovered and rolled away just before Masaru could land a punch where her chest had been moments before. His knuckles barely brushed against her arm, and then suddenly her hand shot and snagged his ankle, giving it a hard yank. Rather than try to pull away he threw his weight towards her, using the sudden momentum to twist free from her grip.

Tenten once again rolled to safety just before he could crash into her from above, stopping in a crouch several feet away. Jumping to her feet, she spit out dirt and wiped her mouth, her lips curving into a smirk. "Not bad," she commented, her hands raising in front of her chest and solar plexus. Masaru returned her smirk, assuming an identical position. "You're pretty smart for a newbie."

"You're good too," he replied. "Not many kids in the academy think to pull people down with them." Tenten hummed in agreement, and the pair launched forward again.

The match lasted another few minutes, the pair fluidly exchanging and blocking blows. Masaru had never felt so challenged in his life, and he loved it. In the academy his opponents tended to go by the book, making it easy to read their intent. Tenten showed more creativity than they ever did, at times willing to abandon the structured forms of the academy style taijutsu in favor of letting the fight essentially devolve into a brawl.

When she finally managed to knock him to the ground and pin him, Masaru had a giant grin on his face. The thrill of the fight left him so exhilarated he didn't even care that he lost. "Good job," she complimented, helping him up. Masaru smiled and nodded as they offered each other the seals of reconciliation. A loud sniffle made them pause, and they turned to see Gai and Lee wiping their faces with their sleeves as tears streamed down their faces.

"Well done, you two!" the jounin praised, flashing a watery grin. "That was one of the most excellent and moving demonstrations I have ever seen! Truly, the springtime of youth shines strongly in you!"

"I have never seen such enthusiasm before!" Lee agreed loudly next to him, ridiculously snotty. "And you both still showed such good sportsmanship afterwards! Watching you fight was so inspiring!"

"Um... thanks?" Masaru mumbled, discreetly edging away from the crying pair. He noticed Gaku had distanced himself from them too, now standing on the opposite side of a sour-looking Neji. The Hyuuga watched the pair with apathetic eyes, looking more annoyed than anything.

"I do not see the point in making such a fuss," he declared flatly. "It is only natural Masaru would do well."

"H-huh?" Masaru turned to stare at the prodigy in shock. Did Neji just... praise him? What? Masaru's brain temporarily shut down, trying to process the compliment in light of his earlier observations of the silent and arrogant Hyuuga. "But... I lost?"

"Only because Tenten has more experience," Neji replied plainly. "Tenten is from a civilian family and has no predetermined advantages. You, meanwhile, are from the Uchiha clan. As disgusting as your timid personality is, your heritage alone guarantees you to reach Chuunin, as even the most inept Uchiha shinobi did so. Not only that, but the fact that you survived over everyone else means that you have a greater destiny in store."

Silence fell after his last words, the others staring at him in shock. "Neji!" Tenten hissed, shooting her teammate a venomous glare. "Don't...!" She trailed off, not even knowing how to begin to address that. Lee, apparently oblivious to the meaning of his words, just looked between Neji and Masaru in confusion.

"But... Did Neji not just praise him?" he questioned, his thick brows knitting together. "Neji rarely praises anyone! Clearly that's good, isn't it?" Tenten sagged and shot him a tired look, unsure how to address that either.

"Is... it not one?" Masaru asked hesitantly, making Tenten startle and whirl to face him in shock. Before she could begin to conceive a response Gaku cleared his throat, placing a hand on Masaru's shoulder.

"Well, I think that's enough training for today," he declared, smiling somewhat sheepishly. "Gai, thank you for allowing us to work with your team today." Gai, who had been shooting Neji a contemplative frown, quickly spun to flash his fellow jounin a beaming grin and a thumbs up.

"Of course! Feel free to ask us anytime you and young Masaru-kun wish to train or run more missions!" Masaru blinked when Gai seemed to do that sunbeam-thing again, and quickly rubbed his eyes. Nope, still there.

"...Right. We'll do that." Nodding, Gaku offered his student a soft smile and said, "Let's go, Masaru." Blinking, Masaru slowly nodded and returned a feeble smile of his own, following his teacher in a mild daze.

That night Sasuke returned home from a long training session to find his sole living relative curled in the fetal position on the couch, his body shaking and twitching erratically. For a moment he felt a pang of worry and approached him to ask what could cause such a reaction, but after getting closer and catching mumbles of "so much green" and "no more youth please" he wisely decided not to press the issue.


Dinnertime at the Haruno household was always a loud affair, even moreso when they had a guest.

"Come now, Ino, surely that won't be enough!" Kizashi boomed, laughing heartily as he stood in the kitchen. "You barely have anything to eat on there!" Even as he spoke he dumped another heaping of curry onto her plate, ignoring the Yamanaka heiress's wince.

"B-but, I'm on a diet," she protested meekly, and he snorted.

"You're twelve and look like a stick! Trust me, you don't need a diet." He winked at her with a cheeky grin, only to wince when his wife suddenly back-handed his skull.

"Kizashi, stop being so pushy!" she scolded, and then turned to Ino as she added, "But he has a point dear. You look gorgeous just the way you are right now, if anything you should be eating more."

"I-I..." She trailed off, floundering for words.

"Mebuuuukiii," Kizashi whined, rubbing the back of his head with a childish pout. "If you agree with me, then why did you hit me?"

"Because you phrased it in such a crude way!" the blond woman huffed, shooting him an annoyed glare. As the pair began bickering Ino just stood in shock, too stunned to really react.

"Just give it up, Ino," Sakura called from the table, lazily waving a spoon at her direction with a small smirk. "You know there's no winning against them when they agree." Her friend visibly deflated, and with a resigned sigh she carried her plate to the table.

"They agree, and they're still fighting," she hissed as she slid into the neighboring seat. Sakura rolled her eyes, clearly amused.

"I obviously don't invite you over enough if you're this shocked," she teased lightly, slipping a spoonful of the vegetable curry into her mouth. Sakura hummed in approval as she rolled it over her tongue, swallowing with a smile. As she ate another spoonful Ino shot her a perplexed look, her blue eyes narrowing with suspicion.

"What's with you?" she questioned warily. "You hate spicy stuff." Holding up a single finger, Sakura swished the curry around her mouth a bit more before swallowing, washing it down with a sip of milk.

"Mom found a recipe that doesn't use anything spicy," she explained. "It's got some onions I think, but it's super mild and barely tingles. Drinking milk tones it down too." Elbowing Ino in the ribs, she flashed her a cheeky smile as she added, "Come on, try it. They have a point you know, dieting won't be helpful on missions."

"Yeah, but boys don't like fat girls," Ino huffed, but she ate a spoonful of curry anyway. Her eyes lit up, and she moaned softly at the taste as she swallowed, making Sakura grin.

"Maybe most guys don't," the pinkette allowed, stirring the various vegetable bits around the bowl with her spoon. "But you like Masaru-kun, right?"

"Yeah, I do," Ino agreed with a small smirk. "He's so shy and awkward, he looks like a puppy. And you know that those kinds of guys are the sweetest ones. Once I get through to him, he'll be the cutest boyfriend ever."

"Yeah, if you're into that stuff," Sakura said, rolling her eyes with a smile. She agreed with Ino that Masaru's shy nature made him decidedly adorable, but more like a puppy. She preferred Sasuke, a sentiment that had only grown since working with him and learning more about him. "But you know, I don't think Masaru-kun cares about how thin you are."

Her words gave Ino pause, the blond shooting her another wary look. "Seriously? No offense forehead, but what do you know about boys?" The teasing nickname earned a mild eye twitch from Sakura, her smile growing a bit more forced under her irritation.

"Not much, Ino-pig," she replied through gritted teeth, enjoying the way Ino's right eye twitched. "But, I have a pretty good feeling that Masaru-kun doesn't like shallow girls. He cares more about skill."

"Oh? And how would you know that?"

"Call it a hunch," Sakura deflected with a coy smirk, taking another mouthful to delay questioning. Ino huffed at the vague answer and crossed her arms, but she didn't try to press further, much to Sakura's relief. She didn't want to try to explain that she suspected it due to Akari's influence.

Even after all these years, whenever asked about when she became serious about being a kunoichi, she thought back to that moment when her old classmate challenging Sasuke in the training field that day. Akari hadn't been her singular motivation and they never actually interacted, but her words that day had definitely lit a fire in Sakura. No way Akari didn't rub off on Masaru. They were twins, he lived with her and had constant exposure to her drive.

Not to mention their mom Ryoko had been pretty badass too. Sakura had one of her bingo book entries from before her retirement, listing the Uchiha Kunoichi as an A-rank threat nicknamed the "Bloody Sunburst." It hung in Sakura's room alongside a slew of other entries for famous kunoichi, both active and dead.

Just thinking about her Wall of Inspiration made her eyes sparkle with excitement, her lips tilting into a small smile. 'Cha, they're so cool!' her inner self declared, eliciting a mental image of a blacked-out version of herself pumping a fist into the air while grinning with manic glee. 'One day I'm gonna be that awesome too!' Between Uchiha Ryoko, Tsunade, Uzumaki Kushina, Inuzuka Tsume, Mitarashi Anko and everyone else whose entries adorned her wall—

Well. She had no shortage of inspiring role models to live up to.

"Ino, don't let your training go down the drain just to look pretty," she told her friend, shaking her spoon at her in a playfully scolding fashion. "Trust me, there's nothing sexier than a kunoichi who's just as strong as she is pretty."

Ino paused, her lips slowly quirking into a small smirk. "Sexy, huh?" she mused aloud, turning back to her food. "Mm, I think you might be onto something there. I mean, almost any girl can be pretty with the right makeup and outfit."

"But not just anyone can take down an army on their own," Sakura added in a singsong voice, and Ino's smirk grew.

"And look good while doing it, too!" Grinning at each other, the girls nodded and began eating more earnestly, though of course they made sure to be delicate about it. No point devolving into pigs and stuffing themselves. Ladies never made a mess.

By this point Sakura's parents had finished their arguing, and joined them at the table. "Ah, it's so good to see you two enjoying my cooking so much," Mebuki sighed, contentedly eating her own curry. "It makes all those hours hunched over the stove worth it." The girls hummed in agreement, too busy savoring the flavor to respond.

"You know, that reminds me," Kizashi mused out loud, leaning back in his seat. "Sakura-chan, you still haven't invited your team over for dinner yet." The pinkette instantly froze, her spoon still hovering in her open mouth.

"That's right," Mebuki agreed, looking thoughtful as her green eyes rose to the ceiling in contemplation. "My, I can't believe I didn't notice sooner..." After a moment Sakura slowly removed her spoon from her mouth and set it on the plate, taking a moment to savor the curry in her mouth before swallowing.

"Huh?" she asked, blinking at her parents with the most innocent smile possible. "What do you mean?"

"Well, you've been a team for a couple weeks now, haven't you?" Mebuki pointed out. "At this point I think it's safe to say you'll be working together for a while. You should really invite them over sometime. Team dinners are so good for building morale."

"Besides, I need to set these boys straight," Kizashi added cheerfully, winking at them. "After all, I need to make sure they understand what's okay and not okay when dealing with my precious little girl." Mebuki's smile faded slightly as she shot her husband a mildly annoyed glance from the corner of her eye, turning back to her meal with a prim frown. Her elbow abruptly shot out and jabbed him in the ribs, making the pink-haired man double over with a loud gasp.

Next to her Sakura could hear Ino stifling snickers, clearly amused by their bickering. Picking up her spoon again and stuffing another helping of curry into her mouth, Sakura discreetly stomped on her friend's foot. She smirked slightly at the pained hiss that followed, ignoring the icy glare Ino sent her way as she savored the taste.

A team dinner, huh... Sakura had a feeling her parents might be a bit too overwhelming for Naruto and Sasuke, but they might be onto something there.

The thought lingered for the rest of the night even as she gossiped with Ino and went to bed, and it continued to nag at her well into the next day as Team Seven cleaned litter in a park while Kakashi read his book like usual. As she speared a plastic bag with a pole and dropped it in her trash bag, she raised her head to look at her two teammates thoughtfully.

Sensing her gaze, Naruto turned to regard her curiously. "Hey, Sakura-chan, is something up?" he asked, mildly confused at the lack of hostility in her expression. Not that Sakura went out of her way to act hostile, but normally she ignored him or glared at him in annoyance for doing something stupid. Humming thoughtfully, Sakura tilted her head slightly.

"...What do you guys think about having a team dinner?"

Chapter Text

Chapter 14

 "I can hear everything and nothing. The 'everything' is just really muffled."


Libraries seemed to have a magical sort of power to them that tended to incite a reverent awe in their patrons. Even without the colorful signs reminding patrons to be quiet, Konoha's library had a sort of atmosphere that naturally compelled visitors to be as quiet as possible. People spoke in hushed whispers if they had to speak at all, and ninja unconsciously reverted to their stealth training to mute their footsteps. The silence had a sort of weight to it, and it felt like even the smallest sound would shatter it painfully.

That natural compulsion to produce as little noise as possible made Masaru's current task rather uncomfortable.

Wrinkling his nose as he slid a dusty book off a shelf, the Uchiha found his face scrunching up almost painfully as he tried to fight off the urge to sneeze. Ultimately he lost the battle and winced as his sneeze seemed to echo in the silence, grimacing as he placed the book in a basket next to him. Looking at the thick layer of dust coating the other books, he felt his shoulders sag in dismay. Great.

Recently the library had purchased some new shelves to replace the original ones due to some concerns about their integrity, and rather than spend hours trying to reorganize them the librarians chose to hire genin to handle the grunt work. Given the size of the job, the library hired multiple teams, and since Masaru had no official team he was a perfect fit. All of them had been subjected to a one-hour crash course on the organizational system and then thrown right into work.

Unlike most D-rank missions, this one didn't have a strict time limit. The library had pretty long hours to accommodate the busy schedules of the ninja population, so the genin had to work around the presence of patrons throughout the day. They did so by breaking into groups and tackling the shelves one by one, stripping them of the books, replacing it, and then reshelving it. None of the steps could be rushed since the books needed to be organized properly, so it made for slow progress.

The Konoha Public Library had a total of eighty-eight shelves on the first floor. Today marked the second day of the mission, and between eleven genin they had managed to replace seven bookshelves.

Dust tickled his nose as Masaru grabbed another book, prompting a loud sneeze and another wince as it echoed loudly. As someone who did not do well with massive amounts of attention, he did not feel comfortable with the amount of stares the sneeze garnered. Sighing in mild frustration, Masaru scrunched up his nose as he grabbed another book, trying to block out everyone else.

As a result, he didn't notice someone approach him until he heard a voice whisper from his right. "...-un? Masaru-kun?" He gave a small start as he finally heard his name, whirling to face the newcomer while unconsciously tightening his grip on the book in his hand. A silver-haired young man with glasses stood next to him, and Masaru relaxed as he recognized him.

"Hi, Kabuto-san," he greeted in a hushed tone, rubbing his nose. He and Kabuto's team had worked together on two occasions, and while his teammates seemed rather intimidating, so far he liked Kabuto. He seemed kind and polite, and clearly more intelligent than the average person.

"I'm sorry, did I startle you?" he asked, looking mildly apologetic, and Masaru shrugged.

"A little. You, ah, snuck up on my deaf side." Instantly he regretted saying it, as Kabuto's face lit up with surprise and barely concealed curiosity.

"You're deaf in your right ear?" he asked, frowning slightly. "I didn't know that."

"I... don't like to talk about it much." Masaru shrugged as he turned back to the shelf, hoping Kabuto wouldn't press for more details. He didn't like to think about his ear, it brought back too many bad memories. Reaching for another book, his fingers barely brushed the cover before he jerked his hand back. His already dirty fingertips now looked almost completely gray from the dust coating the book, stunning him.

"That is a lot of dust," Kabuto commented lightly, offering Masaru a napkin. "Here, wipe your hands real quick." As Masaru obediently took the napkin and wiped his fingers, Kabuto produced a white surgical mask and extended it to him. "I keep a couple masks on hand for allergies and such, and I thought you might want one. That's why I came over, actually."

Smiling faintly, Masaru nodded and took it, quickly pulling it over his face. "Thanks, Kabuto." The silver-haired youth offered him a few more words of encouragement before returning to his team, leaving Masaru to work alone.

The rest of the day passed with minimal sneezing on Masaru's part, and when he finally left at five, he stopped at a convenience store to buy some more masks for the next day before heading home. Masaru liked the library, but the long hours of silence had started to get to him. He looked forward to getting home and spending time with Sasuke, hoping tonight would be a bit livelier than usual.

As it turned out, his wish was granted.

"Hey, can you hand me the tomatoes?"



"Ugh, come ooonnnn, can't we have ramen?"

"Naruto, you idiot! You can't just eat ramen for every meal!"

"Why not?"

Masaru stood in the doorway of the apartment in mild shock, wondering if he'd gone to the wrong one as he watched Team Seven flit about the space. Spices wafted through the air as Sakura hovered in the kitchen over a large pot with a bored-looking Sasuke standing nearby chopping up tomatoes. Naruto meanwhile slumped at the table with a sulky expression on his face at the lack of ramen.

"You need more variety than just ramen!" Sakura scolded, shooting the sulky blond a glare as she sprinkled the tomatoes into the pot. "There's no way you can get all the nutrients you need from just that!"

"Yeah right!" Naruto sat up and pounded the table with his fist, his face screwed up with fiery determination. "There's all kinds of ramen! I can eat a different kind every day for a month!"

"That still doesn't mean you'll have all the nutrients!" The pinkette rolled her eyes and turned to Sasuke. "Hey, can you chop up the mushrooms for me? I think the rice is almost done."

"On it," Sasuke replied, walking over to the cutting board where several mushrooms with brown tops rested. Slowly taking in the strangely domestic scene, Masaru didn't notice Kakashi next to him until he spoke.

"Sorry for the intrusion, Masaru-kun," the silver-haired jounin greeted jovially, leaning against the wall by the door with an orange book in hand, though his eye flitted over to look at him. "Sakura suggested we have a team dinner, and by process of elimination we decided your and Sasuke's apartment to be the best place."

The three members of Team Seven perked up when they heard Kakashi address the new arrival, having failed to notice him while caught up in cooking. Sasuke nodded at him in acknowledgment and Naruto flashed him a bright grin, though Sakura meanwhile looked a bit sheepish. "Sorry about the intrusion," she greeted. "My house can get pretty loud at dinner, and apparently Naruto's apartment isn't fit for human habitation—"

"Hey!" Naruto snapped irritably.

"It's true," Kakashi offered blandly, turning a page in his book. "You have an armchair made out of empty ramen cups."

"What the—how do you even know that!?" Naruto sputtered, pointing at him accusingly. "Did you break in?"

"Well, I have to keep an eye on my cute little genin, don't I?" Kakashi's eye crinkled in a smile, while Masaru shot him a sour look. Leaning forward slightly, he glanced at the cover of the man's book before sharply raising his head to glare at Kakashi.

The jounin returned his glare with an unaffected stare, before sighing and closing his book. "Alright, I get it. I could have phrased that better. I never broke into Naruto's apartment, the Hokage took me to visit it when I got assigned this team. Just so you know, despite my choice in reading material I'm not that kind of pervert."

"Aha!" Naruto leaped up from his seat and pointed to Kakashi. "So you admit you're a pervert—ow!" He yelped as Sakura tossed a wooden spoon at his head.

"Naruto, stop being so immature!" she scolded, turning back to the pot with a huff. Luckily they had another wooden spoon, seeing as the other one currently lay on the floor. Naruto just rubbed his head and stuck out his tongue at the back of her head, totally disregarding her words.

Eying the jounin warily, Masaru slunk over to the table and sank into the chair next to Naruto's, pointedly positioning himself between Kakashi and his friend. The blond brightened at the proximity and sat back down with a grin, pleased to have his old friend next to him. The sight made Masaru's glare falter, unable to stay mad for long in the presence of sunshine incarnate. "Hey, Masaru! How's your training going?"

Masaru smiled and shrugged, relaxing as he soaked in Naruto's beaming cheer. "It's pretty normal, I guess? Gaku-sensei's arm is still healing so he can't do too much hands-on stuff with me, but we've mostly been working on my aim and chakra control. Last week he got some guy he knows from ANBU to help me with kenjutsu to see if I might be any good at it."

"ANBU?" The three genin members of Team Seven visibly snapped to attention at the comment, Sakura and Sasuke both turning to regard him with rapt focus. Even Kakashi seemed interested, his single eye boring into him from behind. Wilting a bit under their combined gazes, Masaru shifted in his seat and glanced away.

"Uh, I think so, anyway," he muttered with a small shrug. "He never says it out loud, but I'm kinda guessing that's what's going on." Since meeting Kobayashi Gaku he noticed that neither he nor his coworker with the baggy eyes wore shirts that exposed their upper arms, even in casual clothes. That, combined with their vague answers to questions about their work history led him to conclude they most likely worked in ANBU.

The fact he couldn't find any records of a "Kobayashi Gaku" certainly added to his suspicions.

"Woah, that sounds so awesome!" Naruto exclaimed, clearly awestruck. "I mean, ANBU are, like, the best of the best, right? Besides the Hokage, of course."

"I guess?" Masaru shrugged, not sure if that might be true.

"I'm actually kinda jealous of you," Sakura offered, catching him by surprise. "I want to be a captain, so learning directly from ANBU agents would be amazing." Leaning over the pot, she sniffed at it and nodded in approval. "Okay, I think the stew's ready."

"Rice is almost done too," Sasuke added. At some point during the conversation he'd transferred the rice from the rice cooker into a large bowl, and at the moment he sprinkled the chopped mushrooms over it. Nodding his head to the cabinet, he added, "Plates and bowls are in there."

"Thanks." Sakura quickly opened the cabinet to retrieve five plates and bowls, and within a few minutes they'd served everyone. Steam still rose from the rice and stew as Naruto, Masaru, Sasuke and Sakura sat at the table, carrying a delicious aroma that made their mouths water. Kakashi sat on the couch with his own dinner, opting to let the kids sit together.

Taking his first bite, Masaru jolted in his seat at the explosion of flavor that coated his tongue. "Wow, this is amazing!" Naruto declared loudly, looking at the stew in shock. Surprisingly he didn't compare it to ramen, which made Sakura smile.

"Thanks, I learned from my parents," she replied. Her eyes briefly flickered upwards towards Sasuke, who sat between her and Masaru, prompting Masaru to glance at him too. His cousin ate in silence, but his face had a certain lack of tension that indicated he liked it. Noting Sakura's stare, he glanced at her briefly before pointedly looking away, making the pinkette deflate.

Typical. Sighing softly, Masaru lightly stepped on his cousin's toes to get his attention. When Sasuke snapped a startled look in his direction, Masaru gave him a pointed look and let his eyes flicker towards Sakura. Sasuke followed his gaze and his shoulders sagged with mild annoyance, but he sighed and relented to Masaru's silent demand anyway.

"It's good," he intoned flatly, resuming eating with a bored look. Sakura immediately perked up though, her eyes shining with delight as she looked at Sasuke.

"Thank you, Sasuke-kun!" she replied, smiling at him sweetly, and Masaru felt his breath suddenly hitch.

If Naruto embodied sunshine, Sakura embodied spring. Gentle warmth radiated from her without being too overwhelming and full of energy like Naruto could be, her green eyes a soft shade full of fresh life and enthusiasm that promised to blossom into something greater. Staring at her pleased expression with a strange sense of awe, Masaru tensed when she glanced at him and quickly averted his gaze to her food.

"It's good," he offered with a lame smile, and then remembering Sasuke literally just said that he quickly expanded, "It's the most amazing home cooked meal I've had in years." As soon as the words left his mouth he froze, his face frozen in a strained smile as the others looked at him with varying levels of surprise. That might have been a bit too strong. After a long moment he just sank into his seat with a groan, hanging his head in shame.

"...Are you okay?" Naruto asked.

"I am lucky ninjas do not need social skills to survive or I'd never leave the academy," Masaru mumbled, not looking at him. Naruto snickered and Sasuke just shook his head with a sigh, though Sakura offered him a reassuring smile.

"It's okay," she assured him quickly. "I get what you mean, I used to be pretty shy too. Thanks for the compliment, really." Masaru raised his head and gave her a feeble smile of his own.

"I'm a bit surprised myself," Kakashi commented from the kitchen counter, reminding them of his presence. He set the empty bowl and plate next to the sink and turned to face them, reclining against the counter lazily. "You work with different teams almost every day, so I'd assume you'd be used to talking to relative strangers."

"Oh yeah, you don't have a team," Sakura mused aloud, eyes rising to the ceiling in thought. "So I guess you work with other teams for D-rank missions instead, right?"

"Pretty much," Masaru confirmed with a nod. "Most of them are older genin with no teams anymore though."

"Wait, what happened to their teams?" Naruto asked, looking at him in confusion.

"Lots of stuff?" Masaru shrugged. It tended to vary from person to person.

Noting Naruto didn't seem satisfied, Kakashi decided to elaborate for Masaru. "Generally, while the members of genin teams will have a lifelong bond, they won't be together forever. I've seen genin teams get dissolved after the deaths of multiple members, or members resigning after traumatic incidents." A heavy atmosphere fell over the room as the four genin contemplated the dark nature of his words.

While Masaru understood better than anyone that the life of a shinobi meant death, he didn't like to be reminded of it. Uncomfortable in the tense silence, he decided to try to alleviate the atmosphere. "Yeah, but most of the people I work with got left behind when their teammates became chuunin."

"Wait, that can happen?" Naruto seemed honestly surprised by this piece of information, making Sasuke scoff.

"Of course it can, dobe," he scoffed. "Do you even know how people become chuunin?" At this point Sakura and Masaru both glanced at Naruto curiously. The blank face and long silence provided their answer. Seeing as he had learned quite a bit about the exams due listening to his occasional "teammates" complain about it, Masaru felt sufficiently informed to explain it to him.

"Every six months, one of the villages hosts Chuunin Exams open to genin from all the villages," he began. "The village hosting it changes each time. I don't know much about the first two phases, but the third phase is a big tournament with guests from all over the world, including daimyo and other nobles."

His explanation left Naruto looking at him in awe, his eyes wide. "Seriously? That sounds awesome! When are the next ones?" At this point Masaru paused, frowning slightly as he tried to remember.

"June, no, July," he finally answered. "The summer exams are always on July First. I think it's being held here this time, too." The three members of Team Seven instantly exchanged pointed looks, their gazes calculating. Nodding, they turned to look at Kakashi with near-identical expressions full of fierce determination.

"We want to take it," Sasuke declared, and the other two nodded in firm agreement. The jounin looked back with a bland expression, seemingly apathetic in the face of their sudden resolve.

"You realize you haven't even been genin for a month, right?" he reminded them.

"You realize I'm gonna be Hokage, right?" Naruto retorted with a cheeky grin. "And what better way to get started than to become chuunin right off the bat?"

"We still have a couple months to get ready," Sakura added with a sly smile. "It's only April." Kakashi sighed and shook his head.

"You three might be underestimating the chuunin exams a bit," he commented casually, his lone eye sliding over to regard Masaru. "Don't you think, Masaru?"

"A little," he admitted sheepishly. When the others turned to look at him with looks of betrayal, he retained his composure and offered, "The exams sound pretty hard. One of the people I work with said he's taken it five times, and he seems kinda strong?" He hadn't actually seen Kabuto fight, of course, but he seemed smart enough to make up for most physical disadvantages.

"F-five times?" Naruto stared at him in shock, his jaw hanging wide open.

"That is an excellent point, but not totally conducive to rating the difficulty," Kakashi interjected. "The standards for the exams vary from village to village, too. Konoha for example requires teams of three to take the first two phases, but other villages will allow for individuals to take it alone. Of course promotion is ultimately up to the examinees' native village, but that doesn't matter if they can't make it to the third round."

"So basically, you could theoretically pass if you take it in one village, but fail on the first phase in another?" Sakura asked thoughtfully, and Kakashi nodded.

"Pretty much. In any event though, there's still some time until the Chuunin Exams and it's still too early for me to decide whether or not you guys are ready for them yet. For now you should focus on improving yourselves first and foremost. Don't even worry about the exams yet."

Team Seven looked vaguely reluctant but still mumbled various forms of assent as they resumed eating. Masaru just eyed his friend and cousin thoughtfully, taking a bite of the mushroom rice. He had a feeling they wouldn't let it go.

Chapter Text

Chapter 15

"Sometimes when I look at my kids, I just think, 'Wow, I am totally gonna traumatize you at some point aren't I?' Sorry kiddos."

"Sakura-chan, come on, let's get ramen after this mission! Pleeaaaaase?"

Sakura groaned in mild irritation, her eyebrow twitching as she tried not to look at her annoying blond teammate. "You know Naruto, asking a girl out for ramen every day makes you seem kinda cheap," she quipped dryly, making him blink and look at her in confusion.

"Huh? Whaddaya mean? Ramen's awesome!"

"And cheap," Sasuke interjected, hefting an armful of logs onto the stump.

"Hey! Ichiraku's is the best stuff in town, teme!" Naruto scowled at his teammate but the black-haired boy merely scoffed.

"Oi, dobe, get over here and start chopping these up." The blond still bristled at the comment but let it slide, stomping over with an old axe in hand. He swung it down on the logs with a sharp, resounding crack that cut through the air, grumbling under his breath all the while.

Today's D-rank mission consisted of splitting logs for a local restaurant that prided themselves on using wood-burning ovens for cooking, which apparently added some special type of flavor to the food? Honestly, none of them particularly cared for the specifics, not particularly picky about cooking. Their lack of interest in gourmet cooking ironically seemed to be one of their few common interests.

At this point, Team Seven's teamwork could be described as shaky, but gradually improving as they felt out each other's strengths and weaknesses. Each of them had issues working with the others for varying reasons, but they had definitely come far from the awkward and individualistic trio who failed the Bell Test a month ago. The team dinner definitely helped build unity.

They'd worked out a good system to maximize their efficiency. Sasuke gathered the uncut chunks of wood, Naruto handled splitting them with the axe, and Sakura arranged the split logs into large bags so Sasuke could carry them into the restaurant more easily. The last part had been Sakura's own idea, because she admittedly lacked in physical strength compared to her teammates, but it ultimately proved more convenient since it allowed Sasuke to transport more firewood at once without placing undue stress on his arms.

Naturally, Kakashi just sat to the side reading his filthy porn book as usual.

Naruto made a loud grunt as he swung the axe down on yet another piece of wood, and within seconds Sakura quickly scooped up the two halves and slipped them into the bag with the others. "I think that was the last one," Sasuke commented, eying the empty plot of land that had once been occupied by the seemingly endless array of wood. The comment garnered a brief glance from their jounin sensei, and he hummed as he appraised their work.

"It was indeed," he confirmed. "I'll take in the last bunch of logs, and then we'll be done for the day. Good job team." The three genin breathed a giant sighs of relief at this, all of them sore and sweaty from working in the sun for the past three hours. Even Sasuke, who would spend nearly every waking hour training if left unattended, felt more than a little glad to finally be done.

"Man, my arms are so sore," Naruto whined, dropping the axe and rotating his right shoulder. "I am so tired of these stupid D-ranks." As he spoke Kakashi snapped his book shut with a small thump and slipped it into his pouch, taking the bag from Sakura.

"Well, look at it this way," Kakashi commented. "You're building up a lot of muscle." With that he disappeared into the restaurant to hand over the last batch of logs and collect payment from the owner. Since they hadn't been formally dismissed, the trio of genin collapsed in a circle on the stump, their backs instantly slouching and reclining against each other.

A brief silence fell over them, their minds wandering as they savored the opportunity to finally rest. Naturally, this had not been what they expected when they became genin. Naruto pouted and almost crossed his arms, but the minute twitch in his muscles as he started to raise them prompted him to change his mind. "Ugh, I don't think I can even lift chopsticks," he groaned, letting his arms dangle loosely at his sides.

"At least we didn't have to do another extermination," Sakura muttered darkly, and the trio shuddered at the memory. Cockroaches had coated the interior of some rooms so thickly they couldn't even see the walls or floors, and then when they started spraying the insecticide and sheets of them started falling from the ceiling...

Well, even Kakashi had decided enough was enough, and they had never been more grateful to the man than when he ordered them to withdraw. The Hokage ended up ordering a team of Aburame clan members to investigate the house, and last Team Seven heard it got razed to the ground. They had absolutely no issues with that.

"Never again," Sasuke muttered, his eyebrow twitching at the memory, and the others groaned in agreement.

"Yeah, well, I'm still getting really tired of all these D-ranks," Naruto grumbled, scowling at the ground. "We're ninja, not stupid chore-monkeys!" At one point his immature whining would have irritated his teammates, but today both Sasuke and Sakura found themselves silently agreeing with the blonde.

"We have been doing these missions for a couple weeks now," the pink-haired kunoichi murmured thoughtfully, closing her eyes as she reclined. "And I feel like we're getting pretty fast at them, at least compared to when we started."

"And the pay's not that high," Sasuke added. His teammates shot him curious glances over their shoulders.

"Since when do you care about money?" Naruto questioned. For all his faults the Uchiha had never struck him as the greedy type.

"I don't," Sasuke replied flatly. "But if we're going to be doing chores when we could be training, then I'd at least like the pay to be worth it." His teammates "ah"ed in understanding and nodded before falling silent again. As it stretched Sakura bit her lip, balling up the fabric of her dress in her fists as she fell deep in thought.

"...Maybe, we could ask Kakashi-sensei to request a C-rank mission next time?" she suggested after a few moments, her voice tinged with uncertainty. When she felt the boys tense at her suggestion, she sucked in a small breath and added, "I mean, like I said, we've been doing these missions pretty fast compared to when we started. We're definitely improving. We... might be ready."

Naruto's eyes shined at the thought, and he leaped from the stump with a loud shout as he pumped his fists into the air. "Heck yeah! We're definitely ready!" Then he froze, and he gave a long, drawn-out whine as he quickly lowered his arm. "Aaaagh, still so sore..."

"Tch, dobe," the Uchiha muttered under his breath, while Sakura just sighed and hung her head in exasperation. For all they'd improved over the past two weeks, they still had a long way to go before they'd be a cohesive team. A long moment of silence passed, but then Sasuke surprised them by continuing, "You're right though."

"Huh?" Sakura gave a small start at the comment, whirling her head to look at Sasuke in surprise. The black-haired boy leaned forward with his chin propped in his hand, a thoughtful gleam in his eye.

"D-ranks aren't getting us anywhere," he declared. "We're wasting our time, it's not like we're making any progress."

"Maa, it might seem like that now, but D-rank missions are about more than just chores." The trio startled and leapt to their feet with kunai in hand, spinning to face the new voice. Kakashi casually stood behind them, hands in his pockets and his posture slightly slouched. "The purpose of D-rank missions is to help you build teamwork and get used to proper mission protocol in a safe environment. On a C-rank mission, you'll likely have to leave the village and may run into dangerous situations."

A sharp glint entered his eye, his voice dropping a notch. "If you're not prepared, you might not come back."

An instinctive shudder ran down Naruto and Sakura's spine at the sudden dark tone, but Sasuke remained unfazed, instead looking thoughtful. "Leave the village, huh," he murmured thoughtfully, his eyes narrowing.

"In any event," Kakashi continued, his tone light and casual once more, "while you guys have definitely improved since you first started, I'm not sure you're at that point yet. But I can understand you're all getting rather antsy about this, so how about this? If you guys can work together to complete two missions every day this week, I'll think about asking the Hokage for a C-rank."

The trio of genin exchanged glances at the offer, each silently gauging the others' reaction. A fiery resolve erupted in their eyes, and they turned to Kakashi with determined expressions. "We'll do it!" they chorused in unison, their eyes glinting with determination and Naruto enthusiastically pumping a fist in the air.

Then the blond paused and whined as his arm fell to the side. "So sooooreee..."

His teammates groaned in irritation, shaking their heads, while Kakashi just looked on with a bland expression. "...Right. We'll see. I'll see you guys at the training grounds tomorrow." With that he disappeared in a flurry of leaves, leaving the trio behind to glower at the spot where he'd stood.

A brief moment of silence followed, and then they all abruptly hung their heads with a loud groan.

"...He just tricked us into doing more chores, didn't he," Naruto grumbled with a sour look.

"Yep," Sakura muttered sullenly. Then a thought occurred to her, and her face grew even more sullen. "You know, I just realized Kakashi-sensei didn't say he would ask the Hokage. He just said he'd think about it."

The two males looked at her in horror, and then all three released strangled shouts of frustration.

"We might leave the village on a mission."

Masaru sharply snapped his head to stare at his cousin, the udon almost slipping out of his mouth in his surprise. Sasuke sat across from him looking placid and bored as ever, but even so his eyes flitted up to gauge Masaru's reaction. Blinking slowly, he closed his mouth and swallowed, exhaling through his nose.

"I..." He started to speak but trailed off, unsure what to say, and eventually settled on a lame, "Okay?" Sasuke's expression instantly darkened, his dark eyes boring into him so intensely the brunette winced and quickly averted his gaze to his food.

"Okay?" his cousin repeated, drawing out the word slowly in a dangerously low tone. "I tell you I'm going to leave the village, and that's all you have to say?" Masaru frowned, fidgeting under Sasuke's gaze as he pointedly kept his eyes fixed on his dinner.

"I... don't really know what else to say," he mumbled lamely, giving a half-hearted shrug. "I mean, getting a mission outside the village is a big thing. I'm not gonna tell you not to do it."

"I'd be gone for a while though," Sasuke pointed out, still squinting at him. "You'd be home alone anywhere from a couple days to a couple weeks." The pointed reminder made Masaru wince, sucking in a sharp breath. His head sharply bowed so his bangs fell over his face, his shoulders tense and rigid. Across from him Sasuke stiffened, and after a few moments he leaned back in his seat with a sigh. "...Right. You get that."

Masaru didn't respond, just turned his head to stare at the floor. Though he still had half his bowl full of udon, suddenly he didn't feel that hungry. Judging by the lack of clinking from silverware clattering against porcelain, he suspected Sasuke lost his appetite too. A tense atmosphere draped over the Uchiha boys, neither of them looking at each other as they dwelled in their own thoughts.

"...I don't want to get in your way," Masaru mumbled after a while. Sasuke perked up at the sudden comment, eyes snapping to him attentively though with less intensity than before. Frowning, Masaru searched for words and continued, "I... You have... a goal. You... you need to get stronger. I don't. Not as much as you, anyway."

Sasuke frowned at the comment, setting down his chopsticks. "...It's your clan too," he muttered. "Aren't you angry?" Masaru didn't respond right away, avoiding his cousin's gaze. His mind flashed back to that night, to the overwhelming terror as he huddled in that closet with the blood-soaked sword hovering over his stomach.

"You truly are pathetic. I am sure Akari-chan would be much braver."

Those words had marked a turning point in his mind, the sole instance in that horrific night not marked by overwhelming fear. Fierce rage surged through him at the reference to his sister and overrode his mortal terror as he ordered Itachi to leave her alone, his resolve unwavering even after Itachi plunged the sword in his stomach. In that instant the world became clear as he felt nothing but hatred towards Itachi, fueled by a desire to protect her.

In the end it changed nothing though. By that point Masaru had already lost Akari anyway.

"I don't think so," he finally whispered. "Not anymore." Sasuke's expression softened at the soft tone, breathing a small sigh as he slumped in his chair.

"...Sorry." Fiddling with something in his pocket, he abruptly paused as realization flashed across his face, perking up in his seat slightly. "Hey, I just realized... I never showed you what's in that charm, did I?" The sudden change of conversation made Masaru raise his head, looking at him curiously.

"Uh... No. But isn't it bad luck to open an omamori?"

"It's not really one," Sasuke replied, pulling out the charm. "I don't count it as one, anyway. Just... promise not to laugh too hard, okay?" Now thoroughly curious, Masaru mutely nodded and Sasuke untied the string sealing it.

Far across town, a certain brown-haired man sat inside a dimly lit bar, sighing as he hunched over his drink. Various couples and groups littered the room, chatting eagerly and loudly while he sat alone at the end of the counter.

"So, I take it teaching is a bit more stressful than expected?" He jolted in his seat upon hearing a voice behind him, turning in surprise only to find a familiar silver-haired man standing behind him. Relaxing, he offered a tired smile and nodded, turning back to his drink.

"Ah, yeah, a bit," he admitted. "Working with kids is a bit... weird. I'm not used to interacting with kids, especially untrained genin."

"Maa, you'll get used to it. That or you'll go crazy." Gaku snorted in amusement, and took a large sip from his drink as Kakashi slid into the neighboring seat. Raising a hand to signal the bartender, he waited for the busty woman to set down a glass of amber liquid in front of him. "Thanks." She grunted in faint acknowledgement before she headed off to tend to other customers, leaving Gaku to side-eye Kakashi.

"You come here a lot, I take it?" he guessed.

"Occasionally," the silver-haired man demurred, glancing at his glass. His companion rolled his eyes and turned away, knowing Kakashi wouldn't drink as long as he looked at him. After taking advantage of the opening to sneak a quick sip, Kakashi's lone eye slid over to Gaku's arm, still clinging to his chest in a sling. "So, is your arm really broken?"

"Of course not," the other jounin replied, smiling wryly as he wiggled his fingers. "You know me, most injuries tend to heal pretty fast. We did break it so we could figure out how it would realistically fit into a sling, but it healed on its own within a couple hours."

"Hmm. Convenient. I have to say though, it's odd to see you with a regular hitai-ate. Or a jounin uniform. I didn't even know you owned one." His companion raised an eyebrow at the conversational tone.

"Okay senpai, what really brings you over here?" he asked, and Kakashi's eye crinkled as he smiled.

"Maa, can't a former captain check in on his old subordinate without an ulterior motive?"

"When it's you? Of course not. The only time you willingly interact with people is after disaster missions. Otherwise we need to sick Gai on you."

"Hmm." The eye smile faded, and Kakashi lowered his gaze back to his drink. "I guess you know me too well, huh." He didn't continue right away, staring at his reflection in the amber liquid. Gaku didn't press him, letting him take his time to sort through his thoughts. Eventually Kakashi made up his mind and casually commented, "My team wants to take on a C-rank mission. I plan to talk to the Hokage and get one at the end of the week."

Gaku looked at him surprise, caught off-guard by the admission. "Do you think they're ready?"

"Well, they have their flaws, but I think they can handle it," Kakashi allowed. "They've come pretty far from the bell test. Things are a bit shaky, but they're getting there. We had a team dinner at Sasuke's apartment earlier this week and it went pretty well, Masaru joined in too. They seem to be unified by a desire to take the Chuunin Exams now, in part thanks to your cute little student mentioning it."

Gaku flushed at the comment and glanced away, smiling sheepishly. "Sorry about that. But motivation is good, isn't it?"

"...Maybe. We'll see." Kakashi shrugged lightly and turned to face his comrade more fully. "That's the other part of the reason I'm here. If we go, Masaru will be left alone. As far as I know, this would be the first time in his entire life he's spent the night on his own." The comment made Gaku tense, his expression sobering.

"...He might take that pretty hard," he allowed quietly, gazing at his glass. "I... can't really blame him. I mean, just..." He sighed, and quickly downed the remainder of his drink. "Thank god he doesn't know about what really happened. I know we'll have to tell him someday, but I think the council made the right choice in hiding that particular detail from him."

Kakashi didn't reply right away, just staring at his reflection in his drink. "...Have you ever noticed anything about his eyes?" he asked quietly, and he felt his former subordinate tense, slowly turning to look at him with wide eyes.

"His eyes?" he repeated carefully. "I... I didn't see any changes, but... Why? You don't think...?" He trailed off, hesitant to voice it out loud. Kakashi held no such misgivings though, and turned in his seat to face him directly, his lone eye narrowed.

"Tenzo, I believe Masaru has activated the Sharingan."

Chapter Text

Chapter 16

"Sometimes life just throws plot twist after plot twist at you. It's really frustrating at times, especially since you can't guarantee it'll eventually have a happy ending."

Masaru tried to make himself as small as possible as he stood next to Chouji, busy painting a fence. On the other side of the large genin he could spy Ino tilting her head back to get a better look at him, her icy blue eyes seeming to be on fire as she shot him a sly smile.

Of course. Of course when he finally got to work with a team from his graduating class, it would be the one with Ino on it. Because some greater power apparently found it hilarious to place him on the team with his only fangirl. From the second he met up with Team Ten to paint fences, the Yamanake heiress had been all over him, fluttering her eyelashes and flipping her hair over her shoulder with coy little comments.

Considering Masaru still had the social prowess of a skittish cat, he did not take well to the flirting.

Shuddering as she batted her eyelashes, he unwittingly emitted a small whimper and tightened his grip on his paintbrush until his knuckles turned white. Chouji—sweet, gentle, kind-hearted Chouji—turned to offer him a worried look. "Hey, are you okay Masaru?" he asked, genuinely concerned. "You seem kinda freaked out."

"I'm f-fine," Masaru croaked, sweat rolling down his face as he tried to ignore the feeling of Ino's eyes boring into him. Right now, Chouji might be his favorite person in the world. Had he not happened to stand next to Masaru when they started painting, he would have had no buffer against the crazy overbearing kunoichi.

Somewhere on Ino's other side, a sigh could be heard followed by a faint mumble that sounded vaguely like the word "troublesome". "Oi, Ino, knock it off," Shikamaru drawled, sounding vaguely irritated.

"Hey, mind your own business pineapple head!" Ino snapped, huffing childishly as he glared at him. Looking bored as ever, Shikamaru leaned back slightly to look at Masaru, who by this point had shut down and locked into "stress smile" mode.

"She's scaring you, right?" he asked flatly. Masaru made a small distressed noise while retaining that nervous smile, too terrified to bob his head in confirmation. Sweet oblivious Chouji shot Masaru a curious glance, the gears in his head visibly turning as he processed this new bit of information and the panicked smile plastered on the Uchiha's face.

"Yeah, I'd say she is," he agreed after a moment of thought. "You might want to tone it down, Ino."

"What?" At this point Ino physically stepped back from the fence to scrutinize Masaru more closely, and in response to her intense stare his strained smile grew about two centimeters. "Oh, come on! Look at him, he's smiling!"

"...Isn't the Yamanaka clan supposed to be known for reading people?" Shikamaru sighed, shaking his head, and Ino stiffened.

"Shikamaru... Are you calling me dumb?" Her face grew dark, her eye visibly twitching as she glared at him. Watching the pair stare each other down, after about three seconds Chouji abruptly grabbed Masaru's arm and dragged him away from the fence at lightning speeds. Masaru yelped in surprise and dropped his brush, shooting the previously timid-seeming boy a bewildered look.

"Chouji?" he questioned, and the Akimichi boy shot him a nervous smile.

"Sorry, you don't want to be in the blast zone when those two get at it."

"Blast zone? What—" Before he could finish talking he heard a loud crash followed by a high-pitched shriek, and he whipped his head around to see Ino staring at Shikamaru in shock, a large white splotch staining the front of her top. Judging by the brush at her feet, and Shikamaru's suddenly empty hand, well. He had a pretty good idea what happened.

"Told you not to charge at me," the Nara deadpanned, confirming Masaru's theory, and Ino's face turned absolutely murderous.


As Masaru and Chouji watched Ino fling herself at her teammate with a feral cry from a safe distance, the Uchiha found his mind wandering to his cousin. Just a few hours ago he'd stood at the gates to see off Team Seven as they embarked on their first mission outside the village. Escorting a bridge builder to the Land of Waves hardly seemed glamorous, but compared to this, he couldn't help but feel just a little envious.

Hopefully they were having better luck than he was.

"Er... Naruto, if you lose any more blood, you'll bleed out."

The blonde shouted in shock and started panicking as he stared at his bleeding hand, dropping his kunai. "CRAP! I DON'T WANT TO DIIIIIEEEE!" As he freaked out his teammates and teacher just watched in various states of resignation, Sasuke seeming faintly annoyed while Sakura just sighed and walked over.

"Calm down and hold out your hand," she ordered levelly, producing a roll of bandages from her pouch. Naruto quickly complied, still looking fairly distressed at the prospect of potentially dying of blood loss. Kakashi watched her clean and wrap the wound with a keen eye before turning to the two prisoners bound in chains.

Barely a couple hours out, and their mission had already gone upside-down. Tazuna had lied about the actual nature of the mission. Instead of a simple escort, they had to help save a country from a tyrannical business mogul who had monopolized the economy and isolated the nation from the rest of the world. Politics. Peh.

On the bright side, they didn't have to kill said tyrannical business mogul to save the Land of Waves. As long as Tazuna could build the bridge, Gato would lose his control over the commerce and they could trade with other nations freely.

On the other hand though... Assassination would honestly be quicker and easier. Gato would surely send endless legions of assassins after Tazuna to prevent him from finishing the bridge, and given his budget he had plenty of options when hiring mercenaries. The Demon Brothers would likely be on the weaker end of the spectrum.

Alas, killing such a powerful and important businessman could cause various problems for Konoha in the long run, so Kakashi couldn't do that. But maybe if he nudged some more vindictive residents... no, no, he couldn't involve civilians. He sighed at the thought, resigned to the fact that his mission would likely be even more difficult than he anticipated right now.

When they arrived at the Land of Waves, his suspicions proved right. "Get down!" he ordered, dragging Tazuna as he and his students dropped to the ground. A flash of silver swung overheard with a loud, reverberating swoosh, narrowly missing their heads. As Kakashi followed the movement he quickly identified it as a large sword, his eyes narrowing as it crashed into a tree.

He gritted his teeth as he quickly got to his feet, clutching a kunai with a death grip as he glared at a figure that landed on the blade's handle. Behind him Kakashi could hear his students springing into a defensive formation around Tazuna, and if not for the severity of the situation Kakashi might feel a bit of pride for thinking to do so without orders. As it stood though, he kept his gaze trained on the new arrival, too busy running calculations of the upcoming battle to think about that.

"Well, well, well," drawled the man, turning his head slightly to face them. "What do we have here."

Gato had definitely spared no expense in hiring mercenaries. No matter how desperate he may have become for income after defecting from Kiri, Momochi Zabuza definitely would not come cheap.

"Protect Tazuna and don't interfere," he ordered his genin. "This man is far beyond your league." Though he didn't look back he could imagine them nodding, their faces filled with that same resolve they'd shown when requesting the mission and discussing the Chuunin Exams. Funnily enough, it occurred to him that if they survived this mission, Kakashi would have absolutely zero qualms entering them into the exams.

Jaw clenching, Kakashi reached for his headband to reveal his secret weapon, already knowing he'd need it to survive this fight.

Obito, I'm counting on you to give me a hand...

"You are weak, boy. So weak and pathetic."

Cold sweat dripped down Naruto's face as he watched Kakashi-sensei clash with the enemy, their figures little more than blurs in the hazy white mist shrouding the area. Nauseating killing intent radiated from both Kakashi and the enemy, so thick and heavy even Sasuke seemed paralyzed.

"You can't even think clearly right now, can you?"

The loud clank of metal died down as Naruto squeezed his eyes shut, sucking in a sharp breath.

"Pathetic. Truly, truly pathetic."

Amber liquid pooled around his legs as he stood in a sewer, giant steel bars towering above him and disappearing in the abyss. Red eyes glowed in the darkness high above him, inhuman lips curling back in a mocking sneer that exposed row upon row of jagged white teeth.

"Look at you," the monster taunted, leering at the blond disdainfully. "You can't even do anything, can you? You never can. You're just a weak, useless waste of space."

"Shut up!" Naruto roared, fury blazing in his blue eyes as he snarled at the physical embodiment of hatred. "Shut up, shut up, SHUT UP! I know what you're doing, you bastard, and it ain't gonna work! I'm never gonna give you control of my body you damn fox!"

The giant fox laughed, a dark rumbling noise full of malice and mocking. "Perhaps not now," the Kyuubi jeered, "But you will someday."

Naruto's eyes popped open in the real world, a flash of hateful red sparking in the blue orbs before vanishing once more, his teeth grinding in frustration.

In Konoha, a certain story circulated among the villagers, a horrible memory spoken only in whispers and history books. One night, the Nine-tailed Fox suddenly attacked Konoha, causing widespread destruction and death. The Fourth Hokage valiantly battled against it for hours, but in the end he could not defeat it without sacrificing his life.

What most versions of the story omitted was that the Kyuubi could not die like a normal creature though, as it had no physical form. Instead, the Hokage chose to seal it in a newborn baby to end its rampage.

That baby had been Uzumaki Naruto.

Naruto had not been told of his burden. He had found out on his own after a particularly bad birthday which ended with the fox feeding on his overwhelming grief to try to possess him. Ever since then, he'd been forced to interact with his unwanted prisoner on a somewhat regular basis, the fox pulling him into the seal to tempt him into using its power.

Right now, the fox certainly had plenty of fodder.

At long last he got to go on his first C-rank mission, finally setting foot outside Konoha and beginning the illustrious ninja career he'd always dreamed about. Yet when faced with his first enemies, he froze.

He just stood paralyzed as Kakashi-sensei seemed to die and couldn't move, not even when one of the enemies hurled a barrage of shuriken in his direction. If not for Sakura pulling him out of the way and Sasuke halting their attacks, he would've been shredded just like Kakashi. As it stood he provided barely any assistance in their first battle, forcing Sakura to protect both him and the client, and he still got poisoned.

When they arrived at the Land of Wave and nearly got their heads lopped off by a giant sword hurled through the air like a kunai, he didn't freeze up again. Naruto felt a fiery determination ignite in him as he moved to guard the client with his teammates, determined not to be a liability. One bad start would be enough, this time he'd actually do something and be a hero!

And yet—he couldn't do anything.

"Everyone! Take Tazuna and run! He can't move while maintaining the water prison!"

Kakashi's voice came out garbled and distorted as he screamed from within the sphere of water imprisoning him, his eyes wide and qwild with panic. The trio of genin stood facing Zabuza in horror, Naruto panting as he glared at Zabuza's foot atop his fallen hitai-ate. He understood now, they didn't stand a chance. He might be Hokage someday, but right now he was just a genin. He didn't have the power to take him on, and neither did Sasuke or Sakura.

He could feel the Kyuubi's taunting smirk, soft whispers echoing in his mind as it tried to coax him into using its power. Naruto's hands clenched into fists at his side as he pushed it away, shoving down his overwhelming fear.

Fire ignited in him once more and he rushed forward, ignoring his teammates' startled shouts. Through some quick moves and a small feint he managed to retrieve his hitai-ate from the missing-nin before retreating. "I won't give in," he growled, tying his forehead protector in its rightful place, the engraved leaf gleaming proudly atop his forehead.

He wouldn't surrender to Zabuza or let the fox gain control.

Brute strength wouldn't work this time, they needed to fight smart. Naruto knew better than anyone he didn't have a naturally strategic mind, but right now he needed to think of a plan. Inspiration struck and his hands flew into a now-familiar seal, dozens of shadow clones popping into existence. They flung themselves at Zabuza with a roaring battle cry, piling atop him in a giant mound of orange.

As the swordsman began slashing through them, Naruto hid behind one and transformed into windmill shuriken, having the clone throw it to Sasuke. To his credit, Sasuke seemed to recognize the plan immediately and did exactly as Naruto wanted, throwing his own shuriken at the same time and having Naruto hide in its shadow. Zabuza clearly didn't have any expectations in their abilities, so they'd count on him to underestimate them.

Sure enough Zabuza caught the real shuriken and easily jumped over Naruto without releasing his hold on the water prison. As he did though Sakura unleashed a flurry of her own shuriken in the swordsman's direction with an angry shout, her eyes burning with a steely resolve. Her attack did little good as Zabuza easily blocked them with the windmill shuriken, so it barely served as more than a brief distraction.

Naruto could work with that.

Dispelling the transformation, Naruto quickly flung a kunai at Zabuza's arm from behind. The Mist-nin swiveled his head to look at the blonde in surprise, swinging the windmill shuriken to deflect the last of Sakura's shuriken even as he moved to dodge, but it was too late. Even as he jerked his arm away from the water prison Naruto's kunai managed to graze his forearm, drawing a line of blood before barreling into the water clone in front of him.

Winning was outside their reach. But if Naruto could break the water prison and release Kakashi, then Kakashi could handle the rest.

The clone burst in near unison with the sphere, both collapsing into a giant pool of water that crashed into the lake. Zabuza looked even angrier than before, his murderous intent spiking as he spun and swung his sword at Naruto. It proved futile though, because the plan had worked. Kakashi suddenly appeared between them and blocked the blade with the metal plate on his glove, his Sharingan eye burning as he glared at Zabuza.

"Well done, you three," he said, and the three genin perked at the praise, unable to help the small but proud smiles as they quickly regrouped on land.

From that point on Kakashi had the upper hand in the battle, mimicking Zabuza's jutsu even as he made the first hand sign. Towering spirals of water rose from the lake and formed into twin dragons, eyes flashing gold as they crashed into each other. The sheer epicness of the battle left Naruto in awe. Now that Kakashi was winning, he didn't need to be so on edge, which meant he could focus on other things.

"Dammit, Kakashi-sensei's been holding back on us!" he growled to his teammates. Sakura shot him a look of disbelief, her stance faltering slightly.

"Seriously, Naruto!?" she hissed. "You're gonna talk about that now!? When we're up against a rogue ninja who almost beat Kakashi!?"

"...Actually, I think he's right," Sasuke grumbled, making both Naruto and Sakura spin to face him in shock. Teme, agreeing with Naruto? This mission just kept throwing surprises their way one after another, didn't it?

That sentiment proved even more accurate when, after Kakashi pinned Zabuza and prepared to deal the final blow, senbon suddenly flung into the missing-nin's neck. Kakashi stepped back as an unknown ninja appeared out of no where, catching everyone by surprise. Though he wore a mask he seemed young, his height closer to theirs and his soft voice showing him to be in the throes of puberty.

To call Naruto stunned would be an understatement. This—this kid, so obviously close to their own age, just managed to take down Zabuza—Zabuza, who was so strong and almost killed them—with a needle. His stomach churned in disbelief and he felt rage start to surge through him, because how? How could he be that strong?

"Naruto, in this world there are children who are younger than you and stronger than me."

Kakashi's words flooded him with a spike of frustration and rage. Retrieving Zabuza's still form, the Hunter-nin thanked them for their aid in taking down Zabuza and disappeared in a flurry of leaves, but it didn't lessen Naruto's frustration. Shouting angrily, the blonde ran to the spot he stood and started pounding the ground.

"What was all this for?! What are we anyway!? Why are we so pathetic!"

He could hear Kakashi approach but didn't stop pounding, didn't look at him until the man caught his arm. "Things like this happen when you're a ninja," he informed the blond, his voice grave and bordering on apathetic. "If you're frustrated, apply it next time!" Shaking as he suppressed a rage-induced sob, Naruto let his arm go limp and Kakashi released his wrist, allowing his arm to fall to his side.

Satisfied Naruto understood his point, Kakashi turned to the others. "The mission isn't over yet. We need to take Tazuna home." The others straightened at the reminder of their mission, having temporarily forgotten about it in the chaos.

The bridge builder in question released a loud laugh, flashing them a bright grin. "So sorry, everyone! You can rest at my house!"

"Okay. Everyone!" Kakashi's volume rose, his voice switching to the more commanding tone of a military leader commanding his soldiers. "Let's perk up and go." Nodding, the trio of genin and their client began following him. However, Kakashi barely moved a step before he froze, his body twitching before he toppled forward.

"Kakashi-sensei!" Shouts of horror rose from the genin as they watched their teacher fall the genin, even ever-stoic Sasuke joining in with a look of horror. Rushing to his side, Sakura dropped to her knees and pressed her fingers to his neck, her lips pressed together in a firm line as the others formed a circle around the fallen jounin.

"His pulse is there," she told them. "I... I can't be sure, but I think he passed out from chakra exhaustion." The others exchanged grim looks at the diagnosis.

"Is that bad?" Tazuna asked warily, looking between the grave genin worriedly.

"It means he used too much chakra in the fight," Sakura explained. "I read about it in my free time, and he should recover if he rests." Sasuke stared at Kakashi with narrowed eyes, seeming deep in thought as he considered something. After a moment he rose, his back straight as he turned to face their client.

"Tazuna, you're the tallest one here. Can you carry him?" The bridge builder looked at him in surprise but quickly nodded.

"Yeah, that's the least I can do." The genin stepped back as the elderly man bent down to heft Kakashi up, slinging one of his arms over his shoulder. Rising to his full height with a grunt, he turned and said, "Come on, I live this way." The genin nodded and started following him, only to freeze when Kakashi suddenly disappeared.

Kunai instantly slid into their hands as the genin leaped into a defensive formation around Tazuna, Sakura absently holding out a hand to steady the bridge builder as he nearly toppled at the sudden disappearance of Kakashi's weight. "What the hell?!" Naruto sputtered, looking around wildly in search of their sensei.

"Shit, there's more?" Sasuke hissed, tightening his grip on his kunai.

Spying a flash of movement in the trees, Naruto snapped his head in its direction only to freeze. Color drained from his face as he stared, his grip on his kunai momentarily loosening. "G-guys," he whispered, and his teammates glanced at him before following his gaze and instantly stiffened.

A man in a hooded black cloak stood atop one of the tree branches, his form blurred by the lingering mist. Shadows shrouded his features beneath the hood, making it hard to make out any details, but they could catch a glimpse of a bright crimson mask covering his face. What truly worried them though was the sight of Kakashi slung over his shoulder, his form limp and unmoving.

Their breaths caught in their throats as they stared at him, their faces darkening with identical displays of horror and apprehension. "K-K-Kakashi-sensei," Sakura whispered, the name coming out as a shaky breath that trembled as much as her body. The stranger waved his free hand in an animated wave, his head tilting to the side slightly.

"Hello there," he greeted in a surprisingly chipper tone, and Naruto could almost hear the smile under the red mask. "Sorry to intrude. I just need to borrow your sensei for a bit."

What? The trio grew even tenser at his words, their eyes widening. This time, Naruto recovered first, and when he did he felt unbridled rage. Roaring furiously, he launched himself at the man and wound his arm back.

"Let him go, you bastard!" he snarled, flinging the kunai with his full strength. Before it could hit him though the man disappeared—no, "disappear" sounded too normal. He seemed to blink out of existence, his form not even flickering as he vanished. Naruto stumbled in shock at the sheer abruptness of it and lost his balance, crashing into the ground with an 'oof'.

"Tsk, tsk, Naruto," scolded a voice from somewhere within the trees, its location impossible to pinpoint as it seemed to echo around the trio. "Don't rush unknown opponents head-on. That's, like, Ninja Strategy 101. Kakashi really needs to work on his teaching, huh?" The insult rankled Naruto's nerves, his eyes flashing dangerously as he gritted his teeth.

"Hey! Don't even think about badmouthing him! Kakashi-sensei might be lazy and perverted and super-late all the time, but he's an awesome ninja!"

"Wow, that is such a glowing review," Sakura quipped sarcastically, though she still remained tense and rigid. Her hands shook as she clutched her kunai, her eyes darting around the clearing in search of the enemy. Sasuke seemed just as tense and on edge, but neither of them broke away from Tazuna's side.

"What do you want?" Sasuke demanded lowly. The man's thoughtful hum seemed to echo around them.

"Well, a lot of things, I guess. But right now? I just need to borrow your sensei. Just for a little bit, that's all. I'm sure I'll be done before Zabuza-san wakes up."

The last sentence struck the three genin like an electric bolt, their postures going rigid as their breaths caught in their throats. What...?

"Wakes up?" Surprisingly Tazuna was the one to break the stunned silence, his jaw dropping in horror as his shoulders rose in apprehension. "You mean that guy's still alive!?"

"Hell no!" Naruto exploded, springing to his feet and whirling around in search of the enemy. "Don't lie to us! There's no way he's alive, you're just trying to throw us off!"

"Yeah!" Sakura agreed, nodding with firm conviction as she collected her nerves. "We saw it happen, the Hunter-nin hit him with a senbon right in the back of—" She abruptly cut off with a gasp, her eyes widening as she staggered back. "The... the neck..." Her voice tapered off at the end, prompting her teammates to shoot her worried looks. The kunoichi had a stunned look on her face, her eyes wide as she stared vacantly into the distance.

"Sakura?" Naruto ventured, unsettled by the strange look on her face. Even Sasuke seemed a bit unnerved by it, concern actually flickering in his face briefly before quickly schooling it back into that stoic scowl he always wore.

"Sakura, what's going on?" he questioned, turning his gaze back to the surroundings. Sakura audibly swallowed next to him, taking a deep, shuddery breath as she shook her head.

"There—there aren't any vital points in the neck that could be lethal if targeted by senbon. Kunai and shuriken, of course, but... Senbon are too precise, they're only lethal if they hit specific vital points." Gulping loudly, she inhaled sharply and declared, "That hunter-nin—he wasn't real. He must be working with Zabuza. Which means Zabuza—he's alive."

She whispered the last word, unable to bring herself to say it any louder, yet it seemed to ring through the clearing all the same. Naruto and Sasuke both froze, their eyes widening with disbelief. Laughter began to echo around them once more, and a black form materialized several meters away from them.

"Ding ding ding, we have a winner!" the stranger declared, awkwardly shifting Kakashi's weight on his shoulder so he could applaud in approval. "Wow, really weird to clap with a guy on your—woop!" He stepped to the side as a flurry of kunai and shuriken surged past him, shaking his head with a sigh. "Rude."

"You're kidnapping our sensei and you're calling us rude!?" Naruto stammered in disbelief, and the man shrugged.

"Well, yeah. I mean, I don't interrupt you when you talk, do I? Anyways, more importantly, yes, Zabuza is alive, but he'll be paralyzed from the neck down for a bit. I estimate it'll take him about, oh, one, two weeks, to recover?" Shrugging lazily, he continued blithely, "I think I'll be done with Kakashi by then, but you should probably get to training, just in case."

"What the hell do you want with Kakashi?" Sasuke growled, but he didn't move to attack him, still remaining close to Tazuna. "Where are you taking him?"

"That's for me to know, and you to find out. He'll thank me for it later, trust me. Or don't, since ninja shouldn't trust masked strangers that easily. Anyways, on that note, I should really get going. The sooner I get started, the sooner I can get him back to you guys. So sorry again for the interruption. Later!"

The man raised his hand to his forehead in a mockery of a salute and blinked out of existence once more, leaving the trio of genin staring at the space he just occupied in shock. Slowly processing what just happened, Naruto felt his knees give way as he fell to the ground, barely registering a shaken whispered "no" from Sakura and an angry hiss of frustration from Sasuke.

Inside his head he could hear the Kyuubi's mocking laughter thunder loudly, its mouth twisting into a taunting smirk.

"Like I said," it sneered, crimson eyes glimmering with sadistic glee. "Useless." Naruto ground his teeth and roared in frustration, his head tilting back as he screamed to the heavens.



Chapter Text

Chapter 17

"I remember there was a director who wrote movies starring strong female characters. One day in an interview someone asked him why he kept writing strong female characters, and he said something along the lines of, "Because people still ask that question."

Me? I just think that a strong female character is way more interesting than a weak badly-written girl who's just slapped in to appeal to female demographics."


Once upon a time, a little pink-haired girl visited a used book store and found a book that had no right to be there.

Less than three hours had passed since Team Seven set foot on the shores of the Land of Wave, and already everything had gone to hell.

Huddled around a low table in Tazuna's house, the three genin stared blankly at the cups of tea provided by their client's daughter, any ghosts of an appetite or thirst absent in the face of the dilemma they now faced.

Hatake Kakashi, the famed Copy-Ninja of Konoha, their Jounin Sensei, had been captured by an unknown enemy. Meanwhile a known threat with an A-rank danger level lurked somewhere unknown biding his time until he could recover, alongside a third threat of unknown capability. If their sensei's kidnapper could be trusted, they had at least one week before the swordsman would attempt to strike again.

One week. Seven days to train and get to a level where they might be able to fend off at least two dangerous enemies, potentially three.

Without a jounin sensei to guide them and offer protection, the sheer magnitude of the endeavor seemed insurmountable. Even Naruto, who never wavered and always spouted his motto of never giving up, seemed disheartened by the crisis facing them. His usually radiant smile had been replaced by a melancholic frown, his bright eyes dull and worried as he stared at his cup. Across from him the ever-proud Sasuke seemed equally daunted by the challenge, his normally stoic frown even broodier than usual.

Chewing her lower lip as she studied her teammates, Haruno Sakura slowly looked at her now-cold cup of tea, staring listlessly at her reflection in the greenish liquid. Muggy-looking spring green eyes stared up at her full of worry and concern, creases around her eyes and mouth formed by the heaviness of the frown she wore.

Her fingers curled around the cup as her eyelids slid shut, taking a deep breath and trying to calm the heavy dread building in her chest.

Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Haruno Sakura who was a useless piece of garbage.

Harsh as it sounded, Sakura felt no shame in admitting that during her earliest years in the academy she had let her obsession with Sasuke dominate her life. Every day she used to wake up with thoughts of what kind of face Sasuke might be making when she got the academy. She stole glances at the small Uchiha throughout class, her attention focused on him so heavily that in retrospect it surprised her that she managed to keep her grades high.

Even now she still yearned for his affection and approval, but compared to the little six year old girl she had once been, she had matured a lot. After all, her life didn't revolve around him the way it used to.

It had been Uchiha Akari who had created the first ripple of change.

"You know, if you have the Uchiha name, you need to be more than just a pretty face. We Uchiha are warriors, the best of the best. Even civilian Uchiha women are badass, don't you think?"

Those taunting words had sparked a fire in Sakura, her eyes boring a hole into the back of the smug Uchiha girl's head as she skipped away from Sasuke-kun to join a quiet little boy at the edge of the training ground. While some girls around her began grumbling threats about not letting the stuck-up girl outdo them, Sakura felt her thoughts take a different direction, Akari's words playing over in her head.

Uchiha women were strong. Sasuke-kun even confirmed it. So if Sakura wanted to marry him, she needed to become strong too.

It had been the shallowest of motivations, but it had been motivation nonetheless. It had spurred Sakura to start working even harder, spending her free time training and researching. Strength had two parts to it. Physical conditioning would be considered the most obvious one, but arguably more important would be one's mental ability. Sakura knew that a single wily shinobi could take down ten stronger opponents with a single well-thought-out plan.

Sakura knew she lacked the physical strength of her male classmates, but she also knew she had more brains than the average person. Brains didn't always beat brawn, but it could still cripple them. With that thought in mind, she decided to throw herself into intellectual pursuits, scouring the library and bookstores for any useful books she could find: Tactics, history, strategy, chakra theory, political discourses...

If she found a book that seemed like it could give her even a slight edge as a shinobi, she snapped it up and devoured it whole, and then resumed her search anew.

It had been in that pursuit that she found herself inside a used bookstore at the age of six. Her meager allowance left her with very limited options, so she chose to root through a bin full of worn, damaged books marked at discount prices to maximize her potential material. A single book caught her eye, the black cover worn and unmarked, and curiosity prompted her to fish it out.

Holding the tattered volume in her small hands, the little pink-haired girl slowly opened the cover and found a photo of an unfamiliar man glowering at her, his yellow serpentine eyes cold and unforgiving and sending chills down her spine.

Bingo books had no place in civilian bookstores. Even old, outdated ones would normally be disposed before reaching the shelves, because no civilian had any need to know what powerful ninja might roam the world. Yet somehow one old bingo book had slipped through the cracks, and destiny had seen fit for it to fall into the hands of one six-year-old Haruno Sakura.

Flipping through the pages, she stopped when she found a photo of a woman with dark green hair pulled into a bun, her face framed by thick strands of golden-orange bangs and a hitai-ate engraved with a stylized hourglass on it. Her brown eyes held a quiet, firm resolve that gave her pause, seeming to draw Sakura's gaze to them with an almost hypnotic quality.

"Pakura of the Scorch Release," she'd mouthed silently as she read the text next to her name. The entry contained a lot of kanji she didn't know yet, but she began reading what parts she could understand with a growing sense of wonder.

In that quiet, unassuming moment, standing in a quiet bookstore with an outdated bingo book, Sakura's life changed forever. She had found herself on a new path to become stronger—not just to earn the right to marry Sasuke, but for her own sake. Vain as it might sound she wanted to one day open a bingo book and find her own face staring back, her green eyes filled with the same quiet confidence Pakura exuded and striking fear into enemy ninja even as her eyes stared lifelessly from a printed page.

As the years passed the dream began to evolve, taking on a solid form as she grew and learned her strengths. Idly fantasizing would not satisfy her. She needed to make it a reality, and for that she began gradually plotting her ascension, researching the various fields available to shinobi and the various topics.

Seated among her new team and facing her new teacher, Sakura sucked in a deep breath as she began. "My name is Haruno Sakura," she started. "I like anmitsu and..." Her gaze flickered to Sasuke, and her face flushed before she quickly snapped her gaze away. "Um, I dislike spicy foods. My hobbies are..." Another glance, and a small squeak caught in her throat, forcing her to swallow it back. "R-reading about history and biographies famous kunoichi. My dream is..."

Visions of white dresses and falling petals flashed through her mind, her face turning bright red and a small squeal slipping through. Shaking her head violently, she pushed away the fantasies and raised her head to stare at her new teacher, her eyes sparking with determination. "My dream is to become an ANBU captain, and be acknowledged by the world as an A-rank threat!"

Her words on that first day echoed in her mind as she sat in the room in the Land of Waves, her strong determination from that moment resurfacing and reaffirming itself in her mind. Pink eyelashes parted to reveal resolute green eyes, a powerful conviction blazing within them as she looked at her despondent teammates.

'ANBU captains do not let unexpected setbacks discourage them!' her inner-self declared, her voice steady and determined. 'They keep their cool and push forward!'

"We need a plan," Sakura proclaimed aloud, breaking the silence that had consumed them. Naruto and Sasuke raised their heads to look at her in surprise, the unwavering confidence in her voice catching them off-guard.

"We know that!" Sasuke snapped, shooting her a cold glare. "We're not stupid, Sakura!" His harsh tone made her flinch, the love-struck six-year-old girl taking hold of her as she reflexively wilted at her crush's disapproval.

"Oi, Sasuke, don't be so mean to Sakura-chan!" Naruto snapped, slamming his hands on the table. The teacups rattled and the tea sloshed around before spilling onto the wood, drops of amber and orange quickly pooling and spreading. "Apologize right now, bastard!"

"Don't tell me what to do, dead last!" Sasuke bit back, making Naruto growl in anger.

"What did you just—"

"Enough!" Sakura's cold voice made the boys freeze, whirling their heads to look at her in surprise. Her hands trembled on her lap out of their sight and she could feel tears threatening to prick the corners of her eyes, but she fought them back and tried to keep her voice as smooth and calm as possible, staring her teammates dead in the eye. "We're all stressed and on edge right now, but fighting won't help. We need to calm down and think of a plan."

A long moment of silence passed and she wondered if they'd just ignore her, but to her eternal relief both boys silently sunk back into their seats. She resisted the urge to breathe a small sigh of relief. Right now she honestly wanted nothing more than to curl up and cry in frustration and fear, but she knew that she had to stay strong. For all their strengths, Naruto and Sasuke were both too hot-headed to get a handle on the situation, so it would be up to Sakura to keep her cool and help guide their team.

Taking a few moments to compose herself, she swallowed the growing lump in her throat before speaking. "Let's think back for a second," she murmured. "When that guy took Kakashi-sensei, he kept saying he was just 'borrowing' Kakashi-sensei and that he would give him back to us."

"So what, you think he'll just release Kakashi?" Sasuke grumbled, shooting her a sour look. Even Naruto squinted at her, making her sigh and cross her arms, her head tipping back to gaze at the ceiling.

"I don't know," she admitted, "but I do know that guy had a lot of opportunities to kill us. You saw how fast he moved, it was like he teleported. We didn't even see him grab Kakashi. If he wanted to, he could have just taken him and left us there without ever showing himself, and we'd never know what happened."

Lowering her gaze to face her teammates, she held up a single finger and continued, "But instead, he hung around long enough for us to see him, and then he warned us Zabuza was still alive. Even if we weren't his targets, he didn't have to tell us that. Furthermore, he never showed any hostility to us, and he even insisted Kakashi would thank him."

"So what? Do you think he's actually on our side or something?" Naruto scratched his head as he mulled over it, his confusion perfectly justifiable.

"He kidnapped Kakashi," Sasuke countered flatly. "He's an enemy."

"I'm not saying he isn't," Sakura interjected, picking her words carefully. "We should definitely treat him with the assumption he's an enemy. But I get the feeling it's a lot more complicated than it seems. There's too many inconsistencies in his behavior, and we don't have enough information to figure out anything solid about his motivations. For now though, we can at least assume he won't kill Kakashi-sensei."

"What makes you so sure about that?" Naruto challenged, frowning at her. "For all we know, Kakashi-sensei could be dead right—hey!" He yelled as Sasuke smacked the back of his head, shooting the Uchiha an annoyed glare.

"Use your brain for once, dobe," Sasuke grumbled, offering his teammate a cold look. "If that guy wanted to kill Kakashi, he would've done it back there instead of kidnapping him."

"Then why take him at all?"

"We don't know," Sakura interrupted before they could start arguing again. "Like I said, we don't have enough information to make any gueses. For now though, we just have to trust that he needs Kakashi-sensei alive, and hope he won't kill him whenever he accomplishes his motive." Her answer didn't seem to satisfy Naruto but he didn't protest, pressing his lips together tightly. Sasuke, meanwhile, turned to regard her coolly, a calculating gleam in his narrowed eyes.

"So what do you think we should do, then?" he asked, and the pinkette frowned, quickly averting her gaze to the table. Her hands balled even tighter on her lap as her heart began fluttering anxiously, nerves suddenly overwhelming her.

"I... I think we should focus on guarding Tazuna, and figure out a strategy to hold off Zabuza long enough for him to finish building the bridge."

"WHAT!" Naruto leaped to his feet and slammed his hands on the table, and this time the teacups fell over. "What are you even saying! We can't just leave Kakashi-sensei!"

"But we can't rescue him either!" Sakura countered, trying to keep her emotions in check as she met his glare. "Naruto, let's say we find him. What then? That guy moved too fast for us to follow, and there's no way speed is all he has going for him. Chances are he's stronger than Zabuza, and you know how well that went!"

She couldn't help the bitter note that clung to the last part, making both of her teammates flinch and frown. Scowling, Sakura averted her eyes and squeezed them shut, counting backwards in her head from ten. Calm down, Sakura. ANBU captains can't lose their cool. When she felt sufficiently calm she resumed speaking, letting pure logic override any doubts and uncertainties she might feel.

"If Tazuna can finish the bridge, we can at least send someone to Konoha to request backup. As it stands, we're no match for Zabuza or the guy who kidnapped Kakashi-sensei, and there's still that fake hunter-nin, too. We need backup, and unless you guys are hiding something our only option is to deliver the message personally. There's no way we can sneak onto the mainland with Gato monitoring all the boats, so our best bet is to help Tazuna finish the bridge as soon as possible."

Having laid out her points she fell silent and opened her eyes, looking at her teammates hesitantly. Naruto stared at her in mild shock but Sasuke seemed to be contemplating her words carefully, his eyes narrowed. "We'd still have to take on Zabuza to build the bridge," he pointed out, and her breath hitched as she nodded.

"I know, but... Well, maybe we can speed it up...?" As she spoke her gaze flitted uncertainly towards Naruto, and Sasuke followed it with a curious look before comprehension suddenly dawned on him.

"You're kidding," he deadpanned, his face turning sour like he'd just sucked a lemon.

"Do you have any better ideas?" Sakura muttered, looking just as averse and unenthusiastic at the prospect. Naruto just looked at them in confusion, his eyebrows scrunching up as he flicked between them.

"What? Why are you guy looking at me like that?"

"She wants you to help build the bridge," Sasuke replied flatly, and Naruto stared at him blankly before the words processed.

"WHAT?! Sakura-chan, what the hell are you thinking?! I mean I'm not dumb or anything, but—I don't know anything about bridges!"

"Tazuna probably has a lot of books," Sakura pointed out blandly. "I mean, he kinda does it for a living, so. Yeah." Naruto physically shuddered at the prospect of reading, grimacing in disgust.

"Why me though?" he mumbled weakly.

"You can make shadow clones," Sasuke interjected. "A lot of them. Tazuna already said he's lost a lot of workers because people are too scared to risk Gatou's wrath. If you could supply the labor, even if it's just heavy lifting, he'd be able to finish faster."

"Oh... Right." Naruto grunted sheepishly at the thought, able to see the reasoning. Sensing that Naruto wouldn't complain anymore Sasuke huffed quietly, reclining on the cushion as he folded his arms with a small frown.

"Even if the dobe helps out, we'll have a week at a minimum before Zabuza shows up again. That's not much time. We should spend the time training, too. In case Kakashi doesn't come back by then."

The reminder of their teacher's predicament made the others frown, quickly looking to the table with grave faces. Leaving Kakashi at an enemy's mercy made Sakura's stomach churn, but right now they didn't have any other choice. As she'd just said, right now their best bet would be to finish the bridge as fast as possible so they could send someone to get backup. Hopefully by completing the bridge, the hit on Tazuna would also be called off.

"Okay, I'm all for training, but what would we do?" Naruto pressed, breaking the silence. "I mean, we could go over the stuff we already know and get it all locked down, but you guys saw Kakashi-sensei fighting that guy. We don't have any jutsu that could match those freaky dragons! Except maybe the teme's fireball," he added as an afterthought. "But water beats fire, so..."

Sasuke just scoffed and looked away, while Sakura tapped her chin in thought. Eyes wandering to the spilled tea, she quickly reached into her backpack to retrieve a small towel and wipe up the puddles, and once the table had been cleared she pulled out a notebook. Naruto and Sasuke turned to regard her curiously as she hunched over it with a pen, leaning forward to watch while she began writing.

"Maybe we can figure out a strategy using what we know," she murmured as she drew three vertical lines to divide the page into three columns. "We know he'll probably attack Tazuna at the bridge, and we have a week to prepare. We won't be on the spot like last time, so we should use that to our advantage and plan."

Even as she spoke she labeled each column with one of their names. Underneath Naruto's name she wrote "Shadow Clones," "High Stamina" and "Large chakra reserves". Under Sasuke she wrote "Fireball jutsu," "Taijutsu" and "Shurikenjutsu." When she reached her own name she hesitated, thinking over her own strengths before scribbling "Intelligence," "Marksmanship" and "Chakra Control."

"Any additions?" she asked, turning the notebook to face them. Gazing at the page thoughtfully, after a moment Sasuke nodded.

"I'm pretty fast at the substitution. That might help."

"I'm pretty good at pranks," Naruto offered, and Sakura groaned.

"Naruto, I meant something useful," she muttered, shooting him an disapproving frown that made him flinch. However, Sasuke didn't immediately scold him or call him an idiot, instead actually looking thoughtful as he considered this.

"No, that actually might help here," he murmured, catching both of his teammates by surprise.

"Wait, are you actually serious, or are you just messing with me?" Naruto asked suspiciously, earning a dry look from the Uchiha.

"I'm not going to joke around in a situation like this. I've seen some of the stuff you can do, and if we tweak some of your pranks, we might be able to use it to our advantage. Like that time you rigged paint bombs..."

As the trio began brainstorming aloud, the earlier despair and apprehension that had consumed them gradually faded, replaced by a hesitant yet firm resolve. Team Seven might currently face some of the worst circumstances imaginable, but they wouldn't let it get them down. After all, they had a future Hokage, an ANBU captain in the making and a righteous avenger among their ranks. Compared to those goals, this mission would be little more than a speed bump.

As long as even a sliver of a chance for success dangled in their sight, they would not give up. They would reach for it and pursue it until their dying breaths.

Once upon a time, a little pink-haired girl got inspired by a little brown-haired girl to become stronger. Then one day she found a book that should have never touched her hands, and found her own reason to become better.

Chapter Text

Chapter 18

"Sometimes to change the future, you need to change the past first."

"Dang it Bakakashi, just wait until I get the Sharingan! Then I'll be one hundred times better than you!"

Kakashi resisted the urge to sigh as his idiotic teammate slammed a hand on the table and pointed at him, bits of half-chewed noodles flying from his mouth as he ranted angrily. Next to them Rin's face contorted in disgust, quickly snatching her plate off the table before any could fall into her food.

"Obito, stop that! You're spitting crumbs everywhere!" Startled by her admonishment, the Uchiha sunk into his seat with a flurry of frantic apologies, making Kakashi roll his eyes. Team dinners had become a weekly tradition for Team Seven, but for the life of him the young Chuunin couldn't see why Minato-sensei insisted on it. They almost always devolved into arguing, especially when Obito's turn to host rolled around.

"The yakisoba is amazing," Minato-sensei complimented, ignoring the chaotic scene for the most part. "I feel like I could eat all day."

As if summoned by his words Uchiha Ryoko appeared at the table with a laugh holding a large, steaming pot. "Glad to hear someone appreciates my cooking," she commented as she set it on the table, using a wooden spoon to dole out another clump of noodles onto a pleased-looking Minato's plate. "Ryuusuke never compliments me anymore. He didn't even say thank you for the bento I made this morning for his mission."

"Then your husband is an idiot," Minato declared flatly, but he had a giant grin on his face that countered the serious tone of his voice, and he eagerly dug in. Dark eyes twinkling with amusement, Ryoko turned to look at Kakashi.

"How about you? Any seconds?" The stoic boy shook his head in silent refusal, but Rin and Obito happily accepted the offer.

Perhaps the only bearable detail of Obito's turns hosting the team dinners was the fact he usually had it at his cousin Ryoko's house. While she had retired due to an unfortunate but understandable mental breakdown, Uchiha Ryoko had not abandoned the shinobi lifestyle entirely and instead focused her energies into more academic pursuits. She had become the Uchiha clan's resident ophthalmologist in the process, using her own Sharingan and her intensive research into their doujutsu's mechanics to aid her relatives' eyes.

Her knowledge base included far more than just the Sharingan though. Usually she and Minato-sensei would engage in conversations about chakra theory or fuinjutsu so complex and technical Kakashi couldn't understand half the terms they used. Despite that he still found it far more interesting and useful than his teammates' inane chattering, and often preferred to listen in while ignoring them.

Today they wouldn't get a chance to talk about any of that though, because Obito turned to look at his older cousin with a wild gleam in his eye. "Ryoko-baa-san! You're, like, the leading expert in the Sharingan! When I activate it I'll be super badass, won't I?"

"Maybe," she replied, sitting across from him with her own plate of yakisoba. "It depends on how you use it, though. In the end the Sharingan is a tool. A nifty one that's built into our bodies and gives us an almost unfair advantage, but a tool nonetheless. It's still prone to flaws and user error, just like any other tool. Which is great for me," she added with a cheeky grin. "Keeps me in business."

"Ryoko-san," Rin grumbled, shooting her a reproachful look. As a medical ninja, she did not approve of other medical ninja treating the field like a business, even unofficial super-specialized ones like Ryoko.

"It's true though," Ryoko laughed, eating a quick bite of noodles before continuing. "People don't take care of their eyes properly, and in a clan full of arrogant idiots like the Uchiha they're too proud to admit there's anything wrong to an outsider. I swear, when word got out that I was just thinking of accepting patients, almost half the clan showed up in the span of a week."

"Well, clans are very protective of their secrets, and the mechanics of the Sharingan is a pretty big one," Minato commented reasonably, and Ryoko hummed in agreement as she began eating. Chewing thoughtfully, Obito seemed to consider something before swallowing and turning to her.

"When did you activate the Sharingan?" The question visibly took the woman by surprise, pausing in the middle of chewing. She swallowed and her lips ghosted into a small smile, her eyes growing distant.

"I was about eleven," she mused. "Or, twelve, maybe?" She glanced to Minato for confirmation, and the blond slurped up the end of a noodle so he could answer.

"Yeah, it happened when we were eleven," he confirmed, and Obito and Rin glanced at him in surprise.

"Sensei, you were there?" Rin asked.

"So were Kushina, Mikoto, the Ino-Shika-Cho trio and Jiraiya-sensei," their teacher replied with a sheepish grin. Obito seemed a bit awestruck by the lineup of witnesses, his eyes widening.

"Wow, you guys must have been in the middle of a huge battle for all those people to be there! I bet you kicked butt and turned the tides all on your own!" Kakashi noticed the two adults in the room minutely stiffen at the comment and their eyes flit towards each other, some unspoken conversation passing between them.

"We weren't on a battlefield," Ryoko corrected, and Obito stared at her in surprise.

"Wha...? But, I thought the Sharingan usually activates in battle!"

"I kinda got the gist of that from everyone's reactions afterwards," Minato agreed with a sheepish smile, "But Ryoko activated hers here in Konoha, right in the middle of the street."

"What happened?" Rin asked, hesitating. "Did... did you get attacked?" Ryoko smiled faintly at the question, a touch of melancholy flickering in her eyes.

"No. My cat died." At this point the two genin gaped at her in utter confusion, and even Kakashi turned his attention to the exchange with mild curiosity.

"You activated it because of a cat?" he questioned bluntly, ignoring the irritated looks his teammates sent him. "How does the Sharingan even work?"

Before she could reply Minato quickly spoke up, offering him a pacifying and slightly scolding smile. "Ah, hold on, Kakashi. I get why you're curious, but I'm pretty sure that's a clan secret, so..."

"No, it's fine," Ryoko interrupted. Minato whipped his head to look at her in surprise and the Uchiha woman smiled softly as her gaze slid to Obito, making him stiffen. "Since you work with an Uchiha, it's better you all understand how it works so you can support Obito when he activates it."

"Support me?" Obito parroted, his eyebrows furrowing in confusion. "But, why would I need support? The Sharingan makes us strong, right? If anything, I'd be supporting them!" Ryoko smiled sadly, shaking her head.

"While the Sharingan does give you power, it comes at a price. There's a lot of medical terminology involved on the exact mechanics, but to put it simply, the Sharingan is directly connected to our emotional states. That's the reason most people activate it on missions, fighting for your life leads to some pretty powerful emotions."

"And yet a cat caused you to activate it?" Kakashi repeated his earlier question, ignoring Rin's scolding hiss and Obito's scandalized glare. Ryoko seemed unperturbed though, her smile never fading as she looked at her food with a wistful gleam in her eyes.

"His name was Shiro. He was almost completely white, but he had a single patch of black on his tail. I found him on the streets as a kitten next to his mother's corpse and nursed him until he could survive on his own. He never really lived at my house, he was more of a stray and wandered the village, but I'd say he believed he owned me. Whenever I'd see him in town he'd walk over to me and rub against my legs, and I'd break down and buy him a snack at the nearest cafe."

Her voice carried a warm note full of fondness that made Kakashi's teammates soften, looking at her with rapt attention and faintly sad eyes. "One day, a few months after I graduated, I was out shopping with Kushina and Mikoto when we heard this horrible cry from an alley. We looked inside and saw some boys from our class who didn't pass huddled around something red and white, beating it with sticks. And when I looked closer and saw this little tail with a black spot, well..."

She trailed off, and a somber silence fell over the table. Rin stared at her with tears in her eyes while Obito just looked at his dinner with a frown, and Minato-sensei frowned at her worriedly before sighing. "I was eating lunch with Jiraiya-sensei at a stand about two blocks away when we heard this unearthly screech. We found Kushina and Mikoto holding back Ryoko while she clawed at our old classmates and screamed threats. Her eyes were glowing red, and, well, I never felt so scared in my life."

Remembering the moment, Ryoko's smile grew a bit more pleasant and cheerful as she bobbed her head. "Oh, yes," she chirped. "Those boys were so scared, they actually wet their pants. They lived all the way across town, so they had to walk home with this huge stain on their crotches for everyone to see."

The happy tone she used made Rin and Obito shiver, scooting away slightly. Kakashi however remained silent, his thoughts running wild as he eyed his half-finished yakisoba. Lazily pushing the noodles around the plate, he watched as the fried vegetable and pork bits tumbled into each other and idly noted they almost seemed to resemble the shape of a cat.

"You could have come to me, you know," Ryoko suddenly said. Kakashi stiffened and the cat on his plate turned back into random vegetables and pork, and he slowly raised his head to look at her.

She gazed at him with a neutral expression on her face as his team sat frozen in time, their eyes glassy and their bodies little more than still snapshots caught amidst animated gestures. Tilting her head placidly at him, Ryoko's black eyes seemed to bore into Kakashi and yet he couldn't glimpse any thoughts from her features, even with Obito's gifted Sharingan spinning wildly in his left eye socket and highlighting the most minute details in her expression.

"When Obito died, you could have visited," she continued, her voice blank and flat. "I would have looked at it. I would have helped you. I spent a lot of time researching transplants, I had a pretty good idea on how to help you."

Kakashi's jaw clenched as he squeezed his eyes shut, his hands rising to his head as he sucked in a sharp breath with a hiss. Peeking open his eye—his eye, the right one, the one he'd been born with—he found himself staring into pinpricks of black set against pear-colored irises.

The gray cat stared at him silently as it sat on his desk, its eyes blank and unjudging as he clutched the note with trembling hands. Gibberish characters decorated the page yet his mind translated the jumbled mess easily, the scrawled message so familiar he'd ingrain it into his memory even without the aid of the Sharingan.

"I was waiting for you to come to me, Kakashi," Ryoko's elegant handwriting (it should be elegant and smooth, not scratchy and scribbly like right now) said. "The clan would not let me go to you and offer help unless you asked first, but I honestly didn't care what this clan thought. I wanted you to be the one to take the first step, to gather the courage to push past your insecurities and seek help on your own. I had hoped that your friendship with Akari would help give you that push, but sadly, it never did."

He stood in a cemetery now, towering over a small stone bearing the name of an equally small body buried beneath it. The letter burned in his hands, his vision stinging with tears as he read it next to the grave of the author's victim. Indignation and grief churned violently and painfully in his chest at the injustice of it all, at the cruelty of the world that took this tiny ball of light and warmth, so young and innocent, and slaughtered it mercilessly.

"I am sorry, Kakashi. I know I will cause you more pain and sadness, but I have made my mind. The Uchiha clan has been on a steady downward spiral for years, and I know there is nothing left I can do to save it. I have watched my kinsmen seal our future in blood and hatred, and I am too tired to try to fight it any longer. As a mother I cannot allow my children to suffer for their arrogance, and the only way I can do that now is to take their suffering into my own hands."

Red chakra bubbled around an eight-year-old Naruto even as wooden pillars sprouted from the ground to wrap him in a restrictive embrace, tears streaming down his face as he screamed an agonized wail that resonated with Kakashi. All the pent-up frustration and despair from the past four months came rushing to the forefront of his mind and his head began spinning, a hand flying to his borrowed eye as he heard his comrades call to him in panic.

Crimson consumed into his vision and faded into a bloody void as he fell to his knees, releasing the heartbroken scream that had been building up ever since that horrible night in the house once full of fond memories of dinners with his team.

"I am so, so sorry, Kakashi. I do not deserve any forgiveness. I can only apologize for having to take another precious person from you."


Kakashi's eyes snapped open, his body jerking with a soundless gasp. Listening to his heart pound erratically in his chest, he swallowed the dryness in his mouth and slowly looked around, cataloguing his surroundings.

Peach-painted walls surrounded him adorned with paintings of sparkling ocean views, giving the small room an illusion of space and openness despite a lack of windows. A wooden desk pushed against the wall to his left with a comfortably worn chair next it, several books stacked atop the surface with a bright lamp glowing on the left side. Salty sea air wafted through the open doorway, mingling with savory, meaty aromas that made his mouth water and his stomach clench in longing for food.

All in all, Kakashi would almost call the room cozy if not for the leather cuffs restraining his ankles and wrists to a metal table.

Raising his head to study his restraints, he gave several tentative pulls and scowled at the resistance. Absolutely no slack, his limbs might as well be bolted down directly to the table. He rolled his head to the side to peer at the table holding him, and noted black marks etched into the steel forming an outline around his form. Kakashi couldn't recognize the full extent of the sprawling seal, but he recognized enough of the characters to surmise it had the purpose of suppressing his chakra, making him internally curse.

First he passed out from chakra exhaustion, and then he woke up captive to someone reasonably well-versed in fuinjutsu. Lovely.

Tentative sniffs at the air revealed no traces of the three scents he'd become accustomed to smelling almost daily over the past month, but Kakashi couldn't decide if his students' absence was good or bad. Good, because that likely meant they weren't captured. Bad, because they were still in hostile territory and he had a pretty strong suspicion Zabuza hadn't actually died.

Alternatively, they might be dead.

A-plus teaching there, Kakashi. Clearly, the fact he considered the scenario of his students left to fend on their own against an A-rank threat as the most favorable option spoke volumes of his incredible ability to care and protect three vulnerable genin.

If he died here, Minato-sensei and Kushina would murder him in the afterlife for putting their son in that position. Theoretically killing a dead person should be impossible, but impossible never stopped Uzumaki Kushina.

Footsteps drew his attention back to the present, and he closed his eyes and slowed his breathing to feign unconsciousness. Better to hide his consciousness for now and try to gather some information so he could analyze the situation a bit better. Kakashi listened as his captor approached the doorway and stepped inside only to pause, a long moment of silence following.

"Oh, shit," a voice groaned, and the footsteps hurriedly fled the room. Kakashi opened his eyes with a small huff. Looks like they noticed he was faking. At this point he felt it pretty safe to assume he'd been captured by Gato, and figured the visitor to be a lackey. Seeing as he lacked the physical energy or chakra to mount an escape attempt, he just quietly resigned himself to wait for the smug businessman or a burly henchman to show up.

Instead, a man in black clothing appeared in the doorway, adjusting a red mask over his face.

Kakashi's nerves instantly stood on edge at the sight of the figure, his eye narrowing. Inky black tendrils radiated from the right eye in a mockery of a sunburst, the lines curling across the mask in a web of wavy curves that petered into nothing. It looked more artistic than intimidating, perhaps even more so since it lacked a hole for a left eye which suggested a lack of depth perception. He didn't let that fool him though.

One look at him and he knew the stranger to be a different breed than the thugs who might work for a tyrant like Gato, or even a rogue nin like Zabuza. No, this man radiated a subtle sort of power, an ever-present one that radiated even while just standing there doing nothing, the kind that couldn't be cowed and tamed by money alone.

In other words, this guy almost certainly had nothing to do with the mission. Which made him an even bigger threat because Kakashi had no idea of his motivations.

"Sorry about that," the masked stranger said, the same voice he'd heard curse earlier. "I did not expect you to wake up so fast. Good thing you were playing dead, I didn't have my mask on." His voice carried a light and almost playful note, as if he were speaking to an old friend.

Too bad Kakashi's friends were dead.

"Who are you?" the captive jounin demanded. "What do you want?" Where are we? What happened to Naruto, Sasuke and Sakura? He shoved down the litany of other questions he desperately wanted to ask, because he knew that if he showed the man a sliver of vulnerability, a fraction of worry for his genin, the man would pounce on the weakness and use the three as tools against him. Kakashi had already failed them by getting captured, he would be damned if he put them in any more danger than he already had.

"You don't recognize me?" the stranger gasped, a gloved hand fluttering over his heart as if offended. He quickly chuckled though, shaking his head with a large shrug. "Well I'm hardly surprised, since it's been a while. Kinda the point of the mask, too."

"We've met?" Kakashi hazarded, trying to gather as much information as possible.

"We worked together, actually," the man corrected, and Kakashi's eye widened a fraction before swiftly narrowing once more. A former Leaf ninja, then? But who? There had been only a handful of significant defections in Kakashi's life, and the stranger's attitude didn't seem to match Itachi and he never worked with Orochimaru. That meant the man must be officially dead. Unfortunately, Kakashi's career in ANBU had left him with a large number of tragically deceased allies whose bodies had never been recovered, so he'd need some time to sort through it.

"Well, I'd apologize for offending you," he remarked carefully, "but it's a bit hard when I don't remember you."

"Whatever makes you think you offended me?" The man sounded genuinely puzzled and curious.

In response, Kakashi just rattled his wrists and ankles with a deadpan stare.

"Oh, right. That. That's more to make sure you don't hurt yourself than to be menacing or anything like that. I know you don't react well to waking up around unfamiliar people, so I didn't want to take any risks." As he spoke he walked to the desk and lifted a notebook, casually flipping through the pages. That did not bode well with Kakashi. Notebooks usually meant research, and research made him think of Orochimaru.

Suppressing the urge to shudder, he plastered on a fake smile and lightly commented, "Well, I'm awake now, and you're not apparently not a stranger, so there's no need to keep me restrained, right?" The man hummed in faint amusement, not turning to face him.

"Sorry, Kakashi, I'd love to just let you up and maybe catch up over some lunch, but I know you, and you won't cooperate willingly." That did not ease the growing pit of dread in his stomach, his heartbeat picking up in pace. Experimentation seemed more and more likely with every passing second, and he tried to hide his growing dread and keep his voice light and conversational.

"Maa, don't say that. You haven't even asked. Maybe if I knew what you wanted to do, I would cooperate."

His words gave the man pause, slowly turning to look at him. "Kakashi, I am planning to perform a medical procedure on you," he informed the Copy-Nin blandly. "Do you know what your reputation at the hospital is? Nurses specifically tell parents 'don't let your kids become another Kakashi' because you're that bad about going in for necessary medical treatment."

At this point Kakashi's heart pounded even harder, because the man basically confirmed he intended to do something to Kakashi's body. "What kind of procedure?" he asked warily, his faux lightness gone and his voice dead serious. The man just turned back to the notebook, idly flipping another page.

"Technically, I guess it's not actually necessary, per se. But... it will help you, I promise. If all goes well, I'll be done in a day and then you should be able to heal anywhere from two days to, oh," he paused to consult the notebook, "Five weeks."

"Two days to five weeks?" He didn't bother hiding his incredulity at the range.

"Look, this isn't exactly standard, okay? You're the first one to go through this, I'm kinda playing this by ear and hoping this research is accurate."

"If you are trying to convince me you're helping me, you're doing a horrible job," Kakashi muttered weakly, honestly surprised at how calm he sounded considering the amount of mental screaming and panicking going on inside his head right now. His captor huffed a small snort of amusement as he glanced back at Kakashi.

"I am, aren't I?" he mused lightly, and set down the notebook as he turned to face his prisoner fully. "Honestly, I'd love to tell you who I am. I want nothing more than to rip off this mask and say, 'hey, look, I'm actually alive! One less person to mourn, woohoo!' But right now, I can't." His voice took on a hard edge, his head dipping slightly. "It's too dangerous. I am dead, Kakashi. And there are people out there who would prefer I stay that way."

Walking closer, the man stopped next to the table and sat on the edge and twisted so he leaned over Kakashi, his mask shadowed by the light behind him. Kakashi shrank back from the proximity, only able to eye him warily while every instinct screamed to run and get away. "I know you, Kakashi. You're loyal to the Hokage to a fault. The second you knew my identity, you would report it to him, and that won't do. There are people who absolutely must not know I'm alive."

For a horrifying second Kakashi half-expected the man to start rubbing circles in his cheek with his thumb or something, because his voice had that sort of gentle and intimate quality to it that fit such a gesture. Who are you? How do I know you? He mentally screamed the questions in a desperate bid for answers, but he didn't bother voicing them out loud. This guy just made it pretty clear he wouldn't be answering that anytime soon.

Shrugging lightly, the man straightened up a bit and turned forward, his hands splaying on the table on either side as he swung his legs. "Honestly, I am happy to see you again, Kakashi. I really did miss you, you're the first friendly face I've seen in years, second if you count—well, no need to share that. I really would like nothing more than to just have lunch and chat like old times, but, well... Life's a bitch, you know?"

He slid off the table and walked back to the desk, slipping a storage scroll from his pocket and spreading it open. "I promise you right now though, I have no evil intentions. I am one hundred percent on your side." A puff of smoke appeared and revealed several vials along with a syringe, making Kakashi physically recoil. "I already finished most of the setup while you were unconscious, so I just need to put you under and put together the final touches. Hopefully I'll be able to finish by dinner, and then we can have a nice, big meal together."

He loaded one of the vials into the syringe and Kakashi flinched, giving up on any semblance of composure. "Don't do this," he pleaded, struggling against the restraints. "If we're really allies, then just let me go. I don't know what you're planning, but I can guarantee forcing a medical procedure on me won't make me trust you!"

"I know it won't. But if I tell you what I plan to do, then you'll really start to fight back." Approaching him once more, he reached under the table and lifted the end of a bulky leather strap, pulling it across Kakashi's torso and buckling it to a strap on the other side. He tightened it like a belt and Kakashi's back pressed uncomfortably flat against the table, too tight to raise it any more, and the man gently pressed his palm onto Kakashi's forehead to keep his head still.

Kakashi's blood ran cold as his captor leaned over his face, and though he couldn't see anything through the black void in the eye hole he could sense that the man was looking him straight in the eye.

"Before I put you under, I'll tell you now your team is okay." His gentle words made something snap in Kakashi, stilling his frenzied struggles and ogling his captor in wide-eyed shock. "I've been keeping an eye on them, and I made sure they know about Zabuza. They got to the client's house safely last night, and they're holding up fine so far. Naruto's helping build the bridge with shadow clones while Sasuke and Sakura train and play bodyguard.

"They're good kids, Kakashi," he continued, soft and reassuring. "They have good heads on their shoulders, whatever you've been doing so far is working. Have some faith in them. If you're not recovered by the time Zabuza goes after the old man, I'll help out myself. So for now you can rest easy, okay?"

With those final words he plunged the needle into Kakashi's neck, and his world turned black.

Chapter Text

Chapter 19

"Everyone do the wave! And then watch people mess it up! Seriously, the wave looks so weird to an outsider, can it really be done perfectly?"

"Gaku-san, once again I must commend you on your excellent suggestion to have young Masaru and Tenten become sparring partners!"

"Ah, don't mention it, really. It was nothing..."

"Nonsense!" Gai boomed, flashing a beaming grin and a thumbs up. "You have shown such compassion in your recommendation! Not only did you think of your own student, but you also considered the development of my own team as well! Truly, Gaku-san, you are a most youthful and caring member of Konoha and we are better for having you!"

"R-right..." Tenzo smiled nervously, eying the sunbeams that radiated from Gai's beaming form. Coughing into his fist, he briefly flared his chakra in an attempt to dispel the genjutsu that must be causing that. Alas, the sunbeams remained, and his shoulders sagged slightly as he turned to look at the two genin. "Er, anyways, we should really watch right now, don't you think?"

"Indeed!" The Green Beast bobbed his head in agreement and the sunbeams faded as he turned to survey the sparring match, much to Tenzo's relief. Growing up in the cold and ruthless ANBU Root division had left him socially stunted compared to most people, and even now Gai's energy and enthusiasm could sometimes overwhelm him. How Kakashi put up with the man, he had no idea, though at this point he suspected Kakashi did so less out of his own free will and more because he had no choice.

Either you adapted to Gai's energy, or you went crazy. Tenzo saw no in between, and fully respected Tenten for maintaining her sanity after putting up with him daily. For now, he pushed away the thoughts of the jounin standing next to him in favor of watching his student fight.

Pride swelled in him as he watched Masaru swerve around a punch from Tenten and quickly slam his leg into her side, sending her flying backwards. His student had a knack for close combat he'd only been able to fully appreciate since they started the joint spars with Tenten. Most genin tended to stick to the basics taught at the academy, but Masaru had already started incorporating unorthodox moves into his taijutsu even before he graduated, showing a creativity for fighting and creating a foundation for his own unique style.

Still, as he watched Tenten regroup and launch herself at him with a flying kick, Tenzo found his gaze repeatedly trail towards Masaru's face, scrutinizing his eyes rather than his movements.

"Tenzo, I believe Masaru has activated the Sharingan."

Tenzo stared at his former senpai in shock, his mouth suddenly dry. Swallowing, he searched for words and managed to stammer, "When?"

"I'm not sure, but I suspect he activated it a while ago. I don't think he's aware of it though."

"What? How? When?" Tenzo shot him a questioning look, but Kakashi seemed to ignore him in favor of signaling the bartender.

"Can you refill his drink?" he asked, and when Tenzo opened his mouth to protest his former commander shot him a sharp look and added, "Trust me, you'll need it." Clamping his mouth shut, Tenzo sat in obedient silence as she refilled his glass. Only when she'd bustled away again did Kakashi resume. "Ryoko claimed the Sharingan activates in response to severe emotional distress. That's why most activate it during life or death situations on the field. So, going by that logic..."

He trailed off and offered his companion a pointed look, letting him put the pieces together himself. Tenzo didn't fail to disappoint, his eyes widening in comprehension as he sucked in a sharp breath.

"The massacre," he whispered, and suddenly felt very grateful Kakashi had the foresight to order a refill. After downing a good chunk of the burning liquid, he breathed a small sigh and frown, massaging his chin. "I don't get it though. Going by that logic, Sasuke should have activated it too, right?"

"Probably," Kakashi agreed. "If he did, he must have repressed the memory though, or he would have tried to activate it before now. It makes sense, since Itachi psychologically tormented him. Masaru, however, was physically tortured, and he was unconscious due to his injuries rather than psychological distress, so it's plausible his memory would be more intact than Sasuke. Twisted as it sounds, it also makes more sense than Itachi sparing him due to a singular surge of pity in the middle of a massacre."

His words made Tenzo grimace, and this time he signaled the bartender himself. "Just leave the bottle," he requested glumly, and she raised an eyebrow but acquiesced. Sighing, he downed the remainder of his current drink and filled the glass once more. "So to make sure we're on the same page, you think Itachi spared Masaru because Masaru activated the Sharingan that night and thought he would be a good challenge in the future."

Kakashi didn't reply right away, just staring at his drink. Then he yanked down his mask and downed the contents of the glass, the open display of his face shocking Tenzo and making him nearly choke. Wiping his mouth with his sleeve, Kakashi sighed and grabbed the bottle to refill it, chugging it in two short gulps before slamming the glass down.

Only then did he turn to look at his companion, and in that moment, with his face on almost full display save for his left eye, the silver-haired man looked several years older than his true age.

"I'm saying the Uchiha clan massacre is a fucking shitshow, and there's definitely more to it than meets the eye," he declared in a low voice, and tugged his mask back into place before disappearing.

A pained shout drew him out of his reminisces, and Tenzo blinked as he saw Tenten had pinned Masaru to the ground with an arm twisted behind his back. Growling, the boy jerked his body to roll over, pulling the startled kunoichi down with him. As they began wrestling he huffed a quiet sigh but smiled faintly at the scene. Ever since talking to Kakashi he'd been watching Masaru more closely, looking for signs of the Sharingan, but he had yet to see even a hint of red in his eyes.

Still, he didn't take that to mean that the Uchiha boy had not activated it. He knew Kakashi would not have mentioned it unless he had a specific reason to suspect it. Until Tenzo could confirm it with his own eyes though, he'd just have to wait.

"Okay, you two, that's enough," he called, clapping his hands to call the two genin to attention. "Good forms overall, there are just a few things..."

The plan Team Seven worked out went like this:

Mornings started with an hour of training before the trio of genin would have breakfast with Tazuna's family and accompany him to the bridge. Following Sakura's plan to have Naruto aid in building the bridge, six clones would accompany them with five transformed into bland civilians, while at Sasuke's suggestion the sixth would transform into Kakashi. Real ninja like Zabuza would undoubtedly see through the guise, but they hoped to fool the rest of Gato's thugs and hide Kakashi's absence.

Construction went on for anywhere from eight to ten hours each day, so they broke it into three two hour shifts sandwiched with a one-hour shift in the morning and a final shift that ended whenever construction did. After some discussion they decided all three genin would attend the first and last shift since they expected Gato and his forces to go for an ambush first thing in the morning or at the end of the day, and the rest of the shifts featured one real genin and the Kakashi clone.

During the middle shifts the other two genin would train in the woods behind Tazuna's house before both would head to the bridge to relieve the person on duty. At the end of the final shift all three would escort Tazuna home, at which point they'd do a perimeter check before having the Kakashi clone disperse. Without Kakashi around to provide the assurance of suitable backup, the trio never ventured anywhere alone, whether that meant moving in pairs or with a transformed Naruto clone.

On the first day of implementing this schedule, Sasuke made the first major discovery.

While hiding behind a tree from Naruto during a sparring session, he had been spotted by one of the blonde's numerous shadow clones. The Uchiha immediately popped it with a shuriken before it could give away his location, only for Naruto and the other two clones to descend on his position moments later with determined shouts.

After popping the clones and subduing the impulsive idiot (seriously, a head on assault with a kunai while screaming at the top of his lungs?), Sasuke hoisted the smaller boy up by the collar and demanded, "How the hell did you find me!?"

"I saw you!" Naruto snapped indignantly. "Duh!"

"When?" Sasuke challenged, because he knew Naruto been heading in the opposite direction just moments ago.

"When you popped the first clone!" Confusion briefly marred Sasuke's features before comprehension slowly dawned on him, his body stilling at the realization.

"...Wait. Your clone saw me. And I popped it. And you remembered that?"

A beat of silence followed, the boys staring at each other in shock as the implications of this discovery settled in.

"Ecstatic" did not do justice to describe the look on Sakura's face when the pair informed her of their revelation about the properties of Naruto's shadow clones. "So the memories of shadow clones carry over to the real you when they popped?" she asked, and Naruto shivered at the excitement in her voice. A manic gleam twinkled in her eyes as she looked at the blond with an almost predatory smile that left even Sasuke mildly unnerved, and Naruto shuffled slightly before nodding.

"Uh, yeah, I guess so," he replied hesitantly, and suddenly Sakura was right in front of him, gripping his collar with a crazed grin on her face.

"This changes everything."

Indeed it did.

When Tsunami entered the living room to ask if their genin guests wanted tea, she had been startled to find ten different copies of Naruto scattered around the room with various books on bridge building. Each had the same long-suffering expression almost begging for the sweet release of death, but Sakura would not allow them to stop no matter how much they complained. Their sacrifice made construction proceed faster though since the knowledge let Naruto provide more help than just hard labor, and while it didn't speed things up as much as the genin would like, they welcomed any improvement.

Revelation number two came from Tazuna.

While explaining the reasoning behind their plan to a curious Tsunami and a sulky Inari over dinner, they got into a tangent about the epic battle between Kakashi and Zabuza. Naruto's enthusiastic recounting of his heroics in dispelling the water prison jarred a certain memory in the bridge builder. "Ya know, I'm surprised you guys need a boat to get off the island," he commented idly, earning curious looks from the assembled genin.

"What do you mean?" Sakura asked.

"Well, it's just during that crazy fight, shortie over there got dunked in the lake—"

"Hey!" Naruto grumbled irritably.

"—but it looked like your teacher and that crazy killer stood on the water," Tazuna finished. "Didn't he ever teach you guys how to do that, or is it too advanced for a couple brats?"

The question had led to a long pause from the genin, three pairs of eyes exchanging calculating looks. How the hell they failed to notice Kakashi and Zabuza standing on water was beyond them, but once dinner ended the trio met in the bedroom to brainstorm how the heck the jounin did it and—more importantly—whether or not they could replicate it.

Building off her preexisting knowledge and her memories of the fight, Sakura had surmised chakra control played some role in the act. The two men hadn't executed any particular hand signs to allow them to defy physics, and they had walked on water as naturally as land so the act had to be subconscious. She excused herself to go to the woods and experimented in channeling her chakra in various ways in a safe environment.

Half an hour later an overjoyed cry summoned her teammates, and they rushed outside to find the pink-haired girl sitting atop a high tree branch with a giant grin. "Guys! If you pool chakra in your feet you can walk up trees!" To emphasize her point she swung off the branch and angled herself so her feet impacted against the trunk. Sure enough when her sandals smacked against the bark they clung to the tree like glue, keeping her firmly in place while she stretched her arms with a cheeky grin.

Stunned by the sight of their teammate standing horizontally on the side of the tree, the two boys had immediately put it to the test. Following her directions on how to coat their feet in chakra, they ran to the nearest trees and tried to race up them. Their first tries did not work well. Loud crashes echoed as the bark gave way under the force of their chakra, the trunks splintering inwards and leaving large gashes in the wood.

Undeterred by their initial failure, they kept up the training for another hour before going to bed, and early the next morning they woke up and resumed training under Sakura's watchful eye. With her helpful guidance and tips, they figured out how much chakra to channel into their feet and managed to get the technique down by the end of the day.

It didn't take a major mental leap to connect coating their feet to stick to trees to walking on water, but when they attempted to put it into practice, it they had more trouble.

"Ha, you guys look like wet rats!" Naruto jeered, pointing at his teammates with a mocking laugh as he stood on the surface of the river. Bobbing to the surface, Sasuke gritted his teeth in an irritated scowl as he glowered at the blond.

"How the hell is the dobe the only one who got it so far?" he sputtered angrily.

"Obviously because I'm awesome!" Naruto boomed, crossing his arms with a smug smirk. Next to them Sakura's head popped out of the water with a loud gasp, coughing and shaking her head as she waded towards the banks.

"Maybe we should try this somewhere more shallow," she mumbled, grimacing. The speed of the current made it harder to stand on the water because they had to maintain a constant control of their chakra to account for the differences. Sasuke grumbled as he followed her and pulled themselves onto land, while Naruto just easily walked across the surface.

As soon as both his feet had planted on the ground, Sasuke whirled around and shoved the blonde into the water. He smirked as Naruto's startled shout got cut off as he plunged into the depths with a large splash, and when he bobbed to the surface and began spewing hateful insults at the smug Uchiha's direction Sakura just doubled over holding her stomach as she laughed.

While Naruto could maintain his control long enough to cross the sea to the mainland, they didn't want to send him. Their entire strategy thus far hinged heavily on his shadow clones to provide backup, and Sasuke and Sakura couldn't afford to defend Tazuna alone during the time it took Naruto to run to Konoha and get help. It would take at least one day to reach Konoha running at top speeds—though probably longer since they didn't have particularly high expectations of Naruto's ability to remember the route—and Zabuza could recover any day.

As it stood, though, their new skills would provide little aid other than giving them more options for fleeing in the event of an attack. They might be able to buy some time if Zabuza and his assistant showed up, but it would take a miracle to actually beat them. Kakashi had yet to reappear, and in the end the genin found themselves with no other choice but to hope the stranger would follow through with his word and release their teacher.

The bleak nature of their circumstances hung over them at all times like a dark cloud, the constant threat of Zabuza's imminent attack always lingering in the back of their minds. Tazuna's grandson Inari did not help alleviate their grim moods.

"Why do you guys even bother trying?" the sullen boy roared, jabbing a finger at them over dinner one night with a dark scowl. "No matter how hard you train it won't change anything! You're all just kids! You won't ever stand a chance against Gato and his men! You'll just die!"

His cold words cut into the trio like knives, assaulting them with the insecurities and doubts that had been haunting them ever since Kakashi got kidnapped. Sakura flinched and squeezed her eyes shut to prevent the sudden surge of tears threatening to spill while Sasuke sharply turned his head away with his teeth gritted. Naruto, however, just sat perfectly motionless, his fists clenching around his silverware as his body began trembling.

"So you think we're useless?" he whispered, his voice low.

Malevolent energy suddenly seeped into the air, making the three civilians present flinch while Sasuke and Sakura snapped their heads to stare at their teammate wide-eyed. A dark aura seemed to radiate from his body as he bowed his head, dropping his silverware onto the table with a loud clatter.

"You think we don't realize the risks?" he snarled, his voice taking a feral quality as his lips curled back in a furious scowl. "Our teacher got kidnapped by some masked lunatic and a fucking psychopath with a giant sword wants to kill your grandpa. Do you really think we don't get how screwed we are? Because believe me, we get it! It's on our minds all the time. But! We can't just give up!"

He slammed his hands on the table and sharply rose to his feet, tears pricking the corners of his eyes as he lifted his head to glare at the stunned boy. "If we give up now, we'll die! We'll all be taken down without a fight! But if we try, we might have a chance at getting out of this alive. Yeah, it's small, and yeah, we probably won't be able to do anything, but if we're gonna die anyway then we should at least put in some effort! Screw rolling over and accepting death! We're Leaf ninja! If we go down, we're going down fighting!"

Fire burned in his eyes as he roared at Inari, and on either side of him his teammates began to stir, a spark of renewed resolve flickering into their faces. Naruto's words served as a fan for the Will of Fire that burned strongly in them, stirring the dwindling flames and igniting them into a roaring inferno of hope and determination.

They failed to notice the shadowy presence watching them from the window, a small smile touching scarred lips concealed behind a crimson mask as it flickered away. The masked man stepped into Kakashi's room, watching the fall and rise of the blankets covering the silver-haired jounin as he laid atop a soft mattress. His prisoner tiredly turned his head to look at him, his eye narrowing.

Two days remained until Zabuza's projected recovery date, and he still had work to be done before Kakashi could rejoin them.

Chapter Text

Chapter 20

"A true shinobi can make anything a weapon. On that note, never challenge kids. Creativity and mischief are a very dangerous combination."

The morning of Zabuza's attack started like any other.

The genin of Team Seven walked down the road to the bridge with Tazuna and the Kakashi clone for their morning shift when they heard a loud explosion. Snapping their heads in the direction of the sound, the three instantly assumed a defensive formation around their startled client with kunai in their hands. Brightly colored plumes of blue and pink smoke rose in the distance, soon joined by another pillar of orange and gold as a second explosion rocked the world.

Back in Konoha Naruto's mastery of pranks had made him the stuff of legends in the academy, and when strategizing on how to handle Zabuza they had decided to use an old classic. The Paint Bomb Minefield was exactly what it sounded like, a field of explosive paint bombs hidden underground like mines that triggered into giant colorful bursts of paint when stepped on.

Naruto's clones had spent almost two days carefully gathering the supplies to construct and bury one hundred bombs in the space leading up to the bridge. Unlike the harmless but annoying paint bombs he used in the academy, however, for Zabuza they mixed in explosive tags to add some actual power to the resulting blast. They didn't expect it to actually do much damage, but the trap would at least buy them a few minutes.

Dragging Tazuna into the growth of trees next to the path, they ran through the woods while keeping a tight circle around their client. "Confirmation that Zabuza reached Checkpoint One," Naruto reported as memories flooded in from a dispersed clone, snickering under his breath. Flashes of Zabuza covered in giant splotches of brightly colored paint flickered through his mind, his face absolutely shocked as he stared at the hot pink stain covering his chest.

"Naruto, focus!" Sakura snapped before he could laugh. Naruto quickly stopped snickering and nodded firmly, letting the gravity of the situation squash any mirth he might feel.

"Naruto, have all clones working on the bridge transform into Tazuna and scatter them to buy time," Sasuke ordered, and both the blond and his Kakashi clone nodded before the transformed duplicate popped, transmitting the orders to the rest of his clones. Sasuke turned to their third teammate and prompted, "Sakura?"

"I found three potential safe houses," she reported dutifully, pulling a large wadded bundle of clothing from her backpack. "The closest is a small cave in the woods about half a mile from here with the entrance hidden behind a shrub. It's not the most secure place and there's no alternate escape routes, but it should take a while to find. Strip please."

"What?" Tazuna sputtered, ogling her in shock.

"You need to disguise yourself and we don't have much time," Sakura huffed impatiently. The bridge builder still sputtered, but he obediently began taking off his clothes as they moved.

"Other options?" Sasuke pressed Sakura.

"An old fishing shack on a cliff three miles from town, and the basement of an abandoned house towards the edge of town."

"Three miles is too far, and going into town would be too visible," Sasuke decided after a moment of thought. "Forest cave it is."

"Checkpoint two," Naruto interjected suddenly, growing visibly antsy as he sifted through the memories. Checkpoint two involved a web of wires that triggered messy stink bombs when tripped, and Zabuza sliced through the wires with his sword while managing to dodge most of the bombs. "Oi, old man, hurry it up!"

"I'm changing as fast as I can!" Tazuna grumbled, jerking on the shirt Sakura provided. Tugging at the spacy collar, he scowled and complained, "Hey, this is a bit big!"

"Not really," a Naruto clone suddenly replied, appearing next to him with arms full of balled-up pantyhose. Without slowing their pace he shoved it down the shocked Tazuna's collar with a mischievous grin and quickly set to work positioning and securing it in place, giving him the appearance of sagging breasts.

"...You are making me pretend to be an old lady," he realized flatly, staring at his newfound assets in distaste.

"Yep." Sakura couldn't help but grin as she pulled a bonnet from her bag and plopped it on top of his head. Strands of frizzy white and gray hair tumbled out from it and fell to his shoulders, and she quickly adjusted its position so that it framed his face more naturally. Making the pseudo-wig had been difficult, and she had ultimately spent an hour convincing Tsunami to get one of her friends to shear their own hair to use for the disguise. Altogether Sakura spent three hours bleaching and gluing the strands to the inner rim of the hat.

"You do realize most old women don't have facial hair, right?" Tazuna quipped weakly, clearly unhappy with their plan.

"We have it covered," she assured him, while Naruto produced a pair of scissors. Tazuna physically recoiled and stopped running, his face contorting in horror.

"Oi, back up a second! Do you really think you can just give me a clean shave in the middle of woods with scissors?"

"Of course not," Sasuke replied dismissively. "We just need to trim it enough to fit behind an allergy mask." Tazuna still seemed uncomfortable, but when Naruto suddenly reported "Third checkpoint cleared" he acquiesced and allowed the blond to quickly trim his beard. The allergy mask Sasuke supplied fit over it smoothly now, and with a pair of sunglasses, a cane and a long skirt covered in patches the gruff bridge builder now looked like an old, blind woman.

Nodding at each other, the trio raised their hands and transformed into nondescript beggars in ratty clothing and smudges of dirt, and resumed moving through the woods at a brisk walk. "Naruto, did any of your clones see the hunter-nin?" Sakura asked, and the blond—now a dirty beggar with matted black hair and heavy smudges under his eyes—frowned.

"No, they didn't," he realized, and his teammates frowned in distaste. He staggered mid-step though, nearly falling in surprise before regaining his momentum. "Shit, Zabuza reached the bridge! He just took out three Tazuna clones in one swipe!"

The other genin sucked in sharp breaths and frowned, picking up the pace slightly. "Until we know where he is, we can't let our guard down," Sasuke warned lowly, and the others nodded in firm agreement. Tazuna meanwhile seemed overwhelmed by the sudden burst of activity and decided to just let them take the lead.

While the genin hustled their client towards the cave, back at the bridge Zabuza had long since reached the limits of his patience. As a ninja he knew to expect traps, but the sheer immaturity of the ones here infuriated him. Paint bombs, stink bombs and then oil slicks had made reaching the bridge a royal pain, the sheer number of traps too large for him to avoid it all completely. Then to top it off when he arrived he found an army of shadow clones transformed into his target.

Patience officially gone, the former Shinobi Swordsman roared as he swung the Kubikiribocho at a small posse of Tazunas and Narutos, popping them in a large cloud of smoke. Screaming with rage and frustration, he spun to face the entrance of the bridge and called sharply, "Haku!"

His apprentice materialized within seconds, irritatingly clean and pristine as usual in his hunter-nin costume. "Yes, Zabuza-sama?"

"How the hell are you so clean?!"

"I ran on the water to approach the bridge from an alternate angle as you ordered, sir."

Oh, of course. Of course they didn't have any traps in the water.

Shoving down his irritation, Zabuza hefted his sword over his shoulder and spat, "The old man isn't here. We're moving on!" Nodding obediently, his apprentice turned to race off the bridge only to find their path blocked by a flock of Naruto clones. The clones knew that they stood no chance against Zabuza and his apprentice, but even a few precious seconds of spare time could mean the difference between life and death for their original.

"You're not going anywhere!" one of them hollered, and as one they raised their hands into a familiar sign.

Now, to understand the next part, we must first rewind time three days ago.

Early in the morning, a single clone raced through some woods in search of a suitable place to transform and head to the bridge. As he ran along, he happened to glimpse Haku in a gap in the trees collecting herbs to treat Zabuza. Naturally the Hyoton-user had noticed the clone's presence and had braced himself for a potential confrontation. However, due to its current mission the clone simply continued forward to find another isolated location to transform, without interacting with him.

That did not mean Haku left no impact on Naruto, though. Dressed in his civilian garb, Haku had been unrecognizable to his clone, but it had noted Haku to be very pretty. Pretty enough that when it dispersed at the end of the day and sent visions of a forest beauty back to the original Naruto, the blonde had shouted in despair at not getting a chance to talk to the gorgeous woman.

That sentiment still remained strong in his mind even after three days, and so as the clones faced down the two enemies they used "her" as inspiration as they executed the one jutsu capable of taking down the Hokage.

"Sexy Jutsu—Harem Jutsu!"

Smoke burst and shrouded the clones, and when it dispersed an assortment of Narukos and voluptuous female Hakus faced the two former Mist nin. Wisps of smoke still rolled around their more sensitive bits, helpfully censoring their explicit nudity for any children who may happen to be viewing it, but enough skin showed to make it clear that the Hakus were quite well endowed to a point even Tsunade might be jealous.

As they blew kisses at the pair with seductive smiles and giggles, the two Mist nin just stared at them blankly, their deadened expressions rivaling even the Uchiha clan. "...Haku," Zabuza said tonelessly, and without another word his loyal tool launched forward to cut through the giggling harem with an ice blade.

Once the last clone popped, Haku turned to his master with a deep bow. "Sir, I apologize you had to see that."

"Haku. What was that."

"I do not know. However, three days ago I noticed the boy in orange while collecting herbs in the woods. We did not interact, but he must have recognized me and decided to transform into a feminine version of myself to catch us by surprise." Bowing deeper, he added sincerely, "I apologize for my incompetence, Zabuza-sama."

"...Right." Somehow Zabuza doubted that, but he wouldn't say so out loud. "I'll... let it slide this time. Just... don't let it happen again."

"Yes, Zabuza-sama." Haku straightened and looked to him for orders, while Zabuza took a few moments to contemplate their next move. Clearly they'd beaten their target to the bridge, and the smoke from the first trap almost certainly clued in the Leaf ninja to their approach. He had no doubts they would go into hiding, and given they had the genius Hatake Kakashi leading them he sincerely doubted they'd return to his house.

From there, his next thought was simple: why would a Leaf genin be alone in the woods in hostile territory? Turning to gaze at the thick clusters of trees visible far in the distance, the Swordsman narrowed his eyes. "Haku, where exactly did you see that brat?"

In another world, some cultures considered seven to be a lucky and auspicious number.

In this world, the number seven apparently had a curse on it, because in an absurd twist of fate the Naruto clone which Haku had witnessed three days ago happened to be in heading in the same general direction of the cave Sakura had identified as a hiding place.

Which led to the current situation.

Not even half an hour after huddling in the cave, a single Naruto clone disguised as a squirrel and left as a sentry suddenly popped, sending visuals of a rainbow-splattered Zabuza heading their way. "Guys," he whispered, his face paling. Nothing more needed to be said, his teammates instantly understood his message.

Heart pounding in his chest, Sasuke wrestled down the spike of anxiety he felt at the prospect of facing the criminal. As it stood, he knew Zabuza severely outmatched him. Fighting him directly or even indirectly would not work, Zabuza could take them down with a single swipe of the sword. Deceit, guile and carefully executed trickery would be their best bet to survive this scenario.

"We need to move Tazuna somewhere safe, ASAP," he whispered to his team.

"What're you gonna do?" the man in question asked, shifting uncomfortably. "Make another batch of clones and use them as a distraction while we run?" Over the past nine days he had witnessed Naruto make the clones countless times to the point even he could recognize how their nearly all of their strategies revolved around them.

However, even as he spoke though Sakura shook her head. "No, Naruto's already made a lot today and it'd be better to conserve his chakra. His chakra reserves are really big, but they must have some kind of limit, and the last thing we need is for him to pass out from chakra exhaustion like Kakashi-sensei in the middle of a fight."

"Besides," Sasuke added bitterly, "The shadow clones won't hold him forever. I think our best shot is to play a homeless family like we discussed earlier."

That particular strategy still left a dirty taste in their mouths, because in order to pull it off they'd have to act like civilians, which meant they couldn't sneak around. Basically, that meant walking in plain sight at a slow pace without trying to hide or run, because even homeless civilians wouldn't have the kind of paranoia that ninja had. This meant a real chance of running into Zabuza and having to convincingly play the part of a group of confused children helping their poor, sickly blind grandmother.

Eyebrows pinching together, Naruto lowered his head and realized at some point his hand had moved to hover over his stomach. His frown grew as he stared at it, and he squeezed his eyelids shut as he sucked in a deep breath.

"...Guys, listen to me," he said quietly, getting their attention. "If worst comes to worst, take Tazuna and run. I'll stay behind and hold them off."

Sasuke and Sakura immediately leveled sharp looks on their blond teammate, their eyes wide with shock.

"What?" Sakura breathed, her face paling even with the transformation in place.

"Dammit, do you have a death wish, brat?" Tazuna sputtered, utterly bewildered by the latest turn of events. Sasuke's hands curled into fists at his sides, leaning forward to glare at the idiot.

"I know you're stupid, but this is a new level even for you!" he hissed, trying to keep the rising panic out of his voice. "You'd be walking straight to your death!"

However, when the blonde raised his head to look at them Sasuke felt himself stiffen in surprise while Sakura's breath caught in her throat. Fear and uncertainty glimmered in Naruto's eyes, yet beneath that sparkled an undercurrent of strong conviction and resolution that left the Uchiha breathless.

"I know it sounds crazy, but... You need to trust me on this, okay?" He flashed them a cocky grin as he spoke and his face became even more of a paradox, a jumble of contradicting emotions that should not be able to exist at the same time as his smile both rang false and radiated sincerity at the same time.

Sasuke found himself unable to look away from the dissonance of his teammate's expression, his blood unusually chilled by the complex array of sentiments visible. He'd never even thought Naruto to be capable of having such complicated feelings, usually the dobe displayed his emotions with a simple zealousness that made him ridiculously easy to read. The stark contrast left him in a state of mild shock.

While he tried to sort through it, Sakura recovered first.


Hearing such vulgar language from the usually polite and well-spoken kunoichi stunned her teammates, both boys turning to regard her in open-mouthed surprise. Her eyes burned with a fathomless fury as she glared at Naruto, her transformation's dirty features contorted in rage. "Uzumaki Naruto, we are not leaving you to face certain death while we run away!"

"She's got a point," Sasuke agreed dryly, willing himself to calm down. If Sakura could keep her cool, so could he. "For some reason I can't understand my cousin seems to like you, and I am not going to be the one to explain to him why you're not back with us."


"Naruto, do you remember the first lesson Kakashi-sensei even taught us?" Sakura challenged, and Naruto frowned, face screwing up in confusion.

"Has he actually taught us anything?" he grumbled. "It's all just basic stretches and working on aim and boring junk like that!" Sakura's eye twitched as she glared at him, her patience clearly running thin. Sasuke, however, narrowed his eyes as he realized exactly what she referred to.

"Those who break rules are scum. But those who abandon their friends are even worse than scum."

The words of their teacher slipped out without much thought, his lips pursing into a frown as he finished. While Sasuke may not particularly agree or disagree with the sentiment it expressed, when spoken by their teacher the phrase held a certain power, a strong conviction that came only from personal experience. For that alone he could respect the statement, and from the way Naruto's features visibly sobered he knew Naruto respected it too.

"Exactly," Sakura confirmed with a nod. "We're a team now. If we leave you behind, you'll just die. What kind of self-respecting ninja would sacrifice a teammate for a gambit we don't even know would work?"

"Then why did we leave Kakashi-sensei!?" Naruto challenged, his voice rising in agitation. "We abandoned him after that creepy kidnapper guy took him, so we're already scum!"

"That's different," Sasuke replied, his tone more bitter than usual as he glared at the floor of the cavern. "This mission went above our scope the second Kakashi got captured. We didn't have the power to do anything ourselves, so we chose the option that would have the greatest chance of saving him. The whole point of having you help build the bridge was so we could try to send someone to get help."

Even as he spoke his chest tightened with anger and irritation, because he hated admitting his weakness. In the academy, he had grown used to being the strongest student. Everyone lauded him as a prodigy and praised his skill, his graduation delayed only due to rules made after the massacre to prevent placing undue stress on such young children.

Yet here in Wave, for the first time in years Sasuke found himself confronted with just how weak and vulnerable he really was. He had not noticed his dependence upon Kakashi before the man had been taken, and since then he'd been in a constant state of fight or flight. Fight was not an option though, not against someone who could throw a giant meat cleaver of a sword as easily as a kunai, so he had no choice but to accept flight.

To kill that man, Sasuke needed to be strong. Zabuza paled in comparison to him. So if Sasuke couldn't take Zabuza on, then what chance would he stand?

If that man were to suddenly appear in Konoha and threaten him while alone, Sasuke would be utterly defenseless. His shurikenjutsu would be useless against a genius like him, and his fireball could be easily negated by plenty of techniques. It burned to realize that, it ached and stung and bit to understand just how pathetic he was in the larger scheme.

Right now, Uchiha Sasuke could do absolutely nothing.

So why the hell did Naruto think he could handle Zabuza!?

Gritting his teeth, he rose from his spot and glared holes into the blonde, every detail of his stunned face burning into his memory with intense clarity. "We are not leaving you behind like cowards!" he snapped. "If we run, we run together. If we fight, we fight together. No exceptions. Got that, dobe?"

Naruto just stared at him slack-jawed, his eyes bulging out of their sockets. "S-Sasuke," Sakura whispered, her voice cracking on the word as she paled even further.

"Holy shit, kid!" Tazuna suddenly gasped. "What the hell happened to your eyes!?"

The abrupt question threw him off, and Sasuke turned to look at him in confusion before realization set in. Everything seemed so much clearer now, so focused and detailed... And his teammates somehow seemed slower?


Before he could finish the thought, he suddenly became aware of dampness collecting at his feet, and his gaze snapped towards an equally alarmed Sakura.

"Everyone out!"

When Kakashi woke up, he expected to open his eyes to the same blank white ceiling he'd been viewing for the past several days.

However, as he roused from his latest drug-induced nap, he immediately noticed the ever-constant pressure on his wrists and ankles was gone and instantly became much more alert. His eyes snapped open and he bolted upright, looking around his surroundings wildly. Salty air nipped at his face as he heard the dull roar of waves crashing against sandy shores in the distance, the soft bed he'd been staying in since the procedure replaced by hard, tightly packed soil.

For the first time in nine days, he felt the sun on his masked face, and it felt glorious.

Basking in its warmth, after a moment he quickly shook his head and pulled himself to his feet. He'd blame the slip in his attention on the residual effects of the drugs his kidnapper (who still had not given Kakashi a name despite his ridiculously friendly demeanor and repeated insistence they knew each other) gave him last night. Or was it this morning? Drug-induced sleep and a lack of windows really screwed with his internal clock.

The Copy-Nin surveyed his surroundings warily and quickly noted he seemed to be on a dirt path within a wooded area. Turning his head, he could see a small town in the distance, and beyond the wooden houses he glimpsed rolls of sparkling blue water that melded into the sky.

Clearly he had not left the Land of Waves, which came as a mild relief. He still didn't know his exact location though.

Tipping his head back, his eyes narrowed as he spied his weapons pouch hanging from a branch high overhead. After some wary consideration the jounin quickly funneled chakra into his legs to power a large leap, and found himself surprised at how easily his chakra flowed given it had been sealed the past few days. Carefully retrieving his pouch, he relaxed slightly when it didn't immediately explode in his hands.

After a cursory inspection to confirm nothing had been removed or tampered with, he turned his attention to the slip of paper he'd noticed pinned to the trunk of the tree with a kunai. He noted the handwriting to be surprisingly neat, almost elegant in a way without being overly fancy.

'Kakashi, as promised, I have released you now that a sufficient recovery time has passed. You should be fine now, though your muscles might be a little weak. The medical seals I used can only prevent degradation so much. I suggest doing some quick stretches to help loosen them up. On the bright side your chakra should be totally intact.

Which is good, because Gato and a mob of like one hundred mercenary thugs will be passing through pretty soon. You might want to stop them before they find your genin. Good luck!'

Kakashi stared at the note for approximately fifteen seconds before his shoulders slumped.

He didn't care how friendly that guy acted or how strongly he insisted that he knew and cared about Kakashi. Once he figured out his identity, Kakashi would personally see to it that he endured hell.

Meanwhile in Konoha, Masaru hunched over his backpack in his bedroom making sure he had all his clothes and weapons in stock. He could hear faint clanking from the kitchen as Gaku-sensei prepared breakfast, a rather strange thought after waking up to an empty apartment for the past two weeks. Today they had plans to go on a three-day camping excursion outside the village to test his survival skills, so Gaku-sensei had opted to spend the night so they could set out as early as possible.

Satisfied with his inspection, he glanced around his bedroom one last time to see if any last-minute additions caught his attention. Nothing did, so he turned back to his backpack and quietly did one more check over before zipping it up. He hitched it over his shoulder and headed for the door only to pause as a flicker of light caught his eye.

Turning sharply, his eyes narrowed as he studied the map of the elemental nations hanging above his bed. It had been painted by his mother, each country filled in with gorgeous coloring and subtle artistic designs representing basic geographic features that had fascinated him from a young age. Intricate black markings framed the edges of the illustration, so beautiful he almost didn't see a need for the frame.

As usual, his attention first went to the Land of Fire, which had been painted a warm, burnt orange that matched the color of autumn foliage. Wisps of flames mingled with impressions of leaves, the black stylized leaf representing Konoha popping out in a stark contrast. Masaru eyed it briefly but spared no time to appreciate its aesthetics, instead letting his gaze slide towards an island just off its shores where a small bead of white light hovered.

Even as he turned to look at it the glow faded away though, leaving him staring at the small island it had previously covered. Due to the artistic nature of the map Ryoko hadn't actually labeled anything, so he had no idea what country it represented. Its soft, greenish-blue color hearkened to the cool hues of the deep sea surrounding it, curved lines rippling across it in a mimicry of waves.

Masaru frowned as he studied the map, sharpening his focus. The lines became more distinct, the ripple patterns burning into his brain. Not even a trace of the white glow lingered. Had it really been there?

"Hey, Masaru, breakfast is ready."

He started in surprise when he heard Gaku's voice from the doorway, having failed to notice his approach as usual. Blinking, he quickly shook his head and turned to face his teacher, finding the man leaning against the doorway with a faint smile. "Trying to find where we're going?" he teased lightly, and Masaru smiled.

"Kinda pointless. Mom didn't really label anything."

"Huh, now that I look at it more closely you're right. At least it's pretty."

"Yeah. It really is." With a final appreciative glance at the map, he grabbed his bag and followed Gaku to the kitchen, pushing the strange light out of his mind.

Chapter Text

Chapter 21

"That plan's so crazy it just might fail! Actually it'll probably fail, you should just stick to business and leave murder conspiracies to the pros."

When Zabuza and Haku entered the woods to search, the Mist-nin had been surprised at how easy it was to find their quarry. While the cavern had been an admittedly impressive place to hide and could have easily been missed due to the shrub concealing the entrance, Zabuza barely had to expend any energy to locate it.

After all, he only had to follow the sound of raised voices.

His hands flew through the seals for a simple Suiton jutsu, a small flood pouring into the cavern, and within seconds of starting four people burst out.

The former Mist nin found himself faltering not for the first time today at the sheer absurdity of the sight before him. Three brats who looked like street urchins stared at him and Haku wide-eyed—one with noticeably blood red irises with commas rotating around the pupils—and behind them stood what could be the ugliest old woman he'd ever seen, if not for the roughly trimmed facial hair and the fact the sagging breasts beneath the baggy shirt seemed to fall apart so only one "boob" remained.

Eye twitching with irritation, Zabuza decided he no longer had the energy to care anymore and launched his attack.

And so, any plans Team Seven had in mind of fleeing officially shattered as they found themselves desperately fending for their lives from a homicidally furious A-rank missing-nin and his assistant.

"The universe officially hates us," Sakura groaned, clutching a kunai with a death grip to guard Tazuna while a horde of Naruto clones hurled themselves at Haku with a furious shout of "CHARGE!" The faux hunter-nin flickered out of the way and flicked his wrist to send several senbon flying in their general direction, each one piercing a clone's chest dead-center and causing them to pop.

Meanwhile Sauske stood alone against Zabuza, gritting his teeth as he clutched a windmill shuriken. His newly activated Sharingan made all of his opponent's moves appear slower, but just because he could see the man's moves didn't mean his physical reaction time improved too. The current inner turmoil over the realization he'd just activated the Sharingan did not aid in his ability to think clearly.

Murderous intent rolled off the paint-covered Swordsman in thick waves that crushed Sasuke's lungs and left him nearly paralyzed, cold sweat dripping down the genin's face. The missing-nin's body shook with harsh and ragged breaths, his eyes wild and manic against the orange and green splotches that surrounded them like masks.

As a professional killer hired specifically to kill Tazuna, Zabuza acknowledged he should probably just kill him now. None of the genin here stood a chance against him, and even if Haku decided not to go for lethal blows he could probably incapacitate all of them without even knocking them out. Heck, all Zabuza really had to do was body flicker behind the pink-haired brat and slit the old man's throat.

But fuck it. His capacity to give a damn about professionalism had gone out the window when the stink bombs hit him dead-center in the chest. Killing a defenseless old man dressed like an old lady would hardly sate his need for blood. Zabuza needed a real fight, something actually challenging to give him a chance to go all out and properly vent his stress.

"Where. The hell. Is Hatake."

His voice dripped with icy venom that sent shivers down Sakura's spine, while Sasuke visibly winced and locked up as his breath snagged in his throat. Naturally, neither of them wanted to admit that Kakashi had been missing for the past nine days, but obviously they needed to tell him something or they'd end up chopped into little pieces.

As Sasuke scrambled to think of a suitable excuse Naruto suddenly stopped attacking Haku and raised his arms to form a T. "Hold on a second, time out! What will you guys do if that Gato guy suddenly dies before you finish the job? Will you guys stop?"

"What?" Haku halted a surprise attack from behind the blonde to shoot him a baffled look, while Zabuza growled in frustration.

"Don't change the topic you stupid brat!" he roared, making all three genin wince. Shrinking back from the intense spike in killing intent, Naruto began rubbing the back of his neck and sucked on the inside of his cheek.

"Uh, b-but I'm kinda not changing it?" he muttered meekly. That did not ease the bloodthirsty Mist nin.

"Are you kidding me!? I am two seconds from ripping your head off with my bare hands you damn brat!"

While Zabuza seethed with increasingly furious irritation, Haku regarded the blonde silently as he scrutinized his words. Unlike his master, Haku had not been consumed by homicidal rage due to a series of juvenile pranks, and as such he could calmly analyze the situation. Given the specific question Naruto asked, he reached the conclusion he should probably indulge the blonde. "It depends on the circumstances, but most likely we will stop as he has not paid us. Why do you ask?"

"Well, see, about two minutes ago one of my clones ran into that masked guy who kidnapped Kakashi-sensei—"


"NARUTO!" Sasuke and Sakura hissed, staring at him in open horror while Tazuna choked in fear at the sudden increase in Zabuza's already suffocating murderous intent.

"Yeah, yeah, hold your horses and let me finish!" Naruto snapped, shooting his teammates and the incredibly deadly missing-nin an annoyed look. Huffing, he resumed pointedly, "Anyways, so that guy grabbed my clone and dragged him to a road about twenty miles away from here, and right now Kakashi-sensei is fighting who I assume is Gato and a mob of, like, one hundred thugs."

His teammates gawked at him in disbelief, while Zabuza's explosive fury cooled down to a simmering rage. He suddenly appeared in front of the blonde and hoisted him into the air by the collar, making Naruto yell in surprise and start squirming. "What did you just say?" he demanded in an eerily low voice, and the genin gulped, shrinking under his penetrating glare.

"I s-said, Kakashi-sensei is fighting a bunch of thugs, and I'm pretty sure your boss is one of them?"

Cursing loudly, Zabuza flung the brat to the ground and threw his arms into the air in exasperation. "ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME!?"

Twenty miles away, Kakashi felt just as frustrated as Zabuza did. His body definitely felt the effects of the extended captivity and lack of action, his reaction time ever so slightly slowed and his muscles a bit too loose for his liking, but not nearly enough to hinder him. While Gato's thugs vastly outnumbered him, most of them barely registered as a larger threat than a freshly-graduated genin, so he had little trouble cutting them down.

Weaving through the mob of mercenaries and slashing throats and stomachs with a blood-soaked kunai, he found himself more irritated than challenged by the current fight. Obito's eye burned in his socket as he swerved around a sloppily swung sword and buried the kunai in the shoulder of its wielder, eliciting a pained yell. Kakashi easily snagged the sword from his loosened grip before he sent the thug flying back into three others with a strong kick to the chest.

Electricity trickled through his fingers as the Copy-nin whirled to intercept another attack, letting his natural element infuse into the blade as he swiped it at his would-be assailant. A strangled scream echoed around them as the poor soul stumbled back and the distinct odor of charred flesh arose as sparks visibly danced in the bloody gash crossing his chest. The others around him recoiled in horror and quickly began to retreat from Kakashi, making him arch a brow at their cowardice.

Really. What did they expect, going up against one of Konoha's top jounin known for his lightning techniques? Though to be fair maybe they just hadn't heard of him, since clearly none of them had even an iota of knowledge about shinobi. If they did, they wouldn't be fighting a jounin with a weird red eye with three constantly spinning tomoe. Actually, when phrased like that, he had to question if they possessed any common sense, period.

Cutting through the crowd, his attention zeroed in on the short man with puffy sand-colored hair and a well-ironed business suit staring at him fearfully. A sharp odor trailed from his direction and Kakashi's nose wrinkled in disgust because, ew. He briefly eyed the growing stain around the crotch of the man's trousers with no small amount of disdain before turning to slice through another idiot trying to bash his head in with a nail-ridden club.

Once he'd felled a couple more idiots, Kakashi turned to face the businessman fully. After spending the past four minutes cutting through the most idiotic mob of thugs he'd ever encountered, the Copy-Nin made a fearsome sight. Electricity idly sparked along the length of the bloodied blade held casually at his side, his left arm soaked in blood from cutting down opponents with the kunai. Red streaked his silver hair, and more specks of the crimson liquid glittered darkly underneath his implanted eye.

"You know, this mission is really getting on my nerves," he quipped dryly, his eyes showing no humor. Gato cowered under his cold gaze, staggering backwards as his knees shook violently.

"St-stay away from me!" he stuttered, his voice rising in pitch with panic. "I-I'll pay you anything you want! Name your price, I can afford it! Just—just don't kill me!" His open cowardice only elevated Kakashi's irritation with the man, his eyes narrowing dangerously. As a responsible jounin who represented Konoha, he knew he should not needlessly slaughter a well-connected businessman.

On the other hand, he had just spent eight days in captivity restrained to a bed after being forced to undergo a highly unwanted medical procedure, and had been subjected to the most chipper and enthusiastic kidnapper he'd ever encountered outside of the time Gai and Genma dragged him from his apartment and forced him to join them for a night out on town.

Honestly, Konoha would have way bigger problems on their hands than punishing him for assassinating a tyrannical business tycoon once he submitted his report.

His grip on the hilt of the sword loosened and he let it slide out of his hands, his gaze never leaving Gato's fearful eyes as it clattered to the ground. "Sorry, but after the week I had, I'm afraid no amount of money can save you."

As he spoke his legs slowly slid apart from their casual gait, and for the first time the mob did something smart and backed away as blue sparks began to gather in his hand. The space around him began crackling with electricity as chakra gathered in his hand, the air reverberating with a high-pitched screeching reminiscent of countless birds chirping.

At this point an even more pungent odor assaulted Kakashi's nose, and he scowled in open distaste. Gato had officially vacated the rest of his bowels.

Uncaring about the fact that using the Chidori on a civilian was seriously overkill, he launched himself forward with an angry roar, thrusting his hand directly at Gato's chest. The businessman stood paralyzed by fear, only able to watch as death surged right for him.

His scream rung out just as Zabuza rocketed through the trees.

Given the highly violent and lethal nature of the shinobi lifestyle, few events in their line of work could be described as "awkward".

Finding one's employer dead at the hands of an enemy before he could pay them definitely counted though.

Heavy tension choked the air as Kakashi stood over Gato's gory corpse, the businessman's chest cavity little more than a raw mound of flesh and blood from the impact of the Chidori. Normally the Chidori did not leave such a mess, but Kakashi had made a point to bury it only halfway through Gato's chest rather than fully penetrate it. It made for an even more painful death than usual since it obliterated his skin and ribs, and only partially pierced his lungs and heart.

Eying the body with total apathy, the silver-haired jounin turned to level a calm, almost bored gaze on the rainbow-splattered ninja who had just arrived. "Hello, Zabuza," he greeted without any particular inflection. "As you can see, I just killed your employer and a good chunk of his men. I would apologize for the inconvenience, but I honestly don't care right now."

Frustration officially hitting its peak, Zabuza roared in frustration and stabbed the Kubikiribocho into the nearest tree, the blade shoving straight through the trunk with a loud crash and protruding halfway through the opposite side. "Fuck it all to fucking hell!" he yelled, cursing at the top of his lungs.

As he spewed a variety of words as colorful as the paint currently splattering him from head to toe, Team Seven and Haku burst through the trees and came to a startled halt. All of them looked unkempt and ragged, their bodies littered with scratches and bleeding cuts and their clothes torn from fighting, but their wild eyes locked on the blood-soaked jounin standing over Gato's corpse and their breaths caught as one.

"Kakashi-sensei," Naruto stammered, the name rattling off his lips in a stunned stupor. Next to him Sasuke stared at Kakashi with wide glowing red eyes as he registered the man's presence while Sakura's face screwed up in overwhelming relief and emotion.

"K-Kakashi-sensei!" she sobbed, tears gathering as she inhaled a shaky breath, and before he could react the trio surged forward as one to tackle him. Kakashi could only stand in mild shock as two sobbing genin and one rattled Uchiha trapped him in a bear hug, his waist quickly growing damp with two kids' worth of snot and tears as they buried their faces into his side.

"You're alive," Naruto sniffed, his arms tightening around Kakashi's side. "You're actually alive!"

"We were so s-scared," Sakura blubbered, her voice muffled by his clothing as she buried her face further. "We couldn't figure out how to find you and save you and we didn't know when Zabuza would attack and-and—"

Frozen and unsure how the hell to deal with a bunch of crying kids, Kakashi awkwardly reached out and patted Naruto and Sakura's heads, and then winced slightly when he noted the blood on his left hand stain Naruto's sunny blonde hair. The boy barely seemed to care though, as he tipped his head back to gaze at him with watery blue eyes and oh kami he made Sensei's kid cry.

Kakashi's brain shut down as he stared at his student, unable to think of how to respond. Fortunately, Sasuke came to the rescue. "We protected Tazuna," he reported, his voice eerily flat compared to his teammates, and Kakashi turned to look at him only to freeze. Sasuke stared up at him with bloody red irises, a total of three tomoe distributed between his eyes as he noted one in the left eye and two in the right.

The Copy-Nin's brain echoed back to that dinner at Ryoko's house so long ago, her words about the price of the Sharingan ringing through his head, and as he stared at the physical manifestation of Sasuke's emotional dissonance he realized his kidnapping probably had a role in it activating.


One month in and Kakashi had officially traumatized his team. This is why he did not want to take on a bunch of genin, he had enough trouble handling his own issues, let alone those of three kids!

While he floundered with how the hell to handle the latest turn of events, Haku carefully approached the still-cursing Zabuza. "Sir?" he hazarded cautiously, and the string of profanities tapered off with a final tree-splitting punch as Zabuza turned to face his apprentice.

"What?" he bit.

"What are your orders?" Haku asked, carefully measuring his tone to avoid agitating his master further. The man growled lowly in irritation, turning to level a glare upon their former employer's corpse.

Sensing the change in the Swordsman's demeanor, Kakashi pried his students off him and quickly moved them behind himself. Technically, this did not make them perfectly safe since they still had about thirty thugs standing behind them. At this point though Gato's mercenaries had been thoroughly frightened by the sheer brutality they just witnessed, so none of them made a move to attack the still-shaken genin.

"That cheapskate didn't bother paying us in advance, so there's no point in carrying out the job," Zabuza declared plainly. His gaze slid over to Kakashi, his eyes narrowing. "I am half-tempted to try to lob off your head anyway, but at this point I am officially fed up with this job and honestly can't be bothered to give a shit anymore."

"That makes two of us," Kakashi agreed tiredly. Slaughtering the horde of thugs had been laughably easy, but once the adrenaline wore off the emotional strain from his captivity had left him drained. Right now he just wanted to curl up with his Icha Icha collection and recharge his energy. "So I suppose this means a ceasefire, then."

"Sure, why the hell not." Zabuza shrugged lazily, and Kakashi decided to trust him. He should probably try to eliminate Zabuza anyway, since he still posed a serious threat and all, but he didn't care. Kakashi really just wanted to get home, but sadly he'd probably have to stick around a bit longer until Tazuna finished the bridge.

Turning to his students, he asked curiously, "Where is Tazuna, anyway?"

"Oh, he's fine!" Naruto responded cheerily, flashing him a proud grin only slightly offset by the still-moist tears staining his cheeks. "I left a couple shadow clones behind to guard him while we chased after these guys!"

Kakashi decided to ignore the irritated growl-like noise Zabuza made at the mention of shadow clones. "I see. Well, let's go get him and go to his house. I think we've earned a day off." His students visibly sagged in relief, and he noticed not for the first time just how tired they all looked. The emotional toll from worrying over their teacher and their circumstances had combined with their daily physical exertion, and now that everything had finally resolved they seemed just as drained as he felt.

"A day off sounds good," Sasuke muttered quietly, and that only sharpened Kakashi's mental assessment of their exhaustion. The Uchiha trained every day for hours on end without showing signs of complaint, so for even him to be worn out, his genin must have worked even harder than he'd originally thought.

His heart panged with guilt at the realization, and he swallowed harshly as he forced a smile onto his face, his eyes crinkling in carefully crafted cheer. "Maa, I'm sure it does. When we get to his house you guys can tell me all about what you did the past few days, okay?"

Ever eager to show off, Naruto promptly began rattling off all the cool stuff they'd done. Kakashi just nodded his head absently, quickly giving up on following Naruto's fast-paced rambling. Instead he looked to his other students, his gaze lingering on Sasuke in particular.

"...You should probably deactivate that now," he suggested mildly, and the Uchiha blinked before realizing what he meant. Swallowing, he squeezed his eyes shut and his face scrunched with intense concentration, and when he opened his eyes again the bright red of the Sharingan had faded into their usual inky black coloring.

"Hey, before we go, I have one question," Sakura suddenly interjected, and the trio of males turned to regard her with varying degrees of curiosity.

"Yes, Sakura?" Kakashi asked, and the pink-haired girl frowned slightly as her green eyes flitted behind them towards the bloody carnage Kakashi had wrought earlier. It suddenly occurred to Kakashi she might need therapy for this, yet another offense

"Where was Gato going with all those men?"

Her question gave Kakashi pause, and even Zabuza seemed to pause at it. "Yeah," he murmured lowly, slowly turning to face the remnants of the mob Gato had amassed. "Why did he need all you guys?" The surviving mercenaries quaked in fear under his narrowed gaze, all earlier bravado dashed after the spectacle of Kakashi easily slaughtering their colleagues and employer.

"W-we d-don't—" one stammered, but another cut in before he could finish.

"We were just following orders!" a lanky-looking thug exploded, his features screwed with panic and fear as he staggered backwards. His heel dug into a corpse's hand and he winced in alarm, quickly rambling, "We didn't want to fight you guys! B-but Gato ordered us to take you down so he wouldn't have to pay you! If we knew how strong you were we wouldn't have followed it though, honest!"

His fearful rambling cut off as one of his comrades slapped a hand over his mouth, but the damage had been done. Heavy silence followed as the six ninja stared at the mercenaries, slowly processing the implications of what he heard.

Staring at them blankly, Sasuke slowly said, "...Gato was going to have you, a bunch of thugs, try to take out him," he didn't gesture to Zabuza but he didn't really need to, "An A-rank missing-nin from Kiri and one of the Seven Shinobi Swordsmen, just so he wouldn't have to pay him?"

More tense silence followed. Then one of the mercenaries squeaked a hesitant, "Y-yes?" and another mercenary slapped a hand over his mouth.

Shoulders sagging tiredly, Zabuza promptly planted his face in his hand and grumbled under his breath. "Haku?"

"Yes, Zabuza-sama?" his apprentice asked.

"Did we just waste two months for absolutely no pay?"

"...I believe so, yes," Haku responded after a moment's hesitation, and his master released an inhuman roar full of barely contained aggravation.

Kakashi quickly hoisted Naruto under his arm and grabbed Sakura and Sasuke by the shoulders before initiating a body flicker, moving to safety just before Zabuza surged towards the terrified mercenaries with a bloodthirsty roar. Landing next to Haku, he released his grip on them and set Naruto down, calmly placing his hands on all of their shoulders and turning each stunned genin around one at a time to face away from the carnage.

"Well, it seems this is wrapping up quite nicely," he commented casually to Haku. The dark-haired boy turned his head slightly to watch him, his expression unreadable behind his mask, but after a moment he gave a small nod.

"I suppose so," he murmured quietly, turning back to the destruction his master currently wracked upon the unfortunate mercenaries.

"Kakashi-sensei?" Naruto asked questioningly, starting to turn his head, but the jounin plopped a hand on the blonde's head and firmly turned it forward.

"Maa, you really shouldn't look right now," he commented idly, and turned back to Haku. "If I may make a suggestion. If you and Zabuza dispose of all the corpses, I will help you cash that big check Gato wrote you two."

His comment made the boy visibly stiffen, and he could sense Haku's eyes slowly slide towards him behind the mask. "...Did they not just confirm that Gato had no intentions of paying Zabuza-sama?" he asked carefully, and Kakashi smiled.

"Well, yes, but his bank doesn't know that," he replied cheerfully. "And wouldn't you know it, one of the perks of the Sharingan is making really good forgeries of signatures."

Sasuke seemed to choke on air at the overly mundane usage of his clan's vaunted doujutsu, but Kakashi ignored him, focusing instead on Haku. The boy inclined his head slightly, and he slowly nodded. "...I cannot speak for Zabuza-sama, but I believe he will agree."

"Wonderful." Kakashi smiled at him pleasantly, and then turned to enjoy the carnage his former foe wrought upon the irritating mob.

With the threat over, he reached up for his headband to tug it back over his left eye. No one noticed the Sharingan fade to black just before the plate covered it once more.

Later that night Sasuke sat on the deck of Tazuna's house, listening to the lingering hum of voices inside as he stared into the woods. Snow gently flittered from the sky, dusting the landscape in a thin, wispy layer of white which gave it a strange, ethereal quality. He ran his thumb over his omamori as he stared into the trees, and for the first time since this whole ordeal had started he gave himself permission to relax.

Soft footsteps padded behind him and soon enough Sakura sat next to him, letting her legs dangle over the edge as she stared into the woods. "It's pretty, isn't it?" she asked quietly, and he hummed softly in agreement. The snow would undoubtedly melt by morning, it was too thin to stick for long, but until then he decided to just sit back and enjoy the sight while he could.

Leaning forward, Sakura reached out a hand and watched a snowflake flutter into her palm, smiling softly as she brought it closer for a better look. "I used to think snowflakes were the prettiest thing in the world," she confessed quietly as she watched it melt. "When I was a kid I wished my hair was white instead of pink."

Her quiet admission caused Sasuke to flicker a curious glance at his female teammate. Sakura's name suited her well because the girl seemed to visually personify spring, with pink hair the color of cherry blossoms and crystalline green eyes the color of a freshly sprouted flower bud waiting to bloom. The idea of her with snow white hair or any other remotely wintry coloring felt wrong.

"Why?" he asked after a few moments, and her lips curved into a soft smile, letting her palm fall to the deck and slide over the wood.

"Because pink is so cute and girly, while white seemed so much more mature. Snowflakes seemed so elegant and graceful. No two snowflakes are the same, you know, each one is so complicated and gorgeous and unique. I wanted to be like that."

"What changed?" The question slipped out without thinking, surprising even Sasuke. At one time he wouldn't have cared enough to ask, but over the course of this mission he had come to respect Sakura. Though she lacked the physical strength he and Naruto possessed, she had been the one to develop most of the long-term strategies. She had been the one who figured out how to walk on trees and water with nothing more than memory and a comment from Tazuna.

Naruto may have been the one to give motivating speeches, but it had been Sakura who gave Team Seven a purpose before they could fall into despair.

The kunoichi seemed just as surprised by the fact he asked, but she quickly recovered and smiled sheepishly, turning back to the snow. "Well, I guess I realized that while snowflakes are really pretty, they melt almost right away. They can only last a long time by clumping together, and when they do that they lose their unique individuality and become a boring white blob."

Reclining back, she twiddled with the ends of her hair as she continued, "Cherry blossoms, meanwhile, are beautiful because of every individual petal. They don't mash together into a single shape, each one blows separately in the wind, each one falls in its own time. After a while snow starts to melt and becomes dirty, but even when dried and shriveled cherry blossom petals are still pretty and colorful.

"Everyone remembers the beauty of cherry blossoms," she finished softly. "But no one remembers every single snowflake."

Sasuke looked at her in faint surprise, and after a while he just slowly nodded and turned forward. A companionable silence fell over them, neither of them seeing fit to break it as they each stewed in their own thoughts. Her explanation had been surprisingly deep and profound, once again proving the girl had more depth than he usually credited to her.

Rubbing his thumb over his charm, he suddenly paused, his gaze flitting down to the blue fabric. He frowned slightly and glanced at Sakura to find her gaze trained on it, her eyes sparkling with curiosity she was too polite to actually voice aloud.

"...It's a gift, from my aunt Ryoko."

Sakura startled at his quiet words and snapped her eyes upwards to meet his in surprise, her breath visibly catching. Sasuke looked back at the amulet, holding it up a bit so she could look at it better. "This amulet. She made a bunch as a good luck charm and gave them to us. She said it looked like an omamori, but it wasn't actually one so we didn't need to throw it away at the end of the year." Lips forming a tight line, he added, "She died about two months later."

"Sasuke..." Sakura's voice became soft, offering him a sympathetic look. He didn't look at her, just rubbed the character for "Protection" written on the tag.

"I almost threw it out," he continued quietly. "Before, I mean. I didn't like the photo inside."

"Huh?" Sakura's face screwed in confusion, and with a second of hesitation he pulled on the string sealing the charm. Alarm flickered in Sakura's features as he opened it and slid out a folded photograph, but he waved a hand at her dismissively.

"Calm down. It's not an omamori, so it's not bad luck to open it." As he unfolded it, he hesitated briefly before holding it towards her. "Just... promise not to laugh."

Too curious to resist, Sakura nodded and leaned over to peer at it, and her eyes quickly widened in surprise. On the surface, it appeared to be a simple family photo of four girls wearing pretty kimonos, specifically two young children and two teenagers. However, she almost immediately recognized one of the young girls to be Uchiha Akari, and from there her eyes roved over the other "girls" to realize something.

"You're... Half of you are cross-dressing," she sputtered, too shocked to think clearly. Sure enough, a pouting Sasuke stood next to Akari wearing a pretty dark blue kimono decorated in white blossoms, while a boy with curly hair stood behind them with a giant grin, his arm slung over the shoulder of a furiously blushing, beautiful dark-haired teen.

As she struggled to process this, Sasuke couldn't help his lips quirking into a small smile. "Actually, Akari's the only girl," he corrected dryly, and Sakura stared at the photo blankly before releasing a startled squawk. For all he hated that man, Sasuke couldn't help but feel amused that his teammate mistook him for a female in the photo. The pure shame the photo would cause him is the only reason Sasuke hadn't cut him out of it.

That, and the fact that he loathed the idea of cutting off Shisui's arm in the last photograph he had of his dead cousin. Shisui had died just a few days after taking it.

"How?" Sakura whispered weakly, sounding almost distraught by confusion, and Sasuke huffed a slightly bemused snort.

"I'm not sure. All I remember is Shisui suddenly appeared sputtering about Mom and Aunt Ryoko wanting to put me in a dress. Then Aunt Ryoko appeared and dragged us both back to the house, and they forced us all into kimonos and took photos." Even Akari had been slightly off-put by the endless cooing and fussing over them as the two women fussed over the four youths and how "pretty" they looked. "A week later Aunt Ryoko gave each of us a charm with it inside as a memento and threatened us not to throw it away."

Sakura just stared at him in shock, her eyes boggling in disbelief as she listened. Once he finished though she slowly leaned over, looking at it again.

"...Well, you do look pretty good," she mused thoughtfully, and Sasuke stared at her for approximately five seconds as her words processed, and then his face turned bright red.


"I'm just saying, you didn't look that bad. A little makeup and longer hair, and you would've been prettier than Ino."

Sasuke just stared at her in horror, and she slowly raised her gaze to meet his before breaking into a shit-eating grin.

"Just kidding," she teased in a singsong voice, and laughed even as Sasuke scowled and shoved her off the deck.


OMAKE: "Meanwhile..."

A large crowd of civilian armed with fishing spears, nets and hastily constructed weapons stood near the entrance of the unfinished bridge, murmuring amongst themselves in mild confusion and disgust as they viewed the spectacle before them.

Paint-splattered craters scarred the land directly in front of the bridge spanning about one hundred meters. Somewhere beyond that traces of an unspeakable stench radiated from the ground, so putrid and foul it made more than a few eyes water. Just at the foot of the bridge, they could also see something dark staining the ground alongside the shredded remains of wire.

A few men carefully navigated the strange battle-scarred landscape to check the bridge, a few of them sliding a couple feet when they stepped on the oil slicks still staining the soil. Once they reached the other side, they cautiously dispersed to examine the bridge, and the crowd held their breath as they waited for their reports.

“No one’s here!” one of them hollered, and a general groan of disappointment rose from the crowd.

“Dang it!” Inari huffed as he crossed his arms with a childish scowl. He had spent the past hour trying to convince the townspeople to put aside their fear and valiantly go to the bridge to take on Gato’s men and protect his grandfather, only to arrive to find the bridge empty. The crowd still buzzed with pent-up energy and justice, so the current turn of events felt rather anticlimactic and unsatisfying.

Awkward silence hovered over the crowd as they stared at the bridge, contemplating what to do. “...Screw it, let’s just go attack his base instead!” someone hollered from the back of the crowd, and a roaring chorus of approval rose from the mob as they turned and stampeded away. Inari had awoken a thirst for justice, and it would not be satisfied until they had Gato’s blood had been spilled.

Chapter Text

Chapter 22

"Looks like this story is wrapping up quite nicely. Unless someone says something that counts as foreshadowing..."

Sprawled atop his bed, Masaru lazily flicked through the thick book, eyes gliding over the words without really absorbing anything. After an extended training session that ran late into the evening he had gone home exhausted but eager to continue learning, and as such he decided to peruse some of the books he'd taken from his mother's study.

While he never knew Ryoko as a kunoichi, the books she'd amassed suggested she possessed an incredibly diverse array of skills for an Uchiha. Even as a child he knew she served as a bit of an eye doctor for the Uchiha clan, and her vast collection of books and handwritten research notes on the Sharingan served as testimony to this. Yet for every document she had on their clan's history and doujutsu, ten more seemed to exist on a variety of other subjects.

Scrolls bearing the symbols of other villages and showing various elemental jutsu, most likely pilfered from fallen foes. Textbooks dedicated to the interactions between various poisons and the human body. Copies of complex speculative theses by various figures on the nature of the chakra. Old journals recounting sightings of now-extinct kekkei genkai. Uchiha Ryoko seemed to have at least one document on every topic a shinobi might need in the field.

Above all else though, her favorite subject seemed to be fuinjutsu. Complex diagrams featuring intricately scripted designs filled the pages, with small notes scribbled in the margins pointing out the various facets of the seals displayed and voicing her own theories and ideas on variations. His finger traced over the neatly handwritten characters, his features softening as he stared at the familiar script of his mother's hand.

Masaru suspected a fuinjutsu master would find her notes incredibly useful, but seeing as he couldn't understand a word of the complex technical jargon and long formulas, he couldn't be sure. Still, he found her familiar handwriting strangely comforting.

The sound of the front door opening caught his attention, and he snapped his head over his shoulder in alarm. Within seconds he'd leaped off the bed and pressed against the wall by his open door, a kunai sliding into his hand. His heart thudded as he listened intently, ready to pounce at a moment's notice.

"Masaru, I'm back," a familiar voice called, and Masaru perked up as all tension faded, a giant grin lighting up his face as he rushed into the hall. Sasuke stood in the entrance of the apartment, dropping his backpack on the kitchen counter. Surprisingly, he hadn't come alone, as Naruto and Sakura also joined him in depositing bags on the counter.

"Hey, Masaru!" Naruto greeted cheerfully, flashing him one of his sunlight-incarnate grins. "Man, it feels like it's been ages since we last saw each other!"

Sakura offered a more demure smile, looking almost sheepish as she waved at him. "Hope you don't mind us coming over unannounced. Naruto didn't want to go back to his apartment alone, and my parents are out of town at a friend's wedding right now so I'd be going home to an empty house too."

Still slightly surprised by their presences, he blinked and quickly shook his head. "No, it's okay. I'm just surprised, I guess?" Shrugging, he asked, "So how was the mission?" The trio stiffened slightly at the question, exchanging pointed glances.

"You might want to sit down," Sasuke advised solemnly, and with that Team Seven launched into a recounting of their glorious escapades in Wave.

It had been one of the stranger debriefings of Hiruzen's tenure as Hokage.

Yamanaka Inoichi and Nara Shikaku stood behind him as he sat at his desk, their stances casual and relaxed but their eyes calculating as they listened to Kakashi recount his experiences in captivity. To the side Hyuuga Hiashi watched the Copy-nin intently, veins bulging around his eyes as he monitored his chakra with the Byakugan, while Tenzo stood behind his former captain as a silent but supportive presence.

"He kept insisting we used to work together," Kakashi commented once he finished his tale. "The only sensible conclusion I can reach is that he's a former Leaf ninja, but one who's listed as dead. He never gave me any solid hints to his identity though."

"If he truly considered himself an ally, he wouldn't have concealed his identity," Hiashi decided aloud. "The fact that he refused to identify himself is strong evidence that he has no loyalty to Konoha."

"I don't think it's that simple," Kakashi replied, frowning under his mask. "The way he spoke, I get the impression that he feels his life would be endangered if specific parties in Konoha learned he's alive. That's why I asked to keep the specifics of the encounter under wraps until a more thorough investigation could be done."

"That still suggests he considers Konoha a threat, though," Inoichi murmured, but his teammate huffed a small sigh and folded his arms.

"Not exactly," Shikaku said. "There are definitely individual factions in Konoha with different agendas than the Hokage or general population. I can think of a few scenarios where someone could be loyal to the village. For example..."

His eyes roved about the room, landing on the Hyuuga clan leader. "Let's imagine a member of the Hyuuga's Branch house found a way to remove the Caged Bird Seal. They have nothing against Konoha, but by staying in the village they'll inevitably be discovered and forced to have it put back, or possibly even get executed. So to avoid that, they fake their death. If the Hyuuga clan ever learned of their survival, they would lobby the Hokage to send a search party to apprehend the man as a traitor to the village."

"Ah, do you really want to use that kind of example in front of the Hyuuga clan's leader?" Tenzo muttered, awkwardly rocking on his feet while darting a glance in the ever-stern man's direction.

"It is fine," Hiashi informed him crisply. "In my opinion, Nara-san poses an incredibly valid and plausible example, and it is in fact a scenario my clan has considered many times in the past. It is why we insist so heavily on evidence of a member's death in the events where bodies cannot be recovered."

"Actually, I think that example aligns quite closely with my own theory," Kakashi murmured, and the gathered ninja leveled keen looks on him. The Hokage frowned as he hunched forward, steepling his fingers under his chin.

"You believe the man to be a survivor of the Uchiha," he stated quietly, voicing the words on everyone's mind.

"I do," Kakashi confirmed just as quietly.

Grave silence fell once more as they considered the implications of the possibility, and why he would not want Konoha to know of his existence. Behind him Hiruzen could feel Shikaku's keen gaze boring into his back, and to the side Hiashi also offered him a knowing look. Hiruzen didn't react to them, closing his eyes as he mulled over the situation.

When he'd read the first report that had been delivered by one of Kakashi's ninken three days ago, his mind had instantly reached the same conclusion as the Copy-nin. And from there his first thought naturally went to Danzou. If an Uchiha had survived the massacre, then Danzou would undoubtedly try to eliminate them. The mere fact they considered Konoha dangerous would suggest they knew too much for his old friend's comfort.

"You're too soft," echoed a long-gone voice in his head. "Right now people are suffering because you are turning a blind eye to the actions of your so-called friends! At this rate, innocent blood will spill and Konoha will suffer because of your inaction!"

Hiruzen kept his thoughts to himself, unwilling to share his suspicions with anyone present and instead letting them stew on their own contemplations. Clearly Tenzo did not like the conclusions he drew, because his face twisted in discomfort and he spoke up feebly. "We don't have absolute proof that it's an Uchiha. Kakashi never got a look at his face thanks to that mask. And even if he does turn out to have the Sharingan, it could easily be implanted."

"All the same, I don't know how many non-Uchiha could fit those qualifications," Shikaku remarked calmly. "Kakashi said that before the procedure, his captor consulted several notebooks, and I would bet my life that they belonged to Uchiha Ryoko. She showed me her research a few times, and she put seals on a lot of her more sensitive notes. It's impossible to read them unless you have your chakra keyed into it and know the proper sequence of hand seals to deactivate them."

"So in other words, whoever kidnapped Kakashi would have to be someone Ryoko trusted," Inoichi reasoned. "That should lower the number of suspects, so it's a start."

"It does," the Hokage agreed. Ever neutral and pragmatic, he continued, "However, that is only assuming the notes did belong to Ryoko. We cannot absolutely eliminate the possibility of it being another party."

"I think Ryoko's the most logical option though," Kakashi interjected, casually reaching for his hitai-ate and sliding it upwards to expose his implanted eye. "I can't think of anyone else who would have access to the resources and possess the knowledge necessary to figure out how to do this."

As he spoke the three tomoe of the Sharingan rapidly expanded and clouded his eye, shading the distinct blood red iris an inky and dormant black.

"And so then the townsfolk raided Gato's place and set it on fire!" Naruto finished with an enthusiastic grin, slurping ramen noodles happily. Masaru just stared at him in mild shock, his mind whirling. Team Seven had spent the past two hours regaling him with their escapades in Wave over cups of instant ramen, and to call it overwhelming would be an understatement. Between Kakashi getting kidnapped and their unusual strategy to employ Naruto clones for everything, they had quite the C-rank mission.

"And I thought working with Ino was bad," he mumbled, sagging in his seat. Sakura perked up at the mention of her best friend, looking at him curiously.

"You worked with Ino?" she asked, and the brunette nodded glumly, making her smile apologetically. "Sorry about that, she can be a bit... forward." Masaru raised a single eyebrow at her, his face silently projecting 'A bit?' with visible sarcasm. "Okay, a lot. I'll... try to work with her on it." Sakura turned back to her food but suddenly paused. "Hold on a second. If you're allowed to work with Team Ten, then does that mean you might work with our team?"

The question gave the other three genin pause, staring at the lone female blankly as the gears turned in their heads. Then Naruto leaped up with a loud cheer, pumping a fist into the air. "Hell yeah! I don't even care if it's pulling weeds, running a mission with Masaru will be awesome!"

"That's only if our sensei agree to it," Sasuke pointed out flatly, and Naruto nearly crashed to the ground. "According to Kakashi we got ahead of most of the other genin thanks to Sakura figuring out how to walk on trees with chakra, and we're moving on to elemental jutsu after we get down water walking. So they might want to have Team Seven work on our own a bit until Masaru can catch up some more."

"Oh, right." Naruto sank into his chair with a dejected groan, not even the half-full cups of instant ramen able to lift his mood. Masaru, however, seemed strangely thoughtful as he gazed at his empty bowl, something Sakura didn't miss.

"...Masaru?" she ventured, startling the boy. "Are you okay?" Masaru blinked at her before scratching the side of his face, his lips quirking into a small smile.

"...I, uh, already learned to walk on water from Gaku-sensei," he admitted sheepishly, and the trio of genin snapped sharp looks at him.

"Wait, what!?" Naruto blurted, jaw dropping. "No fair! I mean, that's awesome, but, Kakashi-sensei didn't help a bit!"

"He probably would have soon?" Shrugging, he continued, "The only reason Gaku-sensei taught me is because he wanted to teach me something other than the basics. Most early genin training is just building up teamwork, and I can't really do that without a team. Walking on trees and water helps build your chakra reserves faster than doing the leaf exercise, too, and that's one of our main goals right now."

"That makes a lot of sense," Sasuke muttered thoughtfully, and shrugged as he picked up his chopsticks again. "I half-expected you to say you got it from your mom's books."

"His mom's books?" Books never failed to capture Sakura's attention, and Masaru nodded at her.

"Yeah, she had books on a lot of stuff and I keep a bunch in my bedroom. I can't even understand all of them though." Pausing as he noticed the bright sparkle in her eyes, he hesitantly offered, "Um, I can show you some of them if you want...?"

"Yes, please!" Sakura chirped cheerily, and before he could say another word she'd leaped up from the table and dragged him away. Masaru felt his face heat up as they entered his bedroom because holy crap, he had a girl in his room. A girl. With no blood relation. In his bedroom. His room.

While he discreetly assessed the space to make sure none of his underwear was on the floor or anything, the source of his current state of distress remained oblivious to the turmoil she caused as Sakura's gaze instead trained on his bookshelf. Mouth falling open in awe at the sheer number of volumes lining the shelves, she glanced around the room and quickly strode to his bed, picking up the book lying there.

"Offensive Applications for Fuinjutsu?" she read aloud as she glanced at the cover. Opening it, she flipped through the pages and her eyebrows quickly knitted together. "This is all really complicated. Can you understand any of this?"

"I don't understand any of her fuinjutsu books," Masaru informed her blandly, a bit calmer now that he'd determined his room to be void of any embarrassing messes. The reference to the book stirred his memory though, his eyes wandering to the map behind her. Following his gaze, Sakura released a small gasp and quickly closed the book, a look of awe on her face as she viewed the map.

"Woah, this is beautiful," she breathed, and Masaru smiled slightly as he joined her.

"Yeah. My mom painted it." Climbing onto his bed, he leaned over and traced the black markings bordering the illustration. "These markings are some kind of seals, but I don't know what they do. I only noticed it recently. I was actually going to try to activate them right before you guys arrived."

"Wait, wouldn't that be dangerous?" Sakura questioned, frowning. "I mean, for all you know it could be like a really complicated explosive tag."

"Maybe, but... I don't think so? My mom had a lot of issues, but she wouldn't spend hours painting something just to add a seal that'd destroy it." The young kunoichi frowned slightly as she studied the map, but after a while she shrugged.

"Well, in that case, let's give it a shot." Surprised to hear her approval, Masaru glanced at her in mild shock before smiling and turning back. Placing his palm on the center of the illustration, he flared his chakra and let it seep into the paper, quickly retracting his hand. The genin held their breaths as they watched it.

Nothing happened.

Sagging in disappointment, they released quiet sighs of disappointment only to freeze at a loud shout from Naruto. "Teme, your butt's glowing!"

Exchanging startled looks, Sakura and Masaru quickly raced out of his room to find Naruto crouched on a wall and pointing at Sasuke with a look of shock. The normally stoic Uchiha twisted his head to look at his backside in disbelief and sure enough, a blue light emanated from one of his back pockets. He quickly reached into it and pulled out the pseudo-omamori, revealing a bright blue light emanating from the character for "protection".

"What the hell!?" he sputtered, looking just as shocked as Masaru felt. Next to him Sakura's throat went dry, her eyes widening as comprehension suddenly flickered in them.

"...Sasuke, flare it with chakra!" she told him, and he shot her a quizzical look.

"What the hell are you—"

"Hurry! Before it fades!" Still confused and skeptical, Sasuke frowned but after a moment he did as told, and the light flashed gold before fading. Even as he did it Sakura spun and raced back to Masaru's room, the trio of males quickly following after her.

Any questions died on their lips as they entered just in time to see a gold light suddenly pulse in the central character at the bottom of the map. Rippling along the seals in a counter-clockwise motion around the map, the glow briefly flashed blue as it surged up the right side. A blue light flickered into existence atop the stylized leaf representing Konoha, the kanji for "protection" appearing next to it.

Chapter Text

Chapter 23

"This world is full of so many injustices. I'm one person so I can't do much, I don't expect to be able to revolutionize everything. But I'll make sure I make as much of an impact as I can."

Mornings usually found Sarutobi Hiruzen in his office, religiously sipping from a mug of coffee to give him energy. Nothing pained him more than the tedious nature of paperwork, a sentiment which took on a literal meaning since he often found himself contemplating if he had time to call a chiropractor to aid his aching back.

Today, however, his back got a rare reprieve from its regularly arched posture, as instead of his stuffy office he found himself starting his day in the apartment of a certain genin.

Masaru shifted uncomfortably as the leader of his village and a veritable God of Shinobi stood in his bedroom, peering at the map hanging over his bed with piercing scrutiny. Tenzo and Kakashi stood at attention behind him, present as extra security in place of Hiruzen's usual ANBU guard unit. Sasuke clutched his pseudo-omamori with a tight grip as they watched their leader press a wrinkled hand on the map, pumping a small burst of chakra into the seals lining it.

Bright blue light emanated from the charm almost immediately, and upon receiving a nod Sasuke flared his own chakra. The assembled shinobi watched as the central character of the seals bordering the illustration pulsed with a golden glow. It quickly surged through the seals, causing a bead of blue light to appear over Konoha with the kanji for "protection" next to it.

Hiruzen huffed a small sigh, his lips pressing together in a wry smirk. "Very clever, Ryoko. Very clever."

"Lord Hokage?" Tenzo pressed, watching his leader with a concerned frown.

"Do you know what's going on?" Masaru asked, sounding understandably antsy. He'd had the map hanging above his bed for nearly five years, and he'd only recently discovered it had some secret use. Hiruzen turned to face the genin with a gentle smile, his eyes twinkling with mild amusement. Educating the future generations of Konoha had always been one of his greatest passions in life, so he did not waste the opportunity presented in front of him.

"This map is inscribed with a portion of an advanced location seal," he explained. "As far as I can tell, it operates using two parts, the map and a second object inscribed with a companion seal to link the pair—namely, the charm Sasuke owns. When someone activates the seal on the map, it will send a signal to the companion seal through their connection. Upon getting a response, the location of the charm will show up on the map, allowing the user to trace its location.

"However," he added, turning back to eye the glowing blue dot, "Seeing as it only showed on the map when Sasuke activated the companion seal, the seal clearly requires manual activation. That way, the owner of the object inscribed with it can choose whether or not to share their location."

Frowning thoughtfully, Sasuke asked, "So basically, the charm can be used to track someone's movements on the map using seals, but it only works if someone activates the second seal?"

"Exactly." Hiruzen nodded with a pleased smile, but it quickly faded as he turned back to the map, eying the fading dot. Given the nature of the seal, Ryoko most likely gave the trigger objects to people who she cared about, which fit in with her naturally worrisome nature. Knowing her, the secondary seal likely also had a function that allowed the user to send a distress signal that would show their location on the map.

The utilities of such a creation already filled him with anticipation and it bothered him slightly that she never informed him of it, but he couldn't hold it against her. Ryoko had grown increasingly withdrawn after retiring, spending more time at home and diverting most of her energies to painting or studying. He suspected she developed this seal in the wake of the deaths of Obito and Ryuusuke, most likely around the time the twins entered the academy in anticipation of their eventual shinobi careers.

By that time relations between the village and her clan had soured, and he knew her own faith in his leadership had diminished greatly.

"You're too soft," she accused Hiruzen, her black eyes boring into him with an intensity that rivaled even her clan's vaunted doujutsu. "Minato was willing to sacrifice everything for the village, even take the risk of making his newborn son a pariah by sealing the Kyuubi into him. Meanwhile, what do you do? You allow a decades-dead friendship to take precedence over the village! You let one of the most notorious and vile criminals to ever walk this planet escape just because you used to teach him!"

Jabbing a finger at his face, her features twisted into a snarl blazing with absolute rage and fury as she roared, "Right now people are suffering because you are turning a blind eye to the actions of your so-called friends! At this rate, innocent blood will spill and Konoha will suffer because of your inaction! If you're allowed to be selfish, then I don't see any reason I should have to just stand by and sacrifice everything for the greater good!"

"It... doesn't make any sense."

Masaru's quiet mumble drew Hiruzen out of his reminiscing, and he turned to regard the boy with sharp focus. Kakashi and Tenzo also leveled keen gazes on him, and the boy wilted slightly under their combined scrutiny. Seeing his discomfort, Hiruzen softened his own expression and made sure to keep his voice as gentle as possible. "What was that, Masaru-kun?"

The young Uchiha frowned, fidgeting slightly as he averted his gaze. "It's just... A few days ago, I thought I saw a white light," he explained hesitantly. "That's what made me notice there were seals. I-I don't know if I actually saw it though!" he added hastily when the adults' gazes sharpened, waving his hands in a placating manner. "It could have been my imagination! A-and I don't remember seeing any kanji, either!"

Lips pressing in a firm frown, Hiruzen slowly turned back to the map. "Masaru," he said, and the boy stiffened, staring at him anxiously. "Where do you think you saw it?" The child frowned slightly at the question, but his tense posture relaxed slightly and he stepped towards the map.

"I don't know the name, but I think it was... There." He pointed to an island, and Hiruzen eyed it speculatively before his eyes widened in shock. Quickly schooling his expression back to its previous stern facade, he glanced over his shoulder at Kakashi and Tenzo. From the looks in their eyes, he knew they recognized it too.

Masaru had pointed to the Land of Waves.

And so the mystery deepens, he mused morbidly as he glanced at the two genin. Fortunately Sasuke hadn't seemed to recognize the country without a label, and just looked mildly curious. "Masaru-kun, would you mind if I borrow this for a while?" Hiruzen asked. "I'd like to take a closer look at it and see if I can figure out how it works."

"I guess so," Masaru agreed with a shrug, and Hiruzen nodded to Tenzo, who stepped forward and carefully lifted the map off the wall.

"I'm guessing you'll want this too, right?" Sasuke asked, holding up the charm for the Hokage to see.

"It would help," he allowed. The Uchiha visibly wavered on what to do, but eventually he held out the charm in permission. Hiruzen took it from his hand carefully, handling it gently to show he meant no harm. "Just so you know, we'll have to open it to examine it more thoroughly." Sasuke hesitated, but then nodded.

"...That's fine," he replied after a moment's thought. "It's not really an omamori, so it's not like it'd be bad luck. Just... don't laugh."

Shooting him a quizzical look, Hiruzen waited a few moments before deciding he wouldn't elaborate. "I'll take very good care of both of these, and have them returned as soon as possible. I am sure both items matter to you very much." The boys nodded in unison, and he allowed a faint smile to grace his features.

He offered a few final parting words before taking his leave, gesturing for the jounin to follow. As they left all three noticed Masaru's gaze flicker towards Kakashi, but none commented on it. Once in the safety of the hallway, they silently initiated a body-flicker and quickly reconvened in the Hokage's office. Tenzo leaned the map against the desk while Hiruzen closed the door, flaring his chakra to activate the privacy seals inscribed on the walls.

"What do you want to bet that white light had some sort of connection to my 'old friend'?" Kakashi asked. Hiruzen just sighed, sinking into his chair tiredly.

"Frankly, I think even Tsunade would win that bet," he murmured, resisting the urge to massage his forehead as he mulled over the latest revelation. Between the map and Kakashi's comments about seeing the masked man holding notebooks before the procedure, Hiruzen had no doubt that the man possessed some kind of connection to Ryoko.

The question was whether or not he could be considered an ally or enemy.

Within an hour of leaving the Hokage's office, Kakashi found himself in front of the memorial like he did every morning, his lone visible eye tracing the familiar names once more.

He always had a lot on his mind when he visited, but today that applied more so than usual. This morning's events certainly gave a lot to think about, but even if they hadn't discovered the connection he would still wonder. His meeting with the Hokage after sending the genin home the previous night still hung fresh in his mind, the conversation seared into his memory with a clarity offered normally by the Sharingan.

So much had gone unsaid in that meeting. The Hokage had placed a gag order on the subject of the man and restricted the occupants of the room from telling anyone what had been discussed. Naturally they could not omit Kakashi's capture entirely, as that posed a serious threat, but they didn't want word to get around about what exactly transpired during his captivity. Not even the Hokage's own advisors would be given the full version.

Whatever procedure had been performed allowed him to deactivate the Sharingan at will, just like a natural-born user of the doujutsu. If word got out such a procedure existed, the dangers to Sasuke and Masaru would be unfathomable, because that drain had been the leading drawback discouraging Sharingan theft. At this point, Kakashi honestly had no idea how to classify his captor.

"I wish I could tell you what happened, Obito," he commented softly, his hunched posture reflecting his regret as he stared at his old friend's name. "I wonder what you'd think about it."

He didn't voice the underlying question that had been haunting him since the previous night—no, since the first day he stood free of the restraints. Do you already know?

He couldn't stop thinking of that mask, bright red like the Sharingan and painted with a starburst around a single eye hole. The right eye... His hand unconsciously reached for his hitai-ate, brushing the edge of the metal plate just above his left eye.

For the first time in years, he didn't feel the constant drain of Obito's gift, a subtle draw on his chakra so constant he never even noticed it until it had suddenly vanished. Somehow, it became even more painful to look in the mirror without the familiar crimson iris, because the black eye brought back so many more memories. Memories of a dark-haired boy with a sunny smile and bright dreams for the future, a person Kakashi never appreciated until it became too late.

Somewhere out there, the eye's companion could still exist. Perhaps in a shattered skull, crushed under dozens of boulders. Or maybe... Maybe behind a mask, hidden in shadows as its owner prowled the streets in broad daylight—

No. Don't think about it.

Pushing away the thought with a heavy sigh, he turned his head to glance over his shoulder. "Hey," he greeted quietly, raising a hand in a lazy two-finger wave. His visible eye crinkled in a half-hearted smile, fully aware that it probably rang false even with only a few inches of his face visible. "Funny seeing you here. This isn't exactly your normal stomping grounds."

Uchiha Masaru just stood in silence towards the edge of the field, his gaze averted to the ground and his mouth pulled into a small frown. Kakashi let his arm fall to his side and turned back to the memorial, his face growing somber once more. He could hear the boy's soft footsteps quietly pad closer, coming to a halt next to him but still not looking at him. For a while neither of them spoke, just gazing at the long list of names engraved into the stone.

"You're here for Uncle Obito, aren't you." The question came out soft and thoughtful, not quite a whisper but still rather quiet. Kakashi turned his head slightly to regard the boy, letting a few moments pass before he answered.

"I am." He had expected Masaru to connect the dots and confront him after hearing about his Sharingan. Akari had clearly worshipped Obito as a hero, speaking of him in only the most reverent tones, and based on his observations Masaru felt similarly. From what he knew, the kid spent almost as much time talking to Obito as he did.

For half a second Kakashi expected angry accusations to start flying, tearful curses for leaving Obito to die, but then he realized that didn't really fit Masaru's personality. Unlike his hot-headed cousin Sasuke, Masaru had never been prone to rage and fury when confronted with grief and loss. Instead, he just seemed... sad. Withdrawing into himself, radiating a quiet sadness that gave him a somber air.

Sure enough, when Kakashi darted a glance in his direction he found the boy just bowing his head, not even looking at the memorial anymore. Before he could think of something to say, Masaru suddenly lurched towards him and wrapped his arms around his side.

Eye widening as he staggered back under the force of the embrace, Kakashi stared at him dumbly for a moment, his mouth floundering beneath his mask as he searched for words. "...What?" he finally managed, and the arms tightened their hold, Masaru burying his face into his side.

"...Mom said if we ever met Obito's teammate, we should hug him," he mumbled, his voice muffled by the fabric of Kakashi's shirt. "She said you've been through too much, and you'd let your guard down if you ever realized one of us knew, so we should take our chance then."

Stunned, Kakashi couldn't really think of a response and so he just stood there dumbly while letting the kid embrace him. Ryoko... She really never did stop caring, did she? Flashes of elegant handwriting surged through his mind, her final letter summoned to the forefront of his thoughts unbidden.

'You could have come to me, you know. When Obito died, you could have visited. I would have looked at it. I would have helped you. I spent a lot of time researching transplants, I had a pretty good idea on how to help you. I was waiting for you to come to me, Kakashi. The clan would not let me go to you and offer help unless you asked, but I honestly didn't care what this clan thought. I wanted you to be the one to take the first step, to gather the courage to push past your insecurities and seek help on your own.'

He breathed a small sigh through his nose, and awkwardly placed a hand on Masaru's head. The boy stiffened slightly in surprise but then tightened his hold, and the pair lingered like that for a few moments before Masaru finally pulled away. Rubbing his eyes, he seemed to bury his palms into his lids, an obvious coping mechanism of some sort.

"...Did it hurt?" he whispered, so faintly Kakashi would have barely caught it without his enhanced hearing. "His... his eye. Does, does it ever hurt? To... use it?"

Kakashi hesitated to answer, but he knew that if he didn't it might undo the progress they'd made. Progress on what? some part of his brain quipped, but he ignored it as he settled for, "Sometimes. Not as much as the first time, though. The first time is always hardest, I think."

He heard a loud sniff as Masaru's shoulders jerked, signaling an impending bout of crying. His hands lowered from his eyes as tears started to streak down his cheeks, sucking in a shaky breath as he wiped them away.

"Y-yeah," he croaked, his body giving a single tremor as he bit back a sob. "It... it does, doesn't it?" His eyes opened and Kakashi felt his breath catch. Two bright red irises stared back at him, two commas orbiting each pupil for a total of four.

Swallowing down his surprise, Kakashi schooled his face into a more sympathetic expression as he looked at the teary boy in front of him. He had suspected Masaru had activated his Sharingan but hadn't been aware of it, but the way the boy revealed it now—the knowing reference to the initial pain, a pain deeper than just physical suffering—it caught him off guard. His words to Tenzo back in that bar came rushing back, and Kakashi knew then he'd been wrong about one thing.

Masaru had been aware of his Sharingan the entire time.

His stomach churned at the thought, recalling Ryoko's words about the nature of the doujutsu came rushing back, how it came with a price. Please, please let me be wrong about that too...

"...When did it happen?" he asked gently, because he had to know, and Masaru sniffled, wiping away more tears.

That silent plea went unanswered, as Masaru's response shattered any hopes. "...Wh-when I was eight. During... the massacre."

A cloaked figure lounged on a tree branch overlooking a creek, a dark red omamori resting in his palm. Bright light emanated from the kanji inscribed on the attached tag for the third time in twenty-four hours, and his lips curled into a rueful smirk as he noted the character.

"Such a cruel choice," he mused aloud. A loud splash sounded below and a blue man surfaced from the water, clutching a large, wildly flopping fish by the tail at arm's length.

"Itachi-kun, did you say something?" he man called, and the Uchiha clan killer shifted his eyes to his partner, his expression aloof and impassive as ever.

"Just thinking aloud," he replied idly, and on a whim he flared his chakra into the charm before the light could fade. He knew somewhere in Konoha a red bead of light would suddenly appear on the map in a corner of the Land of Earth, with the most ironic of kanji flashing next to it:


Chapter Text

Chapter 24

"Respect your elders. They may seem outdated and stubborn in their ways, but some of them can be absolutely hilarious when paired with the right straight man. But if they're not funny and show strong signs of corruption, then burn them with fire."

Naruto groaned in disappointment as he held up an orange t-shirt, staring sullenly at the large reddish-brown stain marring the center. "Dang it, I really liked this one," he groaned, balling it up and throwing it into a hamper.

"Less whining, more cleaning," Sakura scolded, rolling her eyes as she swept a bunch of empty cups off the counter and into a trash bag. Naruto grumbled but complied, scowling the entire time.

Two days ago their recovery period from the Wave mission ended, and instead of training Team Seven, Kakashi got permission to take Sasuke and Masaru on a special three-day retreat. Now that they'd confirmed Masaru had the Sharingan, Kakashi wanted to devote some time to helping both boys hone their dojutsu.

At first Naruto had been a little jealous, but then he saw the panicked and dreadful looks on both his friends' faces as Kakashi dragged them to the gates, and he decided maybe he wouldn't mind. Three days wouldn't be that long, and besides, he could do all kinds of stuff. Maybe catch up with some of the other rookies, or better yet, learn some super-cool secret techniques on his own that would knock them all away!

Unfortunately, Sakura insisted on using the time to clean his apartment, and she wouldn't take no for an answer. Even now she wrinkled her nose as she lifted a wad of brownish fabric from the kitchen counter, daintily gripping the corners even with two layers of rubber gloves shielding her hands. "What is this?" she grumbled, grimacing in mild disgust.

Then the wad wavered and unfolded, revealing a distinct underwear shape.

Ten seconds of utter silence followed as they stared at it. Then Sakura lightly released her grip and let it flutter to the ground, closing her eyes with a small breath.


And so Naruto found himself with multiple large lumps on his head, forced to clean his apartment on his own at the threat of receiving even more. Grumbling under his breath as he scrubbed the floors, he dropped the rag in the bucket and sank back onto his haunches with a sigh, rubbing the tender lumps. "Stupid Sakura," he mumbled sullenly, closing his eyes. "My apartment's totally fine!"

"It's really not."

Naruto froze as a deep, booming voice echoed around him, and his eyes snapped open to find himself knee-deep in the sewers in his mind. Red eyes glowed in the darkness behind the towering bars, jagged white teeth glittering in nonexistent light. "Your den is a mess, brat," the Kyuubi continued. "Your teammate is right in making you clean it."

"Wh-what the—Don't tell me you pulled me in here to lecture me on my cleaning habits!" Naruto exploded, gawking at the giant fox in disbelief. The Kyuubi harrumphed dismissively, eyes narrowing to leer at his jailor with clear disdain.

"I am. In case your forgot, your seal allows me to see what you see. And seeing your pigsty of a den when I wake up from a nap makes me want to vomit."

Naruto just sputtered in shock, and the fox snorted as it turned its head away. Apparently even the Kyuubi had standards, and Naruto did not meet them. It really shouldn't matter to him, because, well, it was the Kyuubi and he should hate it and all that. But, well...

Dammit, you try ignoring the giant living construct of hatred imprisoned inside you!

Grumbling under his breath, Naruto opened his eyes as he returned to reality, and proceeded to scrub the floors with renewed vigor. As he stood up and wiped his brow a spot of purple caught his eye, and he turned to see a thick black wristband sitting on his kitchen counter. For a moment he stared at it blankly, wondering where it came from. Then he noticed a patch with an orange swirl sewn into it, and his eyes widened in recognition.

"Hey, that looks like the swirl on my back!" Picking it up, he turned it over and noted a white patch sewn onto the other side, the kanji for "Hokage" embroidered into it, making him grin. "Hell yeah! This was totally made for me!" Slipping it onto his wrist, he turned it over to admire it and then paused. "Hold on a second, where'd this thing come from?"

The wristband had definitely not been there earlier. Naruto should probably take it off until he figured out how it got there, but it looked so cool on his wrist... "Oh! I know!" he suddenly exclaimed. "Sakura-chan must have left it!" Of course! Sakura had been standing by the counter earlier. She must have gotten it as a gift, but forgot to mention it after getting angry when she accidentally picked up his underwear.

Reassured, he grinned at the bracelet but it quickly fell, replaced by surprise. Hold on... Sakura got him a gift? That never happened before, Naruto couldn't even remember the last time someone got him a present. Sudden warmth blossomed in his chest, his smile returning much softer. He should go thank her right now, but he didn't know where she lived. Remembering her vivid descriptions of her parents'... unique dynamic, he suppressed a shudder and decided he probably wouldn't want to go there anyway.

"Okay, let's see," he muttered, crossing his arms. "Sakura-chan is really close to that girl that scares Masaru, so I could give it to her. But I don't know where she lives." Nor did he know Ino's family owned a flower shop, so he couldn't go there either. "Um... Would Sasuke-teme know?" Probably not, and he was out of town with Kakashi anyway.


Sasuke and Masaru dived to the side as a pack of dogs lunged towards them, their faces showing blatant panic. "How the hell does this help with the Sharingan!?" Masaru stammered, tomoe whirling wildly as his Sharingan attempted to track the dogs' movements.

"Improves your reflexes," Kakashi called cheerfully, lounging on a branch and turning a page in his book. "And gets you experience with tracking multiple moving targets, too. Hey, Pakkun, if you guys keep it up for another hour I'll give you all steak tonight."

"You heard the boss!" a pug barked, and the dogs launched at the Uchiha boys with renewed fervor.

Back with Naruto...

"Okay, so she might be friends with Hinata-chan, and I know where the Hyuuga live, but, I dunno," Naruto mumbled, scratching his head. "I never really saw them together, and Hinata's dad seems kinda scary. I could go to Jiijii, 'cause he knows everything, but... This is really small so I think that would just be wasting his time?" Thinking it over, he nodded and decided, "Yeah, he's got more important stuff to do. And Iruka-sensei would get really mad if I interrupt his class, so he's out."

Having run out of options, he thought back to Sakura's departure. Hadn't she mumbled something about taking a bath? Maybe she'd be at the onsen then! Mind settled, he grabbed his jacket and set out. Deciding to go by rooftop like a real ninja, Naruto made his way across town with a cheeky grin, the wristband's presence ever constant on his mind as he pondered how to approach her.

Now, he could use his Sexy Jutsu and go into the girl's bath to thank her, but then he realized that Sakura would be pissed and beat him up. So he'd do the smart thing and ask the hostess to check for a pink-haired girl, and if so ask her to come out so he could thank her. Then she'd praise him for not being an idiot and trying to sneak into the girl's bath like a pervert, and then he and Sakura could go out for ramen on a date! Perfect! Nothing could go wrong!

Grinning in smug satisfaction at his genius (totally one-track) and infallible (totally fallible) logic, he jumped to the ground to walk the final stretch towards the onsen. However, as he neared the corner of the fence surrounding the building he heard a low, masculine giggle, making him hesitate. Eyes narrowing, he quietly crept forward and carefully poked his head around the corner.

A white-haired man crouched next to the fence, a goofy smile on his face as he peered into a hole with a loud giggle.

Staring at him blankly, Naruto felt his eye twitch. Was he... was he peeping into the women's bath? "HEY! OLD MAN!" he roared, startling the pervert who whirled around with a shout.

"What the—what're you doing, kid?!" he stammered, scowling at Naruto. "Can't you see I'm busy?"

"Busy what?" Naruto repeated loudly, crossing his arms and raising an eyebrow. "Peeping?" On the other side of the fence, the small assortment of women sitting around the pool stared at the direction of the voices, and promptly cleared out with horrified shrieks. Hearing this, the man spun around and peeked through the hole, groaning in dismay at the empty room.

"Oh, come on! My research is totally ruined!"

"What kind of research involves peeping!?" Naruto jumped at the familiar yell and spun to see Sakura standing next to them with her arms crossed, her left eye twitching. Water dripped from her hair to the ground, her red dress slightly damp.

"Woah, so I was actually right about you being here?!" he blurted, stunned to see her. Because while he was totally a genius, he hadn't actually expected to be right about her being at the onsen. Sakura shot him a glance and seemed like she wanted to say something, but decided to focus on the pervert instead.

"Answer me you damn pervert!" she snapped, her eyes burning into the old man. The corner of the man's mouth twitched into a smile, huffing a small snort.

"Well, if you must know," he replied, reaching into his vest, "I'm a writer, working on a novel. Behold!" He pulled out an orange book and held it up, the words "Icha Icha Paradise" hovering above a woman playfully chasing a man.

Silence descended as the two genin stared at it, twin looks of recognition dawning on them. "Wait a second!" Naruto yelled, pointing at it. "Isn't that book—?!" The man turned to face him, a smug gleam in his eye.

"Oh!? You know it?"

"You're even worse than I thought!" Sakura roared, launching forward him with a punch to his side. He yelled in surprise as he skidded back a single step, rubbing the spot with his free hand.

"Wow, that's... not a very good punch," he remarked blandly. "Seriously, kid. Kinda pathetic." Sakura's eye twitched even more, her face turning red. Naruto quietly inched away before she released a banshee screech and descended upon the pervert with an impressive display of fancy punches, twirling and leaping and throwing her fist at him from various angles.

Wow, Sakura-chan's been working on her flexibility, Naruto thought with mild awe as he watched her twist mid-air and try to deliver a kick to his side. However, her efforts proved futile, as the man easily ducked away from each blow, smoothly stepping out of the way of her fists and legs. Growling in frustration, Sakura landed and panted heavily, her eyes blazing with unbridled fury.

"Who the hell are you?" she demanded, her frustration hitting peak levels.

"You want to know who I am?" her opponent asked, chuckling under his breath. Hands slamming onto the ground, a large burst of smoke erupted beneath him and the two genin jumped back warily, assuming defensive stances. As it cleared away they saw the man now standing atop a large orange toad, striking a dramatic pose as he grinned at them. "I am Mount Myoboku's Master Sage, also known as the Great Toad Sage! The one and only Legendary Toad Sage, Jiraiya!"

His voice seemed to echo as he delivered the dramatic introduction, and upon finishing it both genin just stared at him unimpressed.

Naruto inched over to Sakura and turned his head towards her ear, raising a hand to cover his mouth. "Sakura?" he whispered, and her eyes flitted towards him.

"Yeah?" she muttered.

"Do you have any idea what any of that meant?"

"Not really."

The man—Jiraiya—nearly fell off the toad as he heard that, quickly straightening. "What the—come on, you kids haven't heard of me!? You know, the Legendary Sannin and all that?"

"Legendary San—?" Comprehension flashed on Sakura's face, and he perked up.

"Aha! So you have heard of us?"

"Oh yeah! You're one of Tsunade-sama's teammates!"

This time Jiraiya really did fall off the toad. It looked at him and its chest expanded with a loud croak, and then it disappeared in a puff of smoke.

"You know Tsuna-chan but not me?" Jiraiya sputtered, staggering to his feet and gawking at her. "She hasn't even been an active Leaf ninja in almost two decades!"

"Yeah, but she's a Legendary Sannin," Sakura sniffed, folding her arms as she leered at him. "There's only three you know, they all studied directly under the Third Hokage. On top of that she's also the First Hokage's granddaughter, and one of the greatest medical ninja to ever live—and definitely the greatest medic alive right now."

"Wow, she sounds pretty important," Naruto mused, and Sakura grinned at him, her eyes sparkling with excitement.

"She totally is! She's one of my idols, right up there with Kushina-sama and Ryoko-sama!" Jiraiya's hair seemed to prickle, looking ready to blow steam out his nose.

"Are you kidding me!? You haven't heard of me but you know Kushina and Ryo—" He suddenly stopped, slowly straightening as his eyes narrowed. "Hold on a second. You've heard of Ryoko and Kushina? Those two were definitely before your time, kid."

"—and the other Sannin, Orochimaru, became one of the most notorious criminals to ever come from Konoha," Sakura continued, blithely ignorant of Jiraiya's murmuring as she lectured to an enraptured Naruto. The Toad Sage sputtered in disbelief, his jaw looking ready to pop off its hinges after how low it dropped.

"Wait, you know about Orochimaru but not me!?"

"Well, yeah," Sakura replied with a nonchalant shrug. "He's kinda at the top of, like, every Bingo Book. I mean, I've even found one from Yugakure and it had him on page one. He looks really slimy, like a snake," she added for Naruto's benefit, shuddering in disgust. Jiraiya just stared at her blankly, and slowly pressed his face into his palm.

"I give up," he moaned, shaking his head in defeat.

"What about those two women you mentioned?" Naruto asked. At this point the two genin had moved past being angry at Jiraiya's peeping in favor of an impromptu trivia session, and unlike the boring classes at the academy Naruto found himself eager to learn more from his teammate.

"Ryoko-sama and Kushina-sama?" she asked, looking incredulous he didn't know them. "Okay Naruto, neither of them ever got mentioned in school so you get a pass this time. Kinda of. I mean, Kushina-sama is—" She suddenly stopped, a look of mild alarm flashing across her features before quickly shaking her head. "Uh, forget I said anything about her."

"Huh? Why?" Naruto looked a her in confusion, his curiosity piqued, and she sighed.

"It's a long story, and I'm pretty sure I'm not supposed to know it...?" she mumbled, sucking on the inside of her cheek as she darted a glance towards Jiraiya. Naruto noticed he looked at her with a much sharper gaze than before, his lips pursed in a thoughtful frown.

"If you're talking about what I think, then definitely not," he agreed coolly, and she blanched. Naruto frowned and turned to face the old pervert, his mouth opening to demand an explanation when his teammate quickly spoke up.

"But anyways, I'm pretty sure you must have at least met Ryoko-sama at some point, so you have less of an excuse to not know who she is!"

Her attempt to redirect Naruto's attention worked, his questions about Kushina instantly vanishing as he looked at her in surprise. "Wait, what? When?"

"Well, I mean, I remember you and Masaru hung out a lot at the academy before, well, you know." She trailed off and shrugged awkwardly, and Naruto frowned, scratching his head.

"Well, yeah," he mumbled, "But what does Masaru have to do with her?"

"You're kidding," Sakura deadpanned, and at Naruto's blank expression she deadpanned, "You're not kidding. Naruto, Ryoko-sama is Uchiha Ryoko. Masaru's mom. Didn't you ever go to his house or anything?"

"...Uh, no?" he replied sheepishly, looking away. "We... never really hung out outside the academy. We got ramen once though! That was awesome!"

Sakura and Jiraiya just stared at him silently. "Kid, I'm sorry, but that's kinda sad," Jiraiya proclaimed, and Sakura nodded her head in sage agreement.

"Hey, it's not sad at all!" Naruto argued, scowling. "Nothing brings people together like ramen! Speaking of which..."

"No," Sakura replied flatly, and he sagged in defeat. He didn't even ask her yet and she turned him down! He turned a sour glare in the so-called sage's direction, deciding to blame him for the rejection. If he hadn't been peeping, Naruto's plan to woo Sakura by showing the foresight to ask someone else to check the onsen for her instead of going in with the Sexy Jutsu totally would have worked!

Suddenly he perked up, spinning to face Sakura once more. "Oh yeah! I almost forgot! Sakura, thanks!" He grinned as he held up his wrist to show off the new wristband, his sleeve sliding down. Sakura stared at it blankly, her eyebrows furrowing in mild confusion.

"You... wanted to show me your bracelet?" she mumbled, frowning, and Naruto blinked.

"Huh? Wait, no!" he said quickly. "You got it for me, didn't you?"

"Oho, what's this?" Jiraiya asked, a mischievous twinkle in his eye. "Having ladies over at your apartment already? You're really ahead of the curve, aren't you kid?"

The two genin proceeded to stare at him blankly, and after a moment Sakura turned her head to her teammate. "Naruto?"

"On it," he replied, raising his hands in the sign for the Shadow Clone jutsu. A flock of clones appeared and threw themselves at the perverted man, Jiraiya squawking in dismay as they descended upon him. The pair watched in satisfaction as they proceeded to lightly pummel him in Sakura's place, overcoming his earlier blocking skill displayed against her with sheer numbers.


"But seriously, what are you talking about?" Sakura asked, turning back to Naruto.

"Well, I found this on the counter after you left. Didn't you get it for me? It even says 'Hokage' on it!" He pulled it off to show her more clearly, and she frowned.

"Naruto... I've never seen that in my life."

"Wait, what?" Naruto frowned as he stared at the wristband in confusion. Twin looks of horror dawned on their faces and Naruto quickly dropped the band as they stepped back, staring at it in apprehension. In the silence that followed a single crow cawed, its cry like a mocking laugh at their dumfounded looks.

"Well, that's one interesting mystery," Jiraiya remarked, and casually plucked it off the ground to examine it more closely. "Looks pretty normal to me, but I'll just hold onto this for a little while."

"Uh, y-you can keep it," Naruto muttered, fidgeting uncomfortably. "I don't... really want it."

"Rude." A gruff voice suddenly caught their attention, and all three turned to see a gray feline standing behind them with several pouches attached to its side. Scars marred its body to create small pink lines where fur couldn't grow, a black eye patch covering its left eye. The remaining golden eye rolled at them, tiny pointed teeth flashing as it sneered. "We go through the trouble of delivering that personally, and you don't even want it?"

"Who the hell are—" Naruto started to yell irritably only to freeze as sudden realization dawned on him. "Wait a second, you can talk!?"

"Rude and dumb, I see," the feline remarked, and Naruto squawked in offense. The cat ignored him, turning its attention to Sakura. "You, girlie. Are you Haruno Sakura?" Sakura instantly stiffened, eying the cat apprehensively.

"Y-yes... Why?" Studying her briefly, the cat turned its head and lifted the flap of one of the pouches on its back with its mouth, pulling out a purple coin purse with a pink charm on it. It threw it towards her with a toss of the head, Sakura catching it out of pure reflex. "There. Don't lose that, got it. I need to go before I catch his stupid." As it spoke the cat leveled a disdainful glare upon Jiraiya, who huffed and crossed his arms.

"Nice to see you too, Masahige," he muttered, and the feline merely turned and stalked away, disappearing in a gray blur. The two genin stood in shock, staring at the purse in Sakura's hands.

"...What just happened?" she whispered.

"Well, this is an interesting turn of events," Jiraiya remarked, and casually snatched the purse away. Ignoring Sakura's cry of protest, he untied the string closing it and examined the interior briefly before nodding to himself. "Yep, just like I thought. I'll just hold onto this for a little while."

"You—that's stealing!" she sputtered.

"It's borrowing," he corrected. "A ninneko contracted to a kunoichi who's been dead for almost five years suddenly turns up and gives two genin gifts. That's a little suspicious, don't you think?"

"When you put it like that, yeah, it is," Naruto agreed quietly, frowning as he eyed the black band looped loosely around the sage's fingers.

"Glad you agree. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to get started on investigating this. I'll see you two around." Jiraiya raised his hand in a loose wave as he headed off, the two genin watching him depart with small frowns but making no move to follow.

Once he'd reached a suitable distance the Sannin sighed and glanced at the purple pouch, his expression growing serious. Loosening the string as much as possible, he quickly turned it inside-out and held it closer to his face, his eyes squinting as he examined it. Black marks coated the interior of the pouch, almost camouflaged against the dark purple fabric.

Huffing a small sigh, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a leaf green coin pouch matching his clothes, the kanji for 'Oil' printed on it side. He quickly reversed it to reveal seals lining the interior, and he held the two pouches side by side, examining them closely. "Definitely identical," he muttered under his breath, and sighed as he returned both to their original orientation.

He didn't bother trying to examine the black wristband, knowing he'd find the same thing there, and just slid them into his pocket. "Ryoko, just how paranoid did you get at the end?" he mumbled. He could envision her inscribing seals onto some sort of "gift" for every student in her children's class, fueled by anxiety for their eventual ascension to genin. He sighed as he turned and walked away, his mood far more somber after the latest discovery.

"Sensei's gonna want to hear about this..."


OMAKE: Meanwhile with Kakashi...

As Sasuke and Masaru fled from the rabid ninken Kakashi sat high above them on a tree branch, staring blankly at the gray cat with pear-colored eyes. His gaze flickered to the silver-colored wrist band on his lap—inscribed with the trademark henohenomoheji "face" his ninken wore on their uniforms—and then slowly slid to the open letter in his hands.

'Dear Kakashi,

If you are reading this, then I assume someone finally noticed the seal in the map and my ninneko are carrying out my second-to-final orders. I plan to write my final letter soon so I shall keep this one short and spare the emotional apologies, since you should have already read it by now.

I believe you can figure out the purpose of this gift. I couldn't think of a more fitting symbol for you, so pardon the joke. I hope it will serve you well in the future.


Uchiha Ryoko

P.S. Please make sure the Inuzuka clan does not try to eat my ninneko. Tsume used to say they looked very tasty, and I'm not sure how much she was joking when she said that.

P.P.S. Please say hi to Tsume for me and thank her for not eating my cats.'

The jounin sighed and hung his head in silent resignation. "Your master was insane, wasn't he?" he deadpanned to the cat.

The feline just stared at him blankly, and proceeded to calmly knock his kunai pouch to the forest floor. A pained yelp sounded from Sasuke as it hit him on the head, followed by more yelps as several of the dogs piled on top of him. The cat slowly blinked at the carnage unfolding below them, and then meowed once before disappearing in a puff of smoke.

Chapter Text

Chapter 25

"If you're young, you should try to travel a bit. See the world, get some great stories under your belt. Fall in love with an enemy from a foreign country and develop a Romeo and Juliet situation, and see if you can use it to create a peace treaty or something."

Life returned to normal surprisingly fast after Masaru revealed his Sharingan to Kakashi, with some minor changes. He now had specialized training with him and Sasuke once a week, and Gaku had been given a special schedule to aid in training his doujutsu.

Due to the events in Wave, Kakashi decided Team Seven had a good enough grip on the concept of teamwork to start learning some more advanced techniques. This meant cutting down on the D-rank missions, which in turn meant they would not be likely to run a mission with Masaru anytime soon. He did get to join in the training sometimes though, so it balanced out a bit.

Meanwhile, Team Eight's teacher, Kurenai, apparently decided they had also reached an optimal level of teamwork to let another person join the mix.

"Well, that was certainly eventful," Kurenai commented as they went to the administration building to submit their report. Kiba growled under his breath in irritation as he trailed behind her, a sentiment echoed by Akamaru. Dog fur covered him from head to toe even more than usual, the sleeves of his sweatshirt almost shredded by the sheer number of scratches from tiny claws left by the struggling puppies. The others didn't look much better, their clothing just as ragged and coated with dog fur.

Today's mission had consisted of helping with puppy vaccinations. Normally the Inuzuka clan did not request help for vaccinating puppies, but they had three large litters born around the same time for a whopping total of twenty-two puppies, which was a lot even by their standards. Since ninken puppies tended to be pretty bright, the clan decided to get some help in keeping the puppies in line for the inevitable chaos that would follow when they figured out what was going on.

Alas, that job had fallen on Team Eight and Masaru, and the ninken puppies figured it out by Puppy Number Nine.

They never stood a chance.

"I think they shed more than mom's cats did," Masaru groaned.

"F-father won't be happy with this," Hinata mumbled, frowning as she held out her arms to eye her ripped sleeves.

"Screw what your dad thinks!" Kiba snapped. "You're gonna come back with a lot worse than dog fur once you go on the field!" Akamaru yipped in agreement, flashing the nervous Hyuuga a doggy grin full of encouragement. Masaru just eyed Hinata thoughtfully, his lips pulling into a small frown. Seeing this, Kurenai stepped forward with a faint smile.

"Hinata-chan's father is quite strict," she explained. "He places a lot of expectations on her since she's the eldest child of the main house." Hinata ducked her head at the comment, her cheeks tinting slightly red, and Masaru's frown grew.

"I know," he muttered and the others paused, not missing the bitterness that seeped into his voice.

"Have you met Hiashi-sama?" Shino questioned, cocking his head slightly. "The tone you use suggests you have a personal grudge against the man."

"I haven't met him," Masaru replied, shaking his head. His fists clenched at his sides as he added heatedly, "But I don't need to, to know he's a jerk." Kiba and Kurenai looked at him in open curiosity, and Hinata fidgeted slightly, raising her head to glance at him.

"Um, i-is this because of," she hesitated, frowning and poking her fingers together nervously. "A-Akari-chan?" Masaru glanced at her in faint surprise and she flinched, as if expecting him to lash out at mentioning his sister.

"...Yeah, it is," he confirmed quietly, and looked away with a sigh. Hearing his sister's name still brought up a dull ache in his chest, reminding him of just what he'd lost.

"Akari?" Kurenai echoed, frowning. "That's... Masaru-kun's sister, right?" The fact she knew Akari faintly surprised Masaru, but he didn't really feel like asking how she did. It would just bring back sad memories.

"We... used to be friends," Hinata explained, saving Masaru the trouble. "But our clans didn't really g-get along, and Akari-chan wasn't very... um, important. S-so, the clan elders pressured my father to make me end it, and... he did." Her head bowed once more, guilt riddling her features. Masaru scowled as he recalled Akari's anger at the premature demise of their friendship, his jaw clenching tight.

Kiba, however, skidded to a stop, nearly choking on air as he pointed to Masaru. "Wait a second, you're Akari's brother!? Holy shit!" Masaru flinched and turned to face the Inuzuka with a look of mild bewilderment, more than a little confused by his reaction. Next to him Shino huffed a small sigh, his head tipping slightly into his high collar.

"Kiba, I am aware you are not the brightest person on our team, but I expected you to at least notice they went home together every day."

"B-but that's, I-I, uh," Kiba stammered nervously, the perfect picture of embarrassed as his cheeks grew almost as red as the fangs tattooed onto them. Masaru found himself strangely entranced by the markings, the crimson fangs tugging at his memory.

He stood on the playground of the academy, watching from afar as Akari rolled on the ground wrestling with a small boy with two red triangles on his face. Laughter drifted to his ears as the boy pinned his sister, only for her to squirm out of his grip and throw him to the side. As they rolled along another boy with sunglasses suddenly appeared and halted their tumble, gesturing to the grass. Akari and the first boy stopped and watched curiously as he bent down, and their eyes lit up in awe as he lifted his arm to reveal a large, black beetle.

That's right, he thought in the present, sneaking dazed looks at Shino and Kiba. They were friends with Akari, weren't they...

"Masaru? Is everything okay?" Kurenai's concerned voice drew his attention, and Masaru glanced at her in a slight daze only to freeze. Crimson eyes bore into him, and for half a horrifying second he imagined black tomoe forming and spinning wildly. He staggered back with a startled gasp, his breath hitching in his throat, and then shrieked as he felt hands grip his shoulder.

"Masaru?" Kiba asked next to him, and Masaru whirled his head around to find him watching worriedly. Whatever the Inuzuka intended to say died on his lips though, as his mouth fell open as his eyes bulged out. "Holy shit! Masaru! Your eyes! They're red!"

Kiba's interjection jolted Masaru and his earlier daze faded, replaced by sheer surprise. "W-what?" he stammered, blinking wildly. Spinning his head around, he realized everything seemed far clearer, and his shoulders drooped. "...My Sharingan is active, isn't it."

"Y-yes," Hinata squeaked, looking mildly shocked and frightened. Sighing, Masaru closed his eyes and willed his chakra to move away from them, and when he opened his lids again the world had returned to its normal resolution.

"Does that happen a lot?" Shino asked.

"Sometimes," he sighed, thinking back to the three-day training trip with Kakashi and Sasuke.

"As you know, the Sharingan typically activates in life or death situations," Kakashi explained casually, leaning against a tree as the two Uchiha boys sat cross-legged in front of him. "That is because it is primarily triggered by intense emotions, which is probably why your clan tried to discourage showing any human emotion whatsoever."

Sasuke snorted and rolled his eyes at the thinly veiled insult, while Masaru frowned and shrugged. Sounded accurate enough, it matched with what his mom told him. Kakashi's gaze slid over to him, and he immediately stiffened. "Masaru-kun, from what you've told me, you first noticed your Sharingan when you saw your reflection after a bad dream, correct?" The boy winced and looked away, nodding quietly.

"Yeah, it's true," he mumbled. He clearly remembered the brief spike of terror when he sat up in bed and noticed the bright red eyes glowing in his bedroom mirror. It had taken a moment to recognize it belonged to his reflection, and not to the boy who slayed their family or the boy who woke up on a table with only one eye in his dream.

"You know how to consciously activate and deactivate it, but you've never explicitly trained that aspect. Based on the other instances you've mentioned activating it, I think your Sharingan is actually even more sensitive to your emotional state than usual. In short, it may be possible for it to trigger without you noticing."

"It's fine," Kurenai assured him, offering a small smile. "It just surprised us, that's all. Let's go deliver the reports, okay?" The four genin nodded, and they resumed their journey. However, when they arrived at the administration building, a chuunin entered the room and shot Masaru a pointed look.

"Ah, Uchiha-san!" he greeted with a nod. "Perfect timing! The Hokage wanted to see you when you got back." Masaru stiffened and frowned, glancing at the others as he wondered why the Hokage would want to see him specifically.

"Aw, man, a personal audience?" Kiba said, looking at the Uchiha with a small frown. "Dang it, now I'm kinda jealous!" His voice held a playful note though, and Masaru knew he didn't feel any ill will.

"Go ahead," Kurenai told him with a smile. "We can turn in the report on our own." Nodding, Masaru followed the chuunin down the hall to the Hokage's office, the man knocking on the door and ushering him inside. To his surprise Gaku stood waiting in front of the desk alongside two other men. One had a noticeable scar on his face spanning the bridge of his nose and his left cheek, while the other had a senbon in his mouth and wore a bandana with the metal plate bearing Konoha's symbol on the back.

His gaze quickly wandered away from them though, focusing on a white-haired man behind the desk. Masaru could only see half of his face, the man turned away to study his mother's map hanging on the wall. The boy's lips pursed, studying the red line extending from the stranger's visible eye. Something about him seemed... familiar.

"Masaru-kun, perfect timing," the Hokage greeted with a warm smile, drawing his attention back to him. "I had hoped you would arrive soon. I trust your mission with Team Eight went well?"

Masaru paused and glanced down at himself. Enough dog fur covered him to knit a hat, or maybe some patches to sew over the holes left by the puppies. "...Define 'well,'" he deadpanned, and the Hokage chuckled.

"In any event, I am sure you know about the upcoming Chuunin Exams, correct?" His words gave Masaru pause and his gaze slowly shifted to the two men, eying their flak jackets pointedly.

"We're not here to round out a team for you, kid," the senbon-chewing shinobi chuckled, mouth curving into a wry smirk. "We've already done our time, we're not doing it again."

"I'm afraid you won't be participating this time around," Gaku added. "As you know Konoha requires a full team to participate, and we don't have enough time to round up a couple genin to work with you and establish a suitable level of teamwork."

"...Ah." He nodded slowly, secretly relieved. While his training had certainly picked up lately, he did not feel ready for the Chuunin Exams yet. Still, that begged the question of why the Hokage mentioned it at all. Fortunately, as if reading his mind the elderly leader spoke up.

"Masaru, as you know, one of the more significant rites of passage in a shinobi's life is their first mission outside the village," he began, and Masaru perked to attention. "As you have no team, most C-rank missions are too unsafe to send you, as you would almost invariably end in a situation where you would be alone at some point. However, currently a large number of foreign shinobi are journeying to Konoha for the Chuunin Exams. And as I'm sure you can imagine, we want to do a good job hosting them."

Comprehension clicked in Masaru's brain, looking to the two strangers next to Gaku. "You want me to help escort some of them here," he surmised, and all four men nodded.

"Pretty bright, kid," commented the scarred man. "Not everyone knows the way to Konoha, so we usually send out squads to meet the teams at a certain point and escort them the rest of the way."

"Tomorrow, you will be expected to greet the delegation from Suna at a hotel in Aokigawa-cho at noon," the Hokage explained, taking on a more businesslike tone. "Genma and Raidou have escorted teams from that particular point before, so they'll take lead. There will only be one genin team from Suna this trip, as they chose to travel separately from the other genin teams. However, this team is of particular importance because it happens to consist of the Kazekage's three children."

The four shinobi in front of him stood to visible attention at the last part, instantly recognizing the gravity of the mission. Suna and Konoha had a shaky alliance at the moment, so escorting the Kazakage's own children could have a major effect on their relationship.

Leaning forward, the Hokage folded his hands on his desk as he eyed Masaru. "Their ages span three years, but his youngest son happens to be your age. Gaku-san has told me about your desire to enter a field with a low chance of having to kill enemies, so think of this as an opportunity to test a potential path in the diplomatic field."

"Diplomatic field?" Masaru echoed, and the Hokage nodded.

"Yes. Diplomatic missions to foreign villages always run a risk of betrayal and require a strong grasp of politics, but they generally involve less fighting than most. As a member of the Uchiha clan—one of our founding clans—your presence would be seen as quite honorable and flattering, though it would also carry a higher personal risk for obvious reasons."

Masaru frowned and slowly nodded, his mind racing. Bloodline theft always posed a large risk to the Uchiha, whose Sharingan could potentially be taken and transplanted into other people as proven by Kakashi. Diplomatic missions to foreign villages would undoubtedly be especially dangerous for him because of it, but on the other hand the villages would be unable to openly attack him without running the risk of starting another war.

"We'll leave tomorrow at six," Gaku informed him, breaking him from his thoughts. "Pack for a standard C-rank mission, and bring enough supplies for three days. Aokigawa-cho's only a few hours away, but we need to take a longer route back for security reasons and the weather calls for an intense storm tomorrow, so we'll probably need to stay at a hotel. If we run into any bandits, we'll have you take lead so you can get field experience. Got it?"

"Yes, sir," Masaru responded, nodding his head firmly. The Hokage smiled, satisfied at his conviction.

"In that case, you're dismissed," he declared. Masaru nodded and turned to leave, casting a final glance at the white-haired man who had been silent the entire time. Something about him still felt really familiar...

The next morning, the four shinobi met at the gates at dawn and set out. The journey took only a few hours, Genma and Raidou making polite conversation with Masaru and Gaku as they jumped through the trees. They arrived in Aokigawa an hour before the scheduled meeting time, so they decided to get a quick lunch at a small cafe and review the return route a final time before going to the meeting point a few minutes early.

Four Suna shinobi stood outside the hotel, and even if they didn't have hitai-ate they would stand out. The jounin sensei wore turban-like headgear that had a cloth hanging over the left half of his face, along with a tan flak jacket. The eldest genin, a kunoichi, had sandy blonde hair tied into four spiky pigtails and wore a lavender dress with a fishnet undershirt. Next to her stood a boy dressed like a Kabuki stagehand, complete with a black uniform and purple face paint.

However, the one that caught Masaru's attention the most was the youngest, a boy with spiky red hair and the kanji for "love" displayed prominently on his forehead right above his left eye. Something about him sent chills down Masaru's spine, his unease only multiplying when the boy's gaze slid towards him as they approached. Thick black lines ringed his eyes, his irises a pale green with no distinct pupils.

His eyes had no light in them, looking barely different from a corpse's.

Suppressing a shudder at the thought, Masaru hung back as Genma greeted the jounin-sensei, who introduced himself as Baki. Behind him his students all seemed to focus their attentions on Masaru, which really did not ease his comfort. After a certain point Baki nodded at them and the girl stepped forward, flashing Masaru a small smirk. "My name is Temari. As you can probably guess, I'm the oldest."

"My name's Kankurou," the Kabuki-stagehand-wannabe greeted, raising a hand in a wave. His eyes held a sort of malicious gleam as he leered at Masaru with an unfriendly grin, obviously sizing him up.

"Gaara," the scariest one said simply, soulless stare never leaving him. Masaru just smiled the most polite and forced smile possible, his etiquette training automatically kicking in as his brain began to overload with heavily suppressed panic at the sheer stress of the social dilemma facing him.

He had a feeling this mission would be mildly terrifying.

"My name is Uchiha Masaru, it is an honor to meet you," he greeted, bending at an almost ninety degree angle in a respectful bow usually reserved only for one's Kage. "I hope we all get along well."

When he straightened he found the Sand Siblings continued to stare at him in a predatory way, and after a moment Genma coughed and suggested they move out. Most of the day passed uneventfully. The adults talked idly about the predicted storm and their plans for the night, while Temari and Kankurou lightly interrogated Masaru about his training.

"So you're not taking the exams?" Temari asked, blue eyes glinting in mild disapproval.

"I do not have a proper team and a am quite recent graduate, so I am afraid I do not qualify," Masaru replied, vaguely noting his cheeks started to feel a little sore from his polite smile. It hadn't faded once since leaving Aokigawa, a fact that the Sand genin did not miss.

"You smile a lot, don't you?" Kankurou muttered, scratching his head. "It's kinda creepy."

"I apologize if my smile seems unsettling," he replied, dipping in a small bow.

"You talk pretty stiff, too. Seriously, it's getting kinda weird."

"I apologize again. I tend to revert to highly polite behavior when feeling particularly stressed."

"Are you saying we scare you?" Temari asked, smirking at him viciously, and Masaru could feel Gaara's eyes boring into him from behind. His smile grew a little wider, and he consciously forced it to shrink a bit when his eyes began to scrunch up.

"Yes, but that is because all social interactions tend to scare me as I am ridiculously inexperienced and awkward." He had gotten better at it and could talk to most Leaf ninja just fine, but foreign ninja—not to mention the children of an allied village's leader—admittedly pushed him firmly outside his comfort zone and right into the great void of discomfort.

He responded politely to all their questions, that nerve-induced smile never fading, and tried to ignore the fact Gaara kept staring at him in utter silence. Something about Gaara unsettled him, and Masaru decided he should probably trust his instincts and keep his distance as much as possible without being rude. Something else told him Gaara wouldn't particularly care about manners anyway, but he would not take any chances.

Storm clouds gathered overhead by the time they reached the hotel, renting a total of four rooms with plans to split into pairs. "That redhead seemed to get his own room," Raidou reported as the Leaf ninja convened in Masaru and Gaku's room that evening. "Baki put his belongings in the same one as the two older genin, anyway."

"There's something off with that kid," Genma muttered, reclining against a wall with a frown. "I don't know, maybe it's just me, but..." His eyes slid over to Gaku, who seemed unusually tense.

"I think there's a high chance it's him," he declared solemnly, and Masaru blinked, looking around the gathered jounin in confusion. Clearly they knew something he didn't. Sensing his confusion, Gaku turned to him with a sigh. "Well, I need to teach you about this sooner or later, so... Masaru, do you know anything about jinchuuriki?"

"Jinchuuriki?" he repeated, brows knitting in confusion. "It sounds kinda familiar, but..."

"Jinchuuriki are hosts who have a Tailed Beast sealed inside them." Masaru instantly perked up, recognition flashing in his eyes.

"Like the Kyuubi?" he asked, and Gaku nodded.

"Exactly. Tailed Beasts can't actually be killed since they're chakra constructs. They can be defeated, but they'll eventually reform, so the villages usually seal them into a person. Not many people can handle their chakra, and normally it's done while the host is very young so that their chakra coils can adapt to it. All five of the great villages have at least one jinchuuriki, though Taki also has one."

"Suna has the Ichibi," Raidou added. "The One-Tailed Tanuki. We don't know who the host is, though. The villages try to conceal the jinchuuriki's identities, so we can only speculate. Most evidence we have points to the Kazekage's youngest son being their jinchuuriki, though."

"If he is, I'm wondering how stable his seal is," Genma added. "Like I said, something about him seems off. I know the seals can be pretty tricky business, and last I heard Suna doesn't have any fuinjutsu masters."

"In any case, I think we should take shifts tonight," Gaku suggested. "Just in case." The other jounin nodded in agreement, and worked out a quick plan to have a rotating watch shift. They chose to leave Masaru out since as a genin he wouldn't be able to do much on his own if anything happened. Still, the brief conversation left him with a lot to think about as he laid in bed.

Tailed Beasts couldn't die, and all five great hidden villages had at least one jinchuuriki. According to the stories, the Fourth Hokage gave his life to kill the Kyuubi. However, if the Kyuubi couldn't actually die, then logically he must have sealed it instead. Which meant Konoha had a jinchuuriki. But who?

("Don't you dare come in here, you demon!" "Damn fox, can't believe he's stuck in my son's class." "You have no business speaking to him so familiarly, you damn demon brat!")

He frowned and squeezed his eyes shut, burrowing under the covers. Maybe he shouldn't think about it...

Omake: Dog Duty

Loud giggles escaped Masaru as dozens of small tongues tickled his face, uncaring of the low pain in his ribs from the mound of squirming, furry bodies currently crushing him. As far as ways to die went, Masaru decided "asphyxiation by puppies" really wouldn't be that bad.

"Okay, I've heard of a dog piles, but this is kinda crazy," Kiba muttered as he and the other members of Team Eight stood to the side, watching the Uchiha writhe under the mound of puppies.

"Perhaps Masaru-kun simply has more experience with canines," Shino offered. Gasping for breath, Masaru lifted his head slightly to shake it at the Aburame.

"I never—pfft—really met a dog—haha—besides Akamaru," he told him, his words punctuated by suppressed giggles. He also met Kakashi's ninken, but he didn't count them because most of their interactions consisted of them chasing him down at Kakashi's command. They never really showed any dog-like behavior other than slobbering all over him. "The Uchiha used—heh—c-cat summons."

"You disgust me," Kiba deadpanned, and Hinata giggled slightly. Masaru didn't respond right away, too busy giggling at the puppies tickling his face.

"Help me," Masaru choked once he got enough breath, flashing the other genin a watery and desperate smile.

"That would be counterproductive," Shino replied bluntly. "Why? Because once they figure out what's going on, they will become impossible to control."

"Shino's right," Kiba agreed easily. "Just enjoy it." Masaru shot them a weak glare, but considering he had a goofy smile on his face from giggling, it hardly had any effect. Note to self: never let enemies figure out face is ticklish. Not that many enemy shinobi would try to tickle someone's face, but still.

The door to the examination room opened and Inuzuka Hana stepped outside, setting down a small brown Akita puppy. It quickly bounded over to join its canine brethren in piling atop the trapped Uchiha, and Masaru's head flopped back onto the tile with a resigned giggle. So far they'd gone through eight puppies, and no pandemonium had broken out.

"Wow, those puppies really like you, don't they?" she commented lightly. "This is the smoothest vaccination day we've had in a while." Her lips quirked into a teasing smirk as she added, "You know, maybe you should take one of them home." Sudden silence fell as twenty-one pairs of puppy ears perked in excitement, an equal number of shiny eyes turning upon Masaru.

Masaru slowly turned to look at Team Eight, his face resigned. "Tell Sasuke I love him," he requested flatly, and then the puppies pounced on him with renewed energy.

Chapter Text

Chapter 26

"Dreams are fascinating things. Sometimes you can go straight from watching a movie as a passive viewer to directing it and the action. You don't question the logic in them while you're asleep, you just enjoy them as they unfold. It's too bad you usually forget them when you wake up."

"Well sensei, I think I finally got it all figured out, and I gotta say—it's pretty ingenious."

Jiraiya spread a map on the Hokage's desk with a dramatic flair, Hiruzen scrutinizing it with a keen eye. Unlike the one painted by Ryoko, this one looked far simpler, little more than basic outlines of the countries with various symbols dotting the empty spaces. Yet even so he could tell that it had been hand painted rather than purchased from a store, the brush strokes clearly defined and varying in thickness—not to mention it had a network of seals bordering it.

"At first I had trouble figuring out Ryoko's seal," the Toad Sage began. "I got the seals on the borders, but something seemed to be missing. Then after looking at her painting more closely, I realized that the map itself contained a seal."

Hiruzen raised an eyebrow. "You mean she incorporated a seal into the actual map?"

"Try the other way around," Jiraiya responded with a cheeky smirk. "The fancy paint job's a distraction from the fact that the outlines of the countries are directly connected to the seal bordering it. Hell, I could spend hours trying to explain it all to you, and I dedicated a few pages to it in my final report. For now though, what matters is this."

He pointed at the seals bordering the top of the map, and when Hiruzen squinted he noticed it had the kanji for "Map" in the center. "On Ryoko's map, she wrote the kanji for 'world' there. I found it on the seals inside her little gifts to Naruto, Sasuke and Sakura, too—and by the way, that foresight still really scares me," Jiraiya added casually as he bounced the purple coin purse in his palm, "But anyways, I realized this little piece right here is the variable that specifically links the map to the companion seal.

"So," he continued, dropping the coin purse and pulling out a thick, yellow wrist brand, "I changed the variable to 'map' and made my own little charm." As he spoke he handed the wrist band to Hiruzen, who inspected it thoughtfully. A white tag sewn into the side carried the kanji for "Test", and when he reversed it he found a series of seals inscribed on the inner side of the fabric.

"I see," Hiruzen murmured, nodding sagely. "And it works?"

Grinning, Jiraiya slapped a hand on the center of the map and the seals on the wrist band lit up. Hiruzen fed it his own chakra in response, and sure enough the seals bordering the map flared to life and a gold light rippled through it. As they watched part of the glow suddenly veered away from the border and surged through the lines inscribed on the map, causing a bright yellow light to appear over Konoha with the kanji for 'Test' next to it.

"Impressive," Hiruzen declared once the demonstration ended. "I must ask, can it be made on a smaller scale?"

"It can," Jiraiya confirmed, pulling another roll of paper and spreading it on the table. This one showed a basic layout of Konoha, but unlike the other one it had the kanji for "World" at the top once more. Raising an eyebrow, Hiruzen glanced at Jiraiya pointedly and the Sannin produced a small, leaf green pouch. "For this one, I decided to use Ryoko's original seal, since she already graciously prepared at least four companion seals for us, and probably a hell of a lot more than these if we're being honest."

As he spoke he flared his chakra into the pouch and the seal on the map flickered to life, a bead of green light appearing over the Hokage's tower with the kanji for 'Oil' next to it. "As you can see, Ryoko-chan helpfully incorporated a feature to send a distress signal so that we can signal the map ourselves in case of an emergency. All of which would have been so wonderful to know back when she first gave me this stupid thing."

His smile twitched a bit at the last remark, a bit of irritation slipping into his jovial tone. Hiruzen arched an eyebrow. "To be honest, I'm surprised she didn't tell you. I understand she had reasons not to trust me towards the end, but you... She greatly respected and trusted you."

"I swear," Jiraiya sighed, letting his smile fall as he folded his arms. "That girl caused me no end of troubles. Even after dying she still finds ways to surprise me. One day I'm just traveling around when suddenly, whoosh! That little coin purse she gave me suddenly lights up like it's on fire." Shaking his head, he grumbled, "Protective wards my foot. I should've known better than to believe she laced it with something so simple as fireproofing and waterproofing it."

"At least it gave you a reason to return," Hiruzen commented wryly. "I've been trying to contact you anyway, so it works out fine for me."

"Of course it does for you," Jiraiya grumbled. He sighed again, his irritation sliding from his face and replaced by a more solemn air. "I think about it a lot and frankly, I'm still not sure if I could've done anything to make things turn out better for her. Ryoko had it pretty rough from the start, it might've been too late by the time we met."

"It very well could have," Hiruzen agreed, mirroring his former student's somber demeanor. "You at least did a good job teaching her fuinjutsu. Perhaps if we're fortunate, she left some notes on her other research," he added, allowing a small smile to slip through.

Jiraiya just snorted and rolled his eyes. "Fat chance. She was the most paranoid kid I ever met. I'm still trying to crack the seals on a couple of the books she left me in her will—and that is another scary moment of foresight," he added with a small grimace. "The topics she picked... I'm seriously wondering if her Sharingan let her see the future. I half expect to open them up and find some super-specific warning, like, 'Orochimaru will appear in Kiri on June 11 wearing a floppy sunhat, be sure to take Anko and thirty dango dumplings because she'll be the key to victory.'"

"You know the Sharingan can't actually see the future," Hiruzen remarked lightly, faintly amused by the description his student conjured.

"Of course I know that," Jiraiya replied, and leveled a calm gaze on his teacher as he casually added, "The regular Sharingan has no precognition abilities." Hiruzen's eyes narrowed as his smile faded, recognizing the underlying message:

'But another stage might.'

He sat in the tea room across from Ryoko, legs folded beneath him on the cushion as he watched her pour tea. "Chamomile tea is wonderful for nerves," she commented idly. "It tastes so sweet, too. Perfect for a couple of sugar lovers like us!" She set down the pot and poked his nose, and a feminine giggle passed his lips.

"Thank you, mom!" a familiar voice chirped, and small hands reached out to lift the cup, fingers curling around so each one tapped one of the gold and red leaves painted on the sides. Lifting it to his mouth, he sipped it delicately and gave a satisfied sigh. "It's so sweet."

"Be sure to drink it all," Ryoko said, her hands folded on her lap as she watched. A small hum sounded and the cup lifted again, the golden-orange liquid quickly draining and leaving a strong aftertaste of honey in his mouth. Setting it down, the hands folded atop a familiar lap and his vision dipped briefly.

"Thank you for the tea."

"Don't... mention it." Her voice had an odd snag to it, and he straightened with a frown. Ryoko's face lolled forward with a gentle smile on her lips, her eyes closed. As he watched something sparkled at the inner corner of her eye, and a line of tears suddenly slid down her cheek.

"Mom?" he asked in alarm, his voice overlapping with the familiar one, and Ryoko sucked in a sharp breath, her smile never fading.

"I love you so much, Akari," she whispered, and her eyes opened to reveal the bloody red irises of the Sharingan.

Masaru jolted awake with a gasp, his eyes snapping open. Rolling over and sitting up, his gaze slid to the mirror on the dresser next to the bed and he saw glowing red eyes staring back at him. Something sparkled on his face beneath them, and he rubbed his eyes and pulled his hands away to note tears staining his fingers.

Every now and then, he'd dream about that day. He had no doubt he watched from Akari's eyes as she sat in the tea room, listened with her ears to his mother's rhythmic voice. Such dreams had happened even before the massacre, just little moments from each other's day randomly playing out in their sleep. It had been an absolutely normal phenomenon for them and had occurred for as long as they could remember, and their mother fondly called it "twin telepathy" when they told her about it.

He breathed a small sigh through his nose, quietly climbing out of bed and padding towards the window. Dark clouds still shrouded the sky, but he could glimpse shreds of pale blue through them, signaling the storm had ended and would soon pass altogether. He surmised dawn to be relatively close, and a glance at the clock hanging on the wall confirmed only an hour remained before the planned wakeup time. Gaku still slumbered peacefully, and Masaru decided to just take a few minutes to stew in his thoughts.

He could still feel phantom traces of the tea's flavor from his dream, feeling thick and syrupy on his tongue and coating his throat with a sweet flavor like honey. Wanting to distract himself from it, he quietly slid open the window and inhaled the breeze that swept inside, letting his eyelids flutter shut. Storms calmed him and he enjoyed listening to harsh rain pound against the walls and window panes, but he especially liked the time after a big one. Humidity still hung heavy in the air and he could taste the lingering traces of rain, the smell of damp leaves drifting to his nose.

"Masaru?" Gaku's voice sounded quietly behind him, and he turned in surprise, offering a small smile.

"Sorry sensei, did I wake you up?"

"Ah, no, it's fine," his teacher mumbled, rubbing his eyes and giving a big yawn. "What time is it?"

"Five..." He flashed his Sharingan to read the clock in the darkness. "Thirty-four."

"Close enough," Gaku decided, rolling back the covers and slipping out of bed. "Let's do some stretches." Masaru nodded and joined him on the floor, copying the strange acrobatic poses his sensei did and feeling the kinks in his back pop with satisfying cracks.

"Sensei?" he asked as their backs curled, their limbs stretching into the air. Gaku rolled his head to look at him, his black eyes seeming larger than usual in the dark.

"Yes, Masaru?" he prodded, and the boy hesitated, the question he wanted to ask dying on his lips.

"What's the schedule for today?" he asked instead, and Gaku stared at him for a long moment before answering. The entire time his original question echoed in his mind, lingering like the storm clouds outside.

'Why wasn't Akari at the hospital that day?'

When the group set out later that day, the storm had passed to leave a clear blue sky. As they walked along the adults idly discussed the storm which led to exchanging some fun stories about various misadventures in finding shelter on missions. Gaku strangely had little trouble with finding suitable accommodations for reasons he wouldn't divulge other than "luck," but Genma had the craziest experience.

"Big escort mission that passed through northern Wind got waylaid by a freak blizzard," he declared flatly. "No shelter for miles around, just endless desert. We ended up using Katon and Futon jutsu to melt the snow into ice and shape it into a small shelter."

"That would have to be pretty far north for an escort mission from Konoha," Baki commented. "What was your destination?"

"Some small town near the border of Earth," Genma replied briskly. "The clients wanted to peddle goods to an eccentric noble who'd moved there."

"Ah, you must mean Lord Henjin," Baki murmured, wincing sympathetically. "He is quite... unique." His tone sounded carefully measured, making Masaru wonder just what kind of man Henjin must be. He couldn't ask though, as the two older Sand Siblings had accosted him and started peppering him with a steady stream of questions.

"So this is your first time leaving your village?" Temari asked disdainfully.

"I never had reason to leave in the past," Masaru replied politely, still all smiles.

"Then does that mean you haven't even been in a fight?" Kankurou challenged, and Masaru somehow refrained from gulping at the predatory gleam in his eyes.

"I have yet to fight any bandits, if that is what you mean. I do spar regularly with one of my fellow genin though, she is a year older than me and quite skilled."

"She?" Kankurou snorted, sounding unimpressed, and then yelped as Temari sharply elbowed him in the ribs with a harsh glare. At that point Masaru's polite smile broke into a more genuine one, snickering at the older boy's misfortune. This earned him a cold glare from the dark-clothed boy. "What're you laughing at, kid?"

"Nothing," Masaru replied, the smile vanishing in an instant and replaced by a serene look of innocence. The abrupt shift made Kankurou falter slightly, his eyes narrowing as he stared at him perplexed.

"...The hell? I thought you only had that creepy robot smile."

"Only when stressed," Masaru replied easily, feeling a bit more relaxed now. The small bit of sibling bickering had eased his prior tension a bit, and he smiled faintly as he glanced at the canopy of foliage above them. Raindrops still clung to the leaves, glistening in the sunlight, and he knocked on a tree trunk to watch the drops shimmer to the ground in a miniature downpour.

"That's pretty kiddish, don't you think?" Temari commented. Masaru merely shrugged, not looking at the Sand kunoichi.

"Maybe? I don't really care though. It reminds me of my sister."

"Your sister?" Temari echoed, sounding genuinely curious. Masaru hummed in response, his wistful smile never fading. Akari loved shaking the trees and watching the water fall. They used to chase each other around after storms while hitting trees with training kunai to try to drench the other.

"You never mentioned you had one," Kankurou remarked. "Are we gonna meet her when we get to Konoha?"

Masaru's steps faltered, his eyes lowering to the forest floor as his smile grew even fainter. "...No. She died. When we were eight."

An awkward silence fell, and he heard a small smack followed by Kankurou grunting in pain and Temari hissing, "Idiot."

"How?" Masaru almost jumped when Gaara suddenly spoke, his voice slightly gravelly and raspy as if he never used it. He didn't look back at the redhead, his right ear suddenly throbbing and his smile fading.

"...My clan's heir went crazy and killed almost everyone," he replied quietly, his eyes trailing to the ground.

"And he spared you?" Gaara pressed, and Masaru hesitated, his hand ghosting over his side and pressing against the scar hidden beneath his shirt.

"...Not untouched," he murmured, his fingers grasping the fabric tightly, and then sped up to fall in step beside his teacher to avoid any more questions. Only a few hours before they returned, and then he'd be home free.

Breathing through her nose, Sakura raised her hands and began running through seals, her face screwed in concentration as she murmured under her breath. "Ram, Tiger, Snake, Dog, Rat, Ox, Horse, Rabbit, Tiger, Boar, Snake..." Flashing the final seal, she yelled, "Doton: Practice Brick Barrier!"

The earth around her instantly shifted and pillar-like protrusions erupted, forming a short wall in front of her that barely reached her waist. Her hands fell to her sides with a groan, her head hanging in shame. "It's so short..." Kakashi placed a comforting hand on her shoulder, smiling at her reassuringly.

"Don't worry, this is a pretty good start," he told her. "This is your first time using this technique after all."

"Yeah, that's super-awesome Sakura-chan!" Naruto cheered. "Kakashi-sensei, teach me that jutsu too!"

"Er, I would, but... I'm pretty sure you're not a Doton user."

"How would you even know that!?"

"...Just a hunch," Kakashi demurred as he thought back to Minato and Kushina, ignoring Naruto's grumbles of protest. Earlier that day Sakura had approached him to reveal she'd purchased Chakra Induction Paper and discovered she had an affinity for Earth. He appreciated her initiative, but from what he could tell Sakura didn't have the proper reserves to be a ninjutsu specialist. Her style would instead most likely depend on her chakra control and taijutsu.

"I don't think most doton techniques suit you anyway," Sasuke commented to the kunoichi, as if reading Kakashi's thoughts. "I checked out a couple scrolls at the library after activating the Sharingan, and most of the low-level ones involve burrowing underground for surprise attacks. I don't know, it seems too indirect for you." He shrugged lazily, though Sakura seemed to be thoughtful now.

"But... I'm definitely the weakest one here—physically anyway—so... wouldn't indirect attacks work better?" she mused aloud.

"You're physically weak now, but you're getting stronger," Kakashi noted. "That strength training has been paying off. That said, personally I don't think you should focus on learning elemental jutsu until you've built up your stamina a bit more. You've been reading books on medical ninjutsu, right?"

"Oh, yeah," she confirmed, nodding vigorously. "I borrowed a couple from Masaru. Ryoko-sama left some really detailed notes in the margins, it's... kind of intimidating, to be honest." She scratched her neck as she spoke, her eyes flitting to the side. "Half of her notes actually don't have to do with medical ninjutsu as much as chakra control. I think she was trying to reverse-engineer Tsunade's fighting style—"

Kakashi raised an eyebrow and stopped listening at that point, too busy imagining Sakura shattering trees with her bare fists. It seemed oddly fitting given her somewhat violent tendencies and short temper, but could the world really withstand another Tsunade?

"—I haven't had any luck convincing a medical ninja to show me the Mystical Healing Palm, so I can't actually heal anything yet," Sakura continued when he zoned back in, sounding a bit sheepish. "But I've studied all I can about human anatomy, and I figured out some good vital points to aim for that most people wouldn't expect. Back in Wave, Haku let me practice with some of his senbon while we waited for the bridge to be finished, and he gave me one of his old books on poisons so I've been looking into that too."

"Poison?" Naruto squeaked, his face paling, while Kakashi looked at her with renewed interest.

"Fast acting? Slow? Paralytics?"

"Not sure yet," Sakura responded with a shrug. "I managed to gather the necessary plants for a slow-acting paralytic, but I think I should probably have supervision when I make it?"

"Definitely," Kakashi agreed without a second's hesitation. "How about we try making it tonight after training?" His student's face lit up with excitement as she eagerly voiced her agreement, and he smiled at her before turning to the other two. "Naruto, Sasuke, how about you two? Any major improvements you want to share?"

"Yeah! I totally beat up teme in yesterday's spar!" Naruto cheered, and Sasuke scoffed and shoved his hands in his pockets.

"Shut up, dobe. You got in a couple lucky punches. Meanwhile, I still managed to pop ten clones with a single fireball." The whiskered genin squawked in offense and began arguing with him angrily, making Kakashi huff a small sigh. He'd assigned the two to keep sparring outside their usual training sessions since they'd challenge each other, not to mention it would help them build a stronger connection. Rivalry could be an amazing motivator, after all.

Beyond that, he'd also started giving Naruto some special one-on-one training to help hone his taijutsu skills a bit. Thus far Naruto's Shadow Clone technique seemed to be his signature technique, so Kakashi expected they would be even more useful if they could throw proper punches. The sessions also cut down on his complaints about favoritism in regards to his special training sessions with Sasuke and Masaru to use the Sharingan.

In all honesty, his current level of hands-on involvement in his students' training surprised Kakashi. When he got assigned Team Seven, he hadn't expected to become this involved with all of them. However, after what happened in Wave, he realized he couldn't slack with their training any more.

Strong opponents existed, and he wouldn't always be there to help. Naruto and Sasuke in particular would be highly-coveted targets, given Naruto's jinchuuriki status and Sasuke's Sharingan. Team Seven seemed to be cursed after all. His own team had whittled down to just himself, while Minato's team had also suffered its fair share of tragedies until only Jiraiya remained.

Looking at bright-eyed Naruto, fierce and determined Sakura, and quiet but heavily motivated Sasuke, Kakashi felt his heart clench at the thought of them encountering the same sort of tragedies he did during their career.

Team Seven's already suffered enough, he thought grimly. Let's make this one a lucky number.

As he reflected over this Naruto gave a small cry, jumping and racing away from the clearing with an eager wave. "Masaru! You're back!" Sasuke and Sakura immediately turned in the direction their blond teammate ran, and sure enough the familiar brunette trudged towards them, relief clearly sparking in his eyes at the sight of them. Kakashi turned just in time to see the Uchiha boy greet Naruto with a tight hug, catching his student by obvious surprise.

"Thank you for being awesome and loud all the time and not glaring at everything," he mumbled, squeezing the startled blond. Naruto just stood in tense silence, looking mildly disconcerted by the sudden embrace, and it occurred to Kakashi he might need to work on getting him adjusted to friendly physical contact. Sasuke watched the exchange with a slightly bewildered look, while Sakura just snorted in amusement at Naruto's clearly lost expression.

"Uh, you're welcome?" he muttered uncertainly, awkwardly lifting his arms to return the hug. Masaru smiled as he pulled away, giving a sheepish shrug.

"Sorry, the team I had to escort has someone really scary on it so I'm just really relieved to see some friendly faces." As he spoke he turned to glance at Sasuke, who instinctively stepped back as if fearing another sudden embrace. It occurred to Kakashi he might need to work on the friendly contact thing with all of his students. Granted, Sakura probably received plenty of hugs from her friends and family, but her rough nature hardly made her likely to give one.

Deciding to rescue Sasuke from a potential public display of affection, Kakashi casually joined the conversation with a thoughtful hum. "Oh? Someone scary, you say? Hmm... You had to escort the team from Suna, right?" Masaru nodded and Naruto frowned, his features screwing in confusion.

"Huh? What're you talking about?" he asked, scratching at his whiskers. Next to him Sakura suddenly gasped, clapping her hands in realization.

"The Chuunin Exams! They're next week, aren't they?" Her teammates instantly perked to attention, their eyes immediately shifting towards to Kakashi. The jounin huffed a small sigh and slouched in resignation, realizing he'd dug himself into a hole on that one.

"Well, I was hoping you guys would forget, but it looks like I sabotaged myself by asking this time."

"We're entering," Sasuke told him firmly, earning vigorous nods of agreement from his teammates.

"...Maybe," Kakashi demurred, and his three adorable genin growled in irritation.

"We've been training our butts off!" Naruto snapped, angrily swinging a fist in the air. "Like hell we're not entering!"

"Masaru, you've met one team," Sakura said, getting the Uchiha boy's attention. "Tell us about them. We'll probably go up against them at some point, so the more we know about them, the better."

"It's a bit early to scope out the competition when you still haven't confirmed you're entering," Kakashi muttered, but they chose to ignore him and focus on Masaru. The brunette frowned, his eyes squeezing shut in thought.

"...They're all siblings, two boys and one girl. The oldest one is the kunoichi, Temari, she's confident but I don't know what she does. You'll recognize her because she has blonde hair in four pigtails. The middle one is Kankurou, he dresses like a kabuki stagehand and has purple face paint. You can't miss him. I don't know for sure, but I'm guessing he uses puppets?"

"Puppets?" Naruto repeated, blinking dumbly.

"That's pretty common in Suna," Sakura murmured thoughtfully. "Makes sense with the kabuki theme, too."

"Last one?" Sasuke pressed, and Masaru hesitated, a flicker of apprehension flashing through his features so briefly Kakashi nearly missed it.

"...Gaara," he replied after a moment. "Red hair, thick black rings around his eyes. Gourd strapped on his back." He paused. "He... has the kanji for 'love' on his forehead, above the right eye."

"Like, a tattoo?" Naruto asked, and Masaru frowned.

"No. A scar." The three genin stiffened, their eyes widening in surprise. Masaru's eyes flitted to Kakashi, and sensing his unspoken request the jounin stepped closer and crouched next to him. The boy cupped his hand around his mouth as he whispered into his ear as softly as possible, "Gaku-sensei, Genma-san and Raidou-san said they think he's a jinchuuriki."

Kakashi's eye widened in surprise and he quickly pulled his head away, straightening up with a contemplative expression on his face. "Is that so," he murmured thoughtfully. He knew Konoha already suspected Gaara to be the jinchuuriki, but for Tenzo to voice his agreement made it almost certain in Kakashi's mind. His presence in the Exams might pose some unexpected trouble...

Noting the curious looks his genin shot him, he paused and his eye crinkled in a smile. "Sorry guys, but Masaru just told me some rather... sensitive information. I'd prefer not to share it with you, since it might alter your perceptions a bit too much if it's correct."

The genin groaned in annoyance and grumbled various complaints, but Kakashi chose to ignore them, turning back to Masaru. "In any event, thank you for letting us know. On an unrelated note, I'm glad you're here today, because I have something very interesting to share with you all and it actually relates to you."

His genin instantly stopped complaining as they snapped their gazes to Kakashi with full interest, even Masaru looking at him curiously. "Do you all remember the map in Masaru's room?"

"Hell yeah," Naruto confirmed, snickering. "Teme's butt started glowing and everything."

"Shut up, dobe," Sasuke growled, smacking the blond on the back of his head.

"We really could've used that back in Wave," Sakura moaned tiredly, hunching over and massaging her forehead. "It would've saved us so much trouble if we knew we had a distress signal to send Konoha." Kakashi hummed in agreement, feeling a similar twinge of annoyance as he recalled the events that unfolded there. Considering he'd been forced to stay on bed rest for eight days after a nonconsensual medical procedure on his transplanted eye, he really wished they had access to one.

"Right... About that." Kakashi reached into his pants pocket and produced a familiar dark blue omamori, as well as a small violet pouch with a cherry blossom charm attached and a black wrist band with an orange swirl. The genin instantly perked up at the sight, Sasuke looking relieved to see his amulet, but Naruto and Sakura focused on the coin purse and wrist band with startled looks.

"AH!" Naruto yelled. "That's the stuff that weird talking cat gave us a couple weeks ago! I thought Ero-Sennin took it!"

"Well," Kakashi began, but paused as he processed Naruto's words. "Wait, Ero-Sennin?"

"It fits," Sakura declared flatly. Masaru and Sasuke just stared at them quizzically, wondering what happened. Secretly Kakashi agreed with the nickname, but he had too much respect for Jiraiya's abilities to openly state as much.

"Anyways," he coughed into his fist, though the mask ruined the effect, "They have the same seal Sasuke's little charm has. Based on our speculation, most likely Ryoko-san—Masaru's mother—prepared these back when you guys were still in the academy and left orders for her ninneko summons to deliver them later. With these, you guys can send a distress signal if you ever encounter trouble, which may come in handy if you enter the Chuunin Exams."

"Wait a second," Sakura said, frowning. "Are you saying she somehow knew our future team assignments and made something just for us? And that... that she wouldn't be there to give it to us personally?"

"Actually, upon further investigation we discovered a good chunk of your graduating class received a little gift. Most of them got it indirectly like how they left the wrist band in Naruto's room, but Kiba reports one ninneko ambushed him outside the Inuzuka compound and spit out a necklace before turning tail and fleeing."

"...Why?" Sasuke asked, unsure how to respond to any of that.

"Ryoko had... issues," Kakashi responded carefully, glancing at Masaru to gauge his reaction. His deadpan stare seemed to reassure him he would be safe to continue. "She had a somewhat short but highly eventful career dogged by severe anxiety and paranoia, and tried to plan for every scenario possible. We suspect she made one for every student in her children's class in anticipation of them getting a team. She probably left her ninneko summons orders to deliver them to all the graduates in the event she died, most likely after we finally noticed the map had the seal."

"But... she didn't make me anything," Masaru interjected, his mouth curving into a dejected frown. "Why not?" The fact she prepared something for everyone else—even Kiba—left him feeling particularly melancholic. Kakashi just hummed, offering him a thoughtful glance.

"I don't know. But I personally suspect she did make something for you. In fact, knowing her, she definitely did. We just haven't found it yet." Turning to the others, he passed out the three items to each genin.

"...Kakashi," Sasuke said suddenly, looking at his omamori. "Why is there a drop of blood on the back?" Kakashi paused, blinking in mild surprise.

"Ah. That must have been from when Master Jiraiya, er, had a minor nosebleed." He coughed awkwardly while Sasuke visibly stiffened, as did Masaru and Sakura, both of whom shot the Uchiha knowing looks.

For once, Naruto didn't miss this subtle interaction. "Huh? Why are you guys looking at teme like that? What's going on with the charm?"

"Uh, well," Sakura mumbled, while Masaru sucked in a sharp breath.

"If either of you tell him, I am not speaking to you for a month," Sasuke deadpanned.

"I am terribly sorry I cannot tell you Naruto," Masaru informed Naruto blandly with a deep bow.

"Sorry Naruto, you heard him," Sakura said with a dismissive shrug. The blonde squawked in dismay, looking at them in betrayal.

"What!? No fair! Why can't you tell me! What's the big deal!?"

"Hey, I just got Sasuke-kun to talk to me! No way am I setting it back a month by blabbing to you!"

As the genin began bickering Kakashi huffed a small sigh, but his eye clearly glinted with amusement.

Later that night Sasuke woke up to notice light seeping through the crack under his door, a faint flowery aroma wafting through the door. Yawning tiredly, he climbed out of bed and trudged to the door, quietly opening it to peek outside. Masaru sat at the kitchen table with a steaming cup of tea, heavy bags under his eyes. The sight hardly bothered him, it seemed almost every week at least one of the Uchiha boys would end up at the table late at night.

Masaru didn't look at him as Sasuke trudged out of his bedroom, slipping into the chair next to him. "Bad dream?" he guessed tiredly, and his cousin shrugged, eyes still focused on his tea. Golden dragonflies decorated the white porcelain cup, each one's wings painted with unique ornate patterns so that no two matched. Ryoko's hand-painted teacups had been among the few belongings the two Uchiha boys had opted to bring to their new apartment, the sentimentality too powerful to ignore.

Twisting in his chair, Sasuke eyed the ingredients scattered on the kitchen counter before his gaze slid to one of Ryoko's many notebooks open. Squinting, he lifted from his seat slightly and read aloud, "Chamomile tea?"

"I just wanted to try it again so I dug up one of mom's recipes," Masaru mumbled tiredly, and Sasuke hummed.

"Is it good?"

"It's... flowery. Kinda mild, maybe a little biter. It washes down really easily. I'd probably like it, but..."

He trailed off, and after a long moment of silence Sasuke pressed, "But?"

"...It doesn't taste like the drink from my dream," Masaru replied softly, and quietly rose from his seat and treaded back to his room, sparing no final glance towards the cup. Sasuke watched him depart with a mild frown, wondering just what that meant.

Chapter Text

Chapter 27

"Life is full of tests, the ones you face after school just go a little differently than the ones you're used to. I still think the universe is totally cheating me with that though."

"You have all your shuriken and kunai? They're all sharp? You have your canteen too, right?"

"Masaru, calm down," Sasuke huffed, rolling his eyes as he zipped his weapons pouch shut. "You're worrying too much. I'll be fine."

"Sorry," Masaru apologized, rubbing the back of his neck with a sheepish look. "It's just... The Chuunin Exams can be really dangerous. People die in them." Sasuke's expression softened a bit at the reminder and he sighed.

"Yeah, well, I won't. I have stuff to do before I die, and I'm not leaving you alone." He spoke a bit brusquely but Masaru smiled slightly at his words, dipping his head in gratitude. Sasuke strapped the pouch to his leg and the pair left the apartment in companionable silence.

Their paths veered almost instantly once they stepped outside, Sasuke nodding at him as he turned away. "I'll see you later, okay?"

"Right. Good luck!" Masaru nodded back and turned to head the other way, and only when they'd left each other's line of sight did the black-haired Uchiha allow a small smirk to slip through.

Neither of them heard the soft click of a camera shutter from a nearby rooftop, a shadowy figure watching them part ways before swiftly disappearing.

Phase one of the Chuunin Exams passed with minimal events of note. Sakura had only slight trouble answering on her own but got enough correct to meet the stated minimum, and Sasuke just copied answers with his Sharingan. Naruto almost gave up at the final question but decided against it at the last minute, and so Team Seven got ushered to the next phase.

Which brought them to the latest dilemma.

Stars shined in Sakura's eyes as she trailed behind the proctor, a woman wearing a fishnet top and short skirt with only a trench coat preserving her modesty. "Anko-sama, you have to sign your Bingo Book page for me!" she squealed, almost skipping next to the woman. "I've been wanting it for ages!"

"You went through the trouble of digging up a Bingo Book entry on me?" she asked, grinning down at Sakura. "Man, that's awesome! Hell yeah I'll sign it, as long as you buy me dango afterwards!"

"It's a deal!" Sakura agreed with an enthusiastic nod, and Anko grinned and plopped her hand on the genin's head, ruffling her pink hair.

"Sweet! I'm holding you to it, got it?" Sakura beamed up at her, totally uncaring how messy her hair looked now.

"This is kinda freaky to watch," Naruto mumbled to Sasuke, and the Uchiha grunted with a small nod. Seeing Sakura act like a fangirl for someone other than him left him strangely unsettled. Resisting a shudder, he quickly turned his attention to the other examinees, idly scoping the competition.

Surprisingly the entire Rookie Nine showed up, along with a team from a year ahead that reminded Sasuke of Masaru's traumatized muttering about the horrors of the color green. He wondered briefly about how the rest of his graduating class had developed, but he had admittedly low expectations. He knew for a fact Team Seven's training had ramped up more than the norm due to Wave, Masaru's teacher Gaku had commented as much after he somehow got roped into Team Seven's team dinners.

Aside from them, two teams in particular stood out.

First, the team from Suna. Masaru had told him a bit more about the Sand Siblings in private, and after meeting them himself, Sasuke found himself agreeing with his cousin's sentiments. Something about the youngest, Gaara, felt heavily off. Even his own, older siblings seemed to defer to him, their generally cocky attitudes faltering whenever he so much as glanced their way, something Sasuke probably wouldn't have noticed had Masaru not planted the seeds in his mind.

Next, the team from Oto. They drew attention to themselves in a rather pointed way, and the fact that Oto had only recently been formed left him uneasy. According to Sakura, the village had no known specialties or produced any famous shinobi yet, so they had no idea what to expect out of the Sound ninja. The trio had been particularly rough and loud, shamelessly shoving and threatening Kabuto before Ibiki showed up.

On that note, Yakushi Kabuto himself also caught his attention. The bespectacled man had approached the Rookie Nine alone and openly shared the information cards he'd collected on the other contestants. Sasuke vaguely recalled his name from Masaru's stories about his missions, so after asking about Gaara and Neji, on a whim he'd then inquired about his cousin's name.

"Uchiha Masaru, age thirteen," he'd recited. "He's completed a good chunk of D-ranks, three of which I also participated in, as well as a single C-rank escort quite recently. Overall his physical ability seems to be slightly above average, though he has yet to encounter an actual combat situation, so the available data on his actual skill is limited. Interestingly though, he's actually deaf in his right ear due to a childhood injury."

Naturally Sasuke had known abut Masaru's partial deafness after seeing his ear bandaged up, but most of the Rookie Nine had voiced great surprise at that particular revelation. Their reactions made him suddenly realize just how few people actually knew about it; it didn't hinder Masaru enough to be particularly noticeable, and he generally kept to himself so it rarely came up in conversation.

Sasuke supposed Kabuto could have found out during one of their missions, but the fact he specifically took note of it seemed kind of strange.

His eyes narrowed as he watched the silver-haired man talk to his team, his hand reaching into his pocket to run his thumb over the omamori. He had no particular feelings about Kabuto making a card on Sasuke himself, but he did not like the idea of someone cataloguing one of Masaru's weaknesses like that.

His fingers curled around the homemade talisman, his jaw clenching. Masaru was the only family he had left, and he would be damned if he let anything happen to him.

"Hey, Uncle Obito. Sorry I haven't come by as much, I've been kinda busy."

Masaru smiled sheepishly as he crouched in front of Obito's grave, wiping down the stone with a damp cloth. Since becoming a genin he hadn't been able to visit the grave as often as he used to, and a lot of dirt had accumulated since the last visit. He felt slightly guilty for leaving his uncle alone for so long, even if the grave might be empty. Sometimes he swore he could feel Obito's presence listening to him.

Even now, he felt that warm tingle of someone watching him, making him smile faintly. Wringing the dirty cloth over the grass, he dipped it in the bucket again and continued wiping the slab, talking all the while.

"A lot's happened since my last visit. Last week I went on my first C-rank mission, we had to help escort some of the genin from Suna who're in town for the Chuunin Exams. Sasuke's taking the Chuunin Exams today, too. Gaku-sensei gave me the week off because he has to help guard." That particular piece of news had been a bit surprising to Masaru, and even now his mind flashed back to the previous day.

"As you've probably already figured out, I'm actually part of ANBU," Gaku told him at the end of their training session, mouth ghosting into a smile as he folded his arms. "I can't share all the details, but I've been asked to provide an extra security detail during the second phase of the Chuunin Exams. I have... skills, that will be very useful there if something happens."

"That's very vague and unhelpful," Masaru noted dryly, and Gaku sighed.

"I have to be, for now. Once the exams are over, maybe I'll tell you about it though. On that note, we'll be pretty busy between the second and third phase. Just think of this week as a rest period."

"I still don't know what he means by being busy, but it sounds ominous," he groaned, shaking his head. "I'm kinda scared to find out... Anyways, it's kinda weird not having anything to do. I went to the training grounds this morning before I remembered he gave me the day off." He laughed sheepishly at his small slip, and his chuckles soon tapered off, his features softening into a small, melancholic smile.

"...I showed it to Kakashi. My Sharingan, I mean. I finally figured out he was your teammate. I talked to him about you. He didn't say much, I think it hurts him to think about you because he really misses you. Kinda like..." Masaru trailed off, his gaze sliding down the rows of graves to a trio of familiar tombstones.

Kinda like how mom felt about dad, his mind finished for him.

As he looked towards the graves a flash of purple caught his eye, giving him pause. Setting down the rag, Masaru slowly rose to his feet and wandered over, feeling slightly on edge. Violet asters and bluebells rested in front of his mother's grave in a small bouquet tied together with a white string, the petals dried and wilted but the color still rather vibrant. His sister's grave had another bouquet, this one containing purple hyacinths. As he drew closer a flash of red caught his eye at the grave on the other side of his father's, making him falter.

A single camellia lay before a small tombstone, once vivid red petals darkened to an almost brown. Approaching it slowly, Masaru crouched and picked up the dried flower, glancing at the grave curiously. Most Uchiha graves had only the name of the deceased and no dates, the clan choosing to record relevant dates in the family register, and this one proved no different.

"Uchiha Tsubaki," he read aloud, frowning at the unfamiliar name. His eyes flitted to the withered camellia in his hand, the dried petals reminding him of blood. A small shudder coursed through his body, and he let it fall back into the grass.

"Oho, so someone still visits these graves after all."

The sudden entrance of a new voice startled him and Masaru whirled in surprise to see a man with long white hair pulled into a bushy ponytail stood several rows away, a bouquet of white anemones and strange blossoms that seemed to resemble a bird clutched to his chest. Nodding at Masaru in acknowledgment, the stranger resumed walking and stopped next to the boy, setting the bouquet in front of his mother's grave.

Masaru studied the man's face as he looked at the tombstone with a sad smile, noting the long red lines trailing down from his eyes. A sudden jolt of deja vu assaulted him and he abruptly recognized the man from back in the Hokage's office two days ago, staring at his mother's map. Blinking, he looked at the man with renewed curiosity, and soon enough the stranger's eyes slowly slid over to Masaru.

"Hey there," he greeted, nodding at Masaru. "I saw you back in sensei's office, but I don't think we got introduced. The name's Jiraiya."

"Jiraiya," Masaru repeated carefully, as if testing it. Something about his face still felt familiar, tugging at the fringes of his memories. "Um... have we met? Before that?"

"A couple times," the man confirmed, smirking faintly. "Surprised you remembered it, the last time you would've been two or three. Your mom had a neighbor cart you and your sister off pretty fast, so we only saw each other for a couple minutes. It's nice to finally meet you all grown up. Ryoko-chan talked about you a lot in her letters, I just wish I could've met your sister, too."

"...Yeah." Masaru slowly nodded, frowning as he looked at the wilted purple hyacinths on Akari's grave. Regret, some voice told him. Purple hyacinths meant regret. He didn't know where he'd heard it, but it certainly seemed fitting with the melancholic smile the man wore.

Rising to his feet, he turned to face Jiraiya and dipped into a respectful bow. "Thank you for thinking of my family, Jiraiya-san," he murmured, and he meant it. Few people ever seemed to think about Akari or Ryoko, instead just focusing on him as the sole survivor of his small family.

He didn't see Jiraiya's smile fade, his face growing somber as he glanced to the two graves. "No need to thank me," he muttered. "Really." Masaru frowned and raised his head with a quizzical look, but by that point Jiraiya had already plastered on another smile. "Hey, I just had an idea. Do you have anything planned for today?"

"Um, no...?"

"Perfect!" Jiraiya grinned and placed his hands on Masaru's shoulders, an almost mischievous twinkle in his eye. "In that case, I'm going to pass on a little jutsu!"

Finding and taking down their first team had been startlingly easy. A brief distraction by a horde of transformed clones, a quick flick of a shuriken laced with weak paralytics followed by a light genjutsu fueled by the Sharingan to cause some slight disorientation, and Team Seven managed to easily subdue a team of unsuspecting Waterfall genin.

"Tch, it's the same scroll we have," Sasuke declared after rifling through their bags, tossing the pilfered scroll atop the piled heap of unconscious foreign teens. Sakura sighed in frustration, running a hand through her hair.

"Dang it, what a waste of poison," she muttered glumly, disappointed to have wasted her work. She could only make so many doses of the paralytics and poisons after all, what with her limited budget and even more limited access to decent ingredients. Acquiring higher-quality and more potent ingredients simply involved too many permits for a genin, Kakashi had to buy a couple of them for her.

Sakura took a moment to quietly mourn the waste, and then added irritably, "And Naruto, get rid of those clones already or at least shut them up!" She glared at the small cluster of clones currently hopping around the edge of the clearing hooting and grunting like monkeys, each one naked save for clusters of leaves covering their most sensitive bits and big red noses. Jungle clowns certainly worked as a good distraction, but once they'd taken down the enemy it just got on her nerves.

The clones all dispersed with a poof, Naruto grumbling irritably under his breath about finding it pretty funny, but his teammates appeared satisfied by the newfound quiet. "We're moving on," Sasuke declared, and his teammates followed in rather satisfied silence. Not even five minutes had passed since they'd first sighted the other team, and the speed and ease of their takedown left them feeling suitably empowered.

If only the high could last...

"Katon: Grand Fireball Jutsu!"

Masaru's cheeks puffed outwards as he blew a large fireball, the sphere rapidly expanding to a diameter of several meters. Jiraiya watched with a keen eye as it hovered above the lake for a few seconds before dissipating, the Uchiha boy sighing tiredly before turning to face him. "I don't get why you want me to show you that," he mumbled. "It's one of my clan's specialties, but..."

"I just needed to gauge your proficiency with katon jutsu," Jiraiya assured him smoothly, not missing a beat. "Tell me, what do you know about your mom's career?"

Masaru frowned slightly at the question, glancing away. "Not much," he admitted quietly. "I know that she knew a lot about fuinjutsu and the Sharingan, and she had ninneko summons, but she had books on so many subjects I can't really get a sense of anything else. She never really talked about it."

"In that case, do you know what they called her?" When Masaru shook his head, Jiraiya let a small smirk show. "The Bloody Sunburst."

"The... Bloody Sunburst?" The name seemed to surprise the boy, his face growing contemplative as his eyes flitted to the ground again, and—Jiraiya paused. For a second he saw a small girl standing in his place, face somber and dark eyes carrying an unfathomable weight. Just as quick as it appeared the vision vanished, and his mouth pressed into a firm line as he studied the boy with an even more critical eye.

"Something on your mind, kid?" he asked, and Masaru blinked before shaking his head.

"N-no, I just... remembered something. That's all." Jiraiya eyed him curiously, but after a few moments of thought he decided not to press it.

"Alright then. Back to the point, she got that nickname from her signature katon technique, 'Seven-Beam Sunburst,' which left a scorched pattern in the earth that looked like a bunch of beams radiating from her position. Not gonna lie, it's probably one of the deadliest katon jutsu I've ever seen."

Ryoko's Seven-Beam Sunburst had merited Ryoko a great deal of respect from both friend and foe alike. Even now Jiraiya could clearly envision the Uchiha kunoichi slamming her hands to the ground, rows of fire rippling from her position in seven directions. Avoiding it proved harder than one would expect, as the rows fanned out and grew in intensity as they surged further away from her at ridiculous speeds, until they merged together to form a large, blazing ring of white flame.

It only lasted a few seconds before the flames totally dissipated, but the technique had a unique destructive nature that spared not even allies. Even if someone managed to muster the necessary speeds to outrun the flames, the sheer intensity of their heat alone could still cause mild burns. Ryoko had to plaster her own body with seals to ward against the heat, and even then the technique still required a minimum radius of three meters for her to use it safely. How she managed to develop it without killing herself in the process still eluded him.

Masaru watched Jiraiya with a contemplative look, his head tilting thoughtfully. "Are you going to teach it to me?"

"Unfortunately, no," he told the boy. "She never taught it to me, and besides that, it's way above your pay grade. Not to mention I don't actually have that much time. But, while it was definitely her most famous one, it wasn't her favorite."

Flashing through a series of hand seals, Jiraiya parted his hands and blew on them lightly. Blue flames flickered into existence around his right fist, shimmering and wavering with chakra as they conformed to the shape of his hand. Masaru's eyes widened and his Sharingan unconsciously activated, studying the fire closely.

"That fire is full of more chakra than normal katon jutsu," he mused aloud, clearly awestruck, and Jiraiya nodded with a smug grin.

"Good eye, kid. This is Foxfire, a special fire jutsu Ryoko invented." As he spoke he unclenched his fist and flexed his fingers, the flames stretching around them like claws. "Foxfire is unique in that it has a more corporeal form than most fire due to the extra heavy infusion of chakra. That gives the user a bit more room for control over the flames than usual, so they can be a bit more creative with it."

Spinning around, he swiped his hand in the direction of a nearby tree and a part of the flames shot out like needles, striking the trunk and leaving claw-like gauges in the bark. Black marks appeared as the gashes visibly smoldered around the edges, the smell of charred wood drifting their way, but the tree didn't catch fire like Masaru expected.

"As you can see, not only can you throw it like weapons, but with enough practice you can control the heat and density of the flames, making it possible to punch or scratch someone without actually setting them on fire."

"Woah," Masaru whispered, studying the tree with awe. Turning to Jiraiya, he asked, "How does it work?" The Sannin smirked smugly at the eager spark in the child's eyes, letting the flames dissolve as he explained.

"Well Masaru, there are many components in this jutsu, but the two most important ones are strong chakra control and fast reflexes. See, this is technically a combination of both nature transformation and shape transformation, which can be pretty tricky to pull off together. Shaping your chakra is a pretty advanced form of chakra control, and adding a nature transformation on top of that can be damn near impossible sometimes. Even the Fourth Hokage had been unable to combine them in one of his creations.

"But luckily for us," he said, flashing through the hand seals once more, "Ryoko-chan came up with a little shortcut, at least for fire." Cupping his hands around his mouth, Jiraiya blew a small fireball only a few inches in diameter, allowing it to swirl around for a few seconds so Masaru could study it before releasing the jutsu. It dissolved almost instantly, and he lowered his hands. "That was a specialized version of your clan's fireball, and it is the secret to Foxfire."

"And Mom taught it to you?" Masaru asked, sounding surprised. Not that Jiraiya could blame him; the Uchiha usually tended to be pretty stingy with revealing their family's techniques. Ironic given they tended to steal others' jutsu so easily with the Sharingan.

"Eventually," he allowed. "It's a bit different from your clan's standard Grand Fireball, so it's not exactly a 'clan secret,' more of a 'Ryoko secret.' Using it is the first step to performing Foxfire. While it's hard to do both nature and shape transformations at once, it's infinitely easier to manipulate and shape a preexisting element than to add a nature transformation while shaping it."

"Like that water dragon Kakashi used," Masaru said slowly, remembering Team Seven's story about his fight with Zabuza, and Jiraiya grinned.

"Now you're getting it. That jutsu borrows water from nearby bodies of water, so he only has to infuse it with his chakra so he can shape it. While normally it's best to use naturally occurring variants, in this case Ryoko found a loophole. Once you release the jutsu, the fireball is technically independent of your body and chakra system, at which point you can 'snag' it and re-infuse it with your chakra. That's where the fast reflexes come in," Jiraiya added. "It's small so it only lasts a few seconds."

"That's why you blew on your fist, right?" Masaru realized. "To get it in contact with your chakra before it could fade?" Jiraiya nodded, offering him an appreciative smile. Fast read, this kid. Geniuses could be boring to teach compared to more creative students, but it saved him some time.

"Yep, that's right," he confirmed, "but it'll be a while before you can do that. Blowing it directly on your fist runs a risk of burning yourself if you don't have enough practice, so to start you'll have to blow into the air and quickly infuse it with chakra by swiping through it with . It took Ryoko a good year of training before she had the reflexes necessary to safely pull that off. And it took another three months to use it without fireproofed gloves—which, of course, I'll provide," he added with an ever-gracious and only slightly smug smile.

"So with that said," he continued, "We'll start off with just making the fireball. This one is different from the regular one because it's a lot smaller, but it's also more densely packed so the flames are more intense than normal, so it requires a bitt more control to pull off correctly. You'll probably end up burning yourself a little before you get the hang of it, but if you're okay with that, we can begin whenever you're ready."

Masaru responded to Jiraiya with a vigorous nod, his face filling with an earnest determination. "I'm ready."

As Jiraiya looked at him he saw a flash of a small dark-haired girl in his place once more, her black eyes smoldering with deep resolve as she glared up at him defiantly, and the old man couldn't help but smile at the nostalgia the memories brought.

Several hours had passed since the start of the second phase, and a good chunk of the Leaf shinobi involved with this year's exam had convened in a small wooden structure near Training Ground 44 which had been specially erected to serve as a base of operations. Various proctors and chuunin milled about the room discussing security measures, while the three jounin sensei in charge of the Rookie Nine eyed a map showing a basic layout of the Forest of Death.

"So if the kids run into any trouble, they just have to pump their chakra into those little trinkets and their location will show up on that map, huh?" Asuma mused, reaching for a cigarette. Kurenai slapped his hand away before he could put it in his mouth, shooting him a dark look.

"Don't smoke inside," she scolded, and turned back to the map with a sigh. "I hope the kids don't end up needing it. I made sure to tell them to use it if they get into serious trouble and don't think they can pass in one piece, but knowing Kiba he probably wouldn't use it anyway."

"I wouldn't be surprised if my team never used it at all," Kakashi commented with a sigh. "I probably shouldn't have told them that it may get them disqualified. They're all pretty bull-headed so I can't imagine them using it, even if two of them were half-dead." Sakura, maybe, since she had taken the role of the level-headed member of the team, but Naruto and Sasuke? Never. It would hurt their prides too much. He shook his head in mild frustration, and Asuma offered him a small smirk.

"You think so, huh? Well, I probably won't have that problem with my team. Ino might complain, but Shikamaru wouldn't listen to her and just use it anyway, and Chouji always follows his lead."

Bragging about a team's willingness to call for help during the Chuunin Exams seemed strange, but none of the jounin thought on it too much. After Jiraiya deciphered the mechanics of the seal, the Hokage ordered him to prepare a map of the Forest of Death to use in the second stage of the Chuunin Exams. Due to the still-sensitive nature of the seal's existence they chose to use only the pre-prepared seals Ryoko had made for the Rookie Nine, who, as the newest genin, would be the most likely to need it.

The three newest jounin sensei would have entered their teams anyway, but the ability for their students to signal for help certainly made the decision easier.

"I still don't really like it," Genma muttered, tipping his chair back as he listened in on their conversation. "While I get it makes it safer and all that, the whole point of the second phase is to prove teams can survive on an actual mission without a jounin to save them. Having a way to call for help if it gets too hard kinda defeats the purpose."

"It does a bit," Asuma agreed, "But given everything that's happened lately, I think it's a good precaution." As he spoke everyone's gazes slid to Kakashi, who chose to ignore them and stare at the map in heavy silence.

A watered-down version of the events in Wave had been released to a select group of jounin and high-ranking officials, explaining about a masked man kidnapping him after he collapsed from chakra exhaustion before ultimately releasing him. They carefully omitted his tampering with Kakashi's Sharingan, but released enough information to confirm the man expressed a strong interest in the doujutsu. The event had sparked a renewed paranoia among Konoha's officials, and so they had even more security measures in place than usual for their star Uchiha's first Chuunin Exam.

ANBU agents had been stationed at various points throughout the forest, many of them trusted members of his own Team Ro, but even so Kakashi felt a mild tug of anxiety in his chest. The masked man had expressed a strong familiarity with Kakashi and Konoha in general, and as it stood he had no idea of the man's actual abilities. Depending on what he knew and what skills he possessed, he might be able to sneak past their defenses—or even just simply walk through the gates.

They didn't know his face, so he could easily slip in by joining one of the teams visiting for the Chuunin Exams. Konoha couldn't exactly run detailed background checks on all the entrants without risking an international incident, after all. The thought of the man possibly walking in the Forest right now made Kakashi's stomach churn. If he decided to target them this time...

A firm hand pressed on his shoulder and he turned in slight surprise to see Gai standing behind him, flashing a sparkling grin. "Don't worry, my Cool and Youthful Eternal Rival! I am certain your team shall be perfectly fine!" The booming reassurances eased his nerves just a little, and Kakashi nodded and started to reply when the door suddenly slammed open, a chuunin bursting in with a frantic look on his face.

"Everyone! Three faceless corpses have been found and identified as a team from Kusa! Anko-sama has ordered an alert to be sent to all ANBU stationed in the forest to begin searching and has already entered the forest in pursuit!"

Pandemonium instantly broke out at the news, one of the proctors scrambling to grab the radio set and alert the ANBU units while the handful of ANBU waiting on standby flickered away to enter the forest. "Shit, someone infiltrated the test?" Asuma growled, getting to his feet. Kakashi rose as well, shooting Gai a pointed look.

"They'll be fine, eh?" he repeated under his breath, and the spandex-wearing beast's grin grew weaker.

"Don't be too harsh on him," Genma interjected, already in the process of collecting his gear to head out. "Right now all we know is that someone killed a team and infiltrated the exams. That doesn't instantly mean they're after your genin."

"The chances might be higher than you think," Kurenai murmured gravely, catching their attention, and the others turned to find her staring at the map. A single bead of colored light shined brightly deep in the forest, and Kakashi felt his blood run cold as he recognized the distinct pink hue and the glowing kanji for 'Strength' floating next to it.

Chapter Text

Chapter 28

"Not all snakes are venomous, but they're all slimy and have sharp teeth that can still draw blood. When in doubt, run."

Sakura gritted her teeth as she pressed her back against the tree, her heart hammering wildly in her chest. Nearby Sasuke and Naruto confronted the enemy, a lone Grass kunoichi who had appeared out of no where following a giant gust of wind. Their original plan had been for the boys to distract her while Sakura hid and prepared to throw one of her paralytic-laced shuriken at the stranger, but then the woman summoned a snake and Sakura found herself hesitating.

Serpentine eyes flashed through her memory, an instinctive shudder running down her spine. Nearly every Bingo Book she'd collected over the years had the same face on the first page, a gaunt, white-skinned man with yellow eyes and a slimy smirk. Orochimaru, one of the Legendary Sannin and the most notorious missing-nin from Konoha, had left a strong impression on her even in just photograph form. Snakes happened to be his personal summon, so intrinsic to his fighting style and persona that every Bingo Book mentioned it at the top of known abilities.

Three years ago when Sakura first found a bingo book entry on Mitarashi Anko, it had included two particular details of note that had stuck with her. First, Anko happened to be one of Orochimaru's former students, which had definitely smudged her reputation in the village despite cutting ties with the traitor. However, though she had disowned him as her teacher, their relationship still had one connection which persisted: she happened to be the only other known living person who had signed a contract with the Snake summons.

Seeing as Sakura distinctly remembered this particular Grass genin interacting with Anko right before the phase began, she easily dismissed the possibility of her role model transforming into the genin. She could be another random student Orochimaru had taken on after defecting. But given that the Grass "genin" had showed off a very long and flexible tongue earlier, and how she currently displayed an almost boneless quality as she attacked Sasuke and Naruto, Sakura had to begrudgingly dismiss that theory.

No, all the evidence pointed to their assailant being the traitorous Sannin himself in disguise, which meant Big Trouble. Her heart pounded wildly with fear and terror as she swiftly reviewed all of her knowledge of their opponent. Her stomach twisted as she recalled the bare-bones details she'd been able to find on his experiments during her long hours of research on various names in the Bingo Book, so cruel and inhumane that they left her wanting to vomit even without specific details involved.

Her gaze flickered to the shuriken in her hand, biting down on her lip in indecision. Would her paralytics even work? No, she realized, she had concocted a rather basic one from Haku's book, and the chances of Orochimaru not developing an immunity to the ingredients involved given his own history were laughably dismal. Right now Sasuke and Naruto risked their lives facing the man, waiting for her to act out her part of a plan she knew wouldn't work.

Frustration surged through her as she harshly stowed away the shuriken and began rummaging through her weapons pouch, her mind whirling desperately in search of a better strategy. Her fingers brushed against something soft and Sakura paused, her eyes widening as she recognized the small coin purse Kakashi had returned just a week ago. The map!

Snatching it out of the weapons pouch, Sakura closed her fist around it and pumped chakra into the purple pouch, glimpsing the kanji for 'Strength' sewn onto the side light up and fluctuate between red and pink. "Please, notice it soon," she whispered in a quiet prayer, slipping it back into her weapons pouch. No sooner had she done that than she felt the hairs on her neck suddenly rise, and on instinct Sakura dove away from the tree just before it shattered under the sudden impact of a large snake.

Rolling along the ground and landing in a crouch, she spun to face the battle with gritted teeth, instinctively retrieving a kunai from her pouch. An unpoisoned kunai wouldn't do much good against an opponent like this, but the familiar feeling of the hilt in her hand provided a faint sense of comfort and false assurance that made her tighten her grip.

"My, hiding while your teammates risk their lives?" the supposed "genin" taunted with a smirk, and for half a second Sakura thought she saw their tongue flicker in their mouth like a snake's. "That's quite low, isn't it? Especially for Konoha, which prides itself on teamwork and friendship." Sakura's pulse slid to a halt at the venomous lilt draping from the last sentence, her muscles paralyzed by the intensity of their stare.

An orange blur barreled to the ground next to her and suddenly she found Naruto grabbing her arm and jerking her to her feet. "Sakura-chan, move!" he screamed, and hauled her into the air with a giant leap just before a snake crashed into the spot she'd occupied. Even as they jumped to safety Sasuke appeared behind the stranger, hands already flashing through the seals for a Grand Fireball, and a fiery inferno erupted from his mouth scorching the area their opponent stood.

Burning grass and wood blew their way as Naruto directed their jump to land atop a nearby branch, at which point he grabbed Sakura by the shoulders. "Sakura-chan, snap out of it!" he hissed, giving her a hard shake as his eyes flashed with panic and concern. "You were supposed to throw that shuriken at her so we could slow her down!"

Sakura swallowed thickly, the motion difficult with the heavy dryness that had dominated her mouth. "It wouldn't work," she whispered, shaking her head.

"Hah? What are you talking about, Sakura?"

"That person. He—shethey're, th-they're not normal." Noticing her body had begun to shake violently, she folded her arms over her chest to try to still the tremors. She tried to steady her erratic heartbeat as she swallowed again, her next words coming out careful and measured. "I... I threw out my favorite kunai."

Naruto's eyes widened as he recognized the secret code phrase they'd settled upon to alert the others if they sent the distress signal. Sakura quickly looked at her feet, knowing that he wouldn't respond well to the news. After entering the forest all three members Team Seven had made a vow to each other not to use the seals no matter what, and yet she'd gone and done it on her own anyway.

Sure enough Naruto's shock quickly gave way to an irritated scowl, his voice rising into a high-pitched hiss that didn't rise from a whisper but clearly emulated yelling. "What? Are you serious!? I know that guy's really strong, but you haven't even tried yet!"

Sucking in a sharp breath, Sakura steadied her trembling and raised her head to meet his gaze, her own eyes full of a sudden steely calm that gave him pause. "Naruto, I am ninety-nine percent certain that 'genin' is Orochimaru." For a moment Naruto looked at her blankly before comprehension suddenly dawned.

"W-wait, Orochimaru?" he squeaked, paling to a shade almost as white as the man in question. "Y-you mean that guy from the Sannin you talked about?"

"Yes, Naruto," Sakura confirmed with a grim nod, grimacing as she dared a glance at the ongoing fight. Sasuke's fireball had well since faded by this point to reveal scorch marks on the ground, but no traces of their opponent remained. The Uchiha immediately reacted by jumping away, and barely two seconds later another snake exploded from the ground where he'd been standing.

Watching the chaos with wide-eyed horror, Naruto turned to look at Sakura and said, "Shit."

Then he disappeared in a puff of smoke, making Sakura realize she had been speaking to a shadow clone the entire time. Seconds later she heard a loud chorus of whispered curses echoing all around them and Sasuke whipped his head to look around in surprise, his eyebrows furrowing in confusion as he registered Naruto's hidden clones simultaneously cursing. His gaze lingered when it landed upon Sakura, the kunoichi just staring back at him with grave horror.

Hearing a soft whistle behind her, Sakura instantly leapt down from the branch and barely avoided a kunai whizzing through the space that her head had occupied. Upon hitting the tree it exploded with a giant boom that did not seem to fit the tag's size, and the resulting shockwave from the explosion struck Sakura mid-fall. The force sent her hurtling to the ground for a less-than-graceful impact, crashing into the dirt and painfully skinning her arms and legs as she slid forward several feet.

The second she stopped Sasuke appeared next to her, helpfully hoisting her to her feet with a single tug on her arm. Pain surged through her tender legs at having her weight on the just-pulled muscle but she ignored it and immediately jumped backwards with Sasuke to avoid a rain of kunai and shuriken. The second they landed the pair turned and fled, her teammate shooting her a dark look.

"What the hell happened to the strategy?" he demanded hotly.

"Change of plans," she informed him, rummaging through her pouch. "No time to explain, but if I'm right this guy is stronger than Zabuza." Her words made Sasuke visibly tense, though his steps never slowed. Pulling out a kunai with a bright red wrap around the handle, she nodded to Sasuke and said, "Focus on buying time."

With that final order she whipped around and threw the kunai behind her, watching it plunge into a tree. The bandages unraveled to reveal an explosive tag which promptly ignited and burst into a large plume of dark brown smoke, spreading a sharp, pungent odor through the nearby area. Naruto had conceived the stink-bomb exploding kunai in Wave, and while it had seemed a frivolous addition to her arsenal, Sakura now felt grateful for his insistence on its inclusion. She knew that most snakes depended on their sense of smell due to poor eyesight, and hopefully these wouldn't be different.

Sure enough, several of the serpents hissed and recoiled in dismay, making various noises of disgust as the odor assaulted them. Recognizing the effect the smell had on the snakes, the Naruto clones surged into action and sprung from various points in the trees to litter the serpents with their own arsenal of rigged kunai. Each sticky explosion amplified the nauseating odor to the point that Sasuke and Sakura's eyes began watering, but the overwhelming stench momentarily stunned the snakes and they couldn't waste the opportunity.

Skidding to a halt and spinning to race back towards them, Sasuke whipped out his shuriken and rained them upon the frozen serpents. They couldn't react fast enough and most of the shuriken managed to hit their targets with no problems, their cries of pain echoing loudly as the sharp points pierced through their scales. Two of them disappeared in a puff of smoke, the shuriken embedding too deep in their bodies to continue fighting safely, but the other three recovered swiftly and flung themselves at the Uchiha.

This time Sakura launched forward, ignoring the awful stench as she pulled out her own shuriken and threw them at the pouncing snakes. At the same time a barrage of Naruto clones descended from the trees, aiming harsh kicks at their backs with furious roars. Blood flew from at least one snake's mouth as a clone stomped it to the forest floor and a sickening crack echoed upon impact, followed by Sakura's shuriken burying into its neck to force it back. The remaining two managed to slither out of the way and sprung at the clones with jaws extended to expose their sharp, sharp fangs.

Sasuke and Sakura used those precious few seconds of distraction to launch a retreat, loud pops sounding behind them to signify the clones had been popped. At this point they had no idea where the real Naruto was, but they could only hope he would be fine. Kami knew they could barely save themselves as it stood.

A flash of movement caught Sakura's eye and her gaze snapped to the ground to see the earth trembling just ahead of them. Her breath hitched and she screamed, "Look out!" but it was too late. Another snake suddenly erupted from the earth, this one the largest yet, and the resulting explosion of displaced earth and soil sent her and Sasuke tumbling back. The snake launched towards Sasuke, its jaws unhinging to reveal the so-called "genin" emerging.

Twisting their torso like a corkscrew as they emerged, their hand abruptly shot toward Sasuke, their arm stretching in a boneless manner to extend its reach to impossible lengths. Slimy fingers grabbed the shocked genin by the throat, a choked gasp escaping him as they tightened painfully. The assailant's upper body instantly stretched across the gap while their legs remained in the snake's mouth, and Sasuke's eyes widened in horror as their sticky hair fell away of their face.

Saliva and venom coated their—no, his face to give it a sickly sheen, his mouth twisted into a demented grin that sent shudders down Sakura's spine. "My, so creative," the crazed shinobi crooned, yellow eyes glinting with a manic glee visible to Sakura even from several yards away as he surveyed his trapped prey. "Your whole team is quite interesting, isn't it?" Clear fluid spewed from Sasuke's mouth as the man's hold tightened even further around his neck, his captor's smile growing malicious as he leaned closer to hiss only loud enough for Sasuke himself to hear, "But I only have eyes for one of you."

Before the man could do anything else a loud crack sounded and suddenly a series of sharp wooden spikes erupted from the soil beneath them, spiraling directly towards his body. The "genin" swiftly retracted his torso and head before either could get impaled, lightly loosening his hold on Sasuke's neck in the process. A vine immediately shot out and ensnared the Uchiha around the waist, yanking him away from the man's grip with a harsh jerk and pulling him into the trees.

Cloaked figures suddenly filled the clearing, one appearing right in front of Sakura in a defensive position. Though they wore hoods that shaded their faces she caught glimpses of porcelain white masks within the shadows and immediately registered the new arrivals as ANBU. Under other circumstances Inner Sakura would probably be screeching with delight at the sight of so many of their future comrades and subordinates, but as it stood Sakura just felt too overwhelmed to particularly care.

"Retreat now," the one in front of her ordered, not turning away from their opponent. "Tiger will escort your team to safety."

"T-Tiger?" she sputtered, still struggling to process everything. As if on cue another ANBU agent appeared next to her, this one wearing a mask with red and green stripes and a distinct feline shape to its eyes. He swept her off her feet and whisked her away without a word, the scenery blurring as he ran at speeds she had only dreamed of. Her heart pounded wildly as her head forcibly rested against his chest due to the sheer momentum of his pace, her ear pressing in just the right place to faintly hear the smooth, steady rhythm of his heartbeat through his armor and clothing.

"CHYA!" Inner Sakura yelled excitedly. "This is AWESOME! Dammit, this would be even cooler if it was Sasuke!"

Yes. Yes it would be. Damsels in distress always annoyed her, but if it was Sasuke-kun...

By the time the ANBU finally landed Sakura's face had turned a bright cherry red, fantasies of Sasuke carrying her bridal style filling her mind. It took her a second to register they'd stopped, and she quickly blinked and shook her head before he set her on her feet. Two clones of the man waited alongside Naruto and Sasuke, her teammates looking just as shaken as she felt.

"What the hell just happened?" Naruto asked, looking a bit queasy from the speedy run.

"I have no idea anymore," Sasuke grumbled, rubbing his forehead.

"Your team has been targeted by a notorious S-rank missing ninja," the ANBU informed them, his clones dispersing. Hand fluttering towards his ear, Sakura realized he must be wearing a radio set under his hood because he nodded and told them, "Currently my comrades and Mitarashi Anko are engaging him in battle, but they lack the necessary power to defeat him and he'll likely flee before stronger reinforcements can arrive. There is a chance that when he escapes he will go after your team again."

His words served as a harsh callback to reality for Sakura, banishing all lingering thoughts of Sasuke's well-toned chest as the past five minutes crashed back into the forefront of her mind. Her head spun dizzily at the prospect of possibly fighting the man again, her heartbeat spiking anxiously. Naruto looked similarly uneasy and uncertain, while Sasuke just scowled.

"Who the hell is he?" her teammate demanded coldly, his eyes narrowed.

The ANBU hesitated, and then confirmed Sakura's worst fears: "One of the Legendary Sannin, Orochimaru."

At that point the stress finally caught up to her, and she doubled over and vomited.

Nightfall found the trio of genin huddled in the hollow of a giant tree, their bodies pressed together as they gazed into the darkness with wary eyes. They had decided against building a fire as the glow could draw attention, only lighting one long enough to roast the meat of a large predatory bird they'd felled earlier. Even then, they made sure to conceal the fire as much as possible, and only roasted the meat long enough so it couldn't be called "raw".

Sasuke frowned as he stared into the darkness, his Sharingan flickering to life so the trees came into sharper focus. Somewhere out there a full ANBU squadron lurked, watching their team from places they couldn't even imagine. When Team Seven had expressed their desire to continue the exam regardless of the risk, Tiger arranged to have a team watch the three genin at all times in case Orochimaru made another appearance.

That said, they wouldn't help if a rival team or predator showed up. Tiger made it perfectly clear that one of them could be dying of poison with their legs chopped off and their throat bleeding out, and their ANBU watchers still wouldn't lift a finger to help. Team Seven was still taking the exam, and letting a fully-trained ANBU provide aid would give them a ridiculously unfair advantage.

They had graciously provided the team enough water to last the night though. Hunting food would be easy enough given the large variety of lethal fauna aiming to turn them into dinner, but apparently they decided that expecting a trio of rookies to go looking for water after encountering a Sannin would be unreasonable. Something about how proper hydration would potentially help their mental states recover faster.

Exhaling through his nose, Sasuke let his eyes return to their normal state and glanced at his teammates. Naruto put on a tough face like usual, but he could recognize the strong glimmer of anxiety in his eyes as they continually flitted to the forest, as if searching for dangerous. Sakura had regained a bit of color compared to when she'd first thrown up but still looked shaken by the encounter, not that he could blame her.

She'd filled him in on her knowledge of Orochimaru's abilities and history, and he felt sickened by what she described. He definitely existed far beyond their league, and even though she described some pretty horrific crimes, he had a distinct feeling she omitted a lot of details.

Orochimaru's last remark made it clear his interest lay in Sasuke, a thought which made the Uchiha feel sick to his stomach. It didn't take a genius to figure out he most likely wanted Sasuke's eyes rather than Sasuke himself. He felt grateful Sakura broke their vow and used the seal on her coin purse to send a distress signal, because if the ANBU had been even a second later in figuring out their location—

He shuddered, not even wanting to imagine what could have happened.

Instead he quietly sighed, the soft sound instantly grabbing the attention of his still-edgy teammates. "We need to figure out watch shifts," he declare in a low voice, careful not to speak too loudly. His teammates nodded slowly, their grim and anxious expressions morphing into more determined looks.

"I'll take first watch," all three said at once, and then blinked in surprise. Some might call the simultaneous offers a show of strong care for each other, but Sasuke knew better. None of them wanted to risk being asleep if Orochimaru attacked.

After a long while of silence Sakura sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose. "This is so stupid," she grumbled under her breath. "We have a full ANBU squadron watching us, they'll move right away if he shows his slimy face for even a second. We should just trust them and focus on the exam."

"Right," Naruto muttered, nodding uneasily. Pausing, he looked between her and Sasuke before deciding, "Then I guess I'll take first watch. Sakura-chan, you still look kinda sick, and you look really pale too teme."

"I'm naturally pale," Sasuke deadpanned.

"Yeah, but I mean, paler than usual." Naruto rolled his eyes.

"He's got a point," Sakura sighed, slumping against the wall. "You got strangled, Sasuke. And my stomach's still a bit off from vomiting back there." Folding her arms over her chest, she closed her eyes and hummed in thought. "Sasuke-kun, your Sharingan lets you see in the dark better, doesn't it?" When he grunted in affirmation, she reasoned, "Then you should take the middle shift, since it's the darkest. I'll take the last one since it's closest to dawn and it will be gradually getting lighter. Is that okay?"

Sasuke frowned, not pleased at the prospect of having his sleep interrupted by the middle shift. With his current adrenaline rush it would take a while to fall asleep, and waking up for the second shift would only make it harder to fall asleep again. Then a sudden thought struck him. "Wait, why don't we have the dobe's clones set up a perimeter and take shifts instead?"

Sakura opened her eyes to stare at him blankly, her gaze unreadable in the darkness. "...I did not think of that," she admitted slowly, and the boys realized she must be even more out of it than they first thought.

Shooting her a sympathetic look, Naruto raised his hand into the seal and created several clones, which promptly transformed into various creatures they'd seen during their brief stay in the Forest of Death. The disguised clones immediately set out to establish a perimeter, and he reclined against the inner wall of the tree with a tired grin. "There, now if any of them see anything suspicious, they'll pop and let me know right away. So you guys just both sit back and get some sleep, okay? Just leave security to me!"

He flashed them a grin Sasuke supposed was meant to be reassuring, but he still couldn't shed the overwhelming unease the earlier battle had incurred. Still, he curled up on the floor of the hollow and after a moment's thought huddled against Sakura, making her tense. "S-S-Sasuke-k-k-kun?" she stuttered, and he frowned in mild irritation as he wondered if her worse fangirl tendencies would resurface. They had never really vanished completely, but they had definitely improved over the years to a tolerable level.

"None of us have blankets, and we can't build a fire because it would make our location too visible to enemies," he told her flatly. "So unless you have any better ideas to stay warm, our best option is to lie down next to each other and share body warmth." He heard a strange squeaking sound, and decided to pretend it came from a squirrel rather than his teammate having a potential relapse. Glancing to Naruto, he ordered, "Wake us up the second something happens."

"Got it," the blond replied, nodding at him earnestly. He felt Sakura shift next to him, sitting up a bit to meet their teammate's eyes.

"Naruto," she began but paused, seeming to search for words. Their gazes held for a few moments before her eyes briefly flitted to Sasuke before returning to Naruto, and when she did comprehension dawned on his face and he nodded.

"Don't worry Sakura-chan," he told her, flashing a bright grin. "I get it." Relief seemed to flash on her face, and she laid back down with a sigh, curling into a ball next to Sasuke. Exhaustion quickly took hold of them and sleep soon claimed them, Sasuke's consciousness fading into a dreamless void.

Later, when he awoke to early morning sunlight filtering into the hollow and Sakura quietly preparing breakfast consisting of safe plants, he'd realize that they never did wake him up for his shift.

Blood and sand mingled on the forest ground, flies buzzing around the gory remains of the hours-old corpse. Glazed eyes stared at the sky lifelessly behind cracked sunglasses, face twisted in a permanent grimace of horror. A soft sigh escaped the silver-haired man towering above the body, his lips pursed into a disapproving frown.

"I leave for a few hours, and this happens?" Kabuto sighed, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. His eyes slid to his remaining teammate and Tsurugi Misumi stiffened minutely under his sharp gaze, his jaw clenching beneath the cloth covering his face. Though he and Kabuto officially ranked as genin in Konoha's eyes, within the ranks of their true allegiance Kabuto far outranked him, serving as Orochimaru's right-hand man.

Sweat beaded on Misumi's face as he swallowed, fully aware that the apparently gentle and pacifistic medic could easily destroy his body beyond usability with a few touches if angered enough. "I don't know. We had to split up briefly due to a pack of tigers attacking us." Kabuto hummed at the explanation, turning back to the body of Akado Yoroi. Based on the state of his corpse, he probably ran into Suna's jinchuuriki.

Quite foolish, really. Kabuto had specifically warned his so-called "teammates" not to approach Gaara, knowing full well the boy had fully earned his highly dangerous reputation. Neither of them could possibly hope to survive a hostile encounter with the unstable jinchuuriki, but it would make sense that the ever-brash and over-confident Yoroi would assume his chakra absorption abilities would give him an edge over Gaara anyway.

Frankly, Yoroi should count himself lucky he perished. Had he somehow survived, Lord Orochimaru would make his life hell for his failure. Oh well, no point in dwelling on the past. "It appears we won't be able to proceed to the next phase," he declared to Misumi, his lips curling into a humorless smile as he pulled out their scroll. "I suppose we should see to it that we follow through Plan B, then. After all, someone needs to make it to the next round."

He turned on his heel and calmly strode away, Misumi casting one last glance at their fallen comrade before following in grim silence.

"Aunt Ryoko, help!"

The ten-year-old boy screamed as a large gray cat chased him, the boy narrowly avoiding a swipe of his claws with a horrified whine. Jiraiya just watched the chase with a bemused smile as he sat at the low table with a scroll, secretly pleased to not be on the receiving end of the feline's wrath for once. The boy yelled again as he dodged another strike, releasing a strained whine as the claws glinted in the light.

"Masahige, Shisui, that's enough!"

The pair instantly halted as Ryoko suddenly thundered into the room, her hair frazzled and loose from its braid and her apron covered in splattered food. Shisui dove behind her and clutched her skirt, peering around her leg at the feline with a fearful whimper.

"Aunt Ryoko, save me!" he cried, whimpering as the cat shot him a cold glare. Ryoko just sighed, shaking her head.

"I swear, I feel like the only adult sometimes," she grumbled, and Masahige snorted and rolled his eyes.

"You are an adult, Ryoko. You should act like it sometimes."

"Can't believe I'm saying this, but I'm gonna agree with the cat on this one," Jiraiya grumbled, ignoring the disdainful look the ninneko shot him. "You're a mother now, you're the only adult most of the time. You can't act childish all the time."

"So says the man who still peeps on women like a child in the throes of puberty," Masahige murmured disdainfully, and Jiraiya shot him a cold look.

"Hey! I'll have you know that there is nothing wrong with pervertedness!"

"It is one of Jiraiya-sensei's funniest traits," Ryoko mused, and Shisui offered her a deadpan look.

"You are a terrible role model. I feel bad for your kids."

"Says the boy who spends every free day at my house." She ruffled his hair with a cheeky smirk, and Shisui batted away her hand with quickly reddening cheeks.

"O-only because you're the only adult who makes cookies!"

"Speaking of cookies..." Her gaze slid to the door and Shisui suddenly froze, his eyes widening. In a flash he disappeared from the room, at which point Ryoko turned to her feline summon. "Hige-chan, be a dear and watch him, hmm?"

"I am a warrior, not a babysitter," the cat grumbled, but dutifully trotted after the boy anyway. Ryoko quietly slid the door shut behind him before turning around with a large sigh.

"That kid sure likes you, doesn't he?" Jiraiya commented, and Ryoko smiled.

"Of course he does. Shisui-chan has been coming over since before the twins were born. I'm pretty much the closest thing he has to a therapist."

"Therapist? The hell does a kid like that need a therapist for? He's what, eight?"

"Ten," Ryoko corrected, collapsing on the cushion at the table across from Jiraiya. Grabbing the scroll before he could stop her, she skimmed its contents with a thoughtful hum. "Ooh, is this a code? I wonder who it's from."

"That," Jiraiya growled, snatching the scroll back, "is none of your business. Which reminds me, you still haven't given me a good explanation for why you sent those damned cats to find me."

"Didn't they tell you?" she asked, inclining her head inquisitively. "I want you to teach my children a jutsu."

"Yeah, they told me. I just don't get why. Can't you do it?"

"Well, yeah, but it's not the same," she sighed. "You're a Sannin. I'm just some retired old biddie who had a breakdown."

"...You're an A-rank threat known internationally as the Bloody Sunburst with a fifty million ryo bounty," Jiraiya deadpanned.

"Plenty of people reach that point."

"You're an Uchiha-born fuinjutsu master whose abilities are on par with me, and almost reverse-engineered the Hiraishin."

"Minato beat me to it though."

"You single-handedly turned the tides in the Battle of Getsugawa and saved the lives of dozens of our own forces."

"That wasn't a major battle. Kannabi Bridge had a way bigger impact."

Jiraiya could feel his eye twitching in irritation. "...You're not going to take no for an answer, are you?" he asked through gritted teeth, and she smiled at him serenely.

"Nope. If you're going to teach Minato's son, then surely you can teach my kids a thing or two too. It's only fair, sensei."

"Only fai—Minato's dead!" Jiraiya stared at her in disbelief, and Ryoko paused, her smile fading.

"...He is, isn't he," she murmured, and he found himself pausing because she had that wistful look on her face, that distant gaze haunted by some sort of knowledge he couldn't possibly understand. Watching her silently, after a few moments Jiraiya huffed a large sigh and squeezed his eyes shut, pinching the bridge of his nose.

"...Alright, fine," he muttered. "I'll teach them something. Maybe I can tutor them in fuinjutsu or something..."

"No, I have a better idea," Ryoko responded, cupping her hands around his cheeks, and his eyelids fluttered open in surprise just in time to see her eyes turn red.

In the present Jiraiya sighed as he sat atop the Hokage monument, perched on one of the spikes of Minato's hair. Warm lights glowed in the windows of the village below him as the night grew darker, the streets nearly empty save as the majority of the residents retreated indoors to sleep. Watching Konoha at twilight never particularly appealed to him like some of his comrades, preferring the spectacular sights available in more exotic vistas, but he could still appreciate the aesthetics of the view. It created a homey and comfortable atmosphere, with just a slightly somber note due to late hour. A relaxed atmosphere perfect for reflecting on the past.

What started as a simple day had evolved into something so much more hectic. First, he got caught up in training Masaru after unexpectedly running into him at Ryoko's grave, and spent a good chunk of the day supervising the young Uchiha's attempts at the fireball well into the afternoon. Then on his way to do some pre-dinner research to work up his appetite, he got intercepted by an ANBU with immediate summons to the Hokage's office. And upon being dragged there against his will, he learned that his old teammate had been sighted going after the other Uchiha.

All in all, it looked like Jiraiya had come back to Konoha just in time for one hell of a show. No way Sarutobi-sensei would let him just laze around with the ever-looming threat before them, the old man was probably planning Jiraiya's schedule for the next month right now.

"What a day," he muttered, the corners of his mouth lifting into a rueful smirk. "Feels like just yesterday I was visiting Ryoko's place watching you chase around that poor brat." He turned his head slightly to look at the feline sitting on one of the stones behind him, his ash-colored fur giving the heavily scarred cat an almost ghostly appearance as his single golden eye gleamed in what little light penetrated the night.

"You'll have to be more specific than just poor brat," Masahige replied dryly, and the sage released a humorless chuckle as he turned to face the village again.

"So, is there a reason you're still in Konoha?" 'Any more final orders Ryoko neglected to inform us about?' lingered beneath the surface of his inquiry, too experienced to voice such questions so bluntly.

"Perhaps. Perhaps not. In any event, it is none of your business." Jiraiya snorted and rolled his eyes, expecting no less from the cantankerous feline who served as the leader of Ryoko's personal summons. They never had gotten along, not from the first time Ryoko had summoned the cat during a team meeting. In fact, he often suspected she ordered him to assault Jiraiya's face every time, just for comedy value.

The thought of those peaceful days sobered him, his face growing solemn as he surveyed his home village. Once upon a time, Jiraiya had a total of six people who claimed him as their teacher. Over the years the number had steadily whittled down though, starting with kind but short-tempered and rash Yuichi after his first brush with war ended with him succumbing to a fast-acting poison before they could get help, and eventually ending with Ryoko's gory demise at the hands of her own clansman barely six years ago.

Now all that remained of those halcyon days were two fragile boys who inherited unspeakably heavy burdens from their deceased parents. Sometimes Jiraiya wondered what that said about him, that his students—all six, when most people only had three at most—had all died so young. Had he been superstitious like Tsunade he'd probably assume he had some kind of curse attached to him, forced to watch every student perish while he'd somehow survive to die of old age.

As if reading his mind Masahige huffed and grumbled lowly, "You better not be blaming yourself for all of their deaths. Ryoko gave me strict orders to scratch your face if you ever started moping about her and everyone else's decisions, and I'd rather not have to stalk you around Konoha to keep in compliance with that order."

The abruptness of the complaint and its content brought forth a bubbling laugh from Jiraiya, his gloomy thoughts disappearing as he slapped his knee with a mirthful chuckle. "Well, I don't want that either," he teased, grinning at the glaring feline. "I have enough cranky old men in my life right now. I'd much rather have some pretty young ladies stalking me for a change."

The cat growled in annoyance and leaped off the rock, disappearing into the darkness below the monument. Jiraiya reclined against the stone with a faint smile, tipping his head to look up at the glittering night sky.

This upcoming month still gave him an ominous foreboding feeling, but for tonight he'd let himself relax, just a little.

Omake: Back With Masaru

On day three of the Chuunin Exams, Kakashi suddenly appeared in the window and declared, "Good news, Team Seven made it safely to the tower!"

Masaru yelled and nearly toppled over in shock at the jounin's sudden entrance, dropping the basket he'd been carrying to the laundry room. Watching the dirty clothes spill onto the floor, Kakashi couldn't help but comment, "Maa, you need to work on your reflexes."

"Y-you—what are you doing here!?" Masaru sputtered, whirling to stare at Kakashi wide-eyed. "What does that even mean!?" Kakashi stared at him for a moment from his perch on the windowsill, blinking owlishly.

"Oh right. You don't know what the second phase actually is." Shrugging, he slid off the windowsill to stand on the floor, hands casually shoved into his pockets. "Well, the specifics don't really matter, you just need to know that Team Seven passed. Whose boxers are those and how did it get that big purple stain?"

His attention zeroed in on a pair of boxers patterned with neon-colored cat heads and a large stain on the side, and Masaru snatched it up with flaming cheeks. "Yours, then," Kakashi surmised, and dodged a kunai which immediately lodged into the wall behind him. Eying the damage, he couldn't help but remark, "That may affect your deposit."

"How does Sasuke put up with you," Masaru groaned, gathering the fallen laundry.

"You still haven't explained the stain."

"Naruto left a paint bomb for Sasuke and it got me instead."

"Ah, of course." Kakashi nodded sagely as if that explained everything, and Masaru dumped the fallen clothes into the basket and hefted it up.

"Thanks for telling me they passed, I guess? I kinda need to go do laundry now, though, so..."

"Right, I understand." Kakashi's eye crinkled in a smile, and he closed the window and locked it. "The laundry room's on the second floor, right? Let's walk together."

Masaru just decided not to question why he knew that since as far as he knew most apartment buildings kept it in their basements or the first floor. "Why?" he asked instead.

"Why not?" Kakashi responded blithely. Masaru just stared at him silently, not moving for the door. The jounin clearly had a bigger motive for visiting than just tell him Sasuke passed the second phase, otherwise he wouldn't have followed him here. Whatever it was he seemed uncomfortable about bringing it up.

Unfortunately for Kakashi, Masaru had mastered the art of enduring long silences, both awkward and tense. Between Sasuke's broody mood swings and his own naturally social ineptitude, he had plenty of experience with these kinds of silences and had grown mostly desensitized to them. If Kakashi wanted the silence to end, he'd have to break it himself.

After about five minutes the jounin sighed. "You know, given how much you seem to struggle with most social interactions, I expected you to crack sooner," he commented, and Masaru flashed him a smug smirk.

"Sorry to disappoint you," he taunted. "Why are you here?"

"Well, I guess I really just want to make sure you're holding up alright," Kakashi said with a lazy shrug. His answer still didn't satisfy Masaru, and he looked at him for about five more seconds before it clicked.

"You miss having Sasuke and Naruto and Sakura around so you're using me as a substitute," he declared blandly, and he felt a bit of smug satisfaction at the flicker of surprise in Kakashi's eye. Then the man's expression returned to normal and he shrugged.

"Close enough." Before Masaru could question what that meant Kakashi had swiped the basket from him. "Let's go get this laundry done, okay?" Without giving Masaru a chance to answer he swept out of the apartment, leaving the boy to watch him in confusion.

Chapter Text

Chapter 29

 "Sometimes the smallest ripples can lead to the largest changes. That begs the question, 'what happens if I throw in a brick?' I'm scared to test it because it will either be good, neutral, or somehow end the world."


Twelve genin stood in the center of the tower's arena, their bodies and faces marred with bruises and cuts. Vibrant red blood still smeared across the cracked tiles of the floor behind them, the walls scarred with gashes from their kunai and shuriken. Yet despite the battle-weary looks they wore, they stood with their shoulders held high as they faced the Third Hokage, their eyes sparkling with fierce determination.

The elderly shinobi veteran's lips quirked into a faint smile as he surveyed the long row of youths facing him, their clothes and natural coloring producing a subdued rainbow. Five different symbols adorned their hitai-ate, the gleaming silver plates creating another sort of rainbow. Rarely did so many different villages have genin make it to the final round in a single exam, and Hiruzen's heart swelled with pride as he noted the ever-familiar leaf insignia adorning half of their bands.

"Everyone who stands before me today has proven themselves," he declared in a booming voice. "Though this is only the preliminary rounds, you have demonstrated great talent and skill to reach this point and have all earned the right to compete in the tournament at the end of this month. There you shall have the honor of representing your villages, and your performance shall determine whether or not you will earn the right to receive the title of chuunin.

"However, regardless of your performance then, remember this. You have survived numerous trials to reach this point, and several of you have demonstrated an incredible ingenuity today alone. You are the future of your villages, and after what I have seen today, I am certain your villages will shine bright with shinobi like you at their helms."

Having finished his congratulatory speech Hiruzen turned and departed the arena, his footsteps echoing loudly in the ensuing silence. As soon as the door closed behind him he heaved a large sigh, his weathered features growing drawn and tired. He began walking down the hall at a brisk pace, not bothering to slow or turn around when he sensed one of his ANBU agents appear behind him. "Report," he ordered briskly.

"No signs of Orochimaru have been found. However, we have found evidence of a spy near the Uchiha's apartment." The news made his lips press into a grim line.

"What sort of evidence?"

"A corpse, sir." Hiruzen stopped mid-step, turning to level a sharp look at the man.

"A corpse?" he echoed lowly, and the man nodded once.

"Yes. The face was mauled beyond recognition, so preliminary DNA tests are currently being run on the remains to see if we have any information on the man's identity. However, we found something very interesting with his remains." As he spoke he produced a folder from the folds of his cloak, and Hiruzen snatched it and flipped it open to study its contents with sharp eyes.

Immediately he understood why the ANBU called the discovery "interesting," as the top photo showed the two Uchiha boys walking down the street from afar. Normally spies wouldn't carry such blatant evidence on their persons, and Hiruzen counted his lucky stars that this one had been an exception as he studied the picture. A red pen had been used to circle Sasuke, but what really caught his attention was the red "x" over Masaru's right ear.

Few people knew of Masaru's partial deafness, and the placement of the "x" seemed too precise to be mere coincidence. On its own he'd say it had been meant as a reminder of his weakness. Combined with the fact they'd circled Sasuke, however, Hiruzen swiftly concluded the photo had been marked as a reminder to the agent to prioritize Sasuke over Masaru.

Targeting even one Uchiha caused plenty of reason for alarm on its own, but to potentially single out one over the other due to a little-known physical disability? That indicated that whoever the spy worked for had an interest in the boys extending beyond merely attaining the Sharingan, and that did not sit well with Hiruzen at all. That didn't even take into account the fact he had to figure out where the photo's owner learned about Masaru's deafness.

Frowning as he mulled over the implications, Hiruzen flipped to the next photo, which showed the spy's remains. Just as the ANBU said, the face had been brutally mauled, deep gashes rendering it little more than ripped muscles. A less seasoned shinobi would probably vomit at the brutality of it, but Hiruzen had seen far worse and spared it little more than a glance before studying the series of small paw prints burnt into the man's chest.

Despite the severity of the situation his mouth curled into a small smirk, a morbid chuckle escaping him. It appeared that Ryoko's ninneko summons still played a more active role in her son's life than he'd realized. He pitied anyone who would try to harm Masaru under their watch, they could be quite savage.

Still, Hiruzen couldn't leave the Uchiha boys' safety in the hands (or paws) of ninneko alone. He had no doubt the spy worked for Orochimaru, and his former student would stop at nothing to get what he wanted.

"Summon Tiger and Kakashi to my office at their soonest convenience," he ordered, and the ANBU nodded before flickering away, leaving Hiruzen to resume his walk to the tower in contemplative silence. What exactly are you planning, Orochimaru?

After a long day of training, Masaru sat on the couch with a book on chakra control theories when the door to the apartment suddenly banged open and Sasuke stumbled inside. His clothes looked a bit ragged and he had a few scratches, but overall he seemed fine and radiated an air of subtle satisfaction. Bolting upright in surprise, Masaru closed the book and greeted eagerly, "You passed the second phase?"

His cousin just smirked.

In all, Konoha had six genin pass the preliminaries. Aside from Sasuke himself, Naruto also passed, as did Neji, Shino, Shikamaru and—somewhat surprisingly—Hinata. Meanwhile, all three Sand Siblings passed, while Oto, Taki and Ame each passed one genin. It made for a grand total of twelve genin proceeding to the finals, which would make for a good show for the foreign dignitaries.

With some prodding, Sasuke filled him in on a few of the matches as they sat at the table. Of course, being Sasuke he didn't go into much detail, but he gave Masaru the key details of the ones he found most relevant. "I beat Ino," he said with a shrug. "She went down pretty easy, our fighting styles didn't mesh at all so she couldn't counter me that well."

"What about Naruto?" Masaru asked, naturally curious about his good friend. Sasuke scoffed, rolling his eyes.

"The dobe got paired with some dumb pervert from Taki who kept ogling the girls."


Raising his hand in a single sign, a puff of smoke consumed Naruto and his three shadow clones. Upon clearing three nude pigtailed girls stood facing their opponent in an assortment of flirty poses, swirls of smoke providing just enough coverage to keep a PG rating while still inciting angry parents over the sheer amount of skin visible. Not that Naruto's opponent would complain.

"Natsuuu-kuuuun," they chorused, giggling and blowing kisses at the Waterfall genin. He stared at them dumbly, his eyes bulging as he took in their nude forms.

Then the real Naruto popped up behind him and whacked him over the head with a harsh karate chop, sending him collapsing to the ground.

Five seconds passed in total silence, Naruto and the three Narukos staring at the fallen genin expectantly.

Hayate coughed, and raised his hand. "Match, Uzumaki Naruto."

Five more seconds passed.

Then Naruto recoiled in shock. "WHAT THE HELL!?"

(Back in the present...)

"He actually argued with the proctor for about five minutes about getting a do-over," Sasuke deadpanned. "The guy's own teammates were pretty split on whether he deserved another chance."

"Only Naruto," Masaru groaned, shaking his head in a strange mixture of shame and awe. He knew from Sasuke's anecdotes that Naruto had gotten much stronger over the course of their training, but his prankster roots still held strong in his fighting style. And of course it would irritate him that he won through such a weak trick, hard to brag about beating someone through the power of sexy transformations.

Pushing the thought away, Masaru mentally reviewed the list of genin who passed and frowned as he noted one significant absence. "What about Sakura?" Sasuke's face darkened a bit, and he looked away with a sigh.

"...She lost to that Sand kunoichi," he confided lowly. "She almost won, but the girl blew back one of her poisoned shuriken with a wind jutsu and it ended up hitting her arm. When she went to grab an antidote Temari knocked it out of her hand, so she ended up having to forfeit to get treated. She's not too happy."

"I bet," Masaru mumbled, frowning as he leaned back. Out of the three members of Team Seven, Sakura had definitely been working the hardest. She lacked Naruto's immense chakra reserves and Sasuke's natural talent, having to depend on hard work and her sharp mind to keep up. To stay behind while her two teammates passed would undoubtedly crush her. "Poor Sakura..."

Sasuke grunted, and Masaru sighed. Another face flashed through his mind at this point, making him perk up. "Oh yeah, did you ever see Kabuto?"

The name made Sasuke tense ever so slightly, a cold look flashing through his face for a split second before fading. Anyone else would have likely missed it, but after spending nearly five years living together Masaru easily recognized the glimmer of hostility in his cousin's posture, making him frown. Before he could comment on it though Sasuke responded, "I saw him in the first phase, but he didn't pass the second so I don't know what happened to him."

"...Again, huh." Masaru sighed, shaking his head. "I think that makes six now." Poor Kabuto. Masaru liked him, he seemed so nice, but maybe that meant he just wasn't suited for shinobi life. Pacifists simply had no place working in a field which revolved around murder.

"Masaru..." He paused when Sasuke suddenly spoke again. His cousin had a strangely serious look on his face even by the usual Uchiha standards, his eyes seeming to waver with a tinge of uncertainty as he hesitated. "There's one other match you should know about... No, not just that, but two things." Masaru's frown grew, leaning towards him with an intent look silently imploring him to continue.

Inhaling through his nose, Sasuke folded his hands in front of his mouth and leaned forward, his eyes narrowed and intense. "First, I need to tell you about what happened in the Forest of Death. On the first day, we got attacked. A man named Orochimaru infiltrated the exam."

"Orochimaru?" Masaru repeated, the name vaguely familiar.

"Sakura told us about him afterwards. He's one of the Legendary Sannin and an S-rank missing-nin from Konoha. If the ANBU hadn't shown up when they did..." He trailed off and looked away. Red flickered in his onyx eyes briefly but faded before the Sharingan could fully manifest, and his lips pulled into a scowl. "He was after me. I don't know why, but I'm willing to bet it has to do with the Sharingan. And if that's the case..."

Sasuke didn't finish the sentence, but he didn't need to. Masaru felt his throat tighten, a sudden rush of dread filling him. If Sasuke really had been targeted for the Sharingan, then naturally Masaru would be a target too. Judging by Sasuke's heavily tense posture while speaking about his encounter, he could guess Orochimaru would not be an easy opponent to survive, let alone win.

A few minutes of heavy silence fell at this point, the two stewing in their own thoughts as they each mulled over the implications. Swallowing dryly, Masaru eventually looked at Sasuke and asked, "What's the other thing?" This time Sasuke hesitated even longer, only adding to his apprehension.

"...During the preliminaries, that one genin you warned us about from Suna—Gaara. He got matched up against one of the ninja from Oto, a guy named Dosu." His eyes grew sharper, a ghost of a grimace briefly flickering across his face. "Gaara crushed him with his sand. The match didn't even last two minutes."

Masaru felt his breath hitch, his eyes widening in shock. "His opponent... Is he...?" He trailed off, unable to finish the question.

"He's alive," Sasuke told him, "but his body was almost totally crushed except for his head. The jounin wouldn't tell us anything, but from what we saw I doubt he'll be able to recover enough to even walk normally, let alone return to being a shinobi. That's not the kind of injury people can heal from."

A grim atmosphere descended upon the room, Masaru's chest sharply constricting as he processed this new information. From the moment he first lay eyes on Gaara he'd felt something off about the boy, but for him to be that dangerous... It left him uneasy. His gaze fell to his lap, recalling the cold, empty look in Gaara's pale green eyes as he stared at him.

"When we drew lots for the third round, I got matched against him."

Sasuke's words pierced Masaru like an electrified kunai, his head snapping up to stare at his cousin wide-eyed. "What?" he whispered, the color draining from his skin. Icy chills steadily spread through his body as he thought of Sasuke—his cousin, his family, his only family in Konoha—having to fight against... that. A spike of anxiety flooded him, and he almost knocked over the chair as he sprung up to lean over the table. "You—you can withdraw, right? Just... forfeit?"

Sasuke's face immediately darkened, shaking his head firmly. "No. That's not an option. I'm not backing out just because he's more dangerous than other opponents."


"Masaru," Sasuke interrupted, "Gaara wants to fight me, and I get the feeling that he won't just leave me alone if I back out. If anything, it'd probably just make him angrier." Masaru immediately opened his mouth to protest but his voice died in his throat. While he wanted to argue, he knew that Sasuke was right; Gaara had that kind of intensity, the kind where if he wanted something from someone, he wouldn't take "no" for an answer.

Frowning, he slowly sank back into his seat, looking at his lap dejectedly. Across from him he heard Sasuke huff a small sigh. "Kakashi's going to give me specialized training, starting tomorrow. He said we'll probably be spending the night in the field to maximize the time so I probably won't see you that much."

He heard Sasuke's chair scrape against the floor, and he raised his head to find his cousin leaning over the table, his eyes intense as he stared at Masaru. "Promise me," he said. "Promise me, right now, you'll be careful this month."

Masaru looked at him in silence, taking his time to process everything. "I will," he finally agreed, "But you need to promise me something too."


"Come back for your birthday." His response seemed to catch Sasuke off guard, and he stared at Masaru for about a minute before slowly sinking back into his chair, smirking at him.

"I'll be there," he promised, and Masaru smiled before getting up.

"Come on, let's go," he said, heading for the door, and Sasuke offered him perplexed look as he rose to follow.

"Where are we going?" he asked, and Masaru glanced over his shoulder with a bright grin.

"You and Naruto both passed, right? So you should celebrate together!"

"But where—" Sasuske stopped mid-sentence, realization visibly dawning on his face before grimacing. "Ichiraku's."

"Where else would he be?" Sasuke groaned loudly but offered no resistance as Masaru grabbed his arm and dragged him out the door. If it made him happy, then Sasuke could put up with a bit of ramen. As they exited their apartment building and ran down the street they failed to notice the small swarm of ANBU agents shadowing them from the rooftops, or the dozens of feline eyes glinting from the alleyways.


"So, you passed the preliminaries. You will have to train hard this month for the finals."

"Yes, father."

Hinata bowed her head deferentially as she murmured her assent, fiddling with the braided bracelet hanging on her right wrist nervously. Her father's pale gaze seemed to bore into her, yet it held no judgment or scorn, or any particular emotion really. It felt as if he were looking at a random person on the street, casually assessing them but not searching for any crucial details. It made her feel invisible, and yet at the same time as if she had all the eyes in the world on her.

She grimaced and pinched the bracelet.

"Take the rest of the day to rest," Hiashi told her. "I shall draw up an appropriate training regiment for you, starting tomorrow. Hoheto should be available this month, he's been put on temporary leave pending a minor medical procedure so I'll place him in charge. I expect you to adhere to his instruction and avoid bringing any shame to our clan."

Swallowing thickly, Hinata murmured, "Understood," and then rose and scurried out of her father's study. Once she'd reached the relative privacy of the hallway and closed the door, she breathed a small sigh and let some of the tenseness in her shoulders slip away. Less than two hours had passed since she returned from the preliminary matches for the third phase, and even so she still had yet to feel any particular elation at passing to the finals.

Passing the second phase, winning her match... It had been a fluke.

Her opponent had entered the arena with one arm in a sling, a slight limp to her step but her eyes full of determination. Though her opponent's obvious handicap had made her briefly hesitate, Hinata threw her full heart into the match, doing her best to make her teacher proud. At the end her fingers brushed her enemy's thigh in an attempt to strike the tenketsu point, but rather than disrupt the other girl's chakra flow, the pulse of chakra instead added the final push to an already highly stressed bone.

Even now Hinata could hear the sickening crack as the girl's femur shattered, her bloodcurdling screams echoing as she curled on the floor in agony. Her strike hit close to the hip, the crack making it impossible for her leg to support her weight. Hinata's heart squeezed with guilt and sympathy for the Ame kunoichi, and even now the hateful gazes of her opponent's teammates as she mounted the steps to rejoin her team flashed through her mind, making her wince and squeeze her eyes shut.

"Please, go away," she whispered, trembling as her hands pressed against her forehead. "I-I d-didn't mean to..."

"Onee-san?" Hinata gave a small start when she heard her sister's voice and turned to see Hanabi standing next to her, her pale eyes filled with concern. "Are you okay?"

"I'm... I'm fine," Hinata managed, forcing a weak smile onto her face as she lied through her teeth. "I-I'm just... stressed, that's all." Hanabi frowned, tilting her head with a childishly inquisitive glance.

"But... you won your match, didn't you? Isn't that good?"

"I... It is, but..." She trailed off, letting her false smile vanish and looked to her feet with a nervous frown.

"You should have just forfeited."

Hinata felt her blood run cold at her cousin's words, turning to look at him with large, fearful eyes. Neji leered at her disdainfully, his pale eyes seeming to penetrate through her even without his Byakugan active. "You won by a fluke and nothing more," he said. "That kunoichi was already injured. Had she been able to fight at her full ability, you would have failed."

Shuddering, Hinata swallowed and averted her gaze, sweat trickling down her face. She knew Neji had a point. That girl had shown so much potential, her eyes held so much more experience, had seen so many more things than Hinata's Byakugan ever had. If not for that "lucky" strike, Hinata surely would have lost.

"You are too kind," her cousin continued. "You have no confidence in yourself and you despise conflict. You only entered the exam because it must be taken in a team of three, and you could not deny your teammates' request. You did not expect to make it this far, and even now you feel guilty for hurting your opponent to the extent you did. Am I wrong?"

She didn't respond, she couldn't respond. Her body trembled as she stood motionless, unable to bring herself to continue moving as her heart twisted with guilt and shame. Ahead of her she could see her teammates and teacher watching her worriedly, Kiba taking a step her direction as his mouth opened to speak.

"HEY! Shut up you bastard!"

Hinata jumped when she heard an angry yell, and her head snapped upwards in surprise to see Naruto standing right in front of Neji, standing on his toes as he defiantly glared up at the taller boy's face. "Hinata-chan did an awesome job down there! She took that girl down even when she started swinging all those crazy super-long nunchuks around! Stop saying all that bullshit about her being weak!"

Neji just scoffed and turned his head away, not even bothering to deign Naruto with a response. Huffing angrily, the blond spun around to face Hinata, his eyes blazing with fiery resolve. "Hinata-chan, don't you dare listen to that bastard! I don't care if he's a genius or whatever! You're awesome no matter what he says! Got it?"

Her heart had soared so much to hear him defend her like that, to hear Naruto—her Naruto, her sunshine, her inspiration—tell her that she had done a good job. For so long, Hinata had only heard harsh words of disappointment and scorn from the adults around her. Every day her father's heavy expectations weighed on her shoulders so heavily it felt like she would be crushed under them, and even at the academy she could feel the teachers watching her with high expectations based on her clan alone.

That had been why Naruto's words meant so much to her. Just like her, he grew up with harsh words and criticism, everyone telling him he would be a failure. Yet he never once gave up, he persevered under the unfairly hateful gazes of everyone around them and pushed past every failure even more determined than before. They rarely interacted but even so at some point Naruto had become Hinata's inspiration, his unwavering resolve inspiring her to push harder.

His encouragement—his acknowledgment—gave her strength, filled her with renewed determination. If Naruto could believe in her, then surely she could believe in herself too, right?

Then they drew lots to decide the matches in the tournament, and that dreamlike happiness shattered.

She still remembered the icy chill when Naruto cheerily called out "Five" while she stared at her own slip of paper, the character for "Six" never feeling so ominous. Of all the people to fight, why, why did it have to be him? Her chest felt tight just thinking of it. Hinata couldn't use his words as motivation to fight him, she couldn't bring herself to think of possibly impeding his dream—

"Hinata-nee-san!" Hanabi called, and Hinata gave another small start, squeaking in surprise. Hanabi frowned and tugged her sleeve, trying to get her to follow. "Come on, you're spacing out. Let's go into town and get some cinnamon buns from that one bakery, okay?"

"R-right..." Hinata slowly nodded, offering her a shaky smile. Inside she felt even worse that her younger sister had to try to comfort her though, the sweet promise of cinnamon buns slightly soured by the realization Hanabi knew they would help lift her mood for even a few seconds. As the older sister Hinata should be the one caring for Hanabi, yet somehow the roles had been reversed. But then, hadn't they always been reversed?

Hinata always was a failure after all. Hanabi never had any of the troubles she faced, she should have been the heir.

Trailing behind the five-years-younger prodigy in gloomy silence, the older girl's gaze flitted to the braided bracelet dangling on her wrist one more time, her finger tracing the thick strands of red braided among white and lavender.

I wish... I wish it happened to me instead of you...

Deep in Ame rain poured from the gloomy skies as it always did, but it did not prevent its residents from milling about the city and going about their business. A group of children ran down the street chasing each other, adults yelling in annoyance as they splashed through large puddles and their laughter drowned out by the steady pitter patter of raindrops. A lone figure watched them from the second floor of a small cafe, a black and red cloak draped over the back of his chair and a cup of tea warming his hands.

Light footsteps approached and he turned his head to see a woman walking his way, gliding across the empty room with a grace that made her almost appear to fly. Slipping into the seat across from him, she elegantly folded her hands atop the table and looked at him with blank amber eyes. "Thank you for meeting me, Itachi-kun," she told him. "I hope the tea here is to your liking."

The Uchiha clan killer merely nodded in reply, turning in his seat to face her more fully. "Konan-sama," he greeted coolly, his own face equally aloof. "It is rare to be summoned for a direct meeting, especially individually."

"It is rare for a situation like the present to arise." As she spoke she slipped a piece of folded paper from her sleeve and extended it to him. Eyes narrowing warily, he gingerly took the note and unfolded it, skimming its contents. When he finished he folded it again and handed it back to her, lifting his teacup once more.

"So a genin from Ame has passed to the final stages of the Chuunin Exams. Congratulations."

"Thank you. However, while it is certainly an honor, this means that we must send a representative to Konoha. Currently, no one knows we defeated and replaced Hanzou, and we would prefer to keep it that way."

"Can you not simply send one of your jounin and claim him as a representative in his place?" Itachi reasoned calmly. "As far as I am aware, the old leader had a reputation for being quite standoffish and paranoid. It would be well within his character to send a proxy."

"We could," Konan allowed, "but we would rather use this opportunity to personally gather information." Itachi sipped from his tea quietly as she spoke before setting his cup down, his eyes closing.

"You wish for me to provide assistance because I am a native and know the village," he murmured, and Konan allowed a small smile to slip through.

"Correct. I will be attending as Ame's representative in order to gather information. I will not demand you join me due to the risk, but I believe we would benefit from your presence. Sasori's spy rings have given confirmation that Orochimaru has shown a particularly strong interest in the exams this year, and this may provide an opportunity to eliminate him."

Konan's smile had already vanished by the time Itachi's eyes slid open, her face back to the same aloof mask she always wore. The Uchiha regarded her coolly for a long moment but eventually he sighed, inclining his head in affirmation.

"Very well. I trust you will make appropriate arrangements for disguises. A mere transformation shall hardly suffice for a long-term infiltration mission, and as you are aware, my face is quite well known there."

"Of course," Konan replied smoothly, not missing a beat. "I have already created a few ideas for you to use, and you may browse the stores here for whatever components you need. We shall arrive in Konoha one week before the tournament."

Itachi merely nodded in reply and resumed sipping his tea, only the sound of rain gently pelting the roof filling the silence.

Chapter Text

Chapter 30

"Ten years from now, a month will seem like a pretty short amount of time. In fifty years, it will seem even shorter. If you somehow become immortal and/or live for thousands of years, you'll probably be mixing up decades when looking back on your life.

That doesn't change the fact a month still feels like forever in the present."

The next morning Gaku-sensei finally resurfaced, appearing at the apartment just after Sasuke left. He looked a bit more tired than usual, bags hanging under his eyes signaling a lack of sleep the past few days, but he still smiled at Masaru when he answered the door.

The two exchanged greetings and Masaru quickly brought him up to speed on his newest training developments in regards to Foxfire. Gaku couldn't fill him in on his own activities, since that went against ANBU code and all. Eventually though, they got down to business.

"So Masaru..." Gaku smiled, and suddenly Masaru felt a small pang of concern. "As you know, the third phase of the Chuunin Exams is a big tournament, right?"

"...Yes?" That small pang of concern had started to evolve into a bit of dread.

"And that naturally draws in a large crowd, including a lot of foreign dignitaries."

"...Y-yeah..." That bit of dread started to snowball into full-fledged foreboding.

"Well, obviously most foreigners won't know the way to Konoha, so someone has to guide them here."

And at that point Masaru felt a sudden urge to run and hide for reasons he couldn't understand.

Two weeks later, he decided it must have been a premonition.

"Are we almost there?" he groaned, trailing after Gaku, Izumo and Aoba with a slight frown.

"The meeting point's just up ahead," Gaku told him, offering him a sheepish smile. "I know you're probably getting a bit tired. After this one, I'll ask the Hokage for a break."

"Please let him agree," Masaru mumbled, clasping his hands together as if praying. Over the past two weeks he felt like he'd spent more time out of the village than inside, constantly being sent out as part of a welcome party for various visiting dignitaries. The Hokage had decided to have him continue testing the waters with the diplomatic field, and while he appreciated the chance to leave Konoha, the constant meet-and-greet with various foreign nobles had slowly started to grate on his nerves.

Ahead of them Aoba snorted and rolled his eyes. "At least we don't have to escort a bunch of snotty nobles this time," he commented. "Those are the worst."

"...Please don't mention that," Masaru groaned, hanging his head. Izumo smiled at him consolingly and patted his arm.

"Don't worry, I'm sure you won't have any more princesses trying to seduce you this time," he teased, and Masaru shot him a sour look. Two missions happened to involve some high-ranking aristocratic girl who grew enamored with Masaru, much to his discomfort. As far as he could tell, their attraction stemmed less from Masaru himself and more the mystique of his shinobi status, since apparently ninja were quite rare outside hidden villages.

Of course, he had no idea how to respond to clients flirting with him (oh kami he might cause an international incident what if they declare war crapcrapcrap) and could only smile and nod while trying not to panic. Apparently they found his awkward fumbling "adorable" though, which made it worse.

At least his distress entertained his companions though.

...Yeah, no, he might be starting to hate the chuunin and tokujo he'd worked with. At least this time Kotetsu wasn't there, he might be the worst of them all.

Sighing, Masaru pulled away from Izumo and did his best to ignore the quiet snicker from the chuunin, instead thinking about the mission at hand. This time, they would be escorting the leader from Taki and a small entourage of guards, which should make for a short and simple mission. There wouldn't be any ignorant nobles to guide around, and only the stupidest of bandits would try to attack a group exclusively composed of trained shinobi.

Yet that's exactly the scene they stumbled upon.

To be fair, instead of a group the bandits chose to target a lone girl who happened to be napping against a tree. Easy mistake, but she also had a hitai-ate on her arm clearly bearing the symbol for Taki.

The quartet of Leaf ninja just watched blankly from a cluster of trees as the horde of five bandits crept towards the napping girl, preparing to pounce. Gaku tapped Masaru's shoulder to get his attention. "Masaru, want to take lead and get some actual combat experience?" he whispered, and Masaru blinked at him before shrugging.

Ultimately, taking the bandits down proved surprisingly easy. One of them swung a sickle on a chain at him, but he had no proper control over it and Masaru easily sidestepped it, letting it pierce another bandit conveniently standing behind him. Another one tried to club him over the head but he just ducked under it while simultaneously lashing out with a kick, sending him flying into another guy.

Then he spun and delivered a flying kick to the final guy's torso, sending him crashing to the ground. He groaned and started to get up, but Masaru elbowed the back of his head, successfully knocking him out. As he stood panting over the unconscious man, he suddenly noticed a shadow towering over him and spun around to see the one who'd been hit by the one with the club standing behind him, a wild look in his eye as he raised a large combat knife over his head.

However, before he could thrust it downwards a wooden pillar suddenly spit out of the ground, hitting him right in the chin.

Masaru just watched in shock as the man fell back, his shoulders drooping in mild bewilderment. Izumo gave a low whistle of appreciation as he and the others stepped out of the trees. "Not bad, kid. You've got a good mind for fighting." Masaru didn't respond right away, still staring at the fallen man and the wooden column still protruding from the ground.

"Um... how did...?" He trailed off, shooting the others heavily confused looks.

"Ah, d-don't worry about it," Aoba said quickly, waving his hands in a placating manner as he moved to restrain the bandits.

"But... isn't that... Mokuton? Wood element?" At this point he started looking around the clearing warily, half-expecting Senju Hashirama's ghost would suddenly jump out of the trees with a boisterous laugh or something. His mom always said that great ninja had workarounds for death...

Aoba started sweating furiously, giving a small, nervous nap. "Um... no?" Izumo edged a bit closer to Gaku and partially blocked him from Masaru's line of sight while the older man ran through some hand seals. Masaru jumped when the wooden pillar suddenly retracted into the earth, his confusion only growing.

Before he could question it further Izumo quickly spoke up, dashing his thoughts. "Is that girl really still asleep?" he asked incredulously, and the other three paused before turning to look. Sure enough, the girl remained curled up on the ground, having even rolled over at some point during the fray to quietly snore on her side. The four shinobi just stared at her in various states of disbelief, not sure what to make of it.


Masaru jumped at the sudden yell, and the girl startled awake and bolted upright with a squeak. Turning around, the Leaf ninja found a group of men approaching at a quick jog, all wearing headbands bearing a stylized waterfall. One, a young man with long brown hair, skidded to a stop and looked at the scene in shock before leveling the girl with an exasperated-looking frown. "Fu..."

"What? I just woke up! You can't blame me!" She crossed her arms and pouted at him childishly, and the man just sighed in frustration.

"...Shibuki-san?" Aoba guessed, looking between him and the green-haired girl a bit incredulously, and the man paused before turning to him with a startled look.

"Ah! I'm sorry, I forgot to greet you! Please forgive my rudeness! I am Shibuki, the leader of Taki." He quickly dipped his torso in a bow, and for some reason Masaru felt a sudden sense of kinship with the nervous young man.

Then he felt eyes boring into his back, and he slowly turned to see the girl—Fu—staring at him with sparkling orange eyes.


Oh no.

Wincing, he quietly edged closer to Gaku and Fu turned her head to follow him, not even blinking. His teacher looked fairly amused by his predicament, and he could hear Izumo suppressing a snicker. Fu's head slowly tilted to the side and her eyes seemed to sparkle even more, blinking at him curiously. Before she could speak though Shibuki stalked over to her and lightly smacked her arm, giving the girl an admonishing look. "Don't sneak off like that Fu! You had me really worried!"

"But, Shibuki," she protested, frowning at him. "Nothing happened!"

"Uh, I wouldn't say nothing," Gaku muttered, glancing at the fallen bandits. Fu turned to look at them and stepped back in surprise.

"What the—when did that happen?"

"While you were napping?" Izumo interjected, looking a bit bemused. The other two Waterfall ninja leveled a scolding look on Fu, who wilted and smiled sheepishly.

"Oh... R-right. Eheh, sorry..."

Shibuki sighed, shaking his head as he turned back to the Leaf ninja. "Thank you for helping protect Fu. I apologize for any trouble you may have endured because of her."

"Oh, don't thank us," Aoba said, smirking slightly as he patted Masaru's shoulder. "Thank Masaru-chan here. He took them down himself." And just like that he had Fu's undivided attention once more, her eyes now glittering with awe and excitement. Within seconds she was right in front of him, making him stumble back in shock.

"You! You're my age!" she gasped, her face lighting up with a giant grin. "Oh my gosh I've never met a foreign ninja my age! Well I haven't met many foreign ninja period but still this is so cool! I'm Fu! Do you want to be friends?"

Masaru just stared at her in mild shock, a little overwhelmed by her highly energetic and enthusiastic demeanor. Every second he didn't respond her smile grew a little less wide and the sparkle in her eye began to fade bit by bit, the excited gleam replaced by a strangely familiar loneliness, and then—

Blue replaced orange and gold replaced green, and suddenly he saw Naruto in her place, staring at him with eager anticipation.

Just as soon as the vision appeared it vanished, leaving Masaru staring at Fu once more. Surprised, he blinked and rubbed his eyes, and by the time he lowered his hands her smile had faded and her face reminded him of a wilted flower, disappointment and resignation dully reflected in her eyes as she looked down. The sight tugged at his heart, bringing renewed visions of a younger Naruto with that same look.

At that moment he knew that if he left her like that, he would never be able to look Naruto in the eye again.

"S-sure," he said quickly, plastering on a feeble smile. "I'll be your friend."

Fu's face instantly brightened into one of the biggest smiles he'd ever seen, her entire body seeming to glow as she leapt into the air with an overjoyed shout. "YES! I made a friend! I made a friend! I finally have a friend now!" Grabbing his hands, she squeezed them and looked into his eyes with an excited grin, the air around her seeming to shimmer and glitter. "Oh my gosh this is so amazing! Ah, what do friends do? Oh! Oh! Maybe we could spar or we could play hide and seek or maybe—"

"Uh, Fu, sorry to interrupt," Shibuki suddenly interjected, "But you do realize that you're not going to Konoha, right?"

Fu froze, slowly turning to look at Shibuki with her smile frozen. "Huh?"

"You're not going to Konoha with us," he repeated, and sighed as he turned to Gaku. "Fu's actually not supposed to be here, but she snuck out of the village to follow us. Kegon-san," he nodded to one of the men, "came to escort her back, but she snuck off and ran ahead. We were just looking for her when Shintoki sensed the fight. Sorry again about that."

"Don't worry about it," Gaku assured him with a smile. "We've been wanting a chance for Masaru-kun to get some actual battle experience anyway, so it worked out fine for us."

"Oh, I see. That's... good, then?" Shibuki seemed a bit hesitant, but it faded as he turned back to Fu. "Anyways, I'm sorry Fu, but you need to go back. Now."

"But... We just met..." She pouted as she glanced between him and Masaru, and then let out a melodramatic whine. "Shibuuuukiiii, I just made a friend! Don't make me leave alreadyyyy!"

"Fu," one of the other Waterfall ninja said in a warning tone, and she groaned loudly, now seeming to radiate despair. Masaru felt a tinge of a panic as she began to grow increasingly upset, mainly because he did not really know how to handle upset people and also because she still had a death grip on his hands.

"I-it's okay!" he said quickly. "We can still be friends! S-somehow..." He glanced to Gaku pleadingly, silently begging for help, and his teacher shot him a startled look.

"Well, uh, you could, ah," he started, glancing to Shibuki. The leader of Taki seemed equally flustered by his genin's growing despair.

"W-well, we'll think of... something," he said quickly, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder. "But right now, you really need to go back, okay Fu?" Still disappointed, she sighed and nodded, her expression reminding Masaru a bit of a sad puppy as she released her hold on his hands.

"Okay," she mumbled dejectedly, and then turned to Masaru. "But someday you have to come to Taki! Pleeaaaase?" The puppy-dog look grew even stronger as she clasped her hands together, her face pleading and begging him to agree.

"Um, if the Hokage and Shibuki-sama let me I will," he promised, offering her a feeble smile. Cue excited cheer from Fu and another excited jump, this time soaring even higher than the last time. (Did... did gravity affect her? At all?) Fluttering to the ground, she grinned at him and clasped his hands once more.

"I'm holding you to that!" she declared brightly, and Masaru's smile grew a little less feeble.

"So you got to take down your first bandits, helped escort the leader of an allied village, and met a cute girl? Quite the player, aren't you Masaru-kun?"

Tenten smirked cheekily at Masaru as she sucked a piece of kung pao chicken off her chopsticks, making the Uchiha groan embarrassedly and shrink into his seat. After guiding Shibuki and his remaining guard to Konoha, the Hokage graciously granted Masaru a reprieve from escort missions in light of his first real battle, much to his relief. On his first day back he'd run into Tenten, and since the pair had developed a loose friendship from their sparring matches, he'd readily accepted when she invited him to grab lunch together.

Between leaving the village to escort visitors and training to learn Foxfire, Masaru hadn't really seen any of the other genin over the past two weeks. He'd only seen Sasuke once, when his cousin had stopped by the apartment to shower. Meanwhile he'd seen Naruto twice, but the whiskered boy spent most of his time with Jiraiya, who had agreed to train him for the preliminaries, partially due to a joint effort between Naruto and Masaru.

Masaru paused as he remembered that little episode. The day Gaku-sensei told him about their itinerary for the month, Masaru had met with Jiraiya to have him supervise his own training session only for Naruto to arrive an hour into it. Apparently Kakashi arranged for him to study under some other guy Naruto called a closet pervert, but Naruto then remembered Sakura's explanation about the Sannin and thus decided Jiraiya must be a better teacher.

"Look, kid, I'm really not in the mood to do any hands-on training," the Toad Sage muttered, shrugging lazily. "I'm perfectly fine just supervising Masaru-kun right now. Kid doesn't need any hands-on help yet with the jutsu he's learning, so I can work on other important stuff at the same time."

Even as he spoke Jiraiya sat near a tree hunched over a manuscript, brush in hand as he jotted down undoubtedly riveting adventures. Or more likely just erotic fiction, judging by the creepy smile and giggle that sometimes slipped out. Naruto just stared at him sourly, not buying it.

"Yeah right! You're just writing more of those stupid perverted books!" he yelled, his face turning bright red as he jabbed a finger at the sage. "You just want an excuse to be lazy!" A tick mark appeared on Jiraiya's forehead, setting down the brush as he looked at Naruto with a smile full of gritted teeth.

"Now listen here, kid, I don't have time—"

"Jiraiya-sama," Masaru suddenly interrupted, and both males turned in surprise to the Uchiha. Smiling serenely at the Toad Sage, Masaru's eyes abruptly bled red as the Sharingan formed. "Please train Naruto."

Masaru smirked as he remembered how the perverted sage had shuddered and agreed on the condition Masaru never did that again. Apparently the Sharingan looked extra creepy when paired with a perfectly placid and polite smile, which he personally found kind of hilarious.

"Seriously though, great job," Tenten commented, drawing him back to the present. "I'm glad to know our sparring matches helped you out too."

Masaru paused, a thought occurring to him. "Sasuke told me Neji made it through, but he didn't tell me about any of the matches." Recognizing his underlying question, Tenten huffed a small sigh and reclined in her seat.

"I lost to a guy from Ame, Nao something," she admitted sheepishly. "It was actually pretty close, but he hit one of my empty weapon scrolls with a water bullet loaded with senbon, and it totally shredded it. I don't know what would happen if a full storage scroll got shredded like that, and I was already pretty beat up and tired by that point anyway, so I decided to cut my losses and forfeit."

Masaru nodded in understanding. Storage scrolls could get pretty pricey, and while Tenten had found a knack for making them it still took her a lot of time. On top of that, if a full scroll got destroyed that might just destroy its contents too, which would create a major setback for her. "Well, at least you got some experience," he commented with a shrug, and she smiled.

"Yeah. I thought I'd be more disappointed, but I'm actually pretty satisfied just making it that far on my first go. Next time I'll definitely make chuunin!" Her words carried a strong note of confidence that made Masaru smile, feeling no doubts that she would.

"Yeah, well, I'm definitely not satisfied." The pair turned towards the new voice to find Kiba walking towards their table, Akamaru sitting on his head like always. His entrance surprised Masaru since they'd never actually interacted that much, and it only grew when he plopped into one of the empty chairs. "I still can't believe I got taken out by that Oto chick so easily. Dammit, it annoys me just thinking about it!" Akamaru yipped in agreement, his fur standing slightly on end in a show of irritation.

"Well, to be fair, she used sound-based genjutsu," Tenten pointed out. "And you're an Inuzuka, you kinda have super-canine-hearing. It was a bad match up."

"Yeah, yeah, but that still doesn't make it any less frustrating. I'm the only one from my team that didn't make it to the finals!" Akamaru jumped off his head just before Kiba slammed his face onto the table, groaning lowly. "Dammit, this month is so boring. Shino and Hinata are off training with their dads and me and Akamaru are stuck doing D-ranks all on our own!"

Figuring he should probably try to say something comforting, Masaru awkwardly offered, "At least you don't have to escort foreign noble girls who keep flirting with you...?" Kiba raised his head to stare at him in shock, even Tenten looking at him slightly askance.

"You escort nobles?" Kiba stammered in disbelief. "And they hit on you? No fair! That sounds awesome!"

"I haven't even met a noble yet," Tenten moaned, sinking into her seat dejectedly. "We got to escort a merchant to the capital who had to meet the daimyo, but we didn't even get to walk past the gates of the capital. We just got the payment and turned right around."

Obviously, Masaru's attempt to comfort Kiba had the opposite effect. "It's really not that great," he protested weakly. "They'd giggle at everything I say and kept acting super clumsy so I'd catch them. And I can't even train around them because I might burn them."

"You're working on fire jutsu?" Thankfully his newest attempt at redirection apparently worked, because Tenten looked at him with a renewed interest. Relieved, Masaru smiled and bobbed his head in confirmation.

"Yeah, it's called Foxfire. My mom made it. It basically combines taijutsu with katon. I'm still working out all the kinks, but I got a good start."

Training had been slow going due to all the escort missions. He'd gotten the fireball down and received a pair of gloves lined with fireproof seals from Jiraiya, but his first few attempts to "snag" the fireball hadn't gone too well as it usually dissipated before he could infuse it with chakra. Then when Masaru finally got it, he'd been so surprised his focus slipped, and the fire died out instantly.

It took him five more tries to get it again, and since then he'd just been working on holding it. So far he could maintain it for a little under three minutes before his control slipped, and that was without the usual distractions of battle. Not to mention he couldn't do any of the shape manipulation Jiraiya showed off yet.

Needless to say, he had a long way to go before he'd feel ready to use it in a fight.

"Wait, so when you say it combines katon and taijutsu, do you mean you have flaming punches and all that?" Kiba asked, leaning forward with a renewed interest.

"Y-yeah, I guess?" Masaru shrugged, feeling a bit unsettled by the sudden gleam in his eyes. The Inuzuka clearly had an idea now, and judging by the fact even Akamaru looked at him with a sympathetic face, he could guess it would not end well for him.

"All this talk is getting me really motivated," Kiba declared with a cocky grin. "Akamaru and I need to step up our game." The dog yipped and wagged his tail, seeming to flash his own confident smile to match his partner's. Masaru just smiled, though he still felt a bit uneasy. Time to go.

"I should too," he declared, getting up. "I'll see you later, I guess?" He nodded at them before he turned and quickly started to walk away, only to be stopped by a harsh tug on his collar. Jerking to a halt with a startled yelp, he turned to see Kiba standing behind him with a predatory smirk.

"You think you can just walk away?" he taunted, his lips curling back to bare his teeth in a feral grin. "Tough luck Uchiha. Akamaru and I need a sparring partner." With that he grabbed Masaru's arm and started dragging him away, the Uchiha boy too stunned to protest. He shot a desperate look at Tenten but she just smiled and shrugged, waving him off.

At that Masaru just resigned himself to his fate and started following Kiba of his own will. He'd never fought a canine before, so this would be good experience. Not experience he'd likely need in the field, since not many shinobi used animal partners, but still.

Besides, maybe getting some actual physical practice with Foxfire would help him figure out the kinks.

Physical practice did not help as much as he wanted.

Masaru frowned as he stood before the gates, his feet rooted in place and his gaze locked on the ground. A faded emblem of a large red and white fan decorated the wall, the once bright paint worn and chipped from years of neglect.

Visiting the Uchiha Clan compound never felt pleasant. Every time he walked through the gates flashes of blood-soaked streets flashed through his mind, glassy eyes staring at him from faces contorted in soundless agonized screams. Each passing year the memories faded bit by bit, growing duller and a little less detailed, but even so they still held a startling clarity that left him sick to his stomach.

Right now, Masaru just wanted to turn around and walk away as fast as possible, but he knew he had to go inside. Progress with Foxfire had been too slow, and he didn't want to disturb Naruto's own training by asking Jiraiya for help. Gaku of course tried to help too, but he had no affinity for fire which limited his capabilities to help. As the creator of the jutsu, Masaru thought his mother must naturally have more detailed notes on it somewhere, so he had to go to there.

Squeezing his eyes shut, he took a deep breath and forced himself to walk through the gates. Even after all these years, the path to his old house had burned deep into his memory. He navigated the streets blindly, moving at a brisk pace but not running as he wove around the many corners and side streets. When he opened his eyes again his old house stood in front of him, and he quietly unlocked the front door.

A plethora of familiar scents assaulted him when he stepped inside, nearly staggering at the abrupt rush of deja vu it produced. His house didn't have a specific smell to it he could identify like flowers or paint, but it still had its own unique scent that just smelled like home. Masaru's heart twisted with nostalgia and longing as he slowly walked through the house, each corner and open door bringing back a flood of memories both fond and painful.

His mother's study remained untouched from his last visit two years ago. He'd anticipated the fine layer of dust on everything, and pulled out a rag to start cleaning off the books. Wiping off the last row, Masaru set the dusty rag on the desk and started examining the titles. While he'd taken a good chunk of books to his room over the years, he never failed to feel awestruck by the sheer variety of topics in his mother's personal study. An Abridged History of Kiri. A Beginner's Handbook to Bukijutsu. Psychology of Genjutsu. Folklore of Uzushio.

His lips quirked into a small smile at the last one, pulling it off the shelf. The book looked a bit older than most in her collection, the hard cover slightly cracked and faded from age. Hazy memories of his mother sitting at his bedside reading from the book flickered through his mind, the swirling whirlpools decorating the cover strangely hypnotic as he listened to her melodic voice recite the stories inside.

Smiling fondly, he gently set it on the desk to take home before resuming his search. Fiction and nonfiction had been mixed together across the various shelves, the books arranged with no apparent logic or organization save for a few scattered clusters of semi-related books. It made it easy to lose track of his objective, various titles on the spines catching his attention and distracting him. He grabbed a couple on the Sharingan, as well as one on puppetry and another on poisons.

Finally Masaru noticed a cluster of notebooks squeezed between several thick textbooks, and his mouth curved into a triumphant smirk as he quickly pulled them out. Handwritten titles adorned each cover to hint at the contents, and as he sorted through the small stack he paused when he found one titled 'Katon Experiments.' Bingo.

Quickly opening it, he skimmed the pages and found it contained a series of diagrams and complicated notes on chakra theory. Ryoko had included rough sketches depicting how the final techniques might look, so when he found one showing a fist surrounded by fire he easily identified it as Foxfire. A quick glance at the writing revealed no major shortcuts, but it did detail some new training techniques that would help speed his work.

Satisfied, he closed it and set it on the pile of books he'd amassed to take home, only to pause when he noticed the book that had been beneath it. Unlike the others this one had a perfectly blank cover, save for a small drawing of an Uchiha fan in the corner. Curious, Masaru opened it to find a sketch of a young woman's face staring at him.

The drawing had been done in pencil, smudged shading giving her skin a darker tone that reminded him of Cloud ninja. Her hair had an asymmetrical cut to it, dark curls bounding down the left side of her head while her right side had been shaved to the ear to leave only light fuzz. He had no idea who she was, but her smile seemed rather coy.

Curiosity piqued, he began flipping through the pages, finding more drawings. Some depicted similar headshots of unfamiliar people, a few wearing hitai-ate from other villages, but as he continued looking he began to recognize more and more familiar faces. A portrait of Sasuke's mother arranging flowers, a picture of who he recognized to be Shisui unsheathing a tanto. A more full drawing of Jiraiya spying from some bushes with a perverted grin, while an unfamiliar light-haired woman loomed behind him with an ominous glare.

Idly studying the various drawings, Masaru turned another page only to freeze. A long-haired woman stood with her hands folded over her heart, her eyes closed and her mouth curved into a peaceful smile offset by the small trickle of blood dripping from the right corner. Behind her the Kyuubi's face glowered at him, its pupils sharp pinpricks and the irises shaded in a way that made them seem to glow, even in just pencil.

Shuddering, he slowly closed the sketchbook and added it to the pile of books to take home. He could look at it later, for now he decided to go home and get to work.

Chapter Text

Chapter 31

"They say another year older, another year wiser. I firmly disagree with this notion, because clearly whoever said that has never seen how a college student celebrates birthdays."

"Uncle Obito... I'm... I'm scared."

Masaru's voice shook as he sat hunched before his uncle's grave, his body shaking violently as his arms wrapped around himself in a tight hug. Tears dripped to the dirt below him as he tried not to sob, the minute shift in coloring of the soil from the added moisture startlingly clear as his eyes spun with four wavering tomoe.

"I... I don't want these eyes... I—I see them everywhere, I... I-I—"

His words cut off with a sharp sob, doubling over and nearly pressing his head to the ground as he began crying.

The Sharingan were cursed eyes. They embodied pain and suffering. They embodied loss, grief, rage, so many hurtful, awful things—

They reminded him that he didn't have her anymore.

Akari was gone, his sister was gone, gone gone gone...

A warm presence suddenly appeared at his back and fingers tenderly stroked through his hair, another hand gently rubbed his back. Strong arms pulled him close and an unfamiliar masculine voice gently shushed his sobs, but Masaru didn't feel scared or wary. He just cried into the man's chest, sobbing and hiccupping and releasing all the horrible pent-up feelings he'd been feeling ever since that night.

Eventually his sobs quieted to small sniffles, and he pulled away, rubbing his eyes. Stars danced behind his eyelids as he pressed the heels of his palms against them, but then he felt those same strong hands grab his wrists and firmly pull his hands away before releasing their grip. Sniffling one more time, he opened his eyes and waited for his vision to clear.

When the spots faded he saw Akari kneeling next to him at the low table, her eyes closed as she sniffed one of the flowers in the vase on the table's center. His stomach flipped at the sight and he leaned forward, his hands splaying in front of him. "A-Akari?" he gasped, and she hummed as she twirled the flower stem in her fingers, burying her nose in its petals to inhale the aroma.

"Sagiso looks weird, doesn't it?" she commented. "Mom says it looks kinda like a dove, but I don't see it." She gestured to the vase for him to look at the vase, too busy sniffing the one in her hand to show it to him, and he squinted at the white orchids and found himself agreeing with their mother. Two petals extended from a long white shaft, the ends frayed and fringed not unlike wings of a bird in flight, while two more petals sprouted from the stem and flared upwards to act as tail feathers.

He opened his mouth to voice the sentiment, but instead he found himself saying, "I miss you. Why did you go?" Akari frowned, turning her head away and crossing her arms with a huff.

"I didn't want to go, Masa. No one wanted to, we didn't have a choice." He winced at her tone, looking at his lap guiltily.

"I... I know, but..." He trailed off, his vision blurring with tears. He missed her, he missed her so much. Waking up without his other half every morning felt so wrong, every accomplishment felt insignificant without her there to celebrate with him. Every day he went through the motions and lived his life, but he never felt whole. He could feel the emptiness left by her absence, it always weighed down on him no matter what happened.

Turning her head to look at Masaru, a choked gasp caught in his throat as he saw a gaping hole in her right eye socket, the empty cavity weeping thick black blood like tears.

"I miss you too, Masaru," she told him, and offered the most melancholic and horrific smile he'd ever seen.

Masaru woke up with a start, visions of his sister's eyeless smile flashing through his head as he opened his eyes to darkness. He could feel a now-familiar tingle in his eyes accompanied a sense of overwhelming clarity, and he knew he'd see red eyes if he looked in the mirror. His face twisted into a bitter scowl as he sat up, burying the heels of his palms into the eyes until spots danced behind his eyelids.

The worst part about Sasuke being gone for training was the nights. Waking up alone after horrible nightmares felt a lot more bearable when he had someone there with him, even if Sasuke slept in another room, but waking up to an empty apartment left him feeling hollow. Sleep never came easy after nightmares, so he decided to just not even bother trying.

Slowly clambering out of bed, he stalked to the bookshelf and pulled out a few random books, carrying them into the kitchen. Only after switching on the lights did he see what he'd grabbed, and his lips quirked into an amused smile at the odd assortment. Experimental space-time fuinjutsu would be far too heavy of a read for late night, and he knew from experience that medical textbooks could have some rather graphic photos. Meanwhile he'd practically memorized the book about chakra control.

That left one, Legends of Uzushio.

He couldn't help but smile nostalgically as he carried the familiar tome to the ceiling to read it, making sure to stick some leaves he'd picked up at the park onto his forehead beforehand. One of the tips in his mom's notes on Foxfire had been to use multiple chakra control exercises at once, while also performing a "mundane" task. This not only expanded his control and reserves, but also helped him learn to unconsciously split his focus between multiple tasks, which would eventually extend into battle situations.

Progress went a lot faster now that he had those notes.

Back to the book, Masaru sat cross-legged on the ceiling and began flicking through the pages. Many years had passed since he'd last heard any of the stories—she stopped reading it before he and Akari started at the academy—but even so several of the titles niggled at his memory. Princess of the Eddies, the Lunar Pool, the Fox and the Mermaid...

He chose to read an unfamiliar tale about the first anniversary of Uzushio's founding, which somehow involved a lot of octopi dressed in silly outfits and a young Senju Hashirama nearly falling victim to a drunken ritual sacrifice. As he pondered how the hell that happened, Masaru turned the page and blinked as he noticed an envelope begin to slip out from between two pages deeper into the book.

With a deftness that served as a testament to his training, he snatched it from the air before it could flutter even a few inches from the book. And even as he opened it Masaru realized with no small amount of pride that the leaves had not fallen from his forehead during the brief distraction, either. Progress!

Sadly, his triumph did not last long, as it did fall once he saw the envelope's contents.

Masaru found himself holding a photo of teenage versions of his mother, Uchiha Mikoto, and some Inuzuka woman (Kiba's mom, maybe?), all crowded around a beaming red-headed girl sporting a mischievous grin. All of the teenagers flashed rather goofy looks at the camera in stark contrast to the serious adult women Masaru remembered from his early childhood, Mikoto even giving the oblivious redhead bunny ears with two fingers while his mom obviously tried not to laugh.

Bizarre as that was, Masaru found himself more stunned by the red-haired girl herself. She looked younger and obviously had more color, but somehow he recognized her instantly as the woman from the drawing with the Nine-Tailed Fox.

Red writing on the wall behind them declared "Birthdays, Uzumaki-style!"

...Why did he get the feeling that wasn't written in blood?

Shaking it off, he focused on the writing itself. "Uzumaki," he murmured softly as he began flipping through the other photos, visions of a familiar blond flickering through his mind. He had heard the name plenty of times in the past due to this very book, but he'd never actually made the connection to Naruto before. He frowned intently at a photo of the redheaded girl as she leaned over a birthday cake, her violet eyes sparkling in the glow of the candles.

Could this be Naruto's mom?

"Hey, psst! Masaru!"

Masaru paused as he heard someone call his name in a loud whisper, turning to look behind him. A familiar shock of bright golden hair peeked around the corner, Naruto glancing around and gesturing for him to come closer. "There you are! I don't have much time, so—"

"UZUMAKI!" a booming voice bellowed from down the hall, making him jump with a startled yelp. Panic flashed in his face and he rushed out of his hiding spot, thrusting a piece of paper in Masaru's hands.

"Gotta go, read that, bye!" He zoomed away without waiting for a response, a red-faced academy instructor soon skidding into sight. The man breathed heavily as he looked between Masaru and the direction Naruto went. On pure instinct Masaru hid the paper from his sight, stuffing it into his pocket before the teacher could see it.

"Did he talk to you!?" he almost snarled. Masaru just stared at him blankly, mutely shaking his head. The man growled under his breath as he ran off in pursuit of Naruto, and only when he'd left his line of sight did Masaru pull out the paper again.

It was a handmade card, with a drawing of a chibi Naruto and a bowl of what he probably intended to be ramen above the message "You are invited to Uzumaki Naruto's 8th birthday on October 10th at 4 PM! Meet him at the Hokage Rock!"

Masaru stared at the invitation blankly, his eyes hollow. The teacher's furious glower and snarl played through his mind, and the paper crinkled as his grip tightened.

Every time Naruto talked to him, the adults got mad... Even if Masaru initiated the contact, Naruto got in trouble, not him.

Eyes narrowing, he balled up the paper and shoved it in his pocket, turning and resuming his solitary tread to the entrance.

In the present Masaru frowned as he recalled the long-ago memory. He never did show up to Naruto's birthday, and after that Naruto never tried to approach him anymore. Skipping out on the event had probably hurt him, but avoiding the blond had been Masaru's own silent gift to his first friend. Their friendship caused Naruto nothing but suffering, so at least that way, Naruto wouldn't get in trouble because of Masaru anymore.

He sighed as he slipped the photos back into the envelope, flipping onto the apartment floor and closing the book quietly. He'd have to make it up to Naruto this year. Maybe he could borrow some ideas from the photos...

Speaking of birthdays, he should get to work. Not like he had anything better to do at three in the morning.

Sasuke sighed tiredly as he stalked through the streets, the early evening sky starting to tint gold and orange as the sun neared the horizon. He and Kakashi had spent nearly every day training since the second phase ended, and even now he could feel phantom tingling in his arm from executing the Chidori. It had been a busy month so far and he'd be more than content to keep training until the tournament itself, but Kakashi had finally ordered him to return home for two days to rest.

Running a hand through his hair as he reached his apartment, he started to open the door only to pause when the faint aroma of fresh tomatoes wafted through the crack. Shoulders drooping in contentment, he opened the door fully and stepped inside to find Masaru standing in the kitchen, hunched over a boiling pot. His cousin glanced at him in surprise, and then smiled. "You're back!"

"Kakashi made me take the rest of the day off. Are you making tomato soup?"

"Yeah. I also made some onigiri with okaka and tomato, too. They're in the fridge." Sasuke looked at him in surprise, feeling his mouth salivate at the thought of his favorite food.

"What's the occasion?" he asked, and Masaru seemed to falter, looking at him with a mixture of confusion and disbelief.

"...Uh... You don't remember...?" When Sasuke shook his head, his cousin just sighed and offered a pointed glance to the calendar. Following his gaze, Sasuke noted every day had been crossed out, leaving only the current date: July 23. Still a bit tired from training (and a bit distracted by the delicious aromas), it admittedly took a few seconds longer than it should to make the connection.

"Oh. Right. My birthday." Masaru just shot him an exasperated look, before turning back to the pot with a sigh.

"...Sasuke, go take a bath. Dinner should be done by the time you finish." Sasuke grunted and headed for the bathroom, admittedly a bit wistful at the thought of soaking his tired muscles in nice, warm water. Half an hour later he emerged clean and far more relaxed than when he'd arrived, his exhaustion largely washed away. True to his word, Masaru had set the table with two bowls, and promptly filled two bowls with still-warm soup.

"Can you get the cups?" he asked, and Sasuke grunted as he trotted over to the cupboard to grab three teacups. Shortly before the massacre Ryoko had painted one of her teacups just for him, decorating it with a pattern of swirling storm clouds sprouting lightning. Masaru's own personal teacup had a swarm of golden dragonflies buzzing about it, their wings painted with ornate, glittering patterns.

Carrying them back to the table, he set them down at each place, and Masaru glanced at the third teacup with no small amount of surprise. "That's..."

"Figured it's only fair," Sasuke said with a shrug, and his cousin smiled, his eyes wistful as he studied the autumn foliage decorating his sister's cup.

Dinner unfolded with a pleasant atmosphere, the two boys exchanging stories about their various adventures over the past month. Sasuke scoffed and rolled his eyes at the mention of the flirty noble girls, while Masaru expressed sufficient awe at his description of his progress. "I'll show you the Chidori tomorrow," he offered, but his cousin shook his head.

"No, let's just take tomorrow off from ninja stuff." Frowning, Sasuke opened his mouth to protest but paused when Masaru raised a hand. Calmly setting down his spoon, he offered Sasuke the most pleasant smile he'd ever seen and then activated his Sharingan.

The aspiring avenger nearly recoiled at the stark contrast the visual provided. It really shouldn't be that disturbing, but somehow the sight of their clan's deadly and fearsome doujutsu paired with such a placid, sweet expression made his stomach churn.

"We're taking the day off," Masaru repeated calmly, still smiling, and Sasuke shuddered.

"R-right, we'll... take it off," he mumbled, pointedly looking away. "J-just, don't do that, okay?" Masaru's eyes returned to their normal black and he calmly resumed eating. Still slightly shocked, after a moment Sasuke slowly reached for an onigiri, mumbling to himself all the while. "What the hell...?"

Masaru just smirked, the picture of smugness.

Sasuke decided to take a page from Naruto's book and threw a clump of rice at him, and felt rather smug when Masaru yelped and nearly fell off his chair in surprise. Immature, maybe, but so strangely satisfying.

Sakura frowned as she stared at the mirror, fidgeting awkwardly. "Is... is it too fancy?" she mumbled to herself, her old childhood uncertainty rearing its ugly head. The dress had been quite pricey and definitely looked good on her, what with the deep ruby color and the form-fitting figure, tied at the waist with a light pink sash. It wouldn't be practical for anything highly physical, but today she had mostly civilian activities planned.

Still, she had doubts. While she wouldn't be doing any super-physical ninja work today, she would still be technically performing a mission. And before that, she'd be meeting Sasuke-kun for his birthday.

Sighing in frustration, Sakura stripped out of the dress and began combing her closet for alternatives. "Of all the days for Ino to be working," she grumbled under her breath. Right now she could really use her best friend's fashion advice, but unfortunately Ino had been roped into working at her family's flower shop for the day since all team activities had been suspended so Asuma could focus on training Shikamaru for the finals.

Pulling out a pale yellow sundress, she pulled it on and looked at her reflection appraisingly. This looked... cute. The wide collar showed off her collarbone quite well and the short sleeves granted her arms plenty of mobility, and it had a pattern of pastel green leaves which gave it a summery feel. The length felt a bit awkward though, extending just past her knees.

Inspired, she began rummaging through her drawers for a pair of scissors. She carefully cut along the bottom to end closer to her waist, and then pulled on light green leggings. Much better. Still, something seemed to be missing. Eying her reflection contemplatively, Sakura touched her hair with a thoughtful look.

Fifteen minutes later, she stood outside a restaurant, glancing around the busy street before spying a familiar head of black hair. "Sasuke-kun! Masaru! Hey!" She waved eagerly with a bright smile as her crush and his cousin approached, the pair pausing to look at her in mild surprise.

"Sakura," Masaru greeted once they got closer. "Your hair, it's..."

"Ah, yeah, it felt a little long so I trimmed it a bit." She smiled sheepishly as she fiddled with one of the ends, her formerly long pink locks trimmed to reach her shoulders. Cutting it had been a whim, but it felt so much better like this. She hadn't realized just how hot her hair had been until shearing it. Later she might have to ask Ino to cut it a little shorter—just a little.

Discreetly glancing at Sasuke, Sakura searched his face for signs of potential approval (or disapproval), but as usual he just looked impassive and bored as always. She resisted the urge to sigh, instead allowing a small smile to slip through. Sasuke's aloof nature had been one of his most attractive factors after all, if a little change like this made him suddenly swoon over her, then she'd seriously question if he might be an imposter.

"Is Naruto coming?" she asked, and Masaru shook his head.

"We couldn't find him, so guess not."

"Probably for the best," she sighed. "I don't know if we could get him to stop training long enough even just to grab lunch. I'm kinda surprised you took the day off, Sasuke-kun."

"I had no choice," he mumbled, shooting a sidelong glance at his cousin as he spoke. Was it just Sakura, or did he suddenly look kind of apprehensive? Shrugging it off, she just smiled and nodded.

"Well, that means we'll have to make this lunch extra special. Oh, right, before I forget!" Reaching into her purse, she pulled out a small white box tied with a red ribbon and held it to him. "Here, for your birthday. You can open it now if you want." Accepting it with a slightly curious glance, he pulled the ribbon loose and lifted the lid. Genuine surprise flashed across his features as he looked inside.

"What the...?" He lifted a pair of long blue wristbands, examining them with a slightly puzzled frown.

"It's a pair of gauntlets," she explained. "I figured I'd get you something practical. It's made with this special synthetic polymer that makes it extra sturdy and even fireproof. It has a loop that hooks around your middle finger, see?" She pointed to a fabric loop protruding from one of the ends as she spoke. "I also included the receipt in there so you can take it to the store to get metal plates sewn in if you want. Although you'd have to pay a fee, but, the gauntlets are way pricier on their own so I think it's not too bad."

Sasuke still seemed mildly surprised by the gift, and after a few moments he put them back in the box and offered her a small smirk. "Not bad." Her heart soared at the open approval and Inner Sakura cheered in delight, pumping a fist into the air. Somehow outer Sakura managed to keep her cool, only a faint blush signifying her internal glee.

Masaru looked at the gift with particular interest. "You said they're fireproof?" he asked, and she bobbed her head quickly.

"Yeah. Since the Uchiha clan is known for fire jutsu, I thought it'd be a good fit."

"It is." He had a contemplative note to his voice, eying the gauntlets with... was that envy? The unusually sour look caught her by surprise. Usually Masaru just seemed sweet if a bit shy and awkward, kinda like Hinata but with more confidence outside of socialization. The emotion disappeared as quickly as it appeared though, and Sakura decided not to dwell on it.

"Anyways, we should get lunch now," she said, glancing at the sky. Judging by the sun's position she'd estimate it to be a little past noon, which meant she had two hours to spare. She smiled as she led the way inside, lightly raving about the menu and excellent service. Neither of the Uchiha boys had been to this particular restaurant before, which she considered a travesty because it had the best anmitsu and sushi in all of Konoha!

The trio made pleasant conversation as they perused the menus, all three recounting their activities over the past month. Sasuke's training was going spectacularly as expected, Masaru had started experimenting with a jutsu apparently inherited from his mother (must not squeal), and Sakura herself had finally found a doctor at the hospital willing to teach her the Mystical Healing Palm.

Time flew by as they spoke, and eventually Sakura happened to glance at a clock on the wall and gasped in horror.

"Crap! I have to be at the Hokage's office in ten minutes!" Panicking, she yanked her coin pouch out of her purse and tossed it at the startled boys as she leapt to her feet. "Well, this was really fun but I need to go now. Here use this to pay and give it back to me later oh and dad says you guys are welcome anytime but that might be bad gotta go bye!"

With that she spun and raced away, zooming through Konoha's streets at record speeds. Remembering that rooftops would probably be faster, she accordingly changed her route and scaled the nearest building. Within two minutes the administration building came into sight, and she leaped onto the roof and burst through the window of the Hokage's office, gasping for breath as she skidded to a halt and doubled over.

The Hokage turned in his seat to look at her and raised an eyebrow, his lips quirking into an amused smile. "I see you're starting to take on some of Kakashi's habits," he chuckled, and she froze, an icy stab of terror filling her.

"Oh no, how late am I?!" she blurted, her face paling as she looked at him. "Oh kami, Lord Hokage I am so sorry! I had lunch with Sasuke-kun and Masaru for his birthday and totally lost track of time, I am so sorry—"

"Sakura-chan, you're not late," he interrupted before she could start hyperventilating. "I was referring to your entrance through the window. You're actually a few minutes early." Freezing, she stared at him blankly before her entire body sagged with relief.

"Oh, thank goodness," she groaned, hanging her head, and then paused and remembered she was in front of the Hokgae. The young kunoichi quickly straightened her back so she could properly bow. "I apologize for the loss of composure, I guess I let my nerves get the best of me."

"It's fine, Sakura," he assured her with a warm smile. "Let's get started." Turning around, he gestured for her to move to the front of the desk and she quickly scurried into place, giving another quick bow just to show she had some manners.

Due to the influx of foreign dignitaries entering Konoha for the Chuunin Exams, Sakura had gotten the brilliant idea to give some of them tours of the village. When she'd mentioned it to Iruka-sensei he'd scheduled a meeting with the Hokage for her to share her idea. She hadn't actually expected the Hokage to agree and worried the meeting would be a waste of his time, but to her surprise he not only approved it, but actually praised her for her initiative.

Foreign nobles would get more acquainted with the village which would give them incentive to hire Leaf ninja more, the local businesses would get a boost in sales, and she'd be able to make some sweet connections that might be useful in the future. As far as she was concerned, it was a win-win-win.

"Now then, today's group is a bit different from the others," the Hokage began. "After introducing yourself, I want you to present the woman this," he gestured to a small bouquet of flowers and a gift bag, "and her guests one of these." He gestured to an assortment of colored gift bags, smaller than the other one.

"Understood," Sakura responded with a firm nod. "I'm ready whenever you want me to begin."

Smiling, the Hokage nodded and raised a hand in a silent signal for one of the ANBU in the room to tell the receptionist to fetch the guests. "Just don't be too surprised," he warned her, and Sakura shot him a questioning glance as the receptionist knocked and opened the door.

"Lord Hokage, the party from Ame is here," she informed them, and Sakura felt her blood freeze for just a second. Ame? As in Ame, the Village Hidden in the Rain Ame? Before she could think on it too hard four figures filed inside, all wearing headbands with four vertical lines. Yep, ninja village Ame. This marked a first.

The obvious leader, a woman, had loose brown hair that hung over her shoulders in waves. Thick blue lines extended from her eyes in what Sakura supposed was meant to mimic rainfall, the paint almost perfectly matching the deep blue shade of her eyes. She stepped forward and briefly bowed, smiling at the Hokage pleasantly. "Thank you for hosting us and extending this lovely offer to us, Lord Hokage."

"It is no issue at all," he told her, and nodded to Sakura. She quickly stepped forward and bowed to the four guests. Internally she continued to freak out, but somehow she managed to keep calm externally and even managed a polite smile.

"Hello, my name is Haruno Sakura. I'll be your guide today." If her voice sounded a little shaky and high-pitched, no one commented on it.

"It is a pleasure to meet you, Sakura. My name is Masuyo, I am the official representative of Ame. These are my guests. Kyouya," she nodded to a man with an eye patch with three scars extending from it like claw marks, "Shinobu," a teenage boy maybe two years older than Sakura who looked totally awestruck by everything, "and my guard, Arata." The final man wore a respirator like some of the Ame genin she'd seen in the exam along with a pair of goggles and a hood pulled over his head, and had a red scarf draped loosely around his shoulders.

Sakura casually examined the small group, recognizing the first two from the preliminary matches as the teacher and one of the Rain genin. She suspected the other two genin to be unavailable due to training and—in the kunoichi's case—medical needs. In turn, that meant the two unfamiliar ones—or at least Masuyo—likely came to Konoha as the official representatives for Ame. No pressure or anything.

Smiling, she pushed away her nerves and picked up the bouquet to present it to Masuyo. "It is an honor to host you today, Lady Masuyo," she told her. "Please accept this bouquet and these gift bags to commemorate your visit. Inside you will find coupons for various facilities around Konoha, as well as some other memorabilia to commemorate your stay."

Masuyo accepted the bouquet and proffered gift bag with a gracious smile, and Sakura quickly collected the remaining bags and flitted about the room. "For you, Kyouya-san, the green bag," she told the jounin sensei, handing him the bag in question, "To match your eye. For Shinobu-san, blue, because your yukata is blue," she smiled as she handed it to him, earning a small thanks in return, and then turned to the last man. "And of course, since Arata-san has that red scarf, you get the red bag." He accepted it with a silent nod, the others already checking the contents of the bags curiously.

As she turned to face Masuyo once more, the woman suddenly leaned forward and tucked one of the flowers from the bouquet behind her ear, making Sakura freeze and grow red. Masuyo offered her a warm smile, brushing a few strands of her hair away from the blossom. "And for you, Sakura-chan, a single white anemone. Do you know what that means?"

"Sincere," the genin breathed, feeling her cheeks flush as her fingers flitted upwards to gently touch the soft petals. Masuyo hummed in approval as she stepped back, and behind her Sakura could hear the Third chuckle in faint amusement.

"We can have the bouquet sent to your hotel room if you wish," he offered, and the woman smiled and nodded.

"Of course, thank you," she told him, plucking a single white daffodil from the bouquet and tucking it behind her own ear before handing it to him. Respect, Sakura recalled from her hanakotoba classes in the academy. Daffodils meant respect. It fit her, because as a foreign representative Masuyo deserved respect, but she herself also seemed quite respectful.

Smiling widely, Sakura bowed to them once more before clapping her hands, her nerves sated by the brief interaction. "Now that introductions have been completed, shall we begin?"

Meanwhile across Konoha, Gaara sat alone on the floor of his hotel room, leafing through a thick folder on his lap. Hours ago Baki had returned from a final strategy meeting with some representatives from Oto with the file in tow after Gaara had spent the better part of the past three weeks requesting it. Even now he could sense his jounin sensei hovering near the door, no doubt waiting anxiously for how he would react. Gaara rarely showed an interest in anything, so it left Baki understandably unsettled.

Ever since they arrived in Konoha, Gaara had been acting different. He still acted cruel, still treated his siblings and everyone else with detached apathy, but... He changed, just his lethal impulses, Gaara's behavior typically fell into easily defined patterns that made him fairly predictable after knowing him long enough, providing those who worked with him regularly an idea on to navigate any interactions. This, however, fell outside the known limits of Gaara's behavior, and Baki had no idea how to handle this new side of his student.

Sea foam eyes narrowed as the jincuuriki skimmed one page in particular, the complex medical jargon almost too thick for him to make much sense of it. However, he could understand just enough to decipher the information he desired. Visibly he showed no reaction, but internally his mind whirled with the implications.

"Mother," he murmured quietly. "Love is very twisted, isn't it..."


Omake: The Photos

Kakashi had just sent Sasuke on a game of tag with the ninken when Tenzo suddenly appeared in the clearing with a panicked look. "Senpai, help!" he hissed, and Kakashi felt his heart sink with dread.

"What happened?" he demanded quickly. "Did Orochimaru attack?"

"No, worse. Look!" He produced a pile of photos from his vest and thrust it at Kakashi, who looked at the top one with a heavy sense of foreboding—

...Was that a younger Jiraiya tied up and covered in makeup, with Tsunade and Orochimaru smirking behind him?

Staring at it blankly, Kakashi slowly leafed through the photos and oh kami, was that a teenage Minato-sensei crying as he applied blush to Jiraiya? Yes, yes it was he realized, and that was definitely a mischievous Kushina hovering behind his teenage sensei with a devilish grin. Stories he'd long forgotten came to mind, his eye widening with understanding.

"...Tenzo?" he asked hesitantly. "Why do you have photos from Kushina's fifteenth birthday?"

"Masaru found it in some book! He wanted to know who everyone in there is and what they're doing and I don't know what to say!"

"We'll figure it out—" Kakashi started, only to freeze when he saw the next photo. Four teenage kunoichi smirked drunkenly at the camera as they lifted half-empty bottles of beer, their clothes in obvious disarray and lipstick marks visible on their necks which matched the red splotches smeared across their mouths. More vague memories of Kushina snickering came to mind, and Kakashi's shoulders drooped. ...Right, they had a giant make-out session while drunk. That would be a little more uncomfortable to explain to Masaru.

"He wants to know what Uzumaki birthdays are like! What do I tell him?" Tenzo hissed desperately, snatching the photos back.

"...Just be thankful it's not the one from Kushina's eighteenth birthday," Kakashi finally said, and then disappeared in a swirl of leaves before Tenzo could question what he meant. The mokuton user just stood there dumbly, staring at the space Kakashi occupied. Seconds later Sasuke raced past him, a pack of overly hyper ninken nipping at his heels.

Chapter Text

Chapter 32

"There are all kinds of quotes on sportsmanship, and being graceful in victory and loss. I wonder if those rules apply to battles to the death."

A loud buzz from countless chattering voices droned in the arena as Masaru walked down the aisle, looking around at the crowd filling the stands with an expression of awe. Today the third phase of the Chuunin Exams would commence, and he'd never seen so many people in one place before. Foreign dignitaries he vaguely recognized from his escort missions sat in cordoned off sections surrounded by guards, while masked ANBU agents stood stationed at various points towards the back of the stands in a visible display of security.

I wonder if Gaku-sensei is one of them, he wondered idly as he eyed the masked figures. Gaku-sensei had been drafted for security detail once again during the tournament, so Masaru hoped the man would show himself if he got a break.

"Masaru, come on!" he heard Sakura call, and he turned forward to see the pink-haired girl waving at him from the bottom of the steps, prompting him to scurry after her. Sakura had graciously invited him to join her to spectate the third phase, and seeing as he did not do well in crowded places alone he'd readily accepted. He smiled faintly as he fell into step behind her, following her towards a cluster of more familiar faces.

Kiba glanced over and waved eagerly as they approached, Akamaru raising his head and yipping excitedly. "Hey, Masaru! Sakura! I got a couple empty seats right here if you guys need a place to sit!"

"Thanks, Kiba," Sakura said, sliding into one of the empty chairs. Masaru sat in the chair between the two genin, leaning over to scratch Akamaru behind the ear.

"Hey Akamaru," he greeted, smiling at the happy puppy. Contented by the attention, the dog made the decision to ditch his partner and leapt off Kiba's lap to land in Masaru's. The change caught the Uchiha by surprise, but he quickly recovered and smiled as he continued to scratch the heavily satisfied canine.

"Seriously, Akamaru?" Kiba muttered, looking mildly exasperated at being abandoned by his best friend. Akamaru just shot him a look that looked strangely smug for a dog, his tail steadily thumping against Masaru's lap. Sakura just giggled at the scene, reaching over to join in petting the canine. Judging by the weird, drawn-out hum the puppy emitted, Akamaru had officially entered canine heaven.

"Ahhh!? Sakura!? Your hair!" Masaru winced as a familiar screech sounded nearby, and turned to see Ino staring at her best friend in an open display of horror. "I-i-it's—it's short!" As she began sputtering in shock and dismay her father chuckled behind her and followed his old teammates into a nearby row, leaving the shocked girl alone with only Chouji for moral support.

"Looks good, Sakura," the Akimichi boy said, happily tossing a few chips into his mouth and totally ignoring his teammate's current emotional distress.

"Oh, thanks," Sakura replied, smiling as she touched the tips. "I'm still getting used to it, but it feels so much lighter." Chouji squeezed past them to plop into the empty seat on Kiba's other side, graciously allowing Ino to take the one next to Sakura.

"I can't believe you cut it," the blonde moaned. "It was so much fun styling each other's hair at sleepovers..."

"There, there, Ino," Sakura soothed, patting her shoulder. "You'll get used to it, don't worry."

"Hey, I just had a thought," Kiba suddenly said. "Sakura cut her hair, and Hinata already has super-short hair, so... That means Ino's the only girl from our year left with long hair, right?" The others paused at this, letting it sink in.

"So basically, that means it's Ino's turn to cut her hair next?" Chouji asked.

The subsequent screech from Ino hurt but was admittedly hilarious.

Kiba openly snickered at Ino's horrified sputtering, even Sakura stifling giggles. Masaru just smirked cheekily, still scratching Akamaru behind the ear. "Hey, it's probably way easier to care for when it's short," he commented. "Maybe it'll feel good."

His teasing made her freeze, staring at him with a sudden calculating look. Just like that he felt his brief surge of confidence vanish, because dammit he forgot for a second Ino was a fangirl. "So you think I might look good with short hair, huh?" she mused aloud, and Sakura sighed and shook her head while Kiba smacked his forehead in frustration.

Chouji just happily munched on chips, totally uncaring of the mounting disaster unfolding next to him.

Soon enough the proctor called everyone's attention, his voice echoing loudly around the stadium as he signaled the start of the third phase. The twelve contenders filed onto the field at his signal and formed a line. As he rolled through the basic introductory spiel, Masaru noticed the other genin squinting at the proctor with frowns.

"Hey, isn't that a different guy from the preliminaries?" Kiba muttered, squinting at him.

"Yeah, it is," Ino agreed with a small frown. "They both wear bandanas, but the other guy coughed a lot more." Glancing between his classmates curiously, Masaru looked back to the announcer and briefly activated his Sharingan to get a better look.

"That's Genma-san," he told them. Noting his classmates' questioning looks, he shrugged and explained, "He was in the escort team for the Suna team." They nodded in understanding and turned back just as Genma dismissed a large chunk of the genin so the first match could begin. The day would start with Neji versus Niwakaame Nao from Ame.

(Distantly, Masaru thought he heard Tenten cheering for Neji.)

As the match unfolded the five genin began chatting lightly about the various match ups while watching curiously. The Rain genin used a ninjutsu-heavy style, blasting Neji with water bullets to try to keep him at a distance. Smart, he must have noticed the Hyuuga clan relied on hitting people's tenketsu points. Neji jabbed at the water bullets as he dodged them, the air seeming to shimmer as he dislodged the senbon hidden inside.

While Masaru observed the fight with thinly veiled fascination, he found his attention drifting to the conversation around him. "So that Oto bitch is up against Shino next," Kiba said with a feral smirk. "I'm really looking forward to how that one goes."

"I really want to see how Shikamaru handles that stuck-up Temari," Sakura added, her eyes gleaming with sadistic anticipation. "He better not mess up." The obvious venom in her tone reminded Masaru that Sakura had lost to Temari in the preliminaries, and he subtly inched away from her as far as the seat would allow. Sadly, that did not mount to nearly enough distance for his comfort.

"Who's Naruto fighting?" he asked.

"Don't you know?" Sakura asked, and when Masaru shook his head she said, "He's up against Hinata."

"Hinata?" Masaru grimaced and winced in sympathy.

"Poor girl," Ino murmured, sounding equally sympathetic. "I'd hate to be in her place."

"Why?" Chouji asked, munching on chips. "Do you think fighting Naruto would be that bad?"

"It's not that, Chouji," Kiba sighed, leaning back in his seat. "Hinata's got a major crush on Naruto. Haven't you ever noticed how she turns bright red whenever she sees him?"

"Girl's got it bad," Ino agreed with a sage nod. "And she's way too shy to act on it." As she spoke she leaned forward and batted her eyelashes at Masaru, who made a stoic effort to ignore her. Instead he turned back to the match, just in time to see the Rain genin flash through some hand signs and sink into the ground.

Surprised at the sudden change in strategy, Masaru leaned forward in his seat to watch with his Sharingan whirling to life, watching more closely. Veins bulged around Neji's eyes as he whirled around in search of his opponent, and then suddenly hands sprouted from the earth to grab him by the ankle. The Hyuuga reacted instantly, his arms moving in a large blur too fast to follow with regular eyes. Since Masaru had the Sharingan, he clearly saw Neji strike one of the wrists.

The hand went limp around his ankle and the other wrist quickly receded just before Neji could hit it, narrowly avoiding his fingertips before disappearing underground, and the Hyuuga quickly jumped away. Moments later the black-haired Rain genin emerged with a gasp, one of his arms hanging limply at his side. Before he could react further Neji surged forward and struck him again, jabbing various points on his body.

He hit Nao's knees and his legs gave away, collapsing to the ground in a jumbled heap of awkwardly splayed limbs, and Genma called the match.

"Woah, that was pretty cool," Chouji commented, while Masaru definitely heard Tenten scream "YEAH! WAY TO GO NEJI!"

"Great, now his head is going to be even bigger," Kiba groaned, scowling in irritation. "I was kinda hoping he'd get some sense pounded into him."

"Was he that bad?" Chouji asked curiously.

"He kept ranting about fate and destiny," Kiba growled, his eyes flashing maliciously as he glowered at the stoic Hyuuga boy as he walked back to the stands without a second glance at his opponent. "He keeps telling Hinata she's destined to be a failure and all that kind of bullshit. I don't like him."

Medics scurried into the arena to cart the fallen Rain genin away, a Hyuuga present among them to help unblock the tenketsu points. "Poor Masuyo," Sakura murmured under her breath, Masaru barely catching it over the roar of the crowd. He flashed her a curious glance, and when she noted it she smiled at him and shrugged. "Ah, don't mind me. It's no big deal." As she spoke her gaze flitted to the Kage's Box where four figures sat.

"A shame, Masuyo-san," the Kazekage murmured, though his voice held no sympathy. "It appears your village has fallen out of he running for the tournament already." Konan merely hummed in response, her hands folded atop her lap and her face a placid mask as she watched the medics disappear into the building with Nao in tow.

"It is fine. Nao-kun is skilled but still has much to learn, he did well simply to make it this far."

"Masuyo-san, I personally believe that Nao-kun did a fine job," the Hokage interjected next to her, offering her a grandfatherly smile. "Neji-kun is a prodigy within the Hyuuga clan, so defeating him would be quite difficult. More impressively, though, Nao-kun demonstrated an ability to use low-level jutsu in two different nature releases. That is quite a feat for a genin, especially at his age."

Konan turned to him with a pleased smile, nodding in agreement. "Thank you. I was honestly quite surprised as well. Kyouya told me Nao had great potential, but he's shown even more skill than I initially expected."

She smiled as she spoke, a bit of pride seeping into her voice. While Konan had come to the tournament to scope the jichuuriki they suspected to be participating, that did not diminish her role as a representative of Ame. She had great pride in her village, and Nao's performance had left her greatly impressed. If all the genin showed that kind of potential, then they wouldn't need to worry about Ame's future as much.

Next to her Shibuki still seemed a bit uncertain, though. "Ninja might be impressed, but we can't say the same for the nobles," he muttered. "They don't know much about ninja. You might not get as many jobs from this."

"Is that truly so bad though?" the Kazekage mused. "Civilian nobility is quite annoying to deal with anyway. Our own daimyo is dense enough, I imagine foreigners would only be more frustrating."

All of the village leaders fell silent at that, a slight gloom hanging over the box as each one recalled their own experiences dealing with nobility. Whether Kage or jounin, everyone knew how frustrating civilians could be.

They pushed the grim reflections away as they watched the next two fighters enter the arena, scrutinizing them with experienced eyes. One wore a baggy jacket with a high collar and dark glasses, both trademarks of Konoha's Aburame clan. The other, a female, wore a hitai-ate with a music note engraved into it, making Konan's eyes narrow. Oto had only formed within the last year, so very little information existed on it beyond some rumors Sasori's spy rings had picked up suggesting a link to Orochimaru.

"I'm curious about Oto," Shibuki admitted, unknowingly echoing her thoughts. "I haven't heard much about it. I thought the leader would have wanted to attend since one of his genin made it through on their first go."

"I extended an invitation, but the leader declined," the Hokage informed him, frowning slightly. "I was quite surprised. I expected they would desire some publicity."

"Do you know their name?" Konan questioned curiously, and he shook his head.

"Unfortunately, no. Oto is quite secretive."

"Perhaps the leader is simply paranoid," the Kazekage suggested, and turned his head slightly to squint at Konan. "I am certain you know quite a bit about that, Masuyo-san. After all, from what I hear your own village's leader, Hanzou, has grown quite paranoid in recent years."

Hearing the name of the man responsible for Yahiko's death filled Konan with a sharp pang of rage and disgust. Only years of practice in schooling her emotions kept her from physically reacting, closing her eyes and speaking in a carefully neutral tone. "Yes, you are indeed correct. That is why I am present in his stead, after all."

As far as she was concerned, her words were half true. Hanzou had indeed grown deeply paranoid, as seen by his constant guard. He would never agree to personally venture into such a public venue and risk a potential assassination plot.

She just omitted the fact he had perished two months prior at the cold hands of Yahiko's corpse.

"Match, begin!" Genma yelled, and the two genin moved.

Standing among the other contenders, Hinata felt small and out of place. The Sand Siblings all had such intense auras about them, the Oto kunoichi who beat Kiba in the preliminaries had a confident, cocky smirk... Even Shikamaru, who seemed ready to fall asleep any second, seemed to belong there more than the ever-anxious Hinata.

When watching Neji's match that out of place feeling only amplified, her heart lodging in her throat as she struggled to follow his movements. Despite spending the past month in intensive training, she hardly compared to her prodigious cousin. Her fingers unconsciously reached for the braided bracelet dangling on her right wrist, recognizing the red strand by touch alone due to the wear from how much she traced it.

Shino tapped her shoulder in a silent show of support before descending to the arena for his own match, and just like that Hinata was alone, a weak little mouse in a den of demons. She tried to ignore it, tried to focus on Shino's match, tried to bask in Naruto's warmth and enthusiasm as he began bickering with Sasuke. She found it so hard to focus though, not when she could feel Neji's eyes on her.

Halfway through the match he finally approached her, crossing his arms with a scowl. "Why did you even come here?" he demanded coldly. "Right now you look ready to faint any second. You clearly lack the mental capacity to pass. At this point you'll probably pass out from nerves before you can even fight."

Hinata felt her breath hitch and her stomach churned violently, her mouth fluttering open but unable to form words. Screams echoed in her mind, her body locking up as she remembered the sickening crack of bone shattering beneath her fingertips. Across from her Neji's eyes narrowed, his scowl intensifying. "You're even paler now. You should have stayed home, like I told you."

"Hey, knock it off," Shikamaru interjected nearby, peeking open a single eye to lazily regard Neji with a mild frown. "You're just making her more nervous." Somehow his voice caught the others' attention, the Sand Siblings eying the scene from their peripheral vision while Naruto and Sasuke stopped arguing.

"Hey, what's going on?" Naruto asked, frowning. Before anyone could respond a loud explosion sounded from the arena, and the assembled genin turned to see clouds of dust rising from the field next to a smirking Kin. Shino burst from the cloud and moved to dodge as the kunoichi assaulted him with a wave of senbon, mixing in a couple kunai with explosive tags wrapped around the handles.

Clearly, the Sound kunoichi had realized that senbon alone would not be nearly enough to defeat Shino, because while she certainly had the precision to strike the tiny insects midair, she would quickly run out in the face of their overwhelming numbers. More explosions rocked the field as the kunai detonated, Shino getting nicked by a few blades but always managing to get clear before the tags could detonate.

The battle proved a suitable distraction for the genin, their attention now turned away from Hinata. Sasuke grunted, clearly unimpressed by what he saw. "Her grip on those kunai is clumsy. She's obviously not used to it."

Nearby Temari snorted and rolled her eyes. "Amateur," she grumbled to herself. "If you're going to learn something new for the finals, you should at least make sure you're halfway decent with it."

"Look closer at the ground," Shikamaru drawled, and the other genin all paused, leaning forward and squinting. Long lines of silver stretched across the arena in a shimmery web, wires glittering in the sunlight as they trailed behind senbon before falling limply to the ground and getting obscured by another cloud of dust.

Hinata's eyes widened in comprehension of the strategy. While she and the other genin could see the wires from their higher elevation, Shino would be much less likly to notice them due to his close proximity. Her hand tightened over her chest as her eyes trailed towards her teammate, gnawing on her lower lip in worry. Please, Shino, be careful!

However, to her horror, when Kin revealed her trap and pulled the wires taut to create a deadly web they right sliced through Shino. For half a second her body stilled with horror, the world seeming to freeze, only for her breath to rush out in a gasp of relief when Shino's body to dissolve into a swarm of insects.

The real Shino emerged from one of the trees, lunging at the still-stunned Kin from behind while the swarm that had formed the insect clone sailed towards her from the front. Panicked, the kunoichi started to move to the side to dodge only to wince as her thigh cut into one of the raised wires, her own trap turned against her.

She had no time to react before both Shino and his swarm descended upon her, the insects draining her of chakra. Her struggles to escape proved futile and soon enough Genma called the match in the Aburame's favor. Hinata felt her body droop with relief as her teammate mounted the steps to join them, stepping forward to greet him with a small smile. "You did a good job, Shino-kun," she told him, and he nodded in recognition of her compliment.

Her good mood swiftly vanished when she heard Neji audibly scoff though, making her flinch and quickly lower her gaze to her feet with a small frown. While she grew lost in her thoughts one of the Sand genin—Kankurou?—descended with some cocky parting words to his sister. The Waterfall kunoichi followed suit, vaulting over the railing to flip onto the field and grinning at him proudly.

"Get ready, cutie!" the green-haired girl declared loudly, her booming voice carrying clearly around the arena. "I, Tsukino Midori, shall defeat you today and bring honor to Taki!"

Kankurou just snorted, smirking at her cockily. "In your dreams. I'm the one who's gonna win!"

As the two began exchanging more trash talk Hinata paid them no attention, all the surrounding noise slowly drowned out by her own thoughts. Her fingers absently traced the braided bracelet dangling on her wrist, her heart pounding in her chest anxiously. Midori... She seemed so confident, so sure of herself, while Hinata just—just didn't. She didn't even know Midori, and yet she felt herself envying the girl's confidence.

A hand lightly touched her shoulder, making her jump with a loud squeak. She whirled to see her teammate looking at her, quickly retracting his hand. "Hinata?" Shino asked, a small modicum of concern evident in his otherwise flat voice. "You seem very anxious and stressed. Are you alright?"

Swallowing heavily, she shook her head and forced herself to speak, her voice fighting to claw its way out of her too-dry throat. "N-no, I'm... I-I'm..." Trembling, she sucked in a deep breath and dropped her torso into a bow. "I need to go, I'll be back soon!" Without giving him a chance to respond she took off running, ignoring the startled call from Naruto as she fled through the door.

I'm sorry... I'm so sorry!

In the stands Kiba stretched his arms above his head, thoroughly bored by the fight unfolding in the arena. Watching Shino beat Kin to the ground had left him with a strong sense of satisfaction as well as a renewed burst of energy, but all this trash talking just felt so lame after that.

"Screw it, I'm going for a walk," he declared, getting up. Akamaru immediately hopped off Masaru's lap to join his partner, yipping and wagging his tail eagerly.

"Really?" Sakura looked at him in surprise, leaning forward to look at him from Masaru's other side. "Don't you want to see how this turns out?"

"Nah, not really," Kiba replied with a dismissive shrug. "Not like either of them are ours, right?"

"I'll go too," Chouji volunteered, crinkling his chip bag and stuffing it in his pocket. "I just finished the chips so I wanna get some more from the concession stand."

Ino visibly perked up at this, leaning forward slightly to gaze at Masaru with a coy smile. Her eyes shifted between him and Kiba's now-empty seat, gears visibly turning in her head, and the Uchiha boy instantly paled and jumped to his feet. "I, uh, need to go to the bathroom," he stammered, and Kiba snorted and rolled his eyes. Clearly he just didn't want to risk Ino stealing his seat while he was gone, but the Inuzuka decided not to comment on it.

"Just make sure you guys get back before the next match," Sakura interjected. "That's when Naruto and Hinata fight." Kiba immediately huffed and shot her an annoyed look, irritated she felt a need to remind him at all.

"Are you kidding me? There's no way I'm gonna miss Hinata's match!" He hadn't seen Hinata much over the past month, as she'd been busy training with her clan every day. Even so, he knew she'd need the moral support. After being on a team with her for five months, he knew better than anyone how timid Hinata could be. While he might not be able to talk to her in person, he could at least root for her from the stands.

Turning away from the pink-haired girl, he said to the other boys, "Let's go." Chouji and Masaru nodded and the trio filed out of the row, heading up the aisle to enter the halls of the stadium. As they made their way towards a flight of stairs to reach the first floor Masaru glanced down the hall.

"There are bathrooms that way, right?" he asked, and Kiba shot him a skeptical look.

"Yeah, I think so. Smell kinda bad though, first floor bathrooms might be better." He wrinkled his nose as he spoke, a bit disgusted by the odor wafting down the hall, and felt no small amount of relief that it left his range once they started descending the stairs. "Wasn't that an excuse to get away from Ino though?"

"I might hide there for a while just in case," Masaru responded blandly. Chouji stepped over and gave his shoulder a sympathetic pat, a bit awkward considering he stood one step below the other boy.

"You really need to work on your people skills, dude."

"I know," the Uchiha groaned, sagging dejectedly. Kiba snorted, but before he could comment further a familiar aroma suddenly caught his attention. Lilac scented shampoo and lavender body soap drifted faintly from the doorway, almost drowned out by the other scents that had flooded the halls. Hinata?

Jumping down the last few steps, he sniffed the air and glanced to Akamaru to find him looking at him pointedly, confirming he smelled it too. Why would Hinata be here though? The contestants wouldn't need to go through this area, like, ever. The only thing here were the concession stands... and the front door.

Face darkening as realization settled over him, Kiba turned and began following the scent, Akamaru dutifully trotting behind him with his nose pressed to the floor. "Kiba, the concession stand is this way," Chouji called. He just grunted in response, raising a hand to wave him off without looking back.

"You guys go ahead," he said dismissively. "We need to check something out." The other boys watched him depart with perplexed looks, and after exchanging a confused glance they shrugged, each reaching their own decision. Masaru quickly jogged after Kiba while Chouji turned and continued his solitary walk to the concession stand the opposite way.

Elsewhere in the stadium, two men lay sprawled on the floor of a janitor's closet in nothing but their underwear, their eyes glazed as they stared at the ceiling in a trance-like state. They paid no mind to the cloaked ANBU operative crouching next to them, too lost in their trances to notice even the chill in the room. Dark eyes narrowed behind the white hawk mask as the man recognized the effects of a heavy genjutsu, and he started to reach towards them to wake them from it only to hesitate.

Slowly retracting his arm, he turned his head slightly to look over his shoulder, rising to his full height as he did. An ever familiar silver-haired man stood behind him, his single visible eye narrowed as he surveyed the scene before. "Well, this is a surprise," Kakashi quipped dryly, and the ANBU turned to face him more fully with a small dip of the head to show respect to the former ANBU captain.

"I found these two during my patrols. I recognize them from headquarters, but I do not know their names or codenames. I believe that someone took their uniforms and is using them to infiltrate the stadium." Kakashi hummed in thought, glancing between the agent and the two semi-conscious people on the ground. He reached for his hitai-ate and lifted it to expose his Sharingan, studying them critically.

"This doesn't look like it's just a genjutsu, their breathing is too shallow. Their scents are a bit off, too," he added after giving a brief sniff. "I'm guessing they have some drugs in their systems."

"I'll inform Lord Hokage," the ANBU declared, heading for the door even as he spoke.

"Not so fast, Hawk-san," Kakashi drawled, making him pause. The Copy-nin eyed his mask, his posture lazy and relaxed like usual but his gaze sharp and scrutinizing. "Funny thing, that. Last I checked, there is only one agent with that specific mask model since it got retired two years ago, and right now I know for a fact he's busy patrolling the arena."

A brief silence descended over the room as the two stood there, staring each other down. Then Kakashi huffed a small sigh and lowered his hitai-ate over his eye, casually turning away. "Well, I say that, but I think we have more important things to worry about right now. So we'll have to save this conversation for another time. Maybe tomorrow, if we're both free." With those parting words he disappeared in a puff of smoke, leaving the "ANBU" standing alone in stiff surprise.

After a long moment he turned and darted through the door, mind racing with the implications of this encounter.

Chapter Text

Chapter 33

"They say there's a calm before the storm. Sometimes, though, there is no calm. Just a bunch of howling winds, building up to something worse."

I can't... I can't!

Hinata raced through the halls with pained gasps, her heart catching in her throat as her eyes burned with unshed tears. Bursting into an empty bathroom, she darted into a stall and slammed the door shut, hugging herself as she allowed a shaky sob to escape.

In the end, she couldn't do it. She just couldn't do it. She couldn't fight Naruto, she couldn't fight in front of all those people from all over the world, she couldn't do anything. Neji had been right, she still heard her opponent's scream, still felt sickened whenever she thought of that horrible, blood-chilling crack. Hinata had no place in the tournament, she didn't have the mental capacity to become a chuunin yet. She might never have the capacity for it.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry!"

She buried her face into her arms as she began quietly apologizing under her breath, shrinking in shame even when all alone. Even now she could picture her father's disapproving glare when he learned she gave into nerves before the match, the clan's elders' stern voices echoing in her mind. The mere thought of their cold, disdainful gazes made her shudder, biting back a distressed whimper as she trembled violently.

"Hey, are you okay?"

Hinata squealed in surprise and jumped almost a foot in the air, spinning to stare at the stall door in shock. During her small breakdown she'd forgotten to actually lock it, and now a brown-haired girl peered through the open crack with a worried expression. "Sorry, but, I thought I heard crying and you look kinda upset?"

Too stunned to reply, Hinata stumbled back and folded her hands over her mouth, her eyes wide with horror. "I'm f-fine," she forced out, and a long moment of silence passed.

"You don't sound fine?" the other girl ventured with an uncertain frown, and Hinata winced before averting her gaze shamefully. Not only had she run away, but she'd lost her composure in front of a total stranger. Her family would be disgusted with her if they found out. Already she could hear the scolding lectures from the elders about how shinobi didn't cry, how noble ladies must always act proper and behaved in public—


And then Hinata's entire world shattered, stepping back with a startled squeak as her younger sister suddenly peered through the crack. "H-Hanabi?" she stammered. "W-what—"

"I was going to the concession stand and saw you run in here. Why are you so upset?" Hinata couldn't respond, only able to stare at her sister in muted horror.

"Ah, I should, uh, probably go," the stranger murmured awkwardly, and quickly retreated from the scene. The sisters paid her no mind, Hinata too focused on Hanabi's presence.. Not only had she run away and lost her composure in front of a stranger, but now she'd shown weakness in front of her younger sister, too.

"I-I'm sorry," Hinata whispered, averting her gaze. Her younger sister regarded her with a worried frown, her eyebrows furrowing.

"Onee-san, why are you so upset? Did something happen?"

"I-I... Th-that is..." Hinata trailed off, unable to finish the sentence. Wringing the hem of her sweatshirt, she let her gaze flicker to the braided bracelet peeking out from beneath her sleeve, seeking the comfort of the memories it brought—

Hinata froze, her head snapping up with wide eyes. Shoving the door open, she raced out of the bathroom past a confused Hanabi, her Byakugan activating as she ran down the halls.

A loud roar rose from the stands as the latest match ended. Kankurou had soundly defeated his opponent with his puppet, successfully maneuvering it capture her and hold a blade to her throat. Ultimately he forced her to forfeit lest she lose her head, and while Midori had been left conscious and largely intact, the Waterfall kunoichi did not accept defeat with grace.


The spectators watched with varying degrees of bemusement as Midori wailed in despair, her earlier childish confidence replaced with an even more childish temper tantrum. Her screech echoed clearly around the stadium and made many of the audience members wince, and with an extra loud sob she took off running to the exit. As she raced off the field the Kazekage clucked his tongue in disapproval.

"That is quite the immature display," he remarked. "It does not leave a very good impression."

"It's... not," Shibuki sighed, and rose from his seat. "I should go find her, Midori-chan likes to act tough but she's actually quite sensitive."

"Of course, we perfectly understand," Hiruzen replied. Personally he felt it quite commendable that Shibuki would be willing to seek out one of his genin to offer comfort, in fact he almost envied him for the ability to do so. Konoha had too many ninja for him to personally tend to all of them like Shibuki; that was one of the advantages a small village like Taki had over his. A small advantage, but one which should not be taken for granted.

"Good luck, Shibuki-san," Masuyo told him with a kind smile. "Please tell her she did perfectly fine."

"Ah, y-yes, I will," he stammered, his cheeks flushing a bit. Hiruzen chuckled slightly as the young village leader scurried off, his guard trailing behind him silently. Funnily enough, Aomine Shintoki seemed far more comfortable among foreign shinobi than his village's leader, but then, he had more experience. Shibuki was still young, and Hiruzen could see vast potential in the young man once he got over his nerves.

"Since your village is out of the running, will you leave too, Masuyo?" the Kazekage asked, drawing his attention back to the others still in the stand. The Ame representative shook her head slightly, her sapphire eyes flitting to the arena.

"I would prefer to stay and watch. I find these matches quite educational."

"Very well, then," the Kazekage murmured, turning his attention back to the arena. While Kankurou had departed to rejoin the other contenders Genma stood on the field alone, and about a minute passed before someone else descended onto the field. However, it wasn't the blinding speck of orange Hiruzen had expected.

"Isn't that the Aburame boy from the previous match?" Masuyo asked, squinting at the figure.

"It is," Hiruzen confirmed lowly, frowning as he watched Shino join Genma. Eyes narrowing, he raised a hand to signal one of his ANBU guards, silently communicating a series of commands. The masked man nodded and disappeared in a flicker of movement to join the two on the field, while the crowd began to buzz impatiently as they watched the trio speak. Soon enough the ANBU agent nodded and he flickered away, reappearing behind Hiruzen.

"Sir, it appears that Hyuuga Hinata left the finalists' stand during the previous match and has not returned," he reported. "Moreover, Uzumaki Naruto and Uchiha Sasuke have also left to look for her, and are still gone." Hiruzen stilled at this information, his mouth forming a grim line. Given Hinata's timid personality he doubted she had left for something as simple as the bathroom; most likely Neji had said something that rattled her and she'd given into her nerves and fled.

"Tell Genma to move up the next match," he commanded, and the guard nodded before vanishing to relay his orders.

"You're not going to call a draw?" the Kazekage asked curiously.

"Normally I would, but there are certain... external factors at play," Hiruzen replied, choosing his words carefully. Specifically, the other contender for the match happened to be Naruto, and he didn't want to deprive the youth of an opportunity to properly display his abilities. Kami knows felt bad enough for the boy after the fiasco in the preliminaries, and Naruto had spent the past month training hard with Jiraiya just for the tournament.

Hiruzen could justify his decision to delay the match as more than just sentimentality for the boy. As the jinchuuriki of the Kyuubi, Naruto's development happened to be of critical interest to Konoha. Given his busy schedule, Hiruzen probably wouldn't get another chance to see the fruits of the boy's hard work for some time. Even the Council had expressed interest in seeing his progress during the finals. Not to mention, the crowd would only incite him to try even harder.

Letting Naruto lose this opportunity would be too wasteful for Konoha.

Elsewhere in the stadium, anyone (un?)fortunate enough to be in the halls were greeted by a strange sight.

Orange flooded the space as an army of Naruto clones scattered about, people jumping out of their path with startled cries. The long line in front of the concession stand broke apart to make way for the sudden surge of identical blonds to flood past, the customers grumbling in shock and annoyance.

"Hi Naruto," Chouji greeted one of the clones, standing next to the counter with a new bag of chips. The sight of an army of Narutos admittedly felt a bit unsettling, but he'd grown kind of used to the blond's antics. The clone skidded to a stop and turned to face him, its eyes wild and manic.

"Chouji, have you seen Hinata-chan?" he asked, and the Akimichi frowned and shook his head.

"Nope, sorry. What's going on?"

"I don't know! She just suddenly ran off! I think it had to do with that bastard Neji saying something to her during Shino's match. I don't know what it was because I was busy arguing with Sasuke-teme about who's better, but she ran off a little bit after the last match began and never came back! If I don't find her before this match ends, she'll have to forfeit!"

Chouji blinked as the ramble ended, taking a second to process the overflow of information. "Huh. Maybe that's why Kiba ran off."

"Kiba?" A trio of Naruto clones stopped as they overheard this latest bit, leaving four pairs of blue eyes studying Chouji intently.

"Yeah. He, me and Masaru all left to grab snacks about ten minutes ago, but Kiba said he had to check something out and headed the other way so Masaru followed him."

The Narutos all hummed in unison, their faces screwed in thought. Kiba had a nose like a dog, and he also had Akamaru—an actual dog. If anyone could find Hinata, it'd probably be them. The clones bobbed their heads almost in perfect unison, flashing Chouji a series of bright grins. "Right, got it! Thanks Chouji!"

One of them dispersed to transmit the information to the rest, and the army halted for half a second before resuming their search in a renewed frenzy, shouts for Kiba now mingling with the calls for Hinata.

"Come on, teme, we need to find Hinata-chan or Kiba!" the real Naruto declared hotly, dragging a rather annoyed-looking Sasuke behind him.

"When the hell did Kiba come into this?" he grumbled, trying to jerk his arm free from Naruto's grip. Upon realizing Hinata probably wouldn't return on her own, Naruto had dragged his teammate to help search for her, reasoning two pairs of eyes would be better than one. Granted, the clones kind of negated that, but still, it was the principle of the thing!

"Kiba has a good nose and also has Akamaru, and they both know Hinata-chan's scent so they could help us find her!" Sasuke growled in annoyance, clearly unhappy about it, but naturally Naruto ignored him. One of Naruto's clones slowed down to jog beside them, shooting Sasuke a sleazy-looking grin.

"Chouji said Masaru's with him," he told him coyly, knowing full well just how much Sasuke cared for his cousin. The Uchiha's face flickered with surprise before swiftly returning to his normal irritable scowl, scoffing loudly.

"Fine, we'll look for them," he muttered, and Naruto and his clone beamed and high-fived each other. Teamwork!

Elsewhere in the stadium, Kiba and Masaru abruptly stopped and turned to look over their shoulders as they heard a loud din of echoing voices steadily approaching them, their features scrunching in confusion. Akamaru whimpered slightly and moved closer to his partner, the hair on his back rising as he stared down the hall apprehensively.

"The hell?" Kiba muttered as the noise grew nearer, eyes scrunching in confusion. It sounded like a bunch of people talking at once, except everyone had the same voice...?

A flood of orange poured around the corner, several Narutos skidding into sight before zeroing in on the two genin. Their eyes all lit up with manic energy, everything about them screaming some sort of frantic urgency.

"KIBA!" they screamed in unison, the shrill chorus making the ever-sensitive Inuzuka wince. Akamaru yelped and barely had time to jump into Masaru's arms before the stampede of clones descended upon them, squishing the two boys against the wall. They began yelling and shouting at Kiba desperately, their voices overlapping and blending into a bizarre jumbled sentence. "KIBA HINATA'S MISSING AND THE MATCH IS SOON NEED HELP AND THAT BASTARD NEJI SAID FIND HER KIBA KIBA KIBA!"

Faced with a dozen Narutos screaming in his face, Kiba whimpered and slid to the floor, his hands flying to shield his ever-sensitive ears. "Dammit, shut up!" he snapped. "You're gonna make me go deaf Naruto!" He couldn't even hear himself over the noise, but apparently the clones did as they instantly fell silent. A series of pops filled the air as several of them dispersed, leaving only one who wisely made no move to talk.

As the smoke cleared the original Naruto burst through it, naturally with Sasuke in tow. "Guys, we need to find Hinata!" he yelled frantically, and Kiba had to resist the urge to scream.

"What's even going on anymore?" Masaru mumbled, still a bit dazed by the giant deluge of Naruto clones.

"Hinata ran off during the last match," Sasuke explained. "Naruto decided to look for her and dragged me along for some reason."

"Hey, teams stick together, right?" Naruto retorted, and ignored the cold glare Sasuke shot him. Shaking his head, Kiba got to his feet and sniffed the air before scowling.

"Dammit Naruto, get all of your dumb clones to go away! They're leaving a bunch of scent trails everywhere and it's making it harder to pick out Hinata!" Startled by the outburst, Naruto nodded and the last clone popped, spreading the message to the rest. Kiba just groaned quietly, massaging the bridge of his nose. "Damn. I had her scent but now it's all muddled. Akamaru, can you still smell it buddy?"

Akamaru jumped out of Masaru's arms and sniffed the ground eagerly, grunting in concentration before sharply raising his head to growl at something behind them. Surprised, the group of genin turned to find two cloaked ANBU agents. "What's all the commotion?" one asked, prompting Naruto to babble a rambled summary of the situation once more.

"Have you seen her?" he asked when he finished, finally taking a breath.

"No, we haven't," the other ANBU replied, shaking his head. "However, there are more pressing matters at hand. Uchiha-san, we need you—both of you—to come with us." The four boys instantly stiffened, Naruto and Kiba turning to look at the Uchiha cousins. Masaru seemed startled by the sudden order, but Sasuke merely narrowed his eyes at the ANBU.

"What for?" he asked warily.

"We cannot explain here, but the Hokage believes your safety is at risk. Please follow us and we'll explain." The two ANBU gestured for them to follow, and the cousins exchanged hesitant glances before slowly nodding. If the Hokage had ordered them to come, then there must be something happening, right?

"We'll see you guys later, I guess?" Masaru mumbled with an uncertain glance at the others.

"Just find Hinata already," Sasuke grunted as they started following the ANBU. "We'll catch up before my match."

"Yeah, I guess," Kiba muttered, and turned to look at Naruto. "Come on, if we hurry we might find her scent—" He stopped mid-sentence when Akamaru suddenly lunged at one of the ANBU with a furious howl, his jaws opening wide to reveal his teeth. The man glanced over his shoulder before jumping out of the way, narrowly avoiding the barreling ball of fluff.

Skidding along the floor, Akamaru spun around and began barking ferociously at the two ANBU, his teeth bared in a threatening snarl. The sudden hostility caught the genin off-guard, Sasuke and Masaru stopping and jumping back with startled looks. "What the hell?" Naruto stammered, staring at the dog in confusion. "Kiba, what's gotten into—" He stopped mid-sentence when he turned to the Inuzuka to find him staring at the ANBU with a sudden glare, his lips pulling back into a ferocious snarl.

"Sasuke! Masaru! Get away from them!" he yelled, and the Uchiha boys snapped shocked looks at him before quickly leaping backwards. However, they didn't move fast enough, as one of the ANBU surged forward and grabbed each one by the arm while they still hovered midair. They winced as his fingers tightened in a vice-like grip and with a harsh tug he flung them to the floor, the pair crashing with pained yells.

Even as he did that, the other one lurched around him to race towards Naruto and Kiba, sending kunai flying towards them. Instinct kicked in and the two boys rolled to the side to avoid the projectiles, but in a flash the man appeared behind Kiba and grabbed him by the throat. He harshly slammed the genin into the wall behind them face-first before releasing his grip, and the Inuzuka slid to his knees with a pained gasp, coughing clear fluid.

Akamaru shrieked with rage and flew at the man, his whole body radiating hatred and fury for hurting his partner, but the man spun around and thrust his palm into the ninken's chest, sending him flying back with a pained yelp. Immediately afterwards he spun around and hit Kiba in the back of the neck, sending the boy fluttering to the ground unconscious.

"And here we hoped to do this quietly," the fake ANBU grumbled, turning and lunging at Naruto. The blond yelped and ran away, quickly flying through the seals for the multi-shadow clone jutsu. While a horde of clones appeared to try to help defend him Sasuke and Masaru found themselves rolling away from a harsh kick from the other ANBU, leaping to their feet. Sasuke gritted his teeth as his hand hovered over his side, wincing in pain.

Shit, my ribs...! The force of the impact had been incredibly harsh, knocking the air out of him, and he knew his skin would undoubtedly be bruised. Next to him Masaru looked no better, grimacing as his weight shifted slightly to favor the left leg, as the right side of his hip had taken the brunt of the fall. However, even so he pulled a pair of thick black gloves from his pockets and swiftly tugged them on, his face filled with resolve.

The two exchanged looks and nodded, their eyes instantly swirling to red as they turned to face their opponent. The man launched towards them with a flurry of hand seals they didn't recognize, prompting them to quickly retreat. When the last sign finished he clapped his hands and a heavy shockwave resonated from them, knocking the boys off their feet. This time they could prepare themselves and rolled as they fell, each landing in a crouch and flinging a flurry of shuriken at the fake ANBU.

The second the shuriken left his hands Masaru sped through a series of hand seals and blew a small fireball just slightly larger than his fist, swiping his hands through it the second the last ember left his lips. The fireball split and clung to each hand to coat them in a small fiery inferno and he surged towards their opponent with a ferocious yell, the flames stretching along his fingers like claws. While he charged Sasuke swiftly threw more shuriken his way, limiting their opponent's options for avoiding Masaru.

However, the man pulled out a kunai almost too fast for even the Sharingan to follow and used it to expertly deflect a majority of the shuriken. He purposely allowed one to graze his side to give himself an opening to hurl his kunai directly at Masaru's head, forcing the boy to abort his attack to dodge. Even as he did so the man zoomed forward and swung his leg at Masaru's right hip, the impact making him shriek in pain.

"MASARU!" Naruto screamed, and half the clone horde whirled around with furious roars as they watched Masaru crash to the floor. His own opponent took advantage of his momentary distraction and swiftly cut through the clones with chakra-coated hands, each dispersing in a puff of smoke that quickly filled the hall. The real Naruto barely managed to avoid getting struck, wincing as he felt his last clone pop. Not good.

"Suiton: Water Bullet!" A large geyser of water suddenly burst through the smoke, blasting Naruto's opponent in the back and sending him hurtling towards the Uchiha boys. The man fighting them glanced his way and then dodged to the side, allowing his comrade to crash into the wall behind him and slump to the floor. The three conscious genin watched in mild shock before whipping around to look at the newest arrival, kunai already in their hands.

The smoke cleared enough to reveal a man with long brown hair and blue clothing running their way followed by another with tanned skin and dark hair, both wearing a hitai-ate bearing a stylized waterfall on it. Sasuke and Naruto tensed at their approach and raised his kunai in anticipation of an attack, but Masaru immediately brightened and sat up.

"Shibuki-san! Shintoki-san!" he called, relief evident in his voice even as he winced in pain. The tanned one—Shintoki—flew through a sequence of seals and spewed another blast of water at the men, blasting the one who'd slammed against the wall while the other dodged. Naruto took advantage of their distraction to quickly lunge across the hall to grab Kiba and rejoined the Uchiha boys just as Shibuki skidded to a halt.

"Are you guys okay?" he asked breathlessly.

"Who the hell are you!?" Naruto sputtered. "Who the hell are they!? What's going on!?"

"Ah, th-that's..." Shibuki trailed off, looking a bit uncertain. "Actually, I'm not really, uh, sure...?"

"Are you kidding!?" Naruto exploded, looking ready to scream in frustration. Before Shibuki could respond wooden spikes suddenly sprouted from the ceiling and floor behind them, impaling the two faux-ANBU. The three conscious genin jumped away with startled yells, instantly falling into defensive stances.

"Mokuton!" Masaru gasped, staring at the wooden constructs wide-eyed. Their former assailants moaned in pain as they struggled against the spikes, blood seeping down the natural grain pattern of the wood.

"Ah, yeah, mokuton," a new voice confirmed somewhat lamely, and they spun around yet again to see Gaku approaching from the opposite direction with a rather sheepish look. His face quickly grew more serious as he turned to the Waterfall ninja though, nodding at them. "Shibuki-san, Shintoki-san, thank you for your assistance."

"Ah, n-no problem, Tenzo-san," Shibuki told him with a nod, looking a bit relieved by his arrival.

"What the... Gaku!?" Sasuke sputtered, his eyes wide with disbelief as he recognized him. Next to him Masaru just looked totally lost, his brain ready to shut down from the overload of information.

"Tenzo?" he repeated weakly, and his teacher turned to glance at him with a sigh.

"I'll explain later. Right now though, we have more important things to worry about." Even as he spoke two ANBU appeared, swiftly approaching the imposters with ropes and shackles. Upon receiving a nod from them, Gaku—or, Tenzo? What?—flashed through a series of hand seals, and the wooden spikes retracted. The ensnared ninja never had a chance to hit the floor, the ANBU grabbing them as they fell and swiftly restraining their arms behind their backs.

While one of them started checking out the prisoners the other turned and strutted to the genin, gesturing towards Kiba. "Let me see him," she ordered. Naruto hesitated to let the unknown woman get close, and after a moment the ANBU huffed impatiently and gently pushed him aside so she could kneel next to the unconscious Inuzuka. Pressing her fingers against his neck, green chakra began to pulse around them and within seconds Kiba gave a soft moan, his eyelids fluttering open.

"Wuzzah... wha..." Akamaru yipped and bounded towards his partner, circling him to sniff him for blood while whining worriedly. Kiba paid him little mind, groaning as he sat up and rubbing the back of his neck with a mild grimace. "The hell...?"

"Okay, seriously, what the hell is even going on anymore!?" Naruto growled. "First two ANBU try to take Sasuke and Masaru, then they attack us, and now Waterfall guys show up out of no where and Gaku is apparently Tenzo or something and-and, just—what the hell!?" The sheer insanity of the past three minutes left him at a near loss for words, incapable of expressing just how confused he felt.

"Sensei...?" Masaru whispered, turning to look at the man who'd taught him the past five months. Gaku/Tenzo/who-the-hell sighed and scratched the back of his neck, a thoughtful frown on his face.

"I don't know all the details yet, but given the current circumstances I think it's safe to assume something is seriously wrong."

"That might be an understatement," a new voice interjected, and they turned again to see another familiar face approaching. This one made them all sag in relief, Sasuke and Naruto in particular relaxing.

"Kakashi," Sasuke sighed, and the silver-haired jounin nodded at him before turning back to Gaku.

"Tenzo," he started, basically confirming that to be his actual name, "I need you to guard all the genin. Something's about to go down."

"Understood," he replied with a nod.

"Is this related to the unconscious men in the closet down the hall?" Shintoki asked, prompting most of the genin leveled sharp, suspicious looks on him. Only Masaru remained calm, watching him with a more appraising gaze than his year mates. He had become loosely acquainted with the sensor during the trip back to Konoha with Shibuki, and knew first-hand his sensory abilities could easily detect a couple of unconscious people. Most likely that had been how he and Shibuki had known to come to their rescue.

Kakashi seemed to reach the same conclusion, because while his posture remained a bit stiff and on edge, he didn't radiate any hostile intent towards the Waterfall ninja. "In part, yes," he allowed with a nod. "If you knew about it earlier, we would have appreciated the warning though."

"Sorry, I noticed only when I did a sweep of the area after stumbling on this mess." He made a large sweeping motion towards the genin and faux ANBU. Kakashi eyed the scene and nodded briefly.

"Fair enough." As they spoke Masaru took an opportunity glance at his fellow genin and assess their states. Kiba still looked dazed and Naruto still looked understandably bewildered, while Sasuke just remained on edge, kunai in hand. Their eyes met and his cousin frowned, his eyebrows pinching together. A silent understanding passed between them and the two Uchiha slowly relaxed their stances and put away their kunai, only for Sasuke to wince and grab at his side.

The ANBU who'd tended to Kiba appeared next to him almost instantly, prying his hands away to place her own against it. Healing chakra swiftly flooded into his body, and the rigidness faded from Sasuke's shoulders as the ache faded away. "Your ribs weren't broken, but they were close," she told him as she lifted her hands. "You got lucky, kid. Anyone else need some help?"

The others instantly leveled a pointed look at Masaru, who wilted and looked a bit sheepish. "My... hip could use some help," he admitted, and the ANBU promptly went to work on it.

"Can you give us a summary of the situation?" Sasuke asked his teacher as she set to work, and Kakashi sighed.

"It's a bit complicated, but—"

Before he could finish a giant explosion rocked the stadium, the still-shaken genin nearly falling in the ensuing vibrations. Instantly their heads snapped to the wall separating them from the stands, their faces growing grim.

"What was that?" Naruto whispered, and Kiba growled, his nose twitching.

"I smell smoke... and blood. Lots of it." The other genin grimaced at the description, their stomach growing tighter with dread. Exchanging pointed looks, the small gathering reached a mutual decision and took off running for the nearest door, bursting into the arena.

Utter chaos greeted the small group when they entered the stands. Smoke rose from the center of the arena as three figures engaged in a deadly battle, while a majority of the audience slumped in their seats unconscious. Kunai and shuriken whizzed through the air as shinobi clashed, the familiar green of the jounin vests colliding with gray and tan blurs. With the Sharingan still active Sasuke and Masaru could see the enemy forces clear enough to recognize music notes and hourglasses on their hitai-ate, making their eyes widen in shock.

"They're from Suna and Oto," Sasuke reported grimly, and Kakashi growled, reaching into his pouch to retrieve a kunai.

"Kakashi-sensei! Sasuke! Naruto! Everyone!" The group turned to see a familiar blur of pink and red racing their way, weaving under an enemy shinobi's punch and delivering a harsh uppercut to his jaw before darting to them. Another ninja appeared behind her with a long combat knife raised above his head, but Naruto launched himself at the man with an angry roar, kicking him in the face.

While he flew down the steps Sasuke surged forward and threw kunai at him, successfully hitting him in the back. "Sakura, are you okay?" he asked, and their teammate nodded, panting heavily.

"Y-yeah, I'm fine. Just..." She frowned, twisting her head to look at the arena with a frown.

"Sakura, report," Kakashi ordered, and she immediately stiffened before turning to face him once more, her face hardening.

"Approximately two minutes ago, white feathers began falling from the sky. I and Yamanaka Ino immediately detected it as a genjutsu and dispelled it, and fifteen seconds later enemy ninja launched an assault on the crowd. A bomb of some sort detonated in the arena ten seconds later, disrupting the fight. Ino and I rendezvoused with her father, Inoichi-san, and he sent me to find you while he took Ino to break shinobi out of the genjutsu in the audience."

Though she delivered the report in a calm tone, her viridian eyes gleamed with concern and fear, her throat bobbing as she swallowed dryly. "Something else happened," she added grimly, glancing at the Kage box, and the others immediately turned their heads to follow her gaze before stiffening in shock.

A purple barrier had formed atop the roof, the outlines of four figures visible inside the miasma-like material. While they couldn't make out any features through the haze, the battle in the Kage's box narrowed down the options considerably.

"Lord Hokage," Kakashi hissed, his eye narrowing as he peered at the barrier.

"Fuck!" Shintoki hissed behind them, snagging their attention. The group turned just in time to see a large arm made of sand grab the railing at the bottom of the stairs, a dark figure vaulting over the edge. Everyone instinctively stepped back as the newcomer leveled a cold gaze upon them, lips curling back into a sadistic smirk.

"Uchiha Sasuke, mother still wants your blood," Gaara declared almost gleefully, and then laughed as a tidal wave of sand surged towards them.

Chapter Text

Chapter 34

"Few people have ever seen true chaos considering how much we throw that word around. Once you glimpse it with your own eyes, you realize just how overrated that word is."

"What the...?"

Konan frowned as she sensed a subtle shift in the air, her eyes flitting upwards. White feathers drifted gently from the sky, twirling and fluttering through the air with an almost ethereal glow. the stadium growing quieter as the cheering crowd began to hush. Her chakra flared on instinct, causing the feathers to disappear, and her eyes narrowed sharply. Genjutsu.

Instinct prompted her to leap out of her seat and spin around with a kunai in hand just in time to block a blow from a Sand ninja who body-flickered behind her. She sensed another appear behind her and ducked under his punch, swinging a legs at his feet. Next to her Arata leapt on the opening and grabbed the first man's head, smashing his skull into the floor with a concrete-shattering crack.

Seeing the jounin had a handle on the situation, Konan allowed her attention to stray to the rest of the stadium for a moment to assess the situation. A strange hush had fallen over the previously loud stands as the genjutsu blanketed the audience, their cheers silenced as the civilians and weaker-minded or unprepared shinobi fell into a quiet slumber. Already she could hear the distant clashing of metal and startled yells as fighting erupted in the stands.

In the arena itself, the Nara boy paused his own battle to look around in shock and confusion. He'd snagged his opponent into his shadow's hold just moments before the chaos began, and Temari looked eager to break free. Apparently her comrades shared that sentiment, as a man with a turban appeared on the field behind the boy with his hands raised above his head as if holding a sword. Fortunately for him, the proctor quickly intervened, delivering a flurry of senbon to the newcomer's side and forcing him to abort the attack to dodge.

While they fought another Leaf ninja descended upon the field and dropped something towards the edge of the arena before shouting something and disappearing. The others winced and jumped away just before the object exploded, the large blast rocking the stadium. Anyone who had been struggling to fight the genjutsu would certainly be fully alert now, and Konan decided she'd seen enough and quickly turned her attention back to the rest of the box.

The sight that greeted her made her blood run cold.

The "Kazekage" stood with a kunai pressed to the Hokage's throat, his head turned to glare at her. Yellow eyes gleamed darkly beneath the shade of his hat, and Konan instantly realized with a sickening surety that this man was not the Kazekage. "Well, Masuyo-chan, it's been fun but I believe this is where we say goodbye."

Even as he spoke he dragged the Hokage onto the roof, and Konan moved to follow suit only to be stopped by a yell from Arata. "Masuyo-sama, watch out!" She ducked under a wave of kunai as even more Sand and Sound ninja appeared in the box, the newcomers descending upon her with an intense fervor. Konan cursed as she regrouped with her fellow Ame ninja to defend themselves, gritting her teeth.

"I need to get up there," she hissed, and Arata nodded.

"Understood. I'll create an opening." As he spoke he flashed through a series of hand signs and four water clones appeared, each one surging towards their opponents. Konan and Nagato had chosen Arata as her guard for good reason, his skill didn't match up to the Akatsuki by any means but he still had an exceptional record. She felt no qualms in leaving him to fend off the newest wave of enemies, catapulting herself onto the roof without a second thought.

A few managed to break away from Arata and followed her, and as she began fending them away she noted the Kazekage's original "guards" landing on each corner of the roof, flashing through unfamiliar seals. Purple walls emerged around them, enclosing the rooftop in a giant square barrier. Black blurs zoomed towards them in the distance as ANBU agents desperately raced, but the barrier sprouted faster than expected. A pained screamed sounded as one of the ANBU agents collided into the newly formed wall, his body catching fire and falling limply.

One agent managed to make it through before the barrier could fully form though, rolling across the tiles to a halt near Konan's side. Though the white hawk mask was unfamiliar he sent a brief nod her way, and a flash of red flickered through the eye holes. Relief washed over her as she recognized Itachi, pleased to know she wouldn't be alone here. Disguising himself as an ANBU had been a bold choice on his part.

Across from them the "Kazekage" shot the pair a disdainful look, lips pulling into a sneer. "My, my, I was hoping for some one on one time with the great Hokage," he drawled, serpentine eyes regarding her with a look of utter disdain. "But I suppose having some guests won't be too bad."

Rather than respond Itachi moved to launch kunai at one of the four guards but got intercepted by one of the ninja who'd followed Konan, forcing him to turn his attention away. Frustration visibly rolled off him as he dodged a slash from the man's sword and then blocked a follow-up blow from another one, unable to use his normal fighting style without exposing his identity. As it stood, they happened to be at the center of everyone's attention, the roof far too visible for either Akatsuki to fight to their full abilities without risking exposure.

Konan's eyes narrowed, her mind racing as she turned to survey their primary opponent. The imposter released the Hokage and peeled off his hat and veil with a low chuckle, revealing all-too familiar sickly white skin and long black hair. "Long time no see, sensei," Orochimaru hissed, smirking at his former teacher, and while Hiruzen regarded him in muted alarm and wariness Konan just mentally cursed at seeing full confirmation.

Externally she remained cool and calm, her expression bland yet appraising as she stared down the Sannin. "Seeing as you are not the Kazekage, should we expect him to appear out of the woodwork in a surprise attack?" she asked dryly, and the traitorous man chuckled lowly, his eyes gleaming with dark amusement.

"Now, now, I can't give away all the surprises, can I, Masuyo-chan?" he teased. Masuyo-chan, not Konan. His emphasis on the honorific implied more of a jab at his opinion of her ability rather than hinting at knowledge of her true name. So he doesn't recognize me.

Before Orochimaru defected from the Akatsuki Konan had been careful to avoid him, never forgetting how he'd suggested the Sannin just kill her and her brothers before Jiraiya took them under his wing. That meant that he had minimal knowledge of her abilities, but with his spy ring he may have acquired the necessary information to determine her identity if she used any of her usual paper jutsu. Like Itachi, she, too would have to fight on a controlled basis and avoid showing her full power.

Coincidentally, he'd just taken down his opponents and lurched for the guards maintaining the barrier once more.

"Don't!" the Hokage suddenly barked, and he skidded to a halt, both he and Konan turning to look at him in surprise. The elderly Leaf ninja had already discarded his robes to reveal an armored black bodysuit, his gaze never leaving Orochimaru as he spoke. "Don't break the barrier."

"Lord Hokage?" Konan ventured, frowning. "Why would you say that? As long as the barrier stands, we're trapped!"

"And as long as it stands, this battle will not harm Konoha!" he countered calmly. "I know this is selfish since you will be trapped as well, but as Hokage I have a duty to protect my village. I beg you to leave it intact."

Konan and Itachi quickly glanced to each other, their gazes calculating before they slowly nodded. They moved to flank the Hokage on either side, assuming defensive stances against their mutual opponent. While they had no loyalty to Konoha, the defeat of the traitorous Orochimaru provided more than enough incentive to join the battle.

The genin rolled out of the aisle and sought cover in the rows of seats with startled yells, narrowly avoiding the crushing wall of sand. Gritting his teeth, Sasuke glanced at his fellow genin, trying to get a sense of the situation. As it stood he could only see into the row across the aisle where Masaru and Naruto had ended up. Mind racing, he decided to risk a brief glance over the top of the seat in front of him.

Gaara steadily mounted the steps in their direction, a crazed gleam in his eye as bloodlust steadily rolled off him. Sasuke swiftly ducked down before the redhead could spot him, glancing at the others wide-eyed. Kakashi had started teaching them hand signs for silent communication, but Naruto had been struggling with them and he didn't know if Masaru had learned any. After some consideration he settled for mouthing, 'Bad,' and fortunately even Naruto seemed to get the message as he quickly paled.

Gaku—no, Tenzo, appeared in the aisle between them flashing through hand seals and wooden pillars abruptly spiraled from his outstretched arm, ensnaring Gaara. While the Sand genin struggled to break free Kakashi quickly appeared next to Sasuke, grabbing him and flickering into the hallway. Shibuki, Shintoki and the medical ANBU had already arrived to form a small cluster, the other genin standing next to them with startled expressions.

"What the hell is going on?" Kiba hissed, peeking through the door at the chaos unfolding in the stands.

"Something's wrong with him," Sakura whispered, sweat dripping down her face as she joined him in peeking. "That chakra... It feels... wrong."

"Of course it does," Shintoki groaned, massaging his forehead. "He's a jinchuuriki." Three sets of confused eyes settled on him, only Masaru and Naruto exempt from the confusion, though Naruto still looked rather stunned.

"Are you kidding me!?" he sputtered. "There's more!?"

"What the hell do you mean more?" Sasuke asked, squinting at his teammate suspiciously. The blond froze and audibly gulped before falling silent, pointedly looking away from him.

"Now is not the time," Kakashi interrupted, flashing through hand seals and slamming his palm onto the ground. A large puff of smoke appeared, clearing to reveal a small pack of dogs all wearing Konoha hitai-ate. Kiba almost stumbled in surprise, his heart leaping into his throat at the sight of the ninken while Akamaru barked a greeting at his fellow ninken.

For his part, Sasuke just eyed them warily, not forgetting the hell they'd put him and Masaru through during training.

"What's up, boss?" asked a pug sitting on top of a bulldog.

"Konoha is under attack by Oto and Suna. We have a foreign jinchuuriki that can blow any minute and we're going to execute Nine-Ro." The ninken stiffened at the news, their faces swiftly growing serious if a bit pensive as Kakashi continued, "Bisuke, Akino, I need you to go back in the stadium and tell Tenzo. Pakkun, I need you and everyone else to get to the site and prep it."

The five genin behind him looked at the jounin with varying levels of confusion, but the ninken all grew instantly serious and bobbed their heads. "Got it, boss!" Pakkun barked, and the rest of the pack woofed in affirmation before dispersing, two breaking away to head back to the stadium while the rest ran ahead. At this point Kakashi motioned for the frazzled-looking genin to follow him and began running, the group obeying with only minor hesitation.

"Seriously, what the hell is going on?" Kiba growled, shooting the jounin an impatient glare. "The hell's a jinchuuriki!? And what's that Nine-Ro thing you mentioned!?"

"The details of the formation is classified, so I can't explain it here," Kakashi answered, casting a pointed glance at the two Waterfall ninja who had tagged along. "As for your other question, the basic gist is that Gaara has a Tailed Beast sealed inside him."

Nearly half the genin stumbled at the news, their jaws falling open in shock and disbelief. A Tailed Beast? Like the Nine Tails? Sasuke just stared at him in shock, wondering how that was even possible. Kakashi ignored their surprise, continuing in a brisk tone, "It's too complicated to go into full detail right now, but as far as jinchuuriki go, Gaara's definitely unstable. There's a very good chance that he will lose control and allow the Ichibi to break free."

The genin instantly tensed at his words, their faces darkening as they registered the full severity of the situation. Though all of them had been infants at the time of the Kyuubi's attack, they knew it had caused major damage to the village's infrastructure and that Konoha had spent years recovering from it. Combined with a full-blown invasion by two villages, it may not be able to recover from yet another attack.

"What do we do?" Sakura hissed, speeding up her pace to fall in line with her teacher. "We can't fight a Tailed Beast! We're only genin!" Before Kakashi could respond they heard a loud blast and an inhuman screech followed by Tenzo yelling in alarm. A collective shudder went down their spines and the group unconsciously sped up, all too eager to put some distance between them and Gaara.

"Listen to me carefully," Kakashi told them as they ran. "If Gaara releases the Ichibi here in the middle of Konoha, the amount of damage will be unspeakable. Most likely, he was supposed to let it loose during the match to cause maximum damage as part of the invasion plan, but it appears his desire to fight Sasuke is stronger than that."

"What?" Masaru squeaked, his face draining of color. Sasuke felt similarly sickened by Kakashi's words, even if he didn't show it. He glanced over his shoulder with a frown, almost shuddering as he recalled the inhuman screech they'd heard just seconds ago. Before, he'd thought that he might stand a chance with the Chidori, but after seeing Gaara like that, and hearing all of this...

Could he really handle an opponent like that?

"Then we need to get Sasuke away from here!" Naruto declared hotly, but next to him Sakura abruptly faltered, nearly losing her footing as her eyes widened.

"That's the plan, isn't it?" she whispered, and the other genin slowed slightly to shoot her questioning looks. She ignored them, her hands balling into fists at her side as she glared at Kakashi. "Kakashi-sensei, are you crazy? That's—that's suicide!"

"Sakura? What are you talking about?" For once Sasuke decided to voice his confusion, seeing little point in trying to maintain his usual silence in such a chaotic situation. The pink-haired girl visibly swallowed before turning to look at him, her face scrunched in a mixture of anger and horror.

"He wants to use you as bait," she declared thickly, and at this point all of the other genin came to an abrupt halt as they spun to stare at her in shock. Kakashi stopped and turned to face them, leveling the group with an appraising look before nodding.

"She's correct," he confirmed. "Gaara wants to fight Sasuke, so if we do this right, he'll follow us right into a trap." Everyone stared at him in shock, even Sasuke left with his mouth hanging open in shock. Kakashi turned and resumed running after the two Waterfall ninja, and after a moment the genin moved to follow him. As they continued down the hallway Sasuke noted Naruto and Sakura ran closer to him now, forming a protective ring of sorts.

"Are you crazy!" Kiba snarled, baring his teeth at the jounin's back. "That's—that's freaking suicide!"

"Yeah!" Naruto agreed, bobbing his head. "Sasuke's strong but Gaara's way stronger! Even Gaku or whatever-his-name-is is having trouble with him, and he's a jounin!"

"He's also ANBU," Masaru offered weakly, and Sakura recoiled in horror.

"That's even worse," she croaked, looking nauseous.

Kakashi remained unmoved by their reactions, managing to radiate an unimpressed air without actually turning to look at them. "I know it's scary, but the fact of the matter is that Gaara will cause damage wherever the Ichibi is loosed. Even if we manage to defeat him, Konoha might not be able to recover. Konoha has certain countermeasures prepared for scenarios like this, but we can't perform them here."

"Hatake-san is right," Shibuki confirmed gravely. "At the very least, it's better to get him somewhere isolated before he loses control." All five genin looked sick at the prospect of luring Gaara away, but a loud rumble silenced their protests and prompted the group to skid to a halt. A demented cackle echoed through the halls, and their faces paled even further.

"Shit, that's him!" Kiba hissed, anxiety visible in his face as he stepped back.

"Tenzo has been accosted by enemy forces," Shintoki reported, grimacing as he pinched his eyes shut. "We have approximately three minutes before the jinchuuriki catches up." The others exchanged worried looks at the approximation, and a firm resolve filled Sasuke.

Turning to Kakashi, he stepped forward and asked, "Where do we take him?" The jounin nodded at him in satisfaction and gestured for the group to resume moving. They complied without hesitation, their pace even faster than before now that they knew Gaara would be in pursuit.

"Shibuki-sama, I apologize for being rude, but I need you and Shintoki-san to leave," Kakashi began, and the brown-haired man nodded at him.

"I understand. We'll assist in the evacuation efforts instead."

"Perfect. Thank you." With that the two Waterfall ninja broke off from the group, darting down a different hall.

"Can you tell us the Nine-Ro thing now?" Masaru asked anxiously once they left earshot, but Kakashi shook his head.

"That will have to wait, this location is too open. For now, all I can say is that we need to get to the woods in Sector 24." The location meant nothing to most of the genin, but towards the back of the pack recognition flashed in Naruto's eyes, his gaze swiftly casting to the floor as he frowned.

"Dammit, and here I thought today would be awesome," he grumbled. The others could only silently nod their heads in agreement, focused on the task at hand.

Shikamaru officially hated the Chuunin Exams.

He scowled as he retreated from the arena while Baki engaged with Genma. Temari made no move to follow, instead vaulting over the railing and into the stands to join her puppeteer brother in pursuing... something. Shikamaru recalled seeing a bunch of sand extending from the contender's booth towards the stands from the corner of his eye, and decided it would probably be less troublesome not to think too hard on that.

"No one else here?" he asked as he reached the top step to find only Neji and Shino present.

"No," Shino responded. "Hinata, Naruto, and Sasuke failed to return during your battle. Gaara grew increasing impatient about Sasuke's absence and ascended to the stands with the aid of his sand shortly after the genjutsu began. His brother followed immediately after."

"Well, that explains some stuff," Shikamaru grumbled, and turned to Neji. Veins bulged around the Hyuuga's eyes as he stared at a wall, surveying the proceedings with a heavy frown. "Can you tell what's happening out there?"

"My range is limited, but currently I can see Uzumaki, both Uchiha, the Inuzuka and Haruno running down the halls behind Hatake-san. From what I can tell Gaara appears to be in pursuit." Eyes narrowing, he murmured, "Something is wrong with his chakra, it almost... no, not almost. It looks as if he has two chakra systems instead of one, trying to fight for control."

Shikamaru scoffed and massaged his forehead, grumbling under his breath, "Troublesome. This whole thing is so troublesome."

"I believe we are in agreement," Shino concurred flatly. "Do you see Hinata?" Neji scoffed at the question, letting the Byakugan deactivate as he turned to face him.

"No, she is not in the stadium. She most likely fled, which is just as well as she would only be a liability. There is definitely an invasion occurring. There are enemy ninja fighting in the stands, and from what I can see there are battles on the street just outside the arena. We need to move out and help quell the enemy as soon as possible."

"Dammit," Shikamaru muttered, scowling. He'd reached the final stages of his strategy before the interruption so he felt a bit more sore than usual. He really didn't want to spend a ton of chakra fighting against an invasion of all things, but he didn't really have a choice. Duty called and all that. Squeezing his eyes shut, he muttered under his breath, "I should've just let that genjutsu catch me. Then I could just pretend to be asleep and sit out the whole mess."

"You would also be caught up in the fight down there," Neji pointed out coolly, unimpressed by his lack of work ethic. "Do you not recall how one of the ANBU detonated a large number of explosive tags in the arena to try to alert the shinobi audience members of the genjutsu?"

"The chances of you surviving that explosion would be next to none," Shino agreed dully, making Shikamaru sigh.

"Point taken. Neji, can you see my teammates? Hey, don't give me that look," he added when the Hyuuga shot him an annoyed glare. "I'm not trying to boss you around or anything. I know Ino and Chouji were in the stands and I doubt they came here with any equipment, so I should probably go provide support."

Neji's glare lingered on him a few moments more, but then he turned and activated his Byakugan to search for them. "Yamanaka is in the second level of the stands waking people up from the genjutsu. Your other teammate is in the hallway on the first floor trying to guide civilians. I can also see your sensei assisting in the stands, though he seems to be moving towards the halls, most likely to help evacuate."

Shikamaru sighed at the report. Figures they wouldn't be together, that would be too easy. "In that case, I guess I should probably help Chouji first," he reasoned aloud. "Civilians take priority and all that." The stands would probably be messier anyway, so it would make sense to retrieve Chouji first so they could go support Ino together. He nodded to Neji and muttered a quick thanks before heading off, uncaring if either followed.

"We should assist in the evacuations as well," Shino said once he'd left. "My kikaichu indicate a large amount of skilled fighters in the stands, and I believe both of our chakra stores have fallen below optimal levels to engage in large-scale combat." Neji scowled at the younger boy for implying he might be weak, but even with his pride he knew Shino had a point. His own stamina had yet to fully recover from his match, and he would rather not get caught up in an ambush.

"Fine," he bit out. "Let's go." Having reached an agreement, the pair turned to leave only to stop when they found a familiar man blocking the doorway. Neji's face instantly darkened, his mouth pulling into a vicious frown.

"Neji, Shino," Hyuuga Hiashi greeted with a nod. Surveying the empty balcony, he commented, "I see my daughter has not returned." Shino shook his head while Neji just regarded his uncle coolly. Relations between the two houses of the Hyuuga clan had never been particularly close, and Neji in particular held a strong grudge towards the Main House. After all, he'd seen first-hand just how disposable the Branch family seemed to be.

Noting his cold glare, Hiashi turned to face him more fully. "Neji, I need to speak to you later, but now is not the time. Right now, Konoha is facing a severe threat and we must defend it."

"Of course, Hiashi-sama," the younger Hyuuga hissed through gritted teeth, and Hiashi frowned slightly but chose not to comment on it.

"I overheard you, and I approve of your plan. I recommend you go help with evacuation efforts in the streets. There are large numbers of jounin-level fighters here in the stadium, and in the streets it will be easier for you to retreat and locate shelter if you run out of energy or become injured."

"That would be most efficient," Shino decided, inclining his head in agreement. "Thank you for your advice, Hyuuga-san."

"Both of you, be careful," he warned. "And if either of you see Hinata, tell her to give her equipment to a more experienced shinobi and go to the shelters. I have already spent enough time searching for her and ensuring Hanabi's safety, I must go assist in the efforts as well." He did not wait for them to respond before turning and striding away, leaving the two genin to make their way to the streets.

Tenzo grunted in frustration as he lunged at a Sound ninja, a wooden spike sprouting from his hand and impaling his enemy's stomach. Ripping it out, he then spun and then swung his arm in a wide arc, the spike slicing through the throat of the nearest enemy with a meaty rip and spewing blood all over. As he fell back Tenzo turned and lunged towards the exit, but cursed loudly when another Sound ninja intercepted his path, forcing him back on defense.

He'd done a pretty decent job of restraining the Suna jinchuuriki, but then the boy's siblings suddenly appeared and attacked him with a cutting blast of wind, forcing him to release his hold to defend himself. Handling two genin posed no trouble, but then naturally more enemy ninja descended upon him, and the three siblings took advantage of his distraction to flee. Since then he'd been unable to break away to pursue them, too busy defending himself from the seemingly endless onslaught.

"Dammit!" he roared, his anger rising as he began flashing through hand seals. He needed to go after them, only he could stop Gaara, but at this rate he'd never get out! Before he could finish the sequence a green blur suddenly appeared in his periphery, sending the nearest enemy flying into the nearest wall. A bright sparkle temporarily blinded Tenzo as Maito Gai landed and turned to flash him a brilliant grin, placing one hand on his hip while flashing a thumbs-up with the other.

"Gaku, my most wonderful ally! I saw you were in need of assistance so I have come to help!" Tenzo just stood in mild shock for a moment, even the enemy ninja temporarily paralyzed as they gawked at the new arrival.

"Ah, I think I'm, uh, going by Tenzo again," he muttered sheepishly, and Gai looked at him in slight surprise before beaming once more.

"I see! So you have finally told young Masaru your true name, eh? Glorious! Surely your bond shall only grow stronger with this new era of total honesty between you! We must celebrate later! But for now, please allow us to assist you in fending off these most dastardly foes!"

"Us?" Tenzo repeated, just in time for a wave of shuriken to embed into several of the enemies' sides. Another green blur appeared behind them and solidified into Rock Lee, releasing a vigorous shout as he kicked a man in the face with enough force to send him sailing through the air and into the arena. As his comrades watched him crashed into the ring with stunned faces, Tenten surged forward and slashed several of them in the back with a sickle on a chain, blood flicking off the sharp blade as she jumped back to regain some distance.

"Team Gai will always be ready to help protect Konoha with the power of Youth!" Lee declared with an earnest energy, flipping onto a man's back and slamming him into the steps in the aisle with a loud crack.

...Tenzo decided it would be best to just stop questioning this and roll with it.

As the new arrivals began attacking the invaders, Tenzo heard a loud woof and turned to see two of Kakashi's ninken—Bisuke and Akino, if he recalled right—rushing towards them. Naturally their barks drew attention from hostile forces, and the mokuton user swiftly weaved through a few seals to cause wooden columns to block some of the kunai aimed at Bisuke. The beagle barely needed the help, easily weaving through the onslaught of kunai and shuriken to reach Tenzo's side intact.

Akino meanwhile howled and launched at the nearest enemy, latching onto the man's crotch. Tenzo winced sympathetically as the man shrieked in a high falsetto, but quickly grew serious as he turned to Bisuke. "Bisuke, what's the plan?" he asked, getting straight to the point.

"Boss says we need to do Nine-Ro. He and a bunch of brats are leading the jinchuuriki to the site right now."

"Jinchuuriki?" Gai repeated, turning to them with a grave expression even as he bruised another man's kidney with a well-placed punch. "So that red-haired boy really is Suna's jjinchuuriki?"

"At this point, I'd honestly be surprised if he wasn't," Tenzo murmured grimly, his mind still stuck on the newest information. Nine-Ro depended on his presence, and by now a good three minutes had passed since Gaara left, meaning he'd need to hurry. "We can't waste any time. Can your team cover me so I can escape?"

"Of course, Tenzo! You can always count on us to assist you!" Gai turned to call his genin for assistance and Tenzo nodded to Bisuke before the pair took off, Akino finally releasing his poor victim's now-bleeding groin to join them. Several of the enemies attempted to follow but Team Gai quickly intercepted them, youthful shouts echoing in Tenzo's ears as he leaped onto the roof of the stadium and then into the streets.

Playing bait for a homicidal jinchuuriki had not been in his plans for today, and yet here Kiba was, racing across rooftops with Team Seven and a psychopath hot on their trail. Below them chaos filled the streets as enemy shinobi clashed with their fellow Leaf ninja, kunai clanking together and jutsu of grand proportions being flung with barely a second thought towards collateral damage. His ears rang with the screams of civilians as they fled for safety, his nostrils clogged with the thick scent of blood and smoke.

"Is that a giant toad fighting a snake?" Sakura squeaked, and they turned to see exactly what she just described.

"That's gotta be Pervy Sage!" Naruto declared, grinning with glee. "Hey! Kakashi-sensei, we should grab him to help! He's probably really strong too!"

"Probably?" Kiba repeated skeptically. "I think we need more than just 'probably'."

"Well, he is a Sannin," Sakura pointed out. "They're all pretty strong. He'd be a major asset if Gaara loses control." The title meant nothing to Kiba, but Sakura was a brainiac, so he decided to just take her word for it and focus instead on the "lose control" part. Holy shit, he might actually have to help fight a Tailed Beast. He was only thirteen, he was too young to die!

For all his stupid stick-up-the-ass scowling, he figured Sasuke agreed because he grunted and briskly said, "We should get him."

"There's no time," Kakashi refused gravely, crushing their hopes. "Jiraiya is better off helping in town anyway, we need all the help we can get there. He won't be as much help to our situation as Tenzo."

"Why him, though?" Masaru pressed. "Gak—uh, sensei's strong, but... Jiraiya is one of the Sannin, so he's probably stronger."

"We need him because of that wood stuff, right?" Naruto muttered darkly, and the other genin turned to look at him in surprise. Kiba frowned, wondering why Naruto sounded so... grim about it. He hadn't spend that much time around the blond, but usually he tended to be super-loud and annoying. This kind of behavior felt disturbingly out of character for him, and Kiba didn't like it.

"You mean the mokuton?" Sakura asked, looking thoughtful. "Come to think of it, I thought that only belonged to the First... Is he related to him?"

"Not exactly," Kakashi hedged. "It's... a long story. What matters is that the mokuton can be used to control Tailed Beasts. Tenzo's not as good with it as the First, but he's better than nothing."

By this point the trees had finally entered their line of sight, just a few minutes away at their current pace. Once they entered, the thick forest would make it harder to check Gaara's position, and the thought made Kiba's stomach churn anxiously. None of them had sensory abilities, and they were moving against the wind so he couldn't pick up his scent, leaving only their eyes as an option to gauge his pursuit.

Ferocious barking drew Kiba's attention and he turned his head to spy his mother and sister fighting off a small wave of intruders in the distance. The Haimaru Brothers lunged at a hapless Sound ninja and clamped their jaws onto his limbs, savagely ripping him apart in a gory spray of ripping flesh and cracking bone. The sheer viciousness of the attack should probably disturb him, but he'd seen them tear apart plenty of animals like that. Humans weren't too big of a step up from rabbits and deer.

As he watched his sister charge to deliver the final blow, a flash of tan appeared in her periphery and Kiba twisted his head around. He grimaced instantly as he spied a red and tan blob in the distance, leaping across the roofs and heading their direction. Ahead of him he heard Masaru gasp. "Uh, guys, he's in sight," the Uchiha warned nervously, and Kiba could sense the others grow tenser at the news.

Cursing under his breath, Kakashi gestured for them to pick up their pace and the small pack of genin obediently sped up, careful not to go too fast so they could at least conserve some energy. "Kiba, Masaru," he said as they jumped across the rooftops, "I need you two and Akamaru to go to the streets and help with evacuation."

"What!?" Both boys almost lost their footing in their shock, staring at the jounin wide-eyed. Kakashi never lost pace even as the rest of Team Seven shot them worried looks, forcing them to quickly recover and run after him so they could hear him continue.

"We need to distribute our forces as efficiently as possible to minimize damage to Konoha as a whole. Kiba, you and Akamaru have strong noses, you'll be more useful in locating injured people and evacuating them than this mission."

"Then why do I have to go?" Masaru questioned. "I'm not a tracker!"

"No, but Kiba will likely require backup and defense while he searches. You have minimal combat experience, but I know from Tenzo that you're pretty skilled in your spars. You should be able to handle it." Masaru fell silent at this point, while Kiba continued to gawk at the jounin.

"B-but, that's—that's just—"

"Kiba," Sasuke interrupted, shooting him an utterly unimpressed look. "Are you saying you'd prefer to fight Gaara?" Kiba paused and glanced over his shoulder. The tan blob had gotten closer since his last peek, allowing him to glimpse the harsh of determination set on Gaara's face, and he shuddered in horror. From the top of his head Akamaru gave a small whine, clearly voicing his opinion on the matter.

Gulping, he turned to face the others and nodded. "Be careful," he told them, and quickly dropped to the streets and raced away. He heard Masaru offer a similar sentiment before following suit, soon matching pace with the Inuzuka. While they hadn't worked together much, Kiba had to admit having another human as backup provided some comfort in the invasion.

The sounds of fighting echoed around them and the air seemed to be clogged with smoke, but Kiba blocked it out and instead tried to sift through his senses to get a sense of their options. Fresh blood to the left, accompanied by the sound of clashing kunai. Ongoing battle, too dangerous to approach. Decaying flesh far ahead, charred wood and crackling flames. Building fire, no survivors worth saving. Dismissing those options, he sniffed the air once more and caught a familiar lilac and lavender aroma, accompanied by... citrus?

"Kiba?" Masaru asked as he abruptly halted but Kiba paid him no mind, too focused on the two newest scents. Something about the citrus one felt familiar, but... where? He glanced to Akamaru, wondering if he recognized it, but the puzzled look on the dog's face told him otherwise. Frowning, he turned towards the direction of the mysterious scents and gave another large sniff, locking in on their location.

"I smell Hinata," he reported, and Masaru immediately perked to attention while Akamaru yipped in confirmation.

"Lead the way," he said, and Kiba nodded at him before taking off.

Chapter Text

Chapter 35

"They say the first kill is the hardest. I wonder how long it takes until you get completely numb to it.

I wonder if I'll ever reach that point."

Uchiha Itachi prided himself on his ability to adapt to the unexpected. He knew that no situation could be totally predicted and planned for, that anything could go wrong on a mission. As such, when he agreed to help infiltrate Konoha for the Chuunin Exams with only the vague information that Orochimaru would likely be involved, he went to the stadium with an open mind, running through dozens of scenarios as he watched the matches.

Invasions? One of the first possibilities he'd considered. Trying to challenge the Hokage individually? Orochimaru had a known grudge against his former mentor, his death would probably be his main priority. The possibility of he and Konan getting involved in that battle? Also within reasonable expectations, as the Akatsuki had their own reasons to fight the Sannin.

But Orochimaru using the Edo Tensei to revive the First and Second Hokage, and then using some sort of mind control technique to have them attack the Third?

That... never occurred to Itachi.

He scowled as he ran along a still-sprouting tree branch, launching himself towards Senju Tobirama while flinging a wave of shuriken at the reanimated Hokage. It took all his willpower and self-control not to freak out over the fact he was fighting Senju Tobirama, and a little more to not set the shuriken aflame like his instincts so desperately demanded.

Naturally the Second Hokage had no issue dodging the projectiles, disappearing in a blur of blue and silver. Reflex alone allowed Itachi to dodge the blow as the man suddenly appeared next to him, delivering a hard kick at the man's torso in the process to send him skidding back a few steps. Mildly surprised he got in the hit at all, Itachi wasted no time retreating into the dense trees which had sprouted atop the roof.

He leaped onto a high branch and pressed against a tree, panting heavily from exhaustion and adrenaline. Hiding wouldn't do much good against a powerful sensor like the Second, but he needed at least a few seconds to recompose himself. The ANBU uniform fit fine but the jacket felt a bit heavier after years of wearing only basic shinobi gear, the mask limited his ability to breathe and the small holes for eyes made his already fading vision so much darker...

Itachi ground his teeth in frustration as he reflected over the situation. Initially, he'd planned to catch Orochimaru in the Tsukuyomi, but the current turn of events made that particular plan much more difficult. Defeating the Second Hokage without using his full range of skills would be next to impossible, but even then he couldn't guarantee that he would emerge victorious. The Edo Tensei negated any sense of pain and provided an impossibly fast regenerative ability, rendering the deceased Senju even more dangerous than he'd been in life.

Sucking in a sharp breath, he closed his eyes and mentally ordered himself to calm down. Nerves would do him no good here. After a few deep breaths he felt the tension gradually fade from his shoulders, and his hands flitted to his mask. This situation seemed dire, but it was not all to his total disadvantage. In fact, in a way Orochimaru had actually made a grave mistake by summoning the two legendary Senju:

No one could see into the forest.

Sensing the Second appear on the branch next to him, the Uchiha ripped off his mask and swiftly made eye contact with the deceased Senju, his Sharingan instantly changing into the pinwheel shape of his Mangekyo. Time seemed to still as the forest faded into a black void, the reanimated Hokage pulled into the timeless space of his Tsukuyomi without a hitch.

The success caught Itachi mildly off-guard, as he had been unsure if the technique would actually work on someone revived with the Edo Tensei. However, he quickly recovered and assumed control of his genjutsu world, depositing the pair onto a black plain beneath bloody red skies and all color in their bodies drained away.

A glittering white katana materialized in Itachi's hands, the Uchiha swiftly assuming a defensive stance as he faced down his enemy. Breaking the Second's mind with endless torture would be pointless when the man had no control over it, but he could at least take advantage of the extra time to develop a strategy. With luck the rules of the Edo Tensei would still apply in here, so Itachi could use the next three days to determine a weakness in the technique.

However, just as his plan to subdue Orochimaru, he found his newest plan quickly derailed as it became apparent the rules didn't apply—or at least, part of them.

"So you're an Uchiha, huh," the Second murmured, folding his arms with a soft sigh. Itachi stiffened at the direct address towards him, his own eyes widening with surprise as his grip on the blade loosened.

"You're in control," he breathed, his defensive stance faltering in his shock, and the Second gave a single, curt nod.

"I am." Eyes gliding over their surroundings, he commented thoughtfully, "I've never seen a genjutsu like this one before, so I'm guessing it's a Mangekyo technique. At the very least, I know neither Madara nor Izuna could produce something like this."

Madara. The name made Itachi nearly wince, only years of practice in schooling his emotions preventing him from reacting as an orange mask flashing through his mind. Fortunately the Second's attention had been focused on the endless void that stretched around them, otherwise he would have undoubtedly noticed the discomfort that flickered in the Uchiha's eyes.

"Tell me, does this genjutsu connect to my mind in any way?" he questioned.

"Loosely," Itachi allowed. "The Tsukuyomi pulls the target's consciousness inside the world to mimic physical sensation, but ultimately this is a genjutsu world of my own creation and which I have absolute control over, time and space included. Three days can pass inside the Tsukuyomi while only a single second passes in the real world."

"Impressive," the Second praised lightly as he turned to face Itachi once more, and the brief hint of approval in his expression filled Itachi with admittedly mixed feelings. "In that case, this may work to our advantage."

Itachi's reputation as a genius had been well-earned, as he swiftly deduced the hidden meaning in his words. "You have a countermeasure for the Edo Tensei."

"Possibly," the other permitted. "I've obviously never tested it, but I did suspect it might be used on myself so I developed some potential countermeasures. However, I'm more concerned about the seal he used to control me. By any chance, did you get a look at it with the Sharingan?"

Recognizing the intent behind his query, Itachi willed a copy of the kunai Orochimaru had slipped into the back of the two Hokage's necks to whirl into existence in front of him. The Second grabbed it and turned it over to examine the tag attached to the handle, frowning as he noted one side to be blank. "I only saw one half," Itachi explained preemptively. "I do not know if the other side had writing."

"I'd prefer to see both sides, but this should be enough to work out the missing half if it had more. After all, we have a few days, don't we?" He offered Itachi a humorless smile, and the Uchiha exhaled softly before nodding, letting the remaining tension fade away.

"Three at the most, though if necessary I can push it further. However, if I extend it further than that the strain on my chakra may render me unable to battle any longer."

"Then we should get to work right away," the Second declared firmly. "I don't care if only a second passes in the real world, but I don't want my brother under that bastard's control any longer than necessary." Itachi just nodded in silence, feeling a small smirk pull at his lips.

Orochimaru had made an even larger mistake than he'd thought.

"Hey... Do you feel that?"

"Yeah... They're not going away, are they?"

"I don't think so," Kiba whispered, and Masaru frowned as he turned forward. For the past five minutes both boys had felt the telltale tingle of eyes watching them as they wove through the streets in pursuit of Hinata's scent. For some reason the Hyuuga heiress had taken a rather isolated path that led them through a series of back streets and alleyways which had been largely untouched by the fighting before leading into a stretch of forest, making the sensation of being watched even more unnerving than usual.

"Can you tell anything about them?" he whispered to Kiba, and the Inuzuka frowned.

"Not really, I'm kinda focusing on Hinata's scent 'cause hers is getting weaker and I'm worried if I'll lose it if I try to focus on another smell. Akamaru might know something though." Masaru turned to look at the ninken at this point, watching closely as the pup sniffed at the air. He turned a sharp look at Masaru and made a small grunting noise under his breath, quiet and muffled almost as if whispering.

For all Akamaru might be intelligent, that did not change the fact that Masaru still could not understand him, and the noise the pup made meant absolutely nothing to him. He leveled a bland look at Kiba, and the Inuzuka snorted quietly before dutifully translating. "He says he smells at least four people about one hundred yards behind us. He can't get a clear lock on their scents though, they must be doing something to suppress it." Masaru frowned as he mentally assessed the information.

Four enemy ninja, most likely chuunin-level at a minimum... Between the two of them and Akamaru, they might be able to handle them, but doing that would probably cause Kiba to lose track of Hinata's scent. While she had made it to the final round of the Exams, she still had an overly gentle demeanor that made her ill-suited for the battlefield. The poor girl would be far out of her element in an invasion, not to mention her Byakugan would make her a prime target for foreign forces.

("He's so bright and happy, he never gives up... I want to be like him.")

Chewing his lip, Masaru reached a decision and looked to Kiba. "I'll stall them while you go ahead," he declared quietly, and the Inuzuka shot him an incredulous look.

"Are you kidding?" he hissed. "You've only been in one real fight before! And those guys weren't even ninja! You can't just take on four ninja and expect to walk out of it alive!"

"Do you see a better option?" Masaru countered, shooting his fellow genin a cold glare. "You just said that Hinata's scent is already fading, if you stop now you'll probably lose it. I don't know about you, but I'd rather not leave Hinata alone for longer than necessary. Besides, I've been training nonstop this month." Fists tightening at his side, he allowed his Sharingan to activate as he added coolly, "I can at least hold my own long enough to lure them to a more populated area and find backup."

Kiba still looked unhappy about the proposed plan, conflict visibly showing on his face, but apparently Akamaru approved as he gave an eager yip and bobbed his head at Masaru with a doggy smile. The Uchiha flashed the pup a small smile of his own, and Kiba sighed irritably. "Okay, fine! You win. I still don't like it, but I can't think of any better ideas. But don't try to be a hero, I am not dealing with Sasuke if you get yourself killed."

"Got it," Masaru said with a nod, and with a final glance at the Inuzuka pair he stopped and whirled around to face their pursuers. Ninjutsu he'd seen at a distance during their run flashed through his mind, his hands mimicking the seals for one with the aid of his Sharingan. "Futon: Gale Palm!"

He clapped his hands together and a burst of wind exploded forth like a shockwave, tearing leaves off nearby trees and prompting his hidden pursuers to move into the open. As they tumbled into sight Masaru felt his stomach sink with dread, because he found not four enemies but six. All of them wore matching uniforms with black masks shrouding their faces to leave only their eyes exposed, metal plates gleaming on their foreheads engraved with a single music note.

Having been exposed, the Sound ninja quickly launched towards him and Masaru gritted his teeth as he jumped to the side, pouring chakra into his legs to carry him as fast as possible towards town. He could hear his pursuers shouting as they chased after him, weapons whizzing his direction. One nicked his arm and Masaru ducked behind a thick tree to dodge another volley of kunai, gritting his teeth as his mind raced.

Retreating from six ninja would be next to impossible. Fighting six Chuunin-level enemies at once would even harder and near-suicidal, but if he wanted to escape he'd need to whittle their numbers down to something more reasonable. He swiftly ran through the hand seals for the fireball needed for Foxfire, grateful he still wore the gloves as he let the golden flames coat his fists. It hadn't worked against that fake ANBU, but in this situation it might be more useful.

Hearing footsteps draw near, Masaru leaped out of his hiding spot and swiped at the nearest enemy. The blaze spiraled from his fingertips and hit the man square in the chest, three long, claw-like gauges burning through his shirt to sear his skin. Staggering back with a pained cry, the man failed to react before Masaru could charge at him, delivering a powerful kick to the still-sizzling wounds.

Charred skin and blood clung to the sole of Masaru's shoe as the man flew backwards, almost feeling the skin peel away from his chest in the process. He crashed into head-first, a loud crack sounding before he fell with his neck bent at an unnatural angle. A cold chill washed over Masaru as he recognized the man to be dead and he just killed a person but he had no time to process it, because even as he pulled his foot back spied a kunai flying his way.

He quickly stomped his foot on the ground and slide to the side. He managed to snag the handle of the kunai as it whizzed past him though and immediately whirled to throw it at another man. Naturally, he still had Foxfire active, which meant the kunai had been exposed to fire just enough to create a sizzling sound as it grazed the poor man's arm. Conveniently, it also cut him just inside the elbow joint, which had admittedly not been Masaru's intention, but it made the wound even more agonizing if the man's scream was anything to go by.

Sadly, Masaru had no time to pursue this potential opening any further, as a flurry of shuriken flew towards his legs demanded his attention. As he jumped over them though, he suddenly registered a whishing sound from his right and turned his head to see a kunai sailing straight at his right arm.

He cried out as the blade embedded into his forearm, Foxfire fizzling out as he roughly landed and clutched at the wound. Sharp pain radiated from his arm with each movement he made, every twitch jostling the blade and causing it to tear deeper into the surrounding muscles.

My deaf side—it came from my deaf side, he thought, his heart pounding frantically. For the first time, Masaru realized just how disadvantageous his partial deafness really was. Had the kunai come from the left he'd have heard it fine, but instead it approached his right side, and because of that it had come too close to dodge by the time he finally heard it.

Under normal circumstances his momentary distraction should have been lethal, and sure enough he noticed a bright glint in his periphery and he snapped his head forward to see a kunai zooming towards him. However, when it hovered just inches from his face another kunai suddenly knocked it away, sending both clattering to the ground. "Idiot, he's one of the Uchiha!" one of the men yelled irritably. "Take him down without killing or maiming him!"

The orders made Masaru's heart stop, sudden dread washing over him as he processed the implications. Adrenaline pumped through him as he yanked the kunai out of his arm and flashed through hand seals, ignoring the blossom of pain from the still-fresh wound as blood poured through his sleeve.

"Katon: Grand Fireball Jutsu!" A giant inferno erupted from his mouth, the nearby trees quickly catching fire as the fireball rapidly swelled to several meters in diameter. An agonized screech emerged from the flames as one of the ninja failed to escape in time, and as the blaze faded Masaru could see a charred body fall to the ground. Two down. Two people dead.

(Had any of the other genin gotten their first kills yet? No, don't think about that now. Focus.)

He dove to the side to avoid a shuriken aimed at his shoulder, rolling away and landing in a crouch. Right now, he immensely regretted volunteering to fight alone, because while he somehow managed to kill two enemies he was still severely outmatched. He started to go through the hand seals for another fireball but had to abort it to dodge yet another wave of shuriken, sucking in a sharp breath as one lightly grazed his side.

Focus! Focus! Masaru turned and sped off, pumping his legs full of chakra to increase the power of his strides. Turning his back on his enemies made him feel sick and terrified, but right now he stood no chance on his own. If he could just get into town and find backup, he'd be fine. That thought fueled his steps as he ran in a randomized zigzag pattern, trying to make it as hard as possible for his enemies to predict his path when aiming projectiles.

As he dodged another kunai he suddenly noticed a shadow loom over him and dove to the right just in time to avoid a punch from one of the ninja as he dropped down from a tree, the man's fist colliding into the ground with a small but still sizable crash. Masaru's eyes widened as he watched dirt fly in slow motion, his Sharingan recording the earth rippling beneath the man's knuckles to form a small crater in excruciating detail. The force of that punch, if it had hit him—

"Idiot, I just said not to kill him!" one of the others roared, and time returned to its normal pace as Masaru rolled to his feet and resumed running, his steps spurred by an even more frantic desperation to escape. The men desired him alive so they should avoid going after vitals, but that left plenty of room for serious incapacitating injuries. Broken legs, twisted arms, a well-placed senbon to the neck—the number of nonlethal methods to incapacitate him ran through his mind.

The number multiplied if they had a medical ninja on their side who could heal the worst of it.

As he fled he registered a low, swooping sound behind him, and instinct prompted him to jump even before he identified it, but his efforts proved futile. A thick rope with weights tied on either end snagged around his ankles, the sudden weight throwing him to the ground with a startled shout. Dirt and soil rolled into his mouth as he crashed painfully, his palms only saved from being skinned by his gloves while tiny twigs penetrated his clothing to scrape his body.

Struggling to sit up, Masaru gasped as he accidentally placed his weight on his right arm, the shallow hole from the kunai bleeding even more profusely at the sudden increase in pressure. He pushed through the pain to roll over and rushed through seals, unleashing another Grand Fireball on his pursuers. He heard more shrieks as two men failed to totally clear it, but to his dismay he saw them drop and roll away, their sides heavily burned but both still alive.

He fumbled in his weapons pouch for a kunai to cut through the rope wrapped around his legs, but just as he sliced through them a shadow loomed over him and he felt a hand grip his hair, harshly jerking his head upwards.

Blood sprayed, and he felt too numb to scream.

Of all the crazy plans Kakashi had conceived in his career, using his own genin team as bait for a crazed, unstable jinchuuriki ranked pretty high. He hated treating his comrades like this, risking the lives of his three precious students so brazenly on something he knew to be a gamble, but as it stood Sasuke would be targeted by Gaara anyway. At least this would give them a chance to possibly defeat the red-haired boy, and minimize damage to Konoha.

Still, he didn't like it. He didn't want to risk anyone more than necessary, especially children, and he had no illusions about his ability to defend them if the Ichibi rampaged. He'd managed to find a reason for Masaru and Kiba to leave, but he couldn't conceive of one for any of the others. Sakura would never abandon Sasuke, her crush on the boy overpowered her sense of logic more than he would like. Naruto, meanwhile...

"Naruto, you know something, don't you." Sasuke's words stopped his current train of thought, and Kakashi turned his head to see the broodier of his students watching Naruto with a probing look.

"Huh? What're you talking about?" the blond muttered, shooting him a quizzical frown. Sasuke merely scowled, clearly unimpressed by his blank expression.

"Don't play dumb. You're usually the one who's floundering around and totally clueless about everything, but this time you haven't asked one question. Not about jinchuuriki, not about mokuton, not about this so-called plan, not about anything. Hell, you haven't even talked once this past five minutes. I didn't even know that was possible."

As he spoke Sakura turned to look at Naruto with renewed curiosity, Sasuke's points clearly resonating with her. The blond just frowned as he turned away from his teammates, his normally bright blue eyes melancholic and uncertain. The sight of such a pained look on the typically sunny and cheerful blond's face made Kakashi's heart lurch in agony, his mouth pulling into a heavy frown behind his mask.

Kakashi knew why Naruto didn't want to answer. He still remembered that horrible day, the Kyuubi's red chakra leaking from the tiny eight-year-old boy as screams of utter despair and agony filled his ears. Had things gone according to plan he wouldn't have found out until after he became a ninja, but instead Kakashi had to watch his sensei's son grow up with a fox whispering in his ear.

"Naruto," he said, grabbing everyone's attentions. "You don't need to answer right now. We need to focus on the situation at hand." You don't need to answer at all if you don't want to, went unsaid, but Kakashi could tell that Naruto recognized the underlying message all the same.

"I... Yeah, you're right," he muttered quietly, nodding absently. Sucking in a sharp breath, his fists curled at his side and he raised his head to face his teammates, his eyes sparking with newfound determination. "Look, I'll explain later. But right now, we need to kick Gaara's butt before and show that stupid monster inside him that no one can screw with Konoha!"

He flashed a bright grin as he spoke, the sudden confidence in his expression obviously surprising his fellow genin. Temporarily speechless, after a moment Sasuke simply scoffed and turned forward, his scowl still present. "Fine. But we are talking about this later, dobe."

"Yeah, don't expect us to forget about this," Sakura added with a firm nod. "We can't afford to hide secrets from each other. I don't know what you're hiding or why you seem so nervous about it, but that doesn't change the fact you're our teammate." Surprise flashed on Naruto's face while Sasuke nodded in mute agreement, and Kakashi felt a sudden surge of warmth to swell in his chest as he watched the scene, a rare, genuine smile flickering into existence behind his mask.

Sensei, it looks like I'm doing something right after all, he mused quietly as he watched his three students.

Naruto might bear a painful burden no one should have to, but at least he had friends he could count on.

His smile quickly faded though, his eye widening in alarm as he glimpsed movement behind them. He skidded to a halt and spun to face the newcomer, a kunai sliding into his hand and poised for throw. By the time the three genin stopped and turned to face him the sense of threat vanished though as Tenzo stepped into his line of sight, Akino and Bisuke trailing at his heels.

"Tenzo?" Kakashi greeted slowly, his stance still tense and stiff. The mokuton user frowned as glanced at the small group, but Naruto visibly brightened at his arrival and pumped a fist into the air with a loud cheer.

"Alright! Now that you're here we'll be able to take down Gaara easy!" His teammates responded to his enthusiasm with tentative looks towards their teacher, any relief they may have felt tempered by the grim, calculating look in Kakashi's eye. An icy chill of foreboding shivered down his spine as he met Tenzo's eyes, both men instantly understanding the implications of his arrival.

"Tenzo, did you see Gaara?" he asked gravely, and his former subordinate grimaced.

"No, I didn't. I was in the stadium for about three minutes before these two grabbed me." Naruto's cheers abruptly halted as he looked at him in confusion, but the other two genin visibly stiffened, swiftly recognizing just why both men remained so on edge.

"Maybe you took a different route that was just faster?" Sakura suggested quickly, but behind her Kakashi shook his head.

"We took the fastest route I knew. And even then, Akino or Bisuke would have noticed Gaara's scent at some point. He smells like blood and sand," he added with a pointed glance to the two ninken.

"We noticed a trail of something like that on the way, but it was already pretty old," Akino confirmed promptly. "It turned off to a different route back in town."

"Wait, are you saying Gaara stopped following us?" Naruto blurted, finally realizing what his teammates had already gathered. Kakashi nodded grimly, grimacing under his mask.

"That's the most logical explanation." The question was why. Gaara had wanted to fight Sasuke above all else, and at one point they'd even been able to see him following them—

Kakashi froze as sickening realization punched him in the stomach. Shit. "Akino, Bisuke, with me!" he barked as he started running for the trees. "Tenzo, you come too!" The others looked a bit startled by the sudden orders, but Tenzo quickly recovered and raced after him while the two ninken followed suit. A glance at them and the two dogs bounded ahead to take lead, recognizing his intent even without him needing to voice it.

Having received no orders of their own, Team Seven exchanged worried glances before moving to follow Kakashi. "Kakashi, what's going on?" Sasuke demanded hotly as they trailed after him. "Didn't you say Gaara would be following me?"

"I thought he was, but I was wrong," he responded, frowning as he recalled that brief glimpse of Gaara during the pursuit.

He'd been in their line of sight when he sent Kiba and Masaru away.

A strangled scream escaped the Sound ninja before sharply cutting off as a giant fist of sand squeezed him, crushing his internal organs beyond repair. Its grip loosened and his crumpled body dropped to the ground, landing amidst the rest of his comrades' corpses. Crimson liquid seeped into the earth and stained Masaru's leg but he barely noticed, only able to stare numbly at the teenage boy looming over him.

"Uchiha Masaru," Gaara murmured, his pale green eyes seeming to pierce right through him. "I was looking for you."

Chapter Text

Chapter 36

"Sometimes, the truth is painful. Sometimes, you don't want to believe the truth. Sometimes, you just want it all to be one big lie."

Today probably marked the second scariest day in Masaru's life.

Number one would always, always be the massacre, but today? Today definitely served as a strong contender for the spot, what with the invasion, having to fight off six enemy ninja on his own, and then the homicidal jinchuuriki tracking him down instead of pursuing Masaru's last remaining relative like expected.

Masaru felt numb as he stared up at the dangerous boy looming over him, the kunai in his hand forgotten in the icy bloodlust Gaara radiated. Corpses littered the ground around him and saturated the forest floor, Masaru's face and clothing sprinkled with blood which had rained from the giant sand fists. Yet none of that mattered, not in the face of the deadly Sand genin responsible for it.

At any given time he would describe Gaara as "disturbing," but never had that applied more than now. The redhead looked eerily calm standing amongst the carnage he'd just wrought, yet his eyes held a certain malicious gleam that sent an instinctive shudder down Masaru's spine. His skin seemed to vibrate as his chakra stirred the grains composing his sand armor, only adding to the unsettling aura he possessed.

"Mother has been quite interested in you," he declared blandly.

Something told Masaru that did not refer to Gaara's actual mother. Blinking slowly, Masaru found his mouth opening to ask, "Why?"

"She says you look like Indra." Indra. The name echoed in Masaru's head, one of his hands unconsciously fluttering towards his hair as he recalled his mother's voice from long ago (Indra's hair, you have Indra's hair, Masa-kun.). Gory tangles brushed against his fingertips, along with something wet and fleshy. Absently he wrenched it free from the mass of curls to inspect it, and stared at the object blankly for three seconds before recognizing it as a finger.

Oh, right. One of them had been clutching his hair when Gaara attacked. Now that Masaru had started to come to his senses he suddenly noticed his hair felt heavier than usual, and he realized that more fingers must be caught in it.

Bile rose in his mouth and he quickly swallowed it back, his initial numbness swiftly giving way to bone-chilling terror as he began to fully comprehend the severity of the situation.

A crazed jinchuuriki who had likely been brought to Konoha as part of an invasion plan stood in front of Masaru. Something he called "mother" expressed an interest in him because he looked like Indra. Indra, a mythical figure who had supposedly been the eldest son of the Sage of Six Paths and the original ancestor of the Uchiha.

All of those facts pointed to some rather disturbing implications which Masaru decided not to dwell on too much, at least not while he sat in mortal peril.

"I... see," he croaked, letting the finger drop to the ground. It unwillingly drew his gaze as it rolled away, bright and pale and red against the lifeless brown dirt. Masaru swallowed thickly and forced himself to face Gaara, searching for words. "I-is that... good?" He internally winced at the mild stutter, and the redhead's eyes narrowed, studying him for a moment before answering.

"Mother says you're... different. More nervous." A brief pause. "She says you're amusing."

Despite his current mortal terror Masaru couldn't help but slump a bit at the subtle jab. He couldn't know for sure, but he got the sense that a Tailed Beast might be laughing at him right now. Then again, that amusement might be the only thing keeping him alive...

Forcing himself to steady his breathing, he slowly and carefully rose to his feet, ignoring the way his legs wobbled. Gaara watched him intently the entire time, his face ever unchanging. Buy time, some voice said in the back of his mind. Humor him long enough to think up a plan or for someone to come.

"Um... thank you," he muttered cautiously. "F-for, that." He gestured vaguely to the massacre around them, resisting the grimace which threatened to tug on his mouth. The casual ease with which Gaara slaughtered them still made him sick, but he couldn't deny that had Gaara not appeared he likely would have been captured. (He still didn't know if that would be better or worse.)

Of course, the other boy didn't respond right away, simply staring at Masaru as if searching for something. "What do you think of love?" he finally asked, and Masaru just stared blankly, struggling to process the random nature of the query.

"I... don't know? I-I mean, that's, kind of a vague thing to ask... I don't really know how to answer." Apparently his answer didn't displease Gaara, or at the very least, he didn't suddenly look angry or murderous.

"Would you say your family loved you?"

That... did not meet his expectations. "Yes." The word slipped out without hesitation, and Gaara's eyes narrowed.

"Both of them? Your mother and sister?"

Masaru opened his mouth to respond "yes" but then stopped, the implications of the question striking him. How did Gaara know he didn't have a father?

They had made a mistake.

It hadn't been an obvious mistake. Tenzo couldn't fault Kakashi for it, even if the older jounin obviously blamed himself. Every sign pointed to Gaara wanting to fight Sasuke—hell, Gaara had explicitly addressed Sasuke back in the stadium. But at some point during the pursuit, his directive had clearly changed from one Uchiha to the other.

According to Kakashi it most likely happened when Masaru and Kiba had broken away from the main group at his orders, since that had been the last time they'd seen the jinchuuriki. Team Seven had expressed a great deal of surprise when Kakashi relayed his suspicions to them, and it had taken a bit of effort to keep Sasuke and Naruto from running ahead. Tenzo heavily suspected the boys only relented because they'd need the ninken to track them down, but Naruto still sent a horde of shadow clones ahead anyway.

Now they just ran in grim silence, waiting for Akino or Bisuke to bark out confirmation they'd caught Gaara's scent. It gave Tenzo a lot of time for his mind to wander, and his thoughts kept circling back to a single question:


Why did Gaara want to find Masaru? Tenzo knew for a fact they hadn't interacted since that first escort mission. ANBU had kept a close eye on both of the Uchiha boys over the past month due to Orochimaru's interest in them, and if Gaara had so much as stared at Masaru from across the street it would have been noted down. Even if they had no confirmation of Gaara's suspected jinchuuriki status at the time, his actions during the Chuunin Exams merited a good level of wariness.

Whatever the reason for his interest, it couldn't be good.

As he mulled over it Tenzo risked a look at Kakashi, frowning as he noted the tightness around his single eye. No doubt the man blamed himself for this; he always did when something went wrong, even if that something fell beyond his control. Sensing his gaze, Kakashi glanced at him before quickly turning his face forward once more, his eye growing even dimmer.

Dammit, now he was probably thinking he'd failed Tenzo by endangering his student. Tenzo definitely cared for Masaru and felt more worried than he'd ever been in his life, but he wouldn't blame Kakashi for failing to predict this turn of events. Logically speaking, they had no way to anticipate that Gaara would abandon his pursuit of Sasuke to chase after Masaru instead.

He opened his mouth to say as much when Naruto suddenly shouted. "HEY! That's that creepy puppet guy and that girl who beat Sakura!" He jabbed a finger at two figures in the distance and sure enough, he recognized Temari and Kankurou, the two elder Sand Siblings standing on a rooftop looking around as if searching for something. Next to him Sakura's eyes ignited with rage, a feral snarl escaping her as she charged forward.

"HOW DARE YOU KNOCK ME OUT OF THE FINALS JUST SO YOUR SHITTY VILLAGE CAN INVADE!" she screamed as she flung herself at Temari with her arm reeling back for a powerful punch. The startled Sand kunoichi spun to face her in alarm and made to jump away, but she moved too slow to evade her. Chakra visibly surged around her fist as she smashed it into Temari's side, sending the other girl flying into the nearest wall with a pained gasp.

Naruto and Sasuke momentarily faltered as they stared at the scene with their jaws falling open, and Kankurou jumped back with a loud "What the hell!" Sakura just stood on the roof with her shoulders heaving at the exertion of the blow, her face still contorted into a vicious snarl as she glared at Temari's groaning form. Blood noticeably seeped from her knuckles, her skin peeled away by the force of the blow, but she hardly seemed to care.

"...What have you been teaching her?" Tenzo whispered to Kakashi.

"...I gave her a basic strength-training regiment for the month," he replied lamely. "Looks like she made progress faster than I thought."

The blow had not been strong enough to create a hole in the wall or anything dramatic like that, but the impact still clearly knocked the wind out of Temari. The older girl carefully peeled herself away from the bricks and slid to her knees, wrapping her arms around her torso with a pained wheeze. Kankurou just stared at her in shock, looking torn between helping his sister or engaging the new arrivals.

Recovering from his own shock, Sasuke closed the remaining space between them and grabbed the older boy by the collar, hefting him off his feet. His eyes burned bright red with the Sharingan, his lips curling back in a furious snarl not unlike a wolf or a tiger. "Where. Is. Gaara?" he growled, and Kankurou visibly blanched, his eyes widening as he stared directly into the Sharingan.

"W-we don't know!" he replied quickly. "We were following him but some other Leaf ninja attacked us, and we lost sight of him!" He broke away from Sasuke's grip and scrambled back a few steps, the Uchiha allowing him to do so and watching him with cold eyes. Tugging at his collar in an attempt to fix it, Kankurou hastily added, "Besides, wasn't he following you!?"

"He stopped at some point," Kakashi responded on behalf of his student. "We think he left to pursue Uchiha Masaru instead. However, we don't know why." Both Sand genin visibly stiffened at the information, first looking confused before their faces fell as a strong sense of apprehension visibly overtook them.

"The... file," Temari wheezed, still struggling to regain her breath.

"File?" Tenzo straightened at the word, leveling a sharp look at her. "What are you talking about?" She opened her mouth to respond but instead coughed, and shot her brother a pointed look. He frowned at her but then seemed to relent to her unspoken request, turning to face the Leaf ninja with a sigh.

"Ever since we got here, Gaara's been acting weird. He's been bugging Baki-sensei to get him information on some girl."

"A girl?" Naruto parroted, looking understandably confused. "What, are you saying he has a crush or something?"

"Doubt it," Kankurou grumbled, scowling at the notion. "Gaara's screwed up, but even he's not into corpses. She's been dead for, like, five years. He wanted Baki to get the files on how it went down."

A sudden chill washed over Tenzo as the pieces suddenly started to fall into place in his head, painting a sickening picture. A look at Kakashi told him he'd made the connection too, the silver-haired jounin stared at the puppeteer in shock before his eye sharply narrowed. "Who?" he demanded, and Temari grunted as she sat up.

"Uchiha Akari," she ground out.

Time seemed to slow at the name, Tenzo feeling his heart lurch to a halt as he looked at the others. Confusion and alarm marred Naruto's features, obviously struggling to remember Akari but recognizing the significance of the Uchiha part at least. Sakura mouthed the name with a growing look of horror, clearly recognizing what it meant. Sasuke, meanwhile, looked shell-shocked at the mention of his deceased cousin, but in his stunned features he spied a glimmer of swiftly growing rage.

Kakashi, as usual, looked almost unreadable, but after knowing him for years Tenzo could recognize the shock and pain whirling in his lone eye. Grinding his teeth, the mokuton user quickly turned to the two ninken who had stopped to watch the show with obvious curiosity. Their eyes met and the canines snapped to visible attention, swiftly turning to resume their pursuit.

Tenzo grabbed Kakashi's shoulder to get his attention. "We need to go," he said briskly, and his former senpai just nodded mutely before they set off in pursuit of the two dogs, ignoring the confused shouts from the genin behind them.

Masaru fumbled for words, struggling to pull his mind into some semblance of order. "Y-yes," he whispered, his voice just a little shaky. "They—they both loved me." Gaara's eyes narrowed, the intent behind them still just as inscrutable as before.

"My family... They never loved me. They hated me, they looked at me with fear. My father sent assassins after me for as long as I can remember. Do you know why?" He took a single step forward, the shade from the leafy forest canopy overhead casting an ominous shadow over his features. "Before I was born, he had a demon sealed inside me. My mother died that day. She died cursing the village with her last breath, and gave me this name so I would destroy Suna for using her as a sacrifice."

Masaru shuddered at his cold tone, swallowing thickly as he shifted under Gaara's scrutinizing gaze. Sand began to ripple around the Jinchuuriki's feet as he extended his arm with his palm facing upwards, the grains lazily rising to circle his wrist in a large, slowly spinning ring. "My uncle... He claimed to love me. He claimed my mother loved me, and that this sand protected me as an extension of her will to protect me."

The circling ring of sand froze in its orbit. "He lied. He tried to kill me when I was six. So I killed him." His hand clenched into a tight fist and the sand shot towards Masaru like needles. The Uchiha flinched as he felt it slice along his cheek, fresh blood seeping from the small cut and wetting the recently-dried blood already caking his face.

Inhaling a shuddery breath, he slowly raised a hand to brush against it, forcing himself to meet Gaara's cold gaze.

"I... I'm sorry," he whispered, a thick lump bobbing in his throat. "I... don't know what it's like, b-but... That's—that's not fair." His voice cracked on the last word and he quickly averted his eyes to the ground, biting his lip. He had no idea why Gaara felt the need to share this, but he meant it when he said it wasn't fair. From what he said Gaara had been born a jinchuuriki; he had no choice in the matter, and that just wasn't fair.

Gaara didn't respond right away, but Masaru could feel his eyes boring into him.

"Do you still say they loved you?" he questioned, making Masaru sharply raise his head in surprise. "Your mother and sister? Did your mother love both of you?" Masaru stared at him numbly, words failing him as he stared at the jinchuuriki. Heart pounding in his ears, his hands clenched at his side and he forced himself to nod, his teeth grinding briefly.

"Y-yes. Mom, Akari... Th-they both loved me. We all loved each other." Sea foam green eyes pierced into him as if searching for something, and then...

Gaara smiled.

A heavy shudder shook Masaru as he saw the other boy's lips lift upwards ever so slightly, his head inclining to the side. "I see," he murmured slowly, his smile growing wider. "So you really believe that, do you?" His shoulders began to shake as he spoke and Masaru gave a start as Gaara started laughing, just snickering quietly under his breath and smiling at Masaru.

Cracks began to form in his skin as he snorted, eyes twinkling with some sort of deranged glee over some sick joke only he could understand. "You say your mother loved you," he giggled. "Your mother, Uchiha Ryoko, loved you. She loved both of you!" His giggles escalated to hysterical laughter, his sadistic cackling seeming to echo around the forest.

Masaru winced and more than anything wanted to cover his ears but he couldn't, he couldn't move or blink or look away as he watched Gaara double over holding his side with hysterical laughter. Gasping for breath, the Sand genin lifted his head just enough for Masaru to see black seeping into his eyes, his mouth twisted into an insane grin that bordered on a sadistic sneer.

"Love is so twisted," he whispered, giggling as he looked at the growing horror on Masaru's face. "Love is so twisted, isn't it, Ma-sa-ru? My father tried to kill me because he hates me and fears me. And your mother—"

He stopped, throwing back his head to unleash a bout of hysterical laughter and raising his arms in a grand gesture. "And your mother killed your sister in the name of love!"


The world seemed to shift, Gaara's insane laughter disappearing and leaving only the sound of Masaru's heartbeat pounding in his ears.


His eyes burned worse than ever before, and he could see Gaara's lips move in slow motion. She cut off her head, he mouthed. Stabbed out her eyes with a kunai.


Isn't life marvelous?


Isn't love hiLa rIoUS ?


It's all juSt a liE ! No one can LO v E Ot hE Rs ! YO u cA N o Nl Y L Ov E Yo UR s eLf !


"Masaru, Akari. Come here."

A small brown-haired head poked through the door of the tea room, large black eyes blinking innocently. "Masaru did it," Akari chirped, and then fell to the floor as her brother shoved her from behind.

"Don't just randomly accuse me of stuff!" he snapped irritably, crossing his arms with a huff. Akari scrambled into a sitting position, pointing at him as she looked at their mother.

"Look! See? Masaru just pushed me! He's the bad one!" The young boy released a strangled noise of frustration and began twitching erratically, clearly yearning to smack his sister but just a little too chivalrous to go through with it.

"Akari-chan, I didn't call you because you're in trouble," Ryoko laughed, drawing their attention back to her. "Unless, of course, you did something you deserve to get in trouble for...?"

"Oh. Um, no. I didn't." Akari blinked, and sat up straighter with a sheepish smile, her head tilting cutely to the side. "I just thought you were mad about something so I wanted to, um..." She trailed off, looking for the right words.

"Establish an alibi by framing your brother?" Ryoko supplied with a growing smile, and Akari bobbed her head with a bright grin of her own.

"Yeah! That!" She beamed at Ryoko, appearing totally oblivious to Masaru's glare boring into the back of her head for trying to set him up. Then her gaze flicked back to him and the corner of her mouth twitched upwards into the tiniest smirk.

Chivalry was dead. Akari needed to go down.

Their mother watched Masaru pounced upon Akari with a fierce battle cry with a smile, her eyes twinkling with amusement as they began rolling around. Ninja training had made their wrestling matches a little more violent now, and he had the edge on his sister in terms of physical strength and creative thinking. She let the tussle continue for about a minute before pointedly clearing her throat.

Matching sets of black eyes instantly shot towards her, the twins freezing in place with Akari's hand fisted around a chunk of Masaru's hair and Masaru's mouth just about to clamp shut around his sister's leg. Within seconds the twins had seated themselves at the table, their faces placid and innocent as they looked at their mother expectantly. The effect was slightly mitigated by their rumpled clothing and tousled hair.

Also, Akari's hand was still stuck in Masaru's hair, too deeply ensnared to free itself in such a short time frame, so he had his neck bent at a near ninety-degree angle while Akari's arm hovered awkwardly at her side.

Ryoko, ever polite and mature, calmly reached for the camera she kept on the table just for such moments and snapped a photo. Only then did she break into boisterous laughter, making the twins scowl and grumble as they proceeded to extract themselves from the tangle they'd created.

"I'm sorry, you two are just too adorable," she chuckled, her laughter tapering off as she smiled fondly at the pair. "I just can't help it. Whenever I see you act like that, I can't help but think how much I love you."

"Mom, why did you want us if we're not in trouble?" Masaru asked, just a little uncomfortable by the sudden heavy sentimentality. Ryoko blinked and her smile faded, her face growing more serious. The shift caused the twins to pause, their earlier playful mood vanishing as they looked at her with earnest attention.

"Right... You two will be starting your second year at the academy in a few days, so I think it's time to have a proper talk about this before others can start trying to fill your minds with different ideas."

Closing her eyes, she inhaled deeply through her nose before exhaling quietly through her mouth. When her eyes opened again they had changed to the bloody scarlet of the Sharingan, making the twins instantly stiffen in surprise.

"The Sharingan, as you know, is an exclusive trait of the Uchiha clan," she began. "It gives us many advantages in battle and is one of the most feared kekkei genkai in existence. However, while most of our clan views it as an accomplishment and celebrates its activation as a coming of age, I believe it is something more tragic." Her expression softened even as her eyes remained scarlet, her small frown gaining a more melancholic edge.

"You see, the Sharingan is activated by intense emotion. Sometimes that emotion is a positive one, but more often than not it is brought on by something darker—most commonly, the loss, or the potential for loss, of one's comrades on the battlefield. I disagree with our clan's glorification of it because it doesn't solely mark one's skill. It is a physical manifestation of intense trauma."

Her next words cut into Masaru sharply, deeply imprinting on his memory:

"The earlier one awakens it, the more pain they'll have to endure."


Masaru felt his lips move and Gaara stopped laughing. What? he mouthed, and Masaru's mouth moved again. The deranged smile faded, replaced initially by shock before his face twisted into a furious snarl. What are you talking about? You're the one who knows nothing! Masaru just shook his head only to wince, feeling the cold tap-tap-tap of the severed fingers still ensnared in his hair drumming against his back and shoulders.

He didn't even notice the kunai in his hand until he felt part of the weight suddenly separate from his head, sticky clumps of hair falling limply and tickling part of his neck as the rest of it fell around his feet in a dirty clump. Vacant eyes stared at the mass of gory tangles, flashes of red-soaked white peppering the shorn brown locks.

He raised his gaze once more to regard a more sober-looking Gaara, his expression still hollow. The jinchuuriki regarded him more warily now, the burst of insanity temporarily banished and replaced by a more scornful glare.

You know nothing," Masaru declared flatly, sound returning halfway through uttering the sentence. "You don't know my mother. You don't know my sister. You don't know anything that happened that day." His fists clenched at his sides as he spoke, his words gradually growing more and more heated as his eyes began to burn more.

"However," Ryoko continued, "While the Sharingan stems from emotional pain, that doesn't make it a bad thing."

"What do you mean?" Akari asked, her eyebrows knitting together in confusion. "Didn't you just say it just makes people hurt more?"

"Yes, I did," their mother allowed easily. "But pain and suffering is an unavoidable part of life for a shinobi. We'll always have to deal with loss, and the Sharingan gives us an edge that will make us more viable for battling than others. While the Sharingan does usually trigger in emotional situations, I think there's one other factor people tend to overlook: a resolve to protect those you love."

Her eyes seeped to their natural black hue, her face softening as she offered the twins a gentle smile. "I believe we awaken the Sharingan so we can use its power to protect our precious people. Just like how I love you two."

"My mother loved us!" Masaru roared, his chakra flaring around him wildly as he took a step forward. "She wasn't always right in the head and she had a lot of problems, and I still don't understand everything she did in the end, but she loved us! She would never kill Akari!"

"You're nothing but a fool," Gaara growled, sand rising around him and shooting towards Masaru. The Uchiha deftly avoided it and charged towards Gaara, rapidly flashing through unfamiliar hand seals as the back of his neck burned. Sucking in a large breath, he spewed a stream of fire hotter than any he'd blown before, the inferno spinning and unfurling to take the shape of a dragon. Rage and adrenaline fueled the flames to burn even hotter, the hue rapidly shifting from red to blinding white.

Soaring towards the sky, the dragon released a crackling roar and dove at where Gaara stood, incinerating the trees and soil around the Sand genin. Masaru could feel the residual heat sear against his skin, his eyes stinging and his lids reflexively sealing shut as the natural moisture evaporated. The last wisp of embers left his lips and his hands fell from the seal to dangle limply at his sides, his knees giving out as he fell to the ground and the sounds of the world grew muffled once more.

(Strange, the tingling on his neck stopped...)

As the snow-colored inferno faded, he could see a large dome of sand surrounding the spot where Gaara had been standing, the surface appearing slightly hardened by the heat. Slowly it began to crack and crumble, large chunks falling away to reveal a furious Gaara glaring at him from within its shadows. Masaru should probably run now, but he couldn't feel anything. He couldn't even muster the energy needed to be scared, that jutsu had almost completely sapped his chakra and physical energy.

(What was that, anyway?)

(Forget it, too tired to care.)

Kunai suddenly flew towards Gaara and his sand rose to shield him, blocking him from sight. Wooden pillars erupted from the ground and tried to twirl around Gaara, the boy's body shifting and morphing into an inhuman form as his eyes sparkled with madness, but Masaru heard none of it, his vision already dimming. Someone grabbed his shoulders and spun him around and suddenly he found himself face to face with Sakura, her green eyes sparkling with concern.

'He's in the beginning stages of chakra exhaustion,' she mouthed to someone behind her. 'Please tell me you have a chakra pill?'

Dust kicked up around them as the earth shook violently, and Masaru's eyes flickered to the side to see Gaara's body distorting into an increasingly monstrous form. He swatted at trees with a silent laugh, a familiar blur of blue and black charging at him with bright white sparking around his hand. Sasuke buried lightning into Gaara's side and the boy-monster's face contorted in agony and shock, his mouth ripping open.


Sound abruptly returned as Gaara screamed in pain, an inhuman screech that made everyone in the area wince and cover their ears. Masaru cried out as he squeezed his hands around his ears, the shockwave from the screech nearly knocking him away. Apparently he actually had some hearing in his right ear after all, because it throbbed from the volume of the shriek. Naruto's startled scream zipped over him briefly as he was flung through the air above them in an orange blur.

A glance over his shoulder revealed Gaara had begun to transform, the sand clinging to his body morphing and changing into a form closer to the tanuki he housed. His eyes looked even more deranged than before, black seeping into them as his irises took on a gold star shape. "YOU HURT ME!" he screamed over the ringing in Masaru's ears. "YOU HURT ME!"

A tidal wave of sand rushed towards Sasuke and he barely managed to evade it, leaping out of its path as it barreled into a tree behind him. Deafening crashes echoed loudly as it fell into the neighboring trees like dominoes, the sound only amplifying as a giant puff of smoke appeared to reveal a giant toad. Masaru just stared at it numbly, vaguely registering Naruto's distant yells from atop its head goading it to attack.

Too much. It was all too much. His vision dimmed as he fell to his side, Sakura's horrified shouts fading until only absolute silence remained. After what felt like anywhere from a few seconds to a few hours a soft sigh sounded nearby, footsteps lightly padding towards him.

"Masaru, open your eyes."

His eyes slid open obediently and he slowly sat up, glancing around blearily. A black void surrounded him stretching as far as the eye could see, white flames flickering in the distance. Apparitions of gray-tinted corpses scattered the landscape around him, faces frozen in perpetual agony as black tomoe lay motionless against silvery irises.

Three bodies stood out in particular, encased in a bright glow, and Masaru staggered to his feet and stumbled towards the nearest one. Colorless skin had been charred and darkened by fire, the full-face mask ripped to reveal a pained grimace while the edges of the fabric melded onto the man's skin. Masaru gazed at his look of deathly suffering with absolutely apathy, his own eyes hollow and glazed as he studied the body.

Ah, he thought. These must be the men he'd killed.

Masaru hadn't seen much detail of the body as it fell from his fireball, but then, he'd seen enough death to fill in the gaps. These bodies were little more than a morbid collage generated by his mind of all the other deaths he'd seen in his short life. He recognized the burns scarring his mouth from Uchiha Subaru's corpse, the glazed eyes from a corpse he and Kiba had passed while trying to track Hinata.

"Sorry," he commented dully. "I just brought more corpses."

"It's okay. They wanted to hurt you, so I don't mind." A small figure glided into his line of sight, a peachy-colored hand poking at the patchwork body with a sort of morbid curiosity. "It'll probably change if you see the actual corpse."

"Probably," Masaru agreed blandly, and the figure huffed slightly before turning to look at him, revealing a gaping, bleeding maw in the space once occupied by a right eye.

"You're such an annoying brother sometimes, Masaru."

Chapter Text

Chapter 37

"Sometimes, I don't know which is worse: too much noise, or too much silence. Curse these sensitive ears."

Temari nearly fell back when the dragon appeared in the sky, its white form blocking the sun and casting a bright, flickering shadow over the forest. "Holy shit," Kankurou whispered, paling as he tipped his head back to stare at it.

"Oi, brats, don't lose your footing!" one of the ninken barked, drawing the siblings' attention back to the present. "Boss'll probably be here any minute now, and when he does you'll need to be ready!"

Its words served as a good anchor point for Temari, the kunoichi quickly sobering and shooting the dog a glare. "I'd still like to know what we're preparing for," she ground out, but all of the canines present in the clearing chose to remain silent, much to her annoyance. Gritting her teeth, she chose to refrain from needling at them and flashed another worried look at the trees, watching the fire fade away.

After meeting with the Leaf group, Kakashi had firmly ordered the two elder Sand Siblings to follow his ninken to the location of some "Nine Ro" thing. They didn't know what that meant, but considering that silver-haired jounin happened to be the infamous Kakashi of the Sharingan, the siblings had decided not to argue. Upon arriving in the clearing they'd found more canines waiting who quickly positioned them atop some nondescript mounds of dirt, with no explanation as to why.

Sitting around waiting grated on her nerves. Temari never liked being idle, and to do so while her brother was so close to a rampage...

As if to spurn her thoughts she heard a pained roar from his direction, making her wince. "Shit," she hissed, her eyes widening as memories of the bloody night from eight years ago flickered to the front of her mind.

"Dammit, he's about to let loose!" Kankurou yelped. "Will this Nine-Ro thing actually work?"

"Eh, probably," one of the dogs snorted. "Worked for the Nine Tails." Both of the Sand Siblings froze and slowly turned to stare at it, their jaws falling open with shock. The other canines also turned to glare at their fellow ninken, making the wolf-like dog wince and shrink back, its ears flattening against its skull.

"The... Nine Tails?" Kankurou repeated, his voice way too high-pitched and quiet. "Y-you mean, like, the fox?"

This time none of the dogs responded, leaving the siblings to just stare in horror as they tried to wrap their minds around this. Temari's eyes drifted to her feet, staring at the mound in wonder and horror.

What the hell is Nine-Ro!?

At thirteen, Masaru could count the number of times he'd woken up in his mindscape on one hand.

While some people would jump at the chance to enter their own mind, Masaru hated it. Phantom corpses of his kinsmen littered the black void almost as far as the eye could see, their monochrome Sharingan eyes staring at the endless darkness. Every time he saw them his stomach would flip and he'd want to cover his eyes, trying to will them to disappear and go away, but they never left. Their constant presence only solidified just how deeply the massacre had scarred him.

It didn't help that he only seemed to enter his mindscape after traumatic events. And right now, having just killed two men in battle, exhausted a good amount of his chakra, and witnessing a jinchuuriki fully transform, he definitely felt more than slightly overwhelmed.

At least he didn't have to go through it alone.

"So, do you wanna talk about it?" Akari asked, tilting her head at him. They sat cross-legged towards the edge of the void, a wall of silvery white flames wreathing them and blocking the corpses from view. Masaru just shrugged, avoiding looking at her.

The Akari his mind conjured looked different from how he'd like to envision her, forever eight and with an empty eye socket weeping black blood which dripped onto her shirt. It hurt to look at he sometimes, to see that gaping hole in her head where her right eye should be. Yet even so she still shined like a beacon of light, the sole spot of color in his monochrome world with her peachy skin and chocolate-colored hair, vibrant violet shirt, and navy capris and sandals.

Shadow or not, as far as Masaru was concerned this Akari was still his sister, even if she was just a broken, twisted version of her produced by his own mind. And just like his sister, she puffed out her cheeks at his obvious avoidance. "Hey, Masaru, don't just shrug and look away! That won't make your problems go away!"

"Is there really a problem, though?" he muttered, reluctantly lifting his eyes towards her.

"Gaara just said mom killed me by cutting off my head," she deadpanned. "How does that make you feel?" Masaru frowned, absently playing with the hem of his shirt as he considered his response.

"I... don't really care," he admitted quietly, his brow burrowing. "He was wrong. Mom wouldn't do that."

Ryoko had so many problems. Every time he thought back to his childhood, he could pick out more and more signs that his mother had not been normal and healthy. But hurting her children? Never. She loved them too much to ever harm them; for all her flaws, she never once made him feel scared for his life. She'd kill herself first before touching them.

"Good, so we're on the same page. Now, what about this?" Akari shifted to her knees to crawl behind him, poking the freshly shorn ends of his hair. The cut looked and felt noticeably rough, a large chunk chopped out of the center so stray hairs tickled the back of his neck while the rest trailed down his back. "That haircut was pretty sudden. How do you feel about that?"

"I guess a little bad," he admitted after a second of hesitation, "but I'm also relieved I don't have to untangle severed fingers from it." Both of them shuddered at that, faces contorting into twin grimaces as they recalled the digits tapping against his back when he'd stood up. Once Masaru woke up for real and had some time for reality to set in he'd probably be a bit more upset about cutting his hair, but right now the lack of severed fingers outweighed any grief he might feel.

Pushing the disturbing thought away, he reclined on his back and tipped his head back to stare at the darkness hanging overhead. "Do you think we'll be okay?"

"Well, yeah. Kakashi's there. He'll protect you, if only so he won't feel even worse about Uncle Obito." She snorted and rolled her eye as she spoke, the gesture reminding Masaru this variation of Akari had a bleeding eye socket. He shuddered and tried to focus on the intact eye.

"Yeah, that's true," he allowed. "Gaku-sensei says he spends a lot of time at the memorial." The brunet had discovered this little factoid while trying to figure out why Kakashi showed up late to his team's meetings every day, mostly because his cousin's constant complaints had started to get on his nerves.

"Tenzo," Akari said with a pointed look, and Masaru looked at her in confusion before realizing she'd been correcting him.

"Right. Tenzo, I guess." Akari always had been quicker to adapt to changes like that. Every year in the academy they'd have to use fake names for a week as practice for espionage missions, and only Akari had managed to never use the wrong name. Everyone else had flubbed and used their peers' real names at least once, but Akari had no trouble adapting to her own alias, even ignoring the teacher when he called her real name as a test.

"Kobayashi Gaku always seemed kinda cheesy to me," his twin's specter mused, her lips curving into an amused smirk. "I mean, Gaku? That basically means 'study.' And, well, Kobayashi didn't seem too weird, just a bit more common, but—'little forest'? And he has mokuton?" She snickered in a definitively unladylike manner, flashing her teeth in a big grin. "That is so lazy! Were they even trying?"

"...Wait." Masaru frowned, his brow pinching together as he recalled something. "Back when I first fought those bandits, when that wooden pillar suddenly slammed one in the jaw. That was him."

Akari's peals of laughter abruptly halted as she gawked at him, her lone eye wide in surprise. "Oh. Yeah, I think you're right. Huh. Well, that's one mystery solved, and a million more to go." She waved a hand in a vague sweeping gesture, but quickly grew serious once more. "You can worry about that later. How do you think things will go with Gaara? That roar at the end didn't sound too good. Do you think they'll be able to stop him?"

Masaru frowned, turning his gaze to the white flames next to them as he contemplated the situation. "I don't know. Kakashi-sensei seems to have some kind of plan, but I don't know enough about it to figure out if it'll work. It sounds like they needed to do it in a specific place? Oh, but sensei was there too," he added as an afterthought. "And I think the mokuton can control Tailed Beasts? So they have that going for them at least."

"And also that giant toad Naruto summoned," Akari added, a mischievous gleam in her eye as she leaned forward. "That thing was huge! It can probably stomp Gaara into dust with a couple hops!" Her voice took on a sort of sadistic glee that only eight-year-olds could feel, no doubt amused by the cartoonish image the description conjured, but her smile faded almost instantly as Masaru's face quickly darkened.

"If Gaara hurts Naruto..." His eyes narrowed, bleeding bright red as the Sharingan swirled to life.

"I'll make sure he regrets it."

Kakashi cursed as he lunged forward, scooping Masaru off the forest floor. Chakra exhaustion had clearly taken its toll on the boy; he looked far paler than usual, even by the Uchiha clan's normally pasty standards. Considering he'd just performed what could easily be classed as a B-rank jutsu, Kakashi didn't find it too surprising he'd passed out.

Brushing some of the hair away from Masaru's neck so he could check his pulse, he paused and his eyes narrowed sharply. A single kanji had been printed on the nape of his neck, the black ink standing in stark contrast to his pale skin: "Hope."

No wonder Ryoko hadn't prepared a memento for him. She'd skipped the middle man and placed the seal directly onto him.

"Kakashi-sensei!" Sakura called as she rushed to their side, her expression frantic with panic and fear. She stumbled to a stop as she caught sight of Masaru cradled in his arms, what little color remained draining from her face. "Is he—he's going to be okay, isn't he?" Kakashi didn't respond right away, pressing his fingers against Masaru's neck.

"It's a bit slow, but his pulse is there. He should be fine with some rest, it's just exhaustion." As he spoke Sasuke arrived onto the scene, skidding to a stop a few feet away and staring at his cousin with increasingly obvious horror.

"That dragon," he whispered. "Was... Was that—? How?" His question had its merits. People didn't just spontaneously learn or develop high-level ninjutsu out of the blue like that, it required a certain degree of training. At the very least, Kakashi was pretty sure someone would notice a dragon made of white fire snaking into the sky at some point.

Then again, he thought with a discreet glance at the kanji on Masaru's neck, Masaru probably didn't know he could do that either. He didn't know if it was possible to encode knowledge of a jutsu into a seal, but at this point it made more sense than any of the other alternatives. Jiraiya would go crazy once he heard about this; the man wasn't exactly fanatical about fuinjutsu like Minato-sensei had been, but he did enjoy little surprises and mysteries like this.

For now though, Kakashi decided to keep his suspicions to himself. "Most likely, yes. But more importantly, we need to move." He glanced at Gamabunta as he spoke, the giant toad towering far above the trees with the thick foliage shrouding his full form from sight. Several years had passed since the last time Kakashi had seen the chief of the Toad Summons, and thinking back that night hadn't been very pleasant either.

Some sort of irony existed there, he thought distantly. Last time Minato had summoned Gamabunta to fight the Kyuubi, and now his son had done the same to fight the Ichibi. Right now he had no time to muse over it though, he had a group of teenagers counting on him to keep them alive and a village to save.

"For now, we'll continue to act under the assumption that Nine-Ro is still in motion," he declared, adjusting his hold on Masaru to properly support his neck. "Sakura, you're with me. Sasuke, I want you to stay behind and see if you can help Naruto."

"What!?" Sasuke blurted, his features contorting in shock and rage. "But—but why? I mean, wouldn't I be more useful—just—" He shot his unconscious cousin a desperate look, his concern clearly etched on his face. Kakashi's own features softened slightly, but his voice held that same, cool edge as he responded.

"I understand your concerns, but this is the best division of our current resources. Nine-Ro happens to require a certain amount of chakra from the participants, and you've already depleted a decent portion of your reserves by using the Chidori earlier. Along with not using as much chakra today, Sakura also has better control, so the drain is less likely to impact her. Beyond that, Gaara seems to be targeting you, so we may need you to act as bait if Naruto can't convince Gamabunta to steer him that direction.

"On that note," he added almost as an afterthought, "Naruto appears to be losing." His words gave the two genin pause, and they turned to look at the giant toad looming nearby. Angry yells drifted from the top of his head as a familiar orange blob bounced around, and while they couldn't hear what was being said, the toad's irritation gave them a pretty good idea.

"...So basically, we're counting on Naruto to convince the giant toad to help?" Sakura asked flatly, and Kakashi rewarded her with a cheery eye-smile.

"Pretty much."

"Sasuke-kun, please help Naruto!" she pleaded, spinning to face her teammate with an interesting blend of frantic desperation and bland dismay on her face. "He can't even get along with half the ninja in the village! No way he can talk a stubborn toad into taking on the Ichibi on his own!"

"Fine, I'll go help," Sasuke agreed with a sigh, and shot Kakashi a pointed glare. "But if anything happens to Masaru—"

"I swear on all of the names on the memorial stone, I will make sure nothing happens to Masaru," the jounin cut in solemnly, and his students looked startled by his words. After a moment Sasuke seemed to decide that to be sincere enough, as he gave a brisk nod before racing off towards Gamabunta.

Well, I hope this works, Kakashi thought blandly as he watched his student leave. Frankly, he thought Sasuke might actually be worse at diplomacy than Naruto given his naturally broody disposition. Kami knows the boy lacked any people skills. At this point he was counting more on Sasuke somehow inciting some of that powerful charisma Naruto surely inherited from Minato-sensei, giving Naruto the last boost needed to persuade Gamabunta to help.

For now though he turned to his remaining student. "Let's go," he said, and Sakura bobbed her head before following him deeper into the forest.

To call Uzumaki Naruto infuriated would be an understatement.

A giant toad grumbled beneath him, a giant fox roared inside him, and a half-formed Tanuki shrieked in front of him. His own voice only added to the cacophony of rage and anger filling his ears, tears of frustration threatening to spill.

"Come on!" he screamed at Gamabunta. "Lives are at stake here! Just hurry up and help me, dammit!"

"And for the last time, I don't care!" the great toad bellowed irritably. "The Toads have no loyalty to Konoha! We swear our lives to those who contract with us, and I have not accepted you as my contractor!"

Naruto almost screamed at his continued stubborn refusal, seething with barely repressed rage. He knew that the damn toad hadn't been too fond of him the first time he summoned him, but right now they needed to fight Gaara! Every second they wasted arguing was another second closer to the Ichibi being released, its chakra leaking and filling the air with nauseous energy.

Worse yet, Naruto could feel the fox respond to that chakra, struggling for control even more than usual. He ground his teeth as he fought to keep his emotions under control, his fists clenching tightly at his sides. His mind flickered to Masaru's face as his clones burst onto the scene, the fierce resolve that had filled his eyes before fading to something deader as the white fire dragon fizzled out.

Masaru... He had been the first one to treat Naruto like a friend. Sure, he was awkward at times, and he could get kinda scary when he was mad. And yeah, he let down Naruto once, and he might never get over that. But even so, he had been the first person Naruto could really, truly call a friend. The first person to ever smile at him besides Jiijii and old man Teuchi and Ayame-nee-chan, and genuinely mean it.

Funny... Gaara made him cry, so I should be mad, right? So why do I just feel sad?

For all the danger the Ichibi posed, Naruto couldn't help but feel a strong sense of pity for Gaara. One of the clones he'd sent after their group encountered Gaara's siblings had arrived just in time to overhear a good chunk of his speech about his childhood, and while Naruto hadn't heard all of it—the clone arrived at the part where he mentioned his mom cursing his name—he'd heard enough to see the similarities.

Memories of empty playgrounds and harsh whispers surfaced in his mind, his heart lurching with loneliness and longing as he'd watch other kids walk with their parents or play with their friends. Just like Gaara, he, too, had grown up alone, hated and feared for something he couldn't control. People looked at him and saw a demon rather than its container, and treated him as such.

In another world... Could I have been like Gaara?


Sasuke's voice drew him out of his reveries and he snapped his head to the side to see his teammate standing atop a nearby tree, watching him with an almost manic look. Naruto gave a start at the sight, blinking a few times to see if he would disappear. "S-Sasuke?" he sputtered. "Wh-what are you—"

"What are you doing!?" Sasuke called, cupping his hands around his mouth to carry his voice further.

"Tch, another brat?" Gamabunta grumbled, eying the newcomer with disdain. Sasuke's face just grew more steely at the insult, his lips pulling back in a scowl.

"Hey! Why aren't you helping? Don't you care at all that a freaking Tailed Beast is about to go on a rampage!?" He gestured wildly to Gaara as he spoke, his Sharingan spinning wildly. The screaming had tapered off at this point, but with each passing second the sand tanuki just grew larger and larger, edging ever closer to completion. Gaku/Tenzo's wood stuff seemed to slow the transformation, but it wouldn't work forever.

"Not my problem," the toad huffed. "I can just go back to Mount Myoboku when he snaps." Naruto squawked in disbelief atop his head while Sasuke shot him a look of utter disgust. Words seemed to fail him, but fortunately, they did not fail Naruto for long.

"ARE YOU KIDDING ME!" he exploded. "Come on already! I signed the dumb contract and everything! You're supposed to work for me now!"

"Just because you had enough chakra to summon me doesn't mean I'll automatically accept you as my partner. Summons aren't slaves, we have a choice in who we work with! And right now, I don't see any point in risking my life for some stupid brats!"

Naruto couldn't even form a coherent sentence, he just started screaming wordlessly in utter exasperation. Down on the branch Sasuke didn't look much better, his eyes glowed bright red as he glowered at the toad with an even angrier scowl than usual. "You might not like Naruto, but you work for Jiraiya, don't you!?" he questioned hotly. "I don't think he'd want Konoha destroyed either!"

Gamabunta shifted so suddenly Naruto lost his footing and fell on his butt, the toad sharply turning to lean closer to his teammate. Sasuke winced and staggered back under the abrupt intensity in the toad's eyes, his body visibly tensing and paling as he stared at him.

"Do not assume you can speak on behalf of my contractors, brat," Gamabunta warned, his entire body vibrating from the low note his voice took. "You are children, nothing more. I have no respect for those who carelessly throw around the names of others because they lack the strength to fight their own battles."

He pulled back and the Uchiha remained rooted to his spot in a stunned stupor, unable to look away. Rubbing his butt as he sat on Gamabunta's head, Naruto's brow furrowed as he thought over the toad's words. No respect for those who throw around names, huh...

"Hey, Gamabunta," he said lowly. "Did I ever introduce myself?"

"What?" the toad huffed. "What're you rambling on about now, brat?" Naruto jumped to his feet and began running down the length of Gamabunta's head, his eyes gleaming with newfound determination.

"My name is Uzumaki Naruto!" he shouted. "I like ramen and my teammates Sakura and Sasuke, even if Sasuke's a bastard! I dislike people who hurt my friends and the three minutes it takes for ramen to cook!" He leaped onto the branch where Sasuke stood, nearly losing his footing as he landed but thankfully Sasuke grabbed his arm to steady him. Naruto flashed his teammate a grateful grin before he spun around to face Gamabunta directly.

"And my dream is to be Hokage!" he proclaimed loudly. "Do you know what being the Hokage means? That means I have to protect my village no matter what! And that guy back there?" He jabbed a finger towards the sand beast directly behind him, which had nearly finished its transformation at this point. "Right now he's gonna destroy Konoha unless we do something!"

Gamabunta's eyes narrowed, huffing under his breath. "And? If you're gonna be the Hokage, then why can't you stop it?"

"Because—" Naruto stopped abruptly and frowned, his gaze falling to his feet. A sense of self-loathing washed over him, and he sucked in a sharp breath and forced himself to admit, "Because I'm not strong enough, dammit! Someday I'll be the Hokage, hell, I'll die to protect Konoha if that's what it takes to protect it! But right now I don't have the power to fight a Tailed Beast! But I at least know we can stop it!

"And it's not just for Konoha's sake!" he added heatedly, his fists clenching at his sides so tight he could feel his nails dig into his palms. "Right now Gaara's suffering too! I don't know the full story, but I know enough to get that he's only this way because everyone treated him like a monster! He didn't ask to have the Ichibi sealed inside him, dammit! Just like I didn't ask the Fourth Hokage to seal the damn Kyuubi in me either!"

Tears stung his eyes as Naruto nearly spat the last words, years of isolation and abuse gathering and spilling loose into that one spiteful sentence. Next to him he could see Sasuke recoil in shock, making a choked noise that might be a gasp, but Naruto paid him no mind. He focused solely on Gamabunta, his teeth grinding painfully as he willed himself to calm down.

"I can't beat him, even with this stupid fox inside me," he continued, his voice bordering on a growl, "but you can at least get him over to the place so we can take him down. And that's why..." He trailed off, sucking in a deep breath before dipping into a deep bow. "Please, just help me out! You can yell at me all you want later—hell, I'll tape it and play it in my room for five days straight if you want me to! But right now I just need you to do this one thing. I can't let anyone else get hurt because of Gaara."

And I can't let Gaara suffer anymore, either.

"Please," he choked out, his voice rough and scratchy.

A small intake of breath sounded next to him, Sasuke whispering something under his breath he couldn't hear, but still Naruto remained bowed, waiting for Gamabunta's response. A heavy silence fell over the clearing, time seeming to tick by ever so slowly. Finally though, after what seemed like an eternity, he heard the great toad huff a large sigh.

"Where to?" he questioned, and Naruto snapped his head up in surprise, his eyes wide.


"Where to?" Gamabunta repeated. "You said there's a place I need to get him, right?" Naruto's eyes grew wider and his face lit up in a grin, bobbing his head eagerly.

"Yeah!" He quickly leaped back onto Gamabunta's head, whirling around to survey the surrounding forest before pointing at a tall tree which loomed less than a mile away. It stood in sharp contrast to the rest of the forest as one half of it had lost its leaves, the jagged branches stark and bare, while the other half was lush with thick foliage. "There! See that tall tree, the one that's half dead? That's where you need to go!"

"Interesting," Gamabunta rumbled, smirking at the tree with a speculative gleam in his eye. "Brat, you might wanna get off my head while I handle this. This is gonna be messy."

"Got it, Gamabunta! Thanks!" Naruto grinned as he quickly descended down the toad's side, sliding down his front leg before flipping onto the ground. Sasuke followed in short order, landing next to him and looking at him with a strange, intense look that made Naruto wince.

"Naruto," he started, and hesitated. "I—" He cut himself off with a shout as Gamabunta suddenly sprung towards Gaara, the force of his leap shaking the earth and sending the two genin tumbling to the ground. An inhuman roar echoed from the tanuki as he collided into it, but Gamabunta just bellowed back with a resounding croak as he pushed it away. Trees snapped and fell like twigs as the two giants wrestled, cutting a path of destruction through the forest as the toad pushed the tanuki towards the tree Naruto indicated.

Naruto and Sasuke just listened idly from their spots on the ground as the battle moved away, the exhaustion from the near nonstop running finally catching up to them. Their muscles felt sore and protested the mere thought of getting up, and for once they decided to just give in to their tiredness, mainly because they knew they couldn't really do anything else at this particular moment.

Now that the initial adrenaline had worn off, Naruto dreaded how Sasuke would react to his big reveal during his monologue. Of all the people to find out first, Sasuke had not been at the top of the list. Would he tell Masaru and Sakura? Would they all call him a demon and hate him too? Or maybe—

"...What is Nine Ro, anyway?" Sasuke mumbled tiredly and Naruto flinched, rolling his head to stare at his teammate in shock.

"What—I just admitted I have a freaking fox sealed inside me, and that's what you want to ask!?" he sputtered in disbelief. Not that he was complaining, but... Seriously!? Sasuke just grunted, lazily shrugging his shoulders.

"Do you want me to ask about that?" he deadpanned, and Naruto opened his mouth to snap back with a witty retort before stopping. No, no he did not. When it became clear he wouldn't respond, Sasuke continued, "I just found out jinchuuriki are a thing, one of my teammates is one with the goddamn kyuubi sealed inside him, and—" Sasuke abruptly stopped and his face scrunched up in pain, making Naruto's stomach sink.

"S-Sasuke?" he whispered, dreading what could be going through his mind.

"...He wasn't lying, was he?" Sasuke whispered and Naruto frowned, squinting at his teammate in confusion.

"About what?"

"...What he said to Masaru." His words took a second to register, and then comprehension suddenly settled in. Oh.


He remembered Sasuke had run a bit ahead of the group too at one point, so he must have overheard the stuff Gaara ranted about Masaru's mom cutting off Akari's head too. That... Naruto didn't even want to think about that. He knew that something bad went down with the Uchiha clan, even if he didn't know the full details, but that? That was just too messed up.

"I don't know," he replied honestly. "But, Masaru said his mom wouldn't do that, right? And he knows her better than us. So I guess I'll just trust him for now!" He offered Sasuke a bright grin, trying to reassure him even as doubt swirled inside him. The way Kakashi-sensei reacted to hearing Gaara got Akari's file, well, even Naruto could tell there was something really bad. Still, he didn't let his worry show, and just plastered on the most confident smile he could muster.

Sasuke stared at him for a long moment before rolling his head to look at the sky, his face blank and tired. "...This is officially one of the worst days of my life," he declared flatly, and Naruto's smile fell as he sighed.

"Tell me about it," he grumbled, and the two fell silent.

Crashing through the trees, Kakashi felt indescribable relief at seeing Temari and Kankurou already in place atop two of the dirt mounds, saving him some of the trouble. Several of the ninken instantly flocked to his side, sniffing at Masaru worriedly. "Boss, what happened?" Pakkun questioned. Kakashi grunted, already carefully shifting the unconscious boy onto Bull's back.

"No time for details, but Masaru passed out from chakra exhaustion. Bull, Pakkun, get him somewhere safe." Ideally, he should probably move Masaru a bit further away and get an expert to look at the seal on his neck ASAP, but right now he had bigger issues at hand. Bigger meaning a giant sand tanuki due to barrel their direction any moment. Time was simply not on his side right now.

"Got it, boss!" Pakkun affirmed with a nod, and the two took off deeper into the forest, Masaru securely draped over Bull's back.

"So Gaara didn't crush him?" Kankurou asked as the dogs departed, sounding almost wondrous at the thought of someone escaping an encounter with his brother physically unscathed. Kakashi shot him an unimpressed look but nodded curtly.

"No, he didn't," he confirmed flatly, and turned to greet his female student as she finally caught up, her face red and her breathing ragged as she halted next to him. She clearly looked physically exhausted, but given he'd been running close to his actual full speed Kakashi didn't count it against her. Genin simply lacked the stamina and speed to keep up with a full-fledged jounin.