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Blood ties

Chapter Text

Author's note: In continuing the theme of me just needing really escapist things to focus on as I deal with real-life crap, here is a new story.  The whole point of this fic is to have both Naruto and Sasuke be incredibly dangerous and badass and no real angst but a lot of sexual tension and rivalry and not wanting to admit they are impressed by/attracted to each other.  The 'magic' in this universe is basically their canon abilities, but this isn't canon (because I am still not speaking to canon after ch 700).  I am not even going to try to guess the length of this fic, since I am always wrong, but if people like the concept then it will be longer than if people don't LOLOL.  So... here goes!!  Thanks to Tandy_Hard for reading this first chapter through and giving it her blessing. 

Chapter 1 - The breaking of an agreement


Naruto buckled the clasp of his ceremonial cloak over his embossed breastplate, marking him as an elite warrior of his clan. His blond hair was almost past the shaggy point, but the past months on the battlefield hadn't left him much time to worry about keeping it trimmed. If it got much longer, he'd be able to tie it back into a low ponytail, which would probably be easier to deal with. His mother had wanted him to get it cut before the ceremony, but Naruto had ignored her, and she knew not to push her luck. The ceremony had nothing to do with what he looked like, and everything to do with his prowess on the battlefield.

He had always hated meetings that required formal clothing and always tried to avoid them when he could despite his father being the clan leader and his mother their top-ranking warrior. But today's pomp and ceremony was centered on him, so there was no chance of avoidance. He looked at himself in the gilded mirror of his dressing room, hoping that none of the nerves he felt in his stomach showed on his face. At twenty-five, he was well past the age that he was supposed to already have been married, his blood fused with another's to further strengthen the power of his clan. He supposed he should count his blessings that he'd been allowed his years of freedom thus far.

Naruto had grown up during a time of almost constant war, and the thought of things like marriage seemed to belong to another time. But alliances were always important, and - in this case - they needed to come on the back of a wedding. The Uchihas held lands that were much further to the east, separated by a large, nearly impassable mountain range that curved off to the north. Clans been trying to gain an alliance with the powerful clan for generations, but the Uchihas always preferred to keep their bloodline within-clan.

Until now.

Naruto wasn't sure how it had happened, or what had changed. He hadn't thought there were any lines of communication between the clans on the east side of the mountains with those on the west, but a month ago, an emissary had appeared offering to forge a blood alliance between the Uchiha and Namikaze clans. Naruto had heard news of it all the way on the front lines, but hadn't really thought much about it until he had been summoned back from the Eastern outpost and told he was the candidate they had selected to seal the contract.

The agreement had been clear. The Uchiha would only accept the strongest member of the clan who was unmarried and of marriageable age. While there were many strong warriors in the clan, Naruto was by far the strongest. Naruto's refusal to challenge his mother was the only reason he didn't have the official title of First Warrior, but it was only a matter of time before the clan would demand he either challenge for that position, or challenge his father for clan leadership. Naruto had no desire to rush that, though. He liked fighting on the front lines, something that would be curtailed if he took on a leadership position in the clan.

Voices from the stables carried up to his window, interrupting his reverie.

"You don't understand. I need to see the Chief! He needs to know -" the man's voice was frantic, and tight with pain.

"Chief Minato has an audience with a representative from the Uchiha clan. Let's get you to the healer first. Once your injuries are treated, you can deliver your report."

"It can't wait! The entire Northern Scouting party was killed in the foothills by the Northern Pass. There were… creatures… so many!"

"Let's get you patched up."

Naruto frowned. The guard's voice was placating, clearly believing the man was exaggerating, or possibly even hallucinating from his injuries. Naruto wasn't so sure. Something in the man's voice rang true, and Naruto had always been one to follow his gut. He would make a point to speak with his father about it as soon as the signing ceremony was complete, to make sure the man was heard. It was not the first seemingly wild rumor to come from the northern mountains, which was why the scouting party had been sent in the first place. They had been planning on sending a small force to meet with the scout team later in the week, but it sounded like that needed to happen sooner, and possibly with a larger force than they had planned.

The situation on the eastern front had settled over the past month. Naruto decided he would request to lead the mission to the north and see if what the man described was true. Assuming he was allowed to resume his duties. He still hadn't been told the full details of what his marriage would entail.

A knock sounded on the door, the voice of one of his father's messengers immediately following it. "Naruto! You're late! Hurry down to the meeting hall. The emissary from the Uchiha clan has arrived and everyone waiting for you."

"I'm ready," Naruto told the man through the closed door. He looked at himself one more time in the mirror as he picked up the simple gold circlet and clasped it to his armband. He had put his body at risk countless times to protect his people. Tonight it would be the same, though the circumstances were different. The troubled times and droughts in neighboring lands had meant war was nearly constant as clans from those regions sought to invade more fertile lands and take them over.

His clan's skill in battle dissuaded most of the invasions on their territory, but desperation bred instability. The rumors from the north were further proof of that. An alliance with the Uchiha would make them an even less desirable target for random attacks.

Naruto drew a slow breath, trying to calm his nerves and not feel like the sacrificial lamb that he knew he was set up to be. His family needed this alliance, and the only type of alliance that the Uchihas would trust was a full blood bond with someone who carried the clan's blood-limit trait strongly.

The candidate from the Uchiha's side needed to fit the same requirements. Neither age nor gender were important. It was not a marriage of love, it was an alliance of power that would bind the clans together.

Naruto was familiar with such rituals, though the resources to do a full binding like this made them somewhat rare. Not to mention that clans could only be bound once in three generations, so the choice was not to be taken lightly. But in the end, the effort was worth it. Blood magic and sex magic were each powerful in their own right, and the consummation of this union would require both. He grimaced slightly, thinking about the final act, but at least that last part was not going to happen today.

Naruto had had various lovers in the past, so he was unafraid of what the physical nature of the act would entail. Male or female, he knew the ropes. Whether his future spouse would allow him to seek companionship outside of the marriage would remain to be seen, but it wasn't uncommon. He would hold to his vows, whatever they needed to be to make this alliance work.

The ritual was the important thing. The magic of it as ancient as it was powerful, made more powerful by the strength of the two who were joined. It made sense that the Uchiha clan would not be satisfied by second best, but it put Naruto in a position of not being able to say no without blowing the whole alliance for his clan. So he had agreed, and would go through with it the same determination he carried with him as he headed into battle.

Still, he couldn't deny he'd felt a wave of relief when he'd been informed that the legal papers would be signed by a proxy representative of the Uchihas. The actual 'wedding' would need to take place on the battlefield, as evidently Naruto's prospective mate was already engaged in a battle with another faction near their western border, just past the mountains. By law, the 'joining' had to be witnessed by at least one member of each house involved. Naruto would much rather have one of his generals watch him fuck (or be fucked) than one of the pasty-faced politicians he'd spent his entire life avoiding. And definitely not either of his parents. Though his mother would probably be cheering him on or even calling out suggestions, it was not a scenario Naruto wanted to spend any amount of time thinking on.

Once the marriage was officially consummated during the binding ritual, the bond would be sealed and the houses tied until one of the lines died out. The clans kept the full extent of their capabilities as secret as possible to make it harder for enemy clans to defend against them, so Naruto was only aware of some of the Uchiha clan's capabilities. The rest he would learn after the binding. Their lightning reflexes and superior vision were well-known. Some said that the elite members of the clan could breathe fire, though Naruto would only believe that when he saw it. There were plenty of rumors of his own abilities as well, half of which were exaggerated beyond recognition.

Of course, the other half were true. He grinned ferally in memory of his first opponent to under-estimate him in battle. The man had not lived to make the mistake again.

Naruto strapped on the battle-worn gauntlets to his forearms, his calloused fingers moving with practiced ease over the fastenings, then attached his sheathed sword to his waist. The boots he wore were practical rather than ornamental. He would wear the cloak and fancy breastplate to please his father, but he would make it clear that he was in no way a helpless pawn in this alliance. If he found himself married to someone twice his age, he'd face it and do his duty to his nation, head held high. He could do this. He'd looked into the eye of a dragon and not flinched.

This couldn't be worse than that.

Naruto tried not to shift his feet nervously as the white-haired, one-eyed emissary from the Uchiha clan nodded in greeting and handed Naruto the binding scroll for his marriage and an envelope containing the details that the clans had agreed to. He had introduced himself as Kakashi, and stood with a slouching, almost-bored stance, but Naruto wasn't fooled. He had enough experience in battle to know that the man who stood before him would be a formidable opponent on the battlefield. If that man was the one they'd sent as a messenger, Naruto was intrigued to see what his betrothed would be like.

The room was mostly empty, only Kakashi, Minato, Kushina, and the head of the clan's council in attendance. The details of the specific ties between clans were kept secret, only the overall existence of the alliance would be revealed to the broader public.

Naruto glanced down at the heavy scroll, setting the other envelope aside as he drew the small dagger from the sheath at his waist. There was a small, silver plate laid out on the desk for collecting his blood, and a quill pen for use in writing.

"You aren't going to read it before signing it?" Kakashi asked, gesturing to the forgotten envelope.

"I trust my clan," Naruto said simply. Naruto was a man of action, and strategizing over legal contracts was not his strength. He trusted his clan's legal advisor, who had undoubtedly already gone over them with a fine-toothed comb. The terms of the alliance had been negotiated on his behalf by his parents while he was at the front, but the actual binding scroll required his personal signature in his own blood. He glanced at it, not surprised to see his soon-to-be-spouse's signature already affixed. The bold slant of the blood red letters was masculine, but the precision of the writing had Naruto leaning more toward the idea of his spouse being female.

He felt a sudden bolt of nerves at the thought of joining his life to someone he'd never even laid eyes on, and knew literally nothing about, not even their gender. He looked over at his parents, trying to draw strength from the fact that they clearly supported this union. Whatever it was, Naruto would try to make the best of it. He had an easy way with people, able to find common ground with most. He hoped his luck would hold with his spouse as well.

He turned back to look at the binding scroll, and the dark red signature affixed to it The special parchment of the binding instantly fixed the blood with its ancient magic, so there was no smearing of the letters, and they would not fade with age. The name on the scroll was one Naruto had never seen, and gave no hint as to the gender. Naruto wasn't sure how to pronounce it… Sah-sook? But it was the clan name that mattered, Uchiha written clear for all to see in the blood of its owner. It struck him as odd that the first thing he would learn about his spouse was what her blood looked like.

"I believe they included a likeness of your betrothed," Kakashi said idly, though there was a smug glint in his eye as he spoke. Almost… pride? "If you'd like to see the face of the person you are tying yourself to."

Naruto licked his lips nervously, wondering if it would make it easier or harder to see the face of the stranger he would shortly marry. His mother nodded indulgently, a pleased look on her face indicating that she thought Naruto would be happy with what he saw. Curiosity got the better of him, and he set his blade down and picked up the envelope that the man seemed to want him to look at so badly. "Thank you, though I won't change my mind just because of what they lo-," Naruto cut off mid-word, frozen.

He stared down at the carefully detailed image of his supposed fiancé. His stomach twisted so violently that, for a moment, he thought he might actually throw up.

"Is this… is this likeness recent?" Naruto asked, coldness seeping through his body. Surely not. Surely they wouldn't… they couldn't...

Kahashi frowned, seeming to sense that something was amiss. "Yes. One of the clan artists drew it up only days before I left."

Naruto's jaw clenched as disgust flooded through him. He had been willing to do this. To save his people. To honor his family. He had been willing to enter into a marriage with someone he had never even laid eyes on to do the right thing. He would have married an old man, a hag of a woman... it wouldn't have mattered.

But this… this was asking too much.

He lifted his head to look at his parents, his eyes bright with betrayal and hurt.

"Did you approved this match? Did you even look at who they put forth as their offering?" Naruto's voice was low and shaking as the anger built within him.

Minato frowned, his eyes shifting to Kushina in the hopes that she would be able to better understand the inexplicable reaction of their son. They had looked through the pedigree of the proffered candidate the Uchihas had put forth, and didn't understand their son's reaction.

"Of course. He is one of the sons of the current leader of the Uchiha clan. His lineage is equal to yours. You agreed that gender didn't matter, so I don't understand this reaction of yours. Do you know him?" Minato's honest confusion only angered Naruto further. If they knew the boy's pedigree, then they must have known his age.

"No." Naruto dropped the picture on the table, as though he couldn't bear to touch it. "No. I reject this marriage." Naruto's tone was completely unlike anything he'd ever used in the past, cold and unyielding. In one swift move, he dug his dagger deep into the center of the scroll, shredding it in half. The heavy paper hissed and sparked as the magic within it was released, causing a gasp from someone in the room. Even the Uchiha's stoic emissary seemed shocked by this display.

"Naruto!" Minato shouted, his face a mix of anger, embarrassment, and shock. The parchment was valuable and it would take weeks or even months to create a replacement, assuming the insult to the Uchiha clan was not so great that they refused outright. If word of this alliance falling apart reached their enemies, there could be consequences, but Naruto was too angry to think about that at the moment. He wanted to win, but not at all costs. Not at this cost.

Naruto ignored his father and advanced on Kakashi. To his credit, the man did back down, merely shifted his feet slightly wider apart, his body posture now clearly that of a warrior rather than a bored messenger. "You and your council should thank your lucky stars that I saw the photo before I signed the document. If our clans had been legally bound, I would have taken great pleasure in running all of you through. Be grateful I still respect my father's house to not slay a guest here that he has guaranteed safe passage."

"Naruto, what on earth -," Kushina began, but Naruto cut her off, turning to face her, anger and hurt radiating off him in waves.

"In my culture, we do not sacrifice our children to protect ourselves. We sacrifice ourselves to protect our children." Naruto shot a disgusted glare at his shocked parents. "At least we used to."

He grabbed the gold circlet from his upper arm, the symbol of his designation as next-in-line for clan leadership, and threw it across the room. "I will help protect our clan. But I will do it with the skills I possess on the battlefield. I will not rape someone's child for you."

Naruto turned and strode toward the door, ignoring the eruption of shouts behind him.

"Naruto!" Minato's voice cracked like a whip, a voice used to command and obedience. The room stilled.

Naruto stopped, then turned to face his father, the bitter feeling of betrayal coursing through him. No matter what the danger was, there was no way this could be the best option. How dare his father ask this of him? How dare any of them? The blue eyes that had been snapping with anger morphed to something much more dangerous, bleeding red-orange as the room pulsed and surged with power. The men of the council froze, their very breathing constricted at the sheer volume of barely restrained power that is emanating from Naruto. Kakashi stilled, lifting his eyepatch to reveal a red eye swirled with black that studied him carefully.

"Do. Not. Push me," Naruto's voice was a low growl. "I have no desire to challenge you as clan leader, as long as your reign is just. Do not force my hand with this, Father. You are no longer powerful enough bend me to your will."

No one spoke as Naruto vanished from the hall, giving the Uchiha emissary an unexpected demonstration of one of the most closely guarded secrets of the identity of someone his clan's rarest bloodline ability.

Kakashi's eyes were wide as he reached to pick up the picture that Naruto had dropped on the table. His eyes widened in shock as he looked upon the likeness of a six-year-old boy. The beauty of the child was undeniable, pure and innocent. It had been at least two decades since the boy in question had looked like that. He handed the drawing to Minato, who paled.

"What is the meaning of this?"

Kakashi's expression was grim. "Retrieve your son. We will get to the bottom of this, but first we need to let him know we aren't trying to force him to bed a small child. Sasuke will have felt the breaking of his side of the betrothal bond. I will need to notify him as well."

Kushina and Minato exchanged a worried glance. Retrieving an angry Naruto would not be an easy task, especially when it was something like this. But Kushina had a good idea of where to find him.

"Meet me at the stables. He can't have gotten farther than that. Hold him until I get there, and whatever you do, don't let him leave on Kurama," she said to her husband as she stood, power surging through her as she went after her hot-headed son. Minato nodded, disappearing from the room just as his son had, but without the aura of raw power that Kushina and Naruto had.

Kakashi took note of all of it. Evidently the rumors of the prowess of this clan were not overstated, which he was glad to know given how difficult it was to get Sasuke to agree to the match. The fact that the son carried both of the clan's most powerful blood limit traits - the first he had ever heard of such a possibility - made him decide that it was worth trying to save this alliance. Not to mention the fact that the young warrior was passionate and had a strong will of his own, something that made him relish how Sasuke would react to the person he was 'forced' to wed. But that was secondary. First, Kakashi had to make sure the entire alliance didn't fall apart before it even started.

Sasuke would have felt the break of the magic in the binding scroll, since his blood was already on it. Kakashi would need to find a way to deal with him and get him to agree to continue with the alliance. He sighed. The man had been difficult enough the first time around. The Uchiha had many strengths, but one of their greatest weaknesses was their pride, and this would be a major blow to Sasuke's.

Kushina and Minato would have to deal with Naruto. Bringing Sasuke around would fall to Kakashi. He turned the problem over in his head, thinking about everything he knew about the man who had been his pupil for over a decade before finally surpassing him. He walked over to the window, looking down the steep hill to where he could see dozens of soldiers were rushing towards the stables, presumably trying to subdue a hot-headed Naruto. Kakashi's thoughts were elsewhere, thinking of a different young man, one who kept his anger cold and unyielding. Kakashi had to act quickly, but he had to play it right. Sasuke would not show up at the designated meeting point unless Kakashi found the right leverage, and they needed him there to re-start the ritual. With Sasuke battling in the harsh mountains on the western border of their clan's lands, he would be impossible to track down if he refused the summons.

Pride could be a tricky thing. In many ways, it was a double-edged sword.

Slowly Kakashi smiled. He turned to the remaining man standing with him in the room. As the clan's legal counsel, he was sure to have access to messenger hawks. "I need to send a message. Can you show me to the aviary?"

Once the messenger hawk was sent, Kakashi turned his thoughts on finding out who was trying to sabotage the alliance, starting with which clan was the target.

Naruto appeared in the back section of the stables, stumbling into the wall as his body tried to re-orient himself, his breathing harsh. He had pushed the limits of how far he could transport himself, but he hoped it would buy him enough time to get away. He knew his family would continue to pressure him on this marriage. In anything else, he would have done as he was bidden, but this… he could never do this. And he couldn't bear to look at his parents at the moment, knowing they had agreed to it. He needed time.

The scent of musty hay filling his lungs and making him sneeze. He hadn't bothered to stop by his room to bring any belongings, knowing that - if he did - his family would find him and try to stop him from leaving. But he had his sword and he could sell some of the fancier pieces of ornamentation to get whatever else he needed.

He listened carefully, but there was no sound of anyone else in the stable. Working quickly, he pulled off his gilded breastplate and helmet (which was really more of a crown and totally useless in battle anyway), then rolled them up in his ceremonial cloak. He would sell them in the next town and use the money to buy supplies for his journey north. He stilled as he heard sound the sound of boots coming from the other row of horses in the stables, cursing silently to himself.

He wasn't alone.

Minato appeared in the stables, immediately going to Kurama's stall. He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw the tall horse still there.

"Naruto?" he called out, but there was no reply. "We need to talk. The drawing you saw was of Sasuke many years ago."

Silence was his only reply.

The guards reached the stables, throwing the doors open.

"Search for him. Don't let Kurama out of your sight. He won't get far without his horse."

Naruto had ducked into an empty stall crouching low and hoping that whoever had entered the stables would pass him by, unnoticed. The footfalls drew closer, then finally paused just outside the stable door.

Naruto's hand rested on the hilt of his sword, then released it. He knew he would never be able to draw his sword against an ally, no matter what the situation. He drew a breath and stood as the door pushed open.

"Naruto?" the man asked, surprise shading his dark, intelligent eyes. "Aren't you supposed to be getting married?"

Naruto sighed, then rubbed his hand along the back of his head.

"Yeah. About that…"

"The stables are empty, sir," one of the guards reported. Minato looked at Kushina. "He needs a horse if he is planning on going far. He can't have gotten outside of the village."

Kushina nodded as Minato vanished to continue the search, turning to face the guard. "Have your men set up a perimeter, but guard the horses. We cannot let Naruto leave the village."

The man paled. "How we to subdue him?"

Kushina sighed. "Naruto is angry, but he won't hurt any of you. We just need to find him. Tell him there's been a misunderstanding, and ask him to hear us out."

The man nodded, not looking entirely reassured, but went to carry out his orders.

The young man listened to what Naruto told him, his brown eyes thoughtful.

"So you're heading north to check out the scout's story," the man said when Naruto finished. "And leaving your parents to deal with the fallout of you ripping up the wedding contract."

"Shika, I just… I can't face my parents right now. You should have seen the picture. The kid looked like he was six at most. He looked… so innocent and delicate. I just… I can't… I just can't!"

Shikamaru's eyes softened slightly in understanding. Naruto was deadly on the battlefield, but his principles ran deep and he would never cross his own moral lines. What confused Shikamaru was that anyone who had ever met Naruto would know that. Especially his parents. "I understand that. But it doesn't make sense that your parents would have arranged a marriage with someone so young. Maybe they didn't know. Could they find a replacement?"

Naruto laughed bitterly. "I asked them if they knew, and they said they did. Besides, the scroll already had the kid's blood on it. There's no changing that."

Shikamaru grimaced. "They could use that to bind him to someone else."

"Not anymore. I can't protect the kid, but I at least made sure they couldn't use that scroll. It should set them back at least a few months. Hopefully more." Naruto looked bleak. "Not that it will matter much. Shit, he's just a little kid! It was all I could do not to run that smug emissary through with my blade. I think it's better for everyone if I go cool my heels in the northern mountains for a bit. At this point, I'll likely just at more fuel to the fire."

"Hm," Shikamaru hummed, not disagreeing. "So you want me to give you a three day head start before I let your parents know where you're going?"

Naruto grimaced. "Sorry. I know this puts you in a tough spot. I was hoping to avoid running into anyone."

"I was laying in the grass behind the stables when I heard a thud. This time of day, no one was supposed to be in here."

"Look, you can tell them where I've gone, but just let me get far enough along that they can't find me to bring me back. If I sleep here tonight, I might be up for one more big jump that will get me to one of the border towns. A day's ride from there and I will be out of range."

"You haven't told anyone from your clan how far you can go when you jump, have you?"

"There have already been noises of people wanting me to take the leadership role from my dad. In our clan, it's always been the rule that the strongest warriors are the leaders. If they knew I could teleport so much further…" Naruto trailed off. "I want to stay on the front lines where I'm needed."

Shikamaru sighed. "Fine. But that means I need to come with you."


"I'm not going to lie to your clansmen when they come here looking for you. But the rumors you heard are troubling. Our lands are closer to the mountains than yours. I'll bring a small group with me, and we'll find out what is going on."

Naruto hesitated. The Nara clan was known for their mental prowess, not their skill in battle. He would value Shikamaru's thoughts on what they might be dealing with, but he wanted to make sure they weren't walking into a trap, first.

"You can take a squad of your men and follow me, but let me scout ahead to see what we're dealing with."

The Nara thought briefly, then nodded. "You'll reach the mountains days before we do. Let's agree on a meet point for you to come back and tell us what you've found. We'll decide what to do about it then."

Naruto nodded. "My father was scheduled to send a squad to the area. We can meet up with them as well if it looks serious."

Shikamaru looked at him for a moment. "You know you're going to have to deal with your family eventually about this. Shredding the scroll was a pretty big insult."

Naruto sighed. "I know, I just… fuck. Right now, I'm pretty sure anything I said would only make it worse. I won't apologize. What they were doing was just wrong. If my clan still wants to try to form an alliance with them, they can try some other way. I'm not doing it. And the Uchihas made it clear they only wanted our best warrior or the marriage deal was off. If they want an alliance, they'll have to find some way that doesn't involve little kids."

Shikamaru nodded, then grabbed a thick cloak that was hanging by one of the doors, an extra left for the use of visitors if they come in wet from their journey.

"Wear this," he said, tossing the cloak to Naruto. It was a good, heavy weave, but nothing that would draw attention. It had a deep hood that would hide his face and hair, disguising him from others until he reached the foothills to the north. Once he reached the start of the mountains, he would be safe. The terrain was harsh and rugged, making traveling by horseback impossible beyond the first set of foothills. Communication was almost completely cut off in that region. Naruto wouldn't be found until he wanted to be. "Sleep in here tonight. If you stay in the house, my father will have troublesome questions for us. I'll tell him I heard rumors from a traveler and want to go check it out. I'll leave a bag of supplies here for you tonight. Be gone by daybreak, or the stable hands will find you.

"Thanks," Naruto said, draping the warm around his broad shoulders. "I'll buy armor in the next village. And a horse."

"You could take one of ours," his friend said.

Naruto shook his head. "I'll travel faster on my own. It's too bad the jumps don't work to places I don't know, or I'd try to go beyond the northern village. But I should be able to buy a decent horse to get me to the foothills. I'll mark my trail as I go so you can find me."

Shikamaru nodded, though his face was still troubled. "This doesn't make sense, Naruto. Something's not right. Just watch your back."

That was good advice in any circumstance, and Naruto gave it extra weight coming from his friend.

"He's not in the village. We've searched everywhere," the head guard said.

Kushina felt her stomach tense.

Minato appeared beside her, breathing hard from overuse of his power. "I've checked his room, the sparring room, and the cave on the edge of the village. He didn't take anything with him, but he is definitely gone."

"Send a hawk to the eastern front. He said he would continue to defend the clan. Maybe he will turn up there," Kushina suggested, though both she and Minato knew that Naruto would have taken Kurama with him if that had been his plan.

Minato had the guards continue searching the village, but he knew it would be fruitless.

To be continued...

A/N - I am not sure if people are interested in this kind of a story or not, but this started as a drabble on my website that seemed to generate a bit of interest and I just want to write in a universe that will have lots of ass-kicking violence (while I sit on my butt in my desk job), so here it is.  Let me know what you think!

mood music for the vibe I am going for in this fic:  Timbaland, morning after dark

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A/N - Thank you so much to everyone who commented on this!  I wasn't really sure if people would be interested in this sort of a story.  I would not have been inspired to update this quickly if people hadn't taken the time to leave me comments about it. :-) This will be a longer fic, with lots of plot and adventure.  Slow build with our boys, given the circumstances.  I am really excited about it, though.  Is a great distraction from real life for me LOL.  Hope it will be for all of you as well!  Thanks to Mykko_chan for talking through parts of this chapter with me.

Chapter 2 - Into the mountains

Sasuke's body moved with fluid precision as he swung his blade in a graceful arc. He could feel it move from air to flesh to bone, leaving another of the strange creatures dead at his feet in seconds. He stepped over its unnaturally pale, bloodless flesh, not bothering to examine it. Despite their semi-human appearance, there was no point in trying to take any alive for interrogation and they never carried any personal items on them beyond their simple weapons. Whatever the creatures were, they were mindless, seeming to attack only for the sake of attacking, with no knowledge of why or what they even wanted other than the violence itself.

Sasuke shifted his sword to his other hand, briefly flexing the fingers of his right hand to get the blood flowing to them again. As simple-minded as the creatures were, they were physically much stronger than the average human. The small outpost on the border of Uchiha lands that had been hit hadn't stood a chance. There had only been a few full-blooded Uchiha there, and they were among the weaker in the clan's ranks, relegated to defending a border that the mountains should have made all be impenetrable. News of the attack had been a shock, coming so close on the heels of the strange sage's visit. Sasuke had been tasked with finding the creatures responsible and eliminating the threat. That had been two months ago, and while Sasuke had long since killed the original group of creatures responsible for that attack, he was still no closer to finding out what the creatures were or where they came from… and - most importantly - who was leading them.

A gust of frigid mountain air howled down through the narrow pass that they were heading towards. The adrenaline rush of battle kept him from feeling the chill, but he knew they had to get through the pass and make camp before nightfall or the cold would become dangerous. He'd been tracking the creatures, trying to find where they came from. Even though the outpost had been small, it was still a raid on Uchiha territory and would not go unpunished. Clan ground was non-negotiable for any clan, but the Uchihas were by far the most hard-lined about breaches. It had been over a hundred years since anyone had dared to set foot uninvited on Uchiha land.

Sasuke was going to make sure it was another hundred before someone else dared it again.

Another of the creatures approached, and Sasuke's blade sliced through air and flesh without slowing. He scanned the area, his eyes swirling red as he sought any sign of motion.

"Any more?" he asked tersely.

The red-headed woman behind him pushed the hood of her thick cloak back, her eyes staring blankly ahead. "Three more, by the entrance to the pass, just around the bend. Still no sign of Sai."

Sasuke's lips tightened. Sai was their best scout, despite not being of Uchiha blood (like most of Sasuke's elite squad). He had blood-limit abilities, though, from whatever his native clan had once had, and they were incredibly useful in gathering information and infiltrating enemy lands unseen. Sasuke's father would be annoyed if he returned home without him.

He scanned the area, but there was no sign of any sort of a base that the creatures were coming from. Always in groups of twenty or less, appearing with no particular pattern in the mountains that would lead anyone to trace them back to their source.

Sasuke didn't bother to clean his blade before he began walking towards the pass entrance, the snow crunching beneath his boots. The cold air kept the smell of death and battle frozen away, but the clarity of the air at this altitude only made Sasuke's already exception eyesight even more effective. He could see the slightest trace of movement more than a mile away. His eyes locked onto the pass, already spotting two of the three that Karin had sensed.

Suigetsu fell into step behind him, while Juugo picked up the large pack that had their supplies. They would need to make camp on the other side of the pass, after Sasuke and Suigetsu cleared out whatever was in their way. Abruptly, Sasuke's muscles seized, his blood burning like fire and his vision whiting out, causing him to stumble slightly. It only lasted a few seconds, but it was enough that - if it had happened just a few minutes earlier during battle - it would have been a problem.

He felt a cold spike in the palm of his hand, and looked down. The moon was gone. The marriage contract had been broken.

"What the fuck?" Sasuke stared at his hand. His shock was rapidly giving way to a combination of relief and annoyance. He'd steeled himself to do this for his clan, to be bound to a complete stranger that wasn't of Uchiha blood. His father had been relentless in pressuring him into it, bringing in the clan elders and even his brother until Sasuke had finally relented.

Marriage was not something Sasuke had been even remotely interested in, but his father had assured him that the marriage could be 'in name only' as long as it was consummated once to bind their blood. After that, they could live separately and take lovers as they chose. It wasn't that Sasuke liked to sleep around. Sex for Sasuke mostly happened after a difficult battle, when his blood was running hot. He would let someone blow him or sometimes even find someone to fuck, but outside of the rush of battle, he didn't find himself attracted to most people and most definitely did not want to 'play house' with someone expecting some sort of romantic relationship.

This bond was for the alliance of bloodline abilities, and that was all. Sasuke would provide his blood and the act to bind it, but then his 'marital' obligations would be done, as far as he was concerned.

He had made sure that those terms had been agreed to in the initial negotiations and were also included in the letter that Kakashi had carried with him for the contract signing to make sure everyone was on the same page. He had been told that the Namikaze warrior, Naruto, was close to his age, possessed the Namikaze blood limit ability, and had agreed to Sasuke's terms. That was all Sasuke had needed to know, since he had no intentions of seeing him beyond their binding ceremony. Kakashi had tried to talk to Fugaku about finding another path, but his father had been unmovable.

Sasuke blew out a breath. He'd done his part. If the Namikaze decided he didn't like Sasuke's terms, or wanted to break it for some other reason, then that was on him and the Namikaze clan. Sasuke wouldn't be pressured into agreeing a second time. He gave a cold smile when he thought about what his father would do when he found out. In a way, Sasuke supposed he should be grateful to the Namikaze for breaking the deal. Now Sasuke could walk away with a clear conscience.

Still, it pricked his pride that whoever this was had rejected the contract binding their two clans. They had spent two months negotiating. Clans had been trying to align with the Uchihas for generations. If the old sage hadn't convinced his father and the clan elders about the crazy prophesy, they would never even have considered an alliance. Within the clan, Sasuke was the most sought-after of all the warriors ever since Itachi had lost an eye battling a dragon. In their clan, eyes symbolized power, and to lose an eye was to lose power. Sasuke just viewed it as yet another way people were annoyingly stupid, since Itachi was still the deadliest of their fighters. But it hadn't mattered, and all eyes had turned to Sasuke after it had happened.

People would quite literally kill for the chance to bind themselves to him. Who the fuck did this Naruto guy think he was to get to the last minute then decide no?

Sasuke scoffed. At least he was free from any obligations, now. He'd done his duty to his clan, and they knew better than to ask him for something like this again. They didn't need help defeating their enemies. They had always been superior in battle to any clan they'd ever encountered, and whatever this new enemy was, it would be no different. Sasuke would hunt them, find them, and burn them to the ground.

He was sure Kakashi would send a hawk to explain what had happened with the Namikazes, but that would take days to reach him where he currently was. As far as he was concerned, the Namikazes could fuck off. He'd never even heard of the clan before the sage had come, anyway. How powerful could they really be?

Not fire proof, he thought with a smirk.

The ringing in his hears from the magical backlash had finally stopped enough for him to hear shouting coming from behind him.

"Sasuke!" Karin ran up, her face anxious. "There was a strange energy flash around you, though it's faded now. What happened?"

"Recoil," Sasuke said tersely. "The Namikazes broke the contract."

Her eyes widened, and she scanned his form for any other signs of damage on his body from the broken magical contract. "Your energy looks normal again. Do you feel… ok?"

Sasuke shrugged, adjusting his grip on his sword as the three creatures he was hunting emerged from their hiding place, sensing that perhaps he was weakened. Sasuke gestured with his hand for Suigetsu and Juugo to stand back.

"Perfect," he said, his voice cold as ice.

The head of the first creature hadn't even hit the ground before the other two were run through. Sasuke was annoyed that there weren't more, since at that moment he really felt like killing things.

Suigetsu and Juugo exchanged a wary glance with Karin, unsure what it all meant. Clans had been trying to gain an alliance with the Uchihas for generations. Why would anyone break it?

"You think the guy died?" Suigetsu asked, watching as Sasuke stalked up further into the pass, snow beginning to swirl around him.

Karin's eyes followed Sasuke with an almost feverish admiration. "Not even death would stop me if my name were on that contract. The Namikazes are fools."

Shikamaru stood quietly in the empty stable where Naruto had stood mere seconds ago before flashing out. The heir to the Nara clan hoped he'd made the right decision, but something in his gut had said that there was a lot more going on than they knew, and Naruto was in the middle of it. Too many things didn't add up, and he'd learned long ago to trust his instincts.

He'd given his friend a pack of supplies and money for him to buy more when he reached the border town to the north, hiding his Namikaze marked gear in an unused stable until he figured out what was going on. Shikamaru needed to buy a little time to find out what machinations were targeting the alliance of Namikaze and Uchiha clans, and determine if they were aimed at Naruto or the Uchihas.

It was lucky that Naruto's temper had still been riding high when he'd left. If he had the slightest inkling that the picture had been a ruse, he would have gone charging right into the middle of it. The rumors of strange creatures in the north didn't help settle his nerves, and he wondered at the timing of it all. Mysterious creatures emerging just at the moment a reclusive clan offers an alliance, which an unseen hand promptly sabotages had Shikamaru thinking this was only the tip of a very dangerous iceberg. He needed time to find out what was going on.

He quietly left the stables and headed back to the main house. He needed to talk to his father.

Shikaku looked up from his desk as Shikamaru entered his study, his scarred face showing no surprise at his son's appearance.

"I was wondering when you would be coming to see me. Are you going to tell me who was sleeping in our stables last night?" He gestured to a small table on the side of the room where a shogi board was set up, a game half finished.

Shikamaru gave a small smile as he walked over and sat down at the table. Of course his father had noticed. And, of course, he had trusted Shikamaru to come to him in his own time. His father sat down across from him at the table.

Both men studied the game board in silence, though neither had forgotten where they were in their match.

"Naruto was here," Shikamaru said after a moment. "He broke the marriage contract. Destroyed the scroll."

His father's head snapped up. "That contract took nearly two months to negotiate and create. And from what I've heard, the Uchihas are known for being extremely difficult to deal with even on the best of terms. I thought Naruto had agreed to the alliance?"

"He had. Until he saw the drawing of his betrothed that had been sealed in with the contract terms. It appeared to be a five-year-old boy."

Shikaku's eyebrows shot up, and Shikamaru told him what Naruto had said and done. For a moment, the head of the Nara clan was quiet, turning over the situation in his mind and examining it from all angles. While the Nara clan was not blood bound to the Namikaze clan the way they were with the Yamanaka and Akimichi clans, it was still an important ally that shared their border. There could be difficulties if relations soured between them for them harboring the fugitive heir. Finally he spoke.

"Minato is a pragmatist. There is a small chance he would have agreed to such an alliance if he felt the safety of the clan was at stake. But Kushina would never have allowed it," Shikaku said. "Someone must have switched the drawing, or switched the Uchiha candidate after the Namikazes had agreed."

"Mm," Shikamaru hummed in agreement. "That's what I was thinking, as well."

"The contracts and any additional materials are sealed before being delivered in traditional binding ceremonies like this to prevent tampering with the terms after they've been negotiated. The seal can only be opened by the recipient, or the papers are destroyed. It would have been no easy matter to replace the image of the Uchiha after it left Uchiha lands. But to switch the candidate after negotiations had ended seems foolish, since it is a deception that would be immediately discovered, risking the alliance entirely, which is exactly what happened."

Shikamaru nodded. "I hadn't heard much about the Uchiha clan before they sent the messenger requesting an alliance with the Namikazes, but everything I've heard since then says the clan has a reputation for being extremely intelligent. I think a late candidate switch is unlikely."

"That would mean someone from the Uchiha side is trying to sabotage the alliance. Which is odd, given the initial offer came from their side."

"I don't know much about the Uchiha clan, but there are many clans with factions and different visions of a clan's future. An alliance like this would not be taken lightly. Maybe someone got out-voted and decided to take matters into their own hands to block it anyway?"

Shikaku looked thoughtful. "If it's true, it might be better if this miscommunication weren't cleared up right away. That would imply that the clan leadership doesn't have control over its own members. The consummation was set to take place on a battlefield. If someone is dead set against this alliance, it would be easy for someone to get killed in the confusion, especially with rumors of strange, powerful creatures attacking at random." His father smiled at Shikamaru with a hint of fondness. "Which is why you sent Naruto away, and likely told him to not reveal his true identity to anyone. Is that why he didn't take one of our horses?

Shikamaru nodded. "Our horses are all branded. I gave him a cloak and supplies that we had from visitors in the past. They are of sturdy but not of expensive quality, and without markings. He was headed up to the northern mountains to follow-up on the rumors of the creatures. Evidently a Namikaze scouting party encountered them, and only one member made it back alive. Naruto overheard the man's arrival just before the signing ceremony. As far as anyone there knows, Naruto would be unaware of the situation up north. They won't think to look for him there for a while."

Shikaku nodded. "Hunting the creatures is also a good place to start in understanding what's going on. We will have to let Minato and Kushina know, but I will go in person. The Uchiha cannot find out where he is, until we find out what happened with the contract. I don't think we should trust messengers at this point. You are going to head north and meet Naruto?"

"Seems like it." Shikamaru sighed, looking slightly put out. It didn't fool his father, though. His son might look apathetic to everyone else, but Shikamaru was as concerned about what was happening as Naruto likely was. The two had been friends since childhood, and Shikaku had always thought that - if he hadn't already agreed to the betrothal of Shikamaru to the Yamanaka heir - he might have approached Minato and Kushina about Naruto. Despite the lack of blood ties, he was willing to put a personal stake in this game. The Namikaze clan had the strongest warriors in their region. If they were somehow weakened, it could put all of the clans in the region at risk, leaving them open to invasion.

"He might have cooled off enough to wonder why you didn't try to talk him into going home. I will find out from Kushina and Minato more about who the Uchiha candidate was, and what they know about what happened. I assume the Uchiha representative will be able to answer at least whether they tried to switch the players last minute for some reason or if this was a trick to derail the contract. You need to keep Naruto focused on the creatures until we find out a bit more. He always did run too hot when his temper is up," his father said, though there was a definite fondness there. "If he returns home too soon to find out who the traitor is, he will be in danger. He can do more good tracking down the creatures."

Shikamaru chuckled. He'd certainly had his fair share of reigning Naruto in. "Naruto is definitely better on the battlefront than he is with political intrigue, but he's a strong leader. He might be hot-headed, but he always knows where he stands. He doesn't act vindictively."

Shikaku nodded. "True. He'll make a good leader of the Namikaze clan when the time comes. But in the meantime, I am going to go pay a visit to the current leader. You can choose your own team to take north with you."

Shikamaru nodded. Thinking through who he would need. It would have to be a small group. Any leak of Naruto's whereabouts would be dangerous. But they didn't know what they would be walking into, so he would need at least one seasoned veteran, and one who was good at recon. Two people immediately came to mind. He just hoped they would be ready to leave on short notice.

"Return within a month," Shikaku said. "We should have it sorted out by then. Send a hawk only if absolutely necessary, using the usual code. Now. Let's see how your strategy is improving." Shikaku picked up one of the pieces, finally making his move.

Naruto leaned against a tree on the outskirts of the tiny border town nestled in the snowy pine forest, getting his bearings without drawing attention to himself. This disorientation of shifting was taking longer to fade than usual, but he knew it was because he had pushed too hard, stretching well past any limits he'd tried before. But it had earned him at least a five days' lead on anyone from his father's house who could come after him, even if they discovered where he was heading as soon as he'd left. In five days, he'd be out of reach of any tracking team. The cold winds of the Northern Mountains were notorious for clearing away tracks within minutes. Once he reached the mountains, there was no way anyone could drag him home until he decided he was ready. The sense of betrayal and disappointment lingered heavily in him. How could his parents have ever thought he would be capable of doing such an act? Did they really not know him at all?

The air was sharper, colder here, even though it was still a day's hard ride to the foothills of the mountains. He was grateful for the thick, heavy cloak that Shikamaru had given him, along with the warm boots and gloves.

His stomach growled, reminding him that the first step was finding a meal and a bed for the night. After today, he would be sleeping on the ground, so he might as well enjoy a mattress while he could. Since this town was on the edge of Shikamaru's clan's lands, he was able to give Naruto the name of an Inn that would not ask too many questions and where Naruto could leave a message to Shikamaru if he needed.

It struck him that this was now his only tie to someone he knew. He was alone here, far from his own clan's lands, and with no allies accompanying him on this self-appointed mission.

His resolve firmed, however, as he recalled the image of the Uchiha child in the drawing they'd sent. He couldn't remember the boy's name, but his face haunted him. The dark, intelligent eyes were serious but full of innocence. The face had been small and delicate-looking. When he had first seen the picture, Naruto had felt an almost visceral surge of protectiveness for the child, followed by swift, hard anger that they were using the boy in this way. The anger hadn't faded, but now it was supplemented by frustration at his inability to protect the child from a clan that would force him into such an arrangement. The boy would have felt the bond break. Would he be relieved? Would his family simply force him into another alliance with another clan? The thought made Naruto sick. He wondered if there was a way to get the child out, but kidnapping a clan member was a declaration of war. How many people would die if he did?

It wasn't right, though, to just do nothing. Naruto decided he would talk to Shika about it when he met back up with him. There had to be a way to help the kid, and Shikamaru had always been better at figuring out plans for things like that. Maybe they could place the child with a family from a neighboring clan that could protect him until he was of age?

Naruto's own childhood hadn't been easy. He had been only five when the Great Clan War had broken out. The first two clans to be destroyed by the invaders had been the Senju and Uzumaki clans, who had been taken by surprise in a time of peace, their warriors scattered throughout the region on various missions, leaving the powerful clans open to attack. With Kushina as Minato's spouse, the Namikazes had joined the battle almost immediately. With both his parents away and many people of the clan blaming her (and - by proxy - Naruto) for their involvement in the war, Naruto found himself on the receiving end of a lot of abuse while his parents were at the front. But his abuse had come in the form of cruel words and the occasional slap or beating.

Not rape.

Even so, he knew what it was like to be young and have no control over your life. It was the reason he had stolen one of his father's swords and snuck off to battle when he was only eleven. He had known his parents would be furious when they learned of it, but it had been the first time he'd made his own decision about his life. He wasn't going to take that right away from some other kid.

A sharp gust of wind snapped Naruto's cloak, drawing him out of his thoughts and reminding him that he needed to find a horse and a place to sleep for the night before he continued his journey. He levered himself away from the tree, picking up his heavy pack of supplies and slinging it over his back. He adjusted the hood of his cloak to ensure it kept his hair covered and his face in shadow as he made his way into town. Shikamaru had told him to keep a low profile and not use his clan name if he wanted time to cool off before facing his parents. Naruto had at first thought his friend was just trying to help him with his plan, but the more he thought about it, the more that didn't feel quite right. Shika was always the one to talk him down from his half-cocked ideas, not aid and abet. Maybe Shikamaru was more concerned about the creatures than Naruto had originally thought. Their appearance near Nara land would definitely fall into the man's definition of 'troublesome'.

Naruto gave a soft laugh at the thought. Even if he didn't understand why his friend had told him to lay low, he had enough respect for Shikamaru's intellect to play along until he did. Shikamaru might not hold a candle to Naruto on the battlefield, but when it came to strategy or tactics, the man was without equal.

As Naruto entered the town, there was a group of what looked to be soldiers standing outside the door of one of the small town's many drinking establishments, talking to a man who was dressed like a mercenary, though definitely one that had fallen on hard times. The three soldiers weren't wearing the Nara Clan armor, though, and Naruto couldn't place their accents.

"I'm tellin' you, they weren't fucking human," the grizzle-bearded mercenary was saying. "One of them killed five of my men. Just… just ripped them apart. I don't care how much you're paying, I'm not going back into those mountains."

Naruto slowed his steps, pretending to adjust the straps on his pack as he studied the small group.

The soldier who was wearing a helmet with a visor that shaded his eyes spoke up. "We are doing you the courtesy of offering you the choice. We know who you are, and we could make things difficult for you with the authorities here." The soldier's voice was full of arrogance as he looked down his nose at the old mercenary. It pissed Naruto off, because he knew that most of the mercenaries were people whose clan had been destroyed, and had no other options left. The most elite members of the destroyed clans could sometimes find work in the surviving clans, but those who were not as skilled often were either turned away or put to menial labor, barely able to subsist.

Naruto was about to tell the arrogant soldier off when the female soldier spoke, her voice calm and much less arrogant.

"Ebisu, don't be an ass." She turned to face the mercenary. "We just need someone who can take us to a location where the creatures have been sighted recently. You're the first person we've found who has actually seen them. We don't expect you to fight them. The mountains are nearly endless, and it will take too long if we wander around and hope to just stumble on them by chance. If no one does anything, then all the border towns are at risk. Including this one."

The man ducked his head, but the first soldier had done too much damage already. "Sorry, but you're gonna have to find someone else. I'll take my chances in town."

The man turned to walk away, the sword strapped to his back looking battered and worn, with his cloak in tatters. The third soldier, who had been quiet so far, followed after him, his voice soft.

"Here, take this," the man said, handing the older man a small pouch of what Naruto assumed was money. The mercenary hesitated, clearly torn about accepting charity, but in the end took the purse with a gruff nod of thanks.

The three soldiers stood talking amongst themselves, discussing how to track down another lead to finding the creatures.

Naruto closed his eyes, letting the energy of his surroundings seep into him the way the old man had showed him. After a few minutes, he looked at the soldiers again, reading their auras. Even though the first guy came across as a tool, there was no real evil in him beyond blind arrogance. The woman's aura was strong and bright. And the third… Naruto smiled softly. The third was a pure soul. Gentle and kind. Naruto's smile faded into a frown. If they were going hunting for these creatures, the man was likely to get himself killed. The woman appeared quite strong, but the first man was moderate at best. They wouldn't stand a chance against creatures that were able to take out one of his father's veteran recon teams.

Naruto bit his lip as he tried to decide what to do. If he said nothing and continued on his own, maybe this group wouldn't find any other leads and give up. But if they had been ordered to search for the creatures, that was very unlikely.

Naruto sighed. Shikamaru had told him to avoid using his clan name, so he would. He might even be less noticeable if he went as part of a group from another clan, as people would simply assume he was from the same place.

Missions were always best carried out in teams, anyway. This might not be the team he would have chosen, but he would be able to help them out and hopefully keep them safe.

"You serious about finding those things in the mountains? I hear they took apart an entire veteran scout team a few days ago," Naruto said, walking towards them, but keeping his hood pulled forward and his face in shadow.

Ebisu looked him up and down skeptically. "And what would a civilian like you know about it?"

"Ebisu -" the woman said, warningly.

Naruto decided he may as well let Mr. Tool know where he stood if they were going to spend the next few weeks hunting monsters together. "Look, Ebisu. I don't have to help you out or tell you what I know. I can just keep going and mind my own business, and you can stumble around in those mountains for weeks and find fuckall. Do you want me to take you to where the scouting party was ambushed or not?"

Ebisu looked like he'd swallowed an egg, but eventually he nodded. "Fine. You can come."

The quiet man frowned, looking at Naruto in almost a fatherly way, though the man couldn't have been more than five or six years Naruto's senior. "You don't have any armor. If these creatures are as dangerous as you said, civilians shouldn't be accompanying us. Why don't you just tell us what you know, and we'll take it from there?"

"I have armor in my pack," Naruto said, shifting his heavy pack on his shoulder for emphasis. "I just need a horse."

The man opened his mouth to speak again, but Ebisu cut him off. "Iruka, he volunteered to go. He seems like a strapping young man, though obviously untrained. We have an extra horse that you may use. We'll allow him to apprentice under me. Learning in the shadow of such an elite soldier as myself, he might even come away with skills enough to try to join as a guard or watchman."

Naruto barely refrained from snorting out a laugh. If anyone needed to brush up their fighting skills in this party, it was definitely not Naruto.

The woman rolled her eyes, then offered her hand in greeting. Naruto met her amber gaze and realized that - despite being a good bit older - the woman was incredibly attractive. "I'm Kurenai. As you've already gathered, these are Ebisu and Iruka. We are soldiers for the Hyuuga clan, doing reconnaissance on the reports of the strange creatures sighted in the mountains. A small outpost on Hyuuga land was attacked several weeks ago by them, but there were no survivors."

Naruto tensed. He had fought alongside some of the Hyuuga clansmen. It was clear that none of these soldiers were bloodline Hyuuga, but they would likely recognize his name and have the ability to contact his clan. He would have to be careful.

"You can call me Menma," Naruto said. He didn't add on a clan, and decided they could take that however they wanted. He couldn't tell the truth, and a lie would be too dangerous if he were found out. "The location will be at least a three day ride from here."

Ebisu narrowed his eyes, but Iruka smiled. "Nice to meet you, Menma. I'm happy to come with you to help you purchase supplies if you need. And thank you for agreeing to show us where the scout team was attacked."

Kurenai nodded. "Ebisu and I will see to our own supplies. We'll head out at first light."

Naruto nodded, hoping he was making the right decision. The more he heard about these 'creatures', the more he was glad he decided to go north instead of east. He needed to find out how big a threat these creatures were and try to take them out before anyone else got hurt.

To be continued...

Chapter Text

Chapter 3 - Arranging the pieces on the board

A/N - Thanks to all of you who left me kind notes on my website!!  I will continue to post as much as I can as things go on here.  I have the next chapter of Corp secrets more than half done, so that will be happening soon as well, for those of you who are wondering.  It is not forgotten!  It is just a slightly longer chapter than this one, so this one got posted first.  :-)

The rough helmet Naruto had purchased covered his hair and a portion of his face, which was good since the wind was blowing hard and the hood of his cloak was impossible to keep on. He looked skeptically at the old, brown nag of a horse that Ebisu led out to him. After riding Kurama for years, any other horse was going to be a let-down, but this was just… pathetic.

"Don't worry. She's very gentle," Ebisu said condescendingly, completely misreading Naruto's hesitation. "Even someone like you should be able to ride her."

Naruto rolled his eyes, but kept silent. He briefly considered insisting on buying his own horse like he'd originally planned, but that would draw attention. Regular civilians didn't have money to spend on a horse at the drop of a hat.

"I'm not worried," Naruto said, attaching his pack of supplies behind the saddle before mounting up with the others. The horse might be worthless in an actual battle, but the mountains were rugged enough that there were places they'd have to go on foot, anyway. He would lead them to the place where the team was ambushed, let them make their report to take back to the Hyuuga clan. Naruto would then be free to meet up with Shikamaru and buy a proper fucking horse.

"You look like you know your way around horses," Kurenai said, her eyes watchful as they began their journey north. Naruto had attached the pack with practiced ease, and mounted the horse with a fluid motion that spoke of familiarity.

He shrugged. "I've ridden before," was all he said. He was not good at deception, and the fewer lies he had to avoid tangling himself up in, the better. He wasn't sure if the answer satisfied Kurenai, but she didn't question him further.

They were just out of sight from the town when a roughly dressed man stepped out from behind a thick grove of trees to stand in the middle of the narrow dirt road. His stance was confrontational, and there was no mistaking his purpose in the way he held the rough-hewn sword in his hand. Naruto tensed, his hand going to the hilt of his sword as his eyes searched for others.

"Stand aside, traveler," Ebisu said, arrogantly, nudging his horse forward. "We have important business for the Hyuuga clan to attend to."

The man in the road chuckled, caressing his hand along the hilt of his sword. "Nah. I don't think we'll be getting out of your way until you give us one of your horses." He glanced over at Naruto. "And not that sway-back your guide is riding, either."

Naruto didn't blame the guy… he wouldn't steal his horse, either. The confidence of the man made it pretty clear he was not likely alone. Naruto looked around, scanning the surrounding trees... One… two… three, four… five. From the corner of his eye, he could see Kurenai doing the same count of enemies that were surrounding them.

"We?" Ebisu asked. "I only see one of you."

Kurenai sighed, drawing her sword as Iruka brought his horse alongside Naruto's. "Stay behind me. Let Kurenai handle this. We'll protect you."

Naruto huffed out a small sound of agreement that it sure as fuck wasn't going to be Ebisu that got them out of this. His body tensed for battle, but knew he couldn't exactly take them all out without blowing his cover. He might not know any of these particular Hyuuga soldiers, but every Hyuuga soldier would know what the Namikaze blood limit looked like if he went to work for real. He watched as two of the five stepped out from their hiding places. Their movements were sloppy, and Naruto felt himself relax. They weren't a serious threat. He could hold back and no one would get hurt.

Probably. He kept his hand on his sword and his eyes tracking the three hidden opponents just in case, though.

"Tell your men to stand down," Kurenai said. "We have no issue with you. We're looking into rumors about the creatures in the mountains."

The man shrugged. "I ain't heard about no creatures. I just know I can get good coin for that horse you're ridin'."

Kurenai's eyes narrowed, and Naruto tightened his grip on his sword. You don't threaten a soldier's horse unless you're just plain stupid. The two robbers who had just stepped out raised their crossbows, one pointed at Kurenai and one at Ebisu.

"Last warning," the first robber said.

Iruka moved his horse forward slightly, putting himself between Naruto and the robbers. The motion distracted the crossbowmen slightly, and that was all Kurenai needed. Her horse was battle trained and followed her nudge instantly into a full charge at the nearest archer. His shot went wild in his panic at having a war horse bearing down on him, and he had no chance to reload before her sword was piercing through him.

Ebisu would have been shot where he sat, but the second archer was watching his counterpart and by the time he'd realized he should be shooting, Ebisu was finally in motion. Hitting a moving target (especially one that is charging right at you) is no easy feat, and the robber missed. Crossbows might be fast on the first shot, but they take forever to reload and Ebisu had taken the man out before he'd even gotten a second bolt from his quiver.

Kurenai had dispatched the remaining four bandits, and Naruto had just begun to relax when he heard a twig snap from the brush behind them. He turned to see a seventh bandit with his crossbow fixed on Iruka's back. There was no time to ride over to stop him. Naruto glanced at the other Hyuuga soldiers, but they were all looking at the fallen bandits.

Naruto flickered over to appear directly behind the bandit the instant before he was going to fire the shot. He grabbed the man's arm, shoving it up to send the shot into the sky at the same time he drove his blade into the man's shoulder. It wouldn't kill him, but he'd have to find a line of work other than highway robbery in the future.

The three Hyuuga soldiers turned in surprise at the sound of the man's shout of pain.

"When did you get over there?" Iruka asked, confused. "I didn't even hear you get off your horse."

Naruto grabbed the weapon from the bandit's hands as the man fell to the ground holding his shoulder. Fortunately, the man was too concerned with his own injury to be paying attention to the conversation. "I saw him coming out from behind the bushes while Kurenai and Ebisu were taking care of the others," Naruto said.

Ebisu looked down at the man, then at Naruto. "Hm. You got lucky. Next time, make sure you stay out of the way and leave the fighting to the professionals."

Kurenai looked from where Naruto's horse was standing, grazing quietly more than thirty feet from where Naruto was standing. The earth was soft from recent rains, but there were no footprints leading from the horse to Naruto.

Naruto met her gaze and froze, wondering what conclusions she was drawing, but she merely looked at him a moment, then turned her horse north. "We should keep going."

"What about these men?" Iruka asked. Two were dead, but the others would live if they received medical attention.

"You can go back to town to call for help if you want, but they will only be executed by the officials there. They likely have a camp nearby, given their lack of horses," Kurenai said. "We don't have time to waste on them. I think they've learned their lesson today."

Iruka hesitated, clearly torn. Naruto mounted up following Ebisu and Kurenai into the higher foothills that would take them into the mountains. Naruto looked back, not sure if he were relieved or disappointed to see Iruka following them.

After thinking about his task and the likely scenarios he was going to encounter, Shikamaru had decided to bring only two people with him on his journey north due to the need for extreme secrecy. Asuma was a trusted friend of his father, a warrior whose clan had been destroyed but who had sworn fealty to the Nara clan. He was older than Shikamaru by two decades, but still deadly in battle if they ended up running into the creatures or if someone was tracking them to get to Naruto. Shikamaru could trust him completely.

He had told Asuma the entire story, as the man had spent no small amount of time training Naruto back when the boy was just developing his fighting style. Needless to say, Asuma hadn't been surprised at Naruto's reaction. He'd simply grabbed his gear and was ready to ride in under fifteen minutes.

As they headed out to get the final member of their party, Shikamaru had asked about the man's rush to go after Naruto.

"The boy's moral compass is set in stone," Asuma said. "If his parents really did set up this marriage with a young child, they made a big mistake. Though I agree that it doesn't seem like something they would do. Shikaku will get that side of it sorted out. In the meantime, we need to make sure the Naruto doesn't do something stupid."

Shikamaru raised an eyebrow. "Stupid like… tearing up an incredibly expensive and intricate binding scroll and running away?"

Asuma chuckled, clapping his hand on Shikamaru's shoulder. "No. Stupid like sneaking into Uchiha clan's territory and trying to rescue the little kid he thinks they're trying to sell into marriage for power. These documents are warded. That child has to exist for the likeness to have been included into the marriage documents."

Shikamaru stilled. "Fuck." Because of course Naruto would do something like that. Shikamaru had been more focused on how quickly they could find out if this was sabotage and - if so - who was behind it. He had overlooked the fact that Naruto could very well stir up trouble all on his own. He spurred his horse into a faster pace.

Asuma grinned. "Yep! I know a bit about the Uchiha clan, and 'fuck' is right. They are not an enemy you want to have unless absolutely necessary. So, let's go find our runaway groom and bring him home by the ear before he lands his clan into war with the clan he was supposed to be allying them with. Hopefully these creatures in the north will be enough of a distraction to keep him away from the Uchiha until we find him and get everything sorted out."

Shikamaru rolled his eyes, but they rode at a brisk pace towards the Yamanaka clan grounds.

He had chosen to bring Ino for her scouting ability, in case Naruto didn't return when he was supposed to or if the creatures proved to be a serious enough threat that he needed to help Naruto track them down. Ino could project her mind into other living beings of weaker minds. Some humans, depending on their strength, but more useful was her ability to project into animals. She could scout from the air with the hawks and eagles, relaying tactical information instantaneously to others of her clan she was linked to.

Normally, for a mission this sensitive, it would have stayed within the clan, but Ino was from the Yamanaka clan, and they were blood bound to the Nara clan from decades ago. The binding scroll created to forge that alliance hadn't been as elaborate as the one the Uchihas and Namikazes had created, so the blood limits of the two clans had remained separate. Only the military and economic alliance had been enacted. War with the Naras meant war with the Yamanakas, and vice versa.

Still, Shikamaru only told her about the creatures and that the Namikaze scout team that had been killed when they arrived at her house. Inoichi agreed to give his permission for Ino to go and report back on the creatures and they were off within the hour. If and when they made contact with Naruto, Shikamaru could fill her in on the rest at that point. Right now, the fewer that knew, the better.

They made it to the northern village, and Shikamaru took them to the inn where he had told Naruto to leave word for him. After they had gotten three rooms for the night, Asuma and Ino went to check the horses. Shikamaru stayed behind to talk to the innkeeper, a gruff woman who looked like she would be more than capable of throwing any rowdy patrons out on their asses.

"Any messages for me?" he asked.

She gave him a terse nod. "Friend of yours was here. Kept his face hidden, but told me to tell you that the rumors about the creatures had him worried, and he was gonna head into the mountains to see for himself what they were. He rode out a few days ago with some soldiers with the Hyuuga clan."

"Troublesome," Shikamaru muttered. Of all the clans to bump into, Naruto had to run into the Hyuugas. Shikamaru noticed that she didn't say that the soldiers had been Hyuuga, so that meant that they were likely either soldiers for hire or warriors from fallen clans who had pledged fealty to the powerful Hyuuga clan. Regardless, it was not a good situation.

Not only was there a much greater chance of Naruto being recognized, but there was the history between the Hyuugas and the Uchihas that Shikamaru was pretty sure Naruto wouldn't know about, having left the planning of the alliance to his clansmen. The general stories all said that, a long time ago, the Hyuugas and Uchihas were part of the same clan. But at some point, the blood limit abilities split and there was fighting over which line should rule. The Uchihas evidently won, since the Hyuuga clan moved over the mountains to settle new territory, but it wouldn't help any sort of resolution with the Uchihas if they found out Naruto had ripped up the scroll and headed off to travel with Hyuuga soldiers.

And if Hinata or Neji found out that Naruto had broken the engagement and then joined up with their soldiers, they might read it as a signal that Naruto preferred the offer the Hyuugas had made for him instead. Shikamaru scrubbed a hand over his face.

"Did he say why he went with them?" he asked.

The older woman shrugged. "They'd been in town a day or two before your friend showed up, looking for anyone willing to take them into the mountains where the creatures had been sighted. Only a damn fool goes lookin' for that kind of trouble, so they weren't having much luck before your friend came. Of the three of them, only one looked like she could handle herself much in a fight. Other two were useless, though the quiet one was nice enough. Your friend had the look of someone who knows how to fight. He would have been better off on his own, if ya ask me. Not sure what that boy was thinkin'."

Shikamaru thanked her, paid her for the information and her silence, then headed out to see to his own horse. It didn't take much to figure out what Naruto had been thinking… that he was going to keep the group from getting killed by whatever it was that had taken out the Namikaze scouting party.

He sighed. Well, at least it will keep him from getting into war with the Uchihas for the time being. He'd give Naruto a week, then he'd have Ino start searching the mountains for him.

Definitely troublesome.

Sasuke looked up when he saw a slight movement along the edge of an icy cliff up ahead of the narrow pass they were trekking along.

"It's Sai," Karin said, sounding relieved, her breath puffing out in a small cloud in the cold.

Sasuke nodded, his eyes continuing their scan of the surrounding area for any sign of the creatures or where they were coming from. The cry of a hawk sounded sharp and clear in the thin mountain air. Sasuke recognized the red and white crest on the band around its leg long before it reached them. He lifted his arm, and the bird descended, perching on the gauntleted forearm, directly on the Uchiha clan symbol embossed in the black leather.

With his free hand, Sasuke unlatched the sealed cylinder that the bird carried on its leg. The Uchiha messenger birds were unique, imbued with the blood of the clan, able to find any blooded member of the clan on command, no matter where they were... even in a remote pass in an inaccessible mountain. The secret of how it was done was a closely guarded secret, as the ability to transmit information during battle between multiple, moving fronts had turned more than one war in their favor.

He examined the seal, seeing no signs of tampering. Kakashi's imprint was still clear and untainted. With a clean flick of his thumbnail, Sasuke broke the seal, pulling out the small scroll. He recognized Kakashi's lazy scrawl immediately.


You likely already felt the seal break. I won't bore you with the details of the events leading up to the breaking of the scroll's binding, but I was able to witness that the member of the Namikaze clan that they had offered up had blood traits of both the Namikaze and Uzumaki clans. This is the first time I've ever seen confirmation of the traits of two clans presenting so strongly in a single person. I know you were not looking forward to the alliance, but it would have been a strong one.

I suppose it's not surprising that there had been rumors before your betrothal was announced that the Hyuugas were seeking an alliance between him and one of the two clan heirs as well. Getting access to two bloodlines for the price of one, especially with the Uzumaki clan being all but extinct, would have been a valuable asset.

Of course, that is no longer your concern, and I will be sure to tell your father that the alliance failed through no action of yours. I am sure you are relieved that he did not find the match desirable. Since he received a likeness of you, I thought I would return the courtesy.

Hope your hunt is going well, though, of course, I expect nothing less. I will join you after I return to debrief your father on events here, though there might be a few loose ends of diplomacy to tie up here before I go.



"Won't bore me about the details of what fucking happened?" Sasuke breathed out a soft huff. More like the man 'couldn't be bothered to write it down'. He felt a flash of annoyance at the lack of explanation for why the Namikaze clansman had broken the contract. And what the fuck did Kakashi mean by the fact that this Naruto 'didn't find the match desirable'? Sasuke had begun receiving offers from other clans and members of his own clan as soon as his bloodline traits had presented. His prowess in battle was second only to Itachi's, but Sasuke still had six years to catch up with him.

The bird shifted on his arm, and Sasuke reached into his pouch to feed it a bit of dried meat.

"You can go. There is no reply," he said. The bird looked at him sharply, then flew off for its next assignment.

Sasuke frowned as he thought about the note, adjusting his cloak to keep out the cold. The Hyuugas were ancient enemies of the Uchiha, but it had been a hundred years since they migrated to lands on the other side of the Great Mountains from Uchiha lands, and their past bad blood had become somewhat ancient history.

Still, if the Namikaze thought that a fucking Hyuuga clan was a better match than Sasuke was, then he was a fool. There was a reason that the Hyuugas had been the ones to leave their lands and the Uchiha had not.

Sasuke briefly wondered whether the contract had been rejected due to Sasuke's stipulations of 'marriage in name only', but he shrugged it off. If the Namikaze was looking for someone to hold his fucking hand, then it was all for the best that the contract had been broken when it had.

He pulled out the second piece of paper that had been enclosed with the note. It was a detailed drawing of a young man training with his sword. The artist was quite skilled. The muscles of the man's bare chest and back were clearly detailed, the intense look in the light eyes (the drawing was simply charcoal, but Sasuke wondered if they were blue or green) one of pure determination and daring.

Sasuke looked at it for a moment, then crumpled it, tossing it up in the air and blowing a short, focused stream of flame that incinerated it to ash before it fell into the snow, hissing as it melted down into the white.

Artists always exaggerated their subjects, anyway.

He turned as Sai approached. He had a task to complete… one that actually mattered. All the tales about the oppressive power the ancient Uzumaki's supposedly had could easily be exaggerated. Karin was descended from the Uzumakis, and while she had amazing sensing abilities, it wasn't anything that could do damage to an opponent in battle. The speed of the Namikaze blood limit might be true, but the Uchiha were known for their speed and reflexes also. They didn't need this alliance, no matter what the old sage had said. Sasuke wasn't going to spend any more time on it. He had some annoying creatures to behead and eviscerate.

"Sai. Tell me what you found and why you were gone a day longer than agreed."

Sai gave him a thin smile, and Sasuke found his levels of irritation rising. No matter how skilled the man was as a scout, there was something about him that always set Sasuke's teeth on edge. "I headed further west when some of my animals reported seeing something strange. I saw something that looked similar to the creatures we've been encountering, but it was riding some sort of… horse and carried a sword. I was quite far away, and well hidden. But it looked right at me. Unlike the ones we've been fighting, it seemed much more aware. I did not engage it."

Sasuke activated his Sharingan, looking over in the direction Sai had come from. While the creatures they'd encountered so far were stronger than humans, they fought with little intelligence or skill. What Sai was describing was potentially a much bigger threat. Karin turned to look as well, going still as she searched for enemies beyond their line of sight. Her eyes widened. "He's right. Sasuke, the creatures we've been fighting before are nothing compared to the one I'm sensing."

Sasuke's face held no expression. "Then let's head out. Maybe this one will have more to say that the others when I take it apart."

Karin and Sai exchanged wary glances, but no one hesitated to follow Sasuke towards the new threat.

Kakashi watched with interest as Minato greeted the head of the Nara clan. He had never met Shikaku in person, but he had educated himself well on the surrounding clans and knew a bit about him. The Nara lands were to the north of the Namikaze grounds, pushing up against the Northern Mountains. Normally, protocol would have been for Minato to introduce them, but clearly the Nara had an urgent message that needed to be delivered privately.

Kakashi considered the timing of the man's urgent arrival so shortly after Naruto had vanished without a trace. Everyone had assumed that the hot-headed young man had headed east to return to his post there, but Kakashi doubted it. From what he had heard, the unrest in the east was all but over. There would be no reason for him to go there if he was looking to blow off steam, especially not after going through all the trouble of making sure no one could follow him. Heading north made more sense, given that there had been sightings of the same creatures showing up there that had infringed on Uchiha lands. If Naruto had somehow learned about this before he left, Kakashi would bet that's where the man would go.

He considered the distance between where Sasuke had taken his group at the far end of that same mountain range and where Naruto would likely begin his hunt. It would take some time for them to encounter each other. He hummed to himself, thinking. Now that he'd seen Naruto in person, he had an even stronger desire to see this alliance salvaged.

While Shikaku met with Kushina and Minato, Kakashi returned to his quarters to write a letter to Itachi. Sasuke had been difficult enough to push into this the first time around. This time, it would have to be Sasuke's own idea, or it would never get off the ground. If anyone knew how to manipulate the stubborn Uchiha into thinking something was his own idea, it was the boy's older brother.

To be continued...

Chapter Text

Current map of the world as of Chapter 4 - and Kakashi's markers (this will make sense when you read Chapter 4 but I just spent 2 hours making this damn map in fucking PAINT (which is a horrible program and I really need to buy a proper one if I am ever going to try to make art to post again) so I am POSTING IT NOW).  This is my first time trying to post an image on this site (and it is not straight-forward... you can't just cut and paste, I had to first post it somewhere else then embed the link), so if it doesn't show up properly here, you can find it on my website here:  Link to map on my website





Chapter 4 is now up!! (just click the little 'next chapter' button at the bottom of this page LOL).  2 'updates' in one day!

Map of Blood Ties world as of chapter 4

Chapter Text

A/N - Please remember that this is NOT CANON. I just want to make that clear because the creatures so far have been similar to white zetsus, but now that is going to change and there is no fully canon equivalent to the creature that will be introduced here (though I am sure you will be able to guess which characters I pulled some of its abilities from!). I want this scarier than canon, in terms of the creature element, and Naruto and Sasuke less 'invincible' (I felt like they got too o.p. at the end of canon and it was a little annoying).

UN-BETA'D.  Thanks to Mykko_Chan and BriEva for letting me bounce ideas about the creatures off them!

ALSO! If you haven't seen the map that I posted for this fic today (prior 'chapter'), you might want to look at it before reading this so you will have a visual on where everyone is right now, particularly Naruto and Sasuke.  It will help make sense of what is going to happen over the next few chapters.

Chapter 4 - A new and more dangerous foe

Naruto occasionally felt Kurenai's eyes on him as they rode north under heavy, grey skies. He pretended not to notice, but it had him on edge. He knew that she hadn't fully figured out who he was yet, or she would have sent word back to the Hyuuga. But he was also quite sure she knew he wasn't the civilian that he appeared to be.

They didn't encounter any other bandits as they trekked further up into the higher foothills, though that could be due to the impending snowstorm. The path became narrower and steeper, and the air colder and sharper. The further away from civilization they got, the more Naruto felt himself relaxing. He would be out of his parents' reach in another two days. And hopefully have this creature situation dealt with shortly after that. Then he would focus on how to help the Uchiha child. He hoped that Shikamaru would have a plan that wouldn't end in war between the Namikaze and Uchiha clans.

He flexed his hands around the rough leather reins as he rode, still remembering the feeling of the magical backlash from the scroll when he'd destroyed it. Even though his blood hadn't been added yet, he could feel the magnitude of power that had been stored in it. As young as the boy was, he was incredibly powerful.

But it didn't make it right to try to shove him into marriage at that age. Power didn't mean maturity, something that Naruto had learned the hard way when he'd first come into his blood limit abilities at the age of seven. It was part of the reason he knew to get away from others when he lost his temper, why he worked so hard to build his control.

Naruto looked up at the slate grey sky, where tiny snowflakes were beginning to break free from the clouds and spiral down towards them. They had at most two hours left before the sun would slip behind the mountains, bringing an early evening to the foothills. Hopefully the snow would stay light until then.

He saw the familiar stone marker by the forked tree that signaled where they needed to veer east if they were going to make the campsite that the Namikaze and Nara scout teams usually used. Naruto had started his military career doing missions like that, though only after he'd been caught sneaking off to the front lines at the age of ten with the small sword he'd gotten for his birthday. He'd managed to blend in with some of the apprentices and camp hands for a few days before one of the captains spotted him trying to ride into battle on the horse of a warrior who had been wounded the day before. The captain had been furious at Naruto for risking himself, but there had been a note of approval as well, even while he was being disciplined.

His parents had been fighting on another part of the front, and he had been sent to them immediately to determine his punishment. His father had wanted to keep Naruto under guard at the castle, but Kushina had put her foot down and said that she'd had her first battle at around the same age and Naruto was simply showing his Uzumaki bloodline. Given how few Uzumakis were left (and the fact that Naruto was already turning into the spitting image of his father, physically), Minato had been unable to deny his wife on this, but he had insisted that Naruto work his way through the ranks like any other soldier. Kushina had readily agreed.

Naruto's first 'official' mission had been a scouting mission in the northern mountains, part of their standard border patrols they did jointly with the Nara clan. Naruto suspected his father had chosen this mission in the hopes it would bore him into submission, but Naruto had thrown himself into the task, trying to match every trail and landmark, hoping to impress the mission leader. In retrospect, it had probably more annoying to the man than impressive, with Naruto constantly checking everything with him, but it was serving Naruto well now.

"We need to turn east here," Naruto said, nodding at a small outcropping of stone. "We will find a place to camp in less than an hour's ride. If we set out at first light tomorrow, we'll reach the place where the scouting team was ambushed by late afternoon."

"Excellent!" Ebisu said, turning his horse eastward. "If we manage to kill any remaining creatures, we might even get a promotion out of this mission!"

"If the creatures were able to take out a veteran scouting group, I doubt it will be that easy. The Namikaze train their warriors well."

"But not as well as the Hyuuga," Ebisu said boastfully.

Naruto felt his hackles rise. The Namikaze could kick the Hyuugas' asses, but it wouldn't do for him to say that here, especially with Kurenai already suspicious. He would just look forward to sparring with Neji when he was next visiting them, and work it out of his system then.

They reached the campsite on schedule and set up camp for the night. Iruka built a fire while Kurenai and Ebisu went to catch some game for dinner. Naruto helped Iruka gather firewood, falling easily into the familiar rhythm of setting up camp.

"I'm glad you weren't hurt in the ambush with those bandits earlier," Iruka said earnestly. "Are you doing alright? I know I was terrified in my first battle."

Naruto thought back to his first real battle. The chaos of the noise, steel clashing, horses screaming, men shouting… the adrenaline pumping through him like a drug. "Yeah. This wasn't really a battle, though. From what I've heard, these creatures are a lot more dangerous than those bandits were."

Iruka frowned. "You said you heard one of the survivors talking as he made his way home. Why would you put yourself at risk offering to help us? We appreciate it, but it's very dangerous for you."

Naruto was glad that Kurenai wasn't here for this question. He had a feeling she would push a lot harder than Iruka was likely to. "Like Kurenai said… if no one does anything, then none of the border towns will be safe. I don't like the idea of being a sitting duck and waiting for the next attack."

Iruka smiled warmly at him. "We need more people who think like you. If you want, I could put in a good word for you with the Hyuuga clan. They are always looking for new guards to train."

Naruto rubbed the back of his head, not wanting to be rude and refuse, but also knowing he could not accept. "Thanks. I'm happy where I am, though."

"If you change your mind, just let me know. I promise Ebisu wouldn't be your mentor," he said with a knowing twist of his lips.

Naruto laughed, setting down the sticks and dried pine needles he'd found in the fire pit. "I appreciate that. Yeah, somehow I don't think Ebisu and I would click as student and teacher."

"No one clicks with Ebisu as student and teacher," Iruka said drily, earning another chuckle from Naruto.

They got the fire started and set up their small, heavy wool tents as close as they could without risking a stray spark setting them on fire. Naruto's was smaller than the others, unmarked with any clan emblem as part of the supplies that Shikamaru had given him. He knew from experience in mountain camping that the smaller tent would hold any heat it retained better than the larger ones would, and it was lighter to carry if he had to go on foot through some of the steeper mountain passes.

Kurenai and Ebisu returned with two snow rabbits. They were quickly cleaned and set to roast over the fire. Higher into the mountains, it would be harder to find game, so Naruto knew to enjoy the fresh protein while he could get it even if it was rather dry and tasteless by the time it was fully cooked.

"Wouldn't it be easier if you removed your helmet to eat?" Kurenai asked him as they sat around the fire on logs to avoid the patches of wet snow that would otherwise soak their clothes.

Naruto's helmet covered his brow, shading his eyes, and the sides of his face, leaving only his mouth and jaw bare.

Naruto shrugged, trying to act casual. "Nah. Keeps me warm. It's cold as fuck in the mountains."

Conversation moved on as Ebisu launched into a detailed story of how he was able to brilliantly capture his snow rabbit with his superior skills, but Kurenai continued to watch Naruto thoughtfully.

They went to bed early, since the temperature dropped sharply at that altitude with nightfall. They would ride out at first light to reach the site of the attack on the Namikaze scout team. Safely out of sight from the others in his own tent, Naruto lay back on the coarse wool and closed his eyes, going completely still. He drew in the energy around him, letting his senses range to see if there were enemies nearby. There was nothing close enough to cause alarm, but he senses something dark and disturbing in the distance… in the direction of the base camp where the Namikaze team was attacked.

Evidently, the creatures were still there.

Naruto opened his eyes, looking over to his pack where his weapons were stored. If they were attacked by something serious, it would be impossible for Naruto to continue the ruse of 'civilian'. But survival came first. He pulled the blade Shikamaru had given him from its sheath, testing its balance and assessing its sharpness. He missed his personal one, but this sword was plain and unadorned enough to avoid drawing attention. It was strong and had good balance in his calloused hands... and a wickedly sharp edge.

It would do.

He thought of his comrades lying dead beneath the snow that was now falling, and felt anger settle in his stomach. If he had the chance to kill the creatures that had killed his father's men, he would jump at it.

Some people might call Kakashi lazy, but that was only because they often mistook patience and calculation for inaction. While the Namikaze clan scurried around trying to find the missing groom, Kakashi spent time thinking and planning. He couldn't take the risk of waiting until he was back on Uchiha grounds to tell Fugaku that there might be a traitor in the clan elders. But he also knew he must be up against someone high up in the clan that had the ability to intercept his communications with the clan leader, given what had just happened. He would have to be careful about the messages he sent. Itachi was better at reading between the lines and was currently on a mission, out of reach of the clan leadership, which was why Kakashi had sent him a note as well.

In the end, finding the traitor would fall on Fugaku and Itachi. Kakashi's job was to make sure the alliance between the Namikaze and Uchiha clans happened. That meant learning all he could about Naruto and how he thought and how he would react. It also meant getting Sasuke to want to form the alliance while keeping him safe from a possible assassination attempt. He didn't know what the saboteur's goals were or who they were actually targeting, but for now he had to consider Sasuke's life in danger.

Kakashi sat in the Namikaze clan library, a map of the Northern Mountains spread out in front of him. He had placed several markers on it, including Sasuke's last known location on the eastern side where the mountain range curved toward the south on the western border of the Uchiha lands.

He heard the sound of the library door opening, but didn't turn to see who approached, though his blade was never far from his fingertips ever since he learned of the sabotage that had taken place. The message he had left had been clear if the man was as clever as everyone said.

"Minato told me you had asked for permission to see some of the clan's maps while you pass the time waiting for new orders from the Uchiha clan leader," Shikaku said casually, pulling up a seat next to Kakashi at the large desk.

"Yes." Kakashi looked up, meeting the man's gaze. "I thought asking to read any erotic etchings the clan might keep should wait until we've gotten to know each other a bit better."

Shikaku's lips curved into a slow smile, clearly not fooled by Kakashi's air of boredom. "I received an interesting slip of paper under my door last night," he said instead.

Kakashi arched a brow. "Oh?"

"The coordinates of where the Namikaze scouting group was attacked."

Shikaku's gaze drifted to the map, taking note of the marked locations. One of the marks was the location where the scouting party had been ambushed, but there were at least two others that Kakashi was quite sure the man would not know the significance of. Yet. Kakashi had no doubt that the man would remember their precise locations despite only glancing at them briefly.

"You arrived in quite a hurry the day after Minato's son disappeared. It must have been important news for you to be seen so immediately with all the fuss going on here." Kakashi met the Nara clan leader's eyes directly. "Your lands are to the north, bordering the mountains, are they not?"

Shikaku looked back at the map, clearly turning over risks and consequences in his mind. "I would have thought that you would have approached Minato directly with any questions or ideas you might have."

Kakashi leaned back in his chair. He liked the directness of the man. Even more, he liked the wicked intelligence he read in the man's eyes. Itachi was inaccessible to him here, but perhaps this man would be just as adept at helping him find a way to save the alliance, particularly if the Namikaze heir had turned to the Nara clan for help as he left.

"He spent two days believing Naruto was on his way to one of the eastern battle fronts. I doubt he has any new information on that topic."

The implication that Kakashi believed Shikaku did was quite clear. "I think that we should take a walk," Kakashi suggested. There were too many uncertainties about how deep the betrayal ran for Kakashi to feel comfortable speaking anywhere where things could be overheard.

"Yes. Perhaps you should put the map away before we do."

Kakashi nodded in agreement, clearing his markers and carefully rolling the map back up and returning it to its slot on the shelf. There was no need to draw attention to that particular location at present. If anyone could give him insight into how Naruto was likely responding to the situation, and how he might respond to Sasuke, it was probably the man he had fled to rather than the parents he had fled from. In Kakashi's experience, parents didn't always know their children as well as they thought, particularly when the parents were focused on other things, like ruling a clan. Kakashi needed to find out who knew Naruto best, and work with them directly.

He stifled a sigh. He preferred assassinations to matchmaking any day. Hopefully this mission wouldn't turn from one to the other. But Kakashi was a man who always kept his options open.

Sasuke activated his sharingan as they made their way up a winding, icy trail that led to the area where Sai had previously encountered the strange creature. While Sasuke might not like the man, he respected him enough to know that if Sai said something was dangerous, then it was. The man didn't overreact or create drama where there was none. Even though Sai mainly worked as a scout or a spy, he could more than handle himself in battle. An opponent that made Sai hesitate was one to take seriously.

"It was just over this ledge," Sai said. A small, black mouse approached them. Sai looked down at it. "It appears to still be there. And it knows we're coming."

Karin nodded, her face pale. "I can still sense it. It hasn't moved since Sai came back to us."

Sasuke frowned. Had the creature somehow understood that Sai was a scout? Was it waiting because it wanted to engage whomever Sai brought back?

They crested the ledge, and the wind blew a gust of swirling snow that momentarily obscured their vision of the small valley below. But even through the snow, Sasuke could feel its presence. It was definitely powerful, and definitely aware of them.

The wind died down enough to reveal a human-sized figure in a dark brown cloak on a black horse. The only immediate sign that the thing was not human was the utter stillness of its form as it slowly turned its head towards them. Even with his enhanced vision, he could detect no motion from it other than the turning of its head. He wondered what sort of creature had no need of breathing, nor the slightest shiver of cold in the high mountain pass. The cowl of its cloak was deep enough to hide even the faintest trace of what its face looked like, giving almost the impression of it having no face. But there was no mistaking the intensity of its gaze, brushing across them like a cold finger along their spines.

Sasuke slowly drew his blade as the creature's gaze drifted over the members of their party then settled on Sasuke. The hair on the back of his neck prickled. It was as though just by looked at them, it had singled Sasuke out as the most dangerous. It wasn't wrong, but the abilities that implied were unsettling. Juugo was much larger and Suigetsu carried much flashier weaponry.

"Suigetsu," Sasuke warned. They'd fought enough battles together that Suigetsu didn't need further instruction to know that Sasuke was telling him to be careful and let Sasuke take the lead.

"What the fuck is that thing?" Suigetsu muttered, drawing his own sword and falling into position beside Sasuke. Sasuke could hear the tension in the man's voice.

"We'll find out when I capture it," Sasuke stated as he walked along the rocky ledge, looking for a path down to where the creature was. He considered just fireballing it, but he hadn't been lying when he told Suigetsu that they would learn more about the creature by capturing it. There wasn't much to be learned from a pile of ash.

He also wanted to assess its fighting style so he could report back to his father what this new threat was… how skilled it was in battle and what its abilities were. The creature reached down by its side and drew its own sword. Sasuke's eyes narrowed as he noticed the way that the dark blade seemed to absorb any light that hit it. There was not a single glint from the blade's surface despite the light from the setting sun striking it directly.

"Watch its sword," Sasuke warned Suigetsu as they slowly moved forward, Suigetsu following Sasuke's lead, ready for his signal to attack. Suigetsu collected swords, and if anyone would know what sort of blade the creature was holding, it would be him. But now wasn't the time to discuss it.

The creature turned its horse to face them, and words suddenly seemed to brush against Sasuke's consciousness like dead branches scratching the side of a glass window, though there was no way that the being's voice could have carried so far with the wind blowing like it was.

You are too cold to move.  You cannot fight.

Sasuke narrowed his eyes, brushing the thoughts away with little effort.

"It's coming," Sasuke said to Suigetsu without taking his eyes from the creature.

He noticed that Suigetsu was no longer moving, appearing frozen where he stood. Sasuke didn't have time to do anything about it because abruptly the creature was in motion, the horse (which was definitely not a horse based on the talons protruding from where its hooves should be) was running up the icy cliff directly at them.

"Suigetsu! Move!" Sasuke barked, then leapt down the slippery slope head-on into the creature's path. He wasn't going to run away, and he wasn't going to let the creature dictate the flow of battle. His clan had always been known for superior balance and agility, and he knew the creature wouldn't expected him to be able to meet him in the charge.  Sasuke timed his descent so that he would meet the creature on a rocky ledge that would give him better footing than the rest of the snow-covered slope.  His breath puffed out in icy clouds as he navigated the treacherous terrain at full speed, but the creature showed no such signs of exertion, or even of breathing at all.

Sasuke felt a chunk of ice give way beneath his right foot, and shifted quickly to push off with his left just before the creature was upon him. The black blade swung towards him, making a low hiss as it cleaved the air. The creature was fast, but Sasuke was faster as he dodged the blade, swinging his own sword in a clean arc that severed the creature's head from its neck.

Except… it didn't.

Sasuke's eyes widened as his blade passed through the space where the thing's flesh and bone should have been, but his sword simply swung freely as though meeting nothing but air.


Was the thing even real? Was it just an image? No, Sasuke had clearly seen the footprints it had left in the snow as it had charged him.  It had been a long time since Sasuke had been truly surprised in battle, but he was this time. The creature didn't waste its advantage, driving its blade directly towards Sasuke's heart. It was only Sasuke's lightning reflexes that allowed him to dodge the majority of the blow, but the black blade still sliced through the flesh of his shoulder with a hissing sound, vapor rising from the wound in a dirty black cloud.

The blow had definitely been delivered by something solid. What kind of ability allowed a creature to strike an enemy, but not be struck in return?

Sasuke gritted his teeth against the spike of pain, knowing that this was no ordinary wound, but there was no time to deal with it. Before the creature had time to withdraw its blade and strike again, Sasuke drew a deep breath and blew out a stream of fire at point blank range.

The creature screamed in shock and rage as the flames wrapped around it, catching its cloak alight.  Its taloned horse reared in terror.  Sasuke smirked slightly despite the pain in his shoulder... evidently the creature had never encountered a full-blooded Uchiha in battle.  The brief flash of light from the blaze illuminated what lay beneath the cloak. The creature's face was twisted and scarred version of a human face and there was an odd piece of what looked like metal embedded in the center of its forehead, the number four engraved in its surface.

The pressure of the blade vanished instantly as the creature seemed to briefly flicker out of existence, only to reappear a second later, still smoking from Sasuke's attack, but no longer burning. Sasuke had done damage, though, as the creature's sword arm hung limply at its side. The rider and its mount pulled back, giving Sasuke enough time to shift the sword to his other hand. There was a soft footfall behind him and he expected Suigetsu to finally have made it down, but was surprised to see it was Sai, his sword drawn, eyes fixed on the creature Sasuke was battling.

There was no time to ask about where the fuck Suigetsu was, as Sasuke blew another stream of fire. This time the creature was ready, flickering out of the way, then reappearing once the flames passed. Sai leapt forward, his sword slicing directly towards the creature's heart, but once again the creature's body seemed to be untouchable, Sai's sword passing harmlessly through it.

"The hell…?" Sai muttered, his dark eyes narrowing in confusion. Sasuke felt the freezing pain spreading through his arm from the wound the strange rider and given him, the cold wind seeming to cut more acutely through his cloak.

"Sai. Move." He made sure there was no wavering in his stride as he walked forward, summoning all his strength to create a giant fireball, hoping it would be too large for the creature to dodge. Sai leapt to the side just in time, for once not shooting Sasuke a dirty look for not giving him much warning. They both knew this creature was not going to be taken out by half measures.

The rider vanished, then reappeared a few seconds later just at the edge of the fireball. It vanished again, reappearing another fifteen feet further away. Once clear of Sasuke's blast, the dark rider turned and raced along the icy ravine.

Sasuke started to give chase, but his legs gave out on him and he fell to his knees in the snow, his good arm braced against the icy surface as he tried to steady himself. Sai sprinted on ahead, but it was clear he was not going to catch it on foot. He stopped, watching as the creature moved further and further away on its strange mount. He pulled out a scroll, releasing the magic sealed within it and a black hawk sprung from the pages, following the rider from the air.

Sasuke could feel his body temperature rapidly dropping, his limbs beginning to shake despite his effort to control them as hypothermia set in. Whatever magic the creature possessed, its blade seemed to draw the heat out of a living body when it contacted it.

"Fuck!" Sasuke felt frustration rush through him as he watched the creature disappear from sight. Unlike the mindless, pale creatures that seemed to kill on instinct but with no direction, the dark rider definitely had intelligence behind it. And Sasuke had let it get away. Hopefully Sai would at least be able to track it so they could hunt it down again. Of course, they'd have to figure out how to kill it, first, or the next battle would end in as much of a stalemate as this one had.

"Sasuke!" Karin's shout echoed slightly against the rocky ledges that surrounded them, amplifying the shock and panic in her voice.

Sasuke clenched his teeth, half in pain and half in frustration. He couldn't figure out what had happened… how his sword had passed right through its body and done no damage. He had had been schooled in clan abilities, both modern and ancient, as well as the various creatures that had been documented by his clan throughout the ages. He'd never heard of anything like what they just encountered.

The sound of feet rapidly crunching through the snow directly behind him snapped him out of his thoughts. Karin's eyes were wide as she knelt down in the snow beside him, wasting no time in shoving his cloak aside to check his injury. She gripped his shirt in her fists as she tore it from where the creature's blade had already cut, ripping it off Sasuke's injured arm.

"This isn't good," she murmured, using her 'sight' to examine the wound. "It's changed your body's aura where the blade cut." She pulled out a small silver dagger, cutting a clean slice across the palm of her hand, then squeezing it over Sasuke's wound. Five drops of her blood fell into the gash, causing his flesh to lose some of its grey color, but it didn't heal completely like it usually did. "We need to get back to camp. I need my supplies to treat this."

There were times when Karin annoyed him with her fixation with him, but there was a reason he always picked her for dangerous missions. She was the best healer in their clan, and she never let her infatuation get in the way of her job.

"Where's Suigetsu?" Sasuke snapped out, clenching his jaw to keep his teeth from chattering.

Juugo appeared wrapping a large blanket around Sasuke's shoulders as he helped the Uchiha to his feet. "He's… still at the top of the ledge. When the creature looked at us, we were all frozen for a moment, except you and Sai. Karin and I snapped out of it after a few moments, but Suigetsu was not able to break free during the battle."

Sasuke heard Sai give a derisive snort as he jogged back over to them. "Creatures with mind control abilities have the greatest effect on those with weak minds. I signed on as a scout, not cannon fodder. That's supposed to be Suigetsu's job."

Despite the pain in his arm, Sasuke breathed out a soft laugh, then looked over his shoulder up at the top of the ledge to see Suigetsu rubbing a hand over his face, looking around confusedly. "What the fuck just happened?"

The snowfall had only accumulated a few inches overnight, so it didn't slow Naruto and the Hyuuga soldiers down much. They quickly broke camp and set out as soon as there was light enough on the trail to keep the horses safe from injury.

They rode hard the entire day, finally reaching the check-point at the Northern Pass that Naruto had heard the Namikaze scout mention as the site where the team had been attacked. It was the main base camp at the edge of the foothills on the Nara lands into the rugged Northern Mountains.

"We're here," Naruto said, pulling up his mount as they entered a small, flat clearing at the intersection of four trails that went off in different directions into the mountains. It was where most of the scouting parties set up camp, with the higher trails being more treacherous for taking more than just a few days' worth of supplies.

Kurenai and the others wasted no time dismounting to investigate. The snow and wind had buried the bodies, but the lumps of the tents and supply crates were easily detectable, giving clues as to where to start their search.

Naruto used their distraction to take the time to draw on his blood limit and pull more energy in, scanning the surrounding area for unseen enemies. The sense of 'wrongness' was closer here… a dark, mindless energy that Naruto had never experienced before. The creatures were nearby, but not in attacking distance. So far, they didn't seem to be moving closer… possibly they were unaware of their presence. The sun was already beginning to set, which meant they would have to make camp here for the night.

The Hyuuga soldiers had searched through the snow, clearing the area as much as possible to try to find out what had happened. They had uncovered the bodies of three soldiers wearing cloaks with the Namikaze crest on them. They had also found one strange, pale creature also lying dead in the snow. The cold had preserved the bodies perfectly, looking as though they had died only minutes ago rather than more than a week ago except for the snow that had drifted around them.

Ebisu, Kurenai and Iruka were focused on examining the creature. Naruto dismounted and walked over to the bodies of his fallen comrades. His father would already have the list of who had been on the mission and would be sending a retrieval team to bring the bodies back for proper burial, but Naruto wanted to know who of his people had lost their lives in the strange attacks.

He had grown up in the ranks, and knew almost everyone. The scouting teams always consisted of four members. As Naruto approached the bodies, his stomach clenched. It would be much more difficult than he had realized to identify them. Their cloaks and the snow had obscured the degree of damage at first, but their bodies had literally been ripped apart. He braced himself as he crouched down to see which friends had been lost. Naruto felt his stomach drop as he saw a familiar scarf laying bloodied in the snow.

"Ah, shit," he knelt beside the still figure. "Udon."

When Naruto had gone on his last mission, the young man had been trying to pass the test to enter the fighting ranks. His best friend, Konohamaru, had made it three years ago and Udon had been working his ass off to try to join his friend. He must have made it, but his first training mission had turned out drastically different from the simple assignment it was supposed to be.

Death had been a part of life since Naruto was a small child, having grown up in a time of war, but it never got any easier. Konohamaru had been apprenticing under Naruto out on the front, and Naruto knew he would be devastated at the news.

The sound of snow crunching behind him drew his attention. "Do you know him?" Kurenai asked, her voice somber, respectful of the dead around them.

Naruto couldn't bring himself to lie about his fallen clansman, so all he said was, "He was so young."

Kurenai for once didn't press him, resting a hand on his shoulder in comfort. "His clan will send someone to bring him back to his family." Her words held the tone of someone who knew what it was like to send a body home, or possibly to receive one.

Naruto nodded. Death of a soldier wasn't unexpected, but there wasn't even a war going on here. What did the creatures want? Why were they attacking? The young man had not died easily. He looked once more at the torn remains of his clan's men and felt his stomach twist. He was tired of so much violence and death. He might not be able to stop all of it, but he could hunt these creatures down and stop them from more senseless killings.

The Uchiha child they'd tried to marry him to was supposedly already being used in battle. Would he have seen horrors like this at his young age? Did they make him fight and kill already? Naruto didn't know why the image of the boy still haunted him so much. He wondered briefly if the scroll had been ensorcelled beyond the usual binding magics to affect him like this. He couldn't quite pin it down. Maybe it was the contrast between the Uchiha child and Naruto himself as a child. When Naruto was small, he'd been grubby and rough and more than a little bit wild.

The Uchiha child… somehow the artist had managed to capture more than just the delicate look of the bones of his face, the perfect pale skin and large, dark eyes (eyes that already held power and darkness, more than a child that age should have). There was a control about the boy, a stillness and reservedness that somehow made Naruto want to protect him from the crudeness and roughness of the world he was being shoved into.

Kurenai returned to her team mates, helping them document what they could of the creature. Since it had been Namikaze soldiers who had been killed, they would not take the body of the creature back to the Hyuuga for further study, but they would at least be able to give a full description and report back on the nature of the attack.

"It's too bad the snow covered the tracks. We have no idea how many there were… if it was just this one, or if there were more," Kurenai said.

"There are more," Naruto said without really thinking, still feeling the presence of the other creatures just one or two rises away.

"How do you know?" she asked, looking over at him.

Naruto thought quickly to cover his mistake. "The soldier who survived… I heard him say that there were many of them."

Kurenai frowned, turning slowly in a circle and scanning the area, looking for signs of possible attack. "We have no choice but to spend the night here, but we'll leave at first light to return back with news of the attack. Given what we've seen here, I think it's clear we need reinforcements. We can talk with the Namikaze and Nara clans about a joint force to find out more about them and track them down. We'll need a lot of manpower to cover these mountains."

Naruto didn't volunteer that he could sense where the creatures were and lead them to them. He'd wait until after they left for that. If he could help it, no one else would be killed by the creatures.

"The Nara clan leader's son sometimes comes by the inn on the west side of town for news about the border area. You can check with the innkeeper to see when he's expected next and tell him what you found." It would save Naruto the trouble of going back and meeting up with Shika. He had a bad feeling about the number of creatures he could feel deeper in the mountains, especially further to the east.

"We'll have to keep watch tonight. The creatures might come back, and we don't want them to catch us sleeping," Kurenai said.

"I'll take first watch," Ebisu said. "Kurenai, you can take second, and Iruka third."

Naruto hadn't expected to be added to the watch list, but he felt a twinge of his pride at being totally written off for even being able to keep watch. He simply nodded, though. He'd be better able to track the movements of the creatures if he were able to lay completely still in his tent, anyway. He would try to get some sleep during Kurenai's watch, since he didn't know when he'd get the chance to sleep again after that night. When the Hyuuga team headed south back to the border town at first light, Naruto was going to head east.

Unfortunately, the creatures didn't wait until morning to attack.

Sasuke reclined back against the dark red wool of his bedroll, the skin of his bare chest damp with cold sweat and glistening in the light of the three lanterns that were lit around him. Juugo had helped Sasuke get back to their camp, but Sasuke's body temperature had been dangerously low. Karin offered to lay naked with him to share body heat, but Suigetsu had told her to Sasuke's dick would probably freeze her ass off if she tried to fuck him right then, and he'd brought rocks warmed from the fire pit and put them next to Sasuke's blanket, instead.

Karin for once hadn't snapped back at the pale-haired man, too concerned for the mysterious wound on Sasuke's shoulder. She'd pulled out several herbs and quickly made a poultice mixed with her own blood to aid the healing, but it was slow going.

Karin ran her hands along the defined muscles of Sasuke's arm, tracing around the wound. "The flesh is almost like it's been… frozen. There is damage to the tissue far beyond just the cut." Her eyes unfocused, and Sasuke knew she was using her sight to look at the energy there, not the flesh itself.

"It's some sort of ice creature," Sasuke said, trying not to flinch as Karin's fingers pressed more firmly against the wound.

"That would explain why it lives in the mountains. There's not much here besides cold," Karin said.

"It also explains its fear of fire," Sasuke added, using his good arm to push back his sweat-damp hair from his forehead.

"I have yet to meet a creature not afraid of getting burned to a crisp," she said drily.

"Dragons," Sasuke muttered, thinking of his brother's battle and subsequent injury. Wishing he had been there to help and save Itachi's eye.

She looked down at the wound, frowning. "I think it will heal, but it will take a few days. The energy that it left is dissipating. You should be fine if -," Karin gasped, her head snapping up.

"What is it?" Sasuke asked, sitting up and grabbing his sword, ignoring the searing pain in his shoulder.

Karin pressed her hand to his chest to keep him from getting up. "It's far." She stared at the side of the tent, but Sasuke knew she was 'seeing' something else, entirely. Slowly, Sasuke lay back down, not taking his eyes off her as he waited for her to say more. He took her at her word that the danger she sensed was not imminent, but wondered what it was that she had sensed.

"There was an enormous flare of energy. To the northwest. It was very far away and it didn't last for very long but… whatever it was, it was incredibly powerful."

"Another of the ice riders?" Sasuke asked.

Karin shook her head. "No. The energy was totally different. It was warm and bright and… wild. I've never sensed anything like it."

Sasuke clenched his jaw in frustration. He didn't have time to be injured when there were two powerful, unknown creatures out there.

"Tell Sai. I want him to find out what it is and report back to me."

He watched as she disappeared through the flap of his tent to find Sai, then closed his eyes as fatigue washed over him. He didn't have time to rest. He needed to plan. He would have to send word to his father soon and update him that the threat of the creatures was even greater than they had expected. They'd need more fighters now that they knew they were up against more than the type of creature that had attacked the Uchiha border town, but first he'd need to understand exactly what they were up against. Simply adding more swords wouldn't help if the creatures could not be damaged by them. Fire was a weakness, but the ice rider had found a way to get around that as well.

Sasuke wished he had access to his clan's library. He would send the next messenger bird that came for his report to take a message to Itachi and ask him to look into it.

The thought made him frown. It was odd that there had been no messenger birds recently except for the one from Kakashi. He had assumed that they had stopped asking for reports because of the upcoming marriage, preferring to have him report in person. But the marriage contract had been broken for days now, and there had been no communication from his father or the council.

They had been keeping close tabs on his progress until just a few weeks ago, and it was protocol that birds be sent to teams on extended missions at least once a week so that the clan could keep updated on what was happening, particularly ones as dangerous as this one. It would take Sasuke weeks to return back if he had to deliver the update personally, and by then, the location of the creatures he was tracking would likely have shifted and he would have to start all over.

Why weren't they contacting him?

To be continued...

A/N - we will see what happened with Naruto and his crew in the next chapter. I'm not going to skip it!

Chapter Text

A/N - This chapter is completely un-beta'd. *cries*

Warning - graphic depictions of violence against monsters

Chapter 5 - Unseen eyes and unseen hands

Naruto had done enough shifts on night watch that he automatically awoke when Kurenai's shift ended. He heard the soft, muted conversation between her and Iruka as he relieved her from watch, then the muffled sounds of Kurenai heading to her tent. He closed his eyes, focusing on drawing in just enough of the surrounding energy to check to see if the location of the creatures had changed.

His breathing slowed, and he opened himself on the feel of the energy passing into him. He frowned.


The creatures were definitely closer now than they were when Kurenai began her watch. He concentrated trying to get a sense of distance to judge how fast they were coming. He had never met another living member of the Senju clan, so he'd had no one to train him on how to use his ability. Given the extent to which the bloodline members of the Senju clan had been targeted for assassination in the years just around the time of his birth, Naruto had kept his Senju abilities secret. He knew none of their magics… he only their ability to draw in tremendous energy from his surroundings.

Without training, he was only able to do a tiny part of what the great Senju warriors had been feared for. He could draw on energy from nature to restore his own stamina and strength, but he couldn't direct it outward into any sort of attack. The rest of his clan assumed he simply had an extraordinary version of the Uzumaki stamina and power, and he was happy to accept that story.

Many had remarked on Naruto's 'phenomenal battle instincts' when he was able to predict the direction of attack from enemies, never realizing it was because he could detect their energy as it flowed into him, telling him their approximate strength, number, and proximity. He was careful never to draw on those abilities when any of the Hyuuga clan blood were near, knowing that there was a chance they would 'see' what he was really doing.

Here, in the middle of a remote camp with a handful of un-blooded soldiers, it was safe. He could sense a group of about ten strange creatures heading directly towards them. From what he could sense of their energy, they were stronger than an average human, but still handle-able. The unsettling thing about them was that there was only mindless aggression and destructiveness coming from them. No higher emotions or purpose. It worried him, because it might mean that there was someone out there that was directing them. And as far as Naruto knew, his parents knew nothing about someone who might have the power to create and control creatures like this.

"Unless… unless that was why they wanted the alliance," Naruto thought aloud. "Fuck." Naruto raked his fingers through his hair in frustration.

His parents usually discussed things like that with him, but maybe this information was new? No, the marriage contract had been months in the making. There would have been plenty of time for them to tell him something as important as this.

He cleared that train of thought from his mind. He'd go back to his parents after finding out more about the situation here. If they had a secret, powerful enemy, then he needed to find out as much as possible to protect his clan.

The creatures were approaching at a pace fast enough to make it clear that they were not just wandering around aimlessly. He couldn't predict when they would arrive, but there was no doubt that they were coming.

Naruto considered rousing the rest of the camp, but there would be nothing to see, yet. He would let them rest while they had the chance. He stilled himself again, focusing on drawing in as much energy as he could before they got there. He would send out the alarm when they were closer.

Naruto drew his sword from his bag, keeping it loosely in his grasp. When the creatures came, he would be ready.

When the creatures were less than two rises away, Naruto tossed his blankets aside and pulled on his helmet, breastplate, and cloak then headed outside. There was a lone creature approaching the camp from the East, but Naruto would leave that one to Kurenai, hoping he hadn't misjudged her and that he would likely be able to handle it. He would take on the larger group to the North.

The cold night air gusted around him, but he repressed a shiver. The full moon reflected off the snow, casting deep shadows between the rocky ledges that rose up on either side of the trail that the creatures would be following. Iruka was standing at the edge of the camp, looking out at the mountains, facing away from the fire to preserve his night vision.

He turned at the sound of Naruto's approach. Naruto was careful to stand with the fire behind him, keeping his face in silhouette to hide the telltale yellow shading that appeared around his eyes when he had drawn in this much outside energy. The helmet he wore to battle at home had a special visor that concealed his eyes, but the one he had picked up in the village only covered them partially.

"Menma!" Iruka gave him a friendly but slightly confused smile as Naruto approached. Naruto managed not to flinch at the use of his false name. Seeing what the creatures had done to his clansmen had made everything else seem less important. Still, there was no point in correcting the man about his true identity at this point. If all went well over the next few hours, they'd be parting ways at dawn. And it might be good if no one knew that the heir to the Namikaze clan was already here investigating the attacks, in case there was someone more dangerous behind it. Shika always told Naruto it was best to conceal your hand while you played. Naruto was still only a novice in comparison to his friend at such tactics, but he could manage at least this much.

"You don't need to be up yet. It won't be light enough to head out for at least another two hours," Iruka had continued, reminding Naruto that first they needed to deal with the approaching enemy before he could try to figure out if someone had sent them. He could feel them getting closer.

"We've got company. Wake the others," Naruto said grimly.

"But… I haven't heard or seen anything all night," Iruka said, frowning. "Did you have a dream? It would be understandable to have nightmares after -"

"Iruka." Naruto's voice shifted slightly to the one he used in combat. The one he used to command. Iruka looked down to see the sword in Naruto's hands. Naruto had removed his gloves to have a better grip on his blade, and there was no mistaking his hands as anything other than those of a seasoned warrior. They were calloused and strong, holding the weapon in a sure and steady grip that spoke of experience. "They're closing in from the North and the East. Wake the others so they don't get caught in their beds and watch the eastern entrance to the camp. I'll take the North."

Iruka hesitated a moment, clearly still torn as to whether to believe Naruto or not. Evidently deciding on erring on the side of caution, he gave a short nod and ran to wake Kurenai and Ebisu. Naruto immediately turned and headed north. Hopefully, he would be able to head off the main group before it reached the camp. He wouldn't be able to protect the others if they were all caught up in the middle of it, but alone, he had a chance.

It had been years since Naruto had been in these mountains, and - while he remembered the large land features - snow and avalanches could shift other things. Without line of sight, he didn't want to risk 'jumping', in case he landed in the middle of a boulder that hadn't been there several years ago.

The chances of him being able to keep his abilities to concealed were next to none, but he took off at a steady jog on an intercept path with the approaching enemy, getting out of the ring of firelight that defined the camp area. The frigid air seemed to cut like knives into his lungs as he picked up speed, the snow crunching beneath his boots as he ran.

He heard Iruka call out to him, but he didn't slow down or look back. He remembered well enough where the trail was. The lone creature was almost to the camp, and would hopefully keep the Hyuuga soldiers occupied and away from the larger threat. He was pretty sure Kurenai would be able to handle the creature as long as Ebisu didn't get in her way. Iruka seemed to have sense enough to stay the fuck down.

A cloud passed over the moon, briefly casting the trail into darkness, but Naruto didn't break stride. He could feel them getting closer. Something about the ground seemed to be interfering with his abilities, because it felt almost like there was an echo of the dark, mindless energy of the creatures coming from the ground. It made the skin between Naruto's shoulder blades itch, a warning he usually didn't ignore, but there wasn't time to figure out why the ground felt 'evil' when he needed to stop the creatures before they could reach the camp.

There wasn't time for nerves. There was no way that the Hyuuga soldiers would survive taking on ten at once, though Kurenai might stand a chance. They were the only things standing between the creatures and the border town, and he was going to do whatever he could to stop them. Naruto adjusted his grip on his sword, the hard, familiar feel of the metal against his skin settling his nerves.

He wished he had a plan, but there hadn't been time. He could almost feel Shika rolling his eyes at Naruto's lack of strategy, but balls-to-the-wall brute force had served him well in the past. He hoped like hell it did now, too. There would be no perfect place to engage the creatures, but there was a place where the path narrowed so no more than three abreast could walk. If he could reach there in time, it would make it so they couldn't fight him all at once. He picked up his pace hoping he wouldn't be too late.

He was only thirty meters from the narrow bend in the train when he saw the first of the creatures appear in the path before him. He hadn't gotten there fast enough.

"Fuck," he growled, not giving himself time to think before he charged in. There wasn't time for hesitation.

The moon gave him a clear view of the creature's slight look of surprise in its otherwise vacant face as Naruto charged directly towards him. He didn't slow down as he drove it dead through the center of the strange creature's heart.

He saw the eyes of the creature unfocus in death and was somewhat surprised by how easy the kill had been. He had barely registered that the wound didn't bleed before a second creature stepped around the first, a crude club in its hand. Naruto didn't have time to withdraw his sword to deflect the blow, so he used his enhanced strength to push from the ground, driving himself and the dead creature nearly twenty feet in one step. The crash of impact where the second creature's club had smashed into the rock wall had Naruto's full attention, fractures spreading out from the hard stone at the point of impact.

"Good to know… don't let them hit me," Naruto muttered to himself, jerking his blade free and letting the body fall to the snowy ground. Evidently he'd just been lucky with his first kill, taking the creature by surprise by running at it instead of away from it. Now they would be ready for him.

Four more creatures had rounded the path, the sound of combat warning them. It struck Naruto that they all looked the same, the unintelligent eyes filled only with malice, but not thought.

"Five on one. Shit." With human opponents, Naruto was pretty confident that he'd be fine. With creatures that he couldn't allow to land a single hit, it would be trickier. He flickered to appear directly behind the one furthest from him. He couldn't risk getting his sword caught in the ribs, so he went for a head shot, swinging his blade hard and without hesitation to decapitate the creature before it even knew he was there.

Another creature was almost on him, and Naruto used the momentum he'd started with the swing that killed the second to turn fully around and slice off the arm of the third. Unlike his first two attacks, this one didn't faze the creature. It lunged at Naruto despite having lost its weapon-arm, its fist aiming right for Naruto's head.

"Fuck!" he managed an awkward dodge and roll to the side, then flickered behind it and took its head. The adrenaline surged through him as he noticed again the lack of blood, even with decapitation. It gave him an eerie feeling to be fighting something so clearly not human.

"Three down. Just keep going," he said to himself, trying to steady his racing pulse at the thought of what kind of creature could lose its fucking arm and keep on fighting. He was breathing hard, but the extra energy he'd absorbed during the night kept him from getting fatigued as two more creatures rushed him.

Naruto leapt forward, grabbing the dagger that he kept in his boot. He swung his sword with his right hand, decapitating one creature while swiping the blade of the other across the throat of the second. The first hit the ground and didn't move, but the second kept right on coming.

"Fucking fuck!" Naruto barely managed to dodge a blow from the creature's axe before piercing its heart with his blade.

Just as the fifth creature fell, Naruto heard the sound of running feet approaching him from behind. He didn't need to look behind him to recognize Kurenai's energy approaching him. She must have dealt with the lone creature who had come to their camp from the other side, then had decided to go looking for Naruto.

The five remaining creatures were advancing on him, and he hoped she was as good a fighter as he thought she was or she was going to get killed.

"Go for the head. Heart if you have to. They can survive almost anything else. And they can crush a rock with one hit," Naruto warned her, and then there was no more time for talking.

Kurenai didn't bother with a nod of acknowledgement before she surged forward, cutting the head off one of the creatures to Naruto's right as he took out one on his left. Evidently she had decided to take him at his word.

"Jesus, these things don't bleed!" she said, turning to face the remaining creatures. There were only three left, but a loud rumble from behind them had Naruto and Kurenai turning around and leaping back, expecting a landslide.

Instead, they were met with an opening at the base of the cliff, and twenty more creatures emerging from the depths of some sort of tunnel.

"More?" Kurenai's voice conveyed her shock, but her body language was all business. She turned to face the new threat, eyes determined rather than frightened.

Naruto drew a breath. He still had some energy left, but he'd used almost half of it in battle flickering between enemies. There was no way they would survive if they had to take all the creatures on at once with just the two of them unless he found a way to incapacitate some of them.

"Fuck, Shika… I could totally use your advice right now," he muttered, backing up against Kurenai as the creatures moved to encircle them.

"You take the ten on the right, I'll take the ten on the left?" Kurnai half joked, though he could feel her tension surrounding them.

Naruto wished he had some idea what Kurenai's abilities were - the red of her eyes told him she wasn't un-blooded - but there wasn't time to find out now.

He looked up, seeing a narrow ledge that was fifteen feet up in the air. High enough to be out of immediate reach, but not too high to jump down from when they were ready. He reached back and grabbed her arm, transporting them to the ledge. There were a few clans that had various forms of teleportation abilities over short ranges so it wouldn't single him out as a Namikaze as long as he kept his blond hair covered.

"What -?" Kurenai began, but Naruto stopped her.

"I need ten minutes to concentrate. Tell me if they start to climb," Naruto said, then leaned against the rocky ledge and closed his eyes, breathing in slowly and emptying his mind while opening his body to the energy around them. He heard a soft gasp and wondered if somehow she was aware of what he was doing, though - as far as he knew - only a few members of the Hyuuga clan would actually be able to 'see' that he was drawing in energy from around him, not building it up from within. There wasn't time to worry about that at the moment, though.

He drew in as much as he could in the short amount of time. He had an idea, and he wasn't sure if it would work, but it was all he could come up with. It definitely wouldn't be the first time he tried something insane in the middle of a battle and had it work out. He'd more than earned his reputation for being unpredictable in tight spots. He hoped his luck continued here.

"They're climbing. Are you ready?" she asked, tensely.

Naruto opened his eyes, meeting her gaze and knowing that the full moon would show her the yellow markings that he had always been careful to keep hidden. He looked down at the creatures, and saw that they were standing on each other's shoulders, making a living ladder to reach them.

"Follow me once they stop moving," Naruto said. "Don't come sooner. I don't know if this will work."

"You can't stop them all on your own," she said, exasperated.

"I can't kill them all on my own, but I can slow them down. I think." The pale hand of one of the creatures gripped the ledge they were standing on. "But wait until they start dropping or you'll get caught in it, too."

Before she could ask more, he jumped down into the center of where the creatures had gathered, one hand bracing against the icy ground to steady himself. He didn't wait, drawing on his Uzumaki chakra ability, but using all the energy he'd pulled in from his surroundings instead of just his own and pushing it outward. His skin glowed yellow, small pebbles lifting up in the air as the ground trembled.

He still had no ability to direct the energy into a targeted physical attack, but the pressure of it held the creatures momentarily still. Naruto felt sweat break out on his forehead despite the frigid air as he pushed even more energy out in a sharp pulse. If this didn't work, he was fucked because he'd used up pretty much everything he had. He wouldn't be able to teleport back to the ledge to safety.

Fortunately, the creatures started to stumble, some to their knees and some flat on the ground. Naruto released the pressure, gasping out, "Now!"

But Kurenai was already landing softly on her feet, her sword flowing in an arc as she began rapidly decapitating or running through the temporarily stunned creatures. Naruto staggered to his feet, then turned and did the same, unsure of how much time they actually had before the creatures recovered.

In under two minutes, all of the creatures were dead.

Naruto leaned against a rock, his hands braced on his knees as he drew in a lungful of freezing air, trying to catch his breath.

He was aware of Kurenai approaching him, and looked up to give her a crooked grin. "Not sure if you got the ones on the right or the left, but I'd say we did alright."

Kurenai smiled slightly, then her face turned serious again. "You're Senju," she stated, moving to stand next to him, leaning back against the same rock Naruto was resting on.

He looked over at her sharply, but didn't respond. Kurenai let her eyes move over the carnage they'd created, then spoke again. "My family used to work with soldiers for the Senju clan. When I was a little girl, I would watch them train. I could see the way they drew in energy from around them, adding it to their own." She took off her helmet, wiping the sweat from her brow. "My family's ability is to be able to see energy and illusions. Probably somewhere along the way we were born on the wrong side of the blanket from an Uchiha or a Hyuuga, but it was long ago and our abilities are not the same as theirs."

Naruto looked over at her, unsure what to say. His Senju blood limit abilities were a secret he had never planned to reveal, but there was no arguing with someone who could literally see what he was.

"I thought all of the Senju warriors were dead," she said, looking at him consideringly.

"They are. My mother was part of the Uzumaki clan, and I was born there. The Uzumakis and Senjus were blood tied clans. I only carry a small part of their ability, and I was careful not to use it where it would be noticed. That's why they didn't find me when they did the purge of the Senju clan."

Kurenai nodded slowly. "The Uzumaki were wiped out, but not with the thoroughness that was reserved for anyone with the Senju blood limit. I've heard of a few Uzumakis who managed to join other clans, but I've never met a Senju warrior."

"No one in my clan knows," Naruto said. "When I fight alongside anyone from the Hyuuga clan, I'm careful to only use my own energy when I'm in their line of sight."

"Hm," she said, frowning at him. "I'm surprised our paths haven't crossed if you fight with the Hyuuga."

"I didn't know anyone other than a full-blooded Hyuuga could see people's energies."

Kurenai smirked. "You'd better be more careful, Menma, because there are several. Anyone from the Uzumaki clan would be able to at least sense you, and the Uchiha would be able to see it as well. Even without seeing your energy there aren't many clans who can use the body flicker technique. Wherever you're from, it's clear this wasn't your first battle. Someone is going to recognize you. Regardless of the name you choose to give them," she added, slanting him a look.

He sighed, rubbing back of his head ruefully. "Shit. Ok, well… good to know, I guess." Yet another reason why he was glad he'd dodged the whole 'Uchiha marriage' thing, though he wasn't going to say that out loud.

"We need to get back to camp. Ebisu was injured by the creature before I was able to kill it. His arm is broken. The sun is coming up and we need to get him back to town for medical help," Kurenai said.

Naruto nodded. He wouldn't ask her to keep his secret. She either would or she wouldn't, but he knew her loyalty was to the clan she'd pledged to. He looked back over to where the opening of the strange tunnel was revealed, wondering where it led and who had made it.

"Why do I have the feeling that you're not going to be coming back to town with us," Kurenai said perceptively, following his gaze.

"These creatures couldn't have known we were going to be here. Were they planning on taking the town? Why were so many gathering here at once?" Naruto rolled his shoulders tiredly. "I might not be much of a strategist, but I don't really think these things are smart enough to build their own secret tunnels. They just… attack. That's all they seem to know. Something else is behind this."

Kurenai sighed. "I was thinking the same thing. You're planning on following the tunnel back to see where it goes, aren't you?"

Naruto shrugged. "I need to sleep first, but… yeah. We can't let these things out of the mountains. There's a chance we got them all, but -,"

"But it's not likely," she agreed. "Fine. But I'm coming with you. Let's go back to camp and get Iruka and Ebisu sent off to town. We'll rest, then follow the tunnel and see where it goes."

Naruto hesitated. "There could be a lot more creatures at the end of that tunnel. Or something worse."

She arched a brow at him. "And you think I'm scared? Look, you might have stunned them, but you were too tired to finish them off on your own. You need a partner if you're going to go charging in without knowing what's on the other end."

Naruto chuckled at how much she sounded like Shika right then. "Ok, fine. Let's go back and sleep before I pass out."

Kurenai's gaze suddenly snapped up to the pre-dawn sky. "Something's there," she said, standing and gripping her sword.

Naruto squinted up, but the tiny amount of light wasn't enough for him to see anything. "What is it?"

Kurenai frowned, her eyes slowly moving as they followed something unseen by Naruto through the air. "It looks like a bird but it's… not. Its energy is flat... not from a live creature."

Naruto had no idea what she was talking about, so he cut to the chase. "Is it dangerous? Is it attacking?"

Kurenai watched it for a moment, then shook her head. "Not at the moment. It seemed to be just… watching. It's leaving now."

Naruto closed his eyes. While it was a relief that he didn't have to fight right away, a thing that had possibly observed their entire battle with the creatures could still be dangerous, depending on who had sent it and what it saw. He levered himself off the rock despite the extreme fatigue in his body. "We should get back to camp."

Kurenai agreed, and they headed out together.

"So the thing just… vanished?" Suigetsu asked skeptically, poking at the campfire they were all gathered around with his sword to stir the coals.

Karin levelled a glare at him. "No. Weren't you listening to what Sasuke was saying? His blade just passed right through it instead of cutting its head off. But the thing was still there."

Suigetsu looked over to Juugo, who nodded in confirmation.

"But since it was able to actually cut Sasuke, it has to be solid, right?" Suigetsu asked.

Sasuke stretched out his legs toward the fire as he leaned back on the rock. His skin was still warm from the salve that Karin had rubbed into his back and shoulders. It was slowly healing the damage that Karin's usual methods couldn't.

"It can make itself incorporeal somehow. Both partially and completely. When I lit it on fire, it completely disappeared for just long enough for the fire to die. When I swung my sword at its neck, it made just that part immaterialize." Sasuke stretched his shoulder, testing the range of motion of the muscles. It was getting better, but still not fully healed despite all of Karin's efforts. Sasuke's eyes narrowed in annoyance. He didn't have time to be injured. He needed to be at full strength.

Suigetsu looked at him with wide eyes. "That's… freaky."

Karin rolled her eyes. "Says the guy who files his teeth into points."

"So how can we kill it?" Juugo asked, bringing another log to the fire closer to Sasuke's side of the pit.

"It was injured when you fire-balled it," Karin said, shifting closer to Sasuke's blanket. "It was able to put it out quickly, but you definitely did some damage."

"Yeah, and it did damage right back to him, by the looks of it," Suigetsu said, smirking. It was the first time Sasuke had ever been injured even a little, and the man seemed almost happy at proof that Sasuke was, in fact, human.

Sasuke's jaw tensed. He'd been thinking about how such a creature could be killed almost constantly since the encounter. He leveled a glare at Suigetsu, then voiced the idea he'd been turning over in his head. "When it was running away, it didn't seem to be able to stay incorporeal for an extended period of time. That's the only way we can take it down unless it has some other major weakness."

Karin nodded slowly. "So, if you could have some sort of sustained attack that covered enough ground that it couldn't escape from, you could get it."

The firelight cast an orange-red glow over Sasuke's skin, shadows flicking wildly as the mountain wind blew against the flames. "Based on how long it was able to stay out of phase, and how fast it was able to travel, I'd have to cover about six hundred meters in all directions in sustained fire for at least a full minute in order to kill it."

The other three members of the party looked stunned. Suigetsu spoke first. "Holy fuck, that's a lot of fire. Can you do it?"

Sasuke breathed out a soft huff. "Only if I could have Itachi and ten other full-blooded relatives here at the same time," Sasuke said tersely.

"Could you send word back to the Council and ask for help?" Karin asked hesitantly. His entire team knew that both Sasuke and Itachi had spotless records in terms of success rates on clan missions. Asking for help from the Council would be admitting failure, and none of them expected Sasuke to take it lightly.

"No," Sasuke said without inflection.

"Look, I know you've got this competition thing going with your brother and all, but if there's no way that you can do it on your own then you gotta suck it up and -," Suigetsu cut off with a yelp when the fire flared pointedly in his direction. "Shit! Watch it with that stuff!"

"You didn't pay attention to clan history, did you, Suigetsu?" Sasuke said, a slight edge in his voice.

"What? I mean…," Suigetsu sputtered.

"Do you remember how the Senju clan got taken out?" Sasuke asked. Karin's eyes widened slowly in understanding, and Juugo began to slowly nod.

"They were targeted by some clan from across the mountains and wiped out," Suigetsu said, his tone somewhat defensive.

"They were one of the most powerful clans in existence, second only possibly to the Uchiha. How do you think someone was able to just ride in and wipe them out?" Sasuke asked.

Suigetsu looked over to Karin, who picked up the thread. "They'd sent all of their most powerful warriors to fight in other battles that had sprung up. Leaving the rest of their people wide open."

"The remaining warriors were hunted down one by one and assassinated," Sasuke finished.

"So… that's what you think this is about? Luring the Uchiha's most powerful warriors out of the clan lands to take the clan out?" Juugo asked, concern edging his voice.

Sasuke shrugged slightly. "I don't know. But the clan that took the Senju and Uzumaki clans out pulled back to the North. Everyone assumed they had just taken too heavy of losses to fight more, or that they had gotten what they wanted."

"But?" Suigetsu asked.

"But no one ever found their lands. And they never came back to claim the Senju or Uzumaki lands. Just razed all the buildings and left."

"Whoever that clan was, they weren't these weird fuckin' things, though. I was old enough to remember at least that much. The warriors that came down were human." Suigetsu said, firmly.

"Yes," Sasuke agreed simply.

"And the Uzumaki and Senju Clans were both known for their wards and bindings. Trying to claim their land would have been dangerous," Juugo added.

"Not more dangerous than taking the clans out in the first place," Sasuke stated.

No one could disagree, and an unsettled silence fell over the group as they realized this might be part of a threat much greater than they'd originally thought.

"So you think this is related to that?" Karin asked after a moment.

"I don't know. But I'm not going to risk pulling more Uchiha warriors off Clan ground until I'm fucking sure." Sasuke's gaze was calm and determined as he looked into the fire.

Karin watched him for a moment, then her eyes widened slightly. "Sai's coming."

Sasuke followed her gaze, his eyes bleeding red. He could make out the slight movement in the mountains a mile or so away, and recognized the figure approaching. "Let's hope he has news."

Iruka and Ebisu looked up as Naruto and Kurenai entered the camp, both clearly the worse for wear after their encounter with the creature that had attacked the camp.

Ebisu's face was tight and pale with pain, his arm in a sling tied tightly to his body to keep it from moving. Iruka was packing up the camp, his own tent and Ebisu's already taken down and tied to their horses.

"Menma! I'm glad you're safe. You shouldn't have run off like that! You could have run into one of the creatures," Iruka scolded slightly.

Naruto shot a glance with Kurenai. They'd discussed how to handle this on their way back to camp. The Hyuuga and the Nara clans needed to be notified immediately about the level of threat, but they didn't need to know any of the specifics of what "Menma's" abilities were.

"We did," Kurenai said. "There was a group of thirty of them amassing just over the next ridge."

Ebisu paled further. "We need to send for reinforcements! We can't possibly take them on our own. Even one of them was difficult enough. We need to get word to the Hyuugas about the danger."

"We took care of them, but there might be more coming," Kurenai replied.

Both Ebisu and Iruka's gaze snapped to Naruto. Silence stretched for a moment as they processed the implications of what Kurenai had said. They had fought with Kurenai for years, and knew the depths of her abilities. They knew for a fact that she could not have taken out thirty creatures, or even a third of that, on her own and walked away from it.

"You sensed them coming," Iruka said softly.

Naruto didn't bother denying it. "There is some sort of tunnel that they were using," he replied instead. "Kurenai and I are going to follow it and see where it leads."

"Who are you?" Ebisu asked, seeming to really look at Naruto for the first time. His voice was edged with a respect that hadn't been there before, and more than a little bit of fear.

"He's an ally," Kurenai said firmly. "One we need if we are going to have a chance at dealing with this threat. The two of you need to return to the border town and get medical help for Ebisu. Send word immediately to the Hyuugas about what happened here."

"Shikamaru is the son of the head of the Nara clan. He will be waiting for word at the Inn to the north of town. Let him know what happened, and he can raise additional forces between the Nara, Yamanaka, and Namikaze clans to join with the Hyuuga," Naruto added, careful to not add any additional infection when he said his own clan's name.

Ebisu's jaw tensed, and Iruka opened his mouth as though to object, but Kurenai over-ruled him. "There isn't time to debate this. We have no idea how large this force is or who is behind it. Now is not the time to play it safe. The clans must be warned, and someone needs to find out whatever we can about what is happening before they realize their initial force has been destroyed."

Ebisu hesitated, then nodded tightly, casting one last wary, appraising glance at Naruto. "Then let's finish packing and head out."

"Tell the reinforcements to gather here. We'll send word as soon as we know what we're dealing with," Kurenai said. "Menma needs to rest. We'll head out as soon as we're recovered."

Naruto took that as his cue to head to his tent and lay down. His head was swimming with fatigue, and he needed to rest. He didn't see the concerned look Iruka sent after him, nor the soft words the man spoke.

"Take care of Menma," Iruka said to Kurenai. "Whoever he is."

The warrior gave a slight smile. "I'll do my best."

Sasuke waited impatiently for Sai to reach camp, hoping he brought news of where the mounted creature had escaped to. Of course, Sai didn't hurry as he approached the camp. He wasn't going slowly either, just keeping the same, steady pace that he likely had since he started out the day before.

"What did you find?" Sasuke asked before Sai had reached the fire pit.

Sai didn't seem bothered by the lack of greeting or concern about his health. "The creature disappeared into some sort of valley. My bird wasn't able to track him beyond that."

"Shit," Sasuke breathed out, returning returned his gaze to the fire. "We'll head to the valley at first light and see if we can pick up its tracks."

"My bird brought back other news that might be of interest," Sai said, sitting down on an empty rock near the fire and stretching his hands out to warm them. The wind was brutal further up out of the valley they had made their base camp in and the man was likely numb with cold, but Sasuke wasn't in the mood to be patient.


Sai slanted him a look. "There is a group of about a hundred of the first type of creature about twenty miles west of where we are."

"Yes, Sai. That would definitely qualify as news of fucking interest. Shit!" Suigetsu stood, grabbing the small metal pot of coffee that had been brewing by the fire and pouring more into his cup.

"Twenty miles over this terrain… it would take us at least two days. Maybe three," Juugo said, eyeing the rugged mountains to the west.

"What are the creatures doing?" Sasuke asked.

Sai shrugged. "They appear to be… waiting."

"Waiting?" Karin asked frowning.

"Yes. They are not doing anything. They are just standing there, all packed together in a narrow valley. Not moving," Sai said simply, as though there were nothing strange about this.

Sasuke processed this. It made sense… the weaker creatures seemed to be almost like fighting machines, with no thought of their own. It begged the question, though, of who was controlling them, and how. "How far away from them did the ice rider disappear?" Sasuke asked.

"You think those things are the foot soldiers for the mounted one?" Karin asked.

"The valley the ice rider disappeared into was miles from the one where the other creatures were waiting." Sai informed them, pulling a cup from his pack and pouring himself some hot coffee.

"Was there anything else in the area?" Sasuke asked.

"Hm," Sai hummed thoughtfully, in a way that set Sasuke's teeth on edge. Sai was the best scout they had, but getting him to give you the information was like pulling fucking teeth. "Depends how you define the area."

"Sai," Sasuke said sharply. He was sure he wasn't imagining the ghost of a smirk that appeared on the man's face.

"It would appear we are not the only ones hunting the creatures," Sai said, evidently deciding that he had pushed Sasuke far enough. "The bird I sent after the ice rider went in a wide circle to see if there were any sign of similar creatures. It saw two warriors fighting a group of the first type of creature we encountered."

Sasuke held back a grimace. The last thing he needed was some incompetent morons getting in his way and expecting his help. "If they blunder into that nest you saw, I'm not wasting time rescuing them."

There was a glint of amusement in Sai's dark eyes before he spoke. "Given that I saw the two of them take out thirty creatures all at once, I don't think that will be an issue. The most you've taken out at once is only what? Six?" There was no disguising the amusement in Sai's voice, nor the flash of irritation in Sasuke's expression.

"Seven," Sasuke said tightly, a trace of irritation coloring his voice. He didn't add that it was only because he'd never encountered more than seven at a time… it wasn't as though he couldn't handle more of them if he came upon them. The lower level creatures were nothing compared to the ice rider. Though… thirty was still somewhat impressive, he allowed, grudgingly.

"Two warriors couldn't take out thirty all at once," Karin said skeptically, glancing over at Sasuke's expression.

"You're right," Sai said calmly.

"What the fuck, you just yanking our chains?" Suigetsu asked, looking even more annoyed than Sasuke felt.

"No. There was a single soldier that took out the first five by himself. Then a woman joined him, and she helped him finish off the next five. Twenty more appeared, though my bird did not see how the approached. The male warrior did something that… incapacitated the creatures. The two were able to quickly dispatch them while they were immobilized."

Sasuke's eyes flickered with real interest, despite himself. "He froze them?"

"No. The man seemed to have a tremendous surge of energy. His skin was glowing and the force of it appeared to stun the creatures. They staggered and fell to their knees. Then the two beheaded them all."

Karin's eyes widened. "That must have been what I felt the other night...the strange energy burst from the west."

Sasuke looked in the aforementioned direction, his curiosity definitely piqued. What Sai was describing didn't align with any clan ability Sasuke had ever heard of.

"Did your bird notice anything about their fighting style… any other abilities?"

Sai shrugged as he sipped his coffee. "The male was able to use some sort of teleportation technique. He would appear directly behind the creatures and behead them. It appeared to be the first time he had encountered them, though."

"Why do you say that?"

"It took him a few tries to figure out how to kill them. Initially, I thought he simply didn't have the balls to do it, but after he realized that beheading them was the only sure way to kill them, he became fairly efficient."

There were a few clans whose members sometimes had the ability to do short range teleportations, though - of those - only the Namikaze clan was still around. But they didn't have any blood limit abilities that had their skin glowing, or the ability to put out a shockwave of energy to stun their enemies.

"He also had reasonably good stamina." Coming from Sai, who was notoriously critical of others' abilities, this was high praise. "He battled almost continuously, except for ten minutes where he teleported himself and the female to a ledge above the creatures. She kept guard while he appeared to rest. Then he jumped down and stunned them with the strange energy pulse."

Sasuke stilled. Only two clans he had heard of had the ability to teleport other people. And while the attack wasn't one he'd read about, the need to pause during battle and gather a tremendous amount of energy in a short amount of time was familiar. The Senju bloodline was supposed to be extinct. Could there be one left?

The others had continued their discussion of the unknown warrior's abilities.

"And the woman?" Sasuke asked. "What abilities did she have?"

"That was less clear," Sai said. "She was quite skilled with her sword. She also appeared to have exceptional vision."

Sasuke arched a brow. "Oh?"

Sai smiled, and Sasuke felt a muscle in his jaw twitch at the sight of it. "She spotted my bird. And knew it wasn't an actual bird. She was wearing a Hyuuga clan symbol on her cloak, but she wasn't of Hyuuga blood."

Sasuke wasn't sure if Sai was happier that he was able to report someone with blood limit eyes, or the fact that it was the Hyuuga that the mysterious warrior was apparently working with. "And the male?"

"His cloak was unmarked."

Unmarked could mean unaffiliated, or it could mean hiding his affiliation. It would be valuable information either way. Sasuke wondered if the man had encountered an ice rider, and what the outcome of that battle had been.

"Get whatever rest you need tonight. We head west at first light." Sasuke stood, the movement fluid despite his injury. He would have Karin apply one more dose of the salve. It would have to be enough, because he wasn't waiting any longer than one more night.

Shikamaru looked up as two men wearing armor marked with the Hyuuga clan's symbol came into the inn. The taller man had his arm in a sling and was limping heavily. Shikamaru's stomach tensed when no one else followed them in. The innkeeper had told him that Naruto had joined up with three Hyuuga soldiers that were here on a mission to get at least a sighting of the creatures and an early assessment of the level of threat to bring back to their clan.

The two men walked up to the innkeeper, speaking to her a few moments. She looked over and caught Shikamaru's eye, and he gave her a slight nod. The woman then said something else to them, and pointed over to where Shikamaru was sitting.

The uninjured soldier rushed forward. "You are Shikamaru? Menma said we would find you here. My name is Iruka."

Shikamaru barely managed to hold back a blink at the name Menma. "Yes. I'm Shikamaru. I thought Menma was traveling with you?"

"He was. He stayed behind with Kurenai to continue tracking the creatures."

Shikamaru felt a wave of relief wash over him at the news that Naruto was alive, followed quickly by a combination of exasperated annoyance and admiration. Of course Naruto had decided to chase after whatever it was that was happening in the mountains instead of coming back like he was supposed to.

The soldier with the injured arm had reached them by then, and he took over the tale. "Iruka is going taking a message back to the Hyuuga clan, but Menma mentioned we should let you know as well so you can alert the rest of the nearby clans. It doesn't look like this is just a couple of creatures. It looks like it's an entire army."

Of course it was. Shikamaru suppressed a sigh, understanding Naruto's decision a bit better given the level of threat that appeared to be forming. And of course Naruto was charging head-long in with no support and probably no plan. Fuck. Aloud he simply said, "Tell me everything you know. Don't leave anything out, no matter how small it may seem."

It was mid-morning when Sasuke heard the sharp cry of a hawk piercing the cold mountain air. He had been forcing himself to deal with the danger in front of him, but he did feel a flicker of relief at seeing one of his clan's birds arriving. The Uchiha were known for their strict protocols, and it had been slightly unsettling to not receive word days after the guidelines would have required him to check in.

The other members of his group paused along the trail as Sasuke held out his arm. The bird of prey swooped down, its talons gripping tightly to the leather gauntlet. Sasuke flicked open the small canister attached to the bird's leg to see the message, his eyebrows rising slightly when he recognized his brother's seal.

Little brother.

There is an Uchiha force heading to your last known location to meet up with you. They had originally been sent to serve as part of the ritual, but of course that is no longer required. They were not called back when news of the break in the contract was received.

I would not recommend returning to intercept them. Send any update directly to me, but don't relay your current coordinates directly.

His brother had not signed it. The seal Itachi had used would only be recognizable by direct family members. If the message had been intercepted, it would be unclear exactly who or what this was about. Even the specific mention of the marriage was left out. Sasuke frowned. Why were they sending a force but not the messenger birds? He mentally cursed his older brother for not giving him more information.

Sasuke flared his fingers out, signaling the bird to wait for his reply. The bird flew to a nearby ledge and waited, freeing up Sasuke's arm to write. He burned the message from his brother, then used the blank sheet that had been enclosed with it to write his reply, following his brother's lead at not giving identifying information.


It's been ten days since I received a messenger bird from the Council. Their information regarding my location is out of date.

We've found a nest of over a hundred of the creatures that attacked our border town, and evidence of many more. There is a second, much more powerful type of creature with abilities unlike any I have heard of. We are tracking one and will report back once I have determined how to kill it. The border towns will need reinforcements.

Sasuke re-read his note quickly and smirked. Itachi wasn't going to like Sasuke's vagueness about the creature's abilities, especially knowing that Sasuke hadn't been able to kill it. Something that was impervious to sword and fire was unheard of. Even a dragon could be slayed by a sword if it were wielded with sufficient strength and skill. Sasuke considered it payback for Itachi being vague about what the fuck was going on with the clan. Sasuke also hadn't mentioned his own injury, knowing how protective Itachi could be about that sort of thing. There would be time for full disclosure after he'd succeeded in running the creature to ground and killing it.

Itachi hadn't asked him to return home, so presumably things were tricky but under control. Either way, the danger in the mountains was sufficient to warrant Sasuke's focus regardless of what was happening at home. If there was more than one of these ice riders and they attacked the clan before anyone had a chance to figure out how to kill them, it would be a threat to the clan's survival.

Sasuke was going to make sure that didn't happen.

He lifted his arm, signaling the bird to return. It did so immediately, and Sasuke quickly sealed his note in the small cylinder, then paid the bird for its services with a thick scrap of the dried meat he carried for them in a small pouch attached to his belt. The bird ate it hungrily, then took off eastward, back to Uchiha Clan ground.

"You're still sensing the large group of the first type of creature to the west?" Sasuke asked Karin.

She nodded, her eyes looking off into the distance towards something no one else could see. "There are at least a hundred. But nothing more on the pair of warriors that were fighting the other group. Are you sure you don't want to call for reinforcements?"

Sasuke flexed the fingers on his freshly healed arm. "We won't need them. Let's go."

His primary objective would be to take out the nest of the creatures. And if he happened to encounter the mysterious warrior along the way… well. Then he would find out just exactly who the man was and what his alliances were.

To be continued…

A/N: Naruto and Sasuke will FINALLY meet in the next chapter, unless something goes horribly wrong in my writing LOLOL.

Chapter Text

A/N:   Sorry this chapter is late, but hopefully now I will be back on track with my posting schedules.  It is long, and our boys FINALLY meet in it!  Un-beta'd, as usual, but I proofed it twice, so... fingers crossed!

Chapter 6 - First encounter

Naruto looked into the jagged mouth of the cave that the creatures had come from. It was late afternoon, but the sunlight only penetrated a few feet into the cave before being extinguished by darkness. Naruto wasn't afraid of the dark, but he had what he would call a healthy nervousness about places he couldn't see shit in that had just spewed out twenty freaky-ass creatures that could take his head off with one hit.

He side-eyed Kurenai, but she showed no signs of nervousness. He was pretty sure she was just better at hiding it.

"So, um… I guess we'll need the torches pretty much right away." He tried not to sound nervous, because this had been his idea, but fuck if he was happy about walking into a pitch black hole in the ground with no idea of what was waiting for them in the darkness.

Kurenai smirked. "I can hold your hand if you need. I can see somewhat in the dark."

Naruto glanced at her orange-red eyes, remembering how she was able to spot the dark 'bird' in the night sky. "Hey, if you wanna hold my hand, I don't have a problem with that." He gave her a grin and waggled his eyebrows.

She rolled her eyes at his obvious attempt at deflection. "I'm too old for you." She let her gaze skim over his chest and thighs in a way that made him feel like she could see through his armor and cloak. "But if I'd met you ten years ago, your tent would have been much too small."

Naruto felt his face heat, his hand automatically going to the back of his head only to be met with the cold metal of his helmet. Kurenai threw back her head and laughed, lifting the stick that they'd scavenged to serve as a torch and wrapping the oil-soaked cloth around it.

"We'll use this as we go in. But if you sense any creatures up ahead, we'll put it out. No point in advertising that we're coming," she said, handing it to Naruto.

"Let's just hope they can't see in the dark like you can," Naruto muttered, adjusting the pack on his back that held food, first aid supplies and a blanket. They had left their tents behind since they were too cumbersome to carry into hostile territory, and they could sleep in the caves if they needed.

They would back-track if the cave proved short and there was more ground to cover, but for now they optimized on the bare minimum so they could fight if needed. Naruto took the small flint stone and lit the torch as he stepped into the cave.

The first thing that struck him was how much warmer it was to be out of the wind. The second thing he noticed was how smooth the walls and floor of the cave were. Kurenai was also looking at them, frowning. "This cave was carved by magic. There are no tool marks on any of the surfaces."

Naruto's lips thinned. "I haven't seen the creatures use any magic."

Kurenai nodded. "Do you sense anything?"

Naruto shook his head. "Nothing close." Naruto tried to fight the sensation that - the further they went into the cave - the more tightly trapped they would be if the enemy attacked them. But then he thought about the mangled remains of his clansmen, and how helpless any of the border towns would be against an army of the strange creatures that were hiding somewhere in the mountains ahead. He continued walking deeper into the cave.

"You know, I remember some of the elite Senju warriors talking about a technique some of them could use to continually draw on the energy around them during battle, without having to stop and rest to do it."

Naruto's eyebrows shot up at Kurenai's words. That wasn't what the sage he'd met had told him. "Really? Did they say how they did it?"

She shrugged. "They talked about it, but - because I don't have that ability - it didn't really make sense to me. Only one of the soldiers was able to. He was trying to train the others to do it. He said it was like… taking small sips of water as you ran. Just let a bit in at the top of each breath, like a blink, he said. The others were trying but he was the only one able to do it while I was watching. Then my father called me back to finish my chores." A soft, sad smile curved her lips at the mention of her father, and Naruto didn't have to ask to know that the man was no longer alive. The war had taken so much from so many.

"Since we'll be walking in darkness for who knows how long, I guess it's worth a shot to try it out," Naruto said, realizing only after he said it that Kurenai might have sensed his nervousness and given him something to distract himself from it. Of course, it would also be useful in the upcoming battle if he managed to work out the technique. At least he now knew it was possible.

He drew a breath and held the torch steadily as he continued into the depths of the cave, trying to think about how to do what the long-dead Senju warrior had said.

Shikamaru skimmed through yet another book on ancient clan bloodlines that he'd had sent up to the inn from the Nara Clan library. He couldn't find anything that matched the type of creatures the Hyuuga soldiers described. He hadn't expected to, necessarily, but he was trying to ease his frustration at not knowing where Naruto was or what he was up against. He hoped his friend would have enough sense to turn back if the tunnel was too long, or the size of the army he encountered was too great, but his personal experience with Naruto knew that was unlikely. Naruto would push on regardless, in the hopes of preventing others from having to fight or giving them better odds of success. It was something that Shikamaru both loved and hated about his friend.

His first action after speaking with Iruka and Ebisu had been to send an urgent message to his father, Naruto's father, and the Yamanaka clan, asking them to send troops. It would take them time to assemble and arrive, but at least he would be able to get Naruto back-up as soon as possible. He had a good idea of where to find the cave, and would head to the base camp as soon as the first group of troops arrived.

In the meantime, he was trying to try to find any information on what the source and nature of the creatures could be. Unfortunately, he was making shit progress so far. He sighed in frustration

"You've been reading for twelve hours straight," Asuma said as he entered Shikamaru's room without bothering to knock.

"If there's any information on who might be behind these creatures or what they are, I want to know it before we go out there."

Asuma nodded. "But you've already read all of these."

"Some of them years ago," Shikamaru stated.

"But you've read them. And you would have remembered something like this if it were in any of these books." Asuma's pride in Shikamaru's mental capacity made him smile slightly.

"It could be just alluded to. I might have missed it."

"Not likely," Asuma said, taking the book Shikamaru was reading and closing it. "Ino has been scanning the mountains all morning. The hawk she's using knows where the tunnel is, but there has been no sign of Naruto. She's reached the limit of how much distance she can maintain the link with the hawk, but we already have a good place to start when the first group of troops arrive. Once they get here, there will be no more beds, and not much sleep."

Shikamaru looked over at the bed consideringly. He very much enjoyed his sleep, but his friend was more important. Asuma seemed to read his thoughts and reached a hand out, closing the book Shikamaru had been reading.

"There's nothing in these, or you would have remembered it. Make use of our time to rest while you can. I'm going to do the same. Your father's soldiers should reach here tomorrow evening, and we will set out the following morning at first light. You'll be useless if you haven't slept between now and then."

Shikamaru sighed, acknowledging the point. "Fine. I'll go to bed."

Asuma laid a hand on Shikamaru's shoulder. "First, there's a man down in the tavern wanting to talk to you, privately. Claims your father sent him."

Shikamaru caught the tension in his old mentor's tone. "Claims?"

Asuma shrugged. "He's a hard man to read. Says he's a member of the Uchiha clan. Keeps one of his eyes covered."

"Ok. I'll see what he wants."

Asuma looked at him a moment. "He plays at being lazy, but it's a front. Watch yourself with him. The Uchiha alliance with the Namikaze just blew up in his face. He may or may not be on our side."

Shikamaru nodded. He'd know soon enough if his father really had sent the Uchiha clansman to talk to him. If he had, then Shikamaru would talk to him candidly. If not… well, Shikamaru was also not a man to be underestimated.

The wind swirled snow down along the narrow, rocky trail along the ridge of the mountaintop, briefly cutting off visibility. Sasuke pulled the hood of his cloak tighter around himself to prevent the wind from stealing away his body heat. He ignored the thought that his shoulder still ached when the cold hit it, and clearly wasn't fully healed. Karin had said as much the night before as she'd rubbed the medicinal oil into the muscles there. She had wanted him to take a few extra days before crossing the final summit that would lead them to the nest Sai had discovered.

She had also tried to slip an oil-slicked hand under the waistband of his pants.

He'd told her he wasn't interested in either idea.

Sasuke was one of the top strategists of his clan, and he knew that he would be a fool to delay attacking an unsuspecting enemy trapped in a vulnerable position while he still held the element of surprise. They didn't know who the enemy was or what their plans were, but it was clear that they were amassing an army, and one doesn't do that without imminent purpose. The bulk of the troops seemed to be equidistant between Uzumaki and Uchiha clan lands, so it was unclear who the actual target was, but the fact that there had already been a raid on Uchiha territory was enough to make the risk worth taking.

Sai tapped Sasuke's shoulder, then pointed to a small cave less than twenty feet from the top of the ridge. Sasuke nodded, not bothering to attempt to speak over the howling wind. The small group made their way down to the entrance.

Once inside, they were able to speak.

"My birds are unable to fly in this wind, so we'll have to wait here until it calms down enough to make sure the creatures haven't moved from where I saw them last," Sai said, shaking snow off the back of his cloak.

"I can monitor them from here," Karin offered. "I'll sense it if they move or if more arrive."

Sasuke nodded as he set down his pack and shook the snow off his cloak.

"Let's build a fire and warm up while we wait," Suigetsu suggested, setting down his pack.

"No. We can't risk them detecting us before we get there. The entire plan hinges on the element of surprise," Sasuke said, his voice brooking no argument.

Suigetsu shifted, showing his nerves. "But what if they see us coming? We can handle twenty… maybe thirty. But if Mini You over there is right, there's over a hundred."

Sai turned a steady, expressionless look on Suigetsu. "You have your own 'mini you' below your belt. And evidently it is very mini."

"Hey! What the hell! My dick isn't mini, you asshole!"

"Both of you. Shut up." Sasuke pinned Suigetsu with a hard look. "Suigetsu, you can either follow my orders or go home. We're going to have to fight this army eventually. We won't get better tactical advantage than what we have right now, and I'm not going to explain that to you again."

Suigetsu sighed and leaned against the cold walls of the shallow cave, looking as the wind screamed past outside. "I just hope those fuckers are flammable."

Sasuke slanted him a confident look. "Anything is flammable if you make the fire hot enough."

Suigetsu chuckled. "Fine, fine. Put your dick away, Jesus. We'll do it your way. You go in first and light it up, Sai, Juugo, and me will take out any that try to get out of their little self-made sardine can, and Karin will scan for the creepy rider thing that took a bite out of you."

"As soon as the visibility improves, we go in," Sasuke said, sitting down on his pack as they waited out the storm. "Rest while you can. There won't be time for it later."

Naruto and Kurenai had been walking for five hours before they saw the first faint hint of light coming from up ahead. Naruto had been able to distract himself by trying (unsuccessfully) to work on the technique of drawing in energy without having to stop to focus all his effort on it. The distraction had worked a bit, but he still breathed a sigh of relief at the first sign of being able to actually see with his own eyes rather than relying on Kurenai's. They had gone without use of the torch for much of the journey to avoid alerting potential enemies to their presence. Naruto had been scanning the energy of their surroundings as they went, but there had been no sign of any life forms at all. Which was disturbing on its own, since the cave should have been attractive to the animals and insects in the area as shelter from the harsh environment. Something about the cave made them choose the frigid temperatures and biting winds of the outside rather than venture inside.

"Anything?" Kurenai asked.

Naruto paused, trying to stretch his senses as far as possible. "There are some wolves not too far from here, but nothing else."

He couldn't see her nod in the dim light, but he had gotten used to sensing her responses instead of actually seeing them as they'd traveled. They came out to find the sun just setting, the sky grey and ominous as the winds kicked up snow around them.

"There's a storm coming," Naruto said, turning slowly as he scanned the deep ravine the cave had dumped them into. The rock walls on all sides of them were sheer as far as they eye could see, shooting up thousands of meters without so much as a toe hold in sight. "Shit," Naruto breathed. "No wonder they said that these mountains were impassable."

Kurenai ran her hand along the rocky surface. "The cliff is naturally formed. The tunnels must have been carved to circumvent it."

Her use of the plural had Naruto looking at the walls closer to ground level. Sure enough, there were two more dark openings in the face of the cliff on the other side of the narrow valley, one heading north and the other continuing to the east.

Naruto closed his eyes and tried to draw in as much energy as could and stretching his senses. He sat for several minutes, then finally gave up. "Nothing nearby. The storm is big, though."

Kurenai nodded, crouching down to see if she could find any tracks in the snow that would tell them which tunnel had been most recently used, but the constant wind and swirling snow had long ago erased any possible trail.

"I think we should continue east," Naruto said, his mind going back to the maps in his father's library. "We have no idea how old these tunnels are, but the only clan lands to the north are the old Senju grounds, which will be heavily warded and there's no one there left to warn. The Uchiha are to the east. If these tunnels go all the way there, we need to let someone know of the danger. This might not be a front they are watching if they believe it to be impenetrable."

He didn't mention that there was a specific child he was hoping to keep safe from the army of creatures. Naruto had learned early on to rely on his instincts, and right now his instincts were telling him that they should take the tunnel that headed to the east.

Kurenai looked at him a moment, seeming to realize that he was holding something back, but she simply nodded. "If I remember my maps, we're nearly in the center of the highest mountains separating the Nara and Namikaze lands from the Uchiha's territory. There are no passes that allow crossing from east to west for over a hundred miles. It's why the clans on the east and the west of the mountains never interacted."

Naruto looked back at the tunnel they'd just come through, the smooth walls carved directly through the solid rock of the mountain. "Looks like that's changed."

Kurenai's expression was grim as she turned toward the eastern tunnel. "Let's get going before the storm hits. We can rest in the tunnel once we've gotten a few hours in."

Naruto was pretty sure he wouldn't be able to sleep in a place where he couldn't see his hand in front of his face, but Kurenai couldn't replenish her energy from her surroundings, so at some point she would need to sleep. He'd use every second of that to stockpile as much energy as his body would hold for the battle his gut was telling him was looming close. "Sounds good."

Their passage through the first tunnel had passed similar to the first, though this tunnel appeared to be much longer. They made camp a few hours in and Kurenai slept for four hours. Naruto's skin was glowing slightly with all the energy he'd absorbed, but there was no point in hiding it anymore. Kurenai already knew he was part Senju.

They had been walking for about five hours when Naruto abruptly stopped, laying his hand on Kurenai's arm to signal her to be quiet.

He leaned back against the smooth tunnel wall, trying to concentrate, but the thick rock distorted what he was able to sense.

He walked forward toward the entrance of the cave, though was much more careful to make no sound as he did. Kurenai followed equally quietly until they reached the mouth of the tunnel. Naruto stepped through, the morning sky hazy but cloudless above them. The storm they had seen had evidently run its course, but the air was oddly warm and filled with an acrid smell of sooty smoke.

He closed his eyes and let his senses range, hoping he was wrong about what he'd sensed in the tunnel.

"Shit," he breathed out. He'd been wrong, but not in the direction he'd been hoping. "Fuck."

"Are there creatures ahead?" Kurenai asked, her soft whisper seeming loud in the strange stillness of the mountaintop.

Naruto opened his eyes, and met her gaze. "Kurenai. I need you to head back. I need you to go and tell Shika that there is a huge army in these tunnels and in the valley just beyond. The clans shouldn't send an expedition force. They need to send a full battle regiment."

"How many are you sensing?"

Naruto clenched his jaw. "I'm not sure. It's not an exact science."

Kurenai frowned at him. "You're sure enough about the general numbers that you're trying to send me back to issue a massive call to arms to four clans. You'll have to do better than that."

"I can't tell exactly, but it seems like it might be almost ten times what you and I faced. And… a few humans, I think. Powerful. And there's something else, much further away. I wouldn't have been able to sense it if I hadn't drawn in so much energy. It's not close, but it's unlike anything else I've ever sensed. It makes the creatures we fought earlier seem like kittens. If we both stay, the clans will have no warning."

Kurenai's lips tightened at the obvious implication that Naruto would not survive the battle if he stayed behind to fight, and he was hoping to send her away to safety.

"You can't fight three hundred of the creatures by yourself. It would be a suicide mission. We'll go and notify the clans together, and come back with enough troops to take them down."

"It only takes one person to deliver a message. I have to do what I can to slow the army down. We don't know where it's heading or what the timeline for invasion is. If they move now, the clans won't be ready in time. I'm pretty sure this isn't the whole army given the other tunnels we saw."

"Menma -"

Naruto brushed off the use of his fake name, though part of him wanted to tell her who he was. He was sure Shikamaru would have already figured it out. His family wouldn't be left wondering what had happened to him if he failed to come home.

"Kurenai, the clans don't need me to win. They need me to buy time so they can assemble their armies and prepare for war. I can do that. While you were sleeping, I used the time to absorb as much energy as possible. I'm practically bursting with it. I'll seal off this tunnel, and I can make a big dent in their troops. I'll try to teleport back to the other valley when I can. But you need to make sure the clans know what's happening."

A loud rumble sounded from behind them, and Naruto barely had time to grab Kurenai's wrist and teleport them both up to a rocky ledge before a wall of snow and ice slid down the rocky cliff of the mountainside, burying the entrance to the tunnel.

"This strange heat must have loosened it." Kurenai turned and looked Naruto calmly in the eye. "Looks like we'll be fighting together after all."

"Fuck," Naruto muttered. He knew they had a better chance of surviving the battle if they were together, but now the hope of the clans being warned about what was happening meant they had to survive.

He only hoped that the humans he sensed would be on their side. Or at least not their enemies.

Scents didn't carry far in the cold air, but there was the distinct scent of burning flesh in the air that hit them full force as they turned the corner of the narrow ravine that the tunnel had dumped them out in.

"Holy shit." Naruto's eyes widened as he took in the dozens and dozens of charred bodies littering the ground. He couldn't be sure, but they didn't look human.

Kurenai had her sword drawn before Naruto had even finished cursing. "Do you know what did this?" she asked, tensely, her eyes scanning the cliffs above looking for enemies. Just because something was killing creatures didn't mean it wouldn't kill them, too. They could feel the residual heat from whatever had burned these creatures radiating up from the ground, making the air hard to breathe.

Naruto shook his head. "The only thing I've ever met with this kind of firepower was a dragon. But I don't sense one nearby. Their energy is pretty friggen hard to miss."

Kurenai's gaze snapped to him. Very few people had seen a dragon and lived to tell about it, and Naruto grimaced at the slip. He drew his sword, scanning the area for signs of where the enemy was.

"This way," he said, heading up a narrow trail that led out of the ravine and up to a high, narrow pass in the ridge line.

Sasuke's eyes opened as soon as the winds began to die down.

"Rest's over. We're going," he said, rousing the group.

The visibility still wasn't great with the winds only slightly diminished, but it would play to their favor. They would be less likely to be noticed in their approach, and Sasuke could use the wind to make his fire go even further if he attacked upwind from their prey.

He stood fluidly, ignoring the soreness in his shoulder and focusing on the mission. He didn't know how many creatures they were going to face, but he knew that - in terms of tactical advantage - there would never be better timing. Sasuke stilled any nerves that might try to make an appearance. He was one of the best fighters in what most considered to be the most dangerous clan. These creatures were mindless fighting machines. Even if they were preternaturally strong, they weren't going to be a problem for him. Even with a conservative estimate, he should be able to take out at least fifty with his first assault. He'd been storing up his internal energy, not using his sharingan at all for the past two days. His arm might be injured, but he was at full power otherwise.

If the two fighters working for the Hyuuga clan could take out thirty, Sasuke was sure that his full team could handle remainder that his fire didn't take out.

"Are they still in the same place?" he asked Karin.

"Yeah. As soon as you clear the ridge, they'll be directly below you. The ravine they're in is strange, though. I still am getting these… echoes of their energy from the rocks around here. But nothing's moving," she said.

"We are." Sasuke stepped out of the cave, the cold wind tousling his hair. Sai and Suigetsu went off further along the ridge to either side while Sasuke walked forward. Their job was to pick off any creatures who tried to flee. Sasuke was going straight in. Juugo followed him.

When Sasuke reached the highest point in the ridge, he saw them. Easily a hundred creatures standing in rows, unmoving, at the bottom of the tight ravine. If he needed any further evidence that these creatures were unnatural, this would have clinched it. He resisted the urge to use any of his energy to activate his sharingan and check for other enemies. Karin was good at what she did, and he trusted her to tell him if there was any sign of the ice rider. Instead he drew a deep breath, focusing all of his energy into his belly as the air filled his lungs.

One of the creatures turned its head and looked right at him.

Sasuke met its dead gaze, then blew out with all his strength. A stream of fire forty feet wide swept down into the ravine, carried faster and further by the wind that howled down along all three hundred feet of the ledge. The heat from the blast had the air rippling around them, sucking all the oxygen out of the lower ground.

"Holy, fuck, Sasuke!" Suigetsu shouted, jumping back from the blast of heat that surged back up over the frozen cliff as the fire plumed out. His team watched wide-eyed as the fire continued to flow from Sasuke's lips in a relentless torrent, surging over the creatures packed together before they had a chance to move. Sasuke had never had to use his full strength in a fire attack with this team before, but he held nothing back now. The shrieks rising up from the ravine came in waves, one set being cut off as a second started, further back, only to also be cut off as the creatures burned.

Black, sooty billowed rose up from the gorge, the stench of burning flesh filling the air. Massive chunks of ice and snow broke off from the sides of the ravine as the intense heat turned it to slush and caused it to break loose.

Sasuke continued the attack until his lungs were aching and black spot danced before his eyes due to lack of oxygen. Finally he stopped, sucking in a huge lungful of air.

The roar of the fire cut off instantly, leaving a hushed stillness as they waited for the smoke to clear to see how many creatures had survived Sasuke's attack. The wind swirled a dirty blend of snow and smoke.

"Karin." Sasuke looked back over his shoulder at his team mate.

She was frowning in concentration. "There are only a few left alive in the ravine, and they're wounded. But… the weird echo from the rocks, it's -"

She cut off as another sheet of ice slid down the cliff, hissing as it hit the smoldering remains of the creatures at the bottom. There was another sound from further up the pass on their right. Then another on their left. Then behind them. All were far enough away that Sasuke's fire should not have affected them.

And all opened up holes in the mountains to reveal dozens and dozens of creatures walking out of them.

Sasuke drew his sword. It wasn't a hundred creatures they were going to fight. It was closer to four hundred, and he'd used more than half his power in that first fire blast.

His mind race through the tactical options for him and his team to take on this many and win as he quickly scanned the area, taking in the terrain, number of enemy, and current positioning of his team. They were cut off from each other, with enemies on all sides.

"Karin - you finish off the wounded creatures in the ravine. Suigetsu, take the left with Juugo and fight your way to me. Sai, take the right. Find a pinch point and fight from there to help balance the numbers." Sasuke while still giving orders and turned to face the horde of creatures coming from behind him. At least the others were in narrow trails. The creatures wouldn't be able to attack en masse. Sasuke basically had an open field at the top of the ridge, but of all of them, he was the most likely to survive it.

"Fuck," he breathed out, adjusting the grip slightly on his sword before the first batch of enemy were on him. He heard the cry of a messenger hawk from overhead, and gave the hand signal for it to leave. Depending on its orders, it would either wait for the battle to be over, or return to its sender. The bird took a wide circle once, then head back to Uchiha territory.

He hoped like hell the message hadn't been from Itachi. His brother would not react well if his message arrived 'return to sender', but there was no time to worry about that at the current moment.

As Naruto and Kurenai walked through the narrow ravine, they saw that not all the creatures had been burned. A few had been crushed by landslides of ice and snow. A few others had been decapitated, though their bodies also had been partially burned.

"Sasuke! We've got company!" a woman's voice shouted over the noise from somewhere up ahead. "The two I sensed the other day!"

Naruto couldn't hear a reply, but he saw a massive plume of fire shoot off towards their left. Clearly the battle was far from over. Naruto tightened his grip on his blade and began running up the path. Their odds of defeating the army of strange creatures was much better if they had allies.

"Kurenai - go left. I'll go right. There are groups of creatures on either side, and one in front. Let's see if we can even the odds a bit and make some new friends."

Naruto saw a woman with red hair huddled behind a rock at the top of the gorge, holding her arm and covered with blood. "You ok?" he asked her, slowing as Kurenai raced past him.

The woman nodded, her eyes wide as she looked at him as though trying to make sense of what she was seeing. "Y-yes," she panted. "Just go. I can heal myself."

Naruto didn't have time to second guess her as he ran off to the left. He saw what appeared to be an enormous man stumble as he dodged a blow from one of the sea of creatures that were surrounding him. Naruto didn't take the time to count, but there had to be at least seventy-five or eighty of them. The only thing that saved the man was that the path was too narrow for them to fight him more than three or four at a time. He swung a long blade, taking off the heads of three in one swipe. There were about twenty bodies lying headless on the ground around him, but - while his size gave him strength - it didn't give him agility.

"They're climbing the walls. Watch your back!" Naruto shouted, hoping to warn the man in time when he saw that the creatures evidently had become frustrated with waiting their turn to fight, and had begun scaling the walls. The man looked over his shoulder as he took out another pair of creatures that were moving toward him.

Naruto vaguely saw a motion to his right from up on the ridge, but he didn't have time to focus on anything but the battle in front of him as he charged down the path that led to where the other man was fighting. The giant was good with his blade, but he wasn't quick enough after the next swing to take out the four creatures that had made it over their comrades and jumped from the rocks above to surround the man. He heard the man make a low sound of pain as the first creature grabbed him from behind.

"Fuck! Hold on!" Naruto shouted, his eyes frantically scanning the area to find some way to get to him before they ripped him apart. There were over sixty creatures between Naruto and the other fighter. "Goddammit!"

He saw a huge crack in the rocks on the wall of the path where a prior landslide had broken off a chunk of rock, leaving only a sort of spear that protruded from the side, hanging over the trail. He took off at a dead sprint, pouring energy into his legs to go beyond his normal speed. Naruto used his enhanced speed to run up it and launch himself off it like a diving board into the center of the mass of creatures. He saw the larger man go down just as he landed.

He didn't wait to catch his footing, he simply focused all of his energy in pushing out a sharp pulse, even larger than the one he had experimented with when he had been fighting alongside Kurenai. This time, the pulse was visible, a red haze moving out from his body in a circle, the creatures dropping to the ground as it struck them. The walls of the cliffs shook, dust rising up in a ring around him like a shock wave. Naruto felt his vision swim and he staggered at the sudden loss of almost all of his energy, both his own and that he had collected. The three creatures that hit the ground in front of him looked stunned, but they weren't dead. He had to get his ass moving or they would revive and he'd be in no better shape than the man he was trying to save.

He forced himself to his feet, trying to fight through the dizziness and nausea that was making his head spin. He brought his blade down swiftly, though not gracefully, severing the heads from the bodies surrounding him. He took a moment to look back where he had seen a figure higher up on the ridge, and felt his body freeze

A man was looking down on him, a sword held easily in his left hand. From this distance, and with his vision still swimming, all Naruto could make out was the dark cloak and blazing red eyes. Not orange like Kurenai's, but a pure red. He could feel the force of the gaze on him, oddly intense. The hairs on the back of his neck lifted. His instincts told him that this was a man he was not sure he could take in battle. He had never met someone who he couldn't take fairly easily in a one-on-one match.

This man would definitely not be an easy kill.

Naruto paused for a fraction of a second, wanting to see if the man would attack or join him and help. He did neither, merely looking for one second more, then turning, another stream of fire billowing out in the direction where Naruto knew another band of creatures was attacking.

Naruto forced himself to focus on the task at hand. His arm was shaking with fatigue after only the twentieth strike of his sword. The creatures would begin to revive any minute, and Kurenai was nowhere to be seen. The large warrior was still laying unmoving further up the path. There was no one to help him in time.

"Sipping water while you run…. Sipping water while you run… fuck!" Naruto brought his sword down in a smooth arc, breathing in and closing his eyes in a slow blink as he took off the head of another creature. Open, open, open, he told himself, repeating the mental imagery that the sage had told him to use.

He felt the tiniest trickle of energy enter his system. Not enough to stop the shaking in his arm, but enough that he could take one more swing.

He did it again. And again, his body slowing picking up speed and strength with each blow that fell. Some of the creatures were starting to revive, slowly pulling themselves to their knees. Slice, blink, draw. Again. Again.

By the time the remaining twenty creatures were standing, Naruto was almost back to full fighting strength. He dodged the blow from a creature as he took out the one next to it. He turned to face a third, and was surprised to see it crumble to the ground, a huge sword through its heart. He looked over to see the large warrior standing behind it. He was pale, and limping heavily.

"Thank you. I don't know where you came from, but you saved my life," the man said.

"I think you already returned the favor," Naruto said swinging his blade avoiding another blow. The man was not able to move, but the creatures kept coming and he simply leaned against the rock wall and swung his sword as Naruto moved around him, taking remaining creatures down together. When the last creature had fallen, the man slumped to the ground.

"My name is Juugo. I think my leg is broken. I won't make it to the others in time. Please, go help Sasuke and the others."

Naruto nodded. A broken leg was painful, but not fatal. He hoped Kurenai was ok. From what he could sense, there were only about a hundred creatures left standing. Unfortunately, the humans' energies were also much lower, too. There hadn't been any sign of fire in several minutes.

Naruto was exhausted, but there was no time to rest. The small bits of energy he had been able to draw in were not enough for him to be able to do another large pulse, but it was enough that he could run back up the path to the ridge where he could still sense fighting was happening. There was a massive battle in front of him that he would have to get through before he could get to Kurenai.

When Naruto reached the top of ridge, he saw the injured woman he'd seen earlier on her feet and walking towards him, appearing uninjured.

"If you're a healer, your teammate, Juugo, has a broken leg."

She looked back towards the other side of the ridge and then nodded, breaking into a tired run towards where Naruto had left Juugo.

Naruto glanced around to get his bearings. On his left was a smoldering stretch of rock and dozens and dozens of scattered bodies of creatures that were burned or decapitated. A man stood in the midst of the carnage, his cloak swirling as his arm came down in a perfectly fluid arc, taking apart the creature in front of him before continuing on to sever the head from the next without a single break in the movement.

This was definitely the man who had watched him from the ledge.

Naruto paused, momentarily hypnotized by the deadly graceful power of the fighter. Naruto had fought alongside hundreds of warriors, but he'd never seen one move at such a speed, without a single wasted motion. Every breath, every subtle flex of the man's body was choreographed for maximum efficiency and dealt incredible damage. He could tell that the man's energy not nearly as high as it had been when Naruto had first emerged from the tunnel and sensed him. There was no way he would be able to produce another blast of fire like the one that had almost burned the mountain down at the cave entrance, but you'd never be able to tell that by watching him fight as he moved without pause, without hesitation.

A second man with dark hair appeared further down from one of the other cave openings, cleaning his sword off as he walked forward, his body slow with exhaustion. Naruto realized he was basically gawking when he had his own fighting to do. The two men here clearly didn't need his help. There were only three or four creatures near him, the rest were corpses, scattered about the ridge top.

Naruto turned toward where the last knot of enemy was still fighting. Kurenai was on the other side of about forty creatures from him, fighting back-to-back with a white-haired man. They were holding their own, but just barely. The man's left arm hung limply at his side. Kurenai seemed to be uninjured, but she was definitely tiring.

Naruto lifted his sword and charged towards the largest group, shouting as he did in the hopes that it would draw the creatures' focus from Kurenai. He didn't have enough energy for another pulse, but he wouldn't be able to use it with fighting in such close quarters, anyway, without taking Kurenai and her companion out as well. He took four creatures down and was heading for a fifth when another slide of ice broke loose.

"Shit!" He jumped back and avoided being crushed, but just barely. His cloak was torn from him, and the left sleeve of his shirt caught on a jagged shard of rock caught in the ice, ripping it from his body.

The creature he was fighting wasn't as lucky, and it was crushed beneath the ice and rock.

"Sasuke! Get your fucking ass over here!" A male voice carried over the sounds of battle.

Naruto assumed it was the white-haired man who was shouting. There was a tinge of desperation to the man's voice that told Naruto the pair was not going to hold out much longer. He ran up the pile and jumped into a crowd of creatures, using their momentary shock to take three out before the others turned on him. He heard Kurenai give a sharp cry of pain and redoubled his efforts. He realized he probably should have thought it through, since now he was surrounded by about thirty creatures.

There was a soft sound behind him, and he turned to see the fighter from the top of the ridge beside him. "Idiot," he muttered, bringing his sword down and taking out the creature to Naruto's right. "You chose the place with no tactical advantage to land."

"Fuck off," Naruto gritted, swinging his own sword and taking out the one on the left, then spinning around to take one behind them. "I didn't ask for your help. This is the shortest way through."

The man (whom the white-haired man had called Sasuke) huffed out a skeptical sound as he continued to fight at Naruto's back. Naruto caught a flicker at the edge of his peripheral vision of the man's hand as he sliced through another creature.

The creatures were pressing in, making it hard to get a solid swing off. Naruto drew in a slightly deeper pull of energy, though most of it was his own at this point. When a creature in front of him lifted his arm to strike, Naruto grabbed its wrist and twisted, breaking its arm as he used his other hand to lift the creature up and swung it in a semi-circle, knocking down six other creatures that were pressing in trying to get at them. The ones who were knocked down didn't have time to get back up before Naruto was there with his sword.

Sasuke solved the problem on his side by breathing out a stream of fire. It was small, only going about ten feet, but it got the point across, burning several creatures where they stood and causing the others to fall back.

Naruto wasn't sure, but he thought he caught a glimpse of a tiny smirk on the man's face as they fought together finishing off the rest of the creatures that stood between them and Kurenai and the white-haired man.

Kurenai was holding her side, her face grey with pain when they reached her.

"You ok?" Naruto asked, looking for blood but finding none on her.

"Broken ribs," she managed with a weak smile. "Could be worse."

Broken ribs could be serious if they punctured a lung or something else, but for now there wasn't anything he could do about it. There was a healer on the battlefield, but - with the common enemy dispatched - there was no guarantee she would help them.

"You're bleeding, too." Kurenai gestured to Naruto's shoulder, where the rock that had torn his sleeve had also cut into his arm.

"Where the fuck were you? Those grey pieces of shit broke my arm! If this Hyuuga chick hadn't shown up, I'd have been toast," the white-haired man was yelling at the fire breather. Naruto turned to look at them, stepping forward slightly so that Kurenai was behind him.

The man he'd been fighting back-to-back with only moments before now stood before him, his eyes fixed on Naruto's. Sasuke still held his sword at the ready, and Naruto knew full well that the man knew how to use it. Something about Sasuke's face brushed at Naruto's memory, but he was sure he'd never met this man before. He was not someone Naruto would have forgotten. Even with a streak of ash along one cheekbone, Sasuke's face held an almost ethereal beauty. There was no mistaking the dangerousness of the man, though. This was a seasoned warrior, used to dealing out death at the end of his sword.

The silence stretched as the wind started to pick up, swirling snow and smoke into Naruto's eyes, making them sting. He didn't dare blink, though.

Naruto looked through the haze of the battlefield smoke, not taking his eyes from the pale-skinned man with the jet-black hair standing before him. They had both been fighting the same enemy, but that did not automatically make them friends. Naruto was exhausted, but he knew better than to show weakness to a potential adversary. Instead, he drew on his power, using the moments of stillness to draw more energy in from around them. The air stilled and crackled with it. A warning to the man not to take him lightly. Sasuke's dark eyes seemed to swirl, then bled red with black commas forming a pattern in the iris.

Only one clan that he'd heard of had eyes like that. Naruto gripped the hilt of his sword tighter. He only hoped that the man facing him hadn't heard that the alliance between their clans had fallen through. And that Naruto was the one who'd broken it. Naruto was glad his helmet shielded the majority of his face. It was easy to see the resemblance now between the man standing in front of him and the child Naruto had been supposed to marry. Everyone on the clan must be ridiculously perfect-looking.  Naruto thought briefly that it was too bad this man hadn't been the one selected.

He definitely would not have said 'no'.

Naruto could sense no hostility from Sasuke, only wariness. He hoped that meant the man wasn't about to turn on him now that the battle was over.  Finally, Sasuke spoke. His voice was deep and not particularly welcoming, but something about it had Naruto's blood warming anyway. His question came out more as a command.

"Who are you."

Naruto licked his lips, his mouth opening to speak his real name before he caught himself. "Menma. And you're an Uchiha."

Sasuke narrowed his eyes at Naruto's response. "What clan are you from?"

Naruto fought the urge to glance over at Kurenai. No matter what answer he gave, he was fucked. Somehow, he was pretty sure Sasuke had already guessed that fact.

To be continued...

Next chapter will have Sasuke's POV from at least part of the battle, so we can get to see his initial reaction to Naruto. I usually try to avoid doing this, because I hate reading the same scene twice, but I think it's important enough to do here. It will only be a small part of the next chapter and the rest will be 'what happens after the battle'. But our boys have now officially met!

Chapter Text

A/N - Finally... an update that is not late!  Un-beta'd, but on time.  :-)


Chapter 7 - The start of an alliance?


Sasuke flexed his fingers around the hilt of his blade as he narrowed his eyes, activating his sharingan. Everything came into laser focus and seemed to slow down. He could see the trajectories mapped out of every opponent on the battlefield, and his mind rapidly calculated the most efficient way to take them all out - which moves, which sequence, what timing would be required. His body was strong, but his stamina was not limitless. His face was impassive, despite the drastic drop in the odds of victory now that the number of enemy had more than quadrupled. He had never failed in a mission, and he wasn't going to pussy-out now. If Itachi hadn't been injured, Sasuke knew that the clan would have had his older brother take this mission. Sasuke might be second choice, but he wasn't going to let the clan down by failing to live up to the standard set by his brother.

He brought his sword down in a spinning arc, separating the heads of two creatures from their bodies in one strike, then turned his head and blew out a stream of fire to take out six more who were approaching on his left.

His biggest danger would be his own fatigue. He had never taken on this many enemies at once, and he'd already used much of his power on the first fire blast. He could still manage some short bursts of fire, but the majority of the fighting would be hand-to-hand.

From the corner of his eye, he could see that Suigetsu and Juugo had already gotten separated.

"Fuck," he bit out, driving his blade through the heart of the creature in front of him, and using the momentum to knock the three behind it over. He had faced difficult odds and powerful adversaries before, and crushed them under his boot heel. But he knew they would be lucky as hell to make it out of this battle with all of them alive.

Suigetsu had the sword skills to hold his own for a while if he could find a good location to fight from. Sai would also be fine, and might finish early enough to help some of the others.

Juugo was good, but he couldn't fight off this many enemies all at once. He was more of a brawler than a swordsman, and these creatures had strength beyond that of a human, even an incredibly strong one.

"Shit." Sasuke cursed again. It was a point of pride that he'd never lost a member of any of his teams. He forced all distraction from his mind, his eyes narrowing in concentration as his blade hummed through the air before severing another creature, the muscles in his arms and back moving fluidly, in perfect precision from endless hours of relentless training.

He had to make every movement count. He couldn't waste an ounce of energy or a second of time if he was going to get his team out of this.

His first objective would be to kill the majority of the creatures on the ridgetop before they could join any of the skirmishes where his teammates were battling from more defensible positions. Then he needed to cut a path to Juugo and draw some of the creatures away from him.

Sasuke's sword moved in a blur, his body trained to react at the speed his eyes could spot a vulnerability in his enemies, much faster than anyone else on the battlefield. Every swing of his blade struck home. Every dodge calculated to not be more than a millimeter more than was required to avoid being struck. He moved forward relentlessly, his black boots stepping over the bodies that landed at his feet without hesitation. The creatures were becoming wary, flickers of fear appearing in their dull eyes as they watched him.

Sasuke smirked. They would learn what it meant to face an Uchiha in battle. And Sasuke would make sure that whoever sent the creatures would learn that lesson as well.

He moved in a precise, methodical pattern, cutting the army before him to pieces. The muscles in his arms and shoulders burned from exertion, but he ignored the pain. There would be time for rest later, but there sure as fuck wasn't time now. Sweat beaded on his brow but he didn't waste the motion to wipe it off.

He had killed more than half the group he had taken on, but there were still dozens more to go. Despite his efficiency of movement, he could feel his body tiring. His blows were just slightly less powerful than they were before. He clenched his jaw, forcing himself to push harder. He'd taken out the first hundred, assuming Karin was able to finish off the few remaining injured who had survived, and would definitely be able to take this next batch on his own.

Considering the number his teammates could likely handle, there would be at least another eighty creatures for Sasuke to kill, on top of the ones he was already fighting. One mistake, and he would fail. So he wouldn't make any mistakes. His clan had sent him to handle this, and he would.

The palms of his hands were sweating, but his grip on his blade didn't falter.

"Sasuke! We've got company! The two I sensed from the other day!" Karin's shout had him nearly mistiming countering an incoming blow, but he corrected in time, leaving another body in pieces at his feet.

Fuck. He didn't have time for surprises.

He wondered how they had been able to arrive on the battle front without her sensing their approach, but there was no time to ask questions. He just hoped they were on his side. Normally he wasn't a fan of allies, but he wasn't going to turn them down today.

They had been killing the creatures before, so Sasuke had no reason to think that they'd be on the creatures' side in this. When the battle was over, he would find out just who the fuck they were and what their agenda was.

With his sharingan activated, he was able to see the female warrior wearing a Hyuuga clan cloak run down the ravine where Suigetsu had gone. She killed the first creature that she encountered, and Sasuke felt himself relax fractionally. Whatever had brought them here, they were on the same side. For the moment.

Sasuke refocused on killing the creatures surrounding him. He needed to finish them off so he could get to Juugo. A few moments later, he saw another figure charging up the path then turn in the opposite direction the woman had gone. Karin had told him there were two, so it wasn't the man's appearance that had his eyes widening fractionally in surprise.

The energy surging through the man's body was… unlike anything Sasuke had ever seen. It was much larger than what even the most powerful warriors Sasuke had seen could channel and it definitely wasn't from a singular source. It was bright, and wild and… Sasuke had to look away as another creature made a lunge towards him and Sasuke cut it down.

He glanced back at where the warrior was running along the rocky path, and realized that - even without his ocular abilities - he would have been able to see the yellow glow emanating from the man's skin. The sheer magnitude of power that the man had in him was unlike anything Sasuke had seen, and he felt a low hum of interest settle into his blood. What would it be like to battle an opponent like that? Or have him fight on Sasuke's team? He had heard of the Senju clan's abilities, but he'd never seen them in person.

No wonder his clan had been interested in forming an alliance with them in the past. Too bad it had fallen apart.

Sasuke pivoted, fluidly ducking under and incoming club and switching positions with his opponent so he would have a better view of what the man was doing without pausing in his own attacks.

"They're climbing the walls. Watch your back!" the man shouted, evidently trying to warn Juugo, who was surrounded by creatures in a narrow point on the path.

"Shit," Sasuke breathed, knowing the warning had come too late. Juugo wasn't quick enough to take them all out at once. There was no way the Senju was going to reach Juugo in time, and Sasuke was even further away.

"Fuck! Hold on!" the man shouted, scanning the area evidently looking for some way to get to Juugo, but Sasuke knew there was no way he could get through the sixty-plus creatures that were between him and Sasuke's fallen teammate, and he didn't have clear enough visibility of the terrain to successfully flicker over with the creatures blocking the man's line of sight. From what Sasuke understood of the technique, you needed to know exactly where you were going or you could end up embedded in a rock.

Juugo went down, and Sasuke felt frustration rip through him. He'd seen what the creatures did to their victims.

"Goddammit!" The Senju's curse echoed Sasuke's own sentiments. But the next instant, the man was in motion, sprinting towards the wall of the ravine. Sasuke's eyes widened slightly as he saw the extra energy pumping into the warrior's legs, giving him extra speed and pushing him further ahead. What the hell was the guy doing?

Sasuke swung his sword, barely glancing at the creature as he efficiently decapitated it, his eyes tracking the movements of the warrior down below. He realized what the man was going to do an instant before the idiot launched himself off the rock ledge into the middle of the writhing press of creatures trying to get at Juugo, landing in a location of absolutely zero tactical advantage and no space to swing his goddamn sword.

"Fucking moron!" Sasuke blew out a breath of flame, incinerating the seven creatures closest to him as he turned to run down and try to get to Juugo and the dumbass who just launched himself off a cliff.

He hadn't made one step before he saw the pulse hit like a shock wave, stunning the creatures and dropping them where they stood in a thirty foot radius around the warrior.

It was like nothing Sasuke had ever seen. The warrior's energy looked to be almost completely depleted, but he'd knocked out about eighty creatures in under six seconds and probably could have taken down twice as many if there had been more of them in range. The low hum of interest he'd felt at the sight of the warrior's energy kicked up several notches at the sight of seeing it in action.

"Hn." Sasuke glanced over his shoulder where several creatures were approaching him. He still had a few seconds before they reached him, though.

He looked back to see the warrior slowly stand. Based on the man's energy levels, Sasuke wasn't surprised to see him need a moment or two to gather himself. He used too much in that one attack. He only needed about two thirds of that to take them out.

Still, the man didn't waste any time in finishing off the creatures near him. He turned and looked up, noticing Sasuke watching him, and froze. Bright blue eyes latched onto Sasuke's. Sasuke knew he needed to tend to his own enemies, but he held the man's gaze for a moment longer. There was no fear in the man's gaze, but there was a wariness… an acknowledgement that Sasuke was not someone to be taken lightly, that further sharpened Sasuke's interest.

A motion to Sasuke's right had him turning and releasing a short burst of flame (and possibly wishing he had enough energy left for a larger fireball, but he was sure the man hadn't failed to notice the charred bodies he ran over as he came up the ravine). There was no more time for observing the man as Sasuke re-engaged the few remaining creatures left in front of him. They'd managed to crowd up on him as he watched the warrior with the strange energy and unmarked cloak.

Shutting out any distractions, Sasuke went to work. He didn't have to worry about Juugo anymore, but that didn't mean the rest of his team wouldn't need help. He could see that Sai had his group well in hand, but he wasn't as sure about Suigetsu. Sasuke's red eyes tracked every slight movement, every tensing muscle of his enemies, allowing him to predict their every move.

He cut them down with ruthless precision, feeling his body flex and stretch, every motion with a purpose. His body count for the day would be close to two hundred. He didn't think even Itachi could claim one so high. He briefly wondered what the blue-eyed warrior's top count was.

By the time Sasuke had finished with the group that had been on the top of the ridge, the creatures surrounding Juugo had all been dealt with. Sasuke saw Karin running down the path towards the man, but from what he could tell, the injuries didn't seem life-threatening. The Senju warrior was nowhere to be seen, but likely went to the next batch of creatures. He wondered if Juugo had been conscious when the un-marked fighter had released his attack… how it felt to be hit with it. Did it merely stun, or did it do other damage?

There would be time for questions later.

He looked over to see that Sai was down to less than a dozen of the creatures in his batch, so Sasuke left him to it and ran along the ledge to get to the ravine where Suigetsu had gone. He arrived just in time to see the warrior who had leveled the group of creatures that had pinned Juugo down charge directly into the middle of the group of creatures Suigetsu was fighting. The female warrior was fighting near Suigetsu, and appeared to be holding her own, though Suigetsu was clearly injured. Sasuke scanned the battlefield, taking an instant to assess the best place to engage as he ran along the edge toward them.

His sharingan picked up the way the unmarked warrior seemed to be drawing in tiny amounts of energy from his surroundings as he fought, slowly but steadily replenishing his stores. That would definitely be a major tactical advantage for fighting humans… the man would not require rest like others would.

A slight shifting on the ledge above the man caught Sasuke's attention, and he opened his mouth to shout a warning but the ice and rock was already sliding. Luckily, the man's reflexes were good, and he got out of the way of the falling ice before it crushed him, though his cloak and tunic were ripped away in the process.

"Sasuke! Get your fucking ass over here!"

He looked up to see Suigetsu shoot him a glare before dodging another blow from a creature. Given the number of creatures pressing in on them, he wouldn't last much longer. The woman fighting with him was skilled, but she had also taken a body blow from one of the creature's clubs and was no longer fighting as well as she had been moments before.

Sasuke narrowed his eyes, tracking the movement of every creature on the battlefield. The Senju had clearly chosen the most direct path of attack, but that was about all Sasuke could say for it. He watched as the man brought his sword down again, decapitating another of the creatures. The defined muscles of the man's sword arm and the ease with which he held his blade spoke of a seasoned warrior. One who fought more with brute strength and instinct than tactic and finesse, but Sasuke could instantly tell that the man was dangerous and experienced.

Despite the positioning not being the best, Sasuke jumped down from the ledge to land beside the Senju. They would be able to cut through the army of creatures faster together, and limit the number of sides the creatures could attack them from. As soon as Sasuke's feet touch the rocky ground, he sliced through the creature that stood closest to them. He saw the blue eyes flicker briefly in his direction, registering his presence and most likely confirming that they were fighting on the same side. Neither man paused in his attacks.

"Idiot. You chose the place with no tactical advantage to land." Sasuke didn't look over to see how his words were received as he turned to take on the next creature that was stepping up.

"Fuck off," the warrior gritted out, swinging his own sword and taking out the one on the left, then shifting with his back to Sasuke to take out two that were coming up behind them. "I didn't ask for your help. This is the shortest way through."

Sasuke wasn't going to argue tactics in the middle of the battle. He swung his blade, slicing through another creature as the group pressed in on them. Sasuke was picky about who he fought alongside, especially with an enemy as dangerous as these. One false step by his partner and his back would be exposed. The Sharingan was good, but it didn't let him see from the back of his head.

There was a reason he had sent the rest of his team to other areas.

But somehow, he and the mysteriously cloaked warrior fell into sync. They kept enough space to not bump into each other or limit their motion, but not enough for the creatures to separate them. Sasuke kept track of where all the creatures were, noticing with a slight surprise that the Senju was actually keeping pace with him in terms of kill count. And Sasuke wasn't going easy.

The fighting space was shrinking as the creatures became more desperate to use their numbers to try to overwhelm them. It was getting annoying, and evidently Sasuke wasn't the only one who thought so. From the corner of his eye, he saw the man grab the wrist of one of the creatures as it reached for him, and heard the sound of the bone snapping before he picked the creature up and used its body as a weapon to knock several of its companions down before quickly finishing them off with his sword before they could get back up.

Sasuke smirked at the show of raw strength. The man might not be as big as Juugo, but it was clear he had a similar strength. Sasuke breathed out a stream of fire, annoyed he didn't have the reserves to make it bigger and just finish the fucking battle it was clear they were winning, but it at least dropped the four in front of him into a pile of ash and made the others to fall back a pace or two.

He would be lying if he said the shock and fear on their usually expressionless faces didn't make him smirk. They hadn't expected to be taken out by so small a force. It was only minutes before they had finished off the remaining creatures, the ground thick with bodies and ash.

Sasuke quickly scanned the area, but there was nothing else coming. Karin would have warned if another batch had appeared. His team might be injured, but they were all alive. He couldn't wait to see Itachi's face when he told him.

"You ok?" the man asked the female Hyuuga warrior, walking up to her and scanning her for injuries. Sasuke noticed that he didn't turn his back on him, now that the battle was done.

"Broken ribs," she said. "Could be worse. You're bleeding, too."

Sasuke frowned as she walked up and laid a hand on the man's exposed arm, examining a large cut there. It was natural for teammates to assess each other's injuries, but he found her proximity to the man… annoying. The Senju wasn't wearing the Hyuuga clan emblem on his cloak. He didn't belong to her, and she wasn't a healer. She didn't need to touch him.

Suigetsu's annoyed voice cut through his thoughts. "Where the fuck were you? Those grey pieces of shit broke my arm! If this Hyuuga chick hadn't shown up, I'd have been toast!"

Sasuke briefly glanced over at him. Suigetsu's injuries were minor, easily healed by Karin. Given that Sasuke had killed over two hundred and fifty creatures that day, Suigetsu could shut the fuck up about Sasuke 'not being there'. As the white-haired main looked further up the battlefield to see the stretch of burned and dismembered bodies, he seemed to realize as much.

Sasuke returned his attention to the Senju, though, who had evidently satisfied himself that his companion wasn't gravely injured and had turned to face Sasuke. There seemed to be a flicker of almost… confused recognition in the man's gaze, but it only lasted a moment before shifting back into wary readiness.

Sasuke felt a stirring of approval. The man might not be a strategist in battle, but he wasn't a complete idiot. He knew not to assume Sasuke would be an ally just because they'd fought together a moment ago. The Uchiha clan had always stood on its own, and other clans knew it. Sasuke tightened his grip on his sword subtly as the silence stretched, his stance showing readiness but not hostility as the two men sized each other up across the battlefield. He wished he could see the man's face, but only his mouth and eyes were visible from beneath the helmet. Whatever the Senju man's powers, Sasuke was an Uchiha with all the abilities of his bloodline.

The wind picked up, swirling smoke and snow down the narrow ledge, but they didn't break eye contact. Sasuke couldn't remember the last time someone other than his brother or his father was able to meet his gaze and not break eye contact.

Slowly he felt the air around them shift. An aura was slowly growing, being pushed out by the Senju warrior. The blue eyes glowed with power, and Sasuke felt his own blood pulse in resonance. Almost by instinct, his sharingan activated.

With his eyes active, he could see the rate at which Naruto was drawing in energy from around him. He was nowhere near the full level that Sasuke had seen him enter the battle with, but it was clear that he could be back up to full power in under two hours. It would take Sasuke a day to get his full strength back, at least.

He understood now why the Uchiha clan had tried blood bonding with the Senju clan several generations ago. It had fallen apart when the younger brother of the head of the clan had been killed in a skirmish, but Sasuke understood why his elders had found the Senju clan worthy.

Sasuke wondered who would win, if he and the unmarked warrior fought against each other. What it would be like to be able to tap into that sort of power if they fought together. He narrowed his eyes, taking in every detail of the man. How he held himself, ready to counter a possible attack. The contours of the muscles of his arms and shoulders. The steady pulse of power he was building up within his body.

There was no way that the Namikaze clan would be equal to this. Sasuke felt a sudden imperative to know if the man had a clan affiliation… if he was already bound to someone.

"Who are you." Sasuke put every ounce of command into his voice.

The man licked his lips, his mouth opening, and abruptly pausing before replying. "Menma. And you're an Uchiha."

Sasuke narrowed his eyes. The man was lying. And he was shit at it, too. "What clan are you from?"

Sasuke knew he wasn't going to get an actual answer from 'Menma'. He was wearing an unmarked cloak for a reason. Sasuke almost smirked as he saw the man shift slightly, a subtle sign that Sasuke had struck a nerve. Whatever the man's mission was (and with the way he fought, Sasuke had no doubt that the man was on some sort of mission), deception was not the core of it. No one would put someone this uncomfortable with lying on anything clandestine. The knowledge made Sasuke relax fractionally. This man was unlikely to become his enemy.

"He joined my team on a mission for the Hyuuga clan to find out more about these creatures that have been attacking the border towns of the clans on our side of the mountains," the female spoke. "My name is Kurenai."

Sasuke felt a flash of irritation that she had jumped in, even more so when he saw the grateful look Menma (since he didn't have another name, he would have to use it until he found out the man's real identity) sent her. He already knew where she was from. He wondered if she knew Menma's identity.

"He isn't wearing a Hyuuga cloak," Sasuke said tersely.

"He joined us from a border village in the Nara territory," Kurenai replied evenly, though he could see her grip tighten on her sword.

Sasuke had to give her credit. The woman was in obvious pain, but she wasn't backing down from him. Sai had mentioned that she had 'good eyes', which probably meant she had realized the same thing about Menma that he had. Hopefully she would have sense enough to keep her mouth shut about it. Sasuke would have to talk to Karin as well. If word got out that there were Senju still around, they might have more to deal with than they were ready for.

Menma gave an annoyed snort. "We saved your team's asses. You should be thanking us, not giving us the third degree, asshole." The Senju stepped forward, getting more firmly between Sasuke and Kurenai.

"Tch. You got here when the battle was already half over." Sasuke barely held back the smirk as the blue eyes widened in outrage. "But I suppose I should thank you for at least not getting in my way."

"Thank us for not…," the blue-eyed man sputtered. "Fuck you, asshole!"

This time, Sasuke couldn't quite keep his amusement concealed. The man was just as rash in conversation as he was in battle.

"Sasuke!" Karin's voice came from behind them, but neither man turned to look at her approach. From the corner of his eye, he saw Kurenai's eyes widen at the mention of his name. Evidently she hadn't noticed when Suigetsu had called out to him in the middle of the battle, but it was a name she recognized.

"Are you injured?" Karin asked him.

"No," he replied, narrowing his eyes to warn her not to mention his shoulder injury in front of outsiders. "Suigetsu has a broken arm, and Kurenai likely has broken ribs."

Karin and Kurenai exchanged wary glances as Karin took care of Suigetsu's injury.

"You're Uzumaki," the Senju said as he watched Karin heal Suigetsu.

Sasuke looked at him sharply. There were few members of the Uzumaki clan left. They hadn't been hunted down quite as relentlessly as the Senju clan had, but having an Uzumaki healer on his team wasn't something Sasuke advertised. Many clans still coveted that ability.

Karin looked at Menma, her eyes focused in a way that Sasuke knew meant she was reading the warrior's energy. "I'll heal you after I fix your friend's ribs."

The man tensed. "No, I'm fine."

Karin frowned, annoyed. She had no patience for male pride getting in the way of common sense, but Sasuke had a feeling that the man's reaction went deeper than that. "It's a deep cut. It will get infected if you don't treat it."

"I heal fast. It'll be fine." There was an edge to the man's voice this time. Kurenai looked over at him strangely, clearly not understanding his reticence at being healed.

Karin rolled her eyes and shrugged. "Whatever. It's your arm." She glanced over at Sasuke, and he nodded slightly.

The man evidently knew that Uzumaki healers could tell a lot about their patient's abilities and often clan background when they healed them. It was a secret that the Uzumaki clan had guarded, as it allowed them to appear to be helping in battles while actually gathering intelligence.

"We finished the sweep," Sai said, walking towards them from the path that led to the ridgetop where he had been fighting. Juugo was with him, walking slowly but clearly healed. "Most of the creatures were dead, but we finished off any that were just injured."

Sasuke nodded. Sai might be a pain in his ass, but he was meticulous about following protocol in these kinds of situations. Sai's statement confirmed that the battle was over, and now they needed to determine if their new found alliance had ended with it.

Naruto drew a slow breath as the rest of Sasuke's team arrived. No one was outwardly hostile, so that was a plus, but Naruto wasn't really sure where to start in talking about whether they wanted to make this alliance last more than just this battle. Tactics and negotiating had never been his strong suit. The only person who was probably worse than him was his hot-headed mother. But as much as he didn't approve of the way the Uchiha clan had treated the child they had tried to bind him to, there was no doubt in his mind that he and Kurenai would not have made it out of this battle alive if they had tried to handle it on their own. An alliance between their groups could be valuable if this turned into a full on war with whoever was controlling these creatures.

Naruto looked up to see the dark-haired newcomer regarding him curiously. He had the same lean build as Sasuke, but his eyes were black and not red. He was the only member of Sasuke's group that Naruto hadn't met. As though reading his thoughts, the man spoke.

"Since Sasuke doesn't look like he's going to introduce me, my name is Sai. Juugo said he met you when you jumped off a cliff and knocked him out in the middle of a battle."

Juugo shifted uncomfortably. "Sai, that's not what I -"

"Yep," Naruto cut in, with a smile that was all teeth. "And all the eighty-some creatures that were about to rip him apart, too. I'm Menma." The man wasn't standing close enough for Naruto to offer to shake his hand, and Naruto was fine with that. There was something… intense about the way the man was studying him, like he was a curiosity that was totally out of place and not altogether welcome.

"You're not very smart if you didn't even bring a shirt to wear on the top of a mountain in the middle of winter," Sai continued, his voice calm as though he were discussing the weather, not insulting someone who had just saved his teammate.

Naruto frowned, starting to get annoyed, even though he was pretty sure the guy was yanking his chain on purpose. "If you're worried about me, then go get my cloak out from under that landslide." Naruto turned to Sasuke. "Why is your team made up of assholes?"

"Hey!" Karin said, straightening up from where she had finished healing Kurenai. "I offered to heal you"

Naruto didn't bother replying that he was pretty sure at least half the reason she offered was so she could find out who Naruto was, or at least what his bloodline was. Kurenai arched a brow at him, but he just shook his head slightly.

"We need to notify the clans about what happened here," Naruto said, looking at Kurenai before turning back to Sasuke. "Do you know about the tunnels?"

He saw Kurenai shift beside him, and wondered if she felt that they shouldn't share the information they had, but Naruto wasn't going to do that. She had reacted to Sasuke's name, so clearly she knew something about him, but they had fought together, and - in Naruto's mind - even if the guy was an asshole, the Uchiha and his team had earned the right to know what Naruto knew. They were all facing the same threat, and he hoped they'd be on the same side if this was going to turn into a full on war, as it was looking like. There weren't many warriors in any of the clans who could take on as many as they had just defeated together with no casualties.

Sasuke looked back to where the mountainside had crumbled to reveal the creatures. "We just found out about them. Do you know how many there are or where they go?"

Naruto and Kurenai described what they'd seen, including the nature of the tunnels themselves.

Sasuke frowned. "I haven't heard about a clan with the ability to do something like that. Where was the opening to the tunnel that went north?"

Naruto glanced over to Kurenai since she was the one who had marked it on their map. "It was almost directly south of the old Senju clan lands," she said, careful not to look in Naruto's direction.

Sasuke didn't have the same compunction, and at the mention of the Senju clan, his eyes snapped back to Naruto. Naruto bit back a curse. Of course the Uchiha would have figured it out. Naruto tried to keep his face blank, but knew it wasn't his strength. He needed to get back to Shikamaru to talk to his friend. If anyone would know how much shit Naruto had just gotten himself into and whether there was a way to dig himself out, it was Shika.

"Is that what they used when they took out the Senju?" Sasuke asked, still looking at Naruto.

"I would have been about two months old, and living in a different territory, so I wouldn't know," Naruto snapped back. He had guarded his secret his entire life from even his parents, fighting alongside a clan with abilities that required constant vigilance, and within three days, at least two strangers had found out about his blood limit abilities.

Sasuke's lips compressed for a moment, but he didn't press further.

"We have no idea how old the tunnels are, only that the one leading to the Nara clan lands was sealed off until recently. The three we traveled to on our way here had entrances that were open," Kurenai said. "It would appear that they connect the Nara lands to the Uchiha lands, but there could be other tunnels."

"Show me," Sasuke ordered.

Kurenai narrowed her eyes, but nodded gracefully. Naruto noted the wariness in her gaze, and wondered again how much she knew about who Sasuke was. The man was definitely a skilled warrior, but Kurenai was treating him with almost a deference that had Naruto's back up.

Naruto rolled his eyes. "She doesn't report to you, asshole. You can ask like a normal person instead of just demanding shit."

Sasuke turned his gaze back to Naruto, and Naruto was struck again by the almost unnatural beauty of the man. It was almost disconcerting to know just how deadly the Uchiha was. He wondered if Sasuke knew the child that Naruto had been betrothed to… if he had approved of the arrangement, or if he'd been off fighting and had no idea.

"I'm not here to make friends. Show me the tunnel."

"Good thing, cuz you sure aren't making any," Naruto muttered under his breath as he turned and started walking back up to the ridgetop. They would need to circle around to get to the collapsed cave entrance. "There was a cave-in from the ice that melted when you were playing dragon. Not sure how long it will take to clear the area."

Sasuke snorted, but fell into step with Naruto. Kurenai thanked Karin for healing her, then they all followed the two warriors out of the ravine. Naruto shivered as they reached the top. The wind was stronger here, and the heat of the battle had dissipated. Without his cloak, he was exposed to the elements.

"I assume you have a camp near here with some clothes," Sasuke said.

Naruto shrugged. "We left our packs in the tunnel entrance. We didn't bring tents, since we were following the tunnels."

"Menma can share my tent with me. I have heard that sharing blankets is an efficient way to stay warm," Sai offered in the same expressionless tone he had used to insult Naruto only moments before.

Naruto blinked, trying to tell if the guy was hitting on him, being nice, or jerking him around again. Before he had a chance to figure it out, Sasuke cut Sai off.

"No one's sharing tents. Or blankets," Sasuke bit out, glaring at Sai. "We don't need tents if we sleep in the tunnels. Go pack up your gear and meet down at the base of the first ravine."

While Sasuke was discussing the logistics of where to set up camp, Kurenai turned to Naruto, keeping her voice low enough that it wouldn't carry over the winds on the mountaintop.

"Why didn't you let the healer treat your wounds?"

Naruto glanced over at Sasuke, but he seemed to be ignoring them. "I'm a quick healer. And she doesn't need to get any more info about my energy than she already has."

"The Uchiha already knows what you are."

"I know."

Kurenai opened her mouth to say something, but Sasuke was already walking towards them again.

"Let's go."

Naruto rolled his eyes at the Uchiha's terse command. "You're the one who was taking a lunch break with his friends, Uchiha. Kurenai and I have been here waiting."

Sasuke shot him a glare, and Naruto couldn't help but grin. There was something about the Uchiha that made Naruto want to poke at him. It probably wasn't the wisest choice, but 'wise' wasn't a term that he'd ever heard associated with himself. Sasuke's team turned and headed back up the path, leaving Naruto, Kurenai and Sasuke to walk back down to the tunnel entrance that Kurenai had mentioned.

They walked down along the ravine towards the collapsed cave entry way, their boots crunching over the charred remains of the creatures and fallen rock. The melting snow was mixing it all into a slurry that Naruto didn't really want to think about. He slanted a glance at Sasuke as he walked alongside him, the man's perfectly sculpted face giving nothing away about what he was thinking.

"I heard rumors of your clan breathing fire but I thought that was just bullshit." Naruto might have heard Kurenai sigh, but he shrugged it off.

"I heard rumors your clan was dead. Guess not all rumors are true."

"Don't get ahead of yourself, Uchiha. You don't know as much about me as you think you do."

"You want to fix that? Starting with your actual name, Menma?" Sasuke asked sharply, infusing Naruto's pseudonym with enough sarcasm to make it perfectly clear it wasn't his real name.

Naruto gave him a lopsided grin. "Do we need to revisit the part where I save your team's ass?"

"Menma," Kurenai warned.

Naruto rolled his eyes. "Whatever. Here's the entrance to the tunnel. More of the snow has melted. Looks like we can get in from the top left now. I'll clear a path and we can set up camp in here for the night."

"Hn," Sasuke said, waiting until Naruto had just begun to climb up the pile of fallen rock and ice before releasing a torrent of fire toward the narrow opening.

"Fuck!" Naruto shouted jumping clear of the flame. If he'd been wearing a cloak, it probably would have been singed by Sasuke's fire.

Sasuke paused, his face emotionless except for the glint of amusement in his dark eyes. "There. The path's cleared."

Naruto turned to see that the fire had melted enough ice to leave a wide opening to the tunnel.

"Show-off," he muttered, walking into the tunnel. He wouldn't admit to himself that breathing fire was pretty fucking cool.

Shikamaru walked down the steps of the inn, wishing he had gotten more sleep over the past few nights. The scouting team that his father had sent would be arriving shortly, and they would head out by noon. Shikamaru had enough experience with sleeping on the cold, rocky ground of the northern passes to know that he was going to be missing his bed severely by nightfall.

Kakashi was sitting in the dining room when he arrived, and Shikamaru walked over and joined him at the table.

"You look like you're dressed for travel," the older man mentioned casually.

Shikamaru wasn't fooled. It had taken him only two minutes after meeting the Uchiha representative to know that Asuma's assessment of him was 100% accurate. The man appeared lazy as a front, but his eyes didn't miss anything. Shikamaru still wasn't sure what side the man was on, but he seemed to truly want to fix the alliance.

Since they had met two days ago, they had been doing a sort of dance. Kakashi didn't come right out and say that he knew that Shikamaru had helped Naruto escape his family and head into the mountains to go after the creatures, but he had mentioned that he'd heard of Naruto and Shikamaru's close friendship, and that it was interesting that Shikamaru's father had arrived a day after Naruto's disappearance while Shikamaru raced north in an unplanned trip to a remote border town only to sit in an inn and do nothing for days.

The man had grimaced when he'd learned that a small group of Hyuuga soldiers had headed into the mountains with an unknown escort to find the site where the Namikaze scouting group had been attacked, but - again - he'd said nothing explicit. They mostly just sat in silence, drinking coffee and watching the other while they waited for news.

Today - for Shikamaru - the waiting was over. Ino had been keeping watch and there were no new signs of the creatures coming south, but there had also been no sign of Naruto. He would start following the trail and find out where he'd gone.

"Some of my father's warriors are arriving today. We're going to go and secure the base came where the Namikaze scouts were attacked." Shikamaru was sure the man already knew this. It didn't escape his notice that Kakashi's boots were much sturdier than the ones he had been wearing the past two days, and the cloak with the Uchiha symbol that was hanging from the back of his chair was much thicker… a traveling cloak, not one for wearing around town. "He didn't mention that we'd have anyone else going with us."

Kakashi shrugged, taking a sip of his coffee. "I just thought I might go for a hike today."

Shikamaru was about to reply when a motion at the window of the inn drew his attention. "What the hell?"

Kakashi turned to look behind him to see what had drawn the Nara's attention. There was a large hawk with blood red feathers on its wingtips swooping back and forth past the window.

"That's for me," he said, recognizing the Uchiha messenger hawk immediately. He stood and went outside, aware that the Nara had followed him. The hawk immediately swooped down and perched on his shoulder. Kakashi tensed when he saw the jet black tube on the bird's leg. He activated his left eye, and saw Itachi's seal activate. If anyone other than a sharingan holder tried to read the message, it would self-destruct, likely taking a good part of the person trying to read it along with it. These messages were difficult to create, and only used in dire circumstances. "Fuck," he cursed.

Something had gone very wrong if Itachi was sending this to him. Kakashi reached for the tube, and opened the message.

"I will definitely be coming with you and your father's men," Kakashi said. All laziness was gone from his tone. Shikamaru looked at him, not surprised by what he saw. This man had never been a simple messenger. Looking into the hard, determined expression on the man's face, he just hoped they were really on the same side.

Kakashi was not someone he would enjoy having for an enemy.

To be continued…

Chapter Text

A/N - Sorry for the wait!  I had to write the final chapter of Corp Secrets, then respond to the reviews (holy shit, you guys are awesome!!), so this took an extra week to get up.  But now that this is the only story that I am posting on, it SHOULD go faster.  Fingers crossed!  Huge thanks to Mykko_chan for beta'ing parts of this!

Chapter 8 - Night in the tunnels


Naruto didn't even have to stoop as he stepped into the cave entrance that Sasuke had melted open. He couldn't be sure, but somehow he had the sense that Sasuke had calculated the exact amount of heat he needed to deliver to melt precisely enough ice for that to happen. The fact that the man was able to do so impressed him, but somehow also made him want to show the other man up. He breathed out a huff at the somewhat irrational thought. He should be focusing on trying to make an ally out of Sasuke, not provoking him, but there was just something about the Uchiha that got under his skin.

He saw his bag, fortunately uncrushed and un-burned, just inside the entrance of the cave. It was a relief, because he was fucking cold without his cloak now that the icy winds and blown away the residual heat from the battle. At least inside the tunnel he was out of the wind, but it was still made of ice and cold-ass rock. He opened his pack and quickly pulled out his thickest two wool tunics. He didn't have a spare cloak since he and Kurenai had been traveling light, but hopefully between doubling up on his shirts and wrapping up in his blanket he would be warm enough to make it through the night. He could get a replacement cloak back at the base camp.

He paused, realizing that he would have to take his helmet off to change his torn shirt for the new ones. With any other traveling companions, he would simply go further back in the tunnel where it was pitch black and change, but both the Uchiha and Kurenai had eyes that saw more than most. Another shiver wracked through him as the heat of battle had fully faded and the cold seeped into his bones. From what he knew about night vision, it could tell shapes of things, but not color. He hoped that was true of his traveling companions as well. As long as he kept his back to them, they would not see his face in any case. Worst case scenario was they could tell his hair color, but the Namikaze's weren't the only clan to have light-colored hair.

"I'm gonna get some clothes on," Naruto said over his shoulder as he began walking further into the tunnel.

"You never had your arm treated. Do you want me to look at it? It looked deep to leave untreated. It might need stitches if you won't let the healer repair it." Kurenai looked over at the deep gash on Naruto's arm that was still slowly oozing blood. Naruto was glad that he had been expending enough energy in the battle that the wound hadn't had time to close yet. As far as he knew, only the Uzumaki clan had healing abilities, and he didn't want anyone figuring out any more than they already had about who he was. It was bad enough that they knew he had Senju blood in him. No point on making the potential bull's eye on his back even bigger.

Although, it would be next to impossible to keep his identity from Kurenai when they got back to the base camp. Still, he could at least keep the Uchiha out of it. Kurenai was from a friendly clan. The Uchihas likely had an issue with him after he fucked up the alliance. He'd have to be careful until they were back and he'd talked to Shika about how to handle this. He just needed to buy time.

"If you wanted your hands on my body, all you had to do was ask, Kurenai," Naruto said, grinning suggestively. Kurenai rolled her eyes, and the Uchiha's face remained expressionless. "S'fine, though. It's not as deep as it looks. I've got stuff in my bag. Gimme a sec, then we can play show and tell about what we all know about what these things are that we just spent the afternoon killing and figure out what we do from here."

Naruto walked deeper into the tunnel, feeling eyes track his movements. His blood was still humming from the adrenaline rush of battle, and he would have been lying if he didn't admit at least to himself that fighting with Sasuke had been more of a rush than usual. Feeling those deadly, calculating eyes on his back had that same effect, making his blood heat. He intentionally didn't look back, knowing it would likely irritate the man that Naruto was comfortable turning his back on him. Naruto was fairly good at reading people, and he instinctively knew that Sasuke was someone who was used to people fearing him, and used to making his own rules.

It made Naruto curious about him… what his limits and boundaries were, if he even had any.

Once he was deep enough into the shadows, Naruto pulled off his helmet and the remains of his torn shirt, careful to keep his back towards the other two occupants of the cave. He could feel the soot and dried sweat on his skin, making it itch. He wished he could bathe, but he wasn't desperate enough to scrub himself down with snow to get it off. At least the creatures didn't bleed. His own sweat and dirt he didn't mind, but being bathed in blood would have been much less tolerable. He tied a bandage over his wound (more to keep its rapid healing away from too acute eyes than to actually aid in the healing process) and pulled on fresh clothing.

He could hear Sasuke asking Kurenai about the nature of her mission for the Hyuuga, and Kurenai responding with the basic information about the border raids and the attack on the Namikaze scouting party. She didn't go into details on the strength or composition of the scouting party, nor on what the Hyuuga clan was planning to do in response. Naruto realized that she was giving just enough information to aid a potential ally, but nothing that could be used against the Hyuugas should the Uchihas end up not on the same side.

Naruto's approach to that sort of negotiation was to put all his cards on the table and hope others did the same, so he was infinitely grateful that she was the one doing the talking instead of him.

He put his helmet on, trying to get his thoughts together about what they should do next. Rest was going to be the first priority. Everyone was exhausted after the battle, and while the major injuries had been treated by Karin (except for his own, but it really wasn't that major), it still took a heavy toll on the body that was healed. But as soon as he and Kurenai were rested, they needed to get back to Shikamaru and warn him that this was a hell of a lot bigger than they'd thought. The clans were totally unprepared for this level of attack, and they needed to start calling warriors back from other fronts to get ready.

He turned and headed back to where Kurenai and Sasuke were still talking. Kurenai was sitting on her pack just inside the entrance facing Sasuke, who was reclining against the wall, seated on a large rock. His arm rested with deceptive casualness on his knee, but Naruto noticed that his other hand was in easy reach of the hilt of his sword that was sheathed on his hip.

He could see the red glow of Sasuke's eyes fixed on him, and he wondered how much the man was able to see in the darkness. It made him uneasy, and Naruto couldn't remember the last time an opponent had made him feel that way. There was something ruthless and unyielding in Sasuke's gaze that went beyond the sort of arrogance that one would expect from a warrior of Sasuke's strength and skill. It fascinated Naruto, but he knew he had to be careful. The Uchiha clan was not known for being overly friendly, even without someone ripping up an alliance offer and throwing it in their faces.

Naruto added that to the list of reasons for him to keep his identity secret. Sasuke would be a valuable ally in this fight, but he would likely say 'no' out of principle if he knew who Naruto really was.

Kurenai seemed to have had the same idea about trying to get Sasuke to agree to a tentative alliance, but it didn't seem to be going well. "The Hyuuga clan would be willing to combine forces in this, as would the other clans from the western lands. It would be better for us all to fight this enemy together."

Sasuke finally shifted his gaze from Naruto and turned to face Kurenai. "The Uchiha clan has no interest in forming an alliance with the Hyuuga."

Kurenai let out a frustrated sound, but her voice stayed calm. "I'm not suggesting a Blood Tie." Sasuke's eyes narrowed sharply, and Naruto wondered for a moment if Sasuke had already heard the news of the Uchiha Clan's failed attempt at a Blood Tie alliance with the Namikaze clan. "I'm simply suggesting that we coordinate battle plans and share information."

Sasuke looked at her for a moment. "I have no interest in working with the Hyuuga. Their main strength is in tracking, and I already have two that can cover the entire mountain range as part of my team."

Naruto scoffed as he sat down against the opposite wall of the cave, facing Sasuke, stretching out his legs in front of him. Decisions about alliances could only be made by the head of a clan or a very high-ranking delegate, especially with stakes this high.

"We have an army of creatures burrowing through the fucking rock to attack our lands, and you're just saying 'no' to working together? Do you even have authority to make that call for your entire clan? " Naruto asked, full of frustration and disbelief.

"Menma," Kurenai said warningly, shooting a wary glance at Sasuke. Naruto reminded himself to ask Kurenai what she knew about who the fuck Sasuke was later.

Sasuke turned his cold gaze to Naruto. "Yes. I have full authority to make that call."

Naruto might not be the best liar, but he could tell when someone was bullshitting him. He knew for sure that Sasuke wasn't, which meant he was incredibly high up in the clan hierarchy. Naruto had seen a drawing of Fugaku, the clan head, and knew that Sasuke wasn't him, but he had to be a close blood relative and one of their top warriors to have that kind of decision authority. Naruto supposed it should be no surprise that the Uchiha was roughly the same rank as he was within his clan.

But that also meant he had to be related to the kid they'd tried to sell off in the marriage contract, and evidently hadn't done jack shit to stop it. Naruto felt his temper flare, but tamped it down. Just because Sasuke had say about war alliances didn't mean he'd had anything to do with the blood alliance. Naruto had barely had any say, and he was the one bringing the blood of his clan into it. Still, he couldn't help the anger that seeped into his tone.

"This is stupid. You and I both know that neither of us would have made it out of this battle today if we'd been fighting alone. You might be able to breathe fucking fire and handle yourself with a sword, but even you couldn't have killed them all on your own. Your teammates held their ground for a bit, but at least two of them would be worm food if Kurenai and I hadn't shown up when we had."

Sasuke arched a brow, but otherwise didn't respond to Naruto's show of temper. "I said I didn't want to work with the Hyuugas. Your cloak was unmarked." His voice was deep and calm, but his eyes were challenging as he looked directly at Naruto.

Naruto stilled, and he felt Kurenai's eyes bore into his. He had to be very careful about what he said next, and careful wasn't his strong suit. Sasuke couldn't know that he spoke for the Namikaze clan, and any offer of alliance or fealty he made would carry heavy political consequences. The sound of Sasuke's team approaching had Kurenai and Naruto turning toward the entrance of the tunnel, though Sasuke's eyes remained fixed on Naruto.

"You don't know what clan I'm from. Or if I have any clan at all," Naruto began. Juugo was the first one in, setting two large packs down just inside the entrance.

"Sasuke, tell Sai to keep his fucking opinions to himself," Suigetsu grumbled as he threw his pack into the far corner, oblivious to the heavy tension he had walked into. "And I am not compensating for anything with the length of my sword, asshole!"

Sai walked in behind him, his face as bored and expressionless as ever. "If you had nothing to prove, you wouldn't be so defensive."

"Oh, my god. Will you two please stop talking about the size of your dicks? We haven't even discussed what we're going to do about the bodies yet," Karin said, her eyes flashing with annoyance.

"Leave the bodies," Sasuke said dismissively.

"You sure? We buried the others before," Karin asked, frowning uncertainly.

"Only to delay discovery of the fact that we were hunting them," Sasuke said, his voice and body language betraying no emotion or the slightest amount of concern. "There's no hiding that a battle happened here. Burying them would be a waste of time."

Silence fell as the implications of Sasuke's words sunk in. Whatever the initial timeline of the war was that had been in mind of whoever was controlling the creatures, they had shortened it. They were fully at war, and they didn't even know who their real enemy was, or why they were attacking.

"Shit," Naruto cursed, scrubbing his hands over his face. "I have to get back and warn the clans. They aren't prepared for this."

"Kurenai said the Hyuuga were made aware of the group you fought closer to her clan's lands," Sasuke said.

"We did. But they don't know what we've learned about the tunnels, or the fact that there appear to be… storage centers for these creatures in much larger numbers than we had anticipated," Kurenai clarified. She also left out the fact that they wouldn't likely know of the Uchiha involvement, but Naruto didn't feel the need to add that.

"It doesn't take both of you to deliver that message back to the Hyuugas." Sasuke turned to look steadily at Naruto.

Kurenai frowned, glancing between the two men. "The Uchiha have no alliances with any of the clans to the west of the mountains. Whatever Menma's origins, he joined a Hyuuga mission that left from Nara clan grounds. At least one of those two clans would need to be involved with any negotiation for his services to the Uchiha clan."

Naruto shifted, knowing that his identity was going to come out sooner or later. Sasuke was right that even battlefield alliances could have longer-term implications for clan relations. He'd totally blown up his clan's attempts to ally with the Uchihas. What would happen when they found out he'd run off and joined them in battle? It might help repair some of the damage, but it might also be viewed as a way to trick them into a temporary alliance when they'd negotiated for something more. Not to mention that Naruto would be totally cut off from his clan if he joined up with Sasuke. He would have no means of communicating what they found back to his own clan or Shika if he joined up with Sasuke.

"Let him answer for himself," Sasuke said.

Naruto licked his lips nervously. "I promised the son of the Nara clan leader I would come back and let him know what we found. His family was the one who equipped me for this mission. I need to go back and talk to him first. If I'm going to work with your team, I'll need to have some way to communicate with him so he can keep the other clans informed. If there's going to be war, they need to know about the tunnels and updates on any troop locations we find."

"Hn." Sasuke paused then seemed to decide something. "My clan has an emissary west of the mountains. I can instruct him to go to the Nara clan. We can use our clan's messenger birds to communicate with him, just as I do to the Uchiha council."

Naruto tried to keep his face neutral. He knew exactly who the emissary was that Sasuke was talking about. He doubted Kakashi had stuck around after the marriage contract blew up in his face, but he couldn't say that out loud since he wasn't supposed to know shit about secret attempts at blood alliances. Even if Kakashi had stuck around trying to save face, Naruto wasn't sure he liked leaving the communication in the hands of a clan that probably wasn't too happy with him. "Let me talk to the Nara."

"We don't have time for you to take four days there and four days back. We were able to take out so many creatures today because they didn't expect us. I don't know how much time we have before they figure out that we're hunting them. We need to follow the tunnels and see where they lead. Starting with the tunnel north."

Naruto glanced at Kurenai. Sasuke was right… they didn't have time to fuck around. This was all going to blow up in his face eventually, but he really didn't know how else to play it. There was just too much at stake to be careful anymore. No matter what Shikamaru said, Naruto knew that the best chance all their clans had was for him and Sasuke to work together. Neither one of their clans was strong enough to take this on alone. "Two days."

"What?" Sasuke asked, sounding annoyed.

"Give me two days," Naruto repeated, firmly. "It will take you at least one day to reach the entrance to the northern tunnel. You only have to wait for me one more day, maybe less."

"There's no way you can get all the way to Nara lands and back in two days," Sasuke retorted, sound annoyed.

"You worry about your shit, I'll worry about mine. It will take more than two days for you to get reinforcements from your clan. I'm your fastest bet, but I need to let people know what I'm doing and what we know." Naruto met Sasuke's gaze directly, not flinching from the hard look Sasuke gave him. Sasuke's expression shifted subtly to something Naruto wasn't quite sure how to read, but definitely wasn't as annoyed or skeptical as it had been a moment ago.

"Did you send for reinforcements already?" Kurenai asked.

Sasuke looked over to her. "My clan knows about the threat. But it doesn't make sense to send reinforcements into the mountains. Large armies lose a lot of their effectiveness in this terrain. We were able to keep the creatures separated into smaller groups and take them out piece by piece. A larger force helping us would only have gotten in our way. Especially with the second type of creature."

Naruto paused, glancing over to Kurenai to see a similar expression of confusion on her face. "Second type of creature?

Suigetsu snorted. "The one that took a bite out of the Ice Prince's ass, here."

"Not his ass, you ass. His shoulder," Karin retorted.

Sasuke glared at them both.

"And it got to you? What, was it like… a swarm of them like it was here?" Naruto gestured toward the entrance of the cave to where the bodies of the creatures lay in the distance.

Sasuke's jaw tightened, and Sai replied. "No. It was just one. And it escaped."

Naruto blinked. "So it was the five of you against one enemy, and you couldn't kill it?"

"It's not simple like these," Sasuke said tightly.

Naruto decided not to poke at the man's obviously sore pride more, though he was greatly tempted. But if there was a creature out there that Sasuke and his team couldn't defeat, it must have some special abilities.

"What made it hard to kill?" Kurenai asked. "What abilities does it have?"

"You can't hit it," Suigetsu said, his mouth full of some sort of dried meat that he'd pulled from his pack. "The thing is like… totally fucked up. It can hit you, but Sasuke tried to swing back, his sword just passed right through him like he was just… smoke or some shit."

Naruto blinked, then looked back to Sasuke. "Is he joking?"

Sasuke relaxed back against the wall. "Unfortunately, no."

"Not that Suigetsu would know.  He got frozen up in his own little world as soon as the thing looked at him," Karin said smugly as Suigetsu flushed red.

"But like… you could just light him up, right?" Naruto asked, frowning.

"I did. Then it vanished and reappeared with the flames out. It was burned, but not dead like it should have been."

Naruto tried to process fighting a creature that couldn't basically dematerialize itself and avoid any attack. A look at Kurenai's shocked face told him she was feeling the same.

"Fuck." He wondered if the new attack he'd invented would work on it. "How long until it disappeared when you lit it on fire?"

"Under a second," Sasuke said grimly.

"Shit." Naruto realized this his new attack likely wouldn't work on the creature. Even with the weaker ones, his attack took about three seconds to bring them down. He didn't say it out loud, though. Clans kept the weaknesses and limits of their abilities guarded for a reason. Sasuke's eyes were on him, and Naruto wondered how much the man was able to read in his face.

"Have you ever heard of anything like that?" Naruto asked Kurenai.

"No," she said, looking concerned. "The Hyuuga have extensive libraries on clan abilities, but I've never heard of anything like this."

"You have any ideas on what might work on this thing?" Naruto asked. "You've had time to think about it."

Sasuke looked at Naruto intently for a moment, but then shrugged. "I have some ideas. Nothing that I've been able to put to the test. We tried tracking the creature when it ran off, but it disappeared. Probably into another tunnel, which we didn't know about at the time. Based on what you described with the tunnels that led here, it could be anywhere by now."

Sai shifted. "I'll broaden the search. I've been keeping watch on the valley where it disappeared."

Sasuke nodded. "It's had time to get back to whoever sent it and warn them we're coming. I'll give you two days, but not an hour more. I don't give a fuck if you make it back to the Nara or not. But if you don't make it to the northern tunnel entrance in two days, we're leaving without you."

Their eyes locked, Sasuke clearly laying down a challenge

"I'll be there," Naruto said, throwing him a cocky grin. "Just make sure you're not late."

"Tch," Sasuke said, rolling his eyes. "Don't be stupid."

"Great! We're all gonna go chasing after something that we've got no fucking clue how to kill, except for the hot chick since Sasuke didn't like her cloak. Sounds like a plan," Suigetsu said loudly, digging out something that looked like dried stew from his pack. "Now that negotiations are done, can we get some fire going in here so we can eat? I'm starving."

Shikamaru sighed as he looked at the small, frozen base camp. He was already missing his warm, soft bed back at the inn. But at least they were finally doing something, even if all they were 'doing' was waiting for Naruto in a much less comfortable location.

Something had Shikamaru on edge, though, and he had no intention of going back to the inn. The appearance of the creatures at the same time the Uchiha and Namikaze clans' alliance was sabotaged was too much of a coincidence for him to relax. The two were related, but he didn't yet know how.

He felt someone approach, the waft of cigarette smoke already letting him know who it was. He turned to see Asuma walking up the path, his tent roll slung over his shoulder.

"You should set up your tent before the sun starts to set," the older man said breathing in the cigarette smoke, then releasing it into the cold mountain air.

Shikamaru nodded, but made no move to do so.

"You're worried," Asuma stated.

Shikamaru tilted his head back, looking up at the thin white clouds moving slowly overhead. "There's a cold front moving in. And a storm behind it."

Asuma waited, knowing that the Nara heir had more to say.

"Naruto wasn't planning to be gone this long. It's been four days since he left with the Hyuuga warrior into the tunnel."

Asuma nodded. "Which means he likely found something."

Shikamaru continued to watch the clouds, but Asuma knew he was listening to everything he said. "He found something that took enough energy that he can't get back quickly."

Asuma looked at him sharply, tossing his half-smoked cigarette down into the snow. "You never told me how Naruto was able to get out of the Namikaze village so quickly."

Shikamaru didn't reply. He trusted Asuma, but if Shika's suspicions were true, it was too dangerous to let slip. He had never talked to Naruto directly about it, but Shikamaru had studied many things in their family's extensive library. One of them included the amount of energy required to teleport longer distances. The distance Naruto was able to achieve was completely outside the realm of anything Shika had ever read, with one exception. In order to go that far, the person would need to draw on energy beyond what a human body could generate on its own, even with the vast internal sources that the Uzumaki clan was famous for. They would need to draw from their surroundings, and there was only one clan who had ever been able to do that.

Naruto might not be the biggest history student, but evidently even he knew to keep that quiet after what had happened to the rest of the Senju clan. He wondered if Naruto's parents knew, or if his friend had kept it hidden from everyone.

"He'll be here when he can. We just have to be ready," Shikamaru said, hoping his words would prove to be true.

Asuma didn't press. He'd known Shikamaru too long to waste his time. When the Nara was ready to tell him, he would. Shikamaru didn't keep secrets without a good reason.

"The Uchiha emissary is watching you. I was surprised you let him come along."

Shikamaru knew better than to turn to find where the man was standing. "He received a message from one of the Uchiha messenger birds. The man has a good poker face, but it was not good news. If he is getting messages from the Uchiha party that was tracking the same creatures Naruto was, he might get word before we do about what is happening."

Asuma nodded. "I've heard about their homing birds, but never seen one."

Shikamaru picked up his tent, the wind beginning to cut through his cloak as the sun went behind a cloud. "It found him even though he was sitting inside the inn."

"Hm," Asuma hummed thoughtfully. "So it's not finding him by site."

"Nope. There are rumors it's blood related, and only someone with Uchiha blood can make use of them. In any case, having the ability to communicate to someone once we're days into the mountains by foot could be an advantage. Especially if what Naruto and Kurenai suspected was true, and they're hiding an army in the mountains in those tunnels. Ino can't see them if they're underground. We'll need to be able to communicate some other way."

Asuma chuckled. "I should have known you'd have thought this all the way through. But Naruto doesn't have an Uchiha in his group. We still can't talk to him until he gets his ass back here."

Shikamaru's jaw tightened as he tried to fight down his worry for his friend. Naruto was the bravest man he knew. But he was also one of the rashest. "He'll come." He wasn't sure if he was trying to convince Asuma or himself.

The sound of feet approaching had them both turning. Shikamaru knew from experience that Kakashi could be completely silent if he wanted, so he nodded at the man's courtesy of letting them know he was approaching.

"Trying to decide where to set up your tents?" Kakashi asked, his single, uncovered eye observing them carefully.

Shikamaru gave a lazy shrug. "Hopefully we won't be here long enough for it to matter much."

Asuma slanted a look over to Kakashi. "Unless you've heard differently."

Kakashi arched a brow. "Hm. Not sure how I could hear one way or another when I'm not even supposed to know who we're here waiting for."

Neither Asuma nor Shikamaru reacted. They knew the man had somehow already figured out that Naruto had fled to Nara lands to escape the marriage, then taken off into the mountains to investigate the creature threat.

"But you know something about what's happening in the mountains. Maybe from the Uchiha group that was hunting them," Shikamaru said, dumping his tent down in a relatively flat area.

"Mm. Seems like we both might know things that the other would find useful," Kakashi said, his voice deceptively cheerful.

Shikamaru and Asuma exchanged a glance. Naruto would hopefully be showing up soon. With Kakashi camping with them, it wasn't like they could hide Naruto's arrival from him.

"And if we confirmed that Naruto did come here, killed thirty of the creatures, and went off to try to scout the size of the army?" Asuma said, clearly deciding to make use of the information while it was still theirs to control.

Kakashi's eye widened slightly, though Shikamaru wasn't sure if it was due to Asuma's candidness or the number of creatures he stated that Naruto had taken out.

"Then maybe I would share information that there is more than one type of creature that the Uchiha team has encountered. The ones that attacked here -," Kakashi gestured to the camp. "... are harmless compared to the other."

Asuma tensed. "Do we know anything about them? What their abilities are, or how many?"

Kakashi gave a shrug that was designed to appear casual. "The team that was going after them went silent. Just like your boy did."

"Fuck," Shikamaru said.

"Yep," Kakashi agreed.

Asuma pulled out a cigarette. Kakashi reached over and took one as well. The two older men smoked in silence while Shikamaru looked out toward the tunnel entrance where Naruto had disappeared. An Uchiha team sent specifically to take out the creatures would have been a much harder target than the Namikaze scouting team that was taken unawares.

"Naruto…," Shikamaru murmured. "Hurry up and get your ass back here."

Karin looked out at the opening of the tunnel. "I don't sense anything. We should be fine to light a fire as long as we do it far enough back in the tunnel that the light doesn't travel far."

The sun had started to set and the temperature was rapidly dropping, even within the relative shelter of the tunnel.

"Yeah, but you were the one who missed the hordes of creatures hiding in the rocks all around us, weren't you?" Suigetsu asked, though he reached into Juugo's pack to pull out two large logs and began arranging them in a makeshift fire pit.

"Next time, I'll just leave your broken arm flailing around. I said that there was a weird reflection I was sensing. I just didn't think there were tunnels for them to be hiding in. Now I know what to look for," Karin replied, defensively.

"Shut up, both of you," Sasuke said tersely. He used his foot to roll a loose rock near the logs to complete the fire pit Suigetsu was building, then leaned back against the cave wall. He looked over at the small pile of logs, then breathed out a narrow stream of flame, setting them alight. The group didn't waste time in laying out their bedrolls around the fire. Everyone was tired.

"I'll take first watch," Menma offered to the group.

Karin looked over to Sasuke for approval, and he gave a short nod. He wasn't surprised at the offer. He had a feeling that the man was only going to stay as long as it took for his companion to rest, then they would leave. He doubted it would be comfortable to sleep in a helmet, and it was clear the Senju had no intentions of taking it off.

The rest of the group didn't argue, everyone too exhausted to do much other than quickly finish eating and lay down in their blankets. Sasuke set his bed roll up, but had no intention of sleeping until Karin was rested enough to take over from Menma.

The wind was picking up outside, and he wondered if another storm was approaching. At least inside the tunnels, they'd be shielded from the weather. Sasuke glanced over to the entrance, his eyes searching for any sign of the messenger bird that had been diverted before the battle. If it had stayed in the area, it would have already returned to deliver its message. He frowned slightly. The protocol for messenger birds was usually for them to stay in the area until the message had been delivered. The only exception was for particularly sensitive messages or when there was some belief that the receiving party had been compromised. Neither option was good. A twinge of unease settled in him. Something was wrong, and he was too far away to see with his own eyes what was happening.

Going back was out of the question, though. They'd dealt a strong first blow to the enemy, but they still had no idea what they were really up against, or how to defeat the ice rider. Sasuke's gaze drifted over to the Senju warrior. The man had laid his blanket out near the fire, and was lounging back against the wall. The yellow-orange glow flickered over his helmet, but revealed nothing other than the blue eyes and pink lips that Sasuke had already seen. All that mattered about a potential ally was his or her strength in battle, but Sasuke still felt annoyance at the fact that he couldn't see more of the man's features.

He brushed it off, focusing instead on the way Menma laying. Sasuke hadn't known the blue-eyed warrior for even an entire day, but 'stillness' was something he was quite sure didn't come naturally for the man. Yet he was holding himself completely still now, eyes fixed on the fire, breathing slow and steady. It wasn't just the light of the fire that was lending a golden glow to the man's eyes.

Sasuke activated his sharingan, watching the exact rate that 'Menma' was able to pull in energy while resting. He'd have to study the man's rate at absorbing energy in battle more closely to see if his idea would work, but it was the best shot they'd have. They still would have to find the rider, but at least now he had a plan for attacking it. When the Senju returned from notifying the Nara about their plans, Sasuke would put it to the test.

"Should I be worried that you're staring at me, or do you do that to all your houseguests?" Menma asked, shifting his gaze from the fire to meet Sasuke's. There was no mistaking the wariness in his expression, nor the fact that Kurenai's hand had moved to the hilt of her sword.

Sasuke deactivated his sharingan, and shrugged. "It's good to know an ally's abilities."

"Yeah, well, buy a guy a drink first before you go looking under his clothes," Menma shot back, looking discomfited. Given the secret the man was carrying, Sasuke couldn't really blame him, but he wasn't going to apologize for looking at what was right in front of him.

Sai moved over to sit by Menma, his face showing no expression as he turned to face the blue-eyed warrior. "I'd be more than happy to share my alcohol with you if you would then let me see you without your clothes."

"Sai," Sasuke warned. He really wasn't sure why it irritated him that Sai was flirting with the Senju. It was fairly normal for most of his crew to seek sexual companionship after a battle, and - as long as it didn't involve him - Sasuke usually didn't give a fuck.

But the Senju was the last of his clan, and anyone who formed an alliance with him would have access to a power that the world thought was extinct. If Sasuke found himself feeling somewhat possessive over him, it was only logical. Sai looked at Sasuke for a moment as though to decide if he were serious or not. Something in Sasuke's expression must have given the man a hint, since Sai simply shrugged and wrapped up in his blankets next to where the Senju was keeping watch.

Sasuke shifted, his shoulder starting to stiffen up after over-using it. Karin looked over from where she was laying down. "Is it still bothering you?"

He was aware of Menma watching them, and didn't want to acknowledge the weakness. He could have Karin rub the healing oils in when the two outsiders had left. "No. I'll wake you for your watch."

Karin didn't let her gaze flicker to the two new members to the group, but she clearly got his message that he didn't want to talk about it. She nodded and lay back down to sleep.

It wasn't long before the rest of the group had drifted off.

"You're not going to sleep?" Menma asked.

"When Karin takes over."

The man gave a soft snort. "Not very trusting, are you?"

Sasuke shrugged. "I know her abilities. And her loyalties. I don't know yours."

"Fair enough."

"You're leaving as soon as Kurenai is rested?"

"Yeah. I can sleep later. Right now I'm just drawing in energy, but I guess you already saw that."

Now that Karin was sleeping, the man was drawing it in at a much faster rate.

"Sai said you were able to teleport your companion when you were fighting the group of creatures by your base camp."

Menma looked at him, but didn't answer. "The only way you could meet me in two days would be if you thought you could teleport all the way back to your camp in one go."

Blue eyes met his. "And?"

Sasuke couldn't hold back a soft chuckle. "Fuck. You can really do it?"

The man shrugged. "Guess we'll find out in a few hours."


Karin stirred at the sound of their voices, and Sasuke leaned back against the wall, letting his eyes drift half closed. His team needed sleep. He wondered if the man could really do what he claimed. It would open a lot of possibilities, if it were true.

Outside, the sound of the wind picked up. There was definitely a storm moving in, which meant that any messenger birds would be delayed. They wouldn't be able to wait for the storm to pass before taking the tunnel. Whoever was trying to get in touch with him would have to wait.

Kakashi scanned the sky overhead, his eyes searching for any sign of a messenger bird letting him know what the fuck was going on. First the contract to blood tie the two clans was sabotaged. Then Naruto disappeared. Now Sasuke. He'd spent enough time at the Namikazes to be fairly sure that the deception hadn't happened from their side. That meant it was either someone within the Uchiha clan, or it was a very powerful and well-informed outside adversary.

Under most circumstances, he would have completely discounted the second as a viable option. The Uchihas took clan secrecy seriously. The amount of skill and knowledge it would take to break into one of their sealed documents would be nearly impossible.

But there was no denying that the creatures that Sasuke had encountered were new, and someone was behind it. Kakashi was not a man who believed in coincidences. That fact that Itachi was sending messages with this degree of security, coupled with the fact that the Council had been completely silent after he notified them of the breakdown of the alliance had his skin itching.

His hand slid over the hilt of the blade he kept strapped to his leg. It was one of many weapons concealed on his body, but given he was in hostile territory, he'd taken to wearing it openly.

Most of the camp was asleep, but he could tell from the small, red glow of light from a cigarette a few tents away that Asuma was still awake. The man was a seasoned veteran, like Kakashi, and Kakashi could tell that he was just as on edge as he was. Something big was coming, and it wasn't going to be good.

A movement caught his eye on the trail that led to the tunnel that Naruto and the Hyuuga clan warrior had taken. Two figures were walking towards the base camp, one male and one female. Kakashi tugged the cloth down from his left eye, activating his sharingan. He wasn't surprised to recognize the male immediately, and felt a small amount of relief that the Namikaze heir seemed unharmed.

He slipped into the shadows, as Asuma stood and walked towards the new arrivals, shouting over to Shikamaru to wake him. Kakashi wanted to see what news Naruto brought without getting the filtered version that Asuma the Nara heir might choose to share with him.

To be continued...

Chapter Text

Chapter 9 - Reunions and revelations

A/N - Yay!  I finally got a chapter up early!  Thanks to Mykko_Chan for beta'ing parts of this. 

Naruto stumbled against the wall of the cave, his vision going black.

"Menma!" Kurenai's voice was alarmed as she grabbed him by his shoulders to keep him upright.

"Fine… 'm fine. Just… gimme a sec," Naruto breathed out, leaning heavily against the cold stones. He couldn't help the grin that spread across his face. "Look outside."

Kurenai cast a worried look at him before slowly releasing him and walking toward the entrance of the tunnel.

"Oh, my god! You took us all the way back to the base camp in one jump!"

Naruto let energy from his surroundings pour into him as quickly as he could. There wasn't time for him to fully restore himself, but he needed enough to help him make it to camp without passing so he could sleep it off. He had never used his powers this much before, and he had no idea if there would be any long-term effects. Given the timeline he had to stick to, he hoped he could just sleep for 6 hours or so and be ready to go, like usual.

"Told you we'd make it back in no time." Naruto opened his eyes to find Kurenai looking at him with wide eyes, making Naruto chuckle. It wasn't often that the battle-hardened Hyuuga warrior showed that she was impressed. "I always wanted to see just how far I could go. I never tried anything like this before. It actually didn't tire me out anymore than jumping to Shika's place."

"Shikamaru? How far did you go when you teleported to him?" Kurenai asked, leaning against the wall of the tunnel while Naruto recovered.

Naruto's face blanked as he realized he couldn't answer that question. He no longer cared if people found out where he'd fled to after breaking the marriage contract. The situations with the creatures now made that seem unimportant. But Kurenai knew he had Senju powers. If word got out about it, it could put his entire clan at risk. The previous purge of the Senju had been thorough, and the clan behind it was never found. They had swept in from the mountains, and the western front, then disappearing once the Senju and Uzumaki clans were dead, leaving behind only a few random groups of clanless warriors that periodically attacked their borders, hoping to take advantage of the war and claim the lands that the first invaders had mysteriously left untouched. But the remaining clans to the west of the mountains had banded together and fought back, and the Uchiha Clan lands were sufficiently shielded by mountains to stop the marauders from reaching them.

Naruto rubbed his hand along his jaw. "Ah, from a few miles away. Nothing like this, though."

Kurenai seemed to realize he had revealed more than he'd intended, and didn't pursue it.

"Menma... or whoever you are. The Uchiha said that there was a member of his clan that he was sending to meet with the Naras. If that man was already nearby, he might have heard about the creature attacks here and come north. The Hyuuga clan might also already be at the camp. Don't draw in any more energy than you already have. Too many people have be able to see it."

Naruto nodded, shutting off his absorption. "Yeah. I just needed enough to get back to camp. Once I sleep it off, I should be fine. I can flicker back to this tunnel, then pull in enough energy to get me to the meeting point with the Uchiha squad."

Kurenai sighed, clearly still not happy with the plan. "I know why you're doing it. Just… be careful. The Uchihas are not interested in making friends or alliances. Of all the clans, they were always the most ruthless, and one of the most secretive."

"You seem to know a lot about them. And Sasuke."

Kurenai gave a rueful chuckle. "The Hyuuga still view the Uchiha as their rivals, even though it has been centuries since the two clans last fought. They keep us all up-to-speed on the clan's politics, strengths and weaknesses."

"And Sasuke?"

Kurenai shot him a sharp look. "Sasuke is one of their biggest strengths. What I've heard is that both Sasuke and his elder brother, Itachi, are the strongest warriors that the Uchiha Clan has produced in almost two hundred years, rivaling the legendary strength of Madara and his siblings. Which makes it even more important that you keep your Senju blood limit concealed."

Naruto frowned. "Why?"

Kurenai huffed out an impatient breath. "The only clan that the Uchiha ever considered forming a Blood Tie with was the Senju. With that clan extinct, it's unlikely they would form one with one of the remaining clans, but if they did, it would be incredibly powerful."

Understanding flared through Naruto's eyes. "Because the strength of the Blood Tie is proportional to the strength of the blood limit of the two warriors being joined."

"Exactly. Most clan alliances only pass on a small percentage of their clan's abilities between clans, like the alliance between the Uzumaki and the Senju. Less than ten percent of Uzumaki children were born with Senju blood limit abilities. But that percentage would go up sharply if someone with Sasuke or Itachi's level of blood limit were involved. It would make the Uchiha clan almost unstoppable, especially if your clan is no longer around to get any counter benefits to balance it out. There are a lot of factions that don't want that to happen."

Naruto opened his mouth to say that his clan was very much still around, but closed it. If rumors were going to get out about a lone Senju, it would be safer for everyone to believe there was no chance of any other in existence. So he simply nodded.

"Yeah, well… I don't think that asshole is particularly looking to get mated to anyone. He's too busy thinking the sun shines out of his own ass. We just need to work together long enough to kill off the creepy army someone decided to build up in the mountains."

"Hm." Kurenai arched a brow skeptically, but didn't say anything more about it. "Do you think you'll be able to take on that other kind of creature he was describing?" she asked. "Because I have to say, I haven't stopped thinking about it since he told us, and all I can say is I hope somehow they're wrong about what it can do. If he weren't an Uchiha, I would have thought maybe it was a mass hallucination."

Naruto frowned. "Why couldn't it still be?"

"The Uchiha bloodline is similar to my family's. We aren't affected by mind control attacks. And the ice rider creature clearly uses them."

"Because if what Karin said about Suigetsu being frozen?" Naruto asked.

"Yes. Have you been trained on how to counter those kind of attacks?"

Naruto grimaced. "A little, back when I was a kid, but not much. The raiders that were attacking our clan grounds didn't have any of those kind of abilities. The Yamanaka clan does, but they're on our side, so it wasn't a priority."

"There isn't time to do any proper training now, but - if you get caught in a mind control trap - the best way to break it is to try to completely still your own energy, then re-start it in a pulse. Not a huge, externally focused one like you use in your attack, just a small internal one, enough to provide a disruption to your mind and break the connection."

Naruto wished he had enough energy to try it a few times to make sure he understood what she was saying but he was too depleted. "Alright. I'll try it if I meet up with that thing."

"If someone is with you, then they can just touch you and put a small charge of energy into you and it will break the spell, unless it's particularly strong."

"Yeah, I'll just fight next to Sai. He seems to like touching people," Naruto muttered, trying to cover the slight nervousness that was edging into his thoughts.

Kurenai looked like she was going to say something, then stopped herself. "Just be careful. Are you ready to head to camp? I want to get the news back to the Hyuuga squad and any battle squads from other clans as soon as possible."

Naruto nodded, levering himself away from the wall. "Yeah. But, um… I might let you deliver the news to the squads. I promised the Nara I'd talk with him first, and I don't want to get pinned down with questions."

The truth was that Naruto knew as soon as anyone from the camp saw him, they'd know who he was. Shikamaru would be able to pass on any tactical information Naruto gave him that Kurenai might have missed (though he didn't get the sense that she missed much), but until he got Shikamaru's read on how to handle this situation, he wanted to keep a low profile. They'd arrived at night and he still was wearing his helmet, so it's possible he could just follow Kurenai in and pretend to be some peon that had gone with her and avoid any of the troops who knew him. He had to try to keep the fact that he had Senju blood limits disconnected from his family name. If someone was going to come hunting for him, he wanted them hunting 'Menma', not the entire Namikaze clan.

Kurenai's sharp eyes didn't miss the way Naruto looked off to the side and rubbed nervously at the back of his helmet. "You don't know who in the camp might recognize you."

Naruto had the grace to blush. "Look, it's not that I don't trust you. The thing I was running from initially doesn't matter for shit anymore but -"

"But the Uchiha and I recognized the blood limit that you carry, and it's a risk if people know who you are and what you are," Kurenai finished for him. "I understand. I won't tell anyone your secret, but you're right to be careful."

"Yeah. I just… no one knows. Not even my family. But this battle is too big for me to walk away from and play it safe by hiding. If I'm going to fight in it, I have to continue to fight as Menma."

Kurenai smiled. "I'm starting to seriously reconsider my earlier statement that I'm too old for you."

Naruto laughed, feeling his cheeks heat slightly. "You wait to tell me this when I'm too drained to even carry my pack back to camp. Totally unfair!"

Kurenai's smile turned wicked. "That's the idea."

Naruto sighed in mock despair and slung his pack over his shoulder as they started slowly up the trail that led to the base camp.

"If you can, take the Uchiha up on his offer to help you communicate with us. I have a feeling we're only at the start of this, especially with that second type of creature he told us about."

"Yeah. I have the same feeling." Naruto glanced back at the mountains looming behind them, feeling an itch in between his shoulder blades like they were being watched.

"Your energy levels are low enough that no one will look twice at you when we get to camp. I'll take the lead and tell whatever guards we meet that you are exhausted from battle and I sent you to rest. Just stay away from the watch fires and no one will be able to see your features in the darkness, except the Uchiha emissary, but since you've never interacted with that clan, there's no chance of him recognizing you."

Naruto was glad she was facing away from him as they walked, because he knew she was dead wrong on that point. His only hope was that Kakashi was still either in his father's lands or on his way back to Uchiha territory.

As they approached the first set of guards, neither noticed the single, glowing red eye watching them from the shadows at the edge of camp. Naruto's eyes were fixed on the older man he saw watching them walk up the narrow trail to the camp and felt relief settle through him. Asuma wouldn't kick up a fuss if Naruto faded away to find Shikamaru. He'd play along until he knew what was happening.

"Stay safe, Menma," Kurenai murmured while they were still out of earshot. "And good luck."

"You, too."

They stopped talking before they got within hearing range of any scouts for the base camp. Asuma was already walking towards them, his eyes fixed on Naruto, scanning him for injury with the seasoned experience of a veteran.

"Menma?" he asked Naruto, as though he hadn't known him since childhood.

"Uh, yeah," Naruto said with a short nod.

"Shikamaru is expecting you. His tent is on the west side of camp. Go meet him there."

Naruto had to admit Asuma kicked ass at subterfuge as he turned to Kurenai as though dismissing Naruto as a simple messenger.

Asuma paused, his eyes locking briefly on her face before he spoke. "I'm Asuma. I'll be leading the Nara troops in battle, and coordinating with the Hyuuga and Namikaze clans when their warriors arrive. You must be Kurenai. I've heard a lot about you. I'd appreciate any information you can give us about what the two of you encountered."

"Of course." Kurenai glanced over at Naruto, then nodded and followed Asuma back to camp. Naruto turned to head up the path to fine Shikamaru, but not before he noticed that Kurenai was checking out Asuma's ass. Naruto grinned as he realized that Asuma definitely would not be too young in Kurenai's books.

Shikamaru stood in the cold night air, watching from the shadows of his tent as Asuma walked towards to two figures approaching the camp. Relief had flooded through Shikamaru as soon as he'd recognized Naruto's familiar gait walking up the path from the tunnels. By the slowness of the Namikaze's pace, he could tell that Naruto had likely seen battle. Nothing else had ever slowed the man down before, not even sickness. His sense of unease rose. Shikamaru would feel better when he'd heard what Naruto had to say about what he'd encountered and whether he still needed to keep his identity secret.

When Naruto had left, they had assumed he would simply meet Shikamaru back at the inn. It would have been easy for them to meet and keep Naruto's identity secret there, since the civilians of a remote, northern outpost on Nara lands were not likely to recognize the Namikaze heir.

That was not true in a camp full of Nara clan warriors, soon to be joined by Namikaze and Hyuuga warriors, many of whom had fought alongside Naruto in the past. Shikamaru had asked Asuma to intercept Naruto and the Hyuuga warrior before they got close to camp to prevent anyone from seeing Naruto. He watched as Asuma skillfully intercepted Naruto and the Hyuuga warrior before the guards had a chance to, well away from the watch fires and with a casual, friendly air that put everyone at ease.

Fortunately, Naruto had returned to camp at night, making it less likely he would be recognized from anyone far away. Asuma was supposed to direct Naruto to the edge of camp, giving them some privacy to talk so he could find out what was going on. He assumed Naruto would drop his 'Menma' identity now that he was back in camp. When he'd left, the biggest thing on his mind had been potential marriage to a young child.

Now, war was looming and smaller scale issues were rapidly becoming insignificant. The last thing the Namikaze clan needed was to be wondering where their heir had disappeared to when everyone else was preparing to fight. Still, Shikamaru was going to play it safe and make sure there was no reason that Naruto needed to remain concealed. If Naruto walked up with his helmet off and waved to the guards, Shika would know that he felt the same. The only wild card would be how Kakashi would react at seeing Naruto again, particularly when the Namikaze had insulted Kakashi's clan. The older man seemed calm about it (almost amused, if Shikamaru was honest, which he found puzzling), but clan politics were tricky and it was best not to make assumptions.

He noticed Naruto was still taking the long way around rather than walking directly through camp, meaning he was trying to stay hidden. As he got closer, he could also see that the man was no longer wearing his cloak, and his helmet had black soot marks on it, his tan pants showing splatters of something dark that was most likely blood. Shikamaru knew the creatures didn't bleed, so it was likely Naruto's own blood.

"Shit," Shikamaru cursed under his breath. The determined look in the blue eyes that were now fixed on him was one Shika had seen often before battles, usually when Naruto decided to do something incredibly dangerous that put himself in the line of fire and shield others. The only thing that kept him from getting in trouble for doing it was that his crazy plans almost always worked.

Shikamaru glanced around, making sure no one was in earshot. The guards were all focused outward, watching for enemies. Anyone not already in their tents had followed Kurenai and Asuma to hear her report on what they were likely to be facing. He didn't see Kakashi, but at least he wasn't within hearing range of Naruto.

"You don't look as pissed off as I thought you'd be," Naruto said tiredly as he walked up and clasped Shikamaru's shoulder in a friendly grip. "Which is good, because I really fucking need your advice right now, Shika."

This was far from the first time Naruto had asked for his advice, and Shikamaru smiled slightly despite everything. "Being mad at you every time you act rashly would be tiresome."

"Heh," Naruto chuckled, but there was no mistaking the exhaustion of the man.

"So, are you going to tell me about the battle you were obviously in and why you're still going by Menma? The first wave of Namikaze troops will be here by noon, and the Hyuuga by nightfall. Given the threat level, both Neji and Hinata will likely be coming. They'll know you even if you wear a full-faced mask."

Naruto glanced around them, making sure no one was close enough to hear their conversation. He kept his voice low, just in case. "I'm not staying."

Shikamaru looked at his friend, his mind racing. "You wouldn't place avoiding a marriage you don't want over the safety of your clan. And I know you're not afraid of joining the fight. What's going on?"

"Shika, there is a massive army being built in the mountains, hidden in tunnels so we didn't see any signs of it. I have no idea how big it is but… it's big. And there's a second type of creature that's even more dangerous. We don't know how many there are, but it has some sort of mind-control abilities and is able to make itself dematerialize to avoid physical attacks. Its blade has some sort of poison on it that can't be completely healed even with a skilled healer. A blood limit healer."

Shikamaru frowned. That meant Naruto had encountered another Uzumaki, but Shikamaru set that aside for the moment, triaging the information he needed to extract from his friend before anyone noticed them talking. "You fought it? Are you injured?" Shikamaru asked.

"No. But Kurenai and I ran into a group of warriors from the Uchiha clan."

Shikamaru's eyes widened. "Fuck." That would explain why Naruto wanted to stay 'Menma'. The Uchiha clan would not be very happy with the man who'd thrown their offer for alliance back in their faces. Was he worried the Uchiha would fight against them if they knew Naruto was with them? "How did you meet up with a group of Uchiha?"

Naruto described walking out of the tunnel into the smoldering battlefield and details of the battle. Shikamaru's expression turned grim as he heard about how the creatures were basically being stockpiled in the hidden network of tunnels, given them easy access to lands from an area that was viewed in the past as impassable by enemies, and therefore relatively undefended.

"The Uchiha warrior who was leading the group took out over two hundred on his own. I haven't seen firepower like that outside of dragons." Naruto's tongue peeked out slightly to wet his lower lip, his voice dipping slightly as he described that part of the battle.

Shikamaru bit back another curse at the tone of voice Naruto used to describe the Uchiha warrior. Naruto had always been competitive, so it was no surprise that Shikamaru heard more than a little competitive edge in Naruto's voice as he spoke about the Uchiha squad leader. What concerned Shikamaru was the note of attraction that came through. He knew Naruto wasn't a virgin, but he had always been more focused on his missions and honing his skills to show more than casual interest in anyone other than the occasional friends-with-benefits. This didn't sound casual, or particularly friendly, and that worried Shikamaru. If Kakashi's plans to fix the botched engagement were going to work, Naruto better not fall for some other Uchiha and fuck it all up. But there wasn't time to think about it, because Naruto was continuing his story.

"But even the Uchiha squad would been done if Kurenai and I hadn't gotten there when we did. I took out over a hundred and fifty, but completely drained myself doing it. The only reason we were able to win was they weren't expecting us. They had been packed into these narrow tunnels, probably waiting for orders while staying out of sight of any of our scouts. They were sitting ducks, but if they'd hit a border down from all sides with any sort of strategy, it would have been a different outcome."

Shikamaru nodded thoughtfully. "They were banking on us not finding out about it until it was too late," Shikamaru said, rapidly working through the information ask he spoke. "Which means they'll be forced to make their move as soon as they find out we know what they're doing."

"Yeah, that's what the Uchiha said. I'm supposed to meet back up with them in a day at the place where the tunnels branch. We're going to go north and see what's there."

"The terrain isn't good for massive armies, but maybe we can use their tunnels against them. We could send a squad of your own clan to go with you. You could join forces with the Uchiha, but with more manpower and your own command."

Naruto shook his head, not even considering it. "He said the Uchiha Clan won't fight with the Hyuuga Clan, since they aren't interested in a formal alliance with them. I really doubt the Namikaze clan is still on their list of potential allies after I ripped up their pedophile contract."

Naruto's lips twisted on the words, and Shikamaru drew a breath to tell Naruto that the image had been changed, but Naruto's next words stopped him cold.

"But the main reason I can't let anyone know who I am is that I used Senju blood limit abilities, and both Kurenai and the entire Uchiha squad saw it."

Shikamaru blinked as Naruto's words sunk in. Naruto was eyeing him warily, gauging his reaction. Naruto had never spoken even the slightest hint about his Senju abilities before and the Namikaze heir seemed to be almost holding his breath to see how he would react.

"Fuck," Shikamaru muttered. That changed the math completely on all the scenarios Shikamaru had been running in his head. Especially if what Shikamaru was beginning to suspect was true and these creatures were just the second wave in the war that the unknown clan had waged on the Senju and Uzumaki decades before. They had been ruthless in spilling every known drop of Senju blood they could find, and if word got out that the Namikaze heir carried that blood limit, Naruto and everyone directly related to him would have a massive target on their back.

Shikamaru raked a hand through his hair. "I always thought it would be the Hyuuga who found out. But you had to go for the big guns and out yourself to the Uchihas," he said with a small, tight smile.

Naruto blinked, then chuckled, a slight edge of panic in his voice. "I should have guessed you would have figured it out."

The Nara shrugged. "There's no way to teleport as far as you do with just your own energy, no matter how big the Uzumaki energy levels are."

"And only one clan can get energy from their surroundings. Shit," Naruto sighed.

"I always assumed that was why you kept your teleporting abilities secret."

"Nah. I hadn't even thought of that. I just didn't want people putting pressure on me to challenge Dad for clan leadership. I'm not ready to take all that on." Naruto grimaced. "The clan was supposed to be wiped out. I don't even know how I ended up with their abilities, anyway."

Shikamaru had thought about this when he'd first started to suspect Naruto's hidden abilities. "The Senju were Blood Tied to the Uzumaki clan about a hundred years ago."

"Yeah, but both of those clans are extinct," Naruto said.

"The only thing that needs to happen for a blood limit to be activated is a direct descendant of the blood tied clans to still be alive before the clan is wiped out. You would have been about four months old when the last of the Senju warriors were hunted down and killed. The clan wasn't extinct at the time of your birth, so the blood limit was passed on."

Naruto drew a slow breath. "But not to anyone else in the Uzumaki clan."

"It was only a moderately strong blood tie, so the majority of the Uzumaki children wouldn't get the Senju blood limit abilities. Your mother was already living with the Namikaze when the war started. They killed all the Uzumaki children whose blood limits hadn't presented, and any of the clan who had the Senju traits when the razed the village."

"My mother doesn't have it."

"It's blood magic. It doesn't take with everyone. The Senju line in particular only presented in a few of the Uzumaki. Which is good, or they would have taken out the entire clan as ruthlessly as they did the Senju."

Naruto leaned heavily against the large rock they were standing by. "And we still don't know who was behind it or why. Or where they are now."

Shikamaru hummed. "We know the warriors they used came from clans to the far north based on their weapons. I think it's pretty likely that whoever is ordering these creatures was the same one behind the hordes of mercenaries that attacked the clans. All the more reason for you to not go North on your own."

"Shika, I have to go." The words were spoken in a quiet determination, and Shikamaru felt his stomach tighten. There was no talking Naruto down when he took that tone. And as much as Shikamaru hated it, he didn't have a better alternative for his friend. The clans weren't ready to go to war. They needed time, and Naruto and the Uchiha team could buy it for them.

"Is the Uchiha squad really that good?" he asked finally, but he already knew the answer.

Naruto gave him a lopsided grin. "They're a bunch of assholes, but… yeah. We need to try to find a way to take out the ice rider creature that they encountered. The only weakness we know those things have is to fire, and unless I can sweet talk a dragon into joining our side, the Uchiha clan is our best bet. But they won't fight with any of us as a clan."

"They just want you because they know you carry the Senju line, and think you don't have a clan affiliation that will create entanglements for their clan." Shikamaru frowned.

Naruto shrugged. "We don't have time to negotiate clan political bullshit. They can assume whatever they want, but I never said I didn't have a clan. But right now, I'm the only one they'll work with and we don't have time to come up with a better plan." Naruto rubbed his brow wearily. "They said they'd let me send messages back with their clan's messenger birds. There was an Uchiha emissary that was at the signing ceremony, but he's probably on his way back to -"

"Kakashi's here. In this camp."

"What?" Naruto asked, looking around.

"Don't draw attention," Shikamaru murmured. "But don't use any of your Senju abilities while you're in camp. He's already pretty sure you came up here with the Hyuuga, but if he doesn't see you in person, he won't be able to confirm it absolutely. We need to buy time to make sure he's really on our side before he finds out about this."

Naruto's eyes were slightly panicked. "Fuck. Shika, if word gets out about me, my mother will be the first one they come for."

"And any other Uzumaki, since it means there is a chance that blood limit can still be passed on. You being alive and with the traits mean the clan isn't extinct, which means the magic of that ritual is still active."

The two men looked at each other for a moment, realizing the weight of what would happen if Naruto's true identity got out and their old enemy was still around.

"I only drew enough energy in to keep from passing out when we arrived in the tunnel, since there was a chance the Hyuuga would already be here. I figured I'd have to just sleep it off and head out first light."

"I'm going to have to tell your parents. They need to know the danger they're in, and they also need to not waste clan resources looking for you instead of gearing up for war."

Naruto grimaced but nodded. "Heh. At least one good thing is I'll be away from my mom's temper when she finds out I was keeping this a secret." Naruto's laugh was forced, his worry for his family clear in his eyes.

"You need to get out of sight. I'll tell people Kurenai's guide was injured and is resting. After a day or two I'll tell them you went back to the border town where you joined the mission to go home."

"Kurenai knows where I'm really going."

Shikamaru gave a short nod. "I'll talk to her before she leaves, but from what I've heard about her, she's smart. She might not have figured out who you are, but she knows what's at stake."

"Ok. I'm gonna go crash, but I'll be out of camp before morning."

"Make sure the guards don't see you."

Naruto grinned. "It doesn't take much energy for me to jump to just a little ways into the tunnel. I'll be out of sight, then I can power up and get the rest of the way to the Northern tunnel before the Uchiha even gets there." Naruto grinned at the thought.

Shikamaru rolled his eyes at the competitive glint in his friend's eyes. But - given what they were up against - he couldn't really criticize him. Naruto had to be aware that he was basically volunteering for a mission with odds little better than a suicide run. If comparing dick lengths with the Uchiha distracted him from that fact, Shikamaru wasn't going to say anything about it.

"I still don't like it," Shikamaru sighed. "But we don't really have a choice. We have no idea when whoever is behind this is going to find out that a bunch of their toy soldiers just got broken. The Uchiha is right that we have to move now. Take out as many of these hidden pockets as we can before they figure out what we're doing."

"That's the plan."

Naruto's body was sagging with exhaustion. Whatever else Shikamaru had to say to him could wait a few more hours. "I'll come talk to you before you leave and get you a new cloak and supplies. Stay out of sight and get some rest. Maybe I'll come up with a better plan between now and then."

Naruto nodded, then turned to the tent Shikamaru had pointed him towards. Shikamaru watched him go, his expression grim. He'd tell him about the fact that the marriage contract had been sabotaged in the morning. It was likely tied to whatever was going on with the creatures, but it could be separate. Either way, Naruto needed to know.

His biggest concern was Kakashi, though. The Uchiha emissary was going to be a problem. Naruto needed to be focused on the enemy in front of him, not worrying about whether someone might out him and put his clan at risk, so Shikamaru had decided not to discuss it further with him. But there was no way Kakashi was going to miss the fact that two people came into the camp, but only one was around the next day. He also was going to notice when he started getting messages from the group of Uchiha Naruto was going to go join with, talking about a powerful, blue-eyed Senju warrior. Kakashi was more than capable of adding one plus one and getting a Namikaze with Senju blood limit abilities. Shikamaru's only consolation was that it was in the Uchiha clan's interest just as much as the Nara or Namikaze clans to have this battlefield alliance hold, especially if he wanted the marriage contract between Naruto and the Uchiha to be reinstated. Kakashi would see that as well. He hoped.

But that would only matter if Naruto survived whatever he was about to go charging after in the mountains.

"Shit," he breathed out into the cold night air. Their 'secret' wasn't likely to last even a day, but they didn't have any alternatives. He thought back to all the books he'd had sent up to him to research while he'd been waiting for Naruto.

Maybe there was something he could do, after all.

He turned to head back to his tent when he saw a figure approaching him from the forest.

Sai looked down at his scroll, illuminated dimly by the firelight that burned in the small fire pit just inside the tunnel entrance.

"Hm," he murmured.

Sasuke opened his eyes from where he'd been lightly sleeping. "What."

"Menma made it to the base camp by the Nara Clan grounds."

"He hasn't even been gone an hour," Karin said frowning. "I've never heard of a clan that can teleport that far. Even the Uzumaki clan's best warriors could only go across a battlefield. Not an entire mountain range."

Sai and Sasuke exchanged a look, but neither man said anything.

A gust of wind and snow swirled its way down the throat of the tunnel, making the fire dance wildly. Suigetsu shivered. "Fuck this storm. It's a good thing we're taking the tunnel or we'd be stuck here until it cleared."

Sasuke looked out at the storm that was raging. Any chance of the messenger bird trying to re-deliver the message was gone. It would be hours before the storm cleared, and they couldn't wait that long if they were going to meet Menma in time to head north.

Sasuke's clan had detailed records on the Senju, and Menma's range of teleportation was on the same level as the legendary Hashirama of more than a century ago. Sasuke's own ancestor, Madara, would have been the one from the Uchiha clan to form a blood bond with him, if the alliance hadn't blown up when Madara's younger brother was murdered by the Senju, plunging the clans into war.

He turned to his side, the cold air making his shoulder ache. Karin noticed the movement.

"You didn't let me treat your injury while the two from the Hyuuga party were here. If you expect to be able to fight, you have to let me keep working on it," Karin said, reaching into her pack and pulling out the medicinal oil she had made to treat it. "I'll heat this by the fire. Take your shirt off."

Sasuke grimaced, but knew she was right. He sat up, waiting for the oil to heat before pulling his shirt over his head. Despite the heat of the fire, the air in the tunnel was cold on his bare flesh. Karin settled behind him, pouring the warm, fragrant oil on her hands before slowly working it into his shoulder. Sasuke closed his eyes, forcing his muscles to relax.

When his eyes were closed, he thought of blue eyes and the heat of battle. He hoped Kakashi had given up on trying to re-start negotiations between the Namikazes and the Uchihas. Sasuke had been reticent about the blood bond to the Namikaze clan before, but there was no way he would accept it now. As Karin worked the muscles in his damaged shoulder, Sasuke considered how to word his next note to his former mentor to make it clear that deal was off.

Kakashi deactivated his sharingan as the Namikaze heir made his way to a nearby tent to sleep. While the sharingan was best known for its ability to read battle moves, it was just as useful at reading lips from a distance.

Finding out that the young man carried the Senju blood limit was a shock. His clan had coveted those abilities for centuries, but the alliance had blown up before it could be cemented.

"Just like now," he murmured thoughtfully, levering himself away from the tree he'd been standing against, concealed in the darkness of its shadows.

There was no way in hell that it was a coincidence that war and betrayal broke out both times the Uchiha clan was on the cusp of forming a blood tie with someone with Senju abilities. Kakashi would be damned if he let it happen this time. His lips curved into a slight smile as he played back the conversation that he'd just observed.

Sasuke didn't like to work with others. Period. And he would be especially prickly with working with clans on this side of the mountains after having the marriage contract thrown back in his face.

But Sasuke had wanted 'Menma' on his team.

He bit back a chuckle at how annoyed the proud Uchiha warrior must have been to have Naruto save his team's ass. Of course, Naruto and Kurenai would have been killed, too, had they stumbled on the nest of creatures on their own, so it was even.


It would be interesting to see what sort of messages he received from the Uchiha over the next days. He would need to write to Itachi and let him know his little brother was safe before the man ripped the mountains apart to find him. But first he had to talk to the Nara before he talked to anyone else.

If this was going to work, they had to be aligned. They had to have a plan, both for dealing with the unknown enemy but also trying to get the clan alliance back on track.  He had a strong feeling that the only way they would win the war would be if the two bloodlines were combined, which meant that no one could find out that the hopes of an alliance hadn't completely died when Naruto tore up the contract.

To be continued…

A/N - So... Kakashi now knows.  Who do you think will find out first, Naruto or Sasuke?

Chapter Text

A/N - Un-beta'd!  I proofed it 3 times on my own, but sometimes I still can read over the same mistakes and not see them LOL. 

Chapter 10 -The best laid plans


Kakashi could tell the moment the Nara heard his approach. Shikamaru's body tensed slightly, but he didn't turn around.

"How much did you hear?" Shikamaru asked, his voice sounding somewhat unsurprised despite that Kakashi knew for a fact the man had not seen him from where he stood across the camp, watching.

"None," Kakashi replied, walking up to stand casually next to Shikamaru.

Shikamaru turned and narrowed his intelligent eyes at the man. "You walked up less than two minutes after he went to his tent. You don't strike me as the sort to wait patiently when you have questions you want answered."

Kakashi chuckled, lifting the patch from his eye and letting his sharingan glow red in the darkness. "Do you know how the sharingan works?"

Shikamaru looked at him a moment. "Clan secrets like that are closely guarded. And the Uchiha clan guards their secrets more tightly than most."

"Hm," Kakashi agreed, replacing the patch over his eye. "That's true. So you will have to simply believe me when I tell you that I didn't hear anything. But I saw every word you and Naruto spoke. Including the discussion about his clan abilities."

Shikamaru stilled, and Kakashi abruptly found himself leaping away from what he at first thought was a snake, but what was actually a shadow. He landed nimbly, only to find himself ensnared by another tendril of darkness, controlled by the press of the Nara heir's fingers.

"You've been on our lands long enough to know that I can't hold you indefinitely. But I could hold you long enough to call the guards and have you killed for espionage. Give me a reason not to."

Kakashi's eyebrows lifted, but he was neither surprised nor concerned about the threat. He could throw the dagger hidden in his belt likely before the Nara could react, but he wasn't here to start a war. He was here to build an alliance. And he needed Shikamaru's trust to do so. So he spoke calmly, instead of trying to break free.

"Impressive. I'd heard about your clan's blood limit abilities, but I was curious to see them."

"That's not a reason."

Kakashi studied the younger man for a moment, then made his decision. He was never one for going halfway, and the raw intelligence that showed in the younger man's eyes was an asset well worth cultivating.

"The last time the Uchiha clan tried to form a blood bond with someone with Senju powers was almost two hundred years ago. Someone sabotaged the marriage contract and war broke out, wiping out six of the ten clans to the east of the mountains. I'm not a believer in coincidences. Are you?"

Shikamaru looked consideringly at Kakashi, but didn't release him. Kakashi's estimation for the younger man rose another notch.

"We have records about the war, but not about the failed blood bond with the Senju clan. You think the same clan or person that was behind that sabotage is behind this."

"Not likely to be the same person two hundred years later, but same clan, yes," Kakashi said.

Shikamaru's lips twisted thoughtfully in a way that left Kakashi feeling like the man knew something he didn't, but he wasn't in a position to press his point. Kakashi could be patient.

"The Uchiha are known for their powerful attacks. They are considered to be one of the greatest of all the warrior clans. But their Achilles' heel is that their attacks take a considerable amount of energy. A blood tie to a Senju could potentially fix that problem, if the tie was strong enough," Shikamaru said, working it through out loud.

"Which would be especially dangerous to an opponent who has a weakness to fire and makes its home in a land of ice."

Shikamaru's eyes flashed as he recalled what Naruto had told him about the second type of creature, the one whose only weakness appeared to be fire.

"You want Naruto to join up with the Uchiha squad and form a blood tie with the leader of it since the initial attempt failed. The man must be one of the top clan warriors if he was sent on this mission, but there must have been a reason that he wasn't the one chosen in the first place. Won't there be issues inside the clan if there is a switch made?"

While the blood ties benefitted the clans overall, the largest benefits went to the pair that were involved in the immediate bond. There had been more than one clan that had suffered from its top warriors killing each other over the right to be the one to hold the bond. It was rumored that the initial split between the Hyuuga and Uchiha clans went back to something along those lines, but history had muddied the waters as to whether that was true or not.

Kakashi's eyes crinkled in amusement. "Switching grooms at the last minute is never a good idea for clan stability." He held Shikamaru's gaze for a moment, enjoying the slight puzzlement in the man's eyes, knowing it was unlikely to happen often. "Did Naruto ever tell you the name of the Uchiha he was supposed to marry?"

Shikamaru's eyes widened slightly in realization of what Kakashi was implying. "You've got to be fucking kidding me."

Kakashi shrugged. "I believe it was mentioned that the Uchiha's candidate for the alliance was on a battle front, and the joining would have to take place there. I'm surprised you didn't make the connection."

Shikamaru grimaced slightly, releasing Kakashi from his hold, evidently determining that the man was not a threat given how tightly aligned their interests in Naruto's safety were. "I assumed if it were the same name on the contract, Naruto would have mentioned it to me. Unless he didn't give Naruto his name? Would he have recognized him with his helmet on?"

"Sasuke has many faults, but humility isn't one of them," Kakashi smirked at his own joke. "Sasuke would definitely have told Naruto his name. And even if he didn't, the Hyuugas keep close tabs on the Uchiha Clan. Kurenai would likely have recognized him, if only for his abilities. Anyone who sees Sasuke in battle would recognize the level of power he has. Sasuke has only ever seen one sketch of Naruto, though, so it's likely he wouldn't recognize him with his helmet on. Especially if he is thinking Naruto is Senju. That wasn't in the document his clan sent over, and Sasuke would have viewed that as an asset that the clan would not leave out."

"Naruto only saw the photo of Sasuke as a child, so he wouldn't recognize him. And he wasn't involved in the selection of his mate at all. The only time he would have heard the name was at the signing ceremony, which I gather ended rather prematurely," he added, dryly. "It's possible he doesn't remember the name, or thought that there might be more than one Sasuke in the clan. He doesn't know that the image had been tampered with. It was supposed to have been sealed so that only Naruto could open it. Naruto wouldn't be expecting a grown man to be his betrothed. He wouldn't even have considered it."

Kakashi nodded slowly, thinking back to that day. "No one said Sasuke's name out loud. Naruto would only have seen it briefly on the contract where Sasuke had signed it."

Shikamaru snorted. "Then he most likely doesn't remember it. He has a good memory for places and faces, but not names."

"So he's locked onto the photo, but not the name," Kakashi finished.

"We need to tell him before he goes back to meet up with the Uchiha squad. Right now, he feels safe that they would have no idea who he is. One look at his face, and Sasuke will recognize him," Shikamaru said, frowning.

Kakashi was silent a moment, running through what he knew of Sasuke and what he'd observed about Naruto. "Based on what Naruto described of the stronger creature's powers, having a blood tie between Naruto and Sasuke might be the key to winning this war. Possibly the only key."

Shikamaru nodded slowly. "But we might not have the time to create another binding scroll to make that happen."

"And that's something that you and I will have to solve, but none of it will matter if Naruto and Sasuke refuse."

"Naruto won't refuse. He was willing to go through with this for his clan even before he knew about the creature threat, until he thought it meant forcing himself on a child. Now that he has a better sense of what the danger really is, I'm sure he won't hesitate to see it through."

Kakashi arched a brow. "Even though he seems to have taken a dislike to his betrothed?"

Shikamaru blinked, then gave a slow smile. "That wasn't dislike. Naruto is competitive but your Uchiha has definitely captured his interest. But even if he hated Sasuke, he'd still go through with it. Protecting his clan comes first. He definitely won't refuse."

Kakashi's eyes lit with amusement at the complete confidence in Shikamaru's tone. "Interesting. I haven't heard from Sasuke yet, but the boy has always been drawn to power, and he has clearly recognized that Naruto has it in spades."

"So then there shouldn't be a problem. They both recognize the strategic importance of this alliance."

Kakashi grimaced slightly. "That might not be enough, given the first bond was broken. Sasuke was forced into the agreement the first time, unconvinced that his clan needed an alliance with anyone. The first time they tried to cast the binding spell with his blood it didn't work because his intent wasn't strong enough."

Shikamaru hummed. "It's unusual for the same person to have to cast a blood bond twice, but everything I've seen about the spell suggests that both the will and intent have to be stronger with each successive casting. It effectively limits the number of bonds an individual can cast in their lifetime, even if the one they're tied to dies."

Kakashi nodded. "Sasuke can't just be 'willing' this time. He will need to actively want the bond. Uchiha pride runs deep. It would be better if he decided on an alliance with Naruto on his own, without the baggage of the Clans forcing his hand."

"We don't have much time for him to make up his mind."

"It won't take him long. Sasuke is decisive if nothing else, and once he decides on something he is incredibly strong-willed on following through. I would guess he's already considering a tie to Naruto, since I'm sure he recognized his Senju abilities immediately if Naruto used them in battle."

"But you still don't want me to tell Naruto who Sasuke is."

"Sasuke needs to feel like this is his decision. How good is Naruto at keeping secrets? If we told him who Sasuke is, would he be able to keep from acting on the information? He already understands the reasons behind it. If he is as duty-bound as you say, will he force the issue with Sasuke?"

Shikamaru gave a rueful twist of his mouth. "Naruto is very direct, and he hates lying or avoiding an issue. If he thinks this is the fast path to winning this war, he'll press Sasuke on it. Relentlessly."

"Then we won't tell him. Even if Sasuke agreed with him, it might not be enough to seal the deal until he's had time to evaluate Naruto on his own and make a choice."

Shikamaru clearly didn't look happy with it, but there was no way to argue the point. He knew Naruto well enough to know just how dogged the man could be when he set his mind to something. "Fine. I'm not going to let Naruto go in completely blind, though. We don't know who is behind the sabotage, and he needs to be aware that there's a potential second threat to I'll let him know that someone is trying to sabotage the alliance by swapping the pictures so he is aware of the danger, but I won't tell him more than that."

Kakashi hummed in thought. "Hm. Don't tell him the pictures were swapped. He already knows the person he was betrothed to was a son of the Uchiha Clan leader, and that he was their most powerful, eligible warrior. The only reason he hasn't connected those facts with Sasuke is that he probably thinks the person he was supposed to marry is a young child whose blood limit presented early. It's unusual, but it can happen. Itachi's blood limit presented when he was four."

Shikamaru didn't look convinced, so Kakashi pressed. "Once the blood tie is made, Naruto will be significantly safer than he is now. No one has better range attacks than the Uchiha. Naruto will gain abilities from this as well."

"But we don't know which kind. The benefits of blood ties are complicated. Naruto's father gained wind abilities from his blood tie with the Uzumaki clan, but that clan didn't have anything like it."

"It was still a powerful attack, though it can only be used at close range. Whatever benefit Naruto gets, whether it's fire or wind or something else, he'll be better able to protect himself than he is now. The sooner we make this happen, the better for all of us."

Shikamaru sighed. "He's going to be pissed when he finds out we kept it from him."

"If it makes him feel better, we're not going to tell Sasuke, either. We'll give the two of them until we finish making the replacement bonding scroll to decide on their own terms that they need to be blood bonded."

"And if they don't?"

Kakashi looked at Shikamaru, his eye glinting with wicked amusement. "I don't think that will be an issue. But we don't have much choice. The magic needs to be strong enough for the bond to form, and there's no way to get around that fact."

Shikamaru looked over at his tent. "Naruto is going to leave before dawn to avoid any chance of his being found out. I'm going to look through the books I have with me and see if I can find anything about Senju and blood ties that can speed this up or help him on the battlefield."

Kakashi nodded. "And I have letters to write. Come find me after you talk to Naruto."

Naruto woke an hour before dawn, not fully rested but recovered enough to make the small jump from his tent into the entrance of the nearest tunnel without having to pass through camp and risk someone recognizing him. Shikamaru met with him before he left, giving him a heavy pack filled with food, gear, and two books he said Naruto might be able to glean something from to help him figure out a few more of his Senju abilities.

Naruto felt a pang of homesickness, wishing he could have a chance to talk to his parents and explain before he left, but they were focused on readying the clan for war. There just wasn't time.

"Your mom will kick your ass when you come back," Shikamaru said, his small smile strained.

Naruto forced a laugh as they both avoided the large 'if' surrounding his return. "Yeah. Tell her, uh… tell her to take care of Kurama for me."

The two friends looked at each other, remembering all the times in the past where they'd teamed up for adventures, and sometimes battles. This was different, though, and the knowledge sat heavily in the air between them.

"Watch your back. Kakashi told me that someone was trying to sabotage the alliance between your clan and the Uchihas. We don't know who yet, but there might be more than one enemy for you out there," Shika told him.

Naruto nodded, almost relieved that he was going out to fight an enemy he could face, one that would meet him in direct combat rather than from the shadows. Even if the fight was going to be hard, it was at least familiar ground. He didn't envy Shikamaru his task of trying to track the various threads back to their master.

"When will the forces arrive to fortify the border towns?" Naruto asked.

"Given what Kurenai reported to Asuma, and what you told me about the second creature, the troops will be falling back from here to secure the towns and prepare defenses. We can't assume we know where all the tunnels are, so waiting here would be pointless. You can send information back through the Uchiha birds, but first priority for the rest of the warriors is going to be securing the towns. We won't make the same mistake that the Senjus and the Uzumakis did that got them wiped out, with all their warriors spread across multiple fronts fighting, leaving their villages unprotected."

Naruto nodded, relieved that Shika had clearly already thought through how to use what they knew to stop another group of clans from being erased. Naruto's parents were seasoned warriors. If anyone could protect his clan, it would be them.

"I'll send word as soon as we learn anything new. Worst case scenario, I'll teleport back here with the Uchiha squad as a fallback position."

Shikamaru didn't reply, likely knowing that - if Naruto engaged in a battle he couldn't win - he would not likely have enough energy to transport anyone anywhere. But it was a risk that had to be taken and there was no point in wallowing in it.

"You better. I don't want to have to be the one to tell your mom that her son went awol again." Shikamaru's tone was joking, but neither man smiled.

The two friends gripped hands, both knowing they might not see each other again. If the creatures invaded Nara territory, Shikamaru would be on the front lines. And there was no telling what Naruto was going to encounter as he headed north into the mountains, searching for the creatures' lair and the one who created them.

Both men wished there was more time to rest. More time to plan. More time to just talk as friends. But there wasn't.

"Don't make me come look for you," Shikamaru said, his voice low and rough.

Naruto gave him a lopsided grin. "Like you'd drag your lazy ass all the way up those mountains to find me."

"I will if I have to," Shika said, his expression more serious than usual.

Naruto's grin faded, and he nodded. "I know, man. But focus on the towns. If I don't come back, don't waste resources sending people after me. We need everyone here until this is over."

Shikamaru sighed. He hated it that Naruto was right. He was going to spend every waking minute after Naruto left finding out who or what was behind this so they could take them out.

Naruto waited until Shikamaru left the tent, then picked up his heavy pack and flickered from inside the tent to a few hundred feet into the nearest tunnel entrance. The jump was one that any Namikaze could make in battle, but with his energy reserves only partly restored, he didn't want to push any further. All he needed was to get far enough into the tunnel that he would be out of sight from anyone watching the entrance or watching his tent.

He gave a small groan of relief as he set his pack down and slid down the wall to sit beside it. His shoulders and arms were still sore from battle, and the tension of leaving his friend and clan behind was only making it worse. But the cut on his arm had healed completely so he wasn't going to complain. If he could get another six hours of sleep, even the soreness in his back and arms would be gone. He'd be ready to fight either way, though. His body hummed with a mix of adrenaline and nerves at the thought of what the next battle might bring.

He took his helmet off reveling in the ability to do so. It was the only benefit of traveling alone. Luckily, the new cloak Shikamaru had given him had a large hood that he could pull over his head and face when he slept. But he'd enjoy resting with his head bare for once, with no one around to see him. Of course, there were downsides to being alone. Like the fact that - as soon as he drew in enough energy - he was going to pop into the middle of hostile territory, completely depleted of energy and with no reinforcements coming… directly in the path the enemy used.

If Sasuke and his team were late and the creatures or the weird ice rider thing the Uchiha team had described showed up, Naruto would be fucked.

He took a slow breath to steady his nerves, reminding himself that there wasn't any other way. The enemy was way ahead of them in terms of preparations, and Naruto needed to buy Shika and the clans time to prepare a defense. Somehow, though, Naruto wasn't really worried that Sasuke would be late. He might not really know anything about the guy, but there was something about Sasuke's ruthless determination that Naruto had seen in battle that made him sure Sasuke wouldn't chicken out or fuck around getting to the meet site. Sasuke was someone who would not back down, no matter how powerful the enemy was. He had fought with methodical precision when they were vastly outnumbered, not trying to play it safe or find a way to retreat.

Like Naruto, Sasuke was fighting for his clan, and that was something Naruto knew instinctively that he could trust.

His lips curved into a slight smile. The guy might be an asshole and proud as hell, but fighting with Sasuke had been almost… fun. Naruto had always had to conceal his strength, but the current situation had forced his hand and he'd had to use everything he'd had.

And Sasuke had kept up with him at every step.

Naruto knew that they might not make it back from this mission, but he would be lying if he didn't admit he was looking forward to it. Pushing his boundaries, and fighting alongside a man who pushed his own just as hard. If he was gonna go down, this would be a hell of a way to go.

Naruto hummed and settled into a comfortable position, knowing he'd be here for at least a few hours until he would be powered up enough to jump all the way to the meeting point. He ran his fingers through his hair. At least it was clean. Before he'd left, Shikamaru had brought him a kettle of warm water for bathing and his first warm food in almost a week.

He had made sure to enjoy it thoroughly, because he had no idea when he'd get either again. At least he had a new cloak to keep warm, and additional supplies. He could leave some of them at the entrance to the Northern tunnel so he wouldn't have to lug the whole pack with him, but it would be at least closer than going all the way back to the base camp if any of his shit got broken or lit on fire.

Naruto closed his eyes, opening himself up as much as possible to the energy around him. He was tired from his jump, but it would be too dangerous to actually sleep. He had to remain aware of what was around him, and what might be coming.

He let out a small sigh of relief when he felt no creatures nearby. He hoped it stayed that way until he had enough juice to fight. He'd always tried to use his Senju powers as little as possible, so they hadn't really developed as much as his Namikaze and Uzumaki blood limit abilities. But after the last several battles, he could already feel his Senju abilities improving. The energy flowed into him faster now, and he had a better sense of how much more he could take in. He thought about the book Shika had given him, and hoped it would have more clues on how to improve.

He felt himself starting to fall asleep, which was a risk he knew better than to take. He pulled out one of the two small leather-bound books that Shikamaru had given him to keep his mind alert. Dividing his concentration would make him draw energy more slowly, but at least he wouldn't fall asleep alone and unguarded in enemy territory.

He saw the Hyuuga clan symbol in the corner of the text, but flipping through the pages showed that it was a book on the Senju blood limit abilities. He was at first surprised, since clans guarded their secrets carefully, but as he read it more closely, he realized that it was made from an outsider's perspective. The book was filled with sketches of what Naruto assumed to be energy flows, as seen presumably by the Hyuuga who drew them.

Most of them didn't make much sense to Naruto. He could make out that the red arrows seemed to represent power that the Senju drew from their surroundings, and the blue was the Senju's own energy, but he had no clue how to achieve the different swirls and combinations that seemed to produce the different kinds of attacks shown in the drawings. When he used his energy, he didn't separate it… he just pushed out everything at once. He was barely able to control the magnitude of the flow, much less divide it into separate streams. Still, it was something to think about working on later. Once the war was over.

One drawing caught his eye. It showed two warriors, one with the Senju clan symbol and one with a symbol that Naruto didn't recognize. The Senju was crouched down, one hand touching the ground, the other clasping the hand of the other warrior. The red arrows clearly showed energy from the ground passing through the Senju, but instead of being used by the Senju, they were passed directly into the other warrior who was using them to power some sort of attack. Where their hands were clasped, bright red drops of blood dripped down to the ground. Naruto realized this was likely representing a blood tie between the two clans, and showing how - once a Senju was blood tied to another - they could share the power between them.

He remembered Sasuke's calculating look at him when he'd asked the man if he had any ideas on how to fight the ice riders, and realized that Sasuke was probably thinking about how much more fire power he could have if they were blood bound. Naruto didn't have the ability to produce fire, and Sasuke didn't have enough energy to make enough fire to burn the creature as it fled. Together though...

Naruto sighed.

It would take months to make a new contract, even if the Uchiha clan was willing to swap grooms from the poor kid it had tried to jam into this shit. The chances of them avoiding the ice rider for that long was basically zero.

Naruto continued to flip through the book, his eyes feeling heavy as he continued to slowly build up his energy stores.

When he had enough, he stood, pulling on his helmet. This would be one of the most dangerous parts of the mission, because he would be totally depleted when he landed, and he had no idea if the tunnel would be full of creatures or empty. He drew a breath and drew his sword… and jumped to the meeting place.

He felt a wave of relief as he found the tunnel entrance quiet and empty. He let his pack down, but kept his helmet on. He was probably still several hours ahead of when the Uchiha would arrive, but given how hard the man tended to drive his team, he wasn't counting anything out.

The thought had barely crossed his mind when he faint flicker of something approaching. All traces of tiredness vanished as Naruto waited to see what it was. When it got close enough to recognize, he smirked. It was much more powerful than the last time he'd sensed it, but there was no mistaking the cold, controlled energy coming towards him from the other tunnel.

Sasuke had already been well into the battle when Naruto and Kurenai had arrived on the scene two days ago, and Sasuke had evidently used up much of his power on his earlier attacks. Now, the man was fully rested and re-charged. Naruto felt a spike of anticipation shoot through him.

Sasuke at full strength was really fucking dangerous.

Naruto grinned as he walked to the tunnel entrance and leaned casually against a rock there, pulling out his book from his pack. His eyes remained locked on the opposing tunnel entrance rather than on the page in front of him.

He was lounging with a cocky grin on his face as Sasuke and his team walked towards the entrance the other tunnel.

"What took you guys so long?" Naruto called out.

Sasuke merely arched a brow at the man's words, not looking even a little surprised to see Naruto standing there, despite the fact that Naruto had shown up a full day early. Instead, his eyes bled red and raked over Naruto, a tiny crease of annoyance appearing on his brow.

"Idiot. You completely drained yourself. What if the ice rider had shown up before we'd gotten here? You couldn't even run away in this condition." The sunlight hit Sasuke's hair as he walked out into the late afternoon sun, making it look almost blue-black, and Naruto thought absently that Sasuke must have found a way to bathe because the last time he'd seen the guy he'd been coated in sweat and ash. Naruto's initial impression of the man's deadly but almost surreal beauty was only made more solid now that he was seeing him without the layers of grime.

Naruto felt his irritation flare. "Fuck you. There wasn't likely to be a new army move in here during the few hours I was gone."

It wasn't really true, and Sasuke's expression reflected just how flawed he found Naruto's logic.

"It isn't like we have much choice. I got back and talked to Shikamaru. We might be facing more than we realized," Naruto said grimly.

"Then let's talk," Sasuke said tersely, looking up to where the sun was already starting to set, likely confirming the time after walking through the tunnel for most of the day. "Karin?"

Karin took a slow turn, her eyes unfocused as she scanned the area. "There's no one else nearby."

Sasuke gave a brief nod. "We'll set up camp here, then head north at first light," Sasuke said to his team, who immediately went about setting down their packs with obvious fatigue.

"What did you find out?" Sasuke asked, walking over to Naruto and dropping his pack down.

Naruto tried to school his features, trying to sound like he wasn't directly involved in what he was going to say. "Nara said that someone was trying to sabotage a possible alliance between your clan and one of the western clans.

Sasuke's face stilled, but he only nodded.

"That explains why they rejected the contract," Karin said as she laid out her bedroll. "I mean, someone would have to be fucking crazy to -"

"Karin." Sasuke's voice was sharp in warning.

Naruto tried to force his face to remain calm. It was clear the clan was pissed at his actions. Shika had told him that the Uchiha pride ran deep and strong, and Naruto's ripping up of the contract would be fire to gasoline. He once again was glad that there was no one here who knew him and mess up this temporary alliance by revealing his identity. He felt another surge of annoyance on the Uchiha clan for offering up a child when they had adult warriors who were as powerful as Sasuke. Though maybe Sasuke was already bonded to someone within the clan. Naruto pushed the thought aside. The point was moot, anyway. No scroll means no blood tie.

"Right. Anyway, he said that the Uchiha emissary thinks this might be tied to whoever is behind the creatures. Maybe even to whoever took out the Senju and Uzumaki clans years go," Naruto added. "They are going to focus on fortifying the towns. If it's the same enemy, they are trying to lure the strongest warriors out to leave the majority of the clans they are targeting unprotected."

Suigetsu gave a sharp look at Sasuke. "That's why you keep stalling on asking for reinforcements."

"You knew?" Naruto asked, surprised.

Sasuke shook his head. "I knew the strategy they used to wipe out the Senju. The clan would have been too powerful to take out if they hadn't been spread out, just like the Uchiha clan is. I'm not going to let us make the same mistake."

Naruto felt a twist in his stomach at the thought of the people in his father's clan being cut down with no one there to protect them. Luckily, Shikamaru had realized the same thing Sasuke had, and his father was already calling his troops back home.

"And the sabotage?" Naruto asked.

"It wouldn't be the first time someone interfered with my clan trying to form an alliance."

Sasuke's words were casual, but there was no mistaking the tension in his jaw. Naruto wanted to know if Sasuke had been against the marriage, if he'd known who they had offered up from their clan, but then Sasuke would wonder how Naruto knew any of the specifics. Clan alliances were tightly guarded secrets, and Naruto shouldn't know jack about it if he wasn't directly involved. The last thing Naruto could afford was for Sasuke to refuse to work with him if the Uchiha found out that "Menma" was the guy who'd ripped up the alliance that could have put them in a much better position to win the war. Naruto still couldn't feel guilty about it - there were some lines he wouldn't cross for any reason - but he might have tried to at least negotiate for a different partner if he'd known what was really at stake.

"Do they know who was involved?" Sasuke asked.

"No. Just that we should consider that there might be more than one enemy, and watch our backs. Especially on the, um, Uchiha side."

Sasuke didn't react to the implication that his clan might have a traitor in its midst, but Naruto was sure it wasn't easy news to hear.

"The two could be related, if the enemy we're fighting here has already infiltrated the clans," Sasuke said. His face didn't contain any more expression than it had when he'd first walked out of the tunnel, but Naruto got the sense that the man was concerned. "We'd be stupid if we weren't already watching our backs."

The sharp cry of a bird of prey pierced the air. A large, sleek black bird swooped down at a speed that had Naruto's eyes widening. It was clear even before Sasuke lifted his arm for the bird to land on that this was no ordinary creature. The speed of the bird was unnatural, and Naruto wondered how fast it could fly at full speed. It could likely get a message back to the base camp in a matter of hours. He began to understand why so many clans coveted them, and why the Uchiha guarded the secret of how to create them so carefully.

There was something odd about the way the small black canister the bird carried on its leg seemed to absorb all the light that hit it, without even a dull gleam coming from it. Naruto wasn't surprised to see Sasuke activate his sharingan and a small hiss appear as what was likely a trapped seal was released, allowing him to pull the message out and read it.

Naruto knew better than to try to look over the man's shoulder to see what the note said, but it didn't stop him from watching Sasuke's face for any clue about the content. Unfortunately, the bastard didn't so much as arch an eyebrow while he read, then promptly breathed out a narrow stream of fire reducing the parchment to ash.

"I need to reply to this. Sai, anything back from your birds?" Sasuke asked, pulling out a blank sheet of paper from the bird's canister.

"Nothing. But with the tunnels, they have limited visibility, and the mice take longer."

Naruto looked over to Sai, curious about the conversation. "Kurenai said the bird she saw wasn't alive. So… what are they?"

Sai tilted his head as though debating how to reply. "Ink," he said simply.

Naruto walked over to him while Sasuke was writing his message, curious as to what sort of blood limit allowed the man to make ink come to life.

Sasuke tried to keep the tension from his face when he read the note his brother had sent.

My bird came back twice, unable to deliver my message. If this one comes back I'm coming after you.

Send me an update on your location and the abilities, number and location of the creatures you're fighting.

Meet me at Madara's grave when you finish your mission. Do not send your location to the council.

The final line from Itachi was a clear warning. The location of Madara's grave was known only to Itachi and himself. When Itachi and Sasuke had been children, they'd been obsessed with finding its location given the legends surrounding it and their own inherent curiosity. When they'd been told to spend a summer learning survival skills in the mountains and wilderness surrounding their clan's lands, they had used the opportunity to hunt for their ancestor's final resting place, discovering it to be heavily warded and trapped. Even their father didn't know where the grave was located.

And it was not on Uchiha Clan lands.

The only reason for Itachi to tell him to meet there would be if there was a direct threat to Sasuke from the Council. Sasuke muttered a curse under his breath. Knowing his brother, Itachi was neck deep in whatever shit was going down within the clan, and Sasuke wasn't there to help him.

If the threat of the creatures wasn't so large, he'd go back immediately. But that wasn't an option, which Itachi clearly also knew. He looked over at where the Senju was talking to his team. There wouldn't be time to negotiate a full binding, but there were temporary blood ties that could be formed. They weren't as strong, and didn't transfer any benefits to the other members of the clan, but it might be enough to take out the mounted creature. He'd just have to convince the man to agree to it.

But first, he'd need supplies. Sasuke pulled out a blank sheet of paper and began to write his reply.

Was a little too busy to write you notes, Nii-san.

Sasuke was annoyed that Itachi had provided so little information about what was happening with the clan. He briefly considered withholding his own update, but he wouldn't put the clan at risk just to one-up his brother. He quickly sketched out a map of the tunnels they'd been through so far, adding in what Menma had described on the map.

Here's a map and body count of the creatures we have encountered so far. Second type is more challenging. Phases through all physical attacks, immune to mental ones. Blade delivers damage beyond normal wounds… resistant to healing.

Would appreciate an equally informative update from you explaining your choice of meeting point.

Tell Kakashi to stop pursuing the Namikaze alliance. I found someone from near the grave you're heading towards. Send me a base-level binding parchment.

Sasuke glared at the paper, wishing he could talk to his brother directly and kick his ass for being so vague and demanding at the same time. He rolled the paper and inserted it into the cylinder, re-setting the trap with his sharingan before feeding the bird and sending it back to Itachi.

The sound of laughter caught his attention, and he looked over to where his team had set up camp just inside the entrance to the tunnel that led to the Nara lands. It was the safest choice, since there was a small army of friendly troops on the other end of the tunnel, making it the least likely to have enemies come up from behind them while they rested. Evidently Juugo had not wanted to wait for Sasuke to finish up his message, and had used the flint box to start the fire that the small group was sitting around. Menma looked up and met his gaze.

"So, we gonna make a plan for what comes next, or are we gonna sleep first?" the Senju asked him.

Sasuke walked over and tossed his bag down next to where Menma had laid out his bed. They could talk while the others rested.

"We need to map out the northern tunnels and find out where they lead."

"Hopefully to the clan that's behind this shit," the Senju said, the low threat and determination in his voice echoing Sasuke's feelings exactly.

"Or at least lead us to any other pockets of the army they're building up so we can take them out before they find out what we did to the first group."

"You really think they don't know yet?" the blue-eyed man asked. The camp was unusually quiet, the uncertainty of the journey ahead as well as the fatigue of the last battle and long walk through the tunnels clearly wearing on Sasuke's team. Unfortunately, he had nothing solid to give them. They were the first wave, and it was their job to find all this shit out and pass the intel on to their clans.

"We'll find out," was all Sasuke could answer. "We don't know how they communicate to give or receive orders."

The warrior beside him frowned. "That's true. There's never been anyone with the ones I've fought. You think it's that mounted one? That it rides around and gives the groups their orders?"

Sasuke frowned. "That would be very inefficient, but I don't know. Either way, we have to be ready."

"The regular creatures won't be a problem. If we stick to the tunnels, we can pull back and force them to fight us a few at a time even if their numbers are bigger than what we ran into here," the Senju said.

Sasuke noticed the man didn't so much as flinch at the thought that they might run into worse odds than the last time. It was good to know the man wasn't going in thinking the hard part was over. Sasuke didn't have time to play nursemaid to a warrior who lost his nerve in battle.

Based on the level look the blue-eyed man was giving him, that didn't look like it would be an issue.

"Agreed. As long as we don't get surrounded, we'll be fine. This terrain will play to our advantage."

"Yeah. I'm more worried about that other thing you saw. The one that could phase through any attacks. None of the clans to the west have heard of anything like it. We might get lucky and there's only one of them, but even so…," Menma trailed off, frowning.

"Even so, we need to figure out how to kill it," Sasuke agreed, glad that the man was cutting right to the chase. Sasuke hated beating around the bush about things, and this gave him the perfect opening to sound the Senju out on a temporary binding.

"The only weakness we know it has for sure is fire," Sasuke stated. "Unless you think your energy attack would work."

Menma breathed out a frustrated sigh. "No. Based on how fast you said that thing could phase out, I think it would be too slow. And you said yourself your attacks alone weren't enough. So unless you've got a few dozen fire-breathing friends up your sleeve, we need to think of something else."

Sasuke was torn between frustration that their top two attack wouldn't work, and glad that the Senju wasn't any more able to take it out on his own than Sasuke was.

Sasuke looked at him assessingly. "We know for sure that it's weak to fire."

"But we already said we don't have enough fire power."

"Unless we boost it."

Menma looked at Sasuke for a moment. "You're suggesting a blood bond."

Sasuke was surprised that the other warrior knew what he was driving towards. "It wouldn't have to be permanent."

The blue-eyed warrior arched a brow, his expression strangely uncomfortable. "I thought any blood tie was binding until one of the two clans died out."

"Only if you do a full bond. There are temporary ones. They aren't as effective, but they're easier to cast."

Sasuke waited, letting the other warrior process what he was saying.

"So… how does it work? Would it affect our clans?"

Sasuke's eyes narrowed at the second question. That implied that the man had a clan that he was already part of by blood. Was he half Senju? If so, what was the other half? He didn't bother asking, knowing it would go unanswered.

"It won't affect our clans. It works similar to a full blood tie, but it requires less magic to make the scroll. Only a lower level type of bonding parchment and the blood and will of the two involved. No clan magic, no consummation. The spell takes about a day to set up."

"Ok. So… if we do that, do you think you'll have enough firepower to take this thing out?"

Sasuke honestly wasn't sure. "Maybe. But it's our best shot so far."

"You have the right kind of scroll? I heard the full blood tie scrolls take months to make."

"Those need to be infused with magic that can last generations to keep the clans tied. These don't. They only need to hold the magic for a few weeks at most. I already sent a note to my clan asking for one."

Menma snorted. "Pretty confident about yourself."

Sasuke shrugged. "Neither of us can take this thing on its own. It would be stupid not to try it."

The Senju shot him a glare. "We can't just sit on our asses until your fancy paper arrives. We should have a fallback plan just in case."

Sasuke didn't disagree. He'd spent quite a bit of time thinking about it, but hadn't come up with anything that was dead certain. "How precise are your teleporting abilities?"

"You mean, if we took it by surprise, flickering behind it we might be able to do some damage with our swords to it?" Menma asked, turning the idea over in his head

Sasuke shook his head. "Not that simple. Given how fast the creature could dematerialize, a regular attack wouldn't have much time to do damage. We'd have to be already mid-swing. Could you be precise enough with where we appear?"

Menma shrugged, fighting back a yawn. Sasuke wondered when the last time the man had had a full night's sleep. "I use it in regular battle pretty frequently. But I've never had to time it down to under a second or to the exact inch. I could try, though."

"We can try to refine it as we make our way through the tunnels. See how close we can get. Either way, we all need sleep first." Sasuke looked over to the fire. It was a pretty weak plan, but it was all they had. Hopefully they could avoid running into the creature until they were ready for it.

Sasuke looked over to where Sai was looking at his scrolls. "Sai. Where was the last sighting of the ice rider?"

"About twenty-five miles north of here. Minimum four days' walk, even with the tunnels cutting through some of the worst of it," Sai replied. "But that's assuming it didn't take a tunnel somewhere."

Sasuke turned back to Menma. "We'll push North. Keep mapping the tunnels, and take out any pockets of the other creatures we find along the way. My brother's bird was able to find me within minutes of emerging from the tunnel. If we're lucky, we'll have the scroll before we reach the ice rider."

"And you'll let me send back any information we get to the Western clans as well," Menma stated, though there was a question in it.

Sasuke nodded, putting down his blanket for sleeping. They were all tired enough that it didn't matter that the sun was only starting to set. "We don't know what we're heading into, so we'll get a good rest tonight and leave first thing in the morning."

"I'll take first watch," Sai said, murmuring something over a scroll that suddenly had dozens of flat-black mice and three birds exiting the tunnel.

"I'll take second," Karin mumbled from where she was already falling asleep in her bed.

"Third," Menma said, looking more than just a little fatigued as he wrapped the blanket around him, covering his head before removing his helmet and setting it within easy reach. Sasuke noticed the man had pulled the hood of his cloak to cover his head and face, and wondered again who the man was and what clan he belonged to. Some clans had easily identifiable physical characteristics, like the Hyuuga's pale eyes or the Kumo clan's dark skin and white hair, but the helmet showed the man's eyes and skin color.

Sasuke nodded, acknowledging the order for watch, then lay down. He'd get up on and off all night to check on everyone. They had planned as much as they could given the information they had. With war, there were never any certainties, especially when going up against an unknown enemy.

The main part of their plan was contingent on them having at least two full days before they encountered an ice rider.

When Karin's warning woke Sasuke from sleep, he knew that their plan was worthless.

The ice rider was slowly approaching from the tunnel that led north.

Sasuke stood, pulling on his breast plate and cloak, gripping the hilt of his sword.

"Stay behind me," he told his team, stepping out into the clearing to meet it. He wasn't surprised to feel Menma moving up to stand beside him, helmet already in place and sword in hand.

"So much for time to practice," the Senju murmured.

To be continued…

A/N - I already have half of the battle scene written. I am SO PUMPED about it!! 

Chapter Text

Chapter 11 - Hold on

Warnings - graphic depictions of violence (including blood, impalement, immolation, and attempted decapitation)

A/N - Thank you to Mykko_Chan for beta'ing and chatting with me about this chapter. And for those of you who thought the last cliffie was bad... well... yeah. Here you go!

When Karin's warning woke Sasuke from sleep, he knew that their plan was worthless.

The ice rider was slowly approaching from the tunnel that led north.

Sasuke stood, pulling on his breastplate and cloak, gripping the hilt of his sword.

"Stay behind me," he told his team, stepping out into the clearing to meet it. He wasn't surprised to feel Menma moving up to stand beside him, helmet already in place and sword in hand.

"So much for time to practice," the Senju murmured.

Sasuke cast a slight glance to where Menma was standing to his left as they waited for the creature to emerge from the tunnel that Karin had sensed it coming. Their eyes met briefly, shared determination flashing between them. They were going up against a powerful creature that they didn't know how to defeat, but retreat wasn't an option. It would leave the creature time to let others know about their presence in the tunnels and put the clan further at risk.

Losing this battle was not an option.

"Bet I kick its ass first," Menma said with a grin that didn't quite cover the wariness in his eyes about what was coming for them. The Senju had clearly not spent the first part of the night just sleeping, his skin glowing with power from beneath his helmet and cloak.

Sasuke felt his lips twitch in response as both men gripped their swords tighter, eyes locked on the tunnel entrance ahead of them. "You wish. Just don't get in my way."

Any further discussion was cut off as the ice rider emerged from the tunnel. Sasuke didn't give it time to even register their presence before blowing a compressed stream of fire directly at the creature's head. It didn't seem as though the creature had detected them before it was in their line of sight, an advantage that Sasuke was more than happy to take advantage of. In the glare of his approaching fire ball, Sasuke saw the creature's eyes shift to Menma. Its eyes flared in shocked recognition and anger, glowing a bright blue just before the creature vanished.

"Fuck," Sasuke breathed out. In the brief moment before the creature disappeared, Sasuke had clearly seen the number three etched on the small metal stud in the creature's forehead.

The first creature he'd encountered had the number four on it.

"There's more than one of these things," Sasuke said, scanning the area for any sign of where the creature might be reappearing. Karin would have warned if there were a second creature nearby, but that still didn't make this battle easy.

His breath puffed out in silent, frozen clouds as the seconds stretched while they waited for the creature to show itself. The walls of the trail were steep with no ledges, making the fighting ground narrower. That could play either for or against them in fighting a single, powerful opponent. There would be nowhere to retreat, and no cover for any of them.

He realized suddenly that Menma wasn't moving, and looked over at him just in time to see the creature appear directly behind the Senju, his blade already in motion in a smooth arc heading for Menma's throat.

"Menma. Move!" Sasuke shouted, lunging forward to try to block the strike before it landed.

The Senju seemed frozen, though his expression said he was aware and fighting it. But it wouldn't be in time. Sasuke's sharingan was calculating the exact trajectory of the ice rider's blade, his own body moving to intercept it before it struck his companion, knowing he wouldn't be able to stop it quite in time.

Menma broke free from the trance the creature had put him in and was able to move just enough that the creature's blade struck right above his collar bone rather than slicing through his throat. Sasuke's blade was there to block it from doing more than a give him a shallow cut above the Senju's breastplate.

The creature screamed in rage, the inhuman sound something between a bird of prey and the howl of a storm. Free from whatever trance the creature had put him in, the Senju wasted no time bringing his own blade up in a strike that should have severed the creature in half, but the ice rider vanished before the blow could strike.

"Dammit!" Menma growled, his hand going to where the strange blade had cut him, his flesh hissing as the poison of the blade ate into his skin. They both turned in a slow circle, looking for a sign of where the creature would strike next, moving so they were back-to-back. Their breathing sounded unnaturally loud in the silent mountain air as the adrenaline pumped through them.

"Can you use your arm?" Sasuke asked tersely. There was no time for him to check the man's wound… they needed to stay focused on finding their enemy. But he needed to know if the Senju could still fight.

"Yeah. I'll be fine."

Sasuke adjusted the grip on his sword. "The poison does more than just burn the wound open. It drains your body heat and causes temporary paralysis."

There was a slight pause, and Sasuke assumed the man was going to say he wasn't going to be able to continue. Instead, Menma said. "I heal. I can feel the poison, but my body is neutralizing it. It will slow me down, but I can fight."

Sasuke frowned. Senju didn't have healing abilities, though many clans created supplements to improve battlefield healing rates.

There was no time to think more about it as the ice rider appeared further up the trail, cutting them off from the rest of Sasuke's team. Sasuke wasn't sure if the creature had detected his team mates and was trying to cut them off, or if it simply was looking for better tactical positioning.

Sasuke didn't even have time to blink before Menma appeared directly behind the ice rider, his blade already on a direct path to separating the creature's head from its body. The blade seemed to actually hit for an instant, but then it passed through the rest of the way without any further damage. The creature hissed and turned, raising its own sword in a counter-attack.

Menma glanced over at Sasuke, giving a slight nod as he stood his ground, creating a target for the creature to attack.

Sasuke calculated the exact timing of the arc of the creature's blade and when it would need to be solid enough to strike, and blew another tight plume of fire at the creature the just as its sword drove toward the Senju.

Menma disappeared an instant before the fire hit, appearing back at Sasuke's side. Flames swirled around the creature and its horse, but it vanished before they could do much damage.

"Fuck. That didn't work." Menma's tense voice reflected what Sasuke was feeling. They had to find a way to land a blow on the thing, or they would waste all their energy on useless attacks until they were too drained to fight.

The creature appeared a few feet further away from them down the path, its eyes locked on the Senju.

"It's targeting you," Sasuke said, tracking the creature's movements.

The words had barely left his mouth when the creature disappeared again.

"Yeah, he's really not my type." Menma gave a tight grin. "Let's make it harder for him to find me. I'll distract it, you light it up. Don't worry about hitting me."

Sasuke narrowed his eyes, but waited to see what the man was going to do.

"Since when would I have worried about hitting you."

Menma side-eyed him, though there was a smirk on his lips. "Asshole."

Sasuke knew that the Senju had the ability to teleport in battle, but his eyes widened slightly as Menma did a series of teleportations so rapid that - if it weren't for Sasuke's sharingan - he would have appeared to be in about twenty places at once. Sasuke had read about this technique, but had never seen it in battle. It required the control of a relatively large amount of energy, and made the target very difficult to attack because they were only in each location for an instant. However, the user of the technique could launch a full attack from any of the locations at any time.

Sasuke frowned. Only one clan was able to perform the technique, as far as Sasuke knew, and it wasn't the Senju.

It was the Namikaze clan.

He didn't have time to think more about it as the creature vanished again. He was used to relying on his sharingan to help him predict his opponent's movements, but that only worked if he could see them.

He watched Menma, trying to work out the pattern in the man's movements to see where the creature was likely to go. He was somewhat impressed that the Senju was able to keep his movements unpredictable, not falling into a pattern that could be timed and countered. Most warriors he'd seen who had a clan ability to teleport could do so ten to twenty times in battle before burning through their energy. Menma had already teleported more than a hundred times, and his energy levels had barely dropped. Sasuke felt his lips curve, and he gripped his sword tighter. The rush of battle always made his adrenaline pump, and he felt it even more this time. When his opponent finally showed himself, Sasuke didn't hesitate.

The ice rider appeared just behind where Menma had been only an instant before, swinging its blade down through the now empty space with a shriek of frustration. Sasuke quickly fired off a sharp blast of fire. It struck the creature dead on, but the creature was able to vanish before it did much damage.

"Fuck," Sasuke bit out. He was too far away and the creature had too much warning before his fire hit for him to do enough damage. He needed to get closer.

He walked to the center of the rough spread of locations Menma was teleporting between. It took too long for the fire to travel from Sasuke's lips to the creature, giving the thing time to phase away before any damage was done. They needed to narrow the space where the creature would appear to give Sasuke a tighter range of attack.

As though reading Sasuke's intent, his partner alters his teleportations, moving them closer to each other in a tighter spread around Sasuke. Blue eyes fixed on him from all directions.

"Let's do it," all the Menmas said, though Sasuke's sharingan was able to separate them enough to know it was just one person speaking.

The words had barely left his lips when the ice rider appeared directly behind Sasuke. Sasuke twisted and brought his blade up to meet the strike, barely blocking it in time. The edges of their swords clashed as they slid along each other.

Menma appeared directly behind the creature and swung his sword, but it passed harmlessly through.

"Shit!" the blond growled, frustration on his face.

Sasuke braced his feet and drew in a breath, taking the man at his word that Sasuke didn't need to worry about hitting him. Menma immediately read his intent, flickering away just as Sasuke breathed out a huge blast of fire point blank at the ice rider. The creature had only partially phased, keeping his blade locked with Sasuke's to try to find an opening, so when the fire struck at close range, it did more damage than the longer ranged attacks had.

The creature vanished again, but this time it left behind the smell of burning flesh, acrid in the cold mountain air. It might not have killed it, but Sasuke was sure the creature felt that one.

"Finally," Sasuke said, shifting to scan for signs of the creature.

"Ok, we found a way to hit it. Now we just need to keep getting you up close and personal to that fucker." He shifted closer resting a hand on Sasuke's shoulder. Sasuke glanced down at it, and Menma grinned up at him. "I'll give you a lift. You just keep that hot air coming."

The creature appeared a few meters away, Menma tightened his grip and Sasuke felt the world around him vanish, only to reappear in a slightly shifted location, with the ice rider directly in front of them. Having his sharingan active during the teleportation fucked with his orientation, but all he needed to be able see was his target, and he unleashed as much firepower as he could on the thing.

Both horse and rider screamed, then vanished.

"Ok, so…," the Senju drew a shaky breath and looked down at the blackened bit of burned cloak that had fallen off the rider when it vanished. "... that sort of worked."

"Hn," Sasuke replied his red eyes scanning the trail for the creature's next move. He wished he could just fucking see it. The disappearing act it kept pulling was getting on Sasuke's nerves. He wasn't used to fighting blind. "It won't be able to run away this time."

The creature appeared sooner than usual, and not very far away. They flickered behind it again trying to repeat their earlier success, but the creature was ready, vanishing again almost immediately and reappearing just to the side. Its horse reared, the black hooves surging straight at Menma's head as the dark blade of the ice rider swung for Sasuke's throat.

"Fuck!" Menma shouted just as Sasuke felt a steely grip on his forearm. The next instant, they were suddenly more than a hundred meters up the trail from the creature.

They stood there, breathing hard as the dark creature watched them with utter stillness. Sasuke's pulse was overly fast and his palms had started to sweat despite the cold air. If the blade had even scratched him, it would be game over. His fire attacks were the only thing that had managed to do damage, but the poison on the ice rider's blade would make him useless if he got hit.

They'd have to land many hits to take it out, but the creature only needed to land one. Those were not good odds.

"Ok, so this one isn't as dumb as the others. It can learn and adapt," the Senju said, trying to sound calm, but his voice carried a tension that hadn't been there before.

"We can't let it escape," Sasuke said, not taking his eyes from the creature watching them with unnatural, motionless focus. He had to come up with another strategy… another tactic.

"Duh," Menma said. He frowned. "Why isn't it following us? It had the advantage. It should be on us already."

"It can't teleport," Sasuke replied tersely, his mind rapidly turning over options, seeking some way to turn the tables again. Itachi had left this in his hands, and Sasuke was not going to fail him. "It's waiting to see if we'll waste energy jumping back and forth."

"What? I'm pretty sure I haven't been imagining it disappearing and reappearing all over the fucking mountain top and my sword passing through like I'm cutting goddamn air." Menma's voice sounded irritated, and Sasuke knew the man was feeling the same pressure he was. Neither was used to losing.

"It can phase its body out, but it only reappears within range of where it would have been able to get without phasing. We can't see it or hit it, but it still has to move on its own power."

Menma frowned. "But its horse could be going a hell of a lot faster than what it's been doing. Those things have top speeds higher than regular horses by a lot."

Sasuke frowned. "It doesn't need to go fast… we clearly aren't running away. How do you know its top speed?"

Menma shrugged, and a quick glance at his face showed there was definitely more than the man was going to say. "They're a hybrid formed between dragons and regular horses. They're fast as hell and have skin tough as nails. They have weak spots, though."

"Then we target its horse. We'll take the creature after we make sure it can't escape."

Menma grimaced, clearly upset about targeting the horse, but there wasn't a choice. "Go for the belly. Watch the talons. Crouch down!"

Sasuke did, and the next instant, they were underneath the dark beast. Sasuke didn't hesitate to drive his sword into its belly, the Senju's blade aiming slightly higher, likely going for its heart.

The animal screamed, sounding somehow more human than the creature who rode it. Menma moved them a hundred meters away before the thing collapsed on them.

The creature leapt off the dying horse, its eyes glowing with fury through the dark shadow of the cowl covering its face.

"Ok. Now what?" Menma asked.

Sasuke shifted the sword in his grip, not taking his eyes from the creature for an instant. "Now we play tag."

Itachi looked up as the cry of a bird sounded over the barren, rocky terrain. He stepped forward, carefully avoiding the hidden Senju seal that was set in the ground in front of him, just as he had avoided the hundred or so others. The bones of those who had been less careful littered the landscape, but Itachi paid them no mind.

The wind caught his hair, pulling a long, dark strand from the low ponytail he kept it in. He ignored it, lifting his arm, his index finger extended gracefully, belying the power and destruction the man was capable of. The bird immediately plunged from the sky to alight on his forearm. Itachi's sharingan swirled in his one good eye, and he felt relief wash through him as he recognized Sasuke's seal on the black tube that held whatever message his little brother had finally deigned to send him.

He deactivated the trap, then opened the scroll.

Was a little too busy to write you notes, Nii-san.

Itachi felt his lips curve in amusement. It was so easy to provoke his little brother's pride.

Here's a map and body count of the creatures we have encountered so far. Second type is more challenging. Phases through all physical attacks, immune to mental ones. Blade delivers damage beyond normal wounds… resistant to healing.

Would appreciate an equally informative update from you explaining your choice of meeting point.

Tell Kakashi to stop pursuing the Namikaze alliance. I found someone from near the grave you're heading towards. Send me a base-level binding parchment.

Itachi frowned as he effortlessly reduced the paper to ash. He had never heard of a creature matching Sasuke's description. It was… concerning. He turned to look over towards the mountains where his brother was hunting the creature. Sasuke was skilled. And very determined. But even if his brother managed to find a way to defeat a creature that couldn't be harmed by the tactics of battle that his brother had been trained on, there was the potentially much more dangerous question of who had sent that creature. Whether they had created it or merely found a way to control it, it implied a level of power that Itachi was not happy about his little brother facing on his own.

Of course, Sasuke was no longer alone. Itachi hummed, wondering how it was that Sasuke had managed to find a member of a supposedly extinct clan in the middle of the mountains. It would be interesting to see how his little brother was going to go about the potential courtship that he appeared to have in mind. His brother was not known for his interest in pursuing any sort of relationship, and his social skills reflected as much.

A low, rumbling roar came from the north. Itachi stilled, his eye seeing through the many miles of clear air to seek the sound's source. He saw the silhouette of a creature much larger than any bird could ever be circling over a distant mountain peak. Itachi didn't need his sharingan to know that the wings would be scaled and leathery rather than feathered. Or that the beast's talons could tear through an eye like razors.

His returned his perusal to the lower edge of the Senju Clan grounds. It would take him some time before he could finish what he needed to there. But then he would head west and find his brother. He signaled the messenger bird to wait while he considered the messages ne needed to send, and to whom.

Shikamaru had been dreading the five day ride to meet the head of the Namikaze clan, but knew he couldn't delay. The Namikazes needed to know about the new potential threat given Naruto's blood limit and its inevitable exposure, and the news was too risky to be entrusted to a messenger.

Kakashi had accompanied him, claiming that he wanted to review some texts in the Namikaze library, but Shika thought he was simply wanting to witness firsthand what Kushina's reaction was going to be.

They had not even reached the border between the Namikaze and Nara clan lands when Shikamaru saw a horse approaching them at high speed. There was no mistaking the flaming red hair of the woman riding it.

"Shit." He pulled up his horse and waited for her to reach them. If he wasn't going to be given the full five days to come up with what to say to Naruto's mother to keep her from killing them all, he would at least take five minutes.

Kakashi pulled up alongside him, watching the warrior approach them. "I'll leave you to break the news to her. I saw enough of her temper the day Naruto walked out on the signing ceremony and have no desire to study Uzumaki battle tactics up close today."

Shikamaru sent him a sidelong glance, but didn't say anything as the sound of pounding hooves grew louder.

Kushina pulled her horse to a stop in front of them, her eyes flashing as the horse tossed its head, sensing her mood.

"Shika. You'd better have been on your way down to tell me why my son has gone charging off into the mountains, and why he hasn't come back yet to tell us himself what is going on."

Shikamaru glanced over at Kakashi. There was no way he was going to lie to this woman, and there was equally no way she would settle for half-truths.

"Let's go to my father's house, and I'll explain," Shikamaru said.

Kushina opened her mouth to object, but Kakashi forestalled her.

"Your clan's safety depends on no one else finding out what he's about to tell you."

Kushina eyed them both for a moment, then gave a sharp nod. "Then let's go. You will tell me what is going on, and then I'm going to find Naruto."

Naruto rubbed the back of his hand across his brow, trying to get the soot out of his eyes. It felt like they'd been fighting for hours. He'd tried to continue to draw in small amounts of energy as they'd moved, but his focus had been mainly on trying to predict where the ice rider would appear next.

They'd done damage to the thing, but it wasn't enough to tip the scales of battle in their favor. The creature was watching them, waiting for them to make a move with a patience that made Naruto feel like they were being toyed with. They would tire, but the creature would not.

The ice rider was waiting them out.

"He's weakening. It seems like he's disappearing for shorter times now," Naruto said, hoping it would start to change the flow of battle. Usually he could tell, but with this one… it felt more like treading water than winning.

"It's dropped from being able to dematerialize for twenty seconds to sixteen," Sasuke confirmed, though he didn't sound particularly happy about it.

Naruto gave a brief nod, flexing his fingers around the hilt of his blade, the grit of dirt between his fingers rough against his skin. His sword had done next to no damage aside from his first strike and taking out the horse, but that didn't mean he was going to let his guard down.

"It counters too fast for me to get a hit in," Naruto grimaced. The creature sat completely still as it watched and waited. For some reason, that pissed Naruto off. He needed to be able to strike before it saw him coming. He needed to get his sword deep enough in before the thing felt the blow so it would actually do some damage...

"Shit, why didn't I think of - Sasuke, I'm gonna try something."

"What are you -," Sasuke started, but Naruto had flickered away before he could finish asking, leaving Sasuke behind.

The creature had long ago learned to expect an attack from behind when Naruto teleported, so this time Naruto went to the side of the creature. Rather than having his sword ready to strike, Naruto had made the jump with his sword already thrust forward. The sword materialized already embedded in the creature at the base of its throat. Naruto tried to pull the blade to sever the creature's neck, but it felt like it was embedded in solid rock, and didn't budge.

He vaguely heard Sasuke shout, but his eyes were unable to look away from the creature as it slowly turned its head to look at Naruto, completely unfazed by the blade impaling it.

"Oh, shit," Naruto breathed, feeling a real spike of fear as it looked directly into the creature's dead eyes, his sword in its throat. The next instant, the creature was gone and Naruto was left holding only half a sword. The part that had been embedded in the creature seemed to have merged with it and was gone, leaving only the partial blade attached to the hilt Naruto was holding and the tip of the blade that had been sticking out the other side of the creature's throat which had fallen harmlessly to the frozen ground.

"Move!" Sasuke's shout jerked him into action an instant before the creature reappeared directly behind Naruto. He was able to teleport away, but the feel of the thing's blade slicing through his cloak let him know it had been a close thing.

He appeared next to Sasuke, his heart pounding almost out of his chest. "That thing just… I had my blade through its fucking throat and it just turned its head and looked at me. What the fuck is that thing?"

Naruto would deny that his hands were shaking as he looked down at the stub of a sword he had in his hands.

"Hn. It was a good idea." Sasuke looked at Naruto, glancing down at his destroyed sword, then over where the creature was. "We're losing energy faster than we're damaging the creature."

Naruto blew out a breath. He might not be able to calculate it like Sasuke could, but his instincts were telling him the same thing.

They were losing.

"Yeah." The creature slowly began walking toward them, not even bothering to hide its intent. "Any ideas what to try next?" Naruto asked.

Sasuke's jaw clenched. "If we could weaken it more, I could try a sustained fire blast."

Naruto looked over at him. "How long would you have to hold the blast for?"

"Enough that he couldn't get away from it before he had to re-materialize several times."

"I've seen you hold the blast for more than a minute. Isn't that enough?" Naruto asked.

"No. I can hold it when it's directed. For this to work, I'd have to keep the fire going in all directions, not just one. Which takes a fuckload more energy."

Naruto grimaced. He had only used about half of his energy, but without a binding scroll, it wouldn't do them any good. He tried to think of ways to use what Sasuke had said to their advantage.

"The ravine is a lot narrower a bit further up the path. That would cut down the amount of firepower you need, right?" Without waiting for an answer, he grabbed Sasuke's arm and shifted them to the narrowest point in the path.

Sasuke shot him an annoyed look once they'd rematerialized. "It's better but still too wide. I could hold it maybe twenty seconds. It would do damage, but not enough to kill it. I'd need to be able to hold it for at least three full cycles of its vanishing act to take it out."

"We could try it and -," Naruto started, but Sasuke cut him off.

"I would be completely drained at the end. And the creature wouldn't be dead."

The ice rider had been following them, then suddenly vanished.

"It's in range," Sasuke warned, lifting his sword slightly in preparation for attack. Naruto nodded in acknowledgement. The creature would be bolder now. Sasuke was tiring, and Naruto's sword was next to useless. They shifted so they were back-to-back, waiting for the creature to strike. A large block of ice broke loose from a ledge near them, due to the heat of the fire Sasuke had unleashed throughout the battle. The two only glanced at it for an instant, but the minor distraction was enough for the creature to strike.

Naruto's broken sword had a significantly shorter with the jagged stub of a blade. The creature appeared on Sasuke's right, as far from the Uchiha's sword arm as possible its blade glinting dully in the cold winter light.

Sasuke's lightning-fast reflexes had his sword flashing up, reaching over to meet it as his free hand raised slightly to block the incoming blow and brace his blade to withstand the force.  The blade of Sasuke's sword took the brunt of the attack, but the creature's sword managed to slash down across Sasuke's right palm as it braced against the blade.

"Fuck!" Sasuke bit out. The wound itself was minor, but the poison of the blade would spread through him quickly, dulling Sasuke's reflexes and draining his strength.

Before the creature could bring its sword around for a finishing blow, Naruto gripped Sasuke's forearm and teleported them up to a narrow rock ledge that the falling snow had revealed about ten meters up the ravine wall.

Sasuke was still standing, but Naruto didn't need to have Sasuke's ocular prowess to see that the man was already feeling the effects of the blade's poison. He had his eyes closed as he leaned back against the icy wall, his sword held loosely in his good hand while the other was clenched in a fist, blood dripping down into the slushy snow at his feet.

The creature had walked over to stand directly below them on the trail, looking up at where they were temporarily out of its reach. All it had to do was wait them out. Naruto clenched his teeth. There had to be something they could do. Some way to take it out.

He looked back over at Sasuke, hearing the rasping of the man's breathing. The blood from the cut in his hand seemed to be flowing even more heavily.  Naruto stared at it, an image forming in his mind at the sight.

Naruto didn't think. He took his broken sword and slashed the jagged edge of it across his palm. Maybe the book he'd looked through had been depicting something literally, not making an allusion to a marriage contract. It was their only chance at this point. If it didn't work, another cut on his hand wasn't going to mean shit.

He reached over and grabbed Sasuke's injured hand, pressing the bleeding edges of their palms together. The sharp jolt he felt as their blood mixed between their clasped hands told him the book hadn't just been being clever. He had no idea how to direct the flow of his energy, so he tried a slight push, similar to what he used in the pulse attack he'd made up with Kurenai. He gasped as he felt his power surge through the cut in his hand, like a wine skin with a hole in it… rushing through his blood and into Sasuke's.

The Uchiha's eyes flared wide as Naruto's power pulsed through him.

"The fuck?" Sasuke gasped.

"This enough to get it done?" Naruto gritted out.

"Maybe," Sasuke breathed, his eyes looking less glassy and more focused, and Naruto wondered if his self-healing could be passed by blood.

The skin of Naruto's palm was heating up, like a friction burn, but he barely noticed. He crouched down to brace his hand on the stone ledge, just as the drawing had shown. He closed his eyes and concentrated on trying to draw energy in with one hand, and pump it out through the other. It took him a minute or two to get the flow going. Once he thought he had it down, he opened his eyes and looked over at Sasuke.

"I'm gonna open it up now. Ready?"

Sasuke gave a sharp nod, and Naruto let out a slow breath and opened the floodgates.

"Holy fuck." Sasuke's voice had dropped in pitch, and Naruto felt the power surge between them even more as Sasuke pulled where Naruto pushed.

"Time to show me what you're packin', Uchiha."

The heat between their palms went from feeling uncomfortably warm to feeling like he was gripping molten steel, but neither man loosened their grasp.

Sasuke's hand viced tighter around his. "Take a deep breath now."

That was all the warning Naruto got before the world around them erupted in fire. Luckily Naruto had heeded Sasuke's order, because all the air around them was immediately sucked up into the flames. The heat from the blast was like nothing Naruto had ever experienced, the air around them rippling with the energy Sasuke was pumping down into the narrow path below them.

The metal of Naruto's helmet grew hot, sweat beading on his brow as he squinted his eyes against the inferno. His hand felt like the skin was being burned off from the bone, and he vaguely realized that this was probably the reason no one else did this shit without a scroll.

He could hear their joined flesh sizzle, and sooty smoke began to rise from where their blood mixed, the power flowing raw and uncontrolled between them.

The creature screamed, the sound echoing off the rock walls like fingernails on slate.

His lungs felt like they were bursting. He couldn't hold his breath anymore and gasped. The searing hot air that rushed in made him light headed. He realized he hadn't been counting to see how long Sasuke had been raining fire down on the creature below. How long had he said he needed… forty seconds? A minute? His hand was on fire and he was suffocating. He vaguely remembered Shikamaru telling him once that clans who used breath attacks in battle trained their lungs from a young age to be able to hold their breath in some cases for several minutes.

He felt his vision starting to go black around the edges, but he kept pulling in energy and feeding it to Sasuke. His face was drenched with sweat and his helmet felt like it was burning into his skin where it touched him. He could feel Sasuke's hand shaking from where they gripped each other deathly tight, and a glance to his side showed Sasuke's face looking pale in the glare of the fire he was sending out.

There was a final shriek from the ravine below, but rather than cutting off abruptly, it slowly faded down to nothing. Finally, Sasuke stopped, slumping back against the rocks and panting harshly.

"It's done" Sasuke said, his voice hoarse.

Naruto tried to nod in acknowledgement, but he was too focused on trying to get air into his aching lungs. Their hands were fused together, but he used his free hand to rip off his helmet, sucking down the cool air that was finally able to reach his overheated skin and painfully empty lungs.

He managed to slump back against the wall to keep himself from pitching off the ledge headfirst into the ravine and dragging Sasuke with him. He tried to look over at Sasuke to see how the man was doing, but the world around him was blurry and the blackness was rapidly closing in.

All he registered was Sasuke looking over at him, disbelieving red eyes latched on Naruto's face before everything went black.

To be continued...

Chapter Text

A/N - This chapter was almost late because I kept going back and forth on how much to reveal in this chapter and fiddling with the pacing of how the story would play out. I think I'm finally happy with where I landed. Either way, I wanted to at least get Sasuke's reaction out there for people since I'd left you hanging in the chapter before. Thanks to Tandy_Hard and Mykko_Chan for reading through parts of this and encouraging me!  This chapter is un-beta'd.

Chapter 12 – Marked

Sasuke looked down at the man slumped against the cliff wall next to him, feeling his blood pumping with borrowed power. Sasuke was heralded as one of the strongest warriors his clan had ever known, but he had never wielded anything like the kind of power he felt now. The rush was heady and addictive, and the afterglow was better than any sex he'd ever had.

But it had definitely come at a cost. His body was just starting to react to the damage the battle had inflicted on him, and he could feel his muscles start to shake. He ran his tongue over his cracked and blistered lips. Naruto's power had evidently burned through the poison of the creature's blade, leaving him clear-headed and free of the poison's numbing effects, but their hands were severely burned, their flesh still fused together, and his veins burned with the effects of conducting Naruto's raw energy through his system. It was possible that the bond had also given Sasuke some of Naruto's self-healing abilities, at least temporarily, but he couldn't really tell. He'd been so focused just on blowing enough hellfire down on the ice rider to reduce it to ash that he hadn't thought of trying anything else to see if he gained other abilities like he would if they bonded through the scroll.

And now he was too drained to do anything other than just stay conscious. His body was going into shock, coming down from the high of having wielded more power than he'd ever felt in his life.

His mind was still disciplined enough to register finally seeing "Menma's" face. Menma wasn't some wandering, clanless Senju that Sasuke had fortuitously stumbled on. He had known that the man was hiding his identity, since he clearly had battle training, but it hadn't occurred to Sasuke that the man was his fucking fiancé.

Anger surged through him. Naruto had been the one who had decided at the last minute he didn't want to be tied to Sasuke. He'd gone so far as to destroy the marriage contract, breaking the clan binding and leaving them vulnerable to attack, and making sure it would be months before another attempt could be made. Sasuke told himself it wasn't his pride that had his temper flashing. It was practicality. If the bond had been in place, they wouldn't have had to fry their fucking hands in some makeshift, half-assed fucking guess that blood-to-blood contact would work. And both their clans would be strengthened and better able to fend off a potential attack if Naruto and Sasuke had failed in their mission with the ice rider.

Now they both might lose a hand from this battle. And while losing a hand was preferable to dying outright, it could have been avoided if Naruto had just signed the fucking scroll.

If Sasuke could have pulled his hand free from Naruto's without ripping off a large portion of flesh, he would have. He settled for glaring at the unconscious man, looking for answers. Despite being covered in soot and ash, there was no mistaking Naruto's face for that of the man in the drawing Kakashi had sent him. The strong, sharp jaw, full lips… Sasuke frowned. It didn't matter what the man looked like. All that mattered was his blood limit abilities, which Sasuke and his clan would have much better access to if the idiot hadn't ripped up the fucking scroll. As it stands, his clan will get nothing without the magic of the scroll to spread the effects, and the blood bond between him and Naruto will likely fade as soon as the link between their hands is broken.

"Idiot. Why the fuck did you -," he cut off in frustration, raking his good hand through his hair. Yelling wouldn't help if Naruto was still too out of it to hear what he was saying. Sasuke didn't need to activate his sharingan to see that Naruto was at least breathing. There were small blisters on the man's forehead where his metal helmet had seared his tan skin. His blond hair was damp with sweat, but not blood. As angry as Sasuke was, he didn't want the Senju - the Namikaze dead. If for no other reason than his clan needed Naruto alive to win this war.

Why would Naruto reject an alliance with the Uchiha only to rush right out and form another, much less potent one? It made no sense. From what Sasuke had observed of the man, Naruto might be rash and impulsive, but he wasn't stupid.

He gritted his teeth in frustration, nudging Naruto's thigh roughly with his boot. Sasuke wanted answers.

"Naruto. Wake the fuck up."

Blue eyes opened for one slow blink before closing again. Sasuke was about to poke him a little harder with his foot when he realized his hand was hurting noticeably less than it had been a minute ago. Sasuke's eyes were still aching from overuse, but he activated his sharingan to see what was going on.

Naruto's energy levels were basically drained, but what little energy he had left seemed to be focused on healing the damage done to their hands. Meaning he might not be waking up soon.

Sasuke slid to sit down to sit next to Naruto, looking at where their hands were still fitted together. The blackened, burned skin and muscle was slowly repairing itself. It burned and itched, but it was far better than the excruciating pain that had gone before it. The adrenaline that had been surging through him along with the heady rush of Naruto's power had blocked it somewhat during battle, but it would have been hitting him full force by now if the man hadn't activated his Uzumaki healing abilities.

Sasuke would have to wait for answers, which wasn't something he was particularly good at.

He thought back to their initial meeting. Naruto hadn't seemed to recognize him… not his face and not his name. Sasuke didn't know Naruto well, but he already knew the guy had a shit poker face. Yet Naruto must have seen Sasuke's name and drawing as part of the marriage contract he'd ripped up. So what the fuck was going on? Kakashi had warned that someone was trying to sabotage the contract. Was Naruto involved? The sharingan made it nearly impossible for someone to lie to an Uchiha and not be detected. And even if the Namikaze had somehow managed it during their initial meeting, when Naruto had fused their hands together in the makeshift blood tie, the only emotion that had poured into him from the man had been sheer determination and desperation.

There had been no deception.

Still, Sasuke was an Uchiha, and he'd been trained from birth to watch his back and not trust anyone who wasn't clan. He had been steeped in the tactics of both battle and political strategies, and the first rule in both was to never tip your hand to a potential adversary until you knew what their agenda was. It was possible that Naruto had sabotaged the contract and then discovered later that there was an enemy coming that he couldn't defeat on his own. The thought annoyed Sasuke only slightly, because he had been making similar calculations in his own head. This was never meant to be a love match. Itachi and his father had forced Sasuke's hand, and Sasuke had been far from enthusiastic about the bonding.

Now it was different. It was a matter of survival for his entire clan.

He looked down at the blond man, who was starting to stir. He had to find out what Naruto knew. And whose side the man was really on.

Blue eyes opened and latched on him, slowly focusing as a tired grin formed on the blond's face. "So, we kicked its ass, yeah?"

Sasuke tilted his head to the side. The man wasn't scrambling to put his helmet back on, though it was possible that he was still too out of it to remember that he'd taken it off.

"Yes, Menma. We did." Sasuke looked at Naruto, waiting for him to show some sort of reaction to the not-so-subtle stress Sasuke had put on his name, but all he could see on the man's face was genuine relief in the cocky grin he had. Despite himself, Sasuke felt his lips curve slightly in response. Whatever issues he might have against Naruto, they had kicked ass in battle together.

Naruto looked down at where their hands were still joined, the skin still painfully raw, bloody and burned. "So I guess we know why people use scrolls instead of doing blood magic directly. Looks like some of it healed, but you might need Karin to take care of the rest." He moved his fingers slightly, feeling the skin pull where their blood had clotted together. He winced. "Much as I like holding your hand, we probably should get free. Separate on three?"

"Hn. A binding scroll would definitely have made this much easier," Sasuke bit out as he pulled his hand free without bothering to count, clenching his jaw so hard he thought his teeth might crack as he fought to keep from flinching at the searing pain as their hands tore loose from each other.

"Fuck! Asshole! Give a guy some warning!" Naruto glared and leaned back against the wall, gasping at the pain. "What's your deal, anyway? If you're pissed off because I didn't ask before trying the direct blood magic, I'd like to hear what else you thought we could've done to kill that thing. It's not like we could just wait for the scroll to show up."

Sasuke's rapidly escalating temper was extinguished as a deep roar filled the narrow ravine. The sound was unlike anything Sasuke had ever heard, seeming to fill the air and make it tremble.

"Dragon," Naruto breathed, struggling to his feet and gripping his shattered sword tightly in his undamaged hand. "Ah, fuck."

Sasuke barely had time to process that Naruto somehow knew what a dragon sounded like when the sun seemed to vanish. A huge, black shadow swept over the ravine. Sasuke's sharingan had activated as soon as he'd heard the creature's roar, and it cataloged with frightening precision the sheer size and power of the beast that landed on the top of the cliff, looking down at them.

Sasuke could feel Naruto pulling in energy, but one glance at the dragon and Sasuke knew that they would not be ready to give it any sort of fight. They were injured and their energy was spent. If it was here to finish off what the ice rider had started, they were fucked.

Luckily, the dragon didn't seem to be in any hurry to come at them. It seemed, instead, to be studying the scorched battlefield sniffing the air as if trying to find a specific scent in the wind. Sasuke felt a smug surge of pride at the knowledge that the creature had likely assumed a human couldn't do this kind of damage and was wondering what did.

Its golden, green slitted eyes latched on the ice rider's corpse, and the creature's nostrils flared. A lash of its black scaled tail caused a huge chunk of rock to break free from the other side of the ravine, creating an opening large enough for the creature to descend into the narrow space. Its jaws clamped down around the ice rider's charred body, snapping the thing in half and flinging the remains into the side of the ravine. The act was clearly one of desecration, since there could be no mistaking that the ice rider was fully dead before the dragon had arrived. He wondered what the ice rider had done to earn the wrath of a dragon.

The beast then turned its head to look at the narrow ledge where Naruto and Sasuke stood. It snorted out a short burst of fire, then slowly walked toward them. Naruto straightened and stepped forward as much as the ledge would allow. "Don't break eye contact with it when it looks at you," Naruto said - a stupid comment because there was absolutely zero chance Sasuke was going to take his eyes off the enormous fucking threat in front of them. The only person he'd ever heard of who had encountered a dragon and lived was Itachi, and Itachi had been full power when it happened. Even then, it had cost him an eye and done no damage to the dragon.

The aura of the dragon was powerful, pressing on the air around them like a physical force, making it hard to breathe. Sasuke felt another aura building, and realized that Naruto must be using his Uzumaki blood limit. With his energy drained, it wouldn't be as impressive as it would be at full power, but Sasuke could feel it push back against the dragon's presence. The creature paused, sniffing the air again. It turned its head and its eyes locked on Naruto. It let out a low growl. Sasuke didn't know why it sounded more like a warning than a threat.

Naruto very deliberately raised his sword and dropped it down. "I met your sister," Naruto said, his hands moving to lift up the hem of his tunic. Sasuke thought maybe the Senju had lost his mind until he saw the swirled scar on the man's stomach. "She left her mark."

The dragon tilted its head then leaned forward to sniff at Naruto's belly. Naruto was completely unmoving, his breath stilled as he waited for the creature to finish its examination. The dragon seemed satisfied with whatever it found on Naruto's stomach, and turned to look at Naruto's bloody, burned hand, then Sasuke's. Its eyes widened slightly as it leaned forward again to sniff their hands. Sasuke lifted his up, allowing the creature better access, since there really wasn't anything else he could do at that point. The creature would either burn them to ash, bite them in half or… let them go.

His mind raced as he tried to figure out what the fuck was going on. Dragons usually had nothing to do with humans, living in secret lairs that were completely inaccessible to non-flying beings. Why a dragon would have taken an interest in this battle was something that Sasuke wanted to know, assuming he lived long enough to look into it.

The dragon lifted its head to be eye level with Sasuke. Sasuke took Naruto's advice and didn't so much as blink. The creature locked eyes with his and Sasuke knew somehow he was being assessed. The creature's eyes were ancient and intelligent, seeming to look through Sasuke to his very core. It was the same thing Itachi had described with his encounter with the dragon two years ago. Anyone who described dragons as dumb beasts had clearly never met one. Sasuke lifted his chin slightly in challenge.

The creature gave another low growl that sounded almost like a hum and lowered its head slightly, sniffing along Sasuke's torso, then pausing to breathe deeply at Sasuke's throat. Sasuke held completely still, as Naruto had. He didn't know what the beast was searching for, but he wasn't willing to give it the satisfaction of showing fear. The dragon's nose moved up slightly, and Sasuke could feel its breath ghosting over his mouth, where his lips were blistered and raw from the extended fire blast he'd unleashed.

The dragon's tongue flicked out and licked a long, wet stripe across Sasuke's lips, and Sasuke barely resisted the urge to flinch back. The rough texture of its tongue abraded Sasuke's already raw lips, but as soon as the creature pulled back, Sasuke could feel the same tingle of magic that Karin's healing abilities left. The dragon's saliva tasted like liquid fire on his lips, sharp and sulfurous. But instead of burning his lips further, it was healing them. Sasuke had known in theory that dragons were powerful, magical creatures. Centuries ago, their blood had been used as a key ingredient in some of the darkest magics by ancient sorcerers seeking immortality or invincibility. None had succeeded, though. In the end, the dragons had wiped out the sorcerers who had tried to hunt them, but Sasuke understood now the lure of trying to harness the raw power of these creatures despite the obvious dangers.

The dragon then turned and licked their burned palms. The scraping against his open wound hurt like fuck, but he could feel the skin tingle. The dragon then stepped back slightly, and Sasuke felt the tension in his chest loosen slightly. It was going to let them live.

Before he'd even completed the thought, the beast's talon lashed out, gripping Sasuke right at the join of his neck and shoulder, piercing his skin just behind his shoulder at the base of his neck with a crushing grip. He could hear Naruto shouting something, but couldn't quite make out the words as his vision went black.

Kushina managed to keep her silence until they had entered the Nara clan home. As soon as the heavy wooden doors closed them, she rounded on Shikamaru, her aura filling the entryway as her energy surged. "Now, tell me why Naruto is not on his way home. I know my son. No matter how angry he was about the marriage, he wouldn't sulk when we're facing war."

Shikaku walked into the room just as Kushina had started speaking.

"Shikamaru. What's happened?" Shikaku knew Shikamaru would not be here in person unless something had changed from their initial plans.

"We should go where we can't be overheard," Kakashi said, lifting the patch he used to cover his left eye, his sharingan swirling red as he scanned the room.

Kushina's hand slid to the hilt of her blade. "Explain yourself."

Kakashi lifted his palms in a show of non-aggression to show he wasn't attacking. "I am looking for listening agents. What Shikamaru has to tell you must not be overheard by anyone."

Shikaku glanced at his son, and Shikamaru nodded tightly. "Then let us go to the strategy room. It's warded against eavesdropping."

Kushina did not remove her hand from its position on her weapon, but she didn't object as the small group quickly made its way to the heavily warded inner sanctum of the Nara clan. As Shikaku finished drawing the bolt on the door, Shikamaru began to speak, knowing that Kushina was well past her limit of patience. He knew that once she found out about the risk to her clan, she'd stop listening to anything else, so he started with the tactical information he needed to make sure she knew while she still had the patience to listen to it.

"Naruto has joined up with the Uchiha group that is tracking the creatures in the mountains."

Kushina narrowed her eyes. "Why would he do that instead of coming back here to help his own clan plan for war?"

"There isn't time. He ran into the Uchiha team when he and Kurenai was investigating the tunnel near the northern base camp that the first set of creatures had come from. When they followed the tunnel, the discovered an area with hundreds of the creatures, packed in tunnels. The Uchiha group had already engaged them, and Naruto and Kurenai joined in and finished them off."

Kushina processed this. "So now the enemy knows we're coming."

Kakashi stirred. "We don't know. We haven't seen any way the creature seem to have of receiving orders from someone else or sending information back but that doesn't mean it isn't happening. It's possible the second type of creature is the one who gives the orders."

"Second type of creature?" Shikaku asked, frowning at the new information.

Shikamaru explained what Sasuke had told Naruto about the ice rider's abilities, along with the fact that the Uchiha had not been able to defeat it. "We don't know how many of these creatures there are. It's possible there is only one. But either way, we need to find a way to take it out. Have either of you ever heard of a clan creating warriors like this? It isn't natural, so someone must have made it."

The silence in the room was answer enough.

"The only other 'unknown' warriors I've encountered were the ones that took out my clan and the Senju. But they were definitely human," Kushina stated. "I killed many with my own hands, and they bled like anyone else. They were strong and skilled, but most of their victories came from the element of surprise. The only thing strange about them was that their cloaks and weapons were unmarked, and they never tried to hold the lands of the clans they defeated. They swept in, killed, then disappeared."

The story was not a new one, and the old mystery of who the attackers had been and why they'd targeted the Uzumaki and Senju clans seemed to have no bearing on what was happening now, aside from the fact that an unseen hand was again preparing to attack. There would be no clues there.

Shikaku's expression was grim. "We need to go through the library with this new information about the second type of creature and see if any of the clans from the other regions had abilities that could produce something like this. It might give us some insight on how to defeat them, or give us a target that we can strike back against."

"There's no time," Kushina said forcefully. "Naruto won't pull back when he knows the border towns are vulnerable. We need to send him reinforcements."

"The reinforcements will only add to the death toll if none of them can land a blow on it," Kakashi replied calmly.

Kushina rounded on him. "So we leave my son to face it on his own?"

"He's not on his own, he's with the Uchiha clan's best team," Kakashi retorted.

"Naruto made this choice," Shikamaru intervened, bracing himself for Kushina's wrath. "He knew what he was doing, and you know he's right. The last thing Naruto would want would be more people dying while we search for answers."

Kushina drew a breath, and Shikamaru knew that he'd scored a hit. She knew her son would do anything to protect his people. But she was never one to give up easily when it came to fighting for her family.

"And is the Uchiha team is so much better than what we could send? Given what happened with the failed blood tie, how do we know they won't turn on him in battle?" Kushina asked sharply.

Kakashi and Shikamaru exchanged a glance. "They don't know who he is. He has been careful to keep his face covered. Unless that changes, they won't find out who he is."

Kushina scoffed. "You can't battle for weeks and never take off your helmet. They're going to find out sooner or later. But if they don't know who he is, I don't understand why they let him join their mission. Everyone knows the Uchiha clan never allows outsiders to join them in battle. Naruto is powerful, but why would they make an exception for him when they never have before?"

Shikamaru gave Kakashi a slight nod. It was time for her to know the full situation. They'd told her what she needed to know about the current situation.

"The mission to track and kill the creatures was the top priority of the Uchiha clan," Kakashi said, seemingly unperturbed by the dangerous aura pumping off the powerful Uzumaki warrior. "They had their top warrior lead it."

Kushina paused, then her eyes widened in comprehension. "It's Sasuke?" At Kakashi's nod, Kushina's face tightened. "Doesn't that only increase the risk to Naruto when he's discovered? If anyone from the Uchiha clan had a reason to hold a grudge, it would be him. Especially if he doesn't know how Naruto was deceived."

"I sent Sasuke a note telling him the blood contract had been sabotaged," Kakashi said. Shikamaru noticed the man didn't specify just how much Sasuke knew or didn't know, but it was likely best to imply he was fully aware at this point to appease Kushina's protective instincts.

Shikamaru spoke up. "But that's not the primary danger. At least, not the main one. When they fought the nest of creatures together, Naruto had to use all his abilities in battle."

"Of course he would! Why would that -" Kushina began, but Shikamaru cut her off.

"Including the Senju abilities he'd kept hidden up until this point."

Shikamaru's words fell like stones, the room going utterly silent as the implications of them sunk in.

Kushina paled, and even Shikaku looked stunned. "But he's never…," she trailed off, clearly thinking through signs in the past that Naruto's abilities were more than simply the sum of hers and Minato's.

"He teleported from your house to our stables the day of the ceremony," Shikamaru said.

Kushina's eyes widened, but she didn't dispute it. No one bothered to ask why Naruto had never told anyone. They were all painfully aware of the risk for possessing the Senju blood limit. "And he used… something… in battle with Uchihas present, and their sharingan -," Kushina began, looking over at Kakashi.

Kakashi nodded. "Yes. Sasuke would definitely have recognized the Senju blood limit. The Uchiha clan had many decades of war against the Senju clan, and we are all well-versed in its techniques and abilities."

The books on the shelves of the room trembled as Kushina's power surged out. "He'll be hunted now. Every Senju warrior was marked for death, no matter where they went, no matter how they were hidden." Her eyes turned to Shikaku, almost pleading. "We don't even know who had sent the assassins, or how they tracked the members of the clan. How can we defend against an enemy like that?"

Shikaku gave his son a hard look that said they would be talking later about how long Shikamaru had known or suspected his friend's hidden abilities, but now was not the time for recriminations.

"Right now, he's with one of the strongest warriors I know," Kakashi said. "They're in a remote location and constantly on the move. They won't be an easy target."

"And what if Sasuke finds out that the warrior he's with is the one who ripped up the marriage contract?" Kushina persisted, clearly not reassured.

Kakashi shrugged. "Sasuke excels at strategy. He knows that an alliance with someone with Senju abilities is his best chance at defeating this enemy, especially since he wasn't able to defeat the second type of creature on his own. The Uchiha clan had long ago tried to form a blood alliance with the Senjus. It was sabotaged then, just as it was now."

Shikaku's eyes narrowed thoughtfully at the man's words.

"If I go to him… if others are looking for him, I'll lead them to him," she said, clearly struggling with what her mind was telling her to do with her instinct to protect her son physically from harm.

"If you take precautions, you can go to him soon. But not right away, and we can't send anyone else or we risk drawing too much attention. We haven't faced an enemy like this before. Only the strongest warriors will be of any use at all. We will know who to send once we have more information about what their weaknesses are. In the meantime, Naruto and Sasuke are trying to save their clans by getting us information so we can find out which clan is creating these things and how to stop them. We have to trust them to do their job. And we have to do ours."

Kushina drew a shaking breath. Slowly, the ominous pressure of her aura faded.

"Fine. I'll go back and tell Minato. He needs to know about… all of this. Then we'll come up with a way for me to go to my son without drawing attention to it."

Shikamaru exchanged a relieved glance with his father that Kushina was going to be the one to tell Minato rather than running off after Naruto immediately.

"We'll try to have some new information for you to take to Naruto when you go." Shikaku turned to his son. "Tell us everything you know about Naruto's Senju abilities, the tunnels, and the creatures. There has to be a clue somewhere on how he can attack them."

They continued their discussion through dinner, continuing late into the night, long after Kushina had left to tell her husband. They'd made no progress other than to add to their growing list of questions. It was late when Kakashi finally found himself alone in his room. He knew he should be tired, but his mind was restless. Kakashi looked over to the mountains, where he knew Sasuke would be going up against creatures with unknown abilities, powered from an unknown source, and guided by an uknown adversary. He had never had a student as driven as the younger Uchiha. Itachi had had more raw talent as a child, but Sasuke had worked himself relentlessly to catch up. The difference in power between them was minuscule, and both were far beyond Kakashi at this point. The place where Kakashi could be the most helpful was here, helping research and sending information back and forth with Sasuke and Naruto on the front lines.

Sasuke had a Senju on his side, which was something the enemy would not have been expecting.

He hoped it would be enough.

Naruto reached out and grabbed Sasuke when the man's eyes rolled back in his head as the dragon released its grip, pulling him back to the safety of the ledge. He knew exactly what it felt like to have the razor-sharp talons pierce his flesh. It had been more than a decade since Naruto had felt it, but there was no forgetting something like that.

Sasuke's clenched jaw told him that the Uchiha wasn't completely unconscious, but probably struggling along the edges, fighting like hell to stay awake in the presence of a dangerous enemy. Naruto hadn't had that fortitude as a child, and he been unconscious for hours before anyone had found him.

Too late to save his friend, but Naruto wouldn't think about her now.

The beast's head snapped up at the same time Naruto's did at the sound of shouting from down the trail. He recognized the Uzumaki woman's voice from Sasuke's team. Naruto cursed under his breath. Karin would have sensed the dragon coming and told the rest. Sasuke's orders to stay back had been heeded as long as it was just the ice rider they were facing, but with the ice rider gone and a new potential enemy on the scene, they had come out of the tunnel to help.

While Naruto admired their bravery, he hoped it didn't get them killed. He knew from personal experience that dragons killed most humans they encountered. It had decided to let Naruto and Sasuke live, but that didn't mean it would make the same call for the others.

"Stay back!" he shouted. "Go back!"

Sasuke gripped Naruto's arm with his injured hand, and Naruto heard the hiss of pain as the man came fully back to consciousness.

"You good?" Naruto asked, knowing it was a stupid question.

Sasuke grunted in response, leaning heavily against the wall as blood poured out of his shoulder.

The dragon was still looking away from them, down the ravine toward where Sasuke's team was coming. Naruto could see the creature's muscles tense as though about to lunge forward.

"Don't!" He threw himself forward, bracing a hand on the creature's chest as though he had a chance in hell of stopping it physically. "They're on our side. Please. Don't."

The dragon turned its head back and looked down at Naruto. Sasuke levered himself away from the wall to stand next to him.

The dragon eyed them for a tense moment, then breathed out a huff of smoky air. Naruto could have sworn there was almost a look of amusement in the beast's eyes before it turned and launched itself high into the sky, circling the ravine once before flying off to the northeast.

Naruto looked over at Sasuke, the man's normally pale face even paler in shock.

"Holy fuck," Naruto breathed out, not quite ready to believe they'd survived the day.

"What the hell does a dragon want with this?" Sasuke bit out, leaning heavily back against the wall and clutching his shoulder.

"Hell if I know," Naruto said, slumping to sit down next to him. The sounds of running feet and shouting voices announced the arrival of Sasuke's team.

Naruto couldn't believe they'd all made it through alive.

To be continued...

Chapter Text

A/N - Thanks to Mykko_Chan for reading through parts of this.  Un-beta'd.

Chapter 13 - Searching for answers

"Holy fuck," Naruto breathed out, not quite ready to believe they'd survived the day.

"What the hell does a dragon want with this?" Sasuke bit out, leaning heavily back against the wall and clutching his shoulder.

"Hell if I know," Naruto said, slumping to sit down next to him. The sounds of running feet and shouting voices announced the arrival of Sasuke's team.

Naruto couldn't believe they'd all made it through alive.

The dragon had collapsed the part of the ravine that stood between them and Sasuke's team. It would take the Uchiha team a few minutes to climb over it to get to them, so Naruto had some time to figure out what to do now that Sasuke had seen his face. He looked down at his helmet, glad it had cooled enough that he could put it on. Sasuke seemed to not have recognized him, which was good, but that didn't mean the others wouldn't. Karin was Uzumaki, so there was a chance she might know of him. His thoughts were interrupted by Sasuke's voice.

"What the fuck did you think you were doing!" Sasuke bit out, glaring at Naruto. Sasuke's hand pressed against the wound in his shoulder to slow the flow of blood where the dragon had marked him, but otherwise the Uchiha gave no sign of the nearly incapacitating pain Naruto knew he must be feeling. Naruto might be impressed with the man's fortitude, but the guy was still an ass.

"What! You're still pissed about the whole blood bond thing? I didn't exactly have time to buy you a fuckin' ring!" Sasuke had looked annoyed since Naruto came to, and it was starting to piss him off. "I saved both our asses. You're welcome."

Sasuke looked even more annoyed, and Naruto couldn't understand why it made Naruto want to provoke him even more. It might be a dangerous hobby, but he decided he really liked winding the Uchiha up enough to make him break his stoic facade.

"I'm talking about going up to the dragon and basically telling it to stay like it's your goddamn pet. You're lucky it didn't bite your arm off when you tried to hold it in place like an idiot!"

Naruto felt his cheeks heat. Yeah, that probably hadn't been his best strategic moment. "Heh." he rubbed the back of his head sheepishly. "Yeah, well… it worked, right?"

Sasuke rolled his eyes. "Moron."

"Oh, fuck off, Uchiha. I didn't see you come up with a better plan for keeping your team from becoming dragon snacks."

"You call that a plan?"

Naruto saw a set of hands appear at the top of the collapsed pile of rock and reached over to grab his helmet. His face was so covered in soot it was probably a decent mask on its own, but he might as well play it safe.

Sasuke gripped Naruto's wrist, preventing him from putting it on.

"Don't bother," Sasuke snapped out.

"Jesus. I thought that thing cut your hand with the sword, not shoved it up your ass. What is your problem?" Naruto was tired, energy drained, and his hand hurt like fuck. Sasuke could take his attitude and shove it, as far as he was concerned.

Sasuke glared at Naruto, still gripping his wrist, jaw clenched. There was an almost possessive light in Sasuke's eyes for an instant, but it was quickly gone, leaving Naruto to think he'd imagined it in his fatigue. After a few tense moments, Sasuke let Naruto's hand go.

"I already know what you look like, and am fully able to describe you in detail to my team. If they know you and you wanted to keep your identity a secret, it's too late now. Leave the helmet off."

A brief memory flickered through Naruto's mind of Sasuke saying his name. His real name. Naruto closed his eyes, feeling fatigued. His mind was just fucking with him, because Sasuke had called him 'Menma' when he woke up. He was probably just being paranoid. The only contact that the Namikaze clan had had with the Uchiha clan in the past hundred years had been the botched marriage contract. The only people who would recognize him on sight from Sasuke's team would have to have been involved with that directly, given the secrecy that both clans had placed on the alliance. From what he'd gathered, Sasuke and his team had been in the mountains during the time of the negotiations, when any drawing of Naruto that had been used as part of the negotiations would have been circulated.

Naruto was probably safe from recognition. Though once Sasuke got back to his clan and described his powers and appearance to his clan elders, they would figure it out, but that was something he'd have to deal with then.

In the meantime, he just had to deal with Sasuke being pissy.

"Whatever." He looked tiredly down into the ravine. He didn't have enough energy to teleport them yet, and Sasuke was too injured to jump. Naruto leaned back and closed his eyes. "Don't do something stupid like jump. I'll get us down in a few minutes."

He could feel the weight of the Uchiha's eyes on him, but he ignored it, focusing instead on drawing enough energy in to be able to get them down safely. Naruto could feel his own body's healing mechanism kicking in, but he knew Sasuke was in rough shape. He hoped Karin would be able to heal him, but he wasn't sure how the dragon's mark would react. Naruto tried to tell himself that he was only worried because there were still more of those mounted creatures out there, and he couldn't defeat them without Sasuke. He shoved down any other sort of concern he had for the man who had stepped up to stand beside him when he stared down a dragon.

Shikaku looked at the pages they had written out containing everything they knew about the creatures and the tunnels.

"There is no way that a clan that was powerful enough to do this would have been able to hide those abilities for this long. The degree of power it would take to be able to create an army like this, to control creatures with this sort of strength…," he trailed off, frowning. "Even the Senjus would have had difficulty with something like this, and they drew energy from an outside source. If the clan had the same kind of internal energy levels as the Uzumaki, it would still take thousands of them to pull something like this off."

"Even just creating the tunnels would be beyond any clan we have any record of," Shikamaru added. "A clan that large couldn't stay hidden, even just from the perspective of providing food for itself."

Kakashi drummed his fingers on the table, wishing he'd get word from either Itachi or Sasuke with more information that would shed some light on this. He voiced a thought that had been bothering him for over a decade. "If this is the same clan that was behind the massacre of the Senju and Uzumaki clans, why didn't they claim the lands? Every clan war I can think of in the past was either about land, or access to power by forcing a blood tie when one clan had refused another. Neither of those things happened when the Senju and Uzumaki were wiped out. What did they get out of the war if they claimed no spoils? They suffered heavy losses, even though they came out the victors. The only thing they took with them when it was over was the bodies of their own dead. No clan takes on war for no reason. What are we missing?"

The frustration of the three men only seemed to grow as the day went on with no clan on record having any of the abilities or even close to the level of power that the army of creatures required.

Karin was the first over the ledge, and she called out to Sasuke as soon as she saw him.

"What happened with the dragon? I felt its energy when we were in the tunnel, along with the fact that the two of you were completely drained. I never knew a living creature could hold so much power." She was breathing hard and looking around wildly, her gaze flitting from the scorched earth, the desecrated body of the ice rider, then back to Sasuke and the bloody wound on his shoulder. "I can't believe you two aren't dragon food."

Sasuke didn't bother to tell her that she had been much closer to becoming dragon food than he or Naruto. It added to the confusion Sasuke had about just what side Naruto was on, if he tore up the marriage contract, but stood up to the dragon when he was basically defenseless to protect Sasuke's team. Not that the way in which the idiot had done so had been particularly smart, but still. He'd done it without batting an eye.

Sasuke still couldn't believe that it had worked.

It added to the growing list of evidence that Naruto was not involved in the sabotage of the marriage contract nor against the Uchiha clan in particular. But Naruto had still torn up the contract for some reason, and didn't seem to recognize Sasuke, which made no sense.

Suigetsu came up behind Karin. "Maybe the dragon thought Sasuke would taste like the ass that he is and left him alone." He squinted over to where Naruto was laying completely still. "Is the blond guy dead?"

Karin snorted. "You're such an idiot. He's not dead." Her tone was mocking, but there was a sharpness in her eyes as she watched Naruto, and Sasuke knew that the Uzumaki woman likely knew exactly what Naruto was, if not who, given he had both his Uzumaki and Senju blood limit abilities active at the moment. She looked at Sasuke and he shook his head slightly, telling her to hold her peace. He needed to find out what Naruto knew and why the contract had been destroyed. The last thing he needed was his team interfering with his interrogation of the man by letting slip too soon that Sasuke knew who Naruto really was.

Sai and Juugo were last over the collapsed barrier, their eyes alternating between taking in the burned-out ravine and scanning the skies for the dragon's return.

Sai bent down, tracing his finger through the ash that covered the now snowless ground. "Did you do this?" He looked over at Sasuke, who gave a short nod. "You didn't just melt the snow. You vaporized it. The ground is dry." He glanced over at Naruto. "That's a hell of a lot of fire power."

Sasuke followed Sai's glace to where Naruto was still trying to build up his energy. The smoky haze from the battle had lifted from the ravine, allowing the unfiltered sunlight to reach them. Despite the soot on his cheeks and hair, there was an almost gilded look to the man.

"Can you get down?" Juugo asked, frowning slightly as he looked up at the narrow ledge and gauging the distance (and rather high likelihood of getting a broken leg) for jumping.

Sasuke gave a slight nod in Naruto's direction. "He's working on it."

"Well tell him to work faster. You're losing too much blood just standing there," Karin said, her tone serious as her gaze narrowed on Sasuke's wound. There was a burning heat that was slowly building in his shoulder where the dragon had marked him. "What the hell!?" she asked, her eyes widening.

"What?" Sasuke asked, though he already knew what she was likely to say.

"Your energy. It's… it's half his," she gestured to Menma. "But there's also something else in there, too. I've never seen anything like… holy shit, is that dragon energy?! "

Suigetsu's head snapped up at her words. "What the hell did you guys do?"

Naruto's eyes opened, and he shifted forward. "I took your team leader here on a first date. We even held hands." The grin Naruto gave was strained, as he threw Karin a wink. She rolled her eyes, but gave a huff of amusement.

"Direct blood tie," Sasuke clarified, shooting Naruto a glare, which only made the blond man's grin widen.

"I thought that the reason people don't do that is it kills the wielder," Suigetsu said, frowning.

"Not if one of them is self-healing," Sai said, looking at Naruto more closely.

Sasuke knew that his team would find out about Naruto eventually, but he didn't like the intensity of the look Sai was giving Naruto. There were all on the same team, but Naruto was Sasuke's fiancé. Sai needed to stop looking so fucking fascinated by him.

Naruto seemed equally uncomfortable with the scrutiny as he used the wall to lever himself up, though Sasuke knew it had mostly to do with Naruto not wanting people to figure out who he was. "Let's get out of here before something else shows up," he muttered, laying a hand on Sasuke's arm.

Sasuke was fully prepared when Naruto teleported them down to where the rest of the team was standing.

"Holy shit, what happened to your hands?" Suigetsu asked, looking between Naruto's and Sasuke's damaged hands. They were significantly healed between Naruto's blood limit and the dragon's saliva, but the damage had been extreme and the palms of their hands still looked like they'd been peeled and boiled.

"What part of 'direct blood ties are dangerous' did you not understand?" Karin huffed, examining the damaged skin on Sasuke's hand with a frown.

Sai looked over Karin's shoulder at Sasuke's hand, but - as usual - the man's face remained expressionless.

"Pity," Sai said. "I had been planning on asking Menma for a hand job later in celebration of living through the day. That seems a bit risky now. I believe I prefer my dick with skin."

Naruto snickered and Sasuke glared over at his dark-eyed teammate. Sai might not know yet that Naruto was Sasuke's fiancé, but the man had better back the fuck off. Sasuke had already felt what the bond would be capable of, and no one was going to form a blood tie with Naruto other than him.

"Shit, Sai. How could you even think about letting that guy's hands near your junk. Sasuke's hand looks like raw meat." Suigetsu said, grimacing as he looked over at Sasuke's damaged hand.

"Meh, Sasuke just likes it rough. I'd go easy on you, Sai," Naruto chuckled, though it still sounded more tired than anything else.

"We're in no shape for battle. We should get back to the tunnel and out of sight," Juugo said, his eyes scanning the skies for further signs of danger.

"Agreed," Sasuke said, pulling his hand from Karin's examinations. He wanted to be able to talk to Naruto, but he wasn't going to do it out in the open when they had no idea when the next enemy would pop up. Or what it would be, he thought, glancing back at the remains of the ice rider, remembering how the dragon had ripped the body apart. "Search the body for anything that could help us identify it. And take its sword."

Juugo and Sai searched the remains, Juugo carefully using the edge of his cloak to pick up the ice rider's sword and avoid any direct contact with the deadly blade.

"Let me try to slow the bleeding before we start back," Karin said, frowning at the wound at the base of Sasuke's neck.

Sasuke ignored Karin's fingers as they undid his cloak and began working at the fastenings of his shirt so she could get at the wound the dragon had left. The rocks around them still radiated the heat they'd absorbed from Sasuke's fire, and his skin didn't feel cold when bared to the mountain air.

He looked over to find Naruto watching as Karin's hands traced along the edges of Sasuke's wound, examining it. There was a slight frown on the man's face. Karin laid her hand over the wound, and felt the familiar sensation of her activating her blood limit abilities. What wasn't familiar was the way the wound sparked at her touch, making him flinch back at the unexpected pain.

"Ow! What the -?" Karin trailed off, massaging her hands as though she had also felt the sharp spike of pain, confusion on her face.

"The dragon marked him. Dragon marks are… possessive. You can't fuck with the wound until the mark is fully set," Naruto said, his voice tight. He walked over to stand next to her, his eyes flickering briefly over Sasuke's bared shoulders and chest before returning to the wound.

"And how would you know about that?" Suigetsu said, looking skeptical.

Naruto didn't reply other than to lift the hem of his shirt, showing a thin, circular scar in his belly. The lines of the scar were dark, and it looked more like a tattoo than a scar, but the slightly raised ridges of the lines made it clear that this was not simply ink marking the flesh.

"Holy shit!" Suigetsu shouted, crouching down in front of Naruto, his gaze locked on the dark lines etched across the hard planes of Naruto's stomach. Suigetsu reached out, tracing one of the lines with his index finger.

"Suigetsu." Sasuke's voice was low but cracked like a whip. The man pulled his hand back, looking over at Sasuke in confusion.

"What? He's the one who lifted his shirt to show me!" Suigetsu said indignantly.

"It's no big deal," Naruto shrugged, giving Sasuke a challenging look that almost made him want to growl. Karin had pulled out a bandage from her pack and was wrapping it around Sasuke's chest and shoulder, her hands smoothing along the fabric to keep it aligned as she went.

Sasuke didn't break his gaze from Naruto's, not sure why it irritated him so much that Suigetsu was touching the dragon's mark on Naruto's skin when Sasuke hadn't even gotten a chance to see it or find out the story behind it.

"We need to talk," Sasuke said tersely, looking over as Karin finished bandaging his wound. The bleeding was already slowing much faster than a normal injury. "You can start by telling me what you know about the dragons. And how you got marked by one."

Naruto's hand went unconsciously to his stomach as Sai and Juugo went to examine the scattered remains of the ice rider.

"I don't know much. I was only about ten or so. I was out on a training mission, up in the mountains. Not too far in. Dragon came out of nowhere. It was…," Naruto seemed to stop himself before saying more.

"It was what?" Sasuke pressed.

Naruto shrugged. "Unexpected. It marked me here. None of the clan healers thought I'd make it, but I did."

Sasuke narrowed his eyes, knowing that the man had been going to say something else.

"What did your healers say about the mark?" Karin asked as she finished tying off the bandage.

"At first they thought it was infected. But I healed faster than normal, so it wasn't an infection. It rejected anyone's attempts to heal me. Other than that, it didn't seem to do much."

"Unless your clan has fire attacks, I'd say it also gave you some resistance to fire," Sai said, looking up to the barren ledge that Sasuke and Naruto had fought from. "Only a full-blooded Uchiha should have been able to withstand the heat from this blast given how close you were to the fire. They're conditioned from birth to handle the effects of breathing fire. It's in their blood. But not in yours."

Naruto remembered how he felt like his skin was going to burn off during the fight. But it hadn't. "Yeah, maybe."

"You knew that the dragon would recognize another dragon's mark," Sasuke stated as they made their way over the pile of collapsed rock blocking the path.

Naruto didn't respond for a moment, and Sasuke felt his irritation flaring. Finally Naruto spoke. "I met a man once. A sage. He came to the village about six months after it happened, and recognized the mark for what it was when he saw me swimming one day. Told me that he hadn't heard of a human being marked by a dragon in more than a century, but that it would protect me from other dragons."

Sasuke's attention caught at the mention of the sage. "Did he say why the dragon marked you?"

They had cleared the collapsed part of the ravine, and were approaching the entrance to the tunnel.

"He didn't know. He said dragons usually hated humans, since they remember the days of the human sorcerers who tried to hunt them. He recognized my blood limit, though. He was the one who told me what it was, and that I had to be careful."

Sasuke frowned. Was this the same sage that had pushed the idea of the alliance with the Namikazes with the Uchiha clan's council? "Has he been back to your clan recently?"

"I haven't seen him since that day. He said once that he'd trained my father when he was younger, but he isn't listed in our clan's archives."

"What was his name?" Sasuke pressed.

"He didn't really give me a proper one. He had some long-winded thing about being some powerful, mysterious sage and something about toads. But he was talking about girls all the time and so I just called him Pervy Sage."

Sasuke gave Naruto a flat look.

"I was fuckin' eleven years old! What do you expect! The guy just shows up while I'm swimming in the river by the village and tells me I've been marked by a dragon for some unknown reason and I carry a blood limit that can get my whole clan killed if anyone finds out. I wasn't exactly thinking about other things at the time!"

"Do you know why the dragon ripped the ice rider's body apart?" Sasuke asked.

Naruto shook his head. "No. That was… fucked up. Woulda been better if the thing had showed up like twenty minutes earlier, though. Would have saved us a hell of a lot of trouble." Naruto looked down at his slowly healing hand ruefully.

Sasuke wasn't sure the dragon arriving mid battle would have been a good thing, since it might not have bothered differentiating between one enemy and another.

"What would have saved us trouble would have been having a scroll so we could do the bond without burning the shit out of our hands," Sasuke said sharply.

"Yeah, well sorry that I don't happen to carry a spare around in my bag." Naruto sounded exasperated, but nothing else.

Sasuke looked at Naruto, searching for some sign of prevarication but finding none. It was impossible to be completely sure, but Sasuke was as convinced as he needed to be that Naruto didn't know that Sasuke was the one he was supposed bonded with. Now he needed to find out if Naruto's memory had been wiped entirely.

"Even if our two clans had shared a blood bond, we could have had a better chance of not needing a direct tie."

This time Naruto's eyes shifted slightly, a clear tell. Naruto definitely knew about the failed bond, just not that Sasuke had been a part of it.

Karin approached them with two tin cups filled with a dark liquid. "I can't heal you directly, but we can't afford to let you two heal at your own pace. This medicine tastes like shit, but it accelerates the natural healing properties of your bodies, as well as amplifies any healing abilities you have. Hopefully the dragon marks won't interfere with it. At the very least, it will dull the pain while your wounds heal and help your body recuperate."

Sasuke accepted the cup, but hesitated drinking it. The medicine always made his mind foggy, and he needed to be clear-headed while he tried to find out what the fuck was going on.

Naruto sniffed at the liquid, then took a sip. He grimaced, but then drank the whole cup down. Sasuke nearly rolled his eyes at the man. Sasuke would never just drink something someone gave him without questioning it.

"You going to drink yours?" Karin asked Sasuke, frowning. "I've been watching the healing rate of your wound. It will be three days before you're battle fit if you try it on your own, and you and Menma just shot out enough energy to call down a dragon."

"In a bit." Sasuke held the cup, but didn't drink, looking over at Naruto. The medicine was fast-acting, and Naruto's eyes already were starting to look slightly glazed. "Why don't you take the others out and set some traps outside in the surrounding trails to make sure we don't have any uninvited guests."

Karin looked over at Naruto, then back at Sasuke. They both knew it didn't take more than two people to set traps. Karin simply nodded then turned and walked away.

Sasuke was going to get some answers.

Itachi narrowed his eyes in frustration. No matter how many times he tried to open the final seal to the inner chamber of his ancestor's grave, it didn't work.

Deciding he needed to clear his head, he walked back up the narrow stone steps, activating his sharingan to open the hidden door that sealed the crypt from non-Uchiha eyes. The slight breeze was cool against his skin, the scent of it light and fresh compared to the stale, dead air of the room he had come from.

While he had originally decided to come here to see if any of the scrolls or tomes that Madara had had buried with him contained information about the mysterious creatures that were attacking them, the note he had received from Sasuke made the need much more specific and imminent. The records were vague about what Madara had taken with him when he left the clan towards the end of his life to find peace and death on his own terms, but the one thing that was unambiguous was that he had taken the incomplete binding scroll that had been created to tie the Uchiha and Senju clans together in his youth. It had been an extremely powerful scroll that both clans had created together, shortly before the war between the clans had broken out. Itachi would have to study it to see if it could be used as a replacement for the one that had been destroyed, but - as long as neither Hashirama nor Madara had actually signed it - it might still be usable between someone of Uchiha blood and someone of Senju blood.

Itachi knew that he couldn't risk the council or anyone else in the clan knowing that Sasuke had found another potential partner, especially not one with Senju blood. The first contract had already been sabotaged, and as of right now, whoever was behind this most likely assumed that they had succeeded with all of Sasuke's attention apparently focused on hunting the creatures. Hopefully, that would keep Sasuke safe from assassination attempts as long as everyone else remained in the dark about Sasuke's plans to form a blood tie with Naruto.

Itachi had sent a message to Kakashi warning him to only share information about Sasuke's hunt for the creatures and Kakashi's efforts to smooth over relations with the Namikaze back to the council. Sasuke was not foolish enough to let anything slip, and no one else on his team had access to messenger birds to leak the information.

Itachi walked through the small grove of shrubs that hid the entrance to the grave, trying to think about what his options were to help his brother. They binding scroll was on the other side of the final seal, along with Madara's remains. Itachi just needed to figure out how to open it.

His eyes passed over the remains of another group of raiders that had attacked the Senju decades ago. He had searched many bodies when he'd first entered Senju lands, but there had never been any clues as to their identity or orders. The sun was setting, and the light hit the small cluster of foliage at an angle. A glint of light caught Itachi's eye.

Activating his sharingan to avoid any traps, he walked over to where the light had come from. Under an overgrown bush, there was a helmet that was significantly more ornate than the ones he had seen on all the other remains he had encountered on the Senju borders.

He knelt down beside the skeleton that was all that was left of its owner. The cloth had long since rotted away, but the metal of the breastplate and helmet were still in decent shape. Itachi shifted the breastplate to see if there was anything inscribed on its surface, and froze when he saw what was revealed beneath it.

Embedded in the fallen soldier's chest, piercing through his sternum and into where the man's heart used to be, was a shard of onyx-black that glinted in the sun. Itachi knew better than to touch it, especially when he looked closer and could make out the ancient runes inscribed on the sides of it.

"Fuck," he breathed out. If the shard was made up of what he thought it might be, then they were up against something much more dangerous than just a powerful clan.

He looked over to the mountains where his little brother was heading closer and closer to an enemy that they would have no chance of defeating.

The seal would have to wait.

He needed to get to his brother.

The two Naras and the Uchiha liaison had been reading through accounts of various clans for the past twelve hours straight, but had found nothing that even remotely resembled the creature that Sasuke had described.

Shikamaru stared at the cover of the old tome he had been reading from, frowning in thought. "I think… we've been looking at this all wrong."

Kakashi arched a brow. "What do you mean?"

Shikamaru slowly looked up, meeting the gaze of his father. "Stupid. Fuck, why didn't I see this before?"

"See what?" Shikaku asked.

Shikamaru stood, walking to the part of the library that had histories from much further back, before the clans and blood limits had been established. "All these years, we've been trying to figure out which clan had attacked the Senju and the Uzumaki. But none of the blood limits of any clan on record matched what we knew. Just like now. But blood limits take generations to evolve, not just decades. There is no way that the same clan could be behind both sets of attacks. There's no overlap in the abilities between them."

Kakashi shrugged tiredly. "So maybe I was wrong about the two events being related."

"No. You're right that they are connected. We've just all been wrong in assuming it was a clan that was behind it."

Shikaku looked up at him sharply. "Something that can carve tunnels into rock, something that likes the cold and has a weakness to fire." He looked up and met his son's gaze. "And something that can impart it's magic into others."

Kakashi stilled as realization of what they were implying sunk in. "You're suggesting magic that isn't blood limit tied. Something that is created and channeled directly, not through clan bloodlines."

Shikamaru nodded slowly.

Shikaku's expression turned grim. Fighting a powerful clan was one thing. Fighting something else that could control magic to this degree would be an entirely different prospect. He walked over to the part of the library where some of the oldest books the clan owned were kept in protected shelves. "There are only a few legends about magic of this type. Assuming it isn't an entirely new entity, the books we have should help narrow things down."

Kakashi stood and walked over to join him, giving up on any prospect of sleep for the night. "Then let's find out which of these legends might actually be fact."

To be continued...

Chapter Text

Chapter 14 - Say my name

A/N - I thought I would get this chapter out early since I've had the last week off from work but I've been so stressed and exhausted that I just sort of collapsed in bed and didn't move for a good portion of that time. LOL. ANYWAY, at least it won't be late, even though it wasn't early. Hope you enjoy it! As my New Year's gift to you, I give you half-naked, sexy, dangerous men. My favorite flavor. ;-)

Naruto opened his bed roll and slumped down on it. He was beyond exhausted from the combined effects of his body going into overdrive to try to heal his wounds. Normally, this wouldn't be so bad, but his body was already reeling from repairing the worst of the damage to both his and Sasuke's hands right after having used his energy to power up Sasuke during the battle. He had never tried to share his energy before, and had drained too much of his own off along with what he'd been pulling in from around him. His system was going haywire, but at least they were alive.

Not that the asshole had been grateful about any of it.

Naruto would have rolled his eyes in annoyance if he weren't so damn tired. They were lucky that no one else had appeared to fight them after the dragon left, because Naruto would have been dead weight on the battlefield. Sasuke didn't look to have been in much better shape as they had made their way back to their temporary camp inside the tunnel.

He felt the familiar sensation of the medicine Karin had given him working through his system, the same way it had when his mother would make it for him. His body was slowly beginning to heat as it accelerated his already high healing rate. It had been a long time since Naruto had been injured enough in battle to require it, but he had recognized the potion immediately by its smell. He hadn't been surprised that Karin knew how to make it, since it was an Uzumaki recipe. What had surprised him was how much the potion was knocking him on his ass. It was clear that being a healer made the potion much stronger because he felt himself light-headed. He was almost falling asleep within two minutes of drinking it, unlike the version his mother made, which just relaxed him a bit.

He wasn't worried, though. If anyone in Sasuke's clan meant him harm, they could have taken him out when he was energy drained after either of the battles they'd fought together. Hopefully the extra tiredness he was feeling meant the potion would work faster as well. The last thing they needed was for both him and Sasuke to be out of commission when the next enemy appeared.

He looked up from his thoughts to see Sasuke watching him from where he leaned against the wall, his cloak wrapped around his bare shoulders for warmth. With his injury, it probably would be hard for Sasuke to pull a clean shirt on. And they were still dirty from battle, so it wouldn't have made sense to get dressed, anyway. The light from the fire cast flickering shadows along the walls of the tunnel, making the Uchiha's pale skin seem golden, marred by the streaks of soot that covered one of his cheek bones and another smudge on his forehead. Naruto felt an odd urge to go and wipe them off. He pushed the impulse down, recognizing the dangerous spark of attraction he felt for the dangerous man. There were a million jumbled warnings in Naruto's mind as to why it was a bad idea to notice the elegant angles of Sasuke's face, or the way the battle-hardened muscles of his back and arms had looked when Karin had removed his shirt to assess his wounds.

As though his thoughts had summoned her, Karin appeared with Juugo. The large man was carrying some kind of oversized kettle which, when he set it down with a thud near the fire pit, Naruto saw was heaped with snow. Juugo turned and left while Karin walked over to Sasuke.

"Let me check your wounds," Karin said, examining first Sasuke's hand, then pushing back his cloak to check the bandage on his shoulder.

Naruto didn't miss the way the woman's hands lingered slightly longer than was necessary on Sasuke's skin just as they had earlier as she smoothed along the bandage and traced over the surrounding pale skin. It had his stomach twisting slightly, and he turned away, not sure why the sight irritated him.

It didn't matter if Sasuke had a lover.

Maybe that was the reason Sasuke hadn't been the one his clan offered up. Either way, it didn't matter. Naruto had been betrothed to another member of Sasuke's clan, and torn up the contract. It was unlikely that Sasuke would have anything to do with him once this mission was over and everything came out. Naruto needed to just stay focused on the task at hand and not get caught up in thinking about… anything else.

"I've never seen healing like this," Karin murmured, unwrapping the bandage around his shoulder and running her fingertips along the edges of the wound. "I can't do anything more for it, but whatever the dragon did, it seems to be working."

"Hn," Sasuke barely glanced over at her, his gaze fixed on Naruto. "If my clan can get us a scroll for a temporary binding, you'll sign it?"

Naruto blinked. "Uh, yeah. After getting the shit burned out of our hands trying it without a scroll, it seems pretty obvious we need one."

Sasuke shot him an unreadable look that somehow annoyed Naruto. Whatever bug had crawled up Sasuke's ass after the battle still seemed to be there, but Naruto was no closer to understanding what the problem was.

"It's unclear what the effects of a temporary binding scroll are on the users in terms of their ability to participate in full marriage blood contracts." Sasuke pinned him with a probing look. "Clans usually reserve their strongest warriors for possible full blood ties."

Naruto shifted uncomfortably. Yeah, his clan had done the same, but Naruto had burned that bridge to the ground. Compared to trouble he caused by ripping up the marriage contract, signing a temporary scroll without permission from the clan elders would be a drop in the bucket. "Yeah, well… I don't think we need to worry about that."

There was a definite flash of anger in Sasuke's eyes at Naruto's response, but he was too tired to try to keep trying to figure it out. Sasuke seemed to be just generally pissed off about pretty much everything. Naruto would deal with it after he'd had some sleep.

"Can I see your hand, Menma?" Karin asked, ignoring the obvious tension as she walked over and crouched down beside Naruto.

Naruto held out his hand so she could see it, but kept it close enough to make it clear he didn't want her touching him. "I don't need healing."

Karin glanced over at Sasuke, but nodded. "You're healing even faster than Sasuke. It's… amazing."

Naruto pulled his hand back, not wanting to risk the Uzumaki woman from sensing any more about him than she'd already observed. "Uh, thanks. I should be good by morning. What I really could use is a bath, though." He tried to deflect her curiosity, but the considering look in her eyes didn't diminish.

Karin gestured to the large pot that Juugo had hauled in. "The fire will melt the snow. If Sasuke is recovered enough, he can heat it more quickly for the two of you to use to wash up."

Naruto undid the fastening of his cloak and tossed it aside as he stood, bracing himself against the cave wall as a wave of dizziness washed over him. He was too tired to wait for the snow to melt. "It won't be the first time I had to take a snow bath after a battle. I have a high metabolism. That extra-strength potion you gave me seems like it sped it up even more. I'll warm back up soon enough."

"Idiot," Sasuke muttered before blowing out a narrow stream of fire that had the large pot of snow filled with steaming water in just a few seconds.

Naruto would rather cut out his tongue than admit that he was impressed after Sasuke had been such an ass all day. "Yeah, yeah. You can breathe fire enough that even the dragons want to french you. We get it."

Karin exchanged a look with Sasuke that Naruto couldn't read. "I'll leave you two to clean up and rest. I'll go see how the rest of the team is doing setting the traps." She stood and headed out the entrance of the tunnel.

Naruto took off his shirt, but didn't bother with his pants or boots. It was too cold for a full bath, and most of the blood, sweat, and soot was on his face and neck, anyway. He could feel Sasuke's eyes on him as he rummaged through his pack looking for the washcloth and small bar of soap he'd brought with him.

"Did you always heal this fast, or did being marked by the dragon speed it up?" Sasuke asked.

Naruto looked over his shoulder. The earlier anger was gone from Sasuke's eyes, or at least masked, but he was watching Naruto with an unnerving intensity that he couldn't quite read, but his mind was hazy so he didn't really worry about it.

"I was always fast. Dunno if the dragon mark changed anything about it. I think it might be the saliva more than the mark itself that does the healing. That's probably why it licked our hands." Naruto smirked at Sasuke, trying to break the weird tension. "And your lips." His eyes drifted to Sasuke's lips, and he abruptly looked down at his washcloth. This wasn't the time to be checking out some guy's lips.

"Tch. Idiot."

"No, seriously. The dragon seemed pretty excited about your mouth. What's up with that?" Naruto dipped his washcloth in the hot water and lathered some soap on it one corner of it, feeling slightly dizzy as his body buzzed with energy. While the flow of energy had been mostly from him to Sasuke, their blood had mixed both ways, and he could still feel some of Sasuke's power echoing in his veins.

"No idea," Sasuke said, tightly. He was likely not happy about not knowing. "But you're saying that the direct blood tie won't be any easier now that we're both marked by dragons."

Naruto washed the soot and grime off his face with the soapy part of the cloth, then rinsed it with the other side. He filled his metal cup with clean water and rinsed the grime out of the washcloth to prevent getting the entire pot dirty.

"My hand was just as fucked up as yours. I heal faster, but that's more because…" he cut off, abruptly realizing he was about to say more than he should about his background, but he was feeling foggier on why it really mattered, and Sasuke's dark eyes on him were making it even harder to focus.

"You gonna wash up, too, or just watch?" Naruto asked, trying to cover his almost-slip.

"Because?" Sasuke ignored Naruto's diversion, folding his cloak and setting it on a rock before reaching down into his pack and pulling out a pitcher and some soap and some clothing.

"Because I'm awesome," Naruto gave Sasuke an insolent grin, which was met with an eye roll. Which only made Naruto's grin widen. "Any word from your clan on when they can get us a temporary scroll? How many battles will it last through, anyway?"

"It depends on what kind they send. Most last at least a week. The longer the time period of the bond, the more involved the scroll." Sasuke's eyes studied him dipped his cloth in the clean water.

Naruto blinked, his head spinning way more than it ever had when he'd taken the version of the healing potion that his mother made. "Woah." He reached out a hand to brace against the cold rock wall. "This shit your teammate made is a lot stronger than the version my mom makes."

Sasuke scrubbed the dirt from his face, and Naruto found himself watching the play of firelight along the contours of the man's muscled arms and shoulders. "The recipe is a closely guarded secret of the Uzumaki clan. Your mother makes it?"

Naruto forced himself to focus on his own ablutions, realizing he was saying too much. He scrubbed the soapy cloth across his chest and arms, his mind hazy with the medicine and fatigue, and it was fucking with his head. Once he got some sleep, he'd be able to handle shirtless Sasuke without being flustered. The potion was accelerating the healing, which meant it was rapidly draining his energy levels as his body recovered. Normally, he wouldn't let himself be as distracted by the physical appearance of a teammate like this.

Sasuke dried his face and looked over at him. "Karin is an Uzumaki healer. She can make remedies stronger than someone else trying to use the same recipe. Even another Uzumaki."

Naruto felt Sasuke's gaze on him, watching him closely. He'd nearly opened his mouth to say that his mom was an Uzumaki warrior, not a healer, and had just managed to bite the words back. "Oh. Makes sense, I guess."

Naruto leaned forward as he waited for Sasuke to reply, and poured clean water from his cup to rinse off the soap from his torso without getting his pants or shoes wet. He shivered as a gust of freezing air whipped through the tunnel and he reached down into his pack to grab a towel and clean shirt.

"The technique you used in battle is a Namikaze technique." Sasuke's voice was calm, almost bored. Not like he was just ripping the cloth off the identity of Naruto's clan with one simple sentence. "I've heard only the fully blooded warriors can do it."

Naruto's head snapped up to find Sasuke's dark gaze waiting for him. He tried to find something to refute what Sasuke had just said, but he couldn't come up with anything as he stood there, shivering, the towel and shirt held useless in his hands. Sasuke had seen Naruto's fighting technique with his own eyes, and Naruto wasn't likely to be able to convince the man otherwise.

Sasuke continued, seeming to almost enjoy Naruto's frozen expression. "Did you know that the Uchiha clan and the Namikaze clan were attempting to form a blood tie?" Sasuke reached forward and casually took Naruto's towel from his hands and draped it over his shoulders.

Naruto blinked, one hand automatically lifting to secure the towel more tightly around himself, trying to recapture some of his body heat. His mind remained unhelpfully blank. "Uh…"

"You're from the Namikaze clan. Blooded. If that contract had been signed, we wouldn't have had to put ourselves out of commission for a full day with some crude, direct blood tie." There was no mistaking the cold anger in Sasuke's voice as he scrubbed his arms and shoulders, avoiding the bandaged area.

Naruto leaned against the wall, fighting the way the room spun. "That 'crude' blood tie was what saved your ass!"

"But we wouldn't have needed it if your clan hadn't ripped up the contract."

Naruto knew that Sasuke was right, but the righteous anger that Sasuke was riding was total bullshit. Naruto's clan wasn't the fucked up one in all of this.

"Well maybe the contract wouldn't have been ripped up if your clan wasn't full of fucking pedophiles!" Naruto's voice was raised, some of the chill leaving him as his anger surged up.

Sasuke paused in washing his arms, and Naruto took great pleasure in the slight furrow in the center of the man's usually smooth brow, and the confused look on his face. Whatever Sasuke had been expecting Naruto to say, it clearly hadn't been that.

"What the fuck are you talking about?" Sasuke snapped.

Naruto finished drying off and tugged his shirt over his head, then wrapped his blanket around him. His mind was too clouded to come up with anything that would get him out of this. Sasuke was within spitting distance of figuring it all out on his own, anyway. At least this way, Naruto would have the satisfaction of telling Sasuke what a bunch of dicks his clan was.

"Your clan set me up with a fucking five-year-old. You know the terms of the contract, right?" He looked over at Sasuke, but the man's face was back to its usual mask, giving nothing away. "The contract said that there would be no continued relationship, but the bond requires consummation. Sex. A grown man with a goddamn kid. So fuck you and your clan and your marriage contracts. I'll do a lot of things to protect my clan, but raping little kids isn't one of them." Naruto leaned against the wall, waiting for Sasuke to jump to the defense of his clan, but - for once - the man seemed at a loss for words.

Naruto's words blurred together slightly. He vaguely knew he shouldn't be saying this, but in the moment he didn't care. "You heard me. And when I'm done here, I'm gonna find that kid and… break him out or something. 'S not right. What you're clan is trying to do to him."

Another thought bubbled to the surface of Naruto's mind as he watched Sasuke's stunned expression. The firelight reflected off the damp skin of his arms and chest, and Naruto wondered why the man wasn't freezing. "Besides, the kind of power sharing we did would only work if the clan tie directly involved the two of us. The clan benefits wouldn't have been enough for us to do what we just did."

Sasuke's eyes narrowed at Naruto's words. "Unless our names were the ones on the original contract."

Naruto rolled his eyes. "Yeah, asshole. That would have been easier." Naruto's eyes flickered over Sasuke's bare chest. If they had been the two bound, their first meeting would have gone a lot differently. Unconsciously, he ran the tip of his tongue over his lower lip. "Shit, we would have had to have had sex in front of your team. I wonder if Karin would count as my clan?" Sasuke didn't respond, though his gaze flickered briefly to Naruto's mouth. "But that doesn't matter. I just told you that the person I was going to be tied to was a fucking kid. Definitely not you."

"I'm definitely no child. But tell me. What was this 'kids' name that was supposedly on the contract?" Sasuke's voice seemed oddly full of tension, and Naruto hoped it was because he didn't approve of fucking little kids any more than Naruto did. Naruto really didn't know how he'd manage to still partner up with Sasuke, even temporarily, if had agreed with it all.

Naruto closed his eyes, trying to think back to the neat, fluid writing on the scroll. Even without the effects of the potion, he was pretty sure he wouldn't be able to do it. "I don't remember. I'm not really good with names and it wasn't one I recognized. 'Cept for the "Uchiha' part. I'd only started reading through when Kakashi told me to look at the picture that was included. Thank god I saw it before I signed the thing," Naruto said, bitterly. "I sort of lost it after I saw the picture. I'd heard the guard in the courtyard talking about strange creatures in the mountains attacking a Namikaze scouting group. It gave me a place to go until I calmed down enough to avoid starting a war between our clans by killing your emissary."

Sasuke gave a soft huff as he finally resumed his washing, quickly scrubbing his skin and drying off. "Kakashi's harder to kill than he looks." His eyes hardened as they focused back on Naruto as he threw a clean cloak over his shoulders. "But what you just told me is bullshit. There's no way that Kakashi handed you that drawing."

Naruto arched a brow at the disbelief and anger in Sasuke's voice. "He was the one your clan sent with the documents. So… yeah. He did."

They stared at each other for a moment, neither willing to back down from their statements.

"Tell me exactly where the drawing was."

Naruto rubbed his hand over his face and sat down on his bedroll. He was too tired for this shit. "Look, I know it must suck that your clan did this. Believe me, I'm pissed that my parents agreed to it, too. Especially since I'm pretty fucking sure that they didn't know what we were up against at the time."

"Naruto. Tell me where the drawing was."

Naruto sighed in annoyance, though something Sasuke just said had set off some sort of warning signal, his head was too muddied to really process why. "It was part of the sealed document. You should know how these things work, Uchiha. The seal had been set when the contract had been signed by this kid. It couldn't be opened by anyone other than me. I broke the seal myself and took the drawing out with the rest of the contract."

Sasuke's lips tightened. "Fuck."

Naruto's brain finally caught up with what Sasuke had said that had set off alarms for him subconsciously. "Wait. You just called me Naruto."

"I figured it was only fair, since you've been using my real name."

"If you know my name, then you must have been involved in the marriage contract negotiations. So why are you acting all surprised at the fact that your clan pimped out some kid for power?"

"I can't tell if it's Karin's potion or if you're just slow." Sasuke walked over to stand above Naruto, looking down at him. "I know more than just your name. I recognized your face as soon as you took off your helmet, dumbass."

"So that's why you were being such a bitch after the battle? Why didn't you just confront me right then instead of all this bullshit?"

Sasuke shot him a flat look. "You're the one who gave me the message from Kakashi that the marriage contract had been sabotaged. I needed to find out what you knew. And why you fucked it all up right when both our clans needed it."

Naruto bristled. "Fuck you. Neither of our clans knew about the ice riders when the contract was negotiated. And your clan was the one who decided to offer up some kid instead of a real warrior."

"And if you'd paid attention when you'd read the fucking contract, you might have recognized that supposed kid's name."

Naruto stilled. Even with the medicine clouding his head, there was really only one name that Sasuke could legitimately expect Naruto to know at this point.

"Have you figured it out, finally? Or do I need to fucking spell it out for you." Sasuke bit out, turning and stalking back to his own bed roll, finally drinking the cup of medicine that Naruto belatedly realized he had held off drinking until he'd finished his interrogation of Naruto.

"It was supposed to be you," Naruto said, slowly.

Sasuke gave him a humorless smile as he sat down. "And the battle would have been a hell of lot easier if you'd signed the thing."

"Shit." Naruto let his head fall back against the small pillow. "Fuck. If the picture had been of you, I would have signed the fucking thing."

Sasuke arched a brow, and Naruto felt his face heat.

"Only because you're at least an adult. Not because you're -," Naruto cut off at the amused glint in Sasuke's dark eyes. "Fuck you. You're an asshole, but for the clans, I would have still been willing to sign it."

"Hn." There was a trace of smugness in Sasuke's voice that pissed Naruto off.

"Saying I'd rather marry you than have my clan slaughtered isn't that much of a compliment."

"You think I signed the contract for any other reason?" Sasuke asked, laying down. "The last thing I wanted was to be tied to someone."

Naruto turned his head to look at the wall. He remembered the terms in the contract that stated that his 'intended' agreed to the initial consummation to seal the contract, but that their lives would be separate after that. It hadn't bothered Naruto much at the time. What did he care if Sasuke didn't want to be bound? Naruto hadn't wanted it either. It was good. They both felt the same. This was never about anything other than clan power.

But that still left one huge question unanswered.

"So how did the drawings get switched? The drawing I got was of a little kid. You can ask Kakashi. I threw it at him before I left. The seals used in these kind of contracts are supposed to be tamper proof."

Sasuke's face was hard. "I don't know. But I'm going to find out. And Kakashi better watch his other eye if he decides to keep withholding information from me."

"What do you mean?"

"You think he doesn't know which Uchiha you were going to join when you left the Namikaze base camp? My clan only sent one team, and Kakashi fucking knows it. He clearly didn't tell you who I was. And he didn't tell me anything about you or why the contract was ripped up when he sent me a message about the bond breaking."

"You think he's behind the sabotage?" Naruto asked, fear gripping him as he realized Shikamaru was working with the man. His friend was smart as fuck, but Naruto had no doubt who would come out the victor in a fight between Shika and Kakashi.

Sasuke sighed. "No. I might want to impale him right now, but I trust Kakashi. He's not the traitor."

Naruto felt his eyes growing heavy. "Then… why didn't he say anything?"

He could hear the low chuckle from the direction where Sasuke was laying. "He's an asshole."

"Mmm," Naruto murmured as his eyes drifted close. "Must be an Uchiha clan trait."

He was asleep before he could hear if Sasuke responded or not.

Sasuke watched Naruto sleep as he felt Karin's medicine start to work in his system. The discussion hadn't gone how he had expected. Naruto might have acted rashly, but Sasuke couldn't blame him for it. He didn't know much about the man, but it was clear that Naruto's principles ran deep, and he wasn't afraid to fight for them. It was also clear that he tended to just charge in and react, then figure it out later.

Sasuke frowned.

Whoever had planned this sabotage must have known those things about Naruto. And known that Sasuke's pride and reluctance to enter into the contract in the first place would make the bond breaking an even bigger obstacle to trying again later.

He looked over to where his former fiancé was sleeping. The firelight made the man's hair glow slightly in the darkness of the tunnel.

He thought about Naruto's comment earlier about them consummating their bond, and the addictive feel of Naruto's power coursing through his veins during the battle. He would have no problem fulfilling the terms of a full contract. He was more committed to that notion now than he had been before.

And by the way Naruto's eyes had watched him while he washed, he was pretty sure there would be no issue on Naruto's side, either. All they needed was to get a replacement scroll. But given the sabotage came from someone who seemed to have access to both clans, getting one without being discovered would be tricky.

He hoped his brother had some ideas.

Shikamaru heard the sound of hoofbeats, followed by an unearthly scream that had set the hair of more than one hardened warrior standing on end. Kakashi looked up from the tome he was reading, his hand immediately moving to lift the covering of his left eye, which was already swirling red.

"Kushina must be here," Shikaku said.

"With Naruto's horse," Shikamaru added, standing along with his father to head to the courtyard.

"That was a horse?" Kakashi asked in disbelief.

"Not exactly," Shikamaru murmured, his lips twitching slightly upward at the sight of the older warrior being so discomfited.

Kushina was just dismounting her horse when they reached the courtyard, but it was the beast that stood alongside her horse that everyone's eyes were riveted on.

"Kurama started going crazy this morning," she said, running a gloved hand along the smooth, scaled skin of Naruto's 'horse'. Kakashi eyes missed no detail of the creature, from its taloned feet to the small, leathery-like wings at its side. "It was either let him come with me or he was going to tear the barn apart."

Shikaku and Shikamaru exchanged concerned looks. Naruto had always had a strange connection to the horse that had appeared shortly after he'd been marked by the dragon, but they had never been able to uncover anything about the creature's origins. Only that it would let no one other than Naruto ride it.

"Come inside and we'll tell you what we know," Shikaku said, grimly.

Kushina read the man's expression, and her eyes darkened. "Something tells me I'm not going to like what I hear."

She looped the reigns of her horse to the metal post in the courtyard that was set for that purpose, and turned to follow them.

"Aren't you going to tie up Naruto's… horse?" Kakashi asked, eyeing the creature warily.

Kushina threw her head back and laughed. "You want to try to find a binding that will hold Kurama, you're welcome to be my guest. He knows I'm going to find Naruto, and he is planning on coming with me. Or possibly without me, if I take too long. So let's hurry this along."

"Agreed. There might be more to Kurama's tie to Naruto than what we'd previously thought," Shikaku said.

Sasuke was awoken by the piercing cry of a bird. His eyelids felt like they weighed ten pounds, telling him he hadn't been asleep long enough for the medicine to fully wear off, but he forced them open in time to see an Uchiha clan bird swoop into the entrance of the tunnel and land on the ground beside him. It wasn't night yet, and the rest of his team was sitting around the fire eating their dinner, and Naruto was in his bedroll. Sasuke tried to ignore the prickle of relief that the blond was still there. Learning the reason that Naruto had torn up the contract had shifted the focus of Sasuke's anger. As annoying as it was that Naruto had destroyed the contract, he understood it, now. If he'd been in Naruto's shoes, he might not have torn up the contract, but he definitely wouldn't have signed it.

It didn't help them now, though.

Sasuke arched a brow at the bird. Only the most urgent messages were sent with the command to not wait for the signal to accept the message.

"What the -," Naruto had evidently also been awakened by the bird's call, and looked over blearily at Sasuke, levering himself up on an elbow.

"News?" Sai asked, looking at the bird curiously, well aware of Uchiha protocol.

"Hn." Sasuke recognized his brother's seal, and he quickly opened the canister. His blood ran cold as he read the contents of the short note. "Shit."

Inscribed dragon bone in remains near the grave.

Head directly toward me. I am on my way to meet you via the map you sent. Do not engage the mounted creatures on your own.

Sasuke tossed the note over to Naruto.

The blond man read it, frowning. "Inscribed dragon bone? What does that mean?"

"It means," Sasuke said, throwing back his blankets and grabbing his cloak. "That we're probably fighting a sorcerer, not a clan."

Naruto grabbed his cloak, following Sasuke as the man walked towards the entrance of the tunnel. "I thought they had been wiped out centuries ago."

"Evidently all but one. We need to look at that corpse more closely."

They walked through the ravine, climbing over the collapsed area to where the battle had been fought. Naruto and Sasuke were the last over, taking care with their injuries.

"It's still hot," Suigetsu mentioned, looking around. "It's been five hours since the battle. The rock should have cooled by now."

"The body is still burning," Sai said, tilting his head to one side as he looked down at the torso of the ice rider.

"No it's not," Karin said. The sun had already dipped low enough in the sky that the ravine was in full shadow. "I can see from here. There's not even glowing coal, much less actual fire."

Sai turned his expressionless stare on her. "Look closer."

Karin approached and knelt down, stretching her hand out toward the corpse only to snatch it back. "It's… it's burning black fire!"

Sasuke was next to her in an instant, his sharingan activated. "Amaterasu."

Sai raised his eyebrows. "I thought that was only a myth."

"It's not a myth. Madara was able to use it." Sasuke had battled the ice rider before the dragon had marked him, though, so it couldn't have been due to the dragon's mark.

"When did you learn how to do that?" Karin asked.

"I didn't." Sasuke turned to look at Naruto.

Naruto shrugged. "Don't look at me. I never even heard of black fire before."

Sasuke's mind raced. What activated the ability to wield Amaterasu? Was it the size of the battle? The power level of the opponent? Or was it when something powerful mixed its blood with an Uchiha that released it?

"At least now we know what got the dragon all excited.  You must have impressed it," Naruto said, half joking.

Sasuke knelt down and used the edge of his cloak to carefully pull out what he thought had been a metal pin in the creature's forehead. Looking at it more closely, he realized it wasn't metal at all. It was polished dragon bone, layered with some sort of enchantment, but up close there was no mistaking the charcoal black, porous material for anything else. Sasuke had only read about it in ancient books that spoke of dark magic from long ago. The ability to slay a dragon and harness its powers were things of legends, not fact.

"What is that?" Naruto asked, crouching down alongside him.

"Dragon bone."

"I thought dragon bone turned to ash when the dragon dies," Naruto said.

"It does. Unless it's ensorcelled," Sasuke replied.

The group looked down at the small cylinder Sasuke held, shielded from direct contact with his skin by the thick fabric of his cloak.

"What does it do?" Suigetsu asked the million dollar question.

"I don't know. But we need to find out. And we need to look more closely at that blade," Sasuke stated. "Pack up camp."

"Where are we going?" Juugo asked, his face wearing the same tense expression as the rest of the group. This kind of magic was out of the realm of all of their collective experiences.

"Senju lands. Itachi is meeting us on the way."

Naruto hesitated. He was going even further from his clan, with a dangerous enemy that could attack at any time.

"I need to let my clan know," he turned and looked at Sasuke. "If you give me a day, I can go and talk to them and let them know what we've learned."

Sasuke's jaw tightened. "We don't have a day. But I can help you get a message to them."

To be continued...


A/N - So I am getting to a tricky part of the story where I need to decide what sequence things are going to happen in.  I will try to keep to my 2 week schedule but I want to make sure I don’t write myself into a corner on this.  Happy New Year, everyone!!

Chapter Text

Chapter 15 - Connected

A/N - This chapter ended up not being as late as I feared. Thanks to Tandy_Hard for reading parts of it and settling me down LOL. I come bearing cliff-hangers. Enjoy!

Naruto had been jolted awake from a deep sleep by the Uchiha messenger bird's arrival. The cold air had helped clear his head, and the events of the prior night flashed back to Naruto's mind. He felt an initial rise of anger that Sasuke had interrogated him while he was half out of it from the healing potion, but he remembered that Sasuke had warned him before they even got to the cave that he had questions. And given the techniques and abilities that Naruto had had to use in battle, it probably would have been only a matter of time before Sasuke had figured it all out, even if Naruto had kept his helmet on and refused the potion. He clenched his jaw, trying to reign in his temper and anxiety about being found out. The situation was what it was, and getting angry wasn't going to help anything. The survival of both their clans was at stake, even without Naruto's Senju abilities being discovered.

"Does the rest of the team know who I am?" Naruto asked, keeping his voice low enough that it wouldn't be overheard by the others over the sound of the wind and the crunch of boots on rock and snow as the group started walking back to their camp.

Sasuke slanted a glance at him. "Not yet."

"But you're going to tell them."

"Does it matter?" Sasuke stopped and turned to face him.

"It does if it puts my clan at risk for being blood-tied to the Senju," Naruto replied, looking at him steadily.

Sasuke gave a nod. "My brother will have to know, if he hasn't already figured it out. Kakashi already knows. No one else has to, though Karin and Sai will probably catch on soon enough."

Naruto sighed. He didn't like it, but there really wasn't much choice.

"The sorcerer we're going up against might the same one who took out the Senjus. If we kill him, the threat to your clan will be over."

Naruto looked at the dark cylinder that Sasuke was holding. Up close, he could see that it wasn't like anything he'd seen before. It seemed to both reflect the light and absorb it all at once. He was still tired from the battle before, but the medicine had long-since worn off, so he knew he wasn't imagining the strange optical properties of it. If all he was going to be able to do was to send Shika a note, he was going to have to try to think of what questions his friend might have and ask them himself.

"How do you know it's dragon bone? I was always taught the dragons turn to dust when they die."

"They do," Sasuke replied. "They are creatures of almost pure magic, and they return to that state when they die. But any part of the dragon can be incredibly powerful, if its magic is harnessed."

"Like how the dragon's saliva accelerated the healing of our wounds," Naruto said, frowning as they turned and started walking back to the tunnel. He noticed that Sasuke carried his injured arm stiffly. He noticed Karin eyeing Sasuke as well, likely taking note of the same thing. Naruto's own injuries were healed, but his energy was still replenishing.

"Yes. But that's one of the weakest elements of dragons. Their blood and bone are supposed to be particularly powerful, but it requires both the ability to kill a dragon and the power to bind the magic before it dissipates. I've never seen it done, but in the Uchiha clan library, there's an ancient scroll that describes what dragon bone looked like from a warrior who had battled one and damaged it's leg enough for the bone to show. It was black, like a blend of charcoal and metal, distorting the light around it in exactly this manner."

Naruto frowned. "So if dragon saliva can heal, what can dragon bone do?"

Sasuke's lips tightened. "I don't know. There are lots of legends and lore, but nothing factual."

"Do you think that's why the dragon bit the shit out of the thing's corpse? It could sense dragon bone in the body?"

Sasuke looked over him, his eyebrows lifting. Naruto felt a surge of pride that he'd thought of something the Uchiha hadn't. "Maybe."

"Shika might know something. The Nara Clan has the best library of any clan I know," Naruto said, hoping there would be something there to help them.


Naruto wasn't sure what to make of Sasuke's non-response, and bristled slightly. "I know your clan prides itself on being 'the best', but no one beats the Naras on this sort of thing. If there is a legend or a record of what people have used dragon bones for, Shika will find it."

Sasuke looked at him, then shrugged. "Then have him look for spells or artifacts that required dragon ingredients."

They had reached the mouth of the tunnel, and the team began packing up camp.

"Why ingredients and artifacts?"

"A sorcerer that's managed to hide this sort of power isn't going to be in the history books. But if he's been killing dragons, or even just one dragon, he would be unlikely to waste any parts of it. He might have sold pieces of it, or potions or artifacts that used parts of it. It takes money to build an army, even for a sorcerer. Access to dragon ingredients would be a goldmine, since there aren't many sources. Anyone who is recording potions that use them would be able to tell us where they got them from."

Naruto blinked as he processed what Sasuke was saying. "Yeah, that makes sense. Look for the people he interacts with, if he's good at hiding himself directly. Shit, I hadn't thought of that." Naruto grinned at him, and thought he saw the slight flicker of a smile on the man's lips before Sasuke crouched down and began packing up his things.

Naruto quickly tied up his bed roll, then sat down on it, pulling out a piece of parchment to write a note to Shikamaru. He frowned at the blank paper. With so much buzzing through his head he wasn't sure where to start. He paused in drawing in energy, needing to concentrate on getting the information down concisely for Shikamaru. He decided to quickly sketch out what had happened since he rejoined Sasuke's group, then focus on the battle with the ice rider in case there were hidden clues about who or what was controlling it based on its abilities.

Sasuke packed up his things then Naruto heard him check with Sai and Karin to see if either of them had seen any sign of more creatures. When they both responded in the negative, he walked back over to where Naruto was writing.

"I told Shika to watch his back with Kakashi," Naruto said, looking up to meet Sasuke's eyes steadily. Sasuke had said he would allow Naruto to communicate with Shikamaru. If Sasuke had a problem with what he communicated, Naruto would rather know now. He made no effort to hide the contents of his note from Sasuke.

Sasuke shrugged. "If Kakashi is untrustworthy, what makes you think your friend will get your note?"

Naruto slanted Sasuke a grin. "Your clan isn't the only one that knows how to use seals."

Sasuke's lips tightened, but there was nothing the man could say. Every clan knew the Uzumakis had been the best at seals. Some of the knowledge had been lost with the fall of the clan, but not all of it. "You trust me, but you don't trust Kakashi?"

Naruto went back to writing. "You had a lot of opportunities to kill me when I was wiped after both battles. Plus, you can't kill those things without me. I figure I'm safe until the last ice rider bites it, at least."

Sasuke hummed as he sat down next to Naruto. "So you trust me for now, but leave the option open that I might try to kill you later."

Naruto chuckled. "Pretty much," he joked.

"Maybe you're not as dumb as you look."

The flatness of Sasuke's voice had Naruto looking over at him, wondering if maybe he shouldn't be as comfortable as he had been with the man. Sasuke's face was impassive as ever, but his dark eyes glinted with humor, sending a flood of relief through Naruto.

"Fuck you," he said, shoving Sasuke's un-injured shoulder before looking back down at his paper. "The Nara clan is our best bet for figuring out what this thing is that we're dealing with. I need to tell Shika everything we know in case it ends up being the key to figuring out what we're up against."

Sasuke looked over Naruto's shoulder, reading the note.

"You write like a child."

Naruto shrugged. "Shika's used to my messy handwriting. You write like a woman, so I wouldn't talk."

"How would you know what my writing looks like?"

"I might not have remembered your name, but I remembered the prissy signature."

Sasuke rolled his eyes. "And you thought a five-year-old had signed it? Along with managing to be the most powerful warrior in a clan full of powerful warriors? I hope you make decisions in battle with more care than you did ripping up that fucking contract."

"Hey! It wasn't my fault," Naruto glared at Sasuke. "I figured your mother had signed it with your blood or something. And some clan's bloodlimits present early, in full power. I didn't know it was just some random kid." Naruto stopped and frowned, thinking about the child in the drawing. "Though, I guess…" The delicate curve of the child's cheekbones and fine jaw had looked different with the pudgy cheeks of youth, but the resemblance was easy to see now that he knew to look for it.

"What?" Sasuke asked, narrowing his eyes at him.

"It must have been you. Just a much younger you. But the eyes and face were the same. Just, you know, a lot… younger." Naruto looked away, feeling his cheeks heat at the memory of the oddly protective feeling he had at the time, wanting to charge in and rescue the little boy from his clan. The 'little boy' who had turned out to be a grown-ass man, possibly even older than Naruto, who just incinerated half a fucking mountain with his breath.

As if reading his thoughts, Sasuke smirked. "And just how were you planning on coming and 'rescuing' me?"

Naruto's blush deepened as he rubbed the back of his neck as he thought about the half-assed ideas he'd had of sneaking onto Uchiha clan grounds. Something in Sasuke's expression told Naruto the man had a pretty good idea the extent of Naruto's 'plan'.

"Fuck off. Your clan was the one who messed up the documents."

Sasuke's smirk twisted into a slight frown. "We still don't know who it was, but there aren't many who would have had access to the documents."

Naruto nodded. "Exactly. Which is why I'm telling Shika to watch his back. Kakashi had access and he has been withholding information. You might think he's not behind it, but he definitely has his own agenda."

Sasuke was silent, and Naruto tried unsuccessfully to read the man's thoughts from his face.

"Gonna share with the class, Uchiha?"

"Kakashi likes to fuck with people, especially my brother and me, but he wouldn't sabotage this. If anything, not knowing who you were when I met you probably helped."

"Why?" Naruto asked, confused. Sasuke seemed like the kind of guy who would always want to know everything.

"Because I wouldn't have asked you to come with us if I'd known you were the one who tore up the scroll."

"Why? I mean, I get that it's a pain in the ass that I fucked up the scroll, but you couldn't have handled the ice rider thing on your own."

"But I would have assumed you were untrustworthy, or at least against the alliance between our clans. And I didn't know that having you along would definitely let us kill the creature. I would have chosen to mitigate the potential risk of having you turn on the group at some point."

Naruto sobered, not having really thought about it from that angle. Sasuke might be a hard-ass, but he took his role of completing his mission and protecting his team seriously. "Yeah, I… uh..," he squinted at Sasuke. "But you don't feel that way now, right?"

The smirk returned to Sasuke's face. "I know why you ripped up the contract, now, dumbass. It was stupid, but I understand it. And I already know that when we bond we can take the creatures out, which is something my brother didn't seem to be confident of."

Naruto studied the man sitting next to him. "That really does it for you, doesn't it?"

Sasuke arched a brown in enquiry.

"Knowing something your brother doesn't."

Sasuke's lips twitched, but he didn't reply.

"Ok, so the note you got said your brother was going to use the map we sent him to get to us. Does that mean he's going to come down the northern tunnel, do you think? We don't really know where it goes. I want to let Shika know which way we're taking."

Sasuke reached into his pack and pulled out his map. "The northern tunnel could lead to Senju lands. But it could also just lead somewhere further into the mountains. Given we're up against a type of magic we know nothing about, the northern tunnel might not be a good bet."

Naruto shifted closer to see the map better, his shoulder brushing against Sasuke's. This close, he could just catch the subtle scent of Sasuke's skin. Clean, with traces of smoke and something almost electric. Naruto fought the urge to draw a deeper breath, and instead focused on the map.

"There's a decent path here to the Senju lands through the mountains," Naruto said, pointing to the valley to their west that ran from Nara lands north and east to the Senju. "But we'd have to back track all the to the base camp."

Sasuke eyed the map. "If we take the tunnel east towards the Uchiha lands, we have a few rough mountains to get over, but then they flatten out as we get closer to Senju lands. Itachi is coming from here." He pointed to an area towards the southern border of the Senju clan grounds, a good distance from the western mountains that the valley ran through.

"Are there passes through this, or will we have to be doing vertical cliff faces?" Naruto asked.

"There are some passes here, but I haven't been through the western part as much."

Naruto nodded. "There could be another tunnel that we just haven't found yet."

There didn't seem to be a clear winning choice.

"We need some recon on where the enemy is. If we're going to try to get to Itachi before we encounter anyone else, we need to know where they are," Sasuke said, standing.

Kushina looked at the piles of books and scrolls strewn around the tables and desks in the Nara's library, the results of the intensive research the three men had been engaged in.

"Sorcery? But there's been no rumors of sorcerers for hundreds of years." She frowned, an uncomfortable itch settling between her shoulder blades. She had faced down enemies twice her size and she had never flinched as she showed them the bite of her blade. But this level of magic left her unsettled.

Shikaku nodded grimly. "But no clan has this level of magic ability. The tunnels are carved straight through the mountains. The creatures that Naruto described aren't human."

Kushina turned and looked at Kakashi. "And none of the clans on the Uchiha side of the mountains carry any of these abilities? It couldn't be an alliance of some kind?"

Kakashi held her gaze steadily, making the itch between her shoulders only increase. "They never claimed any spoils of war. I know of no clan who fights only to fight."

Kushina drew a breath. Denying it wouldn't help her son. He didn't need her fear. He needed her sword arm. "Ok. Do we know anything about this sorcerer? The type of magic or… weaknesses? Location?"

"It's likely weak to fire, since the creatures it's created are as well." Shikamaru said.

"The fact that no clan has encountered it means the sorcerer is either not from this area, or lives somewhere very remote," Shikaku added.

"Like the mountains," Kushina said, her eyes flickering to where her son was. "Does Naruto know what he's facing?"

"We're going to send him and the Uchiha team a message," Kakashi said. "We are going to go through all the old legends and sorcerer histories to see if we can find anything that resembles what we're seeing here."

Kushina nodded. "Good. Let the other clans know. While the Nara clan has the most extensive library, there might be pieces in other places. The more eyes searching for clues, the faster we will hopefully find something."

"But you're still going to find Naruto." Shikamaru's comment was soft, not a question.

Kushina smiled. "Minato was always the better one for research. I'm going to help Naruto buy us some time."

"It's been two days since we've heard from him. We don't know where they are," Kakashi said. "And even if we did, they would likely only move again before you reached them."

"Kurama will find him," Kushina replied simply.

Kakashi arched a brow. "And what exactly is Kurama that he can find Naruto when there is no trail to follow, between the snow and Naruto's ability to teleport."

"As far as we can tell, Kurama is a hybrid between a dragon and a horse. Naruto was part of a scouting mission in the northern mountains, and they came across Kurama. He'd been badly burned. The medic on the mission tried to tend to him, but Kurama wouldn't let him touch her. Naruto came to try to help, and Kurama suddenly… calmed. He let Naruto treat him. No one has ever been able to ride Kurama other than Naruto, but they're bonded in some way. It was why it was such a shock when Naruto left without him."

"He didn't expect to be gone more than a couple of days," Shikamaru said.

Kushina's eyes snapped with temper, clearly still displeased with her son's actions at the time. "Well, Kurama and I will both have a few things to say to him about his rash decision-making."

None of the three men felt brave enough to point out that Kushina's decision to chase off into the mountains after her son was probably no less rash.

"We won't be able to reach you with information," Kakashi warned.

Kushina nodded, already aware of that fact. "I'll set seals as I go, to leave you a trail. And some traps to slow down anything that comes out of the mountains. You said they are weak to fire, right?"

The three men nodded. Kushina smiled fiercely.

"Then I'll leave them something to warm themselves over if they head toward our lands. Let Naruto know I'm coming."

She hadn't been gone more than an hour before Itachi's bird arrived to the Nara compound.

"Sai." Sasuke grabbed the map he and Naruto had been studying and walked to where the other man was finishing packing his things. Sai looked up, his expression only showing the barest flicker of curiosity before returning to its usual blankness. "Can you send birds out in these three directions, and see if there is any sign of potential tunnel entrances or creature activity? Have them go lower than the usual scouting pattern."

Sai scanned the map, then nodded, pulling out his ink and scroll. Within moments, twelve birds flew from the page in the directions Sasuke had requested.

"Cool!" Naruto exclaimed, walking up and looking down at the now blank scroll Sai was still holding. "I've never seen that ability before."

Sai's lips curved into a smile that set Sasuke's teeth on edge. "I have a lot of abilities I would be more than happy to show you."

Naruto laughed, rubbing his hand on the back of his neck. "It's a little cold in the cave for that kind of show and tell, man."

"Don't you have packing to finish?" Sasuke snapped out, not sure if he was annoyed at Naruto, Sai, or both.

Sai looked at Sasuke, and Sasuke had the feeling that Sai had figured out exactly who Naruto was and was enjoying yanking Sasuke's chain.

"I am packed. But since you just had me send out for more recon, I'm guessing you haven't decided which direction we're going in. It will be at least twenty minutes before I hear anything back, and four hours before I have the paths fully scouted."

Naruto tossed his pack on the ground next to the wall, far enough away from Sai that the man wouldn't be able to read what he was writing, but close enough to be social. "Well, then I have time to finish this before we head out."

"Sending notes home to your girlfriend? Or boyfriend?" Sai asked, deceptively innocently. Because, of course, the only way to send notes from their current location was through an Uchiha bird. And Sasuke knew that Sai was fully aware that Uchiha birds required an Uchiha sender and receiver, greatly narrowing down the number of places Naruto could be sending notes 'home' to.

Naruto looked at him for a moment, then shrugged. "Not home. To a friend."

It was a surprisingly good answer, and Sasuke was somewhat surprised.

"You are interesting," Sai said, tilting his head to the side. Sai watched Naruto with a focused look that didn't sit particularly well with Sasuke. Naruto's eyes narrowed, trying to decide if the man was complimenting him or being an ass. With Sai, it was often hard to tell.

Sasuke gave a soft snort of laughter.

"Ooo-kay," Naruto replied, shooting a sidelong glance at Sasuke. "So, let's run down what we know about the creatures. They can make themselves disappear physically, but they can't teleport. They have some sort of psychic or mental manipulation thing. They ride horse-dragon hybrids and have a shard of dragon bone embedded in their forehead. And their sword has some sort of cold poison in it that numbs the body and slows reaction time. Anything else?"

"They can sense power levels," Sasuke replied.

Naruto gave him a look, but he didn't elaborate.

"They're sentient. They can evade search," Sai added. "Unlike the other type that just wait their turn to get cut down."

Naruto added it to the list he was writing.

"Likes cold and weakness to fire, if we're trying to be complete," Karin said, joining them with her pack.

"Ugly as fuck," Suigetsu added helpfully.

"It doesn't breathe." Juugo set his larger pack down with a thud.

Naruto finished writing it all down, then flexed his fingers which were cramping in the cold.

"Ok. Got it." Naruto rolled the paper, then nicked the tip of his thumb with his broken sword before pressing it to the edge of the paper. There was a small glow, and the seal was set. He handed it to Sasuke. "Put this in with whatever you're going to send. The sooner they can start digging on this the better."

Sasuke nodded as he stepped out of the tunnel to summon a messenger bird. While Naruto had been writing to the Nara, Sasuke had already sent one off to Itachi. They'd have to track each other's position using the birds if they were going to find each other while evading potential enemies.

He knew a little of Uzumaki seals and the targeted damage they could cause, enough to be careful to not disturb the one Naruto had put on it as he placed it in the cylinder attached to the bird's leg. It immediately took flight.

With the messages sent, it was time for them to head out. He turned to look at Sai. "Any sightings?"

"Sasuke!" Karin's voice held an edge of alarm from within the tunnel. Sasuke and Sai looked at each other then headed into the cave.

"What?" Sasuke asked.

"There's another of the mounted creatures coming. From the other side of this tunnel. And it's got an army of creatures with it."

"Shit," Naruto breathed out. He closed his eyes, and his skin glowed slightly as he drew in more energy. "Yeah. I can't sense it as well as Karin, but there's definitely something there, and it's not good. So… that rules out heading back west to the Nara lands and taking the valley. East, then?"

Sasuke's jaw clenched. He hated running from a fight. But for the moment, he knew that it was more important to get to Itachi. They didn't need to win every battle, but they had to win the war. Naruto wasn't fully powered up and Sasuke wasn't fully healed. They weren't ready for another fight so soon after the last one.

"East," Sasuke agreed, grabbing his bag and telling the others to grab their gear.

The stepped out of the tunnel, and Karin stopped dead in her tracks.

"No." She turned in a slow circle, looking first to the tunnel entrance that led north, then the one that led east. Sasuke felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up, and he knew what Karin was going to say before she spoke. "They know we're here. We're surrounded."

Sasuke activated his sharingan, but there was no sign of the enemy approaching other than what Karin could sense.

"How far out are they?" Sasuke asked tightly.

Karin's face was pale. "It's hard to tell, since they're all in the tunnels. But... I'd guess… twenty minutes. Possibly less."

"Fuck," Naruto cursed, looking over to Sasuke. "I'm still not at full power. I'd need at least two hours to get there."

Sasuke took in the distance between the entrances of the three tunnels that surrounded them. "It wouldn't matter. They've divided their attacks. We couldn't take them all out with the same approach. At most, we could take two."

"Fuck," Naruto muttered again, his voice full of tense frustration.

Juugo and Sai had already drawn their swords.

"Could we make it out through the mountains? Avoid the tunnels altogether?" Suigetsu asked, scanning the steep, rocky cliffs around them.

"No." Naruto spoke without hesitation, following Suigetsu's gaze. "We might be able to outrun the regular creatures. But the mounted ones are on horses that can move over this type of terrain a hell of a lot faster than we can."

"At least we learned one thing about them," Sasuke said, pulling out his sword. If they were going to go down, he was going to take out as many creatures with him when he went.

"What's that?" Naruto asked.

"The ice riders can definitely communicate with each other. The one we took out told them where we were and how we fought," Sasuke replied, his voice grim.

He didn't need to look at the stricken look on Naruto's face to know that the man knew what that meant. Their enemy knew that there was at least one Senju who had escaped their cleanse, and they were pulling out all the stops to rectify that.

Itachi looked up as a bird approached. He lifted his arm, feeling relief to see Sasuke's seal affixed on the cylinder. The discovery of dragon sorcery had him on edge, especially with Sasuke being so far from him.

Sasuke must have sent the message as soon as he'd received Itachi's, and he hoped that the note would confirm that his brother would heed his advice and head directly towards him rather than trying to take on their enemy alone. He knew that Sasuke wouldn't like it, but Itachi's instincts were telling him that this was an enemy that they were not ready to take out. Itachi had learned long ago to heed his instincts, and he hoped his brother would listen to him. Sasuke often dug his heels in, though, and Itachi was nervous. Normally, Sasuke's determination to see things through on his own was something Itachi admired, and it had earned him a place of honor in their clan. In a battle of humans, Itachi had no doubt that his little brother would come away victorious.

But sorcery was different. Swords would have little to no effect, and even fire might not be enough.

He pulled out the message from the tube, his eyes scanning its brief contents quickly, his eyes widening at the contents.

We are packing up to meet you en route. Send an update on your path.

We have already killed one of the mounted creatures, but there are more than one. They have dragon bone shards embedded in them. We are bringing one to compare with the one you found.

A dragon came at the end of the battle. It didn't like the ice rider. It marked me, then left.

Itachi's stomach clenched as he thought about how the dragon might have marked his brother, wondering if it had taken one of his eyes as it had Itachi. As usual, his brother had skimped on the details, saying nothing about how they had managed to kill the creature, or what had happened with the dragon.

Itachi fought to keep his temper in check. At least his little brother was safe and on his way to meet him. It would take at least three days before they could reach each other, more if the weather turned bad. He hoped Sasuke would be able to avoid detection until then.

To be continued...

Chapter Text

Chapter 16 - Run and dodge

WARNING - Somewhat graphic depictions of self-harm for magical purposes (though the title of this fic was probably warning enough of stuff like that LOL)

A/N:  Those of you who follow me on Twitter (@Kizukatana) know the fully story behind why this chapter is late, so I won't rehash it here.  Will do my best to get back on track, health and family drama allowing.  Un-beta'd.

A sharp cry followed by the sound of a beak tapping impatiently on the window of the Nara Clan library caused the three tired men sitting within to look up from their various scrolls and dusty tomes.

"That's Sasuke's mark on the cylinder," Kakashi said, his sharingan already active as he looked at the metal tube attached to the bird's leg where it perched on the window sill.

"Let's hope it's good news," Shikamaru replied.

"Or any news," Shikaku said, looking over at the enormous stack of books they'd been randomly searching through, trying to separate fact from fiction.

Kakashi opened the window, and the large, black bird immediately flew to Kakashi's outstretched wrist.

The Uchiha emissary deactivated the seal on the mental container and pulled out two notes. The first was from Sasuke, but the second definitely wasn't. It had a seal he was unfamiliar with, but his eye told him it was not something he would be able to easily deactivate. He recognized some of the workings of it as belonging to the Uzumaki clan, and made a mental note to ask Naruto about it the next time they met.

"This is for you," he said, handing it to Shikamaru. The younger Nara arched a brow at the seal, and Kakashi wondered if it had some specific meaning. At the brush of Shikamaru's fingertip, the seal deactivated, as though recognizing the man. Shikamaru began to read, his eyes flickering once to Kakashi with something akin to amusement in them before he continued reading, a frown slowly growing on his brow.

Kakashi opened Sasuke's note, unsurprised to find it brief and to the point.

Fuck you.

Naruto's note contains details of what we've learned about the creatures we're up against. If the Nara decide to share it with you, you can help research it. If not, consider yourself demoted to messenger boy.

"Hm," Kakashi hummed. Evidently Sasuke had figured out who Naruto was, and wasn't particularly pleased with Kakashi's deception on the matter. Since Naruto was still alive enough to send a note to his friend, Kakashi assumed Sasuke had given the man enough time to explain why he'd torn up the marriage contract. But did Naruto know who Sasuke was, or was Sasuke going to lord the knowledge over him and play mind games, as his clan was taught to do from the cradle? And would Sasuke be amenable to a second attempt at the binding, now that he knew who Naruto was?

Kakashi grimaced. Of course Sasuke wasn't going to tell him any of that. Sasuke knew him well, and knew that Kakashi would be wanting to see if his machinations had played out as expected. Which was exactly why the little bastard hadn't include any information whatsoever along those lines. He sighed, hoping that Sasuke's annoyance with him would be satisfied by returning the favor of withholding information. He was reasonably sure that Itachi would be meeting up with Sasuke soon, given the new information they had about what they were up against. If anyone could influence Sasuke into doing something he might not want to, it would be his older brother.

He looked over to where Shikamaru was still reading Naruto's evidently-much-longer note. He didn't read aloud or share its contents even with his own father until he had finished it completely.

He looked up, his expression grim. "It's definitely dragon magic we're looking at. They found a dragon shard in one of the creatures that Sasuke had described, embedded in its forehead."

He handed the note to his father, and sent Kakashi a smirk. "Naruto told me to watch my back with you. He doesn't trust you now that he knows you knew it was his fiancé's team he was joining up with."

"He thinks you didn't know?" Kakashi asked, his eyebrows raised.

Shikamaru shrugged. "He'll figure it out soon enough. In the meantime, we have a lot of research to do. Sasuke and Naruto managed to defeat one of the mounted creatures. They used a direct blood bond to combine Naruto's energy with Sasuke's attack."

Shikaku didn't take his eyes from the paper as he spoke. "I've heard of some Senju who attempted that earlier. Usually, it resulted in crippling injury to both parties. At minimum, loss of the limb used for the bond. Naruto didn't say much about the injuries, only that they would take a day or two to heal."

Shikamaru nodded. "Naruto has the Uzumaki blood limit."

Shikaku looked up thoughtfully. "If the self-healing were activated, it would have spared Naruto's arm. But I'm surprised it helped Sasuke. Naruto carries only the warrior limit, not the healing abilities."

"Blood ties are unpredictable in which elements of a blood limit they activate and share. It might not be that Naruto healed Sasuke, but that the direct blood bond temporarily gave Sasuke the ability to heal himself," Kakashi suggested, glancing over to Shikamaru as Shikaku handed him Naruto's note. The younger Nara nodded, giving his permission for Kakashi to read it.

"We need as many people researching this as we can. I'll transcribe a few copies of the description of the shard and the creatures' powers and send it to the Hyuuga, Namikaze, and Yamanaka clans." Shikamaru's eyes were concerned.

"The involvement of the dragons is something I don't understand," Shikaku said, slowly. "Both Naruto and Sasuke have been marked by one. And the fact that the creatures are riding the same sort of dragon-horse hybrid as Kurama can't be a coincidence. Kurama appeared just after the Senju and Uzumaki clans were wiped out."

Kakashi read faster, leveraging his sharingan to record every detail for later examination. The battle that Naruto described was nearly impossible to believe. Kakashi would have thought the younger man must be exaggerating, except for the fact that the description of the creature's abilities matched what Sasuke had told him exactly. That the two warriors had been able to take it out by pulling off what should have been a suicidal battle technique was so improbable that Kakashi felt an itching between his shoulder blades as the old Sage's strange words of greeting many months ago flashed back to him. He'd disregarded them at the time, but now he was rethinking that.

In order to defeat the ancient enemy of your clan, two marked souls will face the enemy as one.

The sage didn't have anything more to say about what the 'marking' would be, or who the enemy was. The sage had also claimed to be more than six hundred years old, so Kakashi had written him off as simple fear-mongering to earn a night or two of free food and rest with a clan that routinely killed trespassers. The clan elders had ignored the first part of the man's speech, but they had listened to what he'd had to say about the tactical benefit of an alliance with the Namikaze clan. One of their border towns had already been attacked by the strange creatures, so they knew something was going on in the mountains that used to be viewed as an impenetrable wall guarding their backs.

Now he wasn't so sure the man had been as crazy as he'd seemed. Kakashi still didn't believe in fate or prophesy, but… the way Naruto and Sasuke had blended their powers in a way that should have been impossible wasn't something he could overlook, as a tactician.

When he finished reading, he looked up to find the two Nara men watching him.

"So we have a dragon sorcerer to hunt," Kakashi stated simply. "Itachi was right."

Shikaku nodded. "Sasuke's idea of looking for who else is using dragon ingredients is a good one. We can start there."

"The Namikaze's had collected quite a bit of information when they were trying to find out Kurama's origins," Shikaku said, thoughtfully. "When they first found Kurama, he was badly burned. Given Kurama's resistance to fire, it would have had to be a pretty intense blast of fire to burn him. And, based on what Naruto described about the dragon, the dragon's don't seem too friendly with the ice riders."

Shikamaru's eyes snapped to his father's. "You think he used to belong to an ice rider, and a dragon killed the rider?"

Shikaku shrugged. "I don't know. If these riders have been around for that long, why haven't the dragons hunted them down before now? And why wouldn't the sorcerer have used them in the battle to take out the Senju and the Uzumaki if he had them back then?"

The three men looked at each other for a few moments, but no one had any answers. "Well, we definitely have enough questions to keep us from getting bored," Shikamaru said as he turned and headed back to the library.

The other two men followed, each lost in thoughts around possibilities, legends, and a sea of questions that currently had no answers.

"Could we make it out through the mountains? Avoid the tunnels altogether?" Suigetsu asked, scanning the steep, rocky cliffs around them.

"No." Naruto spoke without hesitation, following Suigetsu's gaze. "We might be able to outrun the regular creatures. But the mounted ones are on horses that can move over this type of terrain a hell of a lot faster than we can."

Naruto cursed as he tried to think of a way out of this, wishing Shikamaru was there with him… and grateful at the same time that he wasn't given they were about to be fucked front, side and middle. "We can't try taking out one of them and try to blast through," he said, trying to work through options aloud. "They'd let the others know before we made it."

Sasuke's lips tightened in acknowledgement. "They might be able to communicate, but they can't sense us from a distance the way Karin can."

Naruto's brows shot up… that was an advantage maybe they could use. "How do you know?"

"When the creature came out of the northern tunnel, it was surprised when it saw us. It didn't sense us coming."

"So if we can get out of sight from them, they won't be able to find us," Sai said, scanning the surrounding area for a cave or fissure in the rocky walls.

"The snow will mark our tracks," Juugo stated. "They'll be able to follow us."

Naruto looked over at Sai. "Hey. You make animals with your ink. Could you make dragons? We could fly out of here on those. Or they could fight for us"

Sai grimaced. "My creatures are made of ink. They can't hold anything more than their own substance, and they have no attacks. They can only observe, and communicate what they see back to me."

"Shit," Naruto breathed. He fought back the tightening in his stomach. There was a brief silence as everyone tried to think of what to do.

Suigetsu dropped his bag to the ground, undoing the clasps that held a second sword strapped to the side of it.

"Here," he said, handing it to Naruto. "If we're gonna make some kind of crazy-ass last stand, at least you can take more out with a real sword and not that broken piece of shit you're carrying around."

Naruto flushed slightly, but couldn't help but chuckle. "Hey, my sword was good it's just… I didn't know it wouldn't work to have it rematerialize inside that ice rider thing when I teleported."

Suigetsu blinked, then frowned. "Don't fucking do that with mine, ok? Just stick to cutting their heads off."

"Suigetsu collects swords," Juugo explained. "He gets attached to them."

"He's a freak who names then and talks to them," Karin snorted. "And possibly sleeps with them."

"Fuck you, bitch," Suigetsu responded, though there wasn't much heat in it. The reality of the situation they were in was pressing down on the group.

"Stay focused." Sasuke's eyes scanned the surrounding area, his brow furrowed as he calculated every angle, every option.

The wind had picked up and a light snow had started to fall.

"There's a storm coming," Sai said, looking up at the clouds. "It could provide us cover if it hits soon enough."

"The cliff to the east would be the easiest to climb," Sasuke said after a moment. "I could hold them off while you leave. If the storm picks up, it will cover your trail. If you can clear the first ridge before they get to you, you'll be able to head to the Nara base camp."

Naruto's head snapped up and he glared at Sasuke. "You can't hold them off on your own. You'll be out of fire power in ten minutes. If anyone is going to stay, it should be me. I can flicker around and dodge them to buy more time."

"Oh, my god!" Karin's exasperated voice was muffled slightly by the increased snow falling. "Put your 'self-sacrifice' dicks away. If we lose either of you, we don't have a chance when those things catch up to us. If anyone is going to stay behind, it should be us to buy you both time to escape and find a way to separate them."

"You wouldn't buy us two minutes," Sasuke stated matter-of-factly. Karin looked irritated, but no one contradicted him.

"What if we separated?" Suigetsu offered. "We could each go in different directions. They only have three of those mounted fuckers, and there are six of us. If we go in six different directions, half of us would make it."

"Not if the creatures are as fast as Naruto says," Sai said. "If we stay in the ravine, they'll just run us down. And if we climb, we'll be too slow."

"But what if…," Suigetsu continued the debate, but Naruto tuned out the discussion that was going on around him. Running wasn't going to work. He knew better than anyone else what those mounts were capable of. They couldn't escape on foot, even if they separated. Not in this terrain.

They couldn't fight, and they couldn't run. That left only one option. The question was, did he have enough juice to pull it off without killing them all? Naruto crouched down, laying his palms flat against the ground and closed his eyes. He could feel a slight boost in the rate that he was building energy, but it wasn't enough. He could hear the conversation continuing, but he didn't pay it any mind. If Sasuke needed his input, he had no doubt the man would get his attention. Probably with a black boot up his ass, but Naruto was willing to take the risk.

He concentrated on controlling the flow, trying to find any way of speeding it up. He remembered how much faster the energy had poured from the wound in his hand into Sasuke's. He didn't know if it only worked in one direction, but he decided to try it. He brought the edge of the borrowed blade down along his palm, slicing the skin off before pressing it down into the frozen earth. It hurt like a bitch and he hissed as the ice and rock bit into his opened flesh, but he could feel the energy jump as his blood soaked into the rocky ground.

"Dude, the fuck are you -," Suigetsu's voice cut off.

"Leave him." Sasuke's command was sharp, and Naruto could feel the man's eyes on him. He didn't need to open his eyes to know that Sasuke's sharingan was telling him just how fast Naruto was drawing in power now. Even with his eyes closed, he could feel Sasuke's presence behind him, a faint sort of resonance. He pushed the thought aside and focused only on drawing in everything he could from the area around them.

Minutes ticked past, and he tried to ignore the feel of the armies approaching them and not lose focus. He still wasn't at full power, but he was a hell of a lot closer than he had been before. When he'd jumped with Kurenai back to the base camp, it had been a lot farther than he'd need to manage this time. Of course, at that time, he was only moving two people, and now he'd have six. He drew in a slow breath, thinking back to the last few big jumps he'd made. He knew he'd been sloppy with them, and used way more power than he'd needed to. But still, this would require a lot of energy, and he was only partly powered up.

"How close is the army that's in the tunnel heading east?" Naruto asked, not caring if he was cutting off any other discussion. If they'd come up with a plan, they'd already be executing it.

"Close. Near the entrance," Karin responded tightly.

"Ok. Then we're out of time to figure out something else. Our best bet is to jump behind them, far enough into the tunnel that they won't be able to hear us. Grab onto me," Naruto said, visualizing a point towards the other side of the tunnel that he could take them to. He needed to keep his energy levels steady and focused to bring them all along at the same time.

Suigetsu and Juugo walked over to him, each placing a hand on his back.

"I've never heard of anyone being able to teleport that many people," Sai said, looking at him skeptically and making no move to approach.

"Hashirama once transported an entire army," Sasuke murmured, though he also remained where he was, observing Naruto with narrowed, assessing eyes.

"Pfff. Half the stories about that guy are legend and bullshit. Same as Madara," Suigetsu said, his fingers tightening on Naruto's left shoulder. "But it's not like we got a lot of other options."

A third hand touched Naruto's back, as Karin walked over to him. Naruto focused on sending his energy through the three bodies connected with him, trying to balance it out and stabilize his energy before pumping it up through everyone. He recognized Karin's energy, noticing the slight resonance when he connected with her as a fellow Uzumaki. Her indrawn breath told him that she felt it, too.

"Sai. Sasuke. You guys have a better plan or what?" Naruto bit out, trying to hide his nerves. He needed to at least sound confident, if he was going to convince them to let him try this. "If we're gonna do this, I need to get the energy balanced right between everyone, and it's not like we've got a lot of time for me to figure this shit out."

The seconds seemed to stretch. Naruto knew there was a risk he was going to get them all killed if his energy fluctuated midway through. But it was still better than their odds of survival if they stayed. Besides, he was pretty sure he could do it. Mostly sure.

"The first ice rider should be coming out of the western tunnel any second," Karin said tensely.

Sai's boots crunched on the snow as he approached.

"I guess a significant chance of dying is better than a certainty of dying." Sai's voice was flat, but Naruto had learned enough about the man to detect the edge of unease in his tone.

A fourth hand touch his back. Naruto looked over at the final hold-out. Blood-red eyes locked with his.

"So what do you say, Sasuke. Wanna blow this joint?" Naruto gave him a lopsided grin.

Kushina pushed her horse hard, riding north to the base camp. She had a growing feeling in her gut that her son was in over his head. She might not be a researcher like the Nara's, but she'd fought more battles than most, and she knew that there were only so many skirmishes one could fight before the enemy knew you were coming. According to Shikamaru, Naruto had already fought two fairly large battles. An enemy clever enough to carve a network of secret tunnels through a range of otherwise impenetrable mountains and build an entire army of creatures with no one noticing was not likely to have forgotten to create some way of keeping track of them all.

She leaned forward, murmuring encouragement in her mount's ears. She'd have to go on foot after she reached the camp, and her horse could rest then. Kurama seemed to share her sense of urgency, and he had no trouble keeping pace with her.

They had passed the northern border town and were entering the foothills near the base camp when Kurama threw his head back and shrieked, rearing up on his hind legs. The sound reminiscent of a large bird of prey, but much deeper. In battle, it never failed to make their enemies shiver. Kushina felt the fine hairs on her arms stand on end at the sound now.

"What is it?" she asked, pulling up to look at her son's mount. She knew the creature couldn't reply, but she often felt like it understood what she said.

Kurama's eyes were wild and flashing in the near darkness of the evening's fading light. He stomped his hooves and reared his head, causing her own mount to side-step nervously. The only other time she'd seen Kurama's act like this was when Naruto had been injured in battle. Her stomach tensed.

"We're going as fast as we can. Not everyone can run up the sides of mountains like you can," she said, though her own instincts were screaming at her to go faster. She knew her horse's limitations, though, and an injured horse would only make it even more difficult to get to her son.

Kurama grabbed her cloak with his teeth and pulled, nearly unseating her while steam flared out his nostrils.

"The hell…," Kushina cut off as Kurama shoved his head against the shoulder of the other horse, as though pushing him away. Kushina raised her eyebrows. The message was fairly clear, but it was surprising. Kurama had never let anyone other than Naruto ride him. The uneasiness that had been laying heavy in her stomach tightened its grip. There had always been a strange bond between her son and his mount. If Kurama was this alarmed, Naruto must be in grave danger.

"Alright. We'll do it your way." She dismounted, quickly detaching her saddle bag from her horse.

Kurama blew a short puff of steam in the beast's direction, snorting and stomping his foot in impatience.

The dismissal was clear, and Kushina's horse took two steps back.

"Return home," Kushina told her steed. The horse tossed its head and turned, heading south. It knew its way, and the road passed along a river with enough fresh grass that he would be alright.

She grabbed her saddle bag, slinging it across her back as she turned to look Kurama in the eyes. "If you throw me, I'll run you through. I don't care how much Naruto loves you."

Kurama snorted again, stomping his taloned foot again in impatience before gripping her cloak again and tugging her closer.

"Fine," she muttered, gripping the armored saddle and mounting him in a fluid motion that spoke of a true rider. "Take me to our boy. I'm guessing he needs us."

Kurama didn't need to be told twice, and they set off at a breakneck pace, riding across the rugged terrain in a straight line rather than winding through the gentler trail that snaked through the valleys.

Kushina was glad her thighs were strong and her seat sure as she gripped tightly to stay astride the animal racing to his friend. She despite his speed, she knew she could have her blade drawn and swinging in an instant if she needed to.

If Naruto was in trouble, she was going to do her best to help.

"So what do you say, Sasuke. Wanna blow this joint?" Naruto gave him a lopsided grin.

Sasuke found his lips twitch in response, despite their shitty situation. He could feel Naruto's energy buzzing just beneath his skin. It wasn't as strong as when they'd been blood bound, but the memory of it made his own blood itch to feel the white-hot surge of power through him again.

"Sasuke," Karin urged, her voice tight with stress. The creatures would be appearing any moment. Fuck this situation with all its shitty options. It pissed Sasuke off that they weren't going to be able to stand and fight, but he wasn't going to be stupid about it.

"Fuck," Sasuke muttered. His shoulder was healing, but still damaged. Even just the army of regular creatures would be challenging right then, but with three ice riders, there was no possibility of surviving.

He had never run from a fight before, but they had information on how to defeat the creatures and the involvement of the dragons that they had to get back to their clans.

Staying and fighting meant dying and putting his clan at risk.

There was a chance that - if they were gone when the creatures arrived - it might confuse them. Maybe they would think their information had been incorrect, or that Naruto and Sasuke had died when they'd taken out the ice rider. It was a slim chance, but it might buy them more time. In the end, that was what decided it for him. He might not like riding on Naruto's blood limit, but he wasn't going to let his pride get in the way of their only chance to escape.

"Can you do it?" Sasuke asked, looking at Naruto directly. They hadn't known each other long, but Sasuke could read both the fear and determination in the man's eyes.

"I think so. We don't need to go far. Just need to get the fuck out of this ravine, and without leaving a trail."

A week ago, Sasuke would have scoffed at the idea of putting the success of his mission and the safety of his team in the hands of someone else. But now he was going to go exactly that. He gave a short nod, acknowledging as much to Naruto.

"Don't fuck up," he murmured as he took the final two steps to stand right next to Naruto.

Naruto grinned. "Just hold on tight, princess."

Sasuke rolled his eyes and put his hand on the back of Naruto's neck, the skin of his palm pressed against Naruto's skin. Sasuke felt his own internal energy surged reflexively as it came into contact with Naruto's. His whole body hummed with the contact. It wasn't as strong as when they'd been blood tied, but there was definitely an echo of the tie that remained.

"Everyone but Karin and Juugo drop your bags. Weapons only for everyone else," Sasuke ordered tersely. Karin had the medical supplies, and Juugo had the food. Everything else was optional at this point. He felt the weight of the dragon shard in his pocket. It was a rare magical artifact of unknown purpose and power. There was a chance that whoever created it could use it to find them, but it was almost definitely the 'power source' that made the ice riders almost undefeatable. He didn't know how many of the creatures there were, but one less was definitely a good thing. Leaving it here would put it back into the sorcerer's hands, however, and Sasuke wasn't going to let that happen.

"They're coming. They're here," Karin said, panic edging her voice.

Sasuke could see Naruto's energy shift outward, flowing into every member of his team. It wasn't completely steady, and Sasuke hoped Naruto would be able to control it enough to not embed them into the side of a mountain.

"Stay quiet and hold tight!" Naruto gritted out just before the first creature came into view, and the world vanished.

Sasuke felt Naruto's energy surge, then pull taut… felt the moment that Naruto over-stretched himself and the bond started to fragment. Sasuke reacted instinctively, pushing his energy out and back towards Naruto. It didn't do a lot, since the contact was only skin-to-skin and not blood-to-blood, but it seemed to stabilize the tie just enough that they all landed in one piece in the total darkness of a tunnel, just as the faint connection he had to Naruto's energy broke.

Sasuke felt Naruto's skin slip beneath his fingers, but not before it had turned ice cold. His sharingan showed him that the grip his teammates had held on Naruto's cloak were the only thing now holding the man up. It also showed him that Naruto wasn't breathing.

He bit back a curse, not sure how close the enemy was. The complete darkness made hand signals impossible, since Sasuke was the only one who could see anything, and until they knew how close to the enemy they'd landed, they had to maintain complete silence. He scanned the tunnel, seeing no sign of any of the creatures nearby, and not able to hear any sound of their passage. He took in the details of the wall around them, and compared it to his memory of the tunnels they'd been through. Relief and annoyance hit him simultaneously.

"We're almost to the entrance at the far side of the tunnel," he murmured quietly. Naruto had taken them farther than he'd said, and clearly over-stretched his energy limits. But Sasuke understood the man's reasoning. They didn't know what formation the creatures were marching in, and if it was a long tail, they could be discovered making their escape if they landed too close.

"Lay him down," Sasuke ordered quietly, frowning as he took in the rigid stillness of Naruto's form. The cold, stillness of Naruto's form had him remembering all the warnings that had been drilled into him as a child about what would happen to warriors who put out more energy than their body could spare, not leaving enough left to keep the body alive.

"You idiot. What did you…? Karin!" he bit out tightly, saying it was anger that was making his stomach tight.

Karin was already kneeling over Naruto, her hands glowing as she moved them rapidly over his body. "Shit, Sasuke, he's not…" she cut off, concentrating her efforts on Naruto's chest. "His… energy is so…," she bit her lip and pressed harder down on him. The rest of the team watched in tense silence. "Fuck! His body is fighting me. I can do a little because we're both Uzumaki, but it's not enough. The dragon's mark is keeping me from getting deep enough." Karin reached up and grabbed Sasuke's hand, pressing it over Naruto's chest with her own. "You might not be fully blood tied anymore, but you were. It might let you help."

Sasuke didn't argue. He pulled his hand back, slicing along his palm, then scratched a thin cut along Naruto's chest with the tip of his blade. He pressed his palm down, trying to push his energy out the same way Naruto had. The flow of energy was only a trickle compared to what they'd done in battle, so the skin only warmed slightly as their blood mixed, but didn't burn the skin. He couldn't feel even a trace of Naruto's energy flowing back to him, though.

Karin's hand covered his again, and he could feel her energy pulling at his, helping to push more of his energy into Naruto's blood. For a suspended few seconds, nothing seemed to be happening. Then he felt the faintest flicker of Naruto's energy pushing back.

"He's there," Sasuke said.

"Keep going," Karin replied.

They both felt it when Naruto's chest expanded slightly on an indrawn breath.

Sasuke sat back on his heels, releasing a deep, shaky breath of his own.

"Idiot," he breathed out, his hands shaking slightly with adrenaline and the trickle of Naruto's energy. "You fucking idiot. We finally found a way to take out those ice riders. And it requires you not being fucking dead."

Naruto didn't move, but he continued to breathe, and Sasuke counted that as a win. They'd escaped the trap with no casualties. But that wouldn't last if they didn't get going.

"We have to keep moving," Sasuke spoke quietly as he looked over to Karin. "Is he stable enough to go?"

"It doesn't matter if he is," Sai replied. "Those armies have probably already realized we're not there. The first place they'll search will be the tunnels."

Sasuke's jaw clenched. Sai was right. Naruto had bought them some time, but they couldn't afford to rest now.

He reached down, sliding his arms beneath Naruto and lifting him up. A sharp pain ripped through his injured shoulder, and he sucked in a slight breath.

"You can't carry him with your shoulder still healing," Karin said firmly. Juugo moved closer, searching with his hands to find them, then lifting Naruto from Sasuke's grasp. Before Sasuke could object, Juugo had stepped away and Karin was continuing. "These creatures are going to be hunting us now. They know where we were, and they know we killed a lot of them, including one of their best. We need at least one of you to be in fighting condition if some of them find us."

Sasuke glanced at Naruto's still form, then nodded. "We can't stay in the tunnels. They know we've been using them, so it's the first place they'll search."

"I sent scouts ahead as soon as we landed," Sai said. "We're very close to the entrance to the tunnel, and there's a cave within an hour's walk. It will be a rough climb, but the snow should cover our tracks and it's unlikely the creatures will think we went that way."

"Then let's get going. We can take shelter there until the storm passes. We can't risk a torch, even if we had one. Follow me out." Sasuke turned and began walking, feeling Karin's hand settle on his cloak to guide her, the rest of the team following suit.

"It might be a good idea to try to do some hunting on our way to the cave," Suigetsu said as they walked along though the darkness, all ears straining for any sound of pursuit. "We don't know how long we'll be pinned down by the storm."

With no tents, limited food, and no blankets, surviving in the cold would be tricky. If the cave was deep enough, they might be able to build a fire. But they might not. The first thing Sasuke was going to do was send the dragon shard to Itachi, to compare with the one Itachi had found. He was also going to send a full description of how they'd defeated the first ice rider. If they didn't make it out of this, it was critical that the information make it to his clan. Though without a Senju to power them up, he didn't know what good the knowledge would do them.

Naruto still showed no signs of waking up, but at least he was breathing.

Sasuke would give him the courtesy of waiting until he woke up before he killed him for being so reckless.

To be continued...

Chapter Text

Chapter 18 - Introductions, Part 1

Warnings - more blood. More magic.

A/N - This is as close to a threesome as you will see in this fic LOL. Sorry this is a few days late AGAIN. I had a really hard time getting one part of this to read the way I wanted and I didn't want to post it until I figured out what was wrong. But it's not as late as the last chapter was, so I'm counting that as a win!

Suigetsu shouldered Juugu's pack as they quickly exited the tunnel and moved along the ravine to the point where Sai said they had the easiest path to reaching the hidden cave. 'Easy' was a relative term, since the mountains were built of jagged sheets of rock and ice. The climb wasn't the sheer cliffs from where they'd battled the ice rider, but it was still steep enough that footing was treacherous, especially when they were trying to move quickly.

"Fuck!" Suigetsu shouted as his footing slipped. "Fuck all this snow and ice."

"You're more of a girl than I am," Karin said as she climbed easily up the path, gripping her pack tight with one hand as she braced the other on the ground to help navigate the treacherous rocks.

The wind whipped their words away as the storm slowly moved in. Sasuke watched the clouds, knowing he had to get a message off to his brother before the storm fully arrived. It would be too dangerous to do it before they reached the shelter, though.

Sai left owl sentries to monitor the path behind them for pursuit. Every member of the party was focused on moving as quickly and quietly as they could as the wind and snow picked up around them. Sasuke kept his sharingan active the entire march, despite the headache he knew he would get from over-using it. They couldn't afford to be taken unawares in their current condition. The storm wasn't bad yet, but it had the feel of worsening as they trudged their way up the mountainside. The only upside was their tracks were erased almost instantly as they moved along.

Sasuke frequently glanced over to where Juugo was carrying Naruto, watching the small rises and falls in Naruto's cloak that signaled whether he was still breathing. The man's usually bronze skin was pale, and his lips had taken on a bluish tinge that had Sasuke pushing the group to move faster along the steep climb. Naruto's breathing was shallow and slow, but he was breathing. Once they got to the cave, they could treat him, but they had to get to shelter and away from the path of the creatures first.

Despite the rising sound of the approaching storm, a roar sounded in the distance. Everyone in the group tensed at the unmistakable sound. Once you'd heard the roar of a dragon, you weren't likely to forget it.

"You think that has to do with us?" Sai said tensely.

"I don't know." Sasuke scanned the skies, but couldn't see any sign of the creature through the driving snow. "It's one ravine over, I think."

"We need to keep moving," Karin said urgently. "His body can't maintain temperature in this wind."

Sasuke nodded sharply. If the dragon was looking for them, they'd find out soon enough. And if the dragon was after the creatures chasing them, all the better.

Without Sai's scouting, they would have missed the cave entirely. The entrance was a narrow, jagged fissure in the rocky mountain side, but after a few steps, it opened into a much larger cavern.

Sasuke pulled off his cloak, laying it on the ground.

"Put him here," he ordered tersely.

Juugo gently lay Naruto down on Sasuke's cloak. Karin dropped her bag and immediately knelt beside him. "His temperature's way too low. We need to warm him now."

Suigetsu and Juugo quickly pulled some firewood out of the large pack, and Sasuke set it alight with a breath.

"It won't be fast enough," Karin said, positioning Naruto as close as she could to the fire without setting him ablaze.

Sasuke opened the fastening of Naruto's cloak, then placed his hand against the wound he had cut earlier on the man's skin. He breathed a sigh of relief when he felt the faint flicker of Naruto's energy still there. He closed his eyes and concentrated on pushing some of his own energy through where their blood joined. He had been trained to release his energy in fire attacks, but this sort of direct transfer was not something he knew how to do and it took several minutes before he could feel Naruto's energy responding.

"It's working," Karin said, relief coloring her voice. "His body temperature's coming back up."

"We don't have blankets," Juugo said, looking around at the cavern. "We'll have to use the tent as a blanket, and share it to keep as much heat in as we can."

"I'm more than happy to share my body heat with Menma," Sai said, setting his sword and bag of ink and scrolls down next to where Naruto lay.

"That's not his name," Sasuke bit out. Sai arched a brow, but didn't look surprised.

"Dude, the guy's ice cold and barely got a pulse. That's like… necrophilia or whatever," Suigetsu said, setting his swords down as he helped Juugo unfold one of the two tents they would need to use as blankets to survive the cold.

"Don't knock it unless you've tried it," Sai said, his face totally deadpan as Suigetsu's eyes widened in horror.

For once, Sai cracked and his lips twitched. "God, you're stupid," he chuckled, helping to straighten one of the tents. "No wonder the ice rider was able to control you so easily. My ink hamsters have more brain power."

"Hey, fuck you!" Suigetsu retorted. "I can't help it that you're creepy as hell. How am I supposed to tell if you're joking or not when you say shit like that!"

Sai rolled his eyes then sat down next to Naruto, looking at the unconscious man. "Are you going to tell us who he is?" he asked, turning to face Sasuke.

"At some point," Sasuke replied, pressing down more on Naruto's chest feeling the slow beat of his pulse beneath his fingers.

"Hm," Sai said, consideringly. "There really aren't too many people on the western side of the mountains that you would know. Especially people who hold the Uzumaki blood limit."

"Sai," Sasuke said sharply.

Sai sighed and shrugged. "I guess that's confirmation enough."

"Then leave him alone," Sasuke replied.

Sai only snickered, which set Sasuke's teeth even more on edge.

Ignoring the ache behind his eyes, Sasuke activated his sharingan to observe Naruto. His lips were less blue, but his skin was still pale. Sasuke could at least see the man's pulse slow but steady. There was no sign of his energy returning, though, and Sasuke frowned in concern.

"I need to send a bird to Itachi," Sasuke looked at Karin, unsure if it was safe for him to remove his hand from Naruto's chest.

"I'll monitor him. Do what you have to do."

Sasuke reluctantly removed his hand from Naruto's chest, the streaks of blood across his palm kept the tie from fading entirely, but definitely weaker than direct contact. He pulled out a scroll of paper from Karin's pack, and detailed out every aspect of the ice rider's attacks, their encounter with the dragon, and the size and direction of the three armies they had escaped, as well as Naruto's current condition. As opposed to his usual exchanges with his brother, Sasuke held no details back and didn't bother with any biting commentary. Whatever happened to his team, the information had to reach his clan in its entirety. He pulled out the dragon shard from his pocket, and packed it in the small cylinder that carried the note.

Nicking his finger with his sword, he summoned a messenger bird. The storm was nearly full-on, but the bird managed to fight its way up through the driving snow.

He watched it go for a moment, hoping it would make it to his brother.

Minato looked up from the tome he'd been reading. The library was always quiet, but the silence seemed to go far beyond it to encompass the entire Hall, despite the clan preparing for war. His wife's absence always made the village feel empty.

Kushina had left a day ago to exchange information with the Naras. Given the situation, they had agreed that face-to-face communication was the safest until they had found out who had sabotaged the clan bonding, and why. Hopefully, she would be back within another day's time, and with information he could use to narrow his search on who their enemy was.

He looked at the angle that the sun was sloping in the window, and realized it was time to check on Kurama. None of the other stable hands would be able to handle him, and - while Kurama wouldn't let anyone other than Naruto ride him - he would allow Kushina or Minato to care for him and ride next to him for exercise.

He placed a marker in the book he'd been reading and walked to the armory. Given the threat, no one went riding without their sword, even well within clan grounds. He paused, noticing that his wife had not only taken her sword, but her armor and spare sword as well. He frowned, suspicion creeping through him. If it were anyone else, he would simply say that his wife was being cautious. But this was Kushina. She was brave, loyal, fierce and headstrong. But she was most definitely not cautious.

"Goddamn it, Kush," he muttered under his breath, grabbing his sword and running down to the stables, though he was already sure what he would find.

He was only partially right. Kurama was gone, as he'd feared, but the sable that usually housed him was smashed and had scorch marks in several places. It was clear that the beast had become alarmed and tried to break out. The only other time Kurama had gone wild like that had been when Naruto had been injured in battle. It didn't take a genius to figure out that Kushina had realized this and taken off to find their son, despite not knowing what they were up against or where he was.

Minato gripped the broken gate of Kurama's stall, ignoring the splinter of wood that cut into the palm of his hand at the force of his grip. There was a decent chance that Kurama would be able to lead Kushina to Naruto, so at least she wouldn't be wandering in the mountains searching for him. But that would lead her directly into whatever danger Naruto was in. Minato had no such advantage… no way of finding any of them.

"Fuck," he breathed. Kushina would have known that they both couldn't leave their clan, given what had happened to the Uzumaki clan when they'd made that mistake. She'd made the decision for him, leaving him to finish arranging the defense their home while she rode off to find their son.

He turned and strode back to the hall. Unlike the Uzumaki and Senju clans, he had called his warriors back at the news of potential war. Many had arrived during the night. He wouldn't be going alone, nor would he be leaving his home unprotected.

He was going after his hot-headed wife and son, and whoever it was building an army to wield against them. He had received a message from the Hyuuga clan that they were already sending a force north to the base camp. Minato would leave largest group of his warriors to defend their lands, but he would take a small, elite group with him to join the Nara and Hyuuga forces.

It was time to go to war.

Kushina's eyes felt heavy. She'd been riding for almost eighteen hours straight, a feat that would have been impossible for a mount other than Kurama. Their speed and direct route had enabled them to travel at more than double the speed of what a normal rider would have been able to make. Kurama hadn't wavered in his course, and Kushina only hoped that meant that Naruto was still alive, whatever situation he was in.

Her sword arm had gotten plenty of use cutting through several small bands of creatures they'd encountered along the way. Kurama seemed to take almost as much pleasure as she did when she'd cut through them, a few times using his taloned feet to rip apart the creatures before her sword could.

It dawned on her as she cut through the next small cluster of creatures that she was encountering them in a specific pattern.

"It's a search grid," she murmured, her unease growing.

That meant they had to be careful, and lack of sleep wasn't going to help. She had tried to slow Kurama, but he'd simply tossed his head and glared back at her, letting out a shriek of annoyance.

"If you collapse before we get to him, you won't be able to help him," she replied as she turned her eyes to the sky, gauging the storm that was moving in over the mountains. "We both will. We need to find shelter."

She tried to steer Kurama down into the valley where Naruto had marked an entrance to one of the tunnels, but Kurama tossed his head and refused.

"What's down there?" She tried to keep her frustration in check. Kurama usually could be reasoned with, but he was digging his heels whenever she tried to get him to take them down into the ravines where the tunnels could be accessed.

Kurama stopped abruptly, standing completely motionless. Kushina followed the beast's gaze, and felt the small hairs on her arms stand on end. Walking down the narrow path in the ravine far below where they stood, a creature mounted on a dark horse-like beast rode. Kushina's eyesight was keen, but her instincts were keener and she knew without a doubt that this was the second type of creature that Shikamaru had told her about. The kind that could evade any physical blow.

Like the other creatures she had encountered, the dark rider seemed to be searching for something, looking left and right, scanning the valley. Fortunately, it didn't look high enough up the mountain to see Kushina as it made its way slowly along the ravine path. The snow and wind muffled any sound it made, and it wasn't long before it was obscured entirely from view.

Kurama carefully turned and made his way along the upper slopes of the mountaintop. In the distance, she heard a sound that made her blood run cold. It was like a roar of a lion, but also like the shriek of a giant bird of prey. The clouds and snow made it impossible to see what it was that made the sound, but Kurama increased his speed even more.

Kushina didn't try to redirect him down into the valleys again. She pulled her cloak tighter against the wind and snow, hoping they made it to Naruto before any of the other creatures hunting for him did.

Itachi looked west towards the storm that was enshrouding the mountains. He estimated that he had about three hours before it reached him if it continued on its current heading. He turned his horse into the narrow path that led to a barn in the foothills that had been used in times past to stable horses of travelers between the Senju and Uchiha lands. It was old and in disrepair, but Itachi had stocked it with several bags of grain and some fresh straw, since he had been making frequent trips back and forth.

He might not be able to move as quickly on foot, but his horse wouldn't be able to make it through the deep snow in the mountain passes and would balk at the tunnels. He'd have to make the rest of the way on his own.

He had just finished removing the horse's saddle and bridle and set out several days' worth of feed when he heard the sharp call of an Uchiha messenger bird. He stepped out of the barn and frowned when he saw the seal on the bird's cylinder. It had only been a few hours since he'd received the last message from Sasuke. His brother was not someone that had ever been accused of over-communicating, so receiving another note so quickly was not a good sign.

Itachi pulled out a thick scroll from the container, along with the small object folded carefully in parchment. He stilled, slowly unwrapping the object, noting how similar it was to the one he'd removed from the dead warrior he'd found on Senju lands, but also marking how the etchings on the one Sasuke had sent were even more elaborate.

Version 2.0, most likely. He would study it later in more detail.

He began reading the note, his stomach tightening more and more as he read. The letter from his younger brother was precise and meticulous, with no detail overlooked or unexplained. It was a note containing the entirety of his brother's thoughts and knowledge from the mission he was on. There was only one reason Sasuke would send a report like this.

"Fuck." Itachi breathed out the word, quickly putting the scroll and artifact in his pack.

Itachi unlatched the horse's stall. His horse was well trained enough to stay in the area, but it would be able to leave if Itachi didn't return in time and not starve waiting for him. Next, Itachi opened his pack and quickly removed anything but the bare minimum he would need on the journey.

He left the stables, settling immediately into a steady, loping run towards the mountains. It was a pace he'd trained himself to be able to keep up for a full day or more, if needed. His body had been ruthlessly trained for both recon and battle since he was a child. It would withstand what he was about to put it through to reach his brother in time.

He would not allow anything else.

Sasuke listened as the wind screamed outside the cave entrance. He wondered whether the creatures drew power from the cold, or simply had a weakness to fire. But even if they were stronger in the storm, they would be just as blinded by it as anyone else, and right now, staying hidden was the key until they had a plan. Even though it was an advantage, though, the lack of visibility beyond ten feet from the cave entrance made him feel unsettled. He didn't doubt Karin's ability to sense an enemy coming from much further away, but he didn't like relying on it completely. They had been taken by surprise before when they'd first learned about the tunnels. They couldn't afford to have something like that happen again.

He took stock of what they'd learned in their last encounter. They knew how to defeat one, possibly two of the mounted creatures, but it required both Naruto and Sasuke to be at full strength. He had to find another way, since it didn't look as though Naruto would recover soon, and they couldn't stay here waiting to be found.

The bird hadn't returned, so Sasuke hoped that meant it made it through the storm. At least Itachi would know everything Sasuke did, on the off-chance Sasuke wasn't able to come up with a plan before they were discovered.

He looked down at where Naruto lay beside him. There was still a faint tinge of blue to the man's lips, as though Sasuke needed any reminder that Naruto was not merely sleeping. Karin had done all she could, and the best she'd been able to assure Sasuke was that Naruto wasn't getting worse. Given that the only step below 'coma' was 'dead', he didn't really draw comfort from that.

The storm bought him time to think. Even if Naruto had been well, they would have had to take shelter until it passed. He hoped his message had made it to his brother. The clans needed to know as much as possible about their enemy if they were going to have a chance of defeating it.

"His body temperature is dropping," Karin murmured, crouching down and pressing a hand along Naruto's throat.

"Do we have an extra cloak?" Suigetsu asked, frowning.

"It won't help. Cloaks and blankets only work to trap the heat your body generates. His body isn't generating any heat. If anything, his cloak is keeping the heat from the fire out." Karin moved to remove Naruto's cloak, but Sasuke's hands were already there undoing the fastening.

"Bring another log to this side," Sasuke said as he shucked off Naruto's cloak. He took in the thickness of the tunic Naruto was wearing, then slid his hands under the hem to peel it up. The back of his fingers brushed against the smooth, flat flesh of Naruto's narrow waist, and Sasuke noted how cold it felt against his skin. To remove the shirt, he had to lift Naruto's arms and shoulders to get it over his head. He noted, as he had when they'd bathed, that Naruto's shoulders were broad, a testament to years of wielding a sword in battle. His skin, however, was smooth and unscarred except for the mark the dragon had left on his body. Sasuke's own body carried scars, though not many, due to his prowess in battle. Most had been earned in his youth, training with his brother. He supposed Naruto's accelerated healing abilities kept his skin from recording the marks of his battles.

He blew another stream of fire, building up the blaze that was near their feet, then turned and lit the logs that was closer to their heads. Sai was pulling off his cloak as well, and Sasuke arched a brow at him.

"Body heat," Sai replied to the unspoken question. He laid down next to Naruto, rolling so his chest was pressed against Naruto's side, his cloak covering his back.

Sasuke felt a flare of irritation. "The fire will warm him up."

"Body heat is better," Karin replied, earning a glare from Sasuke as well.

"You gonna take your shirt off and warm him up?" Suigetsu asked her, waggling his eyebrows.

"Fuck off," she huffed, narrowing her eyes at him.

"I don't think Sasuke wants anyone else going skin-to-skin with his… battle partner," Sai said. Despite his flat tone and blank expression, Sasuke could sense the smug amusement in the man.

"So why are you touching him?" Sasuke bit out, realizing only after the flicker of Sai's eyes that he hadn't denied the man's claim of Sasuke not wanting anyone touching Naruto.

"Because I couldn't care less if I piss you off. And we need him to live through the night if we're going to have a chance of taking on the things that are hunting us."

Sasuke blew out a short, irritated breath, but removed his own cloak as well, setting it over his back as Sai had done, and turning to face Naruto.

It occurred to him that this man lying beside him was essentially clan. He might not know Naruto particularly well, but he'd agreed to take him as his husband, even if only to secure the alliance between their clan's and tie their blood limits.

Juugo and Suigetsu set a kettle over one of the fires and gathered some snow from outside the cave entrance to use to make a thick stew from the dried meat and vegetables they had. The group was tense, everyone listening for the sound of a potential enemy approaching, but all they could hear or see outside the cave was the storm.

Karin looked out towards the entrance of the cave, eyes unfocused as she checked for approaching enemies. "Nothing too close. They didn't find our trail."

Sasuke felt a bit of tension ease from his chest. He needed to figure out how he was going to get his team out of this. Naruto had bought them time, but it wouldn't do to sit here until they ran out of food and firewood. If they were going to escape, he needed to be able to take out an ice rider on his own. It was unlikely that they'd run into all three at the same time, but he needed to be able to at least damage one enough to let them get away.

An idea had been growing in the back of his mind, but he hadn't had time to really consider it until then. The black fire that he'd somehow managed to create in the battle with the ice rider had seemed to be able to continue burning even after the object it had been directed at had been burned up. If the flames of the Amaterasu couldn't be put out by lack of fuel, maybe they wouldn't be put out when the creatures phased. In which case, Sasuke would only need to hit them once and they would burn, whether they shifted or not.

All he needed to do was figure out how he'd done it in the first place, so he could do it again.

Like most of the blooded members of his clan, Sasuke had eidetic memory. He went through the battle with the ice rider that he and Naruto had fought together, trying to identify exactly when and how he'd created the Amaterasu. Naruto's energy had given his regular fire attacks more power, but that wouldn't explain it. It wasn't just bigger fire, it was an entirely different type of fire.

He spent the hours while his team slept replaying it moment by moment. Sai and Karin took turns monitoring the surroundings for any sign of the enemy as the storm raged on.

Dawn had come and gone when he figured it out. There was a moment in the battle when he had thought the ice rider had escaped, phasing longer than before. Sasuke had shifted his focus, using his sharingan to look for any fluctuations in the fire that might indicate where the creature would appear next at the same time he released a new blast of fire. His pulse ticked up as he remembered the slight shift in his energy when he'd unleashed his attack. He'd unconsciously adjusted his flame just slightly from the plane they were in. Maybe he'd drawn on Naruto's ability to phase, or maybe he'd done it on his own.

His fingers sparked in the memory of what had felt like. Now all he needed to do was practice, to see if he could reproduce it without being blood tied to Naruto.

"Sasuke." Karin's voice was low and urgent. "Something's coming. Something powerful."

Sasuke stood, drawing his sword. "An ice rider?"

Karin frowned. "Not… quite? Part of the energy feels the same as the ice rider. But part of it feels human. I don't know what to make of it. It's not as powerful as the ice riders we've faced so far, but much more powerful than the other creatures."

Sasuke nodded grimly. The best test of any idea was an actual battle. He'd just have to get it right the first time. "Take everyone to the back of the cave."

"Sasuke, we don't even know what this is! You can't fight it alone, you'll -" Karin began.

"You'll just get in my way. Do as I say and move to the back."

Sasuke didn't bother to look behind him to know that his team was following his orders. They had been with him long enough to trust his judgement.

"How close are they?" he asked Karin.

"Closing in quickly from the southwest. No normal creature could move this fast," Karin responded.

Sai tilted his head to the side as one of his owls landed in the entrance of the cave. "It's riding a horse like the ice riders, but the rider seems human."

Sasuke wondered if this could be the sorcerer, or if it was something else.

Sasuke clenched his fist, pushing Naruto's blood into the cut on his palm. He didn't need the man's energy if he hit the thing in the first shot. He wasn't sure if he needed Naruto's blood to create Amaterasu, but he didn't have time to fuck around and find out. The smear on his palm would have to do.

He stepped out of the cave entrance, activating his sharingan. He concentrated on reproducing the exact same shift that he'd done in the earlier battle while trying to track the phased ice rider. He could hear the creature approaching through the howl of the wind and knew he only had one chance to get this right. Sword steady in his hand, he focused as much energy as possible and blew an arc of black fire in a semi-circle around the entrance to the cave, blocking off anyone from entering, but not risking burning the inside of the cave. Any creature that wanted to attack them would have to pass through the flames. He narrowed his eyes as he assessed the flames. His lips curved into a slight smirk as he lifted his head to see the rider approaching. They were pure black, not even flickering in the wind and snow.

The creature came into view… a female rider mounted on what looked like an ice rider's dragon-horse. He could sense her power, the aura of it causing the stones around them to vibrate. He'd encountered it before, and recognized it.

"You're Uzumaki," Sasuke spoke, his voice cold and unyielding.

The woman pulled up her horse before they reached the black flames, her eyes wary as she looked first at Sasuke, then the strange fire that surrounded him. The beast she rode seemed to be much more familiar with this type of fire, its nostrils flaring and ears going back as it took a step back from the protective semi-circle Sasuke had cast.

"My son is in that cave. I don't know what kind of magic this is," she gestured to the Amaterasu. "But it won't keep me from him."

Sasuke's eyes narrowed, taking in the woman's features. Naruto didn't resemble her much, but the bold way she met his gaze was definitely familiar.

"This fire will burn anything that touches it." Sasuke stated. "You are Uzumaki Kushina."

"And you must be Uchiha Sasuke," she countered, arching a brow while meeting his gaze head-on. "You will take me to my son now."

She didn't lower her sword as she nudged her horse to take a step closer to the fire. By her considering look, she appeared to be trying to calculate what it would take to jump clear of the flames rather than backing further away from them. Sasuke felt his lips twitch despite himself. She was definitely Naruto's mother.

"Naruto is alive. But he nearly burned himself out transporting our team out of a trap," Sasuke said. "We have an Uzumaki healer with us, but Naruto still hasn't regained consciousness in over a day."

A roar in the distance sounded… the same dragon that had been circling the area for hours.

Kushina's eyes flashed with equal parts temper and worry as she cursed impressively. Her mount seemed to feel the same, as he blew out a noisy stream of steam and let out an unearthly scream.

"That boy! Always pushing it way past anything reasonable! Let me in. I need to see him."

Sasuke glanced at the fire. He'd been sure that whoever was approaching them was an enemy, and had acted accordingly to keep them out. He hadn't considered the possibility that he might want to let them in.

"You'll have to go around the barrier. Climb up above the cave and come down to the entrance."

"You can't put it out?" she asked, curious rather than angry.

Sasuke's lips tightened. "I'm not sure. It continues to burn without need for energy. We're hoping we can use it to take out the creatures that phase."

Kushina dismounted, setting her pack down as she crouched near the flames to observe them. Her face showed a flicker of respect as she looked up at him, clearly taking in what he was saying and how it might work. "Impressive."

"Hn. Though inconvenient at the moment."

Kushina's mount suddenly pulled back and reared up, eyes flaring and lips pulling back from sharpened teeth as it let out another harsh scream.

Kushina stood, lifting her sword as she looked around them for what the beast was reacting to.

Karin's warning came from inside. "Sasuke! The dragon!"

The roar that echoed off the surrounding hills seemed to come from almost directly overhead, the shadow of the giant creature darkening the snow around them.

Kushina glanced over at him, her face set in grim determination. "Tell me your fancy black fire works on dragons."

Sasuke rolled his shoulder, where the mark of the dragon was still raw. Naruto was not going to be happy if he woke up and found out Sasuke had let his mother get eaten by a dragon.

"Fuck." He couldn't believe he was going to have to pull a play from Naruto's book and try to talk a goddamn dragon out of killing someone.

To be continued...

A/N - And you can all probably guess who they will meet in 'introductions part 2'!

Chapter Text

Chapter 19 - Introductions part 2

A/N - sorry this is late. And un-beta'd. But life has become very complicated for me, between my sister's new experimental cancer treatment and my father having a stroke and my best friend hospitalized for mental health issues. So I've been focusing on that and feeling too emotionally drained for writing most days.Not to mention all the fricking SNOW we've been having, where I've lost power, heat, water, and internet more than once.  Anyway.  Happy spring LOL.  I will keep updating, but I can't promise to be faster, unfortunately. Sometimes life just... is like this.

The roar that echoed off the surrounding hills seemed to come from almost directly overhead, the shadow of the giant creature darkening the snow around them.

Kushina glanced over at him, her face set in grim determination. "Tell me your fancy black fire works on dragons."

Sasuke rolled his shoulder, where the mark of the dragon was still raw. Naruto was not going to be happy if he woke up and found out Sasuke had let his mother get eaten by a dragon.

"Fuck." He couldn't believe he was going to have to pull a play from Naruto's book and try to talk a goddamn dragon out of killing someone.

The dragon descended from directly above them, black, leathery wings sending the snow swirling in even larger gusts. Sasuke cursed internally when he realized this wasn't the same dragon that had marked him earlier.

"Lower your sword," Sasuke said, doing the same himself as the dragon's taloned claws touched down only a few feet away from the black flames on the rocky, snow-covered mountain.

Kushina hesitated.

"Your blade can't pierce its scales," Sasuke spoke, keeping his voice calm. Dragons were definitely more intelligent than dogs, but it was still probably best to not show fear or uncertainty around one.

The dragon looked at him, then at the flames of the Amaterasu. Kurama walked towards the dragon, and Sasuke thought at first that the beast was going to attack it. Instead, Kurama butted his head against the dragon's chest in almost an affectionate gesture. The dragon responded by giving Kurama a small nudge with its snout before returning its attention to the black fire separating it from Sasuke and the others inside the cave.

Sasuke tugged at the fastening of his cloak, letting it fall to the ground as he pulled the collar of his shirt open to reveal the mark the other dragon had left on him. It had worked for Naruto, and Sasuke hoped it would work for him now. The dragon narrowed its golden eyes as it follows the motion of Sasuke's hands to the mark now revealed. It took a step forward, then paused at the Amaterasu barrier that still burned between them.

"I'll come to you, if you let the woman go into the cave," Sasuke spoke calmly, glancing up above him to the top of the entry to the cave. He could climb up and walk around the flames to get to the dragon. He was fairly certain the dragon wouldn't kill him, but he had no confidence in it sparing anyone else.

The dragon blew out a breath of smoke in what appeared to be an amused snort. It focused on the black flames for a moment, then drew a deep breath.

And sucked the fire in, extinguishing it with seemingly no effort at all.

Sasuke barely had time to blink in surprise before Kurama was charging into the cave. Kushina was visibly torn, looking to the cave where she likely knew her son was, but not wanting to abandon Sasuke to face the dragon on his own.

"Go," he said to her. "Find your son."

Kushina stood her ground as the dragon stepped forward, ignoring Uzumaki warrior entirely as it lowered its scaled head and sniffed at the mark on the base of Sasuke's neck.

"What the -," Kushina began, her sword still drawn. She moved forward but stopped herself, reading that - at least for the moment - the dragon was not attacking. By the look of her, she'd ridden at least a day with no rest, and Sasuke was grateful she was able to keep her wits about her enough to avoid reacting in haste.

The dragon lifted its head, looking back to where the Amaterasu had left a black scorch-mark etched into the rocks, far deeper than any normal flame could have burned. It lifted a razor-sharp claw to Sasuke's lips, tracing lightly before looking over to the entry to the cave. Sasuke was reminded of the first time he'd successfully breathed fire as a child, his lips blistered and burned as he hadn't yet fully learned control, and his mother had run her finger over his lips, a mix of pride and caring in her touch. Despite the sharpness of the dragon's claw, Sasuke felt the burning in his lips subside.

Kushina stepped forward, taking the touch as an attack, but Sasuke lifted a hand. "Wait." His lips moved over the deadly-smooth talon as he spoke, but - miraculously - his lips remained un-cut.

The dragon removed its claw as shouts came from within the cave, coupled by the warning shriek of Naruto's 'horse'.

"Sasuke! This... thing's got Menma and it's heading your way!" Suigetsu shouted. "Fucker's fast!"

Kushina's head snapped up at words, just in time to see Kurama emerge at a speed that was preternaturally fast. Naruto hung limply from where the beast had the waist of his pants gripped in his teeth. The icy wind whipped over them, but Naruto didn't shiver despite his upper body being bared to the elements.

The rest of Sasuke's team emerged with the sound of clattering boots and drawn swords, but Kurama had already crossed the scorched rock to stand directly in front of the dragon. Despite the roughness with which he had dragged Naruto out, he lay his friend's body with surprising gentleness at the dragon's feet. There was no mistaking the utter stillness of Naruto's body, and Sasuke thought for a frozen moment that the man was truly dead until his sharingan caught the faintest motion of a slow pulse in the man's throat.

Kushina was not blessed with the same ability, and she let out a cry as she raced to her son's side, ignoring the massive dragon standing inches from Naruto's body.

"Naruto!" she screamed, sliding to her knees and shoving her fingers into Naruto's pulse point, frantically searching for a pulse.

"He's alive," Sasuke said, noting the sharp glance exchanged between Sai and Karin at Kushina's exclamation.

Kushina didn't look up as she scanned her son's body for injury, running her hands over his ribs, searching for broken bones.

"I healed his injuries," Karin said, kneeling beside Kushina, with a wary glance at the dragon that seemed to be content watching them.

"What happened?" Kushina asked, taking off her cloak and draping it over her son's body.

"The ice rider we killed called for help," Sasuke said tersely. "Naruto got us all out when they surrounded us, but he drained himself."

"Goddammit!" Kushina's knuckles turned white where she gripped the cloak on her son's chest, shoving futilely against it. "He knows the risks of that! He has no idea what his limits are with any of this!"

"It was three ice riders and their armies," Sai said, coming up to stand a few feet back from the dragon, head tilted as he looked upon a creature that few have seen and lived to describe.

The dragon blew out a huff of steam, as though it had heard enough of the story, and stretched out its taloned hand to flick Kushina and Karin out of the way before settling it on Naruto's bared chest. They hit the wall of the cave entrance, but Kushina staggered to her feet almost immediately, surging forward towards Naruto.

She hadn't made it more than a step before the dragon drew in a deep breath and breathed out a stream of fire directly down on Naruto's body. Kushina screamed, sprinting forward, but Sasuke grabbed her arm and pulled her back, his gaze never leaving the stream of fire swirling around Naruto's body.

"It's not burning him," Sasuke said, his voice tense as he watched through red eyes. The fire was unlike anything he'd ever seen before. If the black flames of the Amaterasu burned deep and dark like a shadow, the flames that the dragon were breathing out seemed to be closer to sunlight, flickering over Naruto's skin with every color of the rainbow, but not damaging it at all.

"What is it doing?" Karin breathed out, fear and awe clear in her voice.

Sasuke had no answer for her.

The group stood still, hypnotized by the sight. Sasuke's sharingan showed him that the 'fire' was not fire at all, but more like rapidly fluctuating energy. Some parts of it reminded him of the glow that Karin used when she healed others, but there were other elements of it that he'd simply never seen before. The power it would take to replicate would be beyond him, even with Naruto's energy added in, but he thought he understood at least most of how it was being done. The dark scar of the dragon mark on Naruto's stomach glowed brightly in response to the flames, but otherwise his skin appeared untouched.

Kushina stood, her body rigid beneath Sasuke's iron grip on her shoulder as they waited for the dragon to stop.

After several minutes, the dragon drew back, the flames vanishing as though they had never been, with no burned residue behind.

There was a frozen moment were no one moved, then the dragon leaned down and nudged Naruto's stomach with its nose, where the glowing marks of the scar were beginning to fade to their usual black swirl.

Naruto's chest lifted in a large gasp, then he chuckled with his eyes still closed and shoved at the face of the beast, pushing it away from his stomach. He lifted his head and blearily opened his eyes.

Sasuke could tell the instant it registered that the tickling sensation on his stomach had actually been a dragon's nose. Naruto retracted his hand from the beast's face as though it burned him, his eyes widening in shock and confusion.

"What the -?" he looked from the dragon to the group of people standing around him, his eyes locking on Kushina.

"Mom? What are you doing here?"

Kushina seemed to snap out of her trance, and she ran forward, her whole body shaking. It didn't stop her from stalking over to her son, smacking him on the back of his head then pulling him into a bone crushing hug.

"Don't you ever do something that reckless again!"

Naruto looked helplessly over to Sasuke. Sasuke felt his lips twitch. Leave it to Naruto to get healed by a fucking dragon. He'd be lying if he didn't admit at least some of the relief that surged through him at seeing Naruto awake and at least somewhat alert.

Of course, now they had to explain what had happened to Naruto's mother. And deal with the fact that she'd outed her son to the rest of Sasuke's team.

"Wait," Shika murmured, mostly to himself as he re-read the first few lines of the delicate parchment fragment he was reading, wondering if tired his eyes were finally playing tricks on him. After days of endless hours of reading and finding nothing, he wouldn't be surprised.

"Did you find something?" Kakashi asked, looking over to where Shikamaru sat.

"Maybe," he said, trying not to hope too much. They had been going at it for days, and - at least so far - they had nothing to show for it aside from aching backs and even more aching eyes.

Until now.

The spell required a piece of jet black bone, strangely heavy and unlike anything we had ever seen, though he didn't reveal the source of it. The full power of every healer of the clan was required to power the artifact at the King's command. The healers took nearly two years to complete their task, and -

At this point, the document ended, a jagged edge showing where it had been torn from some original manuscript.

His father was behind him already, reading over his shoulder.

"Where did this come from?" he asked, the tension in his voice letting Shikamaru know he wasn't imagining the potential significance of the find. Shikamaru carefully handed the parchment to Kakashi for him to read.

"In a box of documents we found in a fort on the northwestern front just after the war," Shikamaru said.

"Do we know what clan this is from?" Kakashi asked.

Shikaku looked down at the parchment fragment. "It's at least a hundred years old, based on the paper and the script. There were a few clans who referred to their leader as 'king' back then. Three, I think."

Shikamaru frowned. "There was another document that had the same style of calligraphy." He began sorting through the stack of papers he'd already read while Kakashi and Shikaku began dividing up the papers from the box he hadn't gotten to yet.

"The heaviness of the bone might mean the dragon bone has to be significantly compressed to be so unusually heavy. It's unlikely that a sorcerer would be able to kill more than one dragon, or we would definitely have heard about it," Shikaku said.

"Which means there can't be that many of these fragments lying around," Kakashi agreed. "We need to keep any that we come across, if this is the source of the army's power. Itachi has one. If Naruto and Sasuke killed an ice rider, let's hope they kept the shard."

"Let's send them a message and make sure they do," Shikamaru said. "And let them know that we might have a new location for them to scout, if we can find this clan."

Shikakau frowned. "We need to know if we can negotiate for information, or if we should attack directly. Let's see how much information we can find about its size and abilities."

If they could find the location of this clan that was using the dragon bones, they would have their first real lead on who the sorcerer was who was behind the army of creatures.

The sound of hoofbeats drew their attention from their search.

Kakashi frowned. "That sounds like at least two dozen horses."

Shikaku stood, grabbing his cloak. "Minato must be ready to join the battle. Let's tell him what we know."

"And where his wife went," Shikamaru said, leveling a look at his father.

Shikaku sighed. "It's a miracle the man isn't completely grey, between the wife and the son."

Kakashi, ran his hand through his own white hair as he joined the two Nara men in going out to greet the arriving warriors.

Naruto had stirred to consciousness by the feeling of something tickling his stomach. The air around him felt oddly warm and alive, especially compared to the icy rock he appeared to be laying on. He pushed at the thing tickling him and slowly blinked open his eyes, trying to get his bearings. He felt like he was either coming off the biggest hangover of his life or recovering from a massive fever.

The sight of a dragon's face mere inches from his body assured him that neither of those were the case.

"What the -?" he began, as memories came colliding into him.

The victory over the ice rider.

The dragon marking Sasuke.

The trap.

His plan for escape.

He remembered a panicked feeling when he realized he'd over extended himself, and the flare of Sasuke's energy pushing into his to try to stabilize it, but then it was all just blank.

At the thought of the Uchiha warrior, Naruto's eyes sought him out but instead landed on a very familiar-looking woman with flame red hair and a temper to match.

"Mom? What are you doing here?"

She ran towards him and Naruto felt himself flinch at the stricken expression on her face more than he did from the smack on the head she gave him. He'd all but forgotten the way he'd stormed off, the fiasco of the event forgotten in the fight for survival. He hadn't seen his parents since, or been able to communicate with them. He wasn't surprised by the blow to the back of his head, nor the crushing embrace that followed it.

"Don't you ever do something that reckless again!"

Naruto saw Sasuke standing, watching them, and hoped he (or someone) would explain how he'd wound up on the side of a mountain half naked with his mother and a dragon as part of their group when he was pretty fucking sure they hadn't been when he'd teleported them all out.

Of course, the bastard didn't say anything, just arched a perfect goddamn eyebrow at him.

Naruto opened his mouth to ask what had happened when he realized his mother wasn't the only abandoned face from home that had shown up. Kurama must have been behind him, but motion out of the corner of Naruto's eye had his head whipping around in time to see Kurama walk over and nudge the dragon's side, almost affectionately.

"Kurama!" Naruto called out, not sure about how the dragon would react. Kurama didn't look over at him, but by the backwards tilt of his ear, Naruto was sure the creature had heard him and was ignoring him. Clearly his mother wasn't the only one pissed at him for leaving.

The dragon brushed a leathery wing along Kurama's back, then stepped back. It looked directly at Naruto for an instant, eyes unreadable but not hostile, then pushed off, its powerful wings taking it up through the swirling snow and out of sight.

Naruto could feel the tension leaching out of the group as the dragon disappeared.

"Uh, so… is someone gonna tell me what the fuck is going on?" His body was starting to shiver from the cold, but he wasn't sure he had the strength to stand just yet. It was frustrating, not knowing where they were or if enemies were close, and knowing he would be useless in any sort of battle.

"Language," Kushina said, sending him a glare though she immediately knelt down and wrapped her cloak back around his body. He could read the worry in her eyes, though, and guilt twisted through him.

Naruto forces a laugh, his teeth chattering slightly, whether from cold or shock he wasn't sure. "Yeah, and who do you think I learned it from?"

"We need to get him out of the cold," Sasuke spoke, and Naruto looked up to find the man's gaze locked on him.

Kushina looked over her shoulder at the entrance to the cave. "Do you have a fire lit?" She slid an arm under Naruto's shoulder to lift him. Kurama shouldered Kushina out of the way, nipping at Naruto's hand when he tried to push him away, before ducking his head down so Naruto's arm was around his shoulders.

"Hey! I can walk," Naruto protested.

"Not recently," Sasuke retorted, turning and heading back into the cave.

"Asshole!" Naruto called after him, though he could feel a grin curving his lips. Sasuke hadn't just taken his team and left him, even though it would have been safer. They'd found a place safe from the creatures and waited for him to recover.

Naruto reached over to stroke Kurama's nose, but the beast tossed his head, throwing off the touch.

"Hey. Don't be mad," Naruto murmured, leaning heavily on Kurama's strong shoulders. The creature huffed, but still his head, allowing Naruto to stroke the beast's nose affectionately.

Kurama blew out a snort of steam that didn't exactly look forgiving. Naruto knew Kurama well enough to know he would be in the doghouse for a while for not bringing him along.

"Look. I had to get away, and they knew I would always go to you first. They were trying to marry some little kid off to me!" he said, then caught Sasuke eyeing as they entered the cave. "I mean… I thought they were."

Kushina huffed from in front of him as they finally reached the fire pits burning inside the cave. Naruto was aware that Sasuke's team was listening to the exchange with fixed interest, but there was no hiding his identity anymore.

"As if I'd do that to some poor child… inflicting you on them! Really, Naruto. You should have known better!" Kushina said, exasperated. Naruto slowly lowered himself to the ground near the fire, leaning against the cold, stone wall. He was glad the cave was wide enough that Kurama didn't feel uncomfortable in it as the creature knelt down, resting beside him. He realized how exhausted his friend must be to need to rest like this, and concern flickered through him. He ran his hand along Kurama's flank as he addressed his mother.

"I asked you if you'd seen the picture, and you said yes! The emissary guy said the image was done just before the scroll was sent. The seals are supposed to be tamper proof!" Naruto defended himself.

Naruto could see his mother's temper flaring up, but before he could find out if it was going to be directed at him or the person who fucked with the seal, Sasuke cut in.

"We have a traitor to our clans working against us." His voice was low and quiet, but there was no mistaking the hard edge to it. "Someone wants to keep our two clans from aligning. And now we know why."

Kushina paused as she absorbed Sasuke's words. "Because the two of you together were able to defeat one of their top warriors."

"And neither of our clans could accomplish that alone," Sasuke agreed.

"But the binding scroll was destroyed," Kushina said, shooting a glare at her son.

Naruto raised his hands in supplication. "Hey! None of us knew what was at stake. I was just trying to keep some little kid from getting pimped out to whoever was next in line once I said 'no'."

Kushina rolled her eyes. "Let me guess. You were already planning some half-baked scheme to rescue this 'child'?"

"Look, I… I mean… I was going to ask Shika for help!"

Sasuke slanted him a look, but didn't bother saying anything. They'd already hashed this out before.

"You would have started a war!" Kushina continued.

"I didn't. I found Sasuke and we worked everything out. See? He's not a kid, so we're good." Naruto felt his cheeks heat, and he hoped the cave was dim enough that his mother didn't notice. Sasuke was definitely no child. He was a seasoned warrior, possibly even older than Naruto. The idea of being bonded to him was not unappealing. Of course, he didn't need his mother probing on that. Especially if they ended up going through with it, and his mother was there for the actual consummation ceremony...

Naruto was snapped out of very uncomfortable thoughts by his mother's next question.

"So what were you planning to do? You heard the rumors about the creatures and you charged off to try to fight them by yourself? At least you ran into Sasuke, but even the two of you can't take on the entire army on your own."

"I know. We're just trying to buy time until Shika figures out what we're up against. The border towns don't have a chance, even against the lower level creatures. We can't just let them be wiped out."

His mother's lips tightened. He could read her frustration with him, but he also knew that she would have done the exact same thing in his shoes. He was his mother's son, after all.

"We need more of a plan than that. I set some fire seals on my way here. It will slow down the ones that can't phase. I don't know that it will affect the others at all, but it will at least give them something to think about."

"At least we found a way to take out the creatures," Naruto said.

"But without the clans being blood bound, there aren't enough of you to win this war if there are at least three more of those things out there like you said."

"My brother is coming. He might know where another full clan binding scroll is." Sasuke looked over to where Karin was digging through her pack. Naruto felt a flash of adrenaline at the thought of Sasuke's brother arriving with a full clan-binding scroll. That would require the full ritual, not the simpler one that Sasuke had mentioned before. Sasuke was turned away, so Naruto couldn't read his face. He wished he knew what Sasuke thought about it. If he was still opposed to being bound, but only grudgingly willing to go through with it for the sake of his clan.

Kushina arched a brow. "It can't be a normal marriage scroll. That was why it took so long to create. In order to fully bind the clans, it needs to be specific to the blood limits, and would require months of -"

Sasuke cut her off. "He knows. If he says there's another scroll, then there is one."

Kushina's lips thinned, but her argument was cut off by Naruto.

"So I get how you found me, if you were with Kurama. But how did the dragon find me? And what did it do to me?" Naruto asked.

Sasuke looked over to Kushina, who shrugged. "I thought the dragon was going to attack us."

"Naruto, was that dragon the one that marked you?" Sai asked.

Naruto frowned. "Yeah. I… Yeah. Its energy felt the same, somehow. I think that's why I wasn't shitting a brick when I came to and found it right in front of me."

Karin hummed, walking over and kneeling down next to Naruto. "You'd be able to feel its energy more acutely, given that it's embedded some of it in you when it marked you. I'd like to look at your mark. It seemed to activate it when it… did whatever it did to you."

Naruto nodded his permission and she pulled back Kushina's cloak, handing it to her before returning her attention to Naruto's stomach. Sasuke walked closer, looking down and watching as she ran her fingers over the now black marks.

"Is that how it found me?" Naruto asked "Can it like… track the energy it left in me?" Naruto looked first at his mother, then over to Karin and Sasuke.

No one knew for sure the answer to his question, but they all looked from Naruto's stomach to Sasuke's neck.

He clenched his fist, not sure how he felt about that. On one hand, it was pretty badass to have a dragon keeping tabs on him. On the other, it was pretty fucking invasive and a little weird that his body wasn't fully his own and he had no knowledge or control over that fact. He looked up to find Sasuke's eyes fixed on him, and his mother watching Sasuke.

"So you might both have like… dragon homing beacons in you, or some shit?" Suigetsu asked, pulling out a bit of dried meat from the camp pack.

Juugo added another log to the fire. "It seemed to know you were injured. We heard it searching for you all night."

Sasuke's eyes narrowed. "You're right. We heard it. It knew we were somewhere around here, but not in the cave."

"The tunnels block the signal, the same way they did for me when we were surprised by the army of creatures in the battle where we met… Naruto," Karin said, her gaze flickering to Naruto's face as she said the name.

Naruto's lips twisted in a small, apologetic grimace. They deception had been necessary, at the time.

"Given the way the dragon bit the shit out of the ice rider we killed, I'm thinking the tunnels might have been less about sneaking up on us and more about hiding from the dragons," Sai said.

"But Naruto was still inside the cave when the dragon came," Suigetsu countered. "If it can find him by tracking the energy it left in him, it shouldn't have been able to find him until his… horse-thing dragged him outside."

Kurama bared his teeth at Suigetsu, and the man shifted back further away from him.

"Maybe when you direct blood bonded with Sasuke, enough of the dragon's energy got in him that the dragon could sense it?" Karin asked.

"What? You did what?!" Kushina rounded on Naruto. "That could kill you!" She turned to Sasuke. "And you! What were you thinking!"

Sasuke's eyes narrowed. "We were thinking that we preferred to kill the ice rider than to have the ice rider kill us."

"You son's healing ability kept the link from being fatal," Karin jumped in quickly, reading the woman's rising temper and Sasuke's dislike of people questioning his intelligence. "Their hands were severely damaged, but I was able to accelerate their healing."

Kushina turned her piercing gaze on the healer. "You're Uzumaki."

Karin arched a brow and straightened, not letting the older woman intimidate her. "So are you."

"Our clan was aligned with the Namikaze clan. Why didn't you go there, when the purge happened?"

Karin lifted her chin slightly. "My family left the clan before the war."

Naruto looked between the two women. There were some families that left clans due to political reasons, or to pursue studies in other areas. It was looked down on, but the Uzumaki clan was long gone. He was glad his mother didn't push it further.

"So, do we know how the dragon found us? I mean, I guess it's on our side, so -," Suigetsu began, but Sasuke cut him off.

"The dragons are on their own side. They've chosen not to kill us, for now," Sasuke said, tersely.

"There are a few different ways that energy signatures can be used in tracking," Karin began. Naruto felt his eyes drift as the group began to discuss how it could work. He was so drained he was pretty sure he wouldn't be able to stand if an ice rider appeared at the cave entrance, much less fight them.

Kurama nosed his thigh and put his head in Naruto's lap. Naruto felt something warm brush against his chest, and opened his eyes to see Sasuke laying Naruto's cloak over him. Once again, Kushina was watching Sasuke closely. Naruto tried to read the expression in Sasuke's face as he turned to meet his mother's gaze, but he was too tired to figure it out.

He had no idea how long he'd been asleep when a sharp gasp from Karin woke him.

"There's… It's not close to us, but..," she cut off.

"What is it?" Sasuke bit out.

"Sasuke, I think your brother is fighting an army of creatures in the next valley. And the dragon that was here is with them."

To be continued…


A/N:  Yes - there will be an introductions part 3 coming next!

Chapter Text

A/N - I know this chapter took forever, but at least it is here!  Thanks to Mykko_Chan for reading parts of this and giving me her input.  Not beta'd!

Chapter 20 - The battle engaged

Naruto had no idea how long he'd been asleep when a sharp gasp from Karin woke him.

"There's… It's not close to us, but..," she cut off.

"What is it?" Sasuke bit out.

"Sasuke, I think your brother is fighting an army of creatures in the next valley. And the dragon that was here is with them."

Naruto looked over at Sasuke. One look at the man's determined face told him they would be leaving immediately. Naruto might not know Sasuke well, but he knew that loyalty to family and clan were what drove the man. Naruto respected that, and understood it enough to pull his shirt on and grab his cloak despite his fatigue before anyone could help him.

"Is an ice rider in that valley?" Naruto asked, picking up the sword that Suigetsu had loaned him.

Karin glanced at Sasuke.

"There's one near… but not in the same part of the valley," she replied. No one needed to be told that the sound of battle would likely bring the creature to Itachi.

"We should head out," Kushina replied, fastening her cloak. By the looks of her, she'd managed to get at least a little rest. Kurama also stood, seeming to be somewhat recovered as well.

"How long did I sleep?" Naruto asked.

"Four hours," Sasuke answered. "How much strength do you have?"

Naruto grimaced. "I'm not powered up, but I can do at least a little on the way. I can fight."

Kurama shoved his nose in the middle of Naruto's back, almost knocking him over.

"Hey, buddy. You sure you're ok to give me a lift? You've been pushing pretty hard, too."

Kurama let out a harsh snort, his ears going back. Naruto chuckled, though his eyes were hard. They weren't ready to face an ice rider again so soon, but they weren't going to have a choice. "Alright. Then let's do this."

"Bring the gear. Once we clear the battle in the next ridge, we'll be heading on to the west, away from the tunnels," Sasuke said, pulling his cloak on.

Juugo and Suigetsu began packing up the tent, while Sai and Karin went outside to scout for a path that would take them to Itachi while avoiding encountering other enemies.

Kushina turned to Naruto, her face grim. "I know how fast you recover. But you aren't all the way there yet. You're no help to us unconscious again. You feel yourself draining too quickly, you pull back. And we're going to talk about the fact that you didn't tell me you had the Senju blood limit."

Naruto opened his mouth, but Kushina cut him off, shoving a finger in his chest than knocked him back a full step. "I know why you did it. But your father and I would have found a way to keep your secret, and help you train. You didn't have to do it all on your own."

Naruto felt guilt in his stomach at the part his mother didn't bring up… that maybe he'd be stronger and more useful in this war if he'd had proper training. Of course, he could also have pained a huge bull's eye on his clan's back much earlier, and gotten them all killed long ago. Either way he'd played it, it seemed his clan was at risk due to him.

"We're heading out," Sasuke said, cutting off Naruto's thoughts. "There's an ice rider in the ravine behind us as well as the valley ahead. Move quietly."

Itachi ignored the burning in his thighs as he hiked steadily up the steep path he was taking through the snow-covered mountains. The air was thin, and he felt his lungs straining for oxygen. He knew just how hard he could push his body without having it give out on him. Burning in his heart or lungs needed to be heeded somewhat, but his muscles could be ignored.

It would be faster if he could take the easier mountain passes or the tunnels that Sasuke had mapped out, but the enemy was expecting that and he couldn't take the risk if there were other routes possible. Sasuke had mentioned that Naruto had sent a note to his clan via Kakashi informing them of what they'd learned about the ice riders. Given there was a traitor in the Uchiha clan that was high enough up that they had access to the council's most sensitive documents, there was no one else he could trust with the information they had discovered. Not that it would matter, anyway. As of now, there was no way for his clan to defend itself against the ice riders without the blood tie between Sasuke and Naruto being fully established. If the traitor found out what Sasuke had discovered, it would only tip their hand to the enemy. It wouldn't be enough to save them if the creatures attacked the clan.

His foot slipped, and his fingers gripped the rocky ledge to keep him from sliding back down the steep climb he'd just made. The jagged rock and ice sliced into his fingers, but Itachi ignored it, keeping his grip firm as he kept climbing. He looked up, assessing the wall of rock ahead. He was about two-thirds up the mountain, but that was as far as he was going to get on the current path. The grade of the slope was becoming too steep for him to be able to make it without climbing gear. If it weren't covered in snow, he would have tried to continue with just his bare hands. But it would do Sasuke no good if Itachi ended up dead in the bottom of a ravine on his way to rescue him.

To his left, the mountains were even steeper. There was a reason the Uchiha had always viewed their western border to be impenetrable by enemy forces. The Senju clan lands were north of the Uchiha clan, and the mountains had more passes there. If he headed south, he'd have to take one of the enemy's tunnels to get to Sasuke. If he went right, to the north, he could slip through some of the upper passes and try to avoid detection. But it would take him almost a full day longer.

Itachi assessed the options and probably outcomes. It sounded as though the enemy had tried to trap Sasuke, and viewed him as a large enough threat to have pulled a significant number of their troops in to capture or kill him. That would mean fewer troops near the Uchiha clan borders, and more of them around Sasuke's location. That meant he had less time to get to Sasuke before they found him, but also a lower chance they would be in the tunnel he was closest to at the moment.

With his two swords strapped securely to his back, Itachi began moving left along the rocky cliff-face, towards the tunnel. He would deal with any creatures he met along the way, but they would not keep him from getting to his little brother.

Kakashi's eyes narrowed as he read the scrap of parchment he was holding. It had been written by the same scribe as the parchment that Shikamaru had found earlier, based on the handwriting.

He didn't need to activate his sharingan to be sure. He had always had a near perfect visual memory. Not quite photographic, but enough that he could be sure the shape and slant of the letters were identical to the other parchment Shikamaru had found that referenced the dragon bone fragments.

He skimmed the document quickly, ignoring the fatigue behind his eyes. He'd break for food as soon as he finished this one. Of course, he'd told himself the same thing for the past ten documents, but exhaustion was creeping up on him, and he'd have to eat or sleep soon. Ideally both, though he didn't want to take the time. His pulse kicked up a notch when he got toward the end.

"I found something," he said, looking up, the tension in his voice catching the attention of the other two men in the room.

Shikaku glanced down at the thick book he was holding. "So did I. You go first."

Kakashi gave a short nod. "You said there were three clans that used the title 'king' at the time this was written in that part of the world, right?" Kakashi asked.

Shikaku nodded, pointing to the list he'd made of the different versions of the clan names belonging to those three tribes.

"This document talks about trade agreements with two on that list," Kakashi said, handing the paper to Shikamaru, who had walked over to him.

The younger Nara scanned the line the older man was pointing to. "So it must be the third clan."

They finally had a target, an actual location they could begin to search for the enemy and his allies.

"Minato took his troops to the base camp. We can send a hawk to him there with the clan's location. He could reach these lands in four days' ride," Shikaku replied, already grabbing a parchment while Shikamaru walked over to a shelf nearby to find the relevant map of the region to send to the Namikaze clan leader.

"What was it that you found?" Shikamaru asked his father looking back over his shoulder.

"The book I was looking through talked about rumors of a powerful patron of a clan who was researching how to conceal certain clan members from dragons. He was promising to make them effectively invisible to dragons."

Kakashi and Shikamaru looked over at him.

"If you're going to hunt dragons, it would make sense to find a way to hide yourself and your allies from their revenge," Kakashi said thoughtfully as he looked at the parchment the head of the Nara clan had been reading. "But it says they were researching it. Not that they found it."

"The fact that the dragons haven't been turning the ice riders Naruto mentioned into walking torches probably means they were successful. Every bit of lore we have on dragons shows them to be fiercely protective of their own. If someone had bits of a dead dragon's bone in them, other dragons would be drawn to the creatures and their maker to destroy them."

Kakashi nodded thoughtfully. "The tunnels would protect them, though. They have limited exposure."

Shikaku hummed in agreement. "But not complete protection. I think it's worth considering that either the shards or some other magic helps cloak the ice riders, and possibly the other creatures, from the dragons. Until we have a shard to study, we won't know exactly what it does."

"Let's get word to Minato to take a scouting force to the lands of the clan that was working with the sorcerer," Shikamaru said, reaching for a small piece of parchment that was cut to fit into the hawks the clans used between camps. They could only go to specific locations, not find someone en route the way the Uchiha birds could, but they knew where Minato had gone with his warriors.

"You're sending the head of the Namikaze clan on a scouting mission?" Kakashi asked, surprised. Fugaku would send his sons and nephews on dangerous missions, but would never have gone himself.

"Minato is the best scout in the clan. He's fast-moving, and also level-headed. He'll be able to evaluate the clan and determine the course of action without needed to confer back with anyone," Shikaku replied.

Kakashi nodded, pushing back from the library table and standing. "Let him know I will meet him there."

The two Nara men didn't seem particularly surprised by his statement. Kakashi would have the ability to pass on anything they learned about the clan directly on to Naruto and Sasuke. It was also clear the Uchiha emissary was used to seeing more action than he had in the past few weeks, and was getting tired of library duty now that they had a specific target to go after.

"We have supplies you can take," Shikamaru replied, though he wasn't particularly happy with this turn of events. It would leave them unable to contact Naruto with new information, but the most critical findings were likely to come from Minato's mission, not their library research at this point.

"I will send a bird to this location once we have assessed the clan's intentions and abilities. You can send a reply back with anything you've learned and I will be able to pass it on to Sasuke and Naruto. I'll let Sasuke know I'm leaving. He can do the same with his birds to keep in contact with you."

Shikaku narrowed his eyes at the white haired man. "Why wasn't this option mentioned earlier?"

Kakashi smiled, a simple baring of teeth. "Don't ask what you already know the answer to."

The first creature Itachi encountered towards the other side of the tunnel never saw him approach in the darkness of the tunnel. Itachi beheaded it without a sound, letting the body fall quietly to the ground before stepping silently over it.

He encountered two more creatures just a short distance further along the tunnel. They were standing next to each other, as though standing sentry. He realized these must be the outer guard, where whoever had deployed them assumed that anyone encountering the creatures would have to make enough noise to be detected by whatever was waiting outside the end of the tunnel.

Itachi's red eye glowed in the darkness as he gauged the exact distance between them, and the time he'd have to attack before they could sound the alarm. He attacked silently, at full speed. The creatures' eyes had barely locked on him in recognition of the threat he presented before their heads were falling heavily to the ground.

He didn't bother cleaning or re-sheathing his swords as he stepped toward the exit of the tunnel, keeping to the shadows to avoid detection for as long as possible while he cut the creatures down one by one.

Sasuke led the group out of the cave, eyeing the sky and hoping the light would hold until they reached the battlefield. He tamped down on the urge to push them faster, knowing that silence mattered more than speed at this point. The mountains were crawling with enemy, and it would do his brother no good if they arrived bringing another army down upon him. The snow had lessened, which meant they didn't have as much cover as they did before. The wind would still wipe away their tracks, but they could be seen from certain points in the ravine below. Sai had left several owls and mice tracking the movements of anything in the pass below them.

Sasuke was more worried about what was ahead, and what his brother was facing while they slowly made their way towards him. Karin spoke, confirming what Sasuke had feared.

"Sasuke, we have to go faster. There are over a hundred creatures in the ravine where your brother is," Karin said, keeping her voice low enough not to carry far, but strong enough for Sasuke to hear her over the wind. "They're not all in exactly the same spot as he is, but they're moving closer. He seems to have been picking some off from one side, but it looks like they've noticed something is going on."

Sasuke's lips tightened as he gauged the amount of time it would take them to clear the summit of the ridge and get to the other side where his brother was. It would be at least an hour, given how slippery the ice and snow made the rocks.

They wouldn't be in time.

Itachi was good, but even he couldn't take on a hundred of the creatures all by himself if they completely surrounded him.

"The dragon?" he asked, his voice clipped.

"Is further down the ravine, but coming closer."

He nodded. The dragon would no doubt attack the creatures, but it might not bother to avoid Itachi if he was in the middle of them. Had the dragon who clawed Itachi's eye been attacking him, or had he marked Itachi the same way that Naruto and Sasuke had evidently been marked? Sasuke didn't know, and didn't like leaving it up to chance. He wondered if he'd made the right choice about taking the long way over to his brother rather than going through one of the tunnels. With Sai and Karin's abilities, they might have been able to time it so they snuck through the groups of creatures that were searching for them.

They weren't even a quarter of the way up to the ridge when Sai's low voice cut through the wind.

"There's an ice rider in the ravine below, about to come around the corner in about ten minutes. He'll be in line of sight with us for three minutes."

Sasuke looked around, but there was no cover to be had, and they wouldn't be able to clear the ridge in time. "Dig into the snow. Cover yourselves and stay still."

Naruto looked over at Kurama. "We won't be able to cover Kurama in time. I can ride him over the ridge before the thing can see us. I'll meet you on the other side. I can draw some of the creatures away from your brother." He mounted, clearly not planning on wasting time arguing. It was also clear that Naruto had been waiting for an excuse to do exactly this.

Sasuke's stomach tightened at the thought of Naruto going over that ridge and down into whatever the hell Itachi had stumbled into. Naruto wasn't anywhere near full strength, but there wasn't much choice. They couldn't afford to be discovered. And Itachi could use the back-up.

"You should both go," Kushina spoke up, digging into the snow with her bare hands as the rest of his team did the same. "Kurama is strong enough to carry two riders with no packs. Get to your brother. We'll come when the rider has passed."

Naruto nodded at Sasuke's questioning glance. "He can do it."

Of course, there was no telling whether Kurama would. Sasuke approached meeting the creature's gaze steadily. There was no doubt in his mind that Kurama knew exactly what was being discussed. The beast stepped forward to meet Sasuke half-way, looking at him intently before it pressed its nose against the spot where the dragon had marked Sasuke's neck. Sasuke held still, despite the urgency of the situation, allowing him to scent him.

"You got this, boy?" Naruto asked, running his hand along Kurama's neck. After a moment, Kurama stepped back and turned to the side, stomping his foot as thought telling Sasuke to hurry the fuck up already.

Naruto snickered, then looked back at Sasuke. "Let's do this."

Sasuke didn't' waste time replying as he slid his sword into its sheath and swung himself up behind Naruto on the beast's back.

"Stay covered until Sai gives the all clear," Sasuke ordered his team over his shoulder. "If they find you, head for the summit and we'll try to draw the dragon into the battle on our side."

Kushina nodded, agreeing with the plan. Sasuke felt Kurama's body tense beneath his thighs, and that was all the warning he had before the beast was off, moving vertically up the steep, slippery terrain as though it were a flat, grassy field. It was lucky that Sasuke was an expert horseman or he would have lost his seat in the first two seconds, but he gripped the body of the beast tightly between his thighs and managed to hang on, leaning forward as Naruto did to keep his weight centered at the steep ascent.

The first large rock that Kurama jumped over had Sasuke's left hand shooting out to wrap around Naruto's waist. He could feel the hard plane of Naruto's stomach as the raced over the treacherous terrain. With his chest pressed against the man's back, he could feel the strength of the man, and it eased his concerns that Naruto was not recovered enough to hold his own in the battle they were riding into. Even without blood limit abilities, Naruto had the build and sword skills of a formidable warrior. He wouldn't be dead weight in the fight.

Sasuke focused instead on Kurama. The speed of the creature was like nothing he had experienced, and he found himself more than a little envious that Naruto had such a creature to ride in battles.

"You weren't joking when you said they could move faster than a horse," Sasuke murmured low so his voice wouldn't carry beyond Naruto's ears to the enemy surrounding them.

Naruto nodded, and he looked back over Sasuke's shoulder to give him a feral grin. "Just wait until you see what he can do in battle. The ice riders don't use their mounts as equals, and it's a good thing they don't know what they're missing or we would have been fucked in our first run-in with one."

The landscape moved past them in a blur, the sound of Kurama's claws digging through the snow to latch into the rock the only sound above the wind. Sasuke counted down the seconds, gauging the rate at which they were approaching the top of the ridge and calculating whether they would be out of sight of the ice rider before it moved around the bend and into line of sight.

By his estimate, they would have just over a minute to spare at the top before they'd have to clear the ridge to avoid detection from behind.

As they neared the summit, Sasuke put his hand on Naruto's shoulder, drawing a breath to tell him to slow their approach. Given the number of enemy they were about to charge into, they would need every possible tactical advantage. Taking the creatures by surprise would be a start, but Sasuke also wanted to see where the best place to attack from would be given the terrain and distribution of enemy forces. Before he could speak, Naruto was already murmuring to Kurama to slow down and move silently.

Sasuke noticed a large rock protruding from the top of the ridge, one that would give them a place to observe the other side of the mountain without being seen. They had less than two minutes before they would need to be out of sight from the ravine behind them, but it was two minutes' worth taking to get the lay of the land below. Sasuke pointed to it, and Kurama needed no further instruction as he headed directly for the boulder.

Sasuke's eyes swirled red and he scanned the battlefield below, instantly recording the position and trajectory of every moving being in the valley below, and calculating their possible approaches for attack and likely outcomes.

The creatures seemed to me moving in a slightly disrupted search pattern, and it didn't take Sasuke long to spot the source of the disruption at the far side of the ravine. Itachi was still keeping to the shadows, cutting down creatures in pairs as he moved slowly along the wall from the nearest tunnel entrance. By the looks of things, he'd already taken out at least two dozen creatures and they only seemed partially aware of his presence. But it was clear that the narrow point in the gorge that Itachi seemed to be trying to make his way towards was too far to reach before he was fully detected. The part of the path where IT was wide enough for at least fifteen creatures to surround him at once, and even Itachi would have had difficulty maintaining that level of combat for long.

Sasuke focused on the enemy nearest his and Naruto's position, and spotted a break in the pattern where they would have at least three seconds to move undetected if they were quiet. There was a slightly raised ledge not far from there, which would provide Sasuke with both tactical advantage in using his fire for maximum range, and would also draw the creature's attention away from his brother.

Naruto looked over at him, and Sasuke pointed to the exact spot where they needed to head towards to make his plan work. Itachi lifted his head, looking directly at them across the ravine for a split second before he spun forward, striking another creature that approached him. Sasuke felt the tension ease slightly as he met the steady calm of his brother's sharingan. It had been a long time since the two brothers had faced battle together, but Sasuke felt his lips curve slightly in the remembered feel of near invincibility when they had. Naruto shifted, looking back behind them to where their team was now concealed beneath the snow below them. There was no more time for planning.

Naruto leaned forward and murmured something in Kurama's ears, and they silently launched forward over the ridge, moving swiftly down the steep mountainside. The sun was behind them, casting them in the ridge's shadow and allowing them to approach temporarily undetected from the unexpected side of the pass. The creatures were clearly expecting someone to come along the trail, not down the side of the mountain.

Sasuke narrowed his eyes in concentration to track any deviation in the movement of the creatures below that would cause them to need to change course. They made it further than Sasuke had hoped without being detected, but not all the way to the bottom of the ravine before a few of the creatures saw them and began rushing forward to meet them. Sasuke drew his legs up as they neared the first batch of creatures, hoping Kurama wouldn't stop too abruptly and send him flying. He saw Naruto's gaze flicker back towards him for less than a second, and with a pat of Naruto's hand on the beast's neck, Kurama was slowing just slightly, at exactly the right spot. The only other person who had ever been able to read Sasuke's intentions that well in battle was his brother, but there wasn't time to consider that here.

"Go," Sasuke said, launching himself off Kurama's back towards the rocky ledge to their right, swinging his sword in a smooth arc as he flipped. His sword removed the head of the nearest creature before he landed softly in a crouch, breathing out a massive stream of fire at point blank range towards the creatures in front of him in the direction of his brother. He needed to try to clear a path so Itachi could reach them and not have to battle on his own. From the corner of his eye, he saw Naruto turn Kurama to avoid the flare, as though he knew it would be coming.

Sasuke smirked as he saw Naruto lunge forward, his blade slicing through one creature while Kurama's claws ripped through another. They moved as one, a beast with both talon and sword. Naruto might not have enough energy to try using a pulse to knock the creatures out, but his skill with Suigetsu's blade was almost equal to Sasuke's. He would be able to hold his own in this fight.

Sasuke focused on the creatures who were walking over their fallen brethren to reach him. Itachi had sent out a flare answering Sasuke's own, incinerating the creatures around him as he moved forward towards them. Sasuke breathed out another flare, tracking Itachi's approach and pulling back on his fire just enough to clear a path without hitting his sibling.

The creatures screamed, in pain and rage as they surged towards them. Itachi's swords moved in a blur as he cut down anything that Sasuke hadn't set alight. There was a roar from further down the valley, and Sasuke saw a fucking massive gout of fire flow up the ravine, billowing wildly and filling it to the edges like a flash-flood in a dry river-bed. He hoped like hell that the dragon knew they were on the same side and didn't fry them, but there was no time to worry about it with the battle engaged. The creatures seemed to recognize the threat, since they all turned as one to look at the source of the sound. The momentary distraction gave Itachi the chance he needed to cross the remaining distance and join Sasuke on the ledge.

While much is said about the downside of fighting with one's back to a wall, it is preferable to fighting completely surrounded by enemy, especially with reinforcements on the way.

"We have to hold them for another forty-five minutes," Sasuke said, not pausing the swing of his blade as he explained the situation with the rest of his group. Itachi nodded, falling into an easy rhythm with Sasuke in holding off the advancing army of creatures.

Naruto was just below them, fighting in tandem with Kurama. The creatures seemed confused at first about whether Naruto was an enemy or not, but any uncertainty was quickly alleviated by the pile of corpses the Senju was amassing at his feet. When the creatures pressed too close, either Sasuke or Itachi would release another blast of fire to drive them back. They tried to keep the flares as short as possible to conserve their reserves, as more and more creatures filled the ravine. There was noticeable fewer creatures coming from the north, where the dragon had been, and Sasuke assumed the dragon was taking care of anything coming out of the tunnels and caves in that area. It was a good thing, too, because the numbers continued to grow as the sounds of battle drew attention to their presence.

Time slowed as Sasuke focused on conserving as much energy as possible. Every swing of his sword had to be precise and efficient. They had to be able to hold out until the rest of his group arrived.

"We're draining ourselves too quickly," Itachi murmured, letting out another blast of fire.

Sasuke didn't bother nodded in agreement. They needed to buy more time.

"Naruto. Focus on drawing in as much energy as you can. I'm going to try to keep them out for a while."

Sasuke could see Itachi watching him from the corner of his eye, and drew a deep breath, focusing on phasing his attack just slightly, then let out a stream of black fire in an arc around them.

"Amaterasu," Itachi stated, killing the three remaining creatures near them, then watching as creature after creature tried to cross the black flame barrier, only to be incinerated by it. Once the creatures in the front realized the danger, they tried to pull back from it, but the press of the creatures behind them drove them forward into the flames.

"Holy, shit, Sasuke. This is what you did with that ice rider by accident last time?" Naruto panted out, taking time to finally catch his breath now that they weren't actively fighting.

Sasuke slanted him a glance. "Hn."

Itachi's sharingan was fixed on the fire. "You phased it. It's not fully in this dimension."

"I'm hoping it will burn the ice riders regardless of whether they phase or not."

Itachi studied it for a moment more, then blew a stream of identical black fire in an arc further up the ravine.

Sasuke's lip twitched into the faintest grin. It was the first time he'd ever been the first to learn something. The fact that Itachi was able to almost instantly replicate it didn't take away from the victory.

"Do either of you see the ice rider Karin was talking about? Pretty sure if all the noise we were makin' earlier didn't get its attention, the fancy black fire would." Naruto asked scanning the area in front of them. Sasuke could see the faintest yellow coloring appearing around the man's eyes. Naruto was evidently taking him at his word to use the time to power up.

Itachi was watching Naruto as well. "He has the Senju blood limit."

"You doubted me?" Sasuke asked, a flash of annoyance coloring his tone.

"Not at all. But it means we have a very powerful clan binding scroll we can use as soon as we get back to Madara's grave."

Itachi looked behind them as they waited for Sasuke's team to catch up. The creatures had finally stopped shoving each other into the flames, but they weren't retreating either.

It was no surprise that Kushina reached them first, sliding down the remaining part of the slope to land beside Naruto, her sword drawn, red hair flying in the wind.

"Nice," she said, nodding to where the black flames were holding back the creatures, a row of charred bodies indicating a large number of enemy already having been taken out by it. "Uzumaki Kushina, of the Namikaze clan." She directed her words to Itachi, though her eyes were busy taking in the battlefield in front of her.

"Uchiha Itachi," Itachi replied. "My brother and I are looking forward to formalizing the alliance between our clans."

That got Kushina's attention, her eyes snapping to Itachi's. "You have a scroll, then?"

"Not with me. We need to get through this, first," Itachi gestured at the mass of enemy between them and the final tunnel that led to the Uchiha and Senju clan lands. "And they seem quite intent at not allowing us to do so. But yes. It exists."

"Then we should get moving. The rest of Sasuke's team will be here shortly." She looked at the two patches of Amaterasu that still burned darkly. "Naruto and I can climb up the wall and get around behind the creatures to drive more of them into the fire," she suggested. "When the others come, they can do the same from the other direction. You can save your firepower for the ice rider that Karin said is coming.

Itachi looked at her with a deeper glimmer of respect in his eyes, and Sasuke had to admit it was a good plan. Creating Amaterasu took a lot more energy than regular fire, but it could be used continuously, without replenishing it with their own energy, if they were able to drive the enemy into it.

"Sasuke!" Karin's voice carried down to them from midway up the ravine wall. "Get ready! There's -," she cut off abruptly as the ice rider, followed by a slightly smaller army of creatures, stepped into the ravine.

To be continued…

Chapter Text

A/N - This chapter is out a bit faster than the last one, though still not quite back to my two week schedule. Hoping for every 3 weeks, rather than a month like the last time. Let's hope! Thanks to Mykko_chan for beta'ing this and Tandy_Hard for encouraging me.

Chapter 21 -
Fire like, whoa

"Sasuke!" Karin's voice carried down to them from midway up the ravine wall. "Get ready! There's -," she cut off abruptly as the ice rider, followed by a slightly smaller army of creatures, stepped into the ravine.

Itachi felt the change in the air when the ice rider came into view. His skills as a warrior had been ruthlessly honed not just in tactics for attack and defense, but also in assessing an enemy's strength. The fine hairs on the back of his arms lifted as he looked at this new opponent. The other creatures shifted to make room for the new arrival, with several more of them being pushed into the Amaterasu lines that Sasuke and Itachi had set. The creatures seemed to barely notice these additional deaths, all of them turning to face the new arrival.

Itachi took note, adding them to the running tally in his head as he calculated the new odds of success. Every little bit would help once the battle was re-engaged, especially since Itachi had noticed Sasuke's slight weakness in his left arm. His little brother had downplayed the injury that the first ice rider he'd fought had dealt, and the dragon leaving its mark in his shoulder hadn't helped. Itachi knew that Karin was the best healer the clan had, but he still was going to make a point of checking his little brother's wounds for himself when the battle was over. This war was just starting, and he wasn't going to put Sasuke further at risk if his injuries were not healing under the constant strain he'd been under through the past few months.

The ice rider's sunken, dead eyes scanned their group, barely acknowledging Sasuke's team, pausing briefly on Sasuke, Itachi and Kushina before locking eerily onto Naruto.

Sasuke's stance shifted subtly, moving forward slightly in clear preparation to cut off the creature from being able to launch a direct attack on Naruto.


Itachi had noticed the way the two men had moved in synch during their earlier battle, fighting the enemy in front of them but also shifting to cut off an attack directed to the other. Usually, this type of awareness of another in battle took years to cultivate over many battles fought side-by-side.

"Sasuke," Naruto spoke the single word in warning, reading Sasuke's intent to come between the ice rider and Naruto.

A flash of annoyance flickered through his little brother's eyes, but he didn't change his positioning. The rest of Sasuke's scouting team had reached the bottom of the rock wall, and they were all taking up battle positions, even the healer. Sasuke had trained them well, though Itachi wasn't sure it would make a difference in the end.

"I don't have enough power to link yet," Naruto said tensely, glancing over towards Sasuke.

"It wouldn't matter. This part of the ravine is too wide to use the same tactic we did before. We'd need at least double the firepower for it to work," Sasuke replied, not taking his blood-red gaze from the ice rider slowly approaching them.

Itachi had noticed the Senju slowly drawing in energy. It was a sight he hadn't seen since he was a small child, but not one he would have forgotten. There was no mistaking the slight glow to the man's skin, which Itachi knew from distant memory was nowhere near as bright as Naruto would be a full power. Itachi's sharingan hadn't presented yet when he'd last observed a Senju warrior in battle, and the added visibility that it gave him allowed him to see exactly how the energy from around them was flowing into the warrior, layering atop and wrapping around Naruto's own.

"Its mount can easily climb these walls. The black fire will block the creatures on foot, but not this one," Kushina stated, her eyes narrowed at the ice rider.

"Goddammit! I need just a little more time to finish powering up enough to try to stun it," Naruto replied, frustration edging his voice.

"We don't have it," Sasuke stated, taking a step forward towards the ice rider, his sword raised. As far as Itachi could tell, there was no tactical advantage to the movement. It appeared to be more of a signal to Naruto to stand down.

Itachi shoved down the frustration that the first scroll had been destroyed, and the second was not accessible. If Naruto and Sasuke had completed the full clan binding, they would have the power to take the creature out with direct force. As it was, they were going to have to find a way to outsmart it.

Kushina's eyes tracked the creature approaching them. "You said it can't be struck by any physical attack?"

"Yep. Phases right through it," Naruto gritted out. "And even a scratch from its blade will paralyze you." Naruto blinked his eyes then rubbed his hand over his face. "Fuck, he's trying to get in my head again."

Itachi saw Sasuke stiffen, but Kushina was already at Naruto's side. Itachi could both see and feel the pulse of energy she pushed into him. Naruto's eyes refocused.

"Thanks, Ma," Naruto said, somewhat sheepishly.

"You still need to work on your focus," she chided, but her voice was warm. Her attention was already back towards the enemy approaching them. Itachi had felt the creature brush against his mind, but it had been simple to shut it out. Mental discipline was something Sasuke would have to work with Naruto on, or he could become a liability in battle. But that was an issue for another day. They needed to survive this fight, first.

It was clear that the ice rider had noticed the black flames and seemed to be evaluating how to handle them. It would give Itachi a chance to do his own evaluation. There was no doubt that - unlike the mindless creatures they'd been fighting up to now - the ice rider was fully sentient, thinking and deciding a plan of attack.

Itachi scanned the lines of Amaterasu, and noticed the black flames hadn't spread at all. He wondered if his blades would be able to damage the creature even when phased if they were set alight with the Amaterasu. He didn't need to look at his little brother to know that he would be analyzing the options as well. With Naruto not fully powered up, and Sasuke and Itachi already significantly depleted by batting the other creatures, they needed to get creative.

The sun was setting, and the valley was increasingly shrouded in darkness. The glow of a massive fire blast from around the bend of the valley bloomed bright against the darkening, twilight sky. Kurama shifted impatiently, tossing his head.

"How much more firepower does the dragon have than you do?" Naruto asked, looking over at Sasuke and Itachi.

The instant tension in Sasuke's shoulders made it clear that he was reading the same thing into Naruto's comments as Itachi was. Sasuke's description of the dragon desecrating the last ice rider's corpse was vivid enough to stick in his memory for quite some time.

"If you try to call the dragon here, it will be just as likely kill us right along with everything else," Itachi said.

Sasuke's voice was tight when he added. "Naruto doesn't know how to call the dragon here."

Naruto looked down at Kurama. "Maybe not. But I can do the next best thing. You guys drive the rest of these fuckers into your fancy fire."

"I'm going with you," Sasuke stated, leaping down from the rock he'd been fighting from.

"You can use your fire-power here. The dragon should be able to fry this guy on its own, right?" Naruto asked, watching as Sasuke strode unhesitatingly towards him.

"You don't know what you'll encounter between here and the dragon, or even if the dragon will attack where you want it to. Itachi and Kushina can handle things here with my team."

Kushina shifted, looking at Sasuke for a moment as though trying to decide whether to intervene or not. It was likely she had been intending on being the one to go with Naruto.

"There's no point in two people going," Naruto stated flatly. "The ice rider is targeting me, specifically. It wants to finish the job of taking out the Senju bloodline, and it only has to kill one person to get that done. Kurama can get me to the dragon faster than the other creatures can follow. The dragon will either fry the fucker chasing me or it won't, but I don't have enough juice to power you up enough to take it out if it doesn't."

"Don't be a dumbass," Sasuke stated flatly. "You have no resistance to fire on your own, and you're about to go charging into the mouth of a dragon."

Naruto lips twisted into a rueful grin. "Somehow I doubt any fire resistance you can give me will be enough if the dragon blasts me full on." Naruto tried to nudge Kurama into motion, but the creature stubbornly stood its ground, looking at Sasuke.

"Oh, come on. Seriously? You're taking his side in this?" Naruto asked, exasperatedly.

Sasuke ignored Naruto, sheathing his sword as he swung up behind Naruto on Kurama's back.

"Clearly Kurama is the brains between the two of you," Sasuke retorted, an amused glint in his eyes.

Itachi blinked in surprise. Friendly (or even not-so-friendly) banter was… not Sasuke's forte. Actually, conversation at all was not Sasuke's forte unless it was direct battle instructions or a debriefing report, especially with people he didn't know well.

"Fuck you, Uchiha," Naruto replied easily, rolling his eyes. There was a trace of almost affection in his tone that had Itachi's eyebrows lifting. "Fine, whatever. We'll both go get our asses fried." He looked over at his mother. "Kick some ass, Ma."

Kushina sent him a wicked grin that Sasuke instantly recognized as being the exact mirror of her son's. "I always do. Just make sure you watch your own."

Itachi gave a short nod to his brother. Their eyes locked for an instant, but no words were exchanged. They each knew what they had to do. Itachi's gaze shifted to where Sasuke's hand rested on the side of Naruto's hip. If there was one thing he knew about his little brother, it was that he was not a fan of casual touch of any kind. If the mission required a team, Sasuke would assemble one, but in general he was a loner. The ease with which he teamed up with Naruto was… interesting.

Itachi arched a brow as he let his eyes drift back up to Sasuke's face. The flash of annoyance in Sasuke's expression put a slight smile on Itachi's lips as he turned to face his enemy. Even in the midst of battle, there was always time to poke at his little brother.

Naruto had one last look at his mother as she drew her sword and uncoiled the length of chain she used in fighting. Then Kurama was racing forward up the steep slope of the ravine, avoiding the ring of black fire along its floor that was keeping the creatures temporarily at bay. Naruto felt pride swell in him. Whatever happened today, he knew his mother was going to face it with her teeth bared and her sword ready. Sasuke's arm tightened around his waist as Kurama turned on the speed.

If the ice rider didn't follow them, they'd have to come up with another plan.

The mounted creatures seemed much more intelligent than the others, and Naruto hoped to hell that the ice rider didn't see through their plan or they were fucked. He heard the sound of screeching from behind him and the hiss of burning flesh. He glanced back over his shoulder to see the ice rider surging through the army of creatures, driving some into the flames without a second glance, and simply running others down if they didn't get out of its way fast enough. It approached the wall of black flame, then turned abruptly up the other side of the ravine along the edge, skirting around the Amaterasu parallel to Kurama.

Its eyes were fixed on Naruto as it raced along, slowly gaining ground. Naruto could feel the itch between his shoulder blades as its gaze bore into him with a singular fixation. He only hoped it was fixated enough on him to not think about the direction they were leading it in. But they had to get there, first, and Kurama was carrying two riders while the ice rider's mount only had to carry one.

The ice rider phased, abruptly vanishing from their view, and Naruto felt a spike of nerves. If the creature caught them before they reached the dragon, they were toast. Sasuke drew a slow, deep breath, then blew out a stream of the black fire, blocking the ice rider's path. The creature reappeared, pulling up on its mount and turning it sharply to avoid the flames. Clearly it viewed them as a threat even while phased. Naruto hoped it was right. The delay, as the creature rode around the line of fire, bought them some time.

It would have to be enough. Sasuke had used a lot of energy with that attack, and Naruto would guess the man only had one or two more left in him.

"We're almost there," Naruto murmured tightly, not sure if he meant his words for Kurama, Sasuke, or himself. He felt Sasuke's grip on his hip, sure and steady. It was odd how, in the past, Naruto never wanted anyone besides Kurama with him if he had to face a danger he wasn't completely sure he could overcome. Being the strongest warrior of his clan, it was his responsibility to take on the hardest battles, the most challenging opponents. Anyone accompanying him just made him worry that they would get hurt, distracting him in battle.

With Sasuke, it was different. Sasuke had strengths that Naruto didn't. Naruto honestly wasn't sure who would win on an all-out battle. He wasn't a liability. And even if they were fighting for different clans, Naruto somehow trusted Sasuke to have his back. He was able to read how Sasuke would react in battle, and knew that Sasuke could hold his own when shit went sideways.

Naruto would never admit it, but he was relieved Sasuke was going with him. He honestly had no idea what he was going to find further up the ravine where the dragon was burning the shit out of something. Normally, he could brute force his way through, but the ice rider was just too powerful and failing to kill it would mean the deaths of everyone fighting in the ravine behind them.

There was a good chance they would need to come up with a change in strategy right on the spot, and Naruto knew that wasn't always his strength. His only strategy was the knowledge that the only thing with enough firepower to take out an ice rider at the current moment was the dragon attacking something around the next bend in the ravine. The dragons didn't seem very friendly with the ice riders, based on how the last one had ripped the body of the ice rider they'd killed apart. He only hoped that it would do the same to a live one.

They turned the corner in the ravine, and a shimmering, orange wall of heat slammed into them, sucking all the oxygen from Naruto's lungs. The stench of burned flesh filled the air, oily smoke billowing up from unidentifiable piles of what Naruto assumed were the remains of the foot soldier creatures. His eyes burned and he pulled his cloak up to shield his face, but it didn't help with getting air back into his lungs. Black speckles danced in front of his eyes and his vision blurred. The heat was overwhelming, but any sweat his body might have produced immediately evaporated.

"Give me your hand," Sasuke forced out, low in his ear. Naruto had no idea how the man was able to talk in the complete lack of oxygen, but Naruto slid his free hand back, his mind to foggy to even wonder why. The stinging cut of a blade across his palm was enough of a shock to bring him slightly out of his haze. He felt Sasuke's hand press against his, and the instant jolt of connection as their blood made contact. Naruto frowned. He'd already told Sasuke he didn't have enough juice to power him up, so what was he doing? They couldn't really afford to fry the fuck out of their hands when it couldn't defeat the thing that was chasing them.

There was a faint pulse of power where their hands were connecting, and a warming of the flesh. There was no searing burn like the last time they'd tried this, but the power flowing between them was barely even a trickle. It was enough that Naruto no longer felt like he was suffocating, though. The air was still uncomfortably hot and he was pretty sure he wouldn't be able to speak if his life depended on it, but he no longer felt like he was in danger of passing out.

Sasuke had activated the blood tie, but only partially. Huh. Naruto hadn't known that was even possible, but he guessed they were pretty much on new ground with this. It seemed like the degree of damage the direct blood tie delivered scaled with how much power was flowing between them, but some of the more latent abilities were passed along without damaging them.

Kurama seemed to be having no such issues breathing in the scalding, oxygen-depleted air. He let out a shriek that Naruto was sure even his mother would be able to hear in the midst of the battle behind them. Kurama wasn't one for making noise for no reason, so Naruto lifted his head and forced his eyes to open against the heat. The wind gusted, carrying some of the smoke away and giving them better visibility.

The dragon was directly ahead of them, circling above while hundreds of charred bodies lay scattered and smoking along the ravine floor around them. The dragon's answering roar shook the walls of the valley.

Naruto gripped his sword with his free hand as he heard the hoof beats of the ice rider closing in on them, using his knees to keep his seat on Kurama. He heard the sound of Sasuke unsheathing his sword as well while the dragon circled over them, seeming to scan the valley. Naruto braced himself for the flames he was sure would come.

Except they didn't.

The dragon circled over them once more then flew back towards where Kushina and Itachi were leading the fight against the remaining creatures.

"Fuck!" Naruto choked out, his lungs not working quite well enough to make the sound audible in the smoke-filled air. They'd had one shot at taking the ice rider out. And it had just flown off without taking a second look at the creature pursuing them.

Their plan had failed.

Sasuke squinted through the smoke as the dragon circled overhead, careful not to release Naruto's hand. He hadn't been sure if his resistance to fire could be passed through the blood tie without a power surge, but it seemed to be working, at least partially. The place where their palms met was on the uncomfortable side of warm, but it wasn't burning the flesh away, so Sasuke would take a few blisters. Naruto was still struggling to breathe more than Sasuke was, but at least he was breathing.

Sasuke re-activated his sharingan and tracked the movement of the dragon's eyes, wondering what had distracted him from the ice rider. He saw them pause first on Kurama, then Naruto and finally Sasuke before moving back to scanning the piles of dead creatures. The beat's eyes moved right over where the ice rider was following them without the slightest pause, even to dismiss it as a threat or a foe.

Realization struck Sasuke, different pieces of the puzzle clicking into place: The dragon can't see the rider at all.

Something about the magic used to enchant the ice riders makes them undetectable by dragons. The dragon was only able to see the body of the ice rider after it was dead.

"Shit," he cursed, his mind racing through their rapidly dwindling set of remaining options. The 'easy route' of just luring the ice rider here and letting the dragon fight their battle for them while they escaped to safety was now off the table. It also explained why the ice rider - which had surely been aware of the dragon they were heading towards - had not hesitated in following them.

"We need to stand and fight," Sasuke stated, already gripping his knees tighter on Kurama's body to try to signal the beast.

"You crazy?" Naruto choked out.

"The dragon can't see the rider. We need to stand and fight. Draw its attention." Even with Sasuke's ability to handle fire-scorched air, there wasn't enough oxygen for further explanations without burning the fuck out of his throat. Luckily, Naruto seemed to get what he was trying to say. He leaned forward, murmuring into Kurama's ear and the beast slowed, turning to face the ice rider bearing down on them. Kurama let out another shriek as he reared up on his hind legs in a move that would have unseated less experienced riders.

The ice rider slowed its approach, its eyes glowing as it drew its sword, then vanished from their sight.

Sasuke used his final bit of energy to breathe out a thin line of black fire that spanned across the valley that encircled them. The ice rider couldn't attack without crossing the line of fire. It was time to find out if the fire would burn the creature even when phased.

Whether drawn by Kurama's call or the sight of the Amaterasu, the dragon flew back over them, watching with interest. The ice rider appeared just in front of the fire, and began slowly pacing back and forth, its gaze alternating between assessing the fire and watching Naruto.

The dragon kept circling overhead, clearly aware that something was going on, but not able to detect the enemy they were facing.

"Fuck. We need to engage it directly," Sasuke murmured, trying to remember how the dragon had put out his Amaterasu before by seeming to breathe it in. With the creature so close and stationary, he would have likely been able to hit it with a blast of Amaterasu if he had enough energy left.

Unfortunately, he didn't. Naruto probably had enough to lend him, but then they would both be drained and left without enough energy to get away from the dragon when it finally attacked. They'd be burned to ash if Naruto couldn't teleport them out of range of the dragon's fire.

"Goddamn it!" Naruto cursed, coughing, as he looked up. "It's right in fucking front of us!" he tried to shout, his voice hoarse and raw, pointing his sword at where the ice rider sat. The ice rider immediately phased, making Naruto curse again in frustration.

Both men scanned the area in front of them, looking for any sign of their adversary. As the seconds ticked on, Sasuke felt his own frustration grow. His brother and his team was fighting a massive force behind them, and they had no idea if the battle had drawn more enemy, or even another ice rider, down on them. The longer this took, the less chance it had of working. The dragon could decide to move on to the next part of the ravine and kill everyone there, be it creature or ally. The way Naruto was shifting in impatience told him he was equally impatient. They couldn't just wait. They had to make a move and try to draw the ice rider out.

"I'm going to try to make a break in the line," Sasuke said, narrowing his eyes.

"Do you know how to do that?" Naruto asked, not even blinking at the dangerous suggestion.

Sasuke didn't bother to answer, since he knew Naruto wouldn't like it.

"I could jump over to it when it reappears… try to hit it," Naruto offered, having interpreted Sasuke's silence correctly as 'no'.

Sasuke wasn't entirely sure that teleporting would fully avoid the fire, thought it probably would. "You won't be able to breathe if you break our blood tie. And you need to keep enough energy to get us out of here."

"It doesn't take much energy to make a short jump like this, even with two people."

Sasuke hoped Naruto was right and it wasn't all bravado.

"Do it."

Kurama snorted and shot them both a glare, but Naruto would be too strained if he tried to bring the creature as well.

"Sorry, buddy. Try to let the dragon know what we're up to," Naruto said with a grimace, catching the annoyed aura pumping off his mount. "Looks like it's back to playing tag."

"It should reappear in six seconds." Sasuke had been timing it. Keeping his grip on Naruto's hand, he shifted so they were back-to-back, waiting for the ice rider to reappear. He wondered what they'd do if the creature had turned back to take out the rest of their team, but he barely completed the thought before the creature appeared directly across the line of black fire from him. Before Naruto had even turned enough to see him, Sasuke blew out a short stream of regular fire. It wasn't Amaterasu, but it still caught the creature square on. The creature's shriek was cut off as it disappeared, but it was evidently enough to get the dragon's attention.

The roar that sounded overhead was filled with rage, shaking the ground beneath them. The dragon couldn't see the creature, but it could see that Sasuke's fire had hit something, even if it only lasted for a second.

"Jump now!" Sasuke shouted as he felt a flash of heat appear behind him.

"Fuck!" Naruto slammed his hand down on Kurama's back and teleported them up to the top of the ridge just as a wave of fire unlike anything that Sasuke had ever seen surged over them.

They landed at the top of the ridge, their clothing smoking and their hair singed, as they gasped for breath with Naruto coughing harshly as they sucked in cool, oxygen-filled air. The valley below them filled with a river fire, sending them scrambling back over the edge to get out of its reach as it billowed further up the walls, filling the entire section of the ravine.

"Holy fucking shit! You do not want to piss a dragon off!" Naruto coughed out, gaping at the swirling vortex of fire billowing out of the valley.

"Let's hope it's far enough away from the others," Sasuke bit out, his eyes watering as he forced himself to squint and look through the glare of the flames to see where the torrent of fire spread to. He breathed a short puff of relief as he saw it diminish just before the bend in the ravine. There was no way the horseman would make it to the edge of the fire before it needed to dematerialize, and there was no way it would survive long enough to vanish a second time given the fire's intensity. Sasuke also caught flickers of black amongst the gouts of flames, and realized the fire contained more than one type of attack in it. The sheer amount of energy required to create such a blast was almost inconceivable, and Sasuke wondered what kind of foe they were going up against that had managed to kill a creature that could do something like this.

The two men crouched side-by-side, watching the attack for several minutes until the blaze began to die down. They had to make sure the ice rider was dead before they went back to help the others.

Sasuke was the first to move, shifting up to look over the edge of the ridge and down into the ravine. The heat made the air shimmer so much that it was hard to see to the bottom, even with his sharingan. He narrowed his eyes in concentration, looking through the swirls of smoke and ash.

At the bottom of the valley was the unmistakable remains of the ice rider.

"We need to retrieve the shard before we join the others. The glow from this fire will have been seen for miles. We need to finish off anyone left still fighting and get out of here."

Naruto gave a short nod, wiping the sweat from his face, leaving a black smudge behind. "Let's go."

To be continued…

Chapter Text

A/N - Finally! I got a chapter out on time. Thanks to Mykko_Chan for beta-ing parts of this.

Chapter 22

They landed at the top of the ridge, their clothing smoking and their hair singed, gasping for breath. The valley below them filled with fire, sending them scrambling back over the edge to get out of its way.

The two men crouched side-by-side, watching the swirling fire for several minutes until the blaze began to die down. They had to make sure the ice rider was dead before they went back to help the others.

Sasuke was the first to move, shifting up to look over the edge of the ridge and down into the ravine. The heat made the air shimmer so much that it was hard to see to the bottom, even with his sharingan. He narrowed his eyes in concentration, looking through the swirls of smoke and ash.

At the bottom of the valley was the unmistakable remains of the ice rider.

"We need to retrieve the shard before we join the others."

Naruto gave a short nod, wiping the sweat from his face, leaving a black smudge behind. "Let's go."

Naruto turned back to look at Kurama, relieved to see nothing more than a slightly singed tail on his friend. His fur was evidently more resistant than human hair was. Kurama's ears twitched back as the creature shook his head as though to clear it.

"Sorry, buddy. I know you don't like jumping, but it's better than being fried into bacon down there." Naruto ran a hand along the beast's nose. Kurama blew out some steam, but his ears moved forward as he nudged into Naruto's calloused palm.

Naruto chuckled, which turned into a hacking cough. Sasuke looked over at him, his eyes narrowing. "We need to move quickly, but there won't be much air in the valley yet."

Naruto turned back towards where they had left his mother and Sasuke's team to fight the army of foot soldiers. The dragon was circling high overhead, but there was no telling whether it would go home or light a fire in the other valley where their friends were battling. "It doesn't take two people to get the shard."

Sasuke followed Naruto's gaze, his lips tightening. "No. It doesn't. Unless you need me to hold your hand some more."

"Fuck you, Uchiha. You just go pick up the trash, let me go finish off the battle." He turned to Kurama. "Since you're the one who made this asshole come with us, you can bring him back."

With that, Naruto vanished. Sasuke and Kurama exchanged an annoyed glance, then headed down into the valley to retrieve the shard before it fell into enemy hands again.

The clock was ticking.

Kushina, slammed her boot into the chest of one of the creatures, driving it into the black flames at the same time she pulled hard on the chain wrapped around the throat of another, dragging it on top of its comrade. She let out a small huff of satisfaction, turning just in time to see the elder Uchiha brother decapitate two creatures in one fluid stroke.

Itachi gives her a short nod of acknowledgement, which Kushina returned with a smirk. Sasuke's team was fighting well, and they had managed to kill more than a third of the creatures since Naruto and Sasuke left to lure the ice rider to the dragon. The valley to the north had been unsettlingly silent since then, however, and Kushina tried to keep her focus on the battle at hand rather than worrying fruitlessly about her son. She has been a warrior long enough to know that there is no certainty in life, and nothing to be gained by worrying from afar when there were enemies directly in front of you to be fought.

She had just run her blade through the throat of another creature when an unearthly scream shuddered through the air, coming from the north. Kushina's blood ran cold and she felt her stomach clench.

"That's Kurama," she said, more to herself than anyone around her, unable to keep the fear fully out of her voice.

Itachi shot her a sharp glance, though there was no break in the motion of his swords as he continued to fight. The setting sun made visibility in the valley poor, but it only drew attention to the soft, short glow of fire, from the valley to the north. If Kushina hadn't been facing it, she would have missed it. But no matter what direction she was facing, there would have been no missing the enormous blast that followed almost immediately, so large it mushroomed over the lower side of the valley. The creatures stopped in their tracks, turning to look as a wave of hot, smoky air, still flickering with flame came billowing around the narrow bend in the ravine, flowing almost like water as it rose up over the frozen, rocky ground.

"Drop!" Itachi shouted, the urgency in his tone not taking away from the force of the command.

Kushina wasted no time in obeying, nor did the rest of Sasuke's team.

She hit the ground, using her cloak to shield her from the rush of scorching air as it rushed over them. She tried to hold her breath, but she had been breathing hard from battle and could only slow her breath rather than stopping it entirely. Fortunately, the thick wool of her cloak was as good at keeping the heat and smoke out as it had been at protecting her from the cold. She hoped that the others had heeded the Uchiha's warning, but given they had trained with a clan who used fire as its primary attack, she assumed they were used to following such instructions. As she waited for the rolling heat to wane, she wondered about her son. If this was the intensity of the dragon's attack from nearly half a mile away and around a sharp bend, there was no way anyone could have survived it at ground zero. She hoped Naruto had been able to teleport out of the blast before it struck. But for the moment, all she could do was wait and try to breathe through the suffocatingly hot air. Every instinct was screaming that she was surrounded by enemy and needed to lift her head and look around, but she forced herself to stay low where the smoke and heat would be at their lowest.

Her pulse sounded loud in her ears as the oxygen thinned, and she blinked rapidly to keep her vision clear. As soon as she felt the heat ebb slightly, she threw her cloak back. Pressing a fold of it over her nose, she sat up and squinted through the ash as she scanned the battlefield for potential enemies.

Her eyes watered with the sting of the smoke as she pulled herself to her feet. The metal of her chain and sword were hot to the touch, but not so much to burn her hands as she gripped them.

The same could not be said for the creatures, who had not understood the threat billowing down upon them from the dragon's attack. Many were already dead, their skin singed though not fully burned. The others were clearly weakened, stumbling as they tried to move forward. Their weakness to heat and fire was clearly greater than that of humans.

Itachi was already at work, cutting down the ones who were still on their feet. Kushina joined in, though the hot air scalded her lungs. She couldn't keep her eyes from flickering up the valley where the blast had come from, and wondering if Naruto had gotten caught up in the dragon's fire blast or if he'd escaped it.

"We'll finish here then go find them," Itachi stated, his voice carrying a tension not reflected in the smooth, methodical movement of his blades. However stoic the man tried to be, he was clearly worried about his little brother. Somehow, that thought comforted Kushina as she sent her sword in an arc, decapitating the creature in front of her.

She set to work, moving in sync with the Uchiha as Sasuke's team joined in. They all worked with ruthless efficiency, knowing that - if the ice riders really could communicate in some way - the rider that Naruto and Sasuke had lured to the dragon had likely already called for reinforcements.

They had only been fighting for a few minutes when Naruto appeared beside her. She took an instant to run an assessing eye over her son to search for injuries. Aside from some singed locks of his hair and soot on his face, he seemed ok. She felt the tightness in her chest ease slightly, though she noted the absence of Kurama and Sasuke and hoped they were close behind.

"Any sign of company yet?" Naruto asked, his voice sounding rough as he broke into a cough.

"Not yet. But that won't last long," she replied as she swung her chain again.

Itachi looked behind Naruto towards the bend in the ravine, clearly hoping to see his brother.

"He's fine. He's coming," Naruto rasped. "Just picking up the shard."

A brief flicker of relief passed through Itachi's eyes as he gave a short nod.

They fought in silence, the time pressure building with each minute that ticked by. Kushina kept the majority of her attention on her own opponents, but – with the creatures having been weakened by the residual of the dragon's blast - she was able to keep an eye on the battle around her. Itachi's gaze flickered periodically towards Naruto, and Kushina got the distinct sense that he was evaluating her son's battle prowess.

Kushina had no concerns.

Her son was formidable in battle, having inherited his father's speed and his mother's power and endurance. She smirked as she noticed Itachi's eyes widen fractionally as Naruto drove his blade through three creatures standing in a row, his brute strength carrying the blade clean through them all in one cut.

They were finishing off the few remaining creatures when the sound of pounding hooves announced the arrival of Sasuke riding Kurama. The younger Uchiha looked decidedly less singed than Naruto had, despite having obviously spent more time in the area of the dragon's attack. It must be true, then, that the Uchiha had resistance to fire. She wondered briefly if the legends were true that they had somehow gotten this ability from dragons. The Uchiha clan was secretive, and not much was known about their abilities.

Sasuke's face was expressionless as he surveyed the battlefield, no emotion showing at all, and it set a frisson of unease along Kushina's spine. The Uchihas had a reputation for being a cold, stoic clan. Their powerful bloodline made an alliance with them desirable (and - with their current enemy - necessary for survival), but they were so different in nature to her own son.

Kushina noticed the way her son's eyes lit with relief at the sight, his face breaking into a wide grin.

"You're late," Itachi said, none of the relief Kushina knew he felt evident in his voice or face.

Sasuke rolled his eyes. "I didn't think you'd need my help with the easy part."

Kushina's brow creased in a slight frown as she watched the way Naruto's eyes tracked the movements of the younger Uchiha brother. Her son had been born in war, and trained for battle and service to his clan. He'd had dalliances, as most of the warriors his age had, but she'd never seen him look at anyone with that level of intensity. Still, she recognized the look, and it worried her. It was the same one Minato had watched her with when they'd first met, when she had been part of the delegation her clan had sent to discuss a potential alliance between the Uzumaki and Namikaze. A full blood tie had been out of the question, since the Uzumaki had been blood tied to the Senju, but there were other ties and bonds that could be mutually beneficial to both clans. With the Senju on the other side of the mountains from the Uzumaki, there were military alliances to be made.

Minato had already become the clan leader, despite his young age, and it had been only a matter of weeks before the talk of general clan alliance had included an offer of marriage. Kushina had held out, saying that any man she'd marry would have to best her in battle before she'd agree. It had taken eleven rounds, but Minato had finally been able to beat her. Kushina may or may not have intentionally let her focus slip to allow that to happen, but she'd spent enough time with the young Namikaze leader to know marriage to him was what she wanted. A real marriage with a man who was her equal in battle, and who had accepted her challenge even though he could have negotiated with her clan without her input.

The problem was, Kushina had spent a lot of time reading over the details of the Uchiha contract, and she knew that Sasuke was not interested in marriage outside the narrow requirements for the blood tie to form. Sasuke had made that an explicit part of the contract: no sex after the initial bonding, no cohabitation, and no restrictions on finding companionship outside of the marriage. At the time, she had been relieved that her son would not be trapped in a loveless marriage and Naruto had been amenable to do his duty for his clan. But trapped in a one-sided marriage would be so much worse than a loveless one, where one side had feelings and the other did not return them. It was clear to her that her son was developing an emotional attachment to the Uchiha, but there was no guarantee that it would be reciprocated. Sasuke had shown concern over Naruto's safety and health, but there were clear reasons why he and his clan needed Naruto alive and in fighting form. It was unclear what the man thought of Naruto outside of his usefulness to his clan's cause and the war they had been thrust into.

"The dragon took care of the hard part. What did you do?" Itachi responded.

"Saved your ass," Sasuke replied tersely.

"Tch. Not on your own, asshole," Naruto called out from where he was pulling his blade out of the throat of one of the few remaining creatures.

Kushina watched as Sasuke briefly glanced at Naruto, then walked over to Itachi, handing him a small bundle wrapped in black cloth. Itachi watched Naruto for a moment, but Sasuke kept his gaze locked on his brother.

Kushina wiped her blade before re-sheathing it. She would have to remind Naruto about the terms of the contract so that he didn't get unrealistic expectations. It was good for him to be getting along with his betrothed, but he would need to keep the original terms in mind so he didn't get hurt. There was always a chance that the Uchiha would change his mind, but - from what she knew of the clan - that was not the way they were typically wired.

A sharp cry from above broke her out of her thoughts. Two messenger hawks descended, and Kushina realized they must have been observing the battle, waiting until it was safe to deliver their messages.

Karin's urgent voice interrupted them before they could read any of them. "There's another ice rider approaching from the south. We have about fifteen minutes before it gets here."

Naruto looked over at Kushina. "The dragon's gone. We're on our own with this one."

"Then let's get the hell out of here," Suigetsu said, turning to Itachi and Sasuke.

"Fuck," Sasuke muttered, quickly removing the cylinders from the birds, but didn't open them. "One is from Kakashi, the other from the Council." His grim expression told Kushina that he wasn't happy to receive the second. He made a slight gesture with his hand that had both birds flying away, in opposite directions. Whatever the messages contained, they didn't have time to read them.

"There isn't time to scale the walls and get out of sight. We'd leave tracks, and there's no storm to cover them this time," Sai said.

"We'll have to risk the tunnel," Sasuke replied, looking at the entrance a short distance ahead of them.

"We won't' be able to outrun the rider, even in the tunnels," Itachi stated, his brow furrowed as he appeared to calculate their options.

"You said the creatures phase, but they can't teleport, right?" Kushina asked. "How many seconds can they stay phased?"

"Thirty-two," Sasuke replied.

Naruto looked over at her, comprehension lighting his face as he grinned at her.

"But their mounts can move faster than we can," Itachi said, frowning.

Kushina smiled, pulling out a small dagger from her pack, along with a bag of blue powder. "Start running. I'll seal the tunnel behind us."

"I'll help. We'll catch up with you guys before you get to the other side," Naruto said.

Sasuke's team exchanged uncertain glances. "You can seal the tunnel far enough in that the creature can't phase through it? You'd have to go half a mile. Maybe more," Sai frowned.

"My mom's badass. What can I say?" Naruto smiled at her, then nodded to the others. "But she's right. Get your asses moving or we won't have time to seal this off and get the fuck out of the way before she brings the mountain down on your heads."

Naruto watched Sasuke organize his team, his rapid fire orders instantly obeyed. Kurama was (very reluctantly) loaded up with the large pack Juugo had been carrying so they would all be able to run full speed to get as far into the tunnel before Kushina sealed it.

"Sorry buddy," Naruto murmured to his friend. "But I don't know if I'll have enough juice to teleport you after we set the main seal. You gotta stick with them."

Kurama laid his ears flat and snorted. "I'll be fine. I'll meet you on the other end of the tunnel, okay?"

Kurama let out a snort of steam, annoyed at being separated yet again from his human while Naruto went off to do something reckless.

"Time to go," Itachi stated. Naruto looked up to find the man watching him. He had grown somewhat used to the dark, impenetrable stare from Sasuke, but Itachi's eye seemed to be able to look directly into Naruto's mind. There was no doubt that the elder brother was at least as powerful as Sasuke. Naruto threw him a cocky grin, trying to shake the unsettling feeling off as Itachi and the rest of Sasuke's team took off at a run into the tunnel.

"Catch ya on the other side." He turned to meet Sasuke's gaze. "We'll be ten minutes behind you. Fifteen tops. If we aren't there in twenty, move on without us."

Sasuke's eyes narrowed. "Don't make me come back for your dumb ass."

Sasuke turned, his body shifting into a smooth stride that looked as though he could run for days. His cloak was still clasped at his neck, but Sasuke had pushed it so it only covered his back, leaving his chest and arms free, due to the heat in the valley. His shirt was dark with soot and damp with sweat, clinging to his shoulders and biceps as he moved.

Naruto watched him until he disappeared into the darkness of the tunnel.

Kushina arched a brow at him. "The Uchiha are a handsome clan," she began cautiously, as though not sure how to broach the topic without getting Naruto's back up.

Naruto's ears pinkened as he forced himself to look away from where the group had disappeared from sight. "Yep."

His mother ran her hands along the walls near the entrance of the tunnel, evaluating its strength and structure, though Naruto knew her attention was still on him.

"We'll set one seal here to trigger in case they get here before we're ready. If you don't think the ice riders can sense things from a distance, it might hold them off while they try to figure out how far in the tunnel it's collapsed before they try to phase through it."

Naruto hummed noncommittally. The creature could just phase and ride in until it found how far the cave-in went, and they both knew it, but at least it would keep any of the other creatures out. She set the first seal quickly as Naruto walked further back into the cave to avoid accidentally setting off the seal.

His mother glanced over at him as she set the simple seal for the entrance. "So you're no longer mad at me for who I picked for the contract?"

Naruto rolled his eyes. "Ma, they sent a picture of a five-year-old. I don't care what he looks like, but I'm not gonna do… stuff… with a kid."

Kushina drew out the powder from her bag that she would use for setting the larger seal as they jogged further into the tunnel. "Mm-hm. So you're fine doing stuff with Sasuke?"

This time it was Naruto's entire throat that turned pink. "Look, it's whatever the contract says, right? But yeah. I mean, it's fine."

Kushina's smile faded as they reached the spot where the seal would need to be set. "Did you read the contract before you ripped it up?"

Naruto stayed focused on the lines he was setting. "Most of it."

Kushina bit her lip. It would be important for Naruto to be willing, or the bond wouldn't take. But she needed him to be prepared, too. "Do you remember Sasuke's stipulations about what the marriage would entail?"

Naruto's gaze flickered up to her, then back down to his work in setting the intricate lines his mother had taught him. The seal was one of the most powerful from the Uzumaki clan, and one of their most closely guarded secrets. "I guess. He was fine for the bonding but… nothing beyond that."

"Right. And he felt strongly enough about it that it was written directly into the contract. Whatever scroll Itachi thinks he's found, it might not be written in this time, but I just want you to be prepared for what's going to happen."

Naruto nodded, his mind going back to the intimate way Karin had treated Sasuke's wounds. Sure, Naruto and Sasuke had gotten closer over the past week. Fighting for your life together tended to do that, no matter what the circumstances. But Sasuke had laid out clear as crystal what he wanted and didn't want in their 'marriage'. Naruto had forgotten about it, with everything else going on. His own feelings had shifted so much about his potential bond-mate, but he honestly had no idea what Sasuke wanted beyond winning the war.

"Yeah. I got it," Naruto said with a sigh as he finished laying the last line.

Kushina gave him a strained smile that Naruto tried to ignore the layer of pity in.

"Ok. Let's light this up and get the hell out of here," Kushina said, taking her sword and cutting a line along her palm before slamming it down in the center of the seal. Naruto jumped them out of the area as the entire section collapsed around them.

Sasuke didn't look back as he activated his sharingan and broke into a ground-eating pace into the tunnel. He ignored the tension between his shoulder blades at what would happen if Naruto and Kushina didn't finish setting the seal before the ice rider showed up. Sai would be able to tell him if it happened, but there would be nothing he could do about it if it did.

His jaw clenched, and he focused on the rhythmic feel of his feet hitting the rock beneath him. The tunnel was only a mile or so long, so the run wouldn't drain him much. He and his brother had trained relentlessly since childhood, building up not only their battle skills but also their physical stamina.

A mile was nothing. And Naruto would be joining them in just a few minutes.

"You seem tense, little brother." Itachi's voice wasn't even slightly out of breath.

"It's been busy," Sasuke bit out, tersely. Whenever Itachi began a conversation like this, it didn't go well for Sasuke.

"You didn't seem happy to have left your fiancé behind. Odd, since you were quite set against the marriage in the beginning."

Sasuke slanted his brother a glance. "That was before I found out he was Senju. And before we knew we were up against a sorcerer's magic."

"Hm," Itachi said, noncommittally. "So it's still simply about the blood tie."

"What else would it be about?"

Sasuke didn't need to look to sense Itachi's raised brow.

"Since you were already against the first bonding, the second will be harder."

"We need the blood tie to win this war."

"True. But it doesn't have to be you. We don't have time to make a third scroll if the binding fails again. With the original contract destroyed, any full-blooded Uchiha would suffice."

Sasuke understood Itachi's logic, but somehow it annoyed him. "The strength of the bond scales with the power of the bonded pair. It can't just be any Uchiha."

"I could do it," Itachi stated, letting the words settle amongst the sound of feet hitting the rock floor, Kurama's hooves echoing right behind them.

Sasuke didn't allow his stride to break. There was no reason at all he should be feeling this flare of anger at his brother's words. A glance at Itachi showed amusement in his older brother's eyes, as though he knew Sasuke would be annoyed.

Sasuke hated it when his brother understood something about him that Sasuke didn't.

"The council chose me," was all Sasuke could think to say. "They weren't sure if the loss of your eye would affect the binding."

Sasuke had thought that was bullshit at the time. It was true that much of their blood limit ability was centered in the eyes, but Itachi was still their top warrior, as much as Sasuke might not like to admit it. Still, the decision had been unanimous.

"That was for the first attempt. And the bond from you almost didn't take. They might not feel the same for the second binding. Not with so much at stake. The sage's prediction about the enemy have proven to be accurate."

"It won't be a problem," Sasuke stated, wanting to end this bizarre argument with his brother.

"Because you realize now we need the Senju blood tie to win the war," Itachi said.


"I'll marry the Senju," Sai spoke up from the darkness behind him.

"Fuck off, Sai. It needs to be a full blooded Uchiha," Sasuke bit out.

He could hear a soft chuckle coming from the man, only slightly winded from running. "Just thought I'd offer, since everyone else seems to be."

"We should be clear of the blast area," Karin said, breaking into the conversation and (hopefully) ending the discussion. "I don't sense anything up ahead inside the tunnel, but I can't tell much about what's outside with all this rock in the way."

"My bats are almost to the other entrance," Sai replied. "We'll know in a few minutes if we have company waiting for us."

"Let's get a little bit closer to the exit, then we'll wait for Naruto and Kushina to get here. It will give Sai time to report on what's outside," Sasuke said. He also wanted to read the two messages he'd received. It had been weeks since he'd heard from the Council. He had a feeling he wasn't going to like what they had to say, particularly since Itachi had told him they were sending a group to intercept him at his last known location and Sasuke had not informed them he was no longer anywhere near there.

"How long until they're supposed to get here?" Karin asked.

"Six minutes," Sasuke and Itachi both replied.

"Hopefully blondie doesn't get himself blown up," Suigetsu said, panting as they slowed to a stop.

Juugo used the torch he had been carrying to help him find the lantern that was attacked to the camp pack on Kurama's back just as the sound of a massive explosion echoed through the tunnel.

Minato pulled up his horse when he entered the base camp at the foot of the northern mountains, the contingent of Namikaze warriors following suit. There were clusters of tents set up, some holding the Hyuuga clan symbol, some the Nara, and three with the Namikaze clan's symbol. He knew one of them had held the bodies of the scouting team that had been killed, the cold keeping the bodies preserved until they were able to return them home for burial.

He looked to the North, wondering where his wife and son were… if they'd found each other. If they would both be coming home, or if he would be on the receiving end of the message he had delivered to the grieving families of the scouting team that had first alerted the clans to the threat.

He sighed, hoping that this war would not stretch as long or cost as much in lives as the earlier war had, but he wasn't naive enough to hold out much hope. War was always bloody, relentless and brutal. But there was no avoiding it when war came to their doorstep.

"Minato." A woman's voice called out to him, and he looked up to find a familiar face looking over at him as a woman wearing a Hyuuga cloak approach. Asuma walked by her side, his cloak brushing alongside hers, and Minato's eyebrows lifted slightly.

"Kurenai," Minato replied in greeting, dismounting and leading his horse towards her. "It's good to see you again. Though circumstances could have been better. I see you've met Asuma as well."

Kurenai nodded, but then her smile faded slightly. "I'm sorry about the loss of your team."

Minato nodded in return, acknowledging the loss. "The families have been notified. Two of the men accompanying me will be bringing them home in the morning."

Asuma turned to the mounted warriors. "The stables are already full, but we've built some makeshift accommodations for your horses. Once you've gotten them settled, you can set up your tents on the south side of the camp. There should be enough space there."

"Only a few are staying. The rest are going to accompany me further north, as soon as I get word from Shikaku on which territory I'm heading to."

"A messenger bird arrived an hour ago carrying the Nara seal, addressed to you," Asuma stated.

Minato turned to his men. "Stable your horses and get as much rest as you can tonight. We'll leave at first light."

Kurenai's lips tightened. "They found the clan who made the creatures?"

Minato shook his head. "Not likely. They think we're dealing with a sorcerer."

Kurenai's eyes widened. "Aren't they extinct?"

Minato looked her in the eye, lowering his voice so it wouldn't carry beyond the two of them. "So was the Senju bloodline."

Asuma sent him a sharp glance, but Minato knew the secret was already out. The enemy knew. It was best if their allies did as well.

"Even before they were hunted down, sorcerers always lived alone. This one is working with a clan?" she asked, turning and striding briskly towards the tent that had the sealed message.

Minato shrugged, handing his horse off to one of his men with a nod of thanks before following her. "Maybe trading with them. Or hiring them as mercenaries. That's what I'm going to find out."

Kurenai pushed back the flap of the tent, stepping inside and holding it open for Minato and Asuma to follow. Minato pulled the hood of his cloak back while his eyes adjusted from the blinding white glare of the snow to the darkness of the tent lit with only a single kerosene lantern. Kurenai clearly needed no such adjustment period, walking directly to one of the tables set up there and plucking the cylinder and handing it to him.

He wasted no time in opening it, skimming the message before looking up to meet Kurenai's gaze.

"Where are we headed?" she asked.

Minato wasn't even a tiny bit surprised that she was going to accompany them. By his grim expression, Asuma wasn't, either. "The Amegakure clan grounds. More west than north."

"It's a solid four days' ride," Asuma said, looking at the map that was enclosed.

"I should let Neji know," Kurenai murmured, studying the map as well.

"He's here?" Minato asked, surprised the man hadn't come to meet him, if so.

"He arrived last night. He's leading the Hyuuga forces personally, given the level of the threat. He's out on a scouting mission right now, but he'll want to speak with you as soon as he gets back. I'm not sure if he'll want to join your group or stay here to hold the line in case the creatures attack. Hinata is leading their forces back on their territory and looking for additional tunnels in the mountains there."

Minato nodded. "I'm leaving the majority of my troops here and back home to protect the borders. We don't want to make the same mistake the Senju and Uzumaki clans made last time."

"Agreed. My guess is he will stay here to wait for news from Naruto and hold the border. But we can discuss it when he returns."

Minato met the red eyes of his friend. "Naruto has agreed to be blood bound to a member of the Uchiha clan."

Kurenai blinked, then gave a slow nod. "That… makes sense. But Neji will be… disappointed."

Minato sighed. Neji and Naruto had been friends and rivals, and it had always been in the back of his mind that they would make a good match. Hinata had also expressed interest in a possible alliance. If the Uchiha offer hadn't come when it had, it might have happened. But an alliance with the Uchiha was in the best interest of all the clans. The Hyuugas might be disappointed, but they were not ones to miss the larger picture. He just hoped Kakashi was correct and another scroll could be found in time to complete the binding.

It took time for the blood limit abilities between clans to mix and become useful once the binding took place, and time wasn't a commodity they had much of, at this point.

To be continued…

A/N – Just as a warning about what is going to happen next, I don't like to be super predictable.

Chapter Text

A/N - Sorry this is late, but things have been tough here. Doing my best! Un-beta'd.

Chapter 23 - Journey to the east

The sound of the tunnel entrance collapsing was still shaking the walls around them when Naruto and Kushina materialized in the tunnel a few meters behind where Sasuke and his team had stopped to wait for them. Sasuke's eyes flickered quickly over Naruto's form, noting the coating of soot and dust that spoke to just how close the pair had cut it before escaping. He did felt the tension in his shoulders ease, however, as he found no sign of injury.

"Fuck. I forgot how fast those seals go off," Naruto coughed as they brushed themselves off.

Kushina looked over at him. "It's not like we've ever tried to time which happens faster between the blast and the jump."

"Looks like it was about equal. You guys are a mess." Suigetsu said, laughing as though they wouldn't have all been completely fucked if the timing on Naruto's jump had been just fractionally slower.

Kurama stepped forward, bumping Suigetsu with his right flank and sending the warrior stumbling into the wall. "Easy with the body checks! Geez, I was just kidding."

Kurama breathed out a sound that almost sounded like a chuckle.

"There's no way any riders within two miles didn't hear that blast," Sai commented, hitching the pack that held his scrolls and ink up on his back.

"The tunnel is sealed. Even if the rider phases, it won't be able to get deep enough into the mountain to reach a part of the tunnel safe to rematerialize," Kushina stated, ignoring Suigetsu entirely and responding to Sai.

"Then we have time enough to scout the clearest path. They will know which tunnel we took, so we don't have long." Itachi spoke calmly, despite the urgency of the situation. "We need to get to the scroll before they catch up with us."

Sasuke met his brother's gaze directly. "If you couldn't get the scroll before, how are you so sure we'll be able to access it now?"

Itachi looked over at Kushina and Naruto. "I've been reading up on the Senju seals. They are similar, in some ways, to the Uzumaki seals."

Kushina arched a brow. The amount an outsider would be able to find out about the closely guarded clan secrets was minimal. "Oh?"

Itachi gave a slight smile. "They require the blood of a Senju clan member to be activated."

All eyes shifted to Naruto.

"Okay. I don't know any Senju seals, but if you think my blood will be 'Senju' enough to activate whatever seal is hiding the scroll then… yeah. Sure. Let's go for it and get hitched."

Karin's lips tightened, but she didn't say anything. Sasuke knew she had been unhappy about his betrothal, but things were different now.

"What did the messages from your clan and the Naras say?" Kushina asked. "Any new information about what we're up against?"

Her question reminded Sasuke about the message from the Council that he hadn't yet read. He was fairly sure it would not be news he wanted to hear, given he had stopped sending updates back to them some time ago. Sasuke opened the cylinder from Kakashi, which had the most chance of containing useful information instead of a reprimand.

"I haven't read them yet." He pulled out the parchment, and quickly read it. "They've found a clan that seems to have had dealings with the sorcerer. Minato and Kakashi are heading up there to see what kind of information they can get out of them."

"Which clan?" Itachi asked sharply.

"The Amegakure."

Naruto frowned. It was clear the name didn't mean anything in particular to him. "But if Kakashi is going with my dad, then how are we supposed to get word from Shika if they find out more about the sorcerer and how to take him out or where he is?"

Sasuke felt Itachi's eyes on him. Sasuke returned his gaze, matching Itachi's arched brow. They both knew Kakashi well enough to know that he would have told whatever story he needed to be able to stay in the flow of information. It was what made him invaluable. And annoying as fuck, depending on what side of his machinations one found oneself on.

"Our birds can be set to fixed locations even if there is no Uchiha there, as long as the bird has been there before. I can send one to the Nara library every two days to see if there is any update," Sasuke replied.

Naruto glared at him, clearly annoyed for having been led to believe Kakashi's presence with the Naras was a tactical necessity. Sasuke felt his lips twitch in amusement, wondering what Naruto was going to say, but before Naruto could comment on it, Kushina was speaking.

"That clan is far to the west, in the lower mountains. We haven't had much interaction with them in the past."

Itachi frowned. "I've only seen the clan name in a few documents, but they've had no direct contact with our clan."

"What sort of contact do they have with the sorcerer?" Sai asked.

"It looks like they were trading with him for dragon artifacts," Sasuke replied, handing the note to Itachi.

Itachi skimmed down the page before handing it to Naruto and Kushina. "One of the artifacts they were trying to create with some of the dragon bone was an amulet to make their chief invisible to dragons."

The significance of that was not lost on anyone in the group.

"So that's why the dragon riders are invisible to dragons. They figured out the spell." Naruto gave voice to what everyone was thinking.

"Yes. And it appears that the creation of a shard that provides this advantage is extremely difficult and time-consuming to make," Itachi stated. "It requires a large quantity of dragon bone that is essentially distilled down to create it."

"So we are doing real damage to them by keeping the ones we find," Kushina replied. "It would be unlikely that there was more than one dragon killed, even for a powerful sorcerer."

"That also means they're going to be looking for them," Naruto warned. "Should we send them to Shika for safe keeping? They could study some of the inscriptions as well."

Sasuke looked to his brother, locking eyes with him. With artifacts so powerful, his instinct was to keep them all within his own hands. But Naruto was right in that it would be an advantage to have the Naras analyzing them, and also acknowledge the Namikaze clan's aid in collecting them. Not to mention making it harder for their enemy to get them back by dividing them up. He could read the same concerns and considerations within his brother's gaze.

"We have two shards from ice riders, and one from a body I found on Senju lands. The last one is older, and less elaborate. Let's keep one with us, and send the older shard and one of the ice rider shards back to the Naras for them to research."

Sasuke had expected his brother to send one back to their parents, both for safe-keeping and to have them researching its origins. The fact that he didn't suggest that sent a frisson of unease down Sasuke's spine. Things within the clan must be much worse than he had expected if his brother didn't even trust their own parents enough to research the shards. He opened the second cylinder to read what the council had sent him.


We have learned that the Namikaze have not only refused the binding contract, but destroyed the scroll. After such an insult, we have taken a vote within the council and decided not to pursue this alliance further. The situation with the creatures and the warning provided by the Sage are still of top concern, however.

Despite your past refusals on this point, we have agreed to an alliance with the Otogakure clan. Orochimaru has graciously agreed to ignore your past interactions with him on this, recognizing your youth at the time. While his clan does not have the same prowess as the Namikaze clan, it does have several advantages that would align well with our blood limit, as well as the tactical advantage that gaining access to his research would provide.

We sent a retrieval party to your last known location, but there was no sign of you or your team. You have not been sending reports back to us as directed. You are expected to report to your parents' home, in person and immediately, to finalize the new alliance. It was extremely fortunate that Orochimaru, unaware of our plans for an alliance with the Namikazes, had already prepared a full clan binding scroll. His advanced knowledge of the Uchiha blood limit allowed him to create one without our aid, further saving both time and resources, as well as showcasing his unique capabilities. This will help us recover time that the Namikazes had lost us by destroying the original scroll in dealing with the threat to our clan.

Your current mission will be taken over by another team, as your presence home is tactically more important until the blood tie is secured. Orochimaru has requested that you spend time with him in his home to acquaint yourself with his clan's customs before returning to your current mission.

Sasuke snorted in disgust. He knew exactly what Orochimaru wanted Sasuke to acquaint himself with. The only thing the man was going to get up close and personal with of Sasuke's was going to be the edge of his blade.

Whatever your personal feelings on this matter, you will do your duty to your clan. There will be no further discussion on this point.

Sasuke felt anger curl in his gut, the fire bursting from his lips just as Itachi pulled the note from his hand, rescuing it from impending destruction. Sasuke's stream of fire clashed harmlessly against the wall of the tunnel.

"It could be evidence," Itachi reprimanded, reading the note quickly. "He's persistent. I'll give him that," Itachi murmured.

"What did it say?" Naruto asked, looking up from where he was reading the note Kakashi had sent.

The one time Sasuke would have liked his brother to speak up, of course, Itachi remained silent.

"I've been ordered to return home," Sasuke said tersely. "The Council is turning the mission over to another team."

Sasuke's team looked from his face to his brother's, silent for a moment, stunned.

"Why?" Kushina asked with a frown. "Surely this mission is as critical to your clan's safety as it is to ours."

Sasuke's jaw clenched. "They believe the alliance between our clans to be dead. They've… arranged another option." He didn't need to look at Itachi to sense the amusement radiating off him. Asshole.

"But… I thought there was no other clan that they deemed worthy of an alliance," Juugo said, confused.

"The current situation is making them re-evaluate past options," Itachi replied.

"I'm not doing it," Sasuke bit out.

Suigetsu paused for a second, then burst out laughing. "Oh, my god, don't tell me it's that guy from Oto that's been chasing after you two since you were like… little fucking kids, is it?"

"Wait. What?" Naruto asked, bristling. Sasuke knew exactly what Naruto felt about forced child marriages.

"They can't be seriously considering it. Didn't you threaten to behead Orochimaru the last time he offered for you?" Karin asked, looking torn between laughing and dismayed.

"We need to get moving," Sai interrupted. "The area just outside the tunnel is clear, but there are two ice riders coming up the other side of the mountain. They know where we are and they aren't wasting time getting here. We can talk about Sasuke's list of spurned lovers after we get the fuck out of here."

Sasuke glared at Sai, but there was no debating the man's point. "I'll send a note to Kakashi, updating him," Sasuke said, heading out the tunnel entrance. "Sai, find us the most direct route to the Senju lands. Everyone else eat while you can. We won't be stopping for a while."

"Senju lands? We're going to disobey a direct order from the Council?" Sai asked, pausing at the mouth of the tunnel.

"Yes. Is there an issue?" Sasuke asked, pinning Sai with a direct look.

Sai tilted his head to one side. "I see no tactical advantage in this war of forming a blood tie with the Otogakuri Clan. And no other team the Council could send would be able to defeat an ice rider."

"Exactly." Sasuke gave Sai a curt nod, glancing back to see Naruto watching the exchange with a look mixed between concern and confusion. Sasuke realized now why Itachi had not considered sending a shard back to the Council. The order made no sense. If his parents and the rest of the council had gone along with this, there was something seriously wrong. "Then get us a path to the Senju lands."

With that, he turned and strode out of the tunnel, Naruto watching him go.

Minato briefly wondered where the Uchiha emissary had taken himself off to when the flap of the command tent was pushed open. He instantly recognized the young Namikaze warrior who came bursting into the tent, and felt himself smile slightly, despite everything. "Konohamaru," he greeted.

The young man had been devastated at the news of the death of his friend, and had been the first to sign up for the mission north. Neji followed behind him, his pace and demeanor much calmer but his eyes sharp and concerned.

"It's good to see you, sir," Konohamaru returned, his words polite but his tone urgent. "Is there news?"

Minato gave a nod to the Hyuuga heir in greeting. "There is. Neji, I'm glad to find you here."

He told them what they had learned about the ice riders from Naruto and the Uchiha team, as well as what the Naras and Kakashi had discovered in their research about the type of magic they were likely up against.

Neji's expression turned grim. "Our clans have not battled a sorcerer for centuries. And none with the abilities you're describing. If it's true, the battles we fight now will be child's play compared to whatever he has assembled to protect his lair for so long."

"Naruto and the lead of the Uchiha team have found a way to take out their top warriors, to at least weaken his force and slow him down from attacking us at home. We had been trying to establish a full clan blood tie with the Uchiha, but it was sabotaged, and the binding scroll was destroyed."

Neji blinked at the news of Naruto's betrothal, his jaw tightening slightly. "I was unaware that you were in negotiations with the Uchiha clan."

Minato gave a small nod in acknowledgement of the lack of prior disclosure. "They approached us after a sage warned of an imminent attack on their clan, telling them a blood tie to our clan was the only chance of assuring victory."

"Given the Uchiha Clan's two hundred history of turning down any offers of clan alliance, the sage must have been singularly convincing," Neji said, skeptically.

"That's part of why we kept it quiet. We weren't sure if they would follow through," Minato replied.

"Hm. The last clan they considered an alliance with was the Senju. When that was sabotaged, the two clans were at war for nearly a century. The Uchiha always said any other clan was unworthy, and the Senju tied with the Uzumaki clan, eliminating them as an option. Not that it would matter now, with both clans wiped out." Neji paused, thinking. "What did the sage say that made them consider an alliance with the Namikaze?"

Minato was careful not to let his gaze flicker to Kurenai. If she kept Naruto's secret, Neji would not appreciate it. If she had already informed Neji, then Minato still needed to tell him in person and not appear to be signaling for Kurenai to do so.

"The threat he spoke of was clearly the enemy we are facing now. As to the reason he directed them to the strongest warrior in our clan…," Minato paused. The secret was already out to their enemy, so it would only strengthen their allies to share the knowledge. It didn't change the fact that Naruto was already likely marked for death by a powerful, unknown sorcerer, and Minato was not keen to broadcast it further. But there wasn't much choice. They needed a joint strategy, and that meant joint knowledge of their assets and liabilities. Naruto was both. "You mentioned that the Senju had formed a full blood tie with the Uzumaki clan. That blood tie only broke when the last full blooded Senju died. Up until that point, the blood limit abilities had a chance of being passed along to any Uzumaki child born."

Minato could tell the moment Neji understood, as his expression shifted from impatience at being told something he already knew about the nature of blood ties to realizing Minato was saying much more.

"Naruto was born just at the end of the war that wiped the Senju out," Neji said, slowly, testing the waters to make sure he was not over-interpreting Minato's words.

Minato nodded in confirmation. "He doesn't appear to have all their abilities, but he has at least some. He's been trying to suppress them, so we don't really know what we're working with. But he had to use them in the encounters with the creatures in the mountains. They know what he is. And they're targeting him."

Neji froze, his usually unflappable demeanor cracking at the news. He was fully aware of what had happened to every other Senju warrior, many of them more seasoned than Naruto. He scrubbed his hand over his face, and Minato knew the man was trying to reconcile his childhood friend and possible bond mate in this new light, and all the implications it would have for him personally as well as for their clans. As a Namikaze, a blood tie between Naruto and a Hyuuga would make sense. As a Senju…

"The Senju's base abilities were usually tied to massive energy stores, and the ability to draw more in. Combining that with the Uchiha clan's fire abilities, to creatures of ice…"

"Would be a formidable threat to the sorcerer," Minato finished. "Which is why he is focused on taking Naruto out before making any other moves."

Neji grimaced in acknowledgement of the tactical advantage Naruto was offering them.

"Senju bloodlines were the most valuable to clans with strong attacks in their blood limit, since the combination would be nearly unstoppable," he said, his voice carrying a hint of resignation. The Hyuuga's blood limit abilities were around sight and defensive fighting skills. During a time of war, there would be no choice but to bind Naruto to the Uchiha, if they were willing.

Neji paused a moment, then continued. "But you said the scroll was destroyed. So there will be no alliance? From what I know of the clan, they tend not to take such things well."

Kakashi chose that moment to enter, and Minato couldn't help but wonder if the man had been listening to their conversation. There was no love lost between the Hyuuga and Uchiha clans.

"The alliance will hold," the white-haired man stated. "Naruto is with his bond-mate now. There is another scroll being readied."

Minato's eyebrows raised, as this was the first he was hearing of it. Neji's eyes narrowed skeptically. "That will take months. The Senju blood limit would be valuable to any of the clans in this war."

Kakashi shrugged, humming noncommittally in a way that clearly raised the Hyuuga's hackles. "When fighting a sorcerer who draws strength from the ice, fire will always be the strongest attack. No other clan has that ability."

"The decision of which clan Naruto will for a blood tie with belongs to the Namikaze. What we need to be discussing right now is how we will handle the Amegakure," Minato broke in, not wanting the rhetoric to escalate between the two rival clans.

"The Amegakure?" Neji said, turning to face Minato, his brows lifting in surprise.

"Do you know of them?" Minato asked.

Neji tilted his head slightly to the side. "Somewhat. They are significantly further to the west and north of our lands, and the terrain between us is barren and uninhabited. Several generations ago, we used to do some trading with the clan, but when we began discussions to expand it, then clan declined. Trade slowed then ended altogether. We assumed they found a more convenient clan to trade with that didn't require crossing the unclaimed lands."

"Or maybe they started trading with the sorcerer instead," Kurenai said.

"Possibly, though if you were trading in food or animals, I am surprised that the sorcerer would bother providing such things. What we read about seemed to focus more about trading in magical artifacts." Minato quickly explained how they had identified the clan as likely being allied with the sorcerer. "We were unable to find any documentation of them trading with another clan."

Neji frowned. "Something isn't right with this. Why would they hide evidence of basic trade but document the magical trade? I agree with Minato. Sorcerers of the past weren't known for providing basic supplies like food or animals or textiles. They have no patience for creating such mundane things."

"Maybe they just didn't document it because it wasn't important?" Konohamaru spoke up.

"There would still be bills of sale, or general contract agreements. No clan would send any significant amount of goods without it," Kurenai replied.

"Which is why we are going to the clan directly to find out what's going on," Minato replied. "We are taking a small party. Kakashi is coming with me to represent the Uchiha Clan's interests, and to report back to them our findings. Asuma will stay here overseeing the Nara and Namikaze warriors. Do you want to send anyone with us from the Hyuuga?"

Neji looked over at Kakashi. "I will come. Kurenai will stay here in charge of our troops."

Kurenai's expression was one of surprise, but she quickly masked it. For Neji to be willing to turn over command here, he must be feeling very unsettled about what they would find with the Amegakure. The Hyuuga were known for being very instinctive fighters, and Minato didn't take Neji's gut feeling lightly.

"Then we leave at daybreak," Minato stated, hoping the decision to go with a small, elite tactical team rather than a full force of war would prove to be the correct option. But leaving their homeland unprotected was not something any of them were willing to do, after what happened to the Senju and Uzumaki. The bulk of their forces would remain here, and it would be up to the three of them to gather as much intel as they could on their own.

Naruto watched Sasuke walk out of the tunnel entrance to send notes to Kakashi and Shikamaru, updating them of their progress while the rest of the team quickly readied themselves for the journey, taking time to eat what little food they had left. He had already filled Kurama's feed bag, and his mother had followed Sai outside, likely to discuss what seals he used in creating his ink creatures.

The sense of someone approaching him from behind had him turning to find Sasuke's older brother regarding him thoughtfully. It struck Naruto that they hadn't really introduced themselves to each other, meeting in the middle of battle like they had.

"Um. Hey," Naruto said, awkwardly, extending his hand in greeting. "I guess we haven't really been introduced. I'm, uh, Naruto. Thanks for helping us out back there."

Itachi arched a smooth eyebrow, but didn't hesitate to clasp Naruto's hand in a firm greeting.

"Itachi," he replied easily, but his eyes remained assessing. "You fight well."

Naruto released the man's hand, rubbing the back of his neck sheepishly. "Thanks. I mean, most of it was the dragon, but.. Yeah. Um, you, too."

Though Itachi's face didn't change, Naruto was pretty sure he saw a flicker of amusement in the older man's eyes.

"You don't seem averse to forming a blood tie with my brother."

"What? No." There was something very unnerving about the directness of the man's stare, as though he could read every nuance of Naruto's thoughts just by watching him. "I mean, with the war, and all, it's pretty much the only chance we've got, right?"

Itachi hummed in agreement. "So I won't have to worry about you ripping up the scroll this time."

Naruto felt himself flush. "I wasn't… that was… fuck, man, they showed me a picture of a five-year-old kid and told me I'd have to…" he trailed off, not really wanting to spell it out. Itachi gave a nod of acknowledgement, and Naruto was glad to see that there was no sign the elder Uchiha was angry or offended at Naruto's actions. If anything he seemed somewhat pleased, though Naruto could be projecting wishful thinking.

"Now that you're assured that Sasuke is not a child, you have no issue completing the bond?"

Itachi looked at Naruto knowingly, and Naruto felt his cheeks heating further. He had realized from the beginning that Sasuke was definitely his type. There was a controlled strength to the man that drew Naruto. Sasuke's tightly leashed power and cold, almost ethereal beauty had struck Naruto the first time he'd seen the man. Naruto had found himself watching the pull of fabric over the man's shoulders, or noticing the way Sasuke's strong, tapered fingers closed around the hilt of his blade, or the way the sun glinted almost blue-black in his hair. But it was weird, somehow, thinking of Sasuke as the man their clans had arranged for a tactical advantage to help them fight this war.

When Naruto had agreed to marrying someone and completing the bond, it had felt like a duty, just like training or leading missions or anything else he would do for his clan. The coupling required to complete the bond was not… intimate, when he'd thought of it in abstract. The idea of having sex with Sasuke, with both his mother and Sasuke's brother there as clan witnesses, made him seriously consider setting off another blast in the tunnel to seal himself in. It would almost be easier if he didn't feel any attraction for Sasuke. Then the act would be totally mechanical, simply the completion of a magical ritual that required it. The idea of it was both confusing and uncomfortable.

Still, there was only one answer he could give Sasuke's brother.

"Yeah. I'm good. We'll do what we have to do."

"Because the war requires it," Itachi stated, though it was obviously a question.

Naruto narrowed his eyes. He might not be able to read what was going on behind Itachi's dark gaze, but he knew when he was being fucked with. Sasuke had only entered into this agreement because of the war, and Naruto was damn sure Itachi knew that. "Your clan would never have made the offer without the war. So, yeah. We're all here because we have to be."

Itachi looked as though he had more to say, but – fortunately - Sasuke returned to the tunnel. Naruto turned to him, trying to signal to Itachi that he was done with the conversation.

"I've sent a note to the Naras and Kakashi updating them about our position. I let Kakashi know not to let the Council know he's heard from us, and that he should expect to be called home if he hasn't already."

Itachi nodded. "Has Sai found a path for us?"

Sai called out from outside the tunnel. "I know at least where we should start. It will likely change as we go, but the sooner we leave, the better. We can follow the ravine for at least a mile to the north before we'll have to veer off."

Sasuke nodded in acknowledgement as they all headed out of the tunnel.

"We'll rest later if we need to, but we need to make some distance for now," Sasuke said, breaking into a steady run, his sword sheathed upon his back. The rest of the team fell into step behind him, Naruto and Kushina included. Kurama was once again carrying the camp pack, but he seemed resigned to it and didn't kick up a fuss.

From his position in the middle of the pack, Naruto watched Sasuke running side-by-side with Sai. Sasuke was slightly taller than the other man, his shoulders a bit wider. Both had an easy, fluid stride that spoke of true athleticism. Naruto was glad he trained regularly and had good stamina, because it was clear they wouldn't be stopping any time soon. He wondered what would happen when Sasuke didn't reply to his clan's summons home. He also wondered why the brothers seemed to have no allies within their own clan that they felt they could trust.

"You seem very thoughtful," Itachi spoke from beside him, not even a little bit out of breath. Naruto hadn't even noticed the man falling into step beside him.

"Just… thinking about the summons Sasuke got."

"Hm," Itachi murmured. "And wondering what sort of clan you've gotten yourself involved with."

Naruto shrugged, keeping his eyes on the rocky, uneven ground in front of him to mind his footing. "Maybe. I mean, there isn't a single person you trust back home to let them know what's going on?"

Itachi was silent for a moment. Finally, he spoke. "The man who wants to tie Sasuke to him is… very powerful. He has specialized in magics that have been forbidden or banned by most clans."

Naruto tried to push down the prickly feeling of someone that fixated on Sasuke and focus on the warning that Itachi seemed to be giving him. "So… you think he's the one behind the sabotage?"

Itachi frowned slightly. "I don't know. He is someone who would try to break the alliance if he could. But I didn't think he was powerful enough to do it. At least not on his own."

Naruto blinked, barely avoiding stumbling on a loose rock on the valley floor. "Could he be the sorcerer?"

Itachi shook his head. "No. We know who his parents were, and saw him grow from childhood. My parents trained with him when they were all children. The level of power the sorcerer we are fighting has accumulated would have taken centuries to acquire."

"Ok." Naruto thought some more. "But you think the sorcerer is helping him."

"I don't know. But if he is, then there is a chance that at least one of the council members is under some sort of control. Possibly all of them. There are stories of this sort of thing in the past, but it's unclear if it was ever more than rumor. Until we know, we can't take the risk of letting them find us."

Naruto had read some of the tales of sorcerers that could control, or at least heavily influence, someone's mind. Or even read their thoughts. He'd never really believed it, but it made sense to not take the risk of sending a report to someone who might be unable to keep themselves from passing on every detail directly to their enemy.

Sasuke glanced back over his shoulder, his eyes pausing on Naruto and Itachi, running side-by-side. He held their gaze for a moment, then turned back to watching the path in front of him.

"How long has this Orochimaru guy been obsessed with Sasuke?" Naruto found himself asking, kicking himself mentally as he saw the arched brow on Itachi's face.

"Since he was about eight."

Naruto grimaced. "Shit."

"Hm," Itachi agreed. "Let's just say he wouldn't have shared your reaction upon seeing his bond-mate's image. He moved onto Sasuke after I had… rejected him."

Naruto felt his stomach churn. "So why does your clan have anything to do with him?"

"He is a useful ally. Strong enough to keep, but not strong enough to be a threat when my family didn't give him what he wanted. Or so we had thought."

"You think that might have changed."

"I think it's possible that he now has help. It was very convenient he already had a scroll prepared, given the last time he offered Sasuke threatened to behead him if he asked again."

Naruto gave a snort of laughter at the image. He could totally see Sasuke doing that to a suitor he found annoying. Naruto just barely caught himself from swiping the tip of his tongue over his lower lip at the thought, unsure why he found the idea of it ridiculously attractive. He sobered, though as he thought back to his own clan. If the sorcerer could be influencing the Uchihas, could he also have a finger in the Namikazes? Or the Naras? How would they even know?

"Fuck," Naruto breathed out.


Naruto had a feeling that hearing Itachi admit they were fucked was not a good sign. He focused his attention back on the ground in front of him, feeling an increased sense of urgency to find the scroll. He really hoped his blood was be sufficiently Senju to get the seal to open.

To be continued...

Chapter Text

A/N - Ok, so... I know this is like... 4 months late.  But I am at least writing again!  This is shorter than I had originally planned but I figured at this point I should just get the story going again rather than waiting even longer for me to hash out the next part. 


Chapter 23

They ran in silence along the valley floor.  The day was clear, and sound carried far up the mountains.  Not to mention that the pace Sasuke had set was pushing the limits of most of them to maintain.  But there was no option to slow down. They had to put as much distance as possible between them and the ice riders.  Kushina and Naruto stopped briefly to set off a blast and seal the tunnel that headed east towards the Uchiha lands in the hopes that their enemies would think that they were headed in that direction and not follow them north.  It was not a sure bet, but they’d take any advantage they could get. There was no reason that their enemies would assume they were riding to Senju lands, since the only people who knew about the scroll’s location were Sasuke and Itachi.  

But the enemy did know that Naruto had Senju blood, so they might not rule out the possibility of their group moving north entirely.

Naruto felt his stomach growl.  The rations they’d had on the trip had been lean at best, and the physical exertion had been hard.  

He wondered what his father would find when he reached the clan that had had dealings with the sorcerer in the past.  His father was smart, and knew when to fight, when to talk, and when to evade. But he’d never gone up against a sorcerer, and Naruto would be lying to say he wasn’t worried.  Of course, given that the Uchiha clan had been infiltrated, there’s no saying that his father would have been safer back home.

He glanced over at his mother, running just behind him.  Her face was set in the same grim lines of determination he knew were on his own.  Everyone was tired. Everyone was hungry.

But no one even thought about stopping as they pushed on over the rough terrain towards the Senju lands.

The ache behind Sasuke’s eyes was nearly blinding by the time they reached the border to Senju grounds.  Despite Sai’s scouts and Karin’s sensing abilities, he’d kept his Sharingan active nearly the entire two day journey.  He’d never pushed his ocular abilities so far, and the slight crust of blood he wiped from his eyes after his two hours of sleep showed the strain.  He had seen Itachi doing the same.

He didn’t let it bother him, though.  Every single member of his team was testing their limits on physical endurance and their own abilities.  He wouldn’t push them farther than he was willing to push himself. They’d been tired even before the battle, but there had been no time to rest before heading for Senju lands.  

His eyes strayed to the Namikaze.  He’d heard that both the Senju and the Uzumaki had incredible stamina, and both Naruto and Kushina were showing that now.  Of the entire group, those two looked the least ready to drop over from exhaustion. Kushina and Naruto took turns with Juugo carrying the camp gear that didn’t fit on Kurama’s back.  But the strain was showing on them as well, with the grim set of their jaws as they small band relentlessly pushed their way through the mountains toward safety. Or, at least, as safe as anyone was right now with a rogue sorcerer appearing bent on initiating a second round of genocide squarely targeting both their clans.

No one wasted energy on conversation as they moved as quietly as possible on their path.  They kept up a slow, ground-eating run for as long of stretches as they could, then broke to rest, eat, briefly sleep in shifts.  Everyone’s muscles were aching and tight. Everyone was hungry and tired. Everyone felt the unseen eyes of their enemy searching for them as they made their way through the shadows of the mountains.  

As the rugged mountains gave way to lower foothills, and they finally approached the border to Senju lands.  The stopped in a copse of trees, and Itachi walked up to stand beside him, his Sharingan glowing red, as Sasuke’s was.  The wards that the Senju had set to guard their borders were still active, decades after the clan had gone extinct.

“Naruto,” Itachi spoke, turning to look at the last remaining member of the clan.  “Can you see them?”

“See what?” Naruto replied, stepping up and squinting at the ground in the general direction Itachi had gestured.

“The wards,” Sasuke snapped.  “You’re of Senju blood. You should be able to activate and deactivate them.”

Naruto frowned, scanning their surroundings.  “I can’t see anything but trees and grass.”

Sasuke let out a sigh of frustration.  It would take hours for him and Itachi to try to deactivate them.

“But…,” Naruto’s frown increased.  He took a step forward, towards the nearest seal. “... I feel something.  It’s like…,” he took another step. “... like a pull.”

“Naruto!” Sasuke bit out the warning, but it went unheeded as Naruto took the final step to stand in the middle of the ward seal.  But instead of activating and stunning (or killing) him, it simply lit up.

Naruto bent down, placing his hand in the center, his palm flat against the earth. “Holy shit, there’s a lot of energy in this thing,” he said, his eyes widening.

“Send a pulse of your own into it,” Kushina said.  “Gently. Not an attack, just a… signal.”

Itachi’s eyes narrowed on her, and she curved her lips into a smile, though there was a sadness in her eyes, too.  “I’m older than you, Uchiha. I remember how things were done before it was all destroyed.”

Naruto did as she said, and the seals inside the borders near them lit up in a path that led through the foothills, though the path faded about twenty meters ahead.

“The wards will deactivate near your energy signature, now that it’s recognized you as clan,” Kushina said.  “Once we pass further in, the seal at the border will reset. Anyone who is following us will set them off.”

“That explains the bodies I found at the borders,” Itachi said.

Kushina nodded grimly.  “They came with such numbers that they were able to walk over their own dead to clear the border wards.  When they were inside clan grounds, there were enough Senju at the time that the interior wards were mostly deactivated.  Now… there’s only Naruto. The greater distance we put between ourselves and this border, the more wards they will have to pass through to reach us.  The wards are nearly a mile thick at the borders. We’ll be safe when we’re deeper inside clan grounds, but for now, we need to stay close to Naruto to avoid setting them off.”

Naruto’s jaw tightened.  “Then let’s get moving.”

Kushina turned to look at Itachi.  “If the scroll you are looking for was in one of the buildings here, it might not exist anymore.  The villages were all razed in the war… both of the Senju and the Uzumaki.” Her voice held a depth of sadness and bitterness of one who had personally seen the wreckage and suffered the total loss of her kin.  Itachi gave a small nod in acknowledgement of her aged grief, knowing that time would have made it bearable, but not erased it.

“The place we need to go wasn’t in the villages.  It’s closer to the border towards Uchiha lands.”

Kushina raised her eyebrows.  “Why would a clan binding scroll be kept in the middle of nowhere?”

“It was kept in the grave of Uchiha Madara,” Itachi replied.

Kushina frowned.  “Why would the Uchiha ancestor who started the war with the Senju have been buried on their lands?”

Itachi looked over at Naruto, then Sasuke.  “Because he wanted to be buried with Senju Hashirama.”


Neji had been the one to notice the entrance to a tunnel on their way to the Amegakure lands that had shortened their journey by nearly two days, but Minato was still feeling tense about how long the journey had taken.  This was their only real lead on the sorcerer, and they were starting significantly behind an enemy who seemed to know everything about their clans and where they were vulnerable, while the clans didn’t even know the identity of their foe, much less his weaknesses.

Neji paused when the crested a low hill on the edge of the Amegakure territory, his eyes locked on something in the distance that - even squinting - Minato could not make out.

“What is it?” Minato asked quietly enough that his voice wouldn’t carry.

Neji drew his sword.  Minato and Kakashi immediately followed suit, Kakashi pushing back the cloth that covered his sharingan.

“There are no Amegakure in their main village,” Neji replied.

“You think they saw us coming?” Minato asked, scanning their surroundings for signs of a potential ambush.

“No.”  Neji didn’t elaborate, and Kakashi only shook his head.

“I can’t see anyone either.”

Neji shot the Uchiha emissary a look that Minato didn’t quite catch, but seemed to make the older man bristle slightly.

“Your eyes might see farther than mine, but I can still light you on fire,” Kakashi replied calmly.  Neji snorted, but turned his gaze toward the horizon and away from the Uchiha emissary.

Minato nudged his horse forward, sticking close to the treeline.  He might not be able to see as well as either of his two companions, but he could tell something was not right.  Even before Neji had spoken, he had noticed how overgrown the main road had been. There had been no signs of farmers or traders.  None of the usual signs of activity that always surround villages.

He had wondered if maybe they simply had all relocated to the north or west, closer to whatever other villages they were trading with, but Neji’s comment had him re-thinking.  Slowly, pieces were starting to click together, and the possibility that was emerging in Minato’s mind had the hairs on the back of his arms standing on end.

“Neji.  How large did you say the Amegakure clan was?”  Minato asked.

“It several hundred.  If you include all the non-affiliated minor tribes in the area, maybe a thousand.”

Minato nodded as they rode toward what he could now make out on the horizon to be a village of moderate size.  There were no columns of smoke visible from any of the houses, despite the cool morning. There was no sound, other than the wind and occasional bird.

By the time they rode into the village, there was no doubt that no one lived there, and hadn’t for quite some time.  Plots of land that had likely been gardens at one point were completely overgrown, and weeds broke through the hard-packed earth of the abandoned roads.  The only recent hoof-marks were from their own horses.

Kakashi dismounted, his eyes scanning the nearest door.  “There are no traps or seals. No wards of any kind.”

Minato and Neji dismounted as Kakashi pushed the door open.  

“The dust is undisturbed.  No one has been here for years.”  He stepped inside.

The horses were trained well enough to stand their ground without being tethered, and Minato followed Kakashi while Neji scanned the area for signs of life.  

The building was a smaller home, the entryway opening to a kitchen and dining area.  There were plates set on the table, covered with dust and also a thicker sort of debris.  

“They never got to eat their dinner,” Kakashi said.  Minato moved through the apartment, but there were no signs of bodies.

“We should check the burial site,” Minato said, though he was already fairly sure what they would find.  Or, rather, what they wouldn’t.

Kakashi met his eyes for a moment, then gave a sharp nod.  “Let’s find get the Hyuuga.”

The three men walked around the perimeter of the village until they found markers of a the burial grounds.  

“There is no sign of a mass grave, or of a large number of burials happening at the same time,” Neji said, after scanning the markers.  The three men looked at each other grimly, all slowly coming to the same conclusion of the fate that had befallen the clan.

“At least now we know why the clan never came back to seize the Senju and Uzumaki lands,” Kakashi replied.

“And we know where the army of creatures the sorcerer created came from,” Minato stated grimly.

Neji looked back towards the village.  “This is why clans never dealt with sorcerers in the past.  The price is always higher than expected. Let’s find the clan records and see if they left anything useful behind to point us to this sorcerer.”


Naruto had a strange sense of melancholy as he walked along the Senju lands.  There were no buildings left to mark where people had lived and gathered together.  Only the occasional charred wooden beam or stone wall remained. The invading clan had evidently wanted to make sure nothing survived.  Not the warriors, not the civilians. Not the clan’s history or knowledge.

They approached what appeared to be yet another low-lying hill when Itachi stopped and walked towards a pile of rocks.  He slipped into a narrow gap between them, and the rest of the group followed.

Naruto assumed at first this was merely a cave where they could rest (which he was grateful for, since he was fucking exhausted but didn’t feel like sleeping out in the open given what was hunting them).  He was surprised to see an elaborately carved stone door once they got a few feet into the cave.

From the outside, the cave had looked unremarkable, but the detailed carvings on the door just inside the cave entrance were elaborate and extensive.  Itachi took his blade, making a small slice along his palm before pressing his hand flat against the center of what looked like some sort of seal. The letters on the stone surface glowed red, then the door shifted back, allowing him to push it the rest of the way open.

“Only Uchiha blood can open the seal,” Itachi stated as they moved inside.

“If you could open the seal, why did you need me?” Naruto asked, frowning.

“There’s more than one seal, dumbass,” Sasuke retorted.

“Fuck you.  I don’t spend a lot of time grave-robbing.  Sue me.” Naruto looked back to where Kurama was standing outside.  He was too large to enter the tomb, and he was still carrying all their shit.  “Let me get Kurama settled first.”

“There is a river not very far from here.  I can show Kurama where it is,” Sai said, following Naruto’s gaze.

“You’ve been here before, too?” Naruto asked, surprised.  The two men quickly undid the clasps that held the pack onto Kurama’s muscled back.  Juugo took the packs and set them inside the tomb entrance, out of sight.

Sai gave a thin smile that somehow seemed both real and fake at the same time. “My scouts are keeping me informed of the surroundings.  The wards at the border have already been reset. We’ll have some warning if we’re being followed.”

“Your scouts aren’t setting them off, so they aren’t foolproof,” Naruto replied.  “But, yeah. If you could show Kurama where the river is, that would be great. He deserves a rest.”

Sai nodded, dusting his hands off then turning south, Kurama following him to the river.  

“Ok, so… show me the seal you need me to bleed on.”

Sasuke rolled his eyes, and they all followed Itachi down into the depths of the tomb.  The air was stale, and there were motes of dust visible when Itachi lit the torches along the walls.  At the end of a long, narrow corridor, there was a door that was even more elaborately carved. The etchings appeared to be sigils of several different origins, but there were two clear palm-prints, side-by-side, carved into the stone.  One was surrounded by flame, the other seemed to be in the center of some sort of vine.

“The seal on the left requires Uchiha blood.  I was able to partially release that seal, but the other did not activate,” Itachi said.

Sai had rejoined them after seeing to Kurama, and he tilted his head as he looked at the intricate carvings that covered the stone door’s surface.

“Some of these are older forms of what I’ve seen of Uchiha sigils, and some are Senju.  But there appear to be others as well,” Sai said, stepping forward to examine them. “I’ve never seen some of these.”

“A lot was lost during our war with the Senjus,” Sasuke replied.  “But for now, let’s focus on opening the door.”

“You think the scroll is inside?” Kushina asked.

Itachi nodded.  “There are other markings in the outer chamber.  I can show you later, but the sooner we get the scroll activated, the safer our clans will be.”

Kushina frowned. “Full clan activation usually takes weeks if not months from the time of the seal signing.  The only two who will feel it immediately will be Naruto and Sasuke.”

Itachi hummed noncommittally, and Naruto wondered if he knew more than he was saying about the scroll.  

“Ok, so…,” Naruto stepped up to the door, taking the sword Suigetsu had loaned him and slicing his palm as Itachi had before.  “I just press my hand here?”

He placed his palm over the second palm-print.  Everyone waited, but the door didn’t budge.

“Maybe they need to be activated at the same time,” Sasuke said, cutting his own palm and pressing it in the second palm print.

“Maybe his blood is too diluted,” Suigetsu said.  “I mean he’s got like… at least 3 clan bloodlines running through him.  Sasuke and Itachi are pure bred. Maybe Naruto’s not Senju enough.”

Sasuke shot Suigetsu a glare, but there was really nothing he could say.  There was a good chance Suigetsu was right.

“Maybe it needs more blood?” Naruto cut his palm deeper, ignoring the frown on both Itachi and Sasuke’s faces.  

The door remained solidly in place.

Kushina stepped forward, examining the seal.  “This isn’t a seal type I’ve seen before.” She ran her fingertips along the patterns.  When her hand touched the palmprint where Naruto’s had been, she gasped, pulling her hand back.

“It burned me!” She looked down at her palm, where small blisters were forming.  She closed her eyes, and Naruto watched as the blisters faded.

“It must recognize Naruto’s Senju blood if he wasn’t burned,” Sasuke said.  

“But not enough to open,” Suigetsu retorted.

“If you don’t have something helpful to say, keep your trap shut,” Karin snapped out.

“Some seals require more than blood,” Kushina said, frowning in concentration as she looked at the symbols.  “The fire element here,” she pointed toward the carving in the stone. “It could require a specific attack to be directed on it.”

Itachi and Sasuke examined the symbol.  “The fire shown here is narrow. There’s a specific type of fire that makes an attack like this,” Itachi said.

“One of the only ones that would be safe to use in an enclosed space like this,” Sasuke added.

“Ok, so let’s assume we need both Uchiha blood and a show of blood limit ability.  What about the Senju part?” Karin asked, turning everyone’s attention to the other palm print.  “I mean, that’s clearly fire over there, but what the hell is this supposed to be?”

Naruto stepped back and looked at the door.  The fire that rose from the Uchiha palm print created a swirl of flames just about two feet above the hand print.  The vines that surrounded the Senju print twisted around before connecting with roots that stretched down to the floor.

Naruto remembered some of the drawings in the Hyuuga book on Senju blood limits.  “Shit. Some of the Senju were able to grow trees and poisonous flowering crap out of nothing.”

Sasuke arched a brow at the description.  “I take it you can’t do that.”

“No fucking clue.”  Naruto grimaced, but his eyes studied the drawing.  “You said the shape of the fire told you exactly what type of attack you were supposed to use, right?”

Itachi and Sasuke exchanged a glance, but nodded.  “The fire is shaped quite differently, depending on the attack,” Itachi stated.

Naruto frowned.  “There are no flowers carved here, so that… poison jungle thing is out.  And these don’t look like trees. Just… vines.”

“The carving seems to focus more on the roots than the vines,” Kushina stated, tilting her head to the side.

Naruto sighed, shaking his head.  “I didn’t see anything like that in the book Shika gave me.”

“Book?” Itachi asked, narrowing his eyes.

“Yeah.  When I told him about my Senju stuff, he brought me a book from the Hyuugas.  It shows a lot of the Senju blood limit abilities, drawing out how the energy flows.  It was how I got the idea to do the direct blood bond with Sasuke.”

“Can I see it?” Itachi asked.

“Sure,” Naruto shrugged.  “I looked through it all, though, and there was nothing about roots.”

He went and got it from his pack.  Kushina and Itachi were the only ones old enough to have seen Senju warriors in battle, so they looked through the book together.  Suigetsu and Juugo decided to go out and trap some game for dinner, now that they were back in the lowlands where food was more plentiful.

Naruto sat down, staring at the carvings as Kushina, Sasuke and Itachi looked through the book.  There was something about the way the roots were carved. They were larger than the vines, and the tips of them looked almost like fingers… almost like they were grabbing at the earth or… pulling…

“Shit!” Naruto stood up abruptly as all eyes snapped to him.  “I think I know what it is.”

Sasuke arched a brow.  

“I’m not supposed to make vines.  I’m supposed to draw energy from the ground like the roots do.”

“What?” Kushina asked, thinking through what Naruto just said, but Sasuke had already placed his hand over the fire seal.  

“Do it,” Sasuke said, drawing a breath and blowing out a narrow, steady stream of fire dead center in the ring of flames carved above his hand.

Naruto walked over, placing his palm on the wall in the second slot, closing his eyes as he focused on drawing in energy through his palm.  The cut he’d made earlier allowed the energy to flow faster.

His eyes snapped open suddenly as he felt Sasuke’s energy flow into his palm.  “Shit! The door’s channeling the energy somehow…,” he broke off as he hand began to heat.

He could feel the skin start to blister, and knew it would be worse if it weren’t for his healing abilities kicking in.

“Something’s happening!” Karin said, eyes focused on the door.

As soon as the words left her lips, there was a deep thud, and dirt began coming down as the door slowly opened.


Shikamaru was just putting the scroll away he had been reading when he heard a soft tapping at the window.  He finished putting the scroll back on the shelf, then went outside. He looked completely unsurprised to find a large, black bird perched on the sill, a container strapped to its leg.

“You’re early,” Shikamaru murmured, holding his arm out for the bird.  He hadn’t expected a message to arrive for at least another two days. Either they ran into trouble or they made remarkably good time.

The bird flew over, alighting on his forearm and allowing him to remove the canister.

“Wait,” he told the bird as he pulled out the scroll.  The bird flew up to perch on the same window it had been tapping at, earlier.  Shikamaru quickly read the note from Minato that Kakashi had sent. “Fuck.”

“News already?”

Shikamaru looked up at the voice of his father.  “Yes, but not good.”

He handed his father the note, containing a description of what Minato had found when they reached the clan’s homeland.

“Hm,” Shikaku hummed.  “The clan paid a steep price for their quest for power.”

Shikamaru grimaced.  “Being turned into some sort of… undead army probably wasn’t what they thought they were signing up for.”

“No.  But it will give us more clues to the sorcerer’s identity.  While dragon magic was rare, necromancy wasn’t. And there was one group of sorcerers who excelled at it.”

Shikamaru’s brows lifted.  “Enough to enslave an entire clan almost instantaneously?”

Shikaku gave a grim smile.  “There was a reason that sorcerers were feared and hunted.”

“Troublesome,” Shikamaru muttered.  “The bird will wait for a return message.  Let’s go dig up whatever we can on this group of sorcerers and send it to Minato.  Especially if there’s a location for where they were based.”

Shikaku nodded.  “The location of the sorcerer’s lairs were carefully guarded secrets, but as the sects of sorcerers were wiped out, more became known.  I’m quite sure I remember reading about this sect, since it was one of the most hated at the time. Let’s see what we can find.”

Finally, they were getting somewhere.


To be continued...

Updates will be SLOW given my real life shit (find me on Twitter @Kizukatana if you want to know the shitstorm that is my life) but they will be happening again. FINALLY!!!!

Chapter Text

Chapter 23

The group stood still for a moment outside the tomb doors.  The air that drifted out was stale as the crypt opened for the first time in centuries.  Despite everyone’s fatigue and the urgency pressing on them to see if the scroll would be inside, the solumness of the moment gripped them for a frozen moment.  The tomb contained two of the greatest warriors in human history, and entering their final resting place was not something to be taken lightly.

Kushina was the first one to speak.  “Let’s see if the scroll is here, and in a condition that we could use it.  Then we’ll make camp.”

There was a relieved nodding from the group at the mention of sleep.  All of them were running on fumes, and whether the tomb contained what they were looking for or not, they at least had found a relatively safe place to rest after going from battle to battle then being on the run for days.

Itachi stepped forward toward the door.  “I need to check for traps or other seals first.”

Sasuke followed, activating his already over-used Sharingan to help his brother.  He ignored the searing pain that shot through his eyes, knowing Itachi was likely feeling the same.  They gave the darkened room a cursory scan from the doorway, then they each blew a narrow jet of flame to illuminate the room.

It was clear that no one had set foot in the inner chamber of the burial site for centuries.  There was a thick layer of undisturbed dust covering everything, and the air was musty and stale.  Sasuke was familiar with the typical Uchiha crypt, having visited the tombs of his ancestors on the clan grounds during their ancestry festivals, but the room they had entered was not set up that way at all.  It seemed much more… domestic. The two stone coffins were side-by-side on what almost could be described as a stone bed. The intricately carved tables on either side of them held goblets and wine carafe that - while definitely ornate - looked as though they had been used… a cherished set that was buried with its owner, rather than something purely ornamental included to show wealth or status.  There were other items that looked had a similar feel to them, though the ones that appeared to have been made of wood or fabric had degraded past easy recognition of what they once were. All of this registered in Sasuke’s mind, but what caught and fixed his attention was what had been placed between the two coffins on the stone bed.

A scroll sat on a small pedestal, the parchment seemingly untouched by age despite the length of time it had been there .  In the dim light, Sasuke could see a faint shimmer of power emanating from the scroll. Whatever magic had been used to create it, it was clearly a much more powerful scroll than the one that Sasuke had signed his name to, before Naruto had torn it up.  

“It’s here,” Sasuke said, looking over at his brother, unsurprised to see his brother’s keen eyes had already located it.

Itachi’s expression held the tiniest flicker of relief, the only sign that he’d ever had any doubt that his theory was correct and that the scroll would still be intact after so much time.  Their only chance had been riding on them finding a viable scroll without letting their clan know. As much as the wanted to move quickly, however, both men knew better than to just reach out and grab a heavily warded magical artifact. Locating it was only half the battle.  There would be a lot of traps to disarm before they could read it and see if it could be used to bind anyone other than Madara and Hashirama.

“The scroll is at least here.  We should rest before we do anything else.”  Kushina’s voice seemed to make the dust motes dance slightly in the stillness of the tomb.

Itachi looked for a moment more at the intricate traps surrounding the scroll.  Any mistake would likely destroy it, and them. They were too exhausted to try now. 

“Agreed,” he replied.  “We can sleep in the outer chamber, where the traps have already been cleared.  It will be tight, but this location is completely warded from detection.”

The exhausted group didn’t need to be told twice as they made camp.  Sai set a few ink creatures to scout and some to stand guard and alert them of any presence, but the wards on the Senju lands would do that long before anything else.

Within minutes, they were all asleep.  The ancient wards and Sai’s creations kept a much more rigorous watch over them than any of them were capable of on their own in their exhausted state.  It was the safest they’d been in days, and their bodies seemed to recognize it.

At the edge of the Senju Clan lands, two ice riders approached.  They stopped before they reached the first ward, their eyes scanning the lands before them in confusion.  After several minutes, they turned and began riding back the way the came.

An ink-black falcon circled silently overhead, watching them go before following suit and heading back towards the mountains.  

Sai sat up, completely still for a moment as though listening to something, then lay back down and rejoined his teammates in sleep.

Neji’s eyes narrowed as they crested the last ridge, and he drew his horse to a halt.  Kakashi and Minato pulled their mounts up alongside him. From where they stood, they could see the houses and buildings of the village in the shallow valley below them.  Despite the cold, there was not a single plume of smoke from any of the chimneys. Just as with the other village they had left, the fields appeared to have been left fallow for many years, random trees springing up in their midst, with no sign of any farmer’s till having churned them under to leave room for crops.

“Another village like the last one,” Kakashi murmured, his red eye scanning for signs of life in the village below, though he already knew there was none.

“No,” Neji said, urging his horse forward.  “Not the same. There are bodies.”

The three men rode down into the village, slowing down as they approached for Kakashi to scan for traps or seals, but they found none.  The frost had been heavy, but the snow cover was still light this early in the winter. Light enough to see the shapes lying in the paths between the houses, or in the doorways.

Minato dismounted, walking over to one and brushing the snow away to reveal the human bones beneath.  His eyes narrowed as he took in the smaller form in the doorway nearby. He didn’t need to remove the snow to know it was the remains of a child.  His jaw tightened as he pushed open the door to the small dwelling. The remains of two more children and one adult were inside, forming almost a line towards the door.

“They knew it was coming, when it started,” he said grimly, looking over his shoulder at the others. “Looks like the sorcerer needed some practice in their necromancy before they got it to work.” 

“Nothing like practicing on an entire village when you don’t know what the fuck you’re doing,” Kakashi said, his usual bored tone edged with anger.  “I wonder how many more villages like this we’ll find.”

Neji turned slowly in a circle, scanning the buildings around them.  

“There’s something in the large building in the center of town,” Neji said, his eyes white as he looked at something the others could not see.

“Alive?” Minato asked, his hand going to his blade.

“No.  But powerful.” 

The three men walked silently towards the central building.  It showed the same signs of abandonment as the rest of the town, but the building itself likely belonged to the head of the clan at one point.  The door was ajar, open to what was once an ornate entryway, with wooden carvings on the walls and doors, and polished stone floors.

There was a pile of bones near the entryway.  The flesh and clothing had long since rotted away, but an ornate amulet was visible.  The gold of it glowed with more than just the metal’s natural lustre.  

“Don’t touch it,” Kakashi warned, stooping to examine it.  He used the tip of his sword to turn it over, so the front of it could be seen.  The gold was inset with some other metals to form what looked like a compass rose, a black four-pointed star on top of a white one, with smaller points behind them and a circle in the middle.

“Have you seen this symbol before?” Kakashi asked.

Minato frowned as he examined it.  “It’s not the sign for any of the clans in the region.  Are you sure it’s not just a generic compass symbol?”

Neji shook his head.  “Not with the amount of magic used to forge it.  I don’t know what it does, but this amulet isn’t just pretty jewelry for someone who likes maps.”

“Then let’s send it to the Naras.  If it means something, they’ll find it,” Minato said.  All three men were keen to act quickly now that they had finally found something.

“Do we keep searching or head back?” Kakashi asked the other two.

“Keep searching,” Minato replied without hesitation.  “The Naras will research the amulet and the symbol. We will send them a note documenting exactly where we found it, and what the two of you are able to tell about it.  But if there are any other clues or artifacts out here that we can use, we need to find them. The snowfall has already started, and it will only get worse throughout the winter.  We only have at best two more weeks before travel becomes impossible.”

Neji nodded in agreement.  “We’ll need to use a binding cloth for the amulet to make it safe to transport.  Hopefully it will contain whatever magic it has.” He turned and walked back to where their horses were waiting, to retrieve what he needed.

It was a risk to send an unknown magical artifact into their home territory, but it seemed to be their only choice.  Hopefully, they had finally found something that could lead them to their enemy.

Naruto stifled a groan  as he heard the camp stirring to life.  The dark of the tomb made it seem like it was still the middle of the night, but the empty growling in his stomach told him it was probably mid-morning.

“Any sign of followers?” Sasuke asked Sai, looking towards Karin as well as he sat up from his bed roll and lit a small torch, casting an orange glow in the outer chamber of the tomb.

Sai shrugged, tossing his blanket aside and stretching.  “There were two riders that came to the borders of the Senju lands.  They know we came this way, but they couldn’t see where we had camped.  They turned back and no one else has approached.”

Sasuke and Itachi exchanged a look.  “They won’t give up that easily,” Sasuke said, neatly rolling his blanket and standing up..  “They know we’re here somewhere.”

“It’s possible they don’t have enough troops to come after us right now,” Kushina said, smoothing her hair back from her face where it had tangled around her in the night.  

Naruto sat up, rubbing his hands through his hair to try to get his blood flowing to his brain.  “They didn’t have trouble breaking through the wards when they took out the Senju before. Now that there’s basically no one here to fight back, why aren’t they going for it?”

“From what I was told at the time, the wards took out nearly half the invading army.  Given the number of troops you took out on your way here, they might not have that kind of manpower,” Kushina replied, shaking out her blanket.

“But we have no idea how long it will take for them to create more,” Sasuke said.

“Which is why we need to get the scroll,” Itachi stated, pulling on his gloves.  

Sasuke nodded to his brother.  “You and I will start disarming the traps.”  He turned to Sai and Karin. “You two scout the area and see how far away the nearest rider is.  Suigetsu, Juugo, see what food you can find nearby, but make sure to stay out of sight of the border.”

Naruto looked over at his mother.  “I’m going to give Kurama a rub-down and see what else I can find around here.  Want to come with me?”

Kushina looked over at the two Uchiha brothers, and shook her head.  “I’ll help with the traps. The Senju and Uzumaki clans had the most advanced seals.  If they come up against something they can’t disarm, I might be able to help.”

Naruto nodded.  He was feeling unsettled, and honestly would have liked some time with his mother to talk to her about everything.  Kushina had a way of cutting through bullshit and getting to the heart of a problem. Right now, Naruto didn’t really even know what was freaking him out.  He’d been ready to go through the arranged marriage before he even knew if he was marrying a 60-year-old man or not. Now that he’d met Sasuke (who was definitely NOT a 60-year-old, nor a 6-year-old child), it should be easier.  

But somehow, it wasn’t.

Naruto grabbed his bedroll and slung it over his shoulder, heading outside to check on Kurama.  He was feeling more nervous at the prospect of the binding ceremony now than he had been the first time.  He sighed, rolling his shoulders. Obviously, he’d need to just get the fuck over himself. Combining the power of their clans was literally the only chance against an unseen, unknown enemy who had taken out two of the most powerful clans in history not that long ago.  Besides, being bonded to Sasuke was hardly going to be a hardship.

Kurama snorted out steam and shoved his head against Naruto’s shoulder.

“Yeah, yeah.  I know. I’ll get my head out of my ass.  Let’s get going.”

Naruto stowed his bedroll and took the brush out of his pack.  He took his time brushing Kurama down, checking his flanks and hooves for any sign of injury or damage after their recent battles.  Unsurprisingly, there were none. Whether it was because Kurama healed quickly or he just didn’t injure easily, he showed no signs of their past battles.  

Naruto looked back over his shoulder at the tomb, but there was no sign of anyone coming out to let him know all the traps were disarmed.  He had a feeling it was going to take a while, given the narrow-eyed expression on Sasuke’s face as he’d scanned the area again that morning.  Naruto decided to take Kurama for a walk and check out the remains of the village that had once stood there.

“This time you don’t have to carry anything,” Naruto said, stroking his mount’s nose.  “Thanks for helping us get out of there, buddy.”

Kurama tossed his head and stomped his foot, making Naruto laugh.  “Alright. Let’s go exploring.”

The two walked back to where Kushina mentioned the village had once stood, taking care to stay out of line of sight from the border in case any of the riders came back looking for them.  The buildings had all been razed, with only the foundations remaining. Some had likely been made from wood and had been burned, but even the stone buildings had been toppled, the cut stones scattered about like straw.  Naruto wondered at the force that could have done this, but then he remembered the tunnels carved through the mountains and realized that this was probably not any harder. 

As he approached what appeared to have been the center of the town, he felt an odd pull coming from one of the largest destroyed buildings, at least judging by the footprint of the stone foundation that was left.  Kurama stopped at the edges of the building, his body going rigid and alert.  

“You feel it, too, boy?” Naruto asked, stroking along Kurama’s back before stepping over the border of the foundation.  Kurama did not follow, but shifted his feet nervously.

The pull didn’t feel threatening to Naruto, though it was definitely powerful.  Naruto followed it to nearly the opposite side of the old building. The stone floor was broken but still recognizable, and the area Naruto was drawn to didn’t appear any different than the rest of the place, but there was… something…

He crouched down, brushing his fingers along the broken stones, not sure what he was looking for.  He should probably get Sasuke to check it out before exploring further, as there was clearly some sort of ward or trap here.  But Sasuke was busy helping to access the scroll, and that definitely took priority over satisfying Naruto’s random curiosity about ‘weird feelings’ coming from the floors of old buildings.  And Naruto didn’t really feel like waiting for however many hours it was going to take before they were done disarming the tomb.

Kurama gave a derisive snort as though he could hear Naruto’s thought process.  Sometimes, Naruto wondered if the beast really could, or if he just knew Naruto too well.

“Here goes nothing’,” Naruto murmured, drawing in energy from the surrounding earth, then slowly feeding it into the stones his hands were resting on.  At first, nothing happened. But then slowly, symbols began to glow in the stones around him. They were broken enough that Naruto couldn’t make all of them out, but he saw the outline of a large rectangle appear around them.  He drew in more power and pumped it into the stones. There was a flash of light, startling Naruto and knocking him back on his ass. When he looked over, the area where he had been standing was replaced by a set of stone stairs, descending down into darkness.

A shout from behind him had him turning to see Karin running towards him, her sword drawn, with Juugo not far behind her.

“Are you alright?  Did you set off a trap?” she panted, running up to the edge of the building’s outline, then coming to an abrupt stop just as Kurama had.

“I think I found a room that the assholes who leveled this place missed,” Naruto said, standing up and brushing off the debris from his legs and backside.

“We should get Sasuke,” Karin replied, rubbing her arms as though to smooth out goose bumps as she looked at the stairs and the energy coming from it.

“I think getting the scroll is his first priority,” Naruto replied, looking back down into the darkness.  “Can you cross the barrier?”

Karin considered it a moment, then shook her head.  “I don’t think so.”

Naruto gave a short nod.  “Then I’m going to head down.  Let the others know where I am when they’ve gotten to the scroll.”

Karin looked like she was going to object, but Naruto didn’t give her the chance before he headed down the ancient stone steps to find out what was so important to keep warded like this.  He ignored the annoyed snort Kurama sent his way as he went.

Sasuke ignored the trickle of sweat he could feel between his shoulder blades, the heat of the fire spells that he and Itachi had been using to undo the traps that filled the tomb.  

“Fuck Madara,” Sasuke gritted out as he wove the intricate strands of flame through one of the last traps.  Itachi gave a soft snort of agreement as he worked on his own, complicated seal.  

“He was… thorough,” Kushina commented, rubbing her forehead in fatigue, ignoring the smear of soot her hand left behind.  “But these are the last two?”

“Unless we missed one,” Itachi replied.  Normally, they wouldn’t even have considered the possibility.  But Madara’s seals and traps had been beyond anything they’d ever run into before.  He clearly hadn’t wanted grave robbers to mess with the bond that should have been between him and Hashirama.  Sasuke might have felt bad for doing it, if the clan’s survival hadn’t depended on it. Besides, in a way, it would hopefully lead to completing the bond that Madara had wanted in the first place.

Sasuke let out a slow breath as the seal flared briefly, then faded away, diffused.  “Done.”

Itachi didn’t shift his gaze from where he was focused on the last remaining trap.  “I need a few more minutes here. Go get some air, and let Naruto know we have the scroll.”

Sasuke nodded, glad to be able to step out from the dead, stifling air of the crypt and into the cool, fresh breeze.  His skin pulled tight at the abrupt change in temperature, but it was a welcome relief. Sai was sitting on the ground reading when he came out.  

“Your fiance is being reckless again,” Sai said, not looking up from his book.

Sasuke looked around, but there was no sign of Naruto.  His stomach tightened slightly. Surely he wouldn’t have run off chasing after some ice rider on his own just as they were extracting the scroll.

“Where is he?” Sasuke asked.

Sai pointed back in the direction of where the village used to stand.  Sasuke let out a small breath of relief that it was in the opposite direction as the border.  “Found some sort of warded, hidden stairs and just strolled right down them instead of waiting for you guys to finish up and check it out.  Karin is keeping watch but he’s been down there like an hour and we haven’t heard from him. No one else can get in, not even that freaky horse of his.”

Sasuke’s jaw clenched.  “Of course.” So much for taking a break, he thought, breaking into a jog in the direction Sai had indicated.  If Naruto had gotten himself killed, Sasuke was going to kick his ass.

Naruto had reached the bottom of the stairs and realized he wasn’t going to be able to do much exploring in pitch blackness.  He had turned to head back up and find some sort of torch when a soft, bluish glow grew behind him. He turned to see several wall sconces glowing dimly along the wall closest to him.  It wasn’t much, but enough to realize that he was in some sort of library, with books and scrolls lining tightly packed shelves. He felt an odd sort of elation at knowing that the entire knowledge of this once powerful clan hadn’t been wiped out after all.  

He stepped slowly forward, the lights seeming to follow where he went, extinguishing behind him.  Somehow, the lights were either feeding off his energy, or tracking him in some way. Naruto couldn’t decide if he thought that was cool as fuck or creepy as hell, but it was allowing him to explore without having to go back up for a torch and risk someone stopping him, so he counted it a win.  The books in this narrow room all looked old, and Naruto realized this was likely where the most valuable and/or dangerous books were kept. Most were in languages that he didn’t understand, but he came to a section of scrolls that appeared to be mostly maps. Many were of areas where he already was familiar with, though they had markings that he didn’t understand.  But he found several that showed lands to the north, deep into the mountains. Naruto had never seen any detailed maps of these areas, as the mountains became impassible just a little further north from where he had met Sasuke.  

But these maps showed much more, including what appeared to be some sort of village or camp deep in the Northern realms.  He hadn’t realized how much time had passed until he heard Sasuke’s voice calling down to him.

“You idiot.  What the fuck were you thinking, going down there by yourself?”

Naruto smirked at the irritation he could hear in the man’s voice.  “What’s the matter, Sasuke? You can’t get down here? Thought those fancy eyes of yours were supposed to let you get past all the traps and wards or whatever.”

“Tch,” Sasuke’s voice floated down.  “I can see the wards. But it would take me hours to get through them.  What’s down there that’s taking you so long? We got the scroll.”

Naruto might be imagining it, but he thought he could hear a note of relief in Sasuke’s voice.  Whether at finding out the Naruto was ok, or at the fact that they were able to recover the scroll, he wasn’t sure.

“Some sort of library archive.  Shit ton of old books. I can’t read most of them, but they have maps of the area north of here that I’ve never seen.  I didn’t think anyone could get that far north.”

“Bring them up.  We should leave the wards to keep other people out until we know if we can reset them.”

Naruto nodded, even though Sasuke couldn’t see him.  He carefully pulled out the three maps that showed the northern areas, then one that showed his own and Sasuke’s clan grounds.  Maybe by looking at the maps of the known territory, they could decode some of the symbols.

When he emerged from the archives, both Kushina and Itachi had joined Sasuke.  Three sets of eyes pinned him with their disapproval as he walked out. As soon as he’d cleared the area, the stones shimmered, then snapped back into place as though the stairs had never been there.

“Before you guys ream me out for going down there,” Naruto began, lifting the maps as a peace offering.  “Getting at the scroll was top priority. But we aren’t going to have a lot of time to explore later, and I wanted to see what was so important that the Senjus had it warded up the ass.”

Kushina glared at him, but no one could really disagree with what he had said.  “There are a ton of old books down there, and maps.” He carefully set most of the maps down, then opened up the one that showed the village far past what he’d been told were the accessible areas of the North. 

Itachi and Sasuke gently took the map, eyes equally focused on scanning the information there.  Kushina glanced at it, but walked over to cuff Naruto on the back of the head. “Next time, let me know before you do something stupid.”

“I’ve never heard anything about a village this far north,” Sasuke said, glancing over at Itachi, who shook his head as well.

“Is this the clan that invaded the Senju?” Naruto asked.

Itachi narrowed his eyes.  “I’m not sure. These maps are very old.  It’s possible that this was where a clan lived before the mountains iced over.  I’ve been north of here, and there is no way to reach these lands even in the summer, unless you can fly.”

Naruto looked over at Kurama.  “Or if you are riding something with claws that can scale ice cliffs.”

“You’re not going alone to chase after an unknown clan that might have single-handedly wiped out two of the most powerful blood lines on their own,” Kushina said sharply.

Sasuke’s head snapped up and he narrowed his eyes at Naruto.  

Pinned under two dual gazes boring into him, Naruto lifted his hands in mock defense.  “I’m just saying. There is a way to get there and find out what the deal is with this clan.  If it still exists or was like… just some summer lodges for the Senju before the mountains froze over.”

“You aren’t saying you won’t go,” Sasuke stated.

Naruto shrugged.  “We need to deal with the scroll shit first.  Since the three of you are here, I’m guessing you were able to get it? We ready for the binding ceremony?”  He flicked a glance at Sasuke, feeling a spike of restlessness shoot through him, but Sasuke’s face was set in lines of suspicion to Naruto’s non-answer about heading north on his own.

Kushina nodded.  “We have it, but we need to translate it.”

Naruto blinked at her.  “Translate?”

Sasuke sighed.  “It’s in a much older dialect, and it doesn’t look like it’s the standard ritual.  There are a lot of… subtleties, and we need to make sure we know what they are before we use it.”

“We will only have one chance.  If we do the ritual wrong, the scroll will be useless,” Itachi added.

Naruto looked back over his shoulder at the hidden library archives.  “So it looks like I’ll have more time to explore.”

“Actually, you and Sasuke should start preparing yourselves for the ceremony,” Kushina said.

Naruto looked at his mother, feeling his face flush.  “What?!”

Kushina blinked at him, reviewing her words.  A slight trace of pink edged her cheeks. “I meant getting washed up in the river and mentally prepared, not… that .”  She rolled her eyes, then slanted Naruto a wink.  “Though if the ritual is like most of the others, I guess that will be necessary, too.”

“Christ!” Naruto cursed, rubbing his face over his hands.  He looked over at Sasuke but the man was suddenly very absorbed in looking at the map.  Itachi was watching Sasuke with amusement, but his expression turned serious as he looked back at Naruto.

“The scroll is very powerful.  The binding will take a lot more out of you than the original would have,” Itachi cautioned.  “We don’t know what the ritual will entail, but you should both focus on building up your power.  Kushina and I will work on translating it as quickly as possible in case there are any other requirements needed for the ritual.”  Itachi narrowed his eyes at Naruto. “And we’ll discuss options for exploring to the north after the ceremony, when we have a sense of whether it worked or not and how it affects you both.”

Naruto knew that the waiting was necessary, but he itched to head north before the snows made it impossible as winter increased her grip on the mountains. He was also hoping to fast-forward through the bonding ritual, if at all possible.

“How long do you think it will take them to translate the scroll?” Naruto asked, glancing over at Sasuke as Kushina and Itachi headed back to the tomb.  There was a tension between them that hadn’t been before. They had both known that they were going to have to do the full blood bond if their clans were going to win the war, but it was different when the bonding was imminent.

Sasuke shrugged, gathering up the maps and heading towards where the small river ran through what used to be the center of the village. Evidently he was planning on following Kushina’s instructions on bathing.  

“It was about ten pages long, but it looked like just the first page or two were about the actual ritual.   It will likely take a couple of hours. It looks like Hashirama and Madara weren’t specified by name, though, so we should be able to use it unless they find something else buried in the details.”

Naruto hummed as they reached a large, flat rock near the riverbank. They carefully packed the maps into Naruto’s pack to study later, not wanting to risk them blowing into the water while they bathed.  A breeze kicked up, but it was coming from the south, not the north. Naruto’s body had gotten used to the frigid air of the mountains, and the air felt almost warm against his skin even with winter already creeping in.

“There isn’t that much to worry about, though, right?  I mean, I thought clan bondings were all pretty much the same.  Weave the energy of both clans into the scrolls, sign in blood, fuck in front of friends and family to complete the ritual.  Why do we have to translate every single word?”

“The terms of ritual bindings vary, depending on what the purpose of the bond is and the strength of the clans involved, especially in earlier times when there was a lot more variation.  Sex is required to pass the blood limit to the full clans in every instance I’ve seen, but there can be other ritual elements,” Sasuke said, removing his parka and folding it neatly, setting it on the rock next to Naruto’s pack.  

“Ugh.  So we just wait?”

Sasuke arched a brow.  “I didn’t realize you were in such a hurry to consummate.”

“Fuck you,” Naruto glared at Sasuke, though he felt heat flood into his cheeks.  Yeah, Sasuke wasn’t exactly hard on the eyes. But… his mother was going to be there.

“No,” Sasuke narrowed his eyes at Naruto briefly, though the flashed with amusement.  “Fuck you.

Naruto blinked for a moment, unsure how to read Sasuke’s expression.  A slight twitching of the man’s lips had Naruto bursting out laughing, all of the tension suddenly leaving him in a rush.  “Shit, man. This is weird.”

Sasuke arched a brow at him.  “Bathing in a river?”

Naruto rolled his eyes.  “No, asshole. I mean… us down here… washing up because…”

Naruto looked at the water swirling past, feeling somehow unsettled about the fact that Sasuke was disrobing next to him, apparently unfazed by everything.  Naruto actually didn’t know why he felt this way. He’d known they were going to be bonded.  He’d been calmer when he’d been readying himself to marry a stranger.  Why was he freaking out now?

As Sasuke pulled off his shirt, the sunlight made the pale man’s skin almost glow, despite the layer of sweat and grime that covered them both.  He looked at Naruto, drawing attention to the fact that Naruto had stopped mid-sentence to gawk at Sasuke.

“... because most people prefer their sexual partners to not be covered in five days of grime?” Sasuke completed for him. His expression was neutral, but there was no mistaking the trace of amusement in his voice.  “Is cleanliness unusual for you?”

“No.  No .  Fuck, it’s just.  I mean… my mom is back there, talking to your brother about the details of like… how we have to have sex.  You don’t think that’s weird?”

Sasuke shrugged, though his mouth tightened enough that Naruto had a feeling the man wasn’t as sanguine about the whole thing as he was putting on.

“Like you said.  Most clan bonding spells require both blood and sex.  This is why you ripped up the original contract weeks ago.”

Naruto breathed out a small huff.  Sasuke was right. Naruto raked his hands through his hair, frustrated with himself.  God, what if he couldn’t even get it up because he was so hung up on this whole thing?

“We should wash up.  The rituals usually require purification before hand.”  Sasuke sat down and removed his boots, looking over at Naruto and arching a brow in a subtle challenge.

Naruto scowled back at him, pulling off his own shirt and tossing it down on top of Sasuke’s before he sat next to him and began unlacing his boots.

“Look.  Could we like… just talk a little about how this is going to go?” Naruto asked.

“Hm,” Sasuke made a skeptical sound as he deftly removed the rest of his clothing and headed towards the river, taking a bar of soap with him from his pack.  “You need me to explain the mechanics of sex to you?”

Naruto caught himself watching the man walk away as the words penetrated. 

“NO, asshole.  I’ve had sex before.”  Naruto stepped out of his pants and followed Sasuke into the river, trying to ignore the way the man watched him.  “Probably more than your frigid ass has.” Sasuke merely arched a brow. “I just mean like… when they say there have to be witnesses to the bonding, what does that actually mean?  And with two guys do we need to switch? Or does there even have to be penetration or just an orgasm?”

Sasuke rolled his eyes as he began soaping himself.  “That’s what they’re translating the scroll to find out, dumbass.”

“So you’re totally cool with this, with your brother here,” Naruto pressed.

Sasuke paused, his hands fully lathered, then threw a bar of soap to Naruto.  Naruto caught it easily, despite its slipperiness.  

“It’s not like we have a choice,” Sasuke said after a moment.  “Compared to what we’re going to have to face when we go after whoever is behind this, this should be the least of your worries. It’s just a step in the ritual.”

Naruto dipped the soap in the water then began to lather it between his hands, as Sasuke had done.  Sasuke was right, of course. Naruto didn’t know why he was making such a big deal about this. He watched Sasuke rub the suds over his torso, seeing the bubbles catch in the hollow of his collarbone as he scrubbed under his arms and behind his neck.

Naruto looked down at his own hands to keep from staring.  “So, what was it like, when you signed the first scroll?”

Sasuke shrugged.  “Not much. It wasn’t completed.” He shot a hard look at Naruto.  “But when I signed, I could feel a slight resonance with the magic in the scroll.  And the backlash when you tore it up. But the effects were gone within a few minutes, so this shouldn’t slow us down.”

Naruto grimaced.  He couldn’t exactly regret his action in ripping up the first contract, given what he’d known at the time, but he’d be lying if he said that the fact that they seemed to have been able to find a replacement scroll didn’t take a weight off his chest.  He shivered, the chill of the river seeping into his body, despite the fact that they’d barely had time to wash themselves off.

“We should meditate and build up our strength as much as possible while they finish the translation,” Sasuke said, stepping out of the river and pulling a cloth out of his pack to quickly dry himself off.

Naruto allowed himself to watch Sasuke dress, knowing that this man would soon be his husband by both blood and law.  He was beautiful and powerful, and definitely someone Naruto would have been interested in had they met in any other circumstances.  But they were not marrying for sentiment, just the survival of their clans. It bothered Naruto, though he knew he was being stupid. This wasn’t the time for emotions.  Their enemy was powerful and had decades’ worth of a head start on them. It knew their general location and would only be a matter of time, possibly only hours, before coming after them.

Annoyed at himself, Naruto stepped out of the river  He dried off quickly and pulled on his least dirty clothes.  He had not packed anything even remotely resembling wedding finery, but neither had Sasuke, so at least they would be equal on that front.  As long as they met the ritual requirements, none of it really mattered.

Their marriage was a battle tactic, not a romance.  And Naruto needed to remember that.

Sasuke had struggled to clear his mind and focus on building his energy back up.  He didn’t have Naruto’s ability to pull from his surroundings, but he could at least still all other activity and allow his chi to build uninterrupted.  He hadn’t been keen on being bound to someone when his clan had first informed him of his duty.  But he had reluctantly agreed for the sake of his clan. The clan’s need for this bond had only grown since then, and Sasuke’s experience of the temporary bond he’d forged with Naruto in battle made him much more focused on the benefits of the bond than he had been the first time.

It was only unfortunate that Itachi had to be the relative present, rather than a faceless clansman that Sasuke would have found easy to avoid in the future.  Still, he hadn’t been lying when he’d told Naruto that none of it mattered in the face of what was ahead.

The sound of familiar footfalls had his eyes opening, Sai, Kushina and Itachi approaching with what appeared to be the translation of the scroll.

“It’s done?” he asked his brother.

Itachi gave a terse nod.  “But there are aspects of the ritual that are left unclear.”

“Unclear?” Sasuke queried as Naruto approached at the sound of their discussion.

“Like… it couldn’t be translated?” Naruto asked, looking at his mother.

“No,” Kushina replied.  “We were able to translate it, but some of the steps in the ritual are not fully specified.”

She handed the translation to Sasuke and Naruto, who both read it silently.

The magics imbued in this scroll have been forged by the strength of the most powerful Senju and Uchiha elders.  Anyone not of The Blood who attempts to use this scroll will find those same powers unleashed upon not just their own flesh, but also the flesh of their clans and future descendants.  The wardings woven into the scroll cannot be undone, and the devastation of their clans and blood lines will be complete.

Be warned.

The power contained in this scroll will forge the bonding between a warrior of the Senju bloodline and a warrior of the Uchiha bloodline, based on the strength of their powers and willingness to bond.  Their blood affixed below will affirm the uniting of their clans, and the joining of their blood limit abilities, fusing with the magic contained within to link, by power, what in the past was not linked by blood.

The scroll has been blessed by the councils of both clans, and serves as the underpinning of a new treaty to unite the clans in an alliance against all outside threats.  The full bonding requires both parties - without coercion or dissent - to contribute the blood of their bodies to signify their willingness to be the vehicles of this joining and irreversibly seal the power contained within into their bodies and blood.  Should their bodies not be sufficiently strong to contain this power, the warrior will be deemed unworthy and the bond will fail.

To signify their agreement with these terms and align their current and future clan members to this pact, a member of each warrior’s family must add their own blood to the scroll confirming their presence at the ritual and acceptance of the consequences of a successful or failed binding.

Once the scroll is imprinted with their blood, the first stage of the blood bond will be complete.

The next stage of the bond requires a sacrifice in battle, the first for the second, and the second for the first, according to the tradition of the ancient clan rites.  This will complete the connection of the blood limit abilities between the two warriors, and will build as they fight together in future battles. The greater the sacrifice, the stronger the bond.

The final stage requires the fusion of their bodies and the blending of their life essence, the first into the second, and the second into the first.  This will complete the full bond linking their clans, current and future generations, sharing their blood abilities and strengthening both clans to defend against their enemies.  No other clan may bond with either blood limit while this bond is in place. The bond will remain unbroken until the last member of each clan is dead, the power of this scroll passed through the blood of all living clan members, based on their connection to the warriors signed below.

From now until the clans’ end, let this scroll bind the Senju warrior with the Uchiha warrior- blood for blood - and eternally hold the blood lines of their clans together, empowering them above all enemies.

This was followed by the signatures of what appeared to be the Elder Councils of both clans, then more details about the political arrangement that the two clans had worked out between them regarding borders, access to clan archives and clan trainings, and trade negotiations.  

“Well, shit.  That’s pretty ominous,” Naruto said, looking at his mother, then at Sasuke.

“What does the ‘tradition of the ancient clan rites’ mean?” Sasuke asked, frowning.

“We don’t know,” Itachi replied.  “There is no other reference to it.  It also isn’t clear if the sacrifice is from the clans, or the two individuals who are bonded.”

Silence greeted Itachi’s statement as they all considered the different possibilities, and tried to recall if they had ever heard anything like this from stories of the past.  But as the minutes ticked on, it was clear that they weren’t going to find the answer conclusively with the knowledge they currently had.

“We don’t have time to send this to Shika, even with your fancy birds.  So… do we just… try something?” Naruto asked.

Both attempting the ritual and not attempting it carried significant risks to not just them, but also the survival of their clans.

“There’s a major storm moving in from the northwest,” Sai said as he approached.

“Fuck,” Naruto cursed.  Winter storms in the mountains tended to come in waves, but all it took was one really big one to make the risk of avalanche too great to pass through the mountains, even riding Kurama.  Their window for heading north to explore the village marked on the ancient map would likely close until spring if they waited until after the storm had passed.

“How long until it hits the highest pass of the mountain range?” Itachi asked.

“Two days, if it doesn’t change course or speed,” Sai replied.

Any element of surprise would be gone if they had to wait months for spring, not to mention that it would give their enemy time to rebuild their armies.  They would lose any advantage they had gained with their victories so far.

“We can’t wait,” Naruto said firmly.  “Either we do the bonding or we don’t, but I’m leaving at first light so I have at least a chance of getting over the main pass before the snow gets too deep.”

Kushina glared at him, but couldn’t really argue.  

“It won’t do you any good to go on your own, since you won’t be able to send word back as to what you find, and we won’t be able to update you with anything we learn in the archives you discovered,” Itachi said.

“Which is why I will go with him,” Sasuke inserted smoothly, continuing before Itachi could object. “Kurama has already shown he can carry both of us.  And Naruto and I can use a direct blood bond if the scroll isn’t usable.”

“I think we should attempt the ritual,” Kushina stated, meeting the questioning gazes of the three men.  “There is no doubt that our clans will fall if we are attacked with our current blood limit abilities. We simply don’t have the strength nor the numbers to fight these armies off.  The ritual appears to be done in stages. We can begin the process now, and research the battle ritual while Naruto and Sasuke try to beat the storm to the north. We can send them word once we know what we’re looking for.”

Itachi tilted his head thoughtfully, considering her words.  “There is no explicit timeline written into the ritual. It never says that the stages need to be completed within a certain timeframe.”

“It also isn’t really clear on how much of the clan abilities are shared after the first step, though.  It might not do much,” Naruto said.

“Better than nothing, which is what we have right now,” Kushina responded.

The four looked at each other.  There wasn’t time to get input from their clans, and there was no way to really tell which was the riskier path.  They had to make the call.

“Then let’s do it,” Itachi stated.

Naruto looked down at the translation.  “Shit, I hope I’m considered enough of a Senju to not fuck over my whole clan with this.”

Sasuke shrugged.  There would be no way of knowing until they tried. “You opened the wards. Let’s hope they used the same standard in whatever protections they added to the scroll.”

“We should do it now,” Kushina said.  “If Naruto and Sasuke are going to leave at first light, they will need time to recover if the ritual drains or injures them in some way.”

Sasuke and Naruto shared a look, then nodded, both clearly wishing there was a bit more certainty in what they were about to do or at least a bit more time to make the decision.

They walked to the tomb, deciding it would be safest to unleash whatever power was contained in the scroll within the warded area in the hopes it would prevent detection from anyone on the outside.  Karin brought her supplies in case something went wrong, while Sai kept watch with Juugo.

Sasuke unsheathed his blade, and blew a thin trail of fire to purify the edge.  He looked over at Naruto.  


Naruto hesitated a moment, then nodded.  Both men nicked the tip of their forefinger, then touched it to the scroll.  For a frozen second, nothing happened. Then the scroll began to glow growing brighter and brighter with a pulsating blue and red light.  Sasuke felt the heat of it sear up his arm, the sensation completely different than what he had felt when he’d put his blood on the first scroll.  His finger seemed to be almost pulled into the scroll as the intensity increased. He looked over at Naruto to see his blue eyes flared wide, his entire body glowing.  The pressure of the power flooding into him built so quickly he could only suck in a sharp breath before he felt it completely overwhelm his system. As his vision started to go dark, he saw Naruto’s entire body encased in fire.

There was a shout from behind him, and everything went black.

To be continued…