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Bury my heart underneath these trees

Chapter Text

The gentle hills roll away from the wooded slopes of the mountain, stretching out into the surrounding lands like the ripples from a stone dropped into a still pond. This time of year the grasses are golden, long and whispering, and Ashura likes the sound they make, the gentle rustling hiss that seems to fill the world. Above him the sun is bright, and he lies sprawled out on his back on the hill, eyes closed and face turned up to the warmth.

There's no saying now how long he’s been here. No certain date and time he can point to and say this is when it started. Maybe it’s been centuries, or maybe only days; it doesn’t matter in this place, and Ashura has long since stopped keeping track.

“Slacking off again? What would your father say?”

Ashura doesn’t bother to open his eyes, even as he grins. “Father was well aware of my bad habits,” he says, and his visitor snorts quietly, settling on the hillside next to him. A moment later, a long-fingered hand strokes his hair, and Ashura hums, pleased.

“Are you alone here, nephew?” Hamura asks, and there's a touch of concern in his voice. “I had thought the others would linger with you.”

Stifling a sigh, Ashura opens his eyes, smiling up at the imposing face above him. Easy enough, given that his father looked even less human and more intimidating. “It’s been a very long time, uncle. They wanted to reincarnate, and I was hardly going to stop them.”

Hamura just looks at him for a long moment, then shakes his head. He pushes Ashura’s bandana down over his eyes in an exasperated motion, ignoring Ashura’s squawk, and says, “I thought that girl at least would stay beside you.”

Ashura pushes the loop of cloth back up, favoring his uncle with a pout. “Who, Kanna? She always liked adventure too much to sit around in the Pure Land. Of course she left.”

He doesn’t say that she was the first to go, or that it hurt; Hamura is always quick to protest any pain coming to his family, and Ashura really does understand Kanna’s choice. They had a full lifetime together, and a long one at that. Kanna never had much patience for Ashura's lazy moments, either. It wasn’t a surprise when she chose reincarnation over perfect, unending peace.

It’s not a choice Ashura is prepared to make. He couldn’t quite send his soul out to follow Indra through the cycle, but the imprint of his chakra seemed a decent compromise, and Ashura isn’t entirely certain what will happen if he decides to enter the cycle himself. Maybe nothing, or maybe it will break the technique he created. Ashura can't risk it.

“And besides, you're here, aren’t you?” he adds, glancing up at his uncle. Hamura looks stern, even though death gave him back his youth, but there's a softness around his mouth as he looks down at Ashura. “And Father wanders by once in a while. There's no reason to feel lonely.”

Hamura makes a derisive sound, but his fingers return to Ashura's hair. “My brother is many things, but an observant parent isn’t one of them,” he says. “If he was, this situation wouldn’t exist.”

Ashura winces. He doesn’t want to think about Indra, cold-eyed and willing to kill him. No matter how many times he dealt with his brother’s attacks, it always hurt; some part of him, soft and foolish, has never grown out of his childhood worship of his elder brother. That Indra could hate him like he did, could want Ashura dead at his own hand—

Well. Ashura's never been able to deal well with that knowledge, no matter how many times Indra nearly succeeded.

“It was the Sharingan,” he says, and maybe it’s a touch halfhearted but he’s never been able to keep from defending his brother. “It made people wary of him, and he was alone so often—”

Hamura's hand settles firmly across his mouth. “Hush. Indra's actions are his own, and you are not obligated to defend his motivations.” When Ashura makes a muffled, indignant sound of protest, Hamura rolls his eyes. “You seem to forget that I have an elder brother as well, Ashura. We cannot take responsibility for what they have done, no matter how we love them. They made their choices, and whether we could have changed their minds or not no longer matters.”

Ashura huffs, closing his eyes for a moment. Easy to remember Indra's hand on his face, that day he and Shiro saved Ashura's life. Indra then was kinder. Different. He didn’t have to carry the weight of his power, or the pain of their father choosing Ashura as his heir.

It was a progression of downward steps, though, and with time and distance Ashura can see that. There was no one moment where he could have stepped in and turned things around, or at least Ashura has never been able to find one, no matter how many times he plays their lives over in his head. Indra grew colder as his power increased, harder and more arrogant, impatient with a world that couldn’t quite keep up. Maybe, if Ashura had stayed closer, said more, tried harder—

But he didn’t, and Hamura is right. There's no changing things anymore. Not until this cycle of hatred is broken.

“How did you end up the wise one?” he asks, halfway to a joke. “I thought that was Father.”

Hamura's mouth tips up, just faintly. “Hagoromo is very wise in certain aspects,” he allows. “He simply makes up for it with his absolute blindness where other things are concerned.”

Ashura wants to protest, but—well. Some part of him has never quite forgiven Hagoromo for picking him as the heir, rather than Indra. Maybe Indra wouldn’t have gotten better, but what if he had?

So much pain and suffering could have been prevented if there had been some other solution beside outright war.

“Did you come for a reason?” he asks, deliberately changing the subject. Hamura is busy, always, and whenever he takes a few moments to stop and sit it generally means he’s either having a hard time or he wants something. Ashura doesn’t hold it against him; Hagoromo might be the Sage of Six Paths, but Hamura is the Shinigami. Death will always be a part of the world he left behind, and it never rests.

Hamura makes an impatient sound, flicking him lightly on the forehead. “Show respect, nephew.”

Because they're family, because Hamura has never minded bits of teasing, Ashura doesn’t bother to hide his grin. “Sorry, sorry. Did you come for a reason, old man?”

For a long moment, pale eyes stare at him, narrow and entirely unamused. Then, with an exasperated sigh, Hamura leans back. “Of course you would get my personality, rather than Hagoromo's. But yes, child, I did wish to ask something of you.”

Ashura makes an interested noise, closing his eyes, but half an instant later Hamura's palm covers his forehead. “Attention on me,” Hamura says quietly, gently, and he’s always steady but this time the thread of seriousness in his voice is stronger than it normally is. Ashura looks up at him immediately, entirely focused, and sees a trace of tiredness in Hamura's face that’s entirely startling.

“Uncle?” he asks softly.

Hamura favors him with a ghost of a smile. “You always were a good child,” he says, but more to himself than anything. Then, with a sigh, he lifts his head, looking out of the easy roll of the hills as they march down into the valley. “I love my brother very much. He is a wise man, and strong in many ways. But always, he’s held back until the very last moment, withheld his decision until it was just on the edge of too late. I've never agreed with that philosophy.”

It’s impossible to really fight a grimace. Ashura knows that tendency of his father’s all too well. Sometimes, he thinks about his journey, how he hadn’t come back for a full year and had largely planned not to return at all. Eventually he had, because he had missed his family, but—only because he had thought Hagoromo would have made his choice at that point. Of course Indra had finished before him; of course Indra was the wise choice. In no way had Ashura intended to make himself a candidate. But their father had waited, watched, done nothing to help, and—

He looks up at his uncle, holds those pale eyes, and knows his own feelings are writ large across his face. Ashura never intended to have anything to do with the future of ninshū beyond supporting his brother’s vision of it, and he could have happily lived his life at Indra's side, mitigating and managing and following one step behind him. Hamura is right in saying that Indra's choices were his own, but…maybe if their father had watched less, and acted more, some things could have been prevented.

“Yes,” Hamura says, as though Ashura was speaking out loud. “You were always one to act. Not thoughtlessly, but sooner than Hagoromo would have.” He offers Ashura a crooked smile. “It’s a trait I would like to put to use.”

Ashura blinks, blinks again. Then, carefully, he brushes Hamura's hand off of his head and sits up, pulling one of his legs underneath him. “To use?” he repeats. “Uncle, you know I'm always willing to help you, but—I'm not sure how much I’ll be able to do from here.” A sweep of his hand takes in the rolling golden grasses, the mountains rising in the distance. There's no trace of human presence anywhere—it’s one of the reasons Ashura picked this place. It didn’t count as loneliness if he was the one who distanced himself, after all.

One unimpressed brow arches. “Ashura,” Hamura says, a touch condescendingly, and reaches out to sharply rap his knuckles against Ashura's skull. “There is little anyone can do from in here, with the possible exception of my brother. Which would be why I am going to take you out of here.”

What?

“What?” Ashura demands, entirely taken aback. “Uncle, the reincarnation cycle—if I leave, and my chakra gets pulled back to me, I could ruin everything, Indra would be a threat without anything to stop him—”

“Do you really think I'm not aware of that?” Hamura gives him a long look. “Your chakra has found another host, and is settled enough that your presence won't effect it. And you will not be reincarnating—I do have some sense, child, thank you.”

Ashura flushes, ducking his head. No matter his age, Hamura is always well able to make him feel like a very small child. “No, of course. I'm sorry, Uncle. You just…surprised me.”

Hamura pats the top of his head fondly. “Understandably so. You will have to be very careful, Ashura—if you were to die, and I could not reach you in time, you will enter the reincarnation cycle regardless. Your chakra imprint would be pulled along with you, likely killing the host as it departed, and I would have no say in where you ended up. Perhaps it would be back here, but given how long you have stayed here without moving on, there is every chance it would not.”

Ashura hesitates, looking at Hamura and then out at the empty stretch of land. The sky feels vaster than usual, somehow, and he curls a hand around his own wrist, leaning forward. Not quite curling in on himself, but—habits are hard to break, and this is one he started as a child. “It seems like too great a risk,” he says slowly, deliberately picking his words. “Acting more quickly than my father is one thing, but this—thousands of years of struggle could be for nothing.”

There's a long moment of silence, and then Hamura sighs. “Thousands of years of struggle could be ended,” he corrects. “Nothing is what has come of this cycle, Ashura. I have seen it play out countless times, and it wearies me. Every generation there is a new pair, driven to conflict, driven to death, and it must end. I do not know how to fix it, and I never have, but you are one of the linchpins upon which this wheel turns. If anyone has a hope of stopping it, it’s you.” He cups Ashura's cheek, looking grim and tired, and gently brushes his thumb beneath his eye.

The gesture makes Ashura's breath catch, and he ducks his head again, trying desperately to hide his expression. It’s the same thing Indra did when he saved Ashura's life, and he should be well past this bit of weakness, soft sentiment where there should only be cold conviction, but—

He’ll never forget Indra's actions that day, or the expression he wore. That’s the brother he adored more than words could ever describe, and lost to the growing distance and power between them.

“This needs to end,” he agrees, just a little too rough for composure, and believes it with all his heart. He has since the very beginning. “I would—if there's a way to stop this, and break the cycle, to make Indra stop…”

Hamura lets out a low breath, neither sorrow nor satisfaction. “Good,” he says simply, and rises to his feet, offering Ashura a hand. When Ashura takes it, Hamura pulls him up, and then pauses to look him over. “Be careful,” he says, more quietly. “The world is vastly different than what you knew it to be, Ashura.”

Ashura grins at him, and there's a faint spark in his chest. Hope, maybe, or excitement. Time in the Pure Land passes differently, runs together and passes so seeming to, but even then it’s been far too long since Ashura was anywhere else. “You know me, Uncle,” he says lightly. “I hate to worry, so I try not to bother.”

Exasperation touches the slant of Hamura's smile. “I certainly hope it serves you as well in this as it did in your first life,” he counters, and steps back. Ashura can see a shimmer in the chakra around him, the faint hum of power that means to everyone else he looks demonic, fully the Shinigami. It’s like a haze, but through it Ashura can still see the long hair, the pale eyes, the way Hamura holds out a hand again, beckoning. He steps forward, and like a fog rising from the dry grasses the world bleeds white, vast and echoing and empty.

“I doubt Hagoromo will attempt to interfere once I've pulled you through to the other side,” Hamura says, voice echoing strangely through the empty air. “But should he, I will stop him. Don’t concern yourself with him, Ashura—do what you can to break the cycle, and try very hard not to die.”

Ashura takes a careful breath, steeling himself. Back to life, and maybe the Pure Land provides something like it, but only a pale imitation. Easy to believe that Hamura can do it; Ashura has seen the reverse many times, after all, and his grandmother’s blood is always startling in its power. It will be another entirely to feel it, though, and Ashura looks up at his uncle, braced for anything.

“What now?” he asks.

Hamura's hand tightens around his, and he smiles. “Now,” he says, “breathe.”

There's a hand on Ashura's chest, a hard shove. He yelps, but the sound is whirled away by the wind suddenly streaming past him as he falls. No footholds, no way to catch himself, and Ashura tumbles head over heels through white nothingness that grows brighter with every moment. The blazing burn of it is painful, makes him throw a hand up to shield his eyes, and—

Darkness, and green—

A cry that doesn’t come from his throat—

And blue.

Ashura hits the ground hard, breath exploding from his lungs with a painful crack, and digs his fingers hard into soft earth. The sudden flood of awareness against his senses is twice as overwhelming as the pain—none of this truly exists in the Pure Land, but now Ashura can feel it, chakra and life all around him. He forces himself over, trying to get his lungs to work, tips his head back against the humming earth and lets his eyes fix on the blue of the sky above.

Perfect and always clear in the Pure Land, unblemished unless Ashura wants to watch the clouds. Boring, Kanna told him, and Ashura never let on that he agreed.

Different, here. Heavy clouds on the horizon, a feeling in the air that speaks of rain. The rumble of thunder, distant but clear, and a cool wind that makes the trees sway and creak.

Oh, Ashura thinks, and closes his eyes. Smiles, because he’d forgotten, but this is what life is like, isn’t it?

There's chakra right above him, sharp and heavy like the wind at the edges of a typhoon. A voice in Ashura's ears, but he can't make it out. Can't make anything out, not through the way his head is spinning. One more flash of blue as he opens hazy eyes, a glimpse of green, and Ashura takes his first full breath even as he spirals down, down, down into darkness.

 

 

The first thing that registers is the voice.

“—not exactly the way I envisioned my triumphant return home, you know, dragging a corpse—”

Well. He can't let that stand.

“I'm not a corpse,” Ashura protests, because he remembers that very clearly, and opens his eyes. Getting an elbow beneath himself, he pushes up a little, grimacing when his ribs ache. Pain wasn’t something he really missed. “Ugh.”

There's a faint sigh, and suddenly hands are on his shoulders, carefully pulling him up to sit. “I think you cracked your ribs,” the man says bluntly. “At the very least.”

Ashura was under the same impression. “What did I even hit?”

“The ground,” the man says dryly. “You're just lucky it rained recently. If that patch of earth was any harder, you’d be dealing with a lot worse than fractured ribs.”

Next time Ashura sees Hamura, they're going to have a talk about remembering the limits of bodies that are less than half alien, he thinks, and cautiously straightens out his back. The ache of his ribs is sharp, but not dire—none broken, Ashura judges, and definitely no ruptured organs, thankfully. He breathes out, can't feel any fluid in his lungs even though they hurt like they’ve been bruised, and decides that he’s fine. It’s easy enough to call up a flicker of chakra, the sharp green of new grass, and press a hand over his chest as the jutsu mends the cracks and eases the contusions.

“You’re a shinobi,” the man says, and Ashura glances up for the first time, focusing on the stranger. Brown eyes are narrowed, looking him over carefully, and Ashura blinks.

“Shinobi,” he repeats, and pauses. He can see the characters in his mind, written in the dirt for him by his father the very first time he took Ashura and Indra out to learn his skills. A heart under a blade, to endure and hide. And—Hagoromo trained them for that, even if they weren’t called anything in particular then. Just the clan that practiced ninshū, and that was enough. “I—yes, of course.”

Thankfully, the man doesn’t seem bothered by his hesitation. Just hums in acknowledgement, shifting back to lean against the tree trunk behind him. “I probably should have guessed, with the way you fell out of the sky,” he says, a little wryly. “What were you trying to do up there?”

“I fell from heaven,” Ashura says, and it’s the truth but he makes it a joke, grinning at the stranger like he’s inviting him to share in the humor. “Couldn’t you tell?”

For a long moment, the man just stares at him. Then, with a huff that’s nearly laughter, he lifts a hand. “I walked right into that one,” he admits, and looks Ashura over again, gaze not lingering. A scan for danger, Ashura thinks, and the world has always been dangerous, but it still makes him a little sad.

Ashura tips his head, carefully pulling a leg up underneath himself, and is relieved when the ache of forming bruises fails to appear. “I like the low-hanging fruit,” he says shamelessly, smiling, and glances out past the man, to where the clouds previously edging the horizon have now covered the sky. It’s about to rain, and there's an edge like ozone in the air. The tree they're under is thick and old, bending over them in a heavy canopy that will keep most of the storm at bay.

“You didn’t look so hurt that I couldn’t move you,” the man says in explanation. “And I wanted to get under cover before the rain hit. There are a lot of bandits on this road, too. They like to go for easy targets, and it was better to get you out of sight.”

Unconsciousness was good for something, at least; the burning awareness of everything inside his range is easier to handle now, retreated into background noise instead of thunder in his ears. “There's no one close,” he says, halfway to distracted by the whisper of the trees and plants around him. It was a sense that didn’t exist in the Pure Land, and he hadn’t realized just how much he missed the sense of connection until it was returned. Reaching out, he lays a hand on the root of the tree and closes his eyes, and it rustles a welcome to him, branches swaying forward and leaves growing thicker over their heads even as the rain starts to fall.

“A medic and a sensor?” When Ashura opens his eyes, the man’s brows are lifted, his expression faintly impressed.

Ashura laughs a little, pulling back. Since there's nowhere to go until after the storm breaks, he settles where he is, stretching one leg out in front of him. “Not really, no. I'm good at a few things, but just bits and pieces of the rest.”

“Hm.” The man doesn’t look overly convinced, but he nods politely and says, “Asuma.”

No family name—either he doesn’t have one or he doesn’t feel like sharing, and Ashura can certainly accept that. “Ashura,” he returns easily. “Thank you. For helping me, I mean.”

Asuma pauses, and for a moment his gaze slides right past Ashura, back towards the road that’s almost hidden by the trees. “I was looking for a place to stop anyway,” he says, and then, “Which village are you from?”

“Village,” Ashura echoes, caught off guard. Their clan lands never really had a name—when he died they were still just the Ōtsutsuki, or the clan that practiced ninshū. And the way Asuma says it, it sounds weighty, like it means something more than Ashura would expect. Like there's a wrong way to answer the question, and failing to come up with the right one could leave them enemies.

“Exactly how hard did you hit your head?” Asuma asks, and there's clear exasperation in his voice. Reaching up, he taps the headband he’s wearing, the metal plate engraved with a stylized leaf. “Konoha, Suna, Kiri, Kumo, Iwa? The Hidden Villages?”

Shinobi villages? Ashura blinks, but—bringing together like people, having a place to teach and learn ninshū—that sounds like what his father was trying to do when he gathered his students and started a school. On a larger scale, maybe, but that’s to be expected after so long.

“I'm not from a village,” he says, offering Asuma a faintly sheepish smile. “Not really. My family lived near the mountains. You're from Konoha?”

“An independent clan?” Asuma cocks a brow, but he doesn’t seem about to call Ashura a liar to his face, so that’s probably a good sign. “There aren’t many of those left anymore.”

“You probably shouldn’t count mine among them. I'm pretty much the last,” Ashura says wryly, and it’s a little bittersweet, knowing that his clan as he understood it no longer exists, but—not anywhere close to the end of the world. The family Ashura loved has all passed on, drifted back into the reincarnation cycle to live again, and he can be happy for them. Maybe he’ll meet them, or maybe he won't, but they still exist and he can take comfort in that.

There's a moment of silence as Asuma contemplates that, but he simply nods, accepting it. “Well, you're closer to Konoha than anywhere else right now, if that means anything.”

Being around other people would be nice, Ashura thinks, and maybe it’s a little wry. He’s spent so long alone, waiting. Waiting for Indra, though he’s never said as much. Wanting to be there when his brother finally crossed over was foolish, and naïve, and their father certainly said as much whenever he passed by, but—

Ashura sometimes thinks his entire life’s story can be reduced to a hopeful child waiting for his brother, and lose very little of importance.

(It doesn’t matter; if Indra ever passed over Ashura certainly never saw him, and he had looked, cast his senses out across the Pure Lands and made his chakra a beacon, waited and lingered and hoped—)

“Would you mind company on the road?” he asks, letting his gaze fall from the clouds to Asuma, and tries for a friendly smile. Asuma is already suspicious, regardless of how he helped, and Ashura doesn’t want to feed those fears, but it still feels like a shame to let the man disappear so easily. It’s been a long time since Ashura had anything close to a companion, after all.

Chapter Text

For a moment it looks like Asuma is going to decline; his eyes flicker from Ashura to the road and back again, faintly narrowed. Then he pauses, as if struck by a thought, and mulls it over for another moment, tapping his fingers against his leg.

“Are you looking to stay in Konoha?” he asks.

Ashura blinks, because he honestly hadn’t considered it. Saying that he has to break the cycle he and Indra started is all well and good, but to do so he’s going to have to find whoever is hosting their chakra imprints this time around. Find them and help them, coax them through whatever trouble will set them against each other. He, better than anyone, knows how it feels to stand against one’s closest companion like that, and he wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

Still, the world is large. Ashura's journeys with Taizo proved as much, and that was when the land was mostly uninhabited, still recovering from Kaguya’s defeat. Now, without so many more people and places for them to go, Ashura is going to be hard-pressed to find the chakra hosts in time. In the between moments, it would be nice to have a set base, somewhere to return to whenever he needs a moment of peace to regroup.

“Would I be welcome?” he asks, a little curious. A village seems like it would be, because trade would be one of the things keeping it alive, but Ashura has encountered plenty of people who’d rather keep to themselves.

Asuma gives him a faintly odd look, but tips one shoulder in a shrug. “As long as you're not a spy for Kumo,” he says dryly.

That is…probably something Ashura should already be aware of, given the phrasing. He wants to ask, but doesn’t, because there's only so much lack of knowledge regarding basic things that can be explained away. Asuma probably won't take kindly to I've been dead for thousands of years, and I'm also part space alien. Most people don’t. Even Kanna hadn’t, upon learning that his grandmother wasn’t human, and she was one of the boldest people Ashura has ever met.

“I've never been to Kumo in my life,” he says, makes it a joke when it’s the actual truth, and Asuma chuckles a little, thankfully.

“That doesn’t precisely make you not a spy,” he points out wryly, and dark eyes study Ashura for a long moment before he tips his head. “I don’t think you are one, though.”

Ashura wants to ask why he doesn’t think that, but that’s probably a step too far where rousing suspicions are concerned. He smiles instead, glances up at the clouds again. The rain’s only growing heavier, but that’s all right; the tree keeps them mostly dry, and what drips it doesn’t stop are light enough not to mind. It’s a good tree, young and strong, and its roots reach deep. Ashura presses his fingertips into the bark, feeling the faint thrum of chakra beneath the surface, and then resettles himself against the trunk. His eyes stray to the surrounding land, the road, the start of the forest ahead, and—

It doesn’t feel like it used to. The cold darkness of his grandmother’s power has faded almost to nothingness, but there's more chakra than ever before. Not the low, steady beat of natural chakra, but something higher, sharper, more shaped. Human chakra, but—refined. It’s been used and tweaked and touched for so long that it makes even Indra’s best techniques look sloppy in comparison, and Ashura isn't quite sure how to feel about that. Indra was always so powerful, so unstoppable, and yet in this time, he would be…

Not obsolete. Nothing of the sort. But—smart, maybe, rather than as brilliant as a falling star, and Ashura knows he would hate that. Hate it with every last ounce of his pride, even if it would likely be all the better for him. Indra always did hold himself apart.

Well. There's little to be done about it now, just as there was little Ashura could do then. Indra loved him, and he knows that, but there was tension between them after their father made his decision to consider them both as possible heirs, despite Ashura’s lack of skill.

Closing his eyes, Ashura tips his head back against the tree, breathes out. Lets his senses stretch, rippling out like water. Next to him, apparently content in the quiet, Asuma feels like an oncoming storm, wind traced with the heat of fire, and it’s a good mooring point. He’s strong, and Ashura lets the force of him be an anchor, knowing his own tendency to wander.

This world is very large, but somehow also smaller than the one Ashura knew. Somewhere out in it, Indra’s chakra and his own have been seeded into unwitting souls, set against each other by fate. Ashura only hopes he can find them and help them before the cycle of tragedy repeats.

 

 

Asuma is going to be very careful to never laugh at Chiriku again.

Enjoy your trip home, he’d said. You never know, you might meet someone interesting on the road, he’d said. Asuma had thought it was just idle good wishes, baseless speculation, but—

He sighs through his nose, resisting the urge to reach for a cigarette. Chakra and medical ninjutsu can take care of a lot, but he’s been trying to cut back on principle. That likely won't be overly successful, if this trip ends up going the way he thinks it’s going to go.

“Just another minute!” the stranger who fell out of thin air and landed at his feet tells the civilian woman he’s helping, and Asuma rolls his eyes skyward. If he didn’t know better, he’d think he’d tripped into one of those ridiculous novels Kakashi’s always been so fond of. Those books usually have a bit more sex right off the bat, though, rather than probable concussions and then cart repair.

“Thank you so much for this,” the woman says, twisting her hands together nervously. “My brother usually comes but he broke his leg, and—I don’t know what I would have done. I'm so grateful to you—”

(Asuma is abruptly struck with the realization that if this really is one of Kakashi’s raunchy novels, Asuma himself is a side plot.)

“No need to worry about that now,” Ashura says kindly, slotting the wheel back onto the axel. He pushes up the sleeves of his white robe, apparently unconcerned about the streaks of dirt the motion leaves, and starts replacing the bolts to hold the wheel on. “It’s definitely not a permanent fix, but it should last long enough to get you home—”

The bolt slips, and the wheel jerks. Asuma moves before he can even consider it, grabbing it as it slips off and pinning it in place. Ashura startles back a little at the sudden movement, one hand coming up like he’s about to throw a jutsu out, and Asuma is almost relieved to see a regular shinobi response from him. Surely being that easygoing isn't very helpful where survival is concerned.

In a moment, though, Ashura has recovered. He casts Asuma a bright smile and offers, “Thank you. Much easier with two sets of hands.”

Asuma doesn’t quite roll his eyes, though he wants to. “I’d like to get back to Konoha sometime this year,” he says dryly, and instead of taking offense Ashura just laughs.

“We will, we will,” he says breezily, tightening the last bolt down. Sitting back on his heels, he studies the wheel with critical eyes as Asuma lets go, then smiles at the woman. “A blacksmith should look at it once you're home, but I think it’s safe enough for now.”

“Thank you so much!” The woman bows, then straightens, reaching for the pouch hanging from her obi. “I don’t have much money with me, but—”

Ashura waves her off with a kind smile. “We didn’t help for payment,” he says firmly, and rises smoothly to his feet, brushing off his robes. “Well, have a good day!”

It must be exhausting to be that nice all the time, Asuma thinks wearily, nodding to the woman and following Ashura as he heads down the road again. Shinobi tend to save their niceness for the people who are paying them, or the members of their own village. That was a civilian woman from an inconsequential village, though; there was nothing to be gained from helping her. Not much of a reason to, either—eventually another civilian would have come along and fixed her cart for her, with less fear on her part. She’d been wary when two obvious shinobi stopped to speak to her, and it’s the same reaction Asuma has gotten everywhere.

Civilians don’t like shinobi, even if they find them useful. Murderers and mercenaries, Asuma has heard them called, from the poorest village to the highest court. No one likes shinobi. It especially true when they're buying their services, but applies most other times as well, Asuma has found.

“You don’t get out of your clan much, do you?” he asks Ashura, maybe a little drier than he intends.

Anyone else might take offense; Ashura just laughs, surprised but warm, and casts a smile at Asuma without any sign of reservation. “Not in a long time,” he confirms, and dark eyes slide back to the road ahead of them, bright with something that falls between wonder and eagerness. “A very long time,” he repeats, more quietly, and more to himself than Asuma. It sounds—heavy, despite the expression on his face.

You probably shouldn’t count my clan among them. I'm pretty much the last, he had said, and—despite himself Asuma feels a flicker of something like pity, because he and his father have had their disagreements, but at least he’s always had his sister, his aunts. Being entirely alone, with the rest of his clan gone, isn't something he wants to imagine.

“Not going to walk her home?” he asks, instead of dwelling on it, because the woman is just getting her oxen moving again as they follow the curve of the road out of sight. It’s simple curiosity; most shinobi wouldn’t hesitate to take advantage of some kind of payment, whether in the form of food or money or sex. “I don’t think she would have objected.”

Ashura gives him a look that’s very close to startled. “She was afraid of us,” he says, bluntly. “She might not have objected, but she would have been terrified the whole way.”

He sounds very certain, Asuma thinks, casting a glance at him. Some sensors can detect chakra fluctuations tied to emotions, but Asuma's always been under the impression that it’s only possible for the powerful ones. Something to note, maybe.

“Civilians,” he says, explanation and a verbal shrug at the same time, and Ashura chuckles, tipping his head back a little.

“That much hasn’t changed,” he murmurs, though his gaze is on the line of trees ahead of them, evidence of Konoha’s closeness. “People don’t like ninshū, do they?”

Ninshū? Not what most people call ninjutsu, but close enough to account for. Asuma snorts, tapping his fingers against the handles of his chakra blades. “Shinobi like it just fine,” he points out dryly, and Ashura laughs.

“That’s true,” he admits, raising a hand. Chakra flickers between his fingertips, icy blue in the sunlight before it ripples out and fades away. Ashura is smiling, though, and when he closes his fingers around the last spark it’s careful, cradling rather than crushing. “I wish everyone could see chakra this way,” he says wistfully, parting his fingers just enough for the light to glimmer through, like a trapped firefly.

Asuma isn't quite sure what way he means, but he hums, vague agreement and acknowledgement. Watches closely, still faintly suspicious, as Ashura opens his hand and lets the bit of chakra shimmer out and fade away before he tucks his hands back into his wide sleeves, turning his eyes to the treeline instead. Because Asuma is watching, it’s easy to see the sudden amazement and joy that rise, touched with wonder, and Ashura takes three long strides and all but throws himself at the nearest tree.

Asuma blinks, caught entirely off guard.

“These were grown,” Ashura says excitedly, pressing both hands against the bark. “Someone grew these!”

Bemused, Asuma comes to a stop on the road, watching Ashura practically smear himself against the oak. “Of course,” he says, because he’d thought everyone knew about Konoha’s origins. “Senju Hashirama used his Mokuton to grow a forest that would protect Konoha. Enemies have a way of getting lost in the trees unless they know their way through. No one’s quite sure why or how, but it means the village has never been attacked directly.”

It’s a story Asuma must have heard a thousand times, growing up; his father might have been Tobirama’s student, but he holds Hashirama in nearly as high a regard. (Knee-jerk contrariness always made Asuma prefer stories of Hashirama to those of Tobirama, too, if only for the irritation on his father’s face when he requested them.)

Ashura’s dark eyes are wide, and he tips his head back, looking up into the branches. For a moment Asuma thinks he’s going to leap up into them, but instead he just presses his fingers into the bark and leans forward, dropping his forehead against the tree.

“Mokuton,” he repeats, and Asuma is at just the right angle to see the smile that crosses his face. It’s—wistful, maybe, or possibly wry. “They know their purpose, that’s all. They were created to protect, and nurture, so they will.”

Asuma is really, really starting to regret sticking around to make sure the stranger he dragged out of the rain was all right. Even Danzō isn't this cryptic. It’s not even massively suspicious, it’s just strange, three degrees off normal even for a shinobi, and Asuma is going to get a headache dealing with it.

With a sigh, he rubs his forehead, takes a moment to be sure his father won't come out when he opens his mouth, and then asks, “You can sense that, too?” Because his father might not be coming out when he talks, but there's a voice in the back of his head that keeps bringing up the advantage a strong sensor might provide in the village, all the possible ways to make Ashura want to stay, how to assess whether he’s the type to be loyal to one place and how best to spin Konoha’s reputation—

Five years serving the Daimyo can't beat out seventeen spent listening to Sarutobi Hiruzen plot and plan, and Asuma is unfortunately all too aware of it.

That, at least, makes Ashura turn from harassing the oak, expression shifting into high brows and parted lips. “Can't you?” Ashura asks in return, clearly surprised. Of course he does.

“Hashirama was the only person who ever had Mokuton,” Asuma says, deliberate, and watches Ashura’s face for any hint of the thoughts behind it. Senju Hashirama is called the God of Shinobi for a reason; everyone knows about him, at least vaguely. If they don’t, they’ve likely been living in a hole in the ground for the past hundred years. Even the tiny independent clans, eternally unwilling to tie themselves to a village, tend to know, and often more so than others; they survive by gathering information and hoarding it. Unless Ashura’s clan was entirely hidden, fully cut off from the outside world, he must know something.

But, if he does, it certainly doesn’t show on his face, and Asuma doesn’t get any feeling of deceit from him, either. There’s sadness, regret, a touch of grief, and Ashura glances at the tree again, tracing a symbol against the bark. Asuma can't quite recognize it, but—it looks like an upright crescent moon, with a smaller circle resting inside the curve. Not a seal, and not any sort of clan symbol he’s familiar with.

“Blood runs thin after so many years,” Ashura says, and pulls away. He turns to face Asuma, calling up a smile, and it’s not entirely natural but it’s not forced, either. I’ll move beyond this, rather than Kakashi’s favored I’m mired in this forever and will laugh sardonically at myself because of it.

(Asuma is very, very glad he’s not dealing with another Kakashi, no matter how much he likes the man.)

“Blood?” Asuma repeats, raising a brow, and Ashura laughs a little, waving a hand.

“Gifts fade,” he says in explanation. “Blood fades, too. But what comes later can be far better, don’t you think?”

Well. It certainly doesn’t actually explain anything, but Asuma can agree with the sentiment behind it, especially after so many years of watching his father and his father’s council mire Konoha in their own hang-ups and problems. The thing that pushed Asuma over the edge was the Hyuuga Affair, a perfectly civil name for an attack on one of their own, for the death of a valued jounin under false pretenses when the Hokage should have actually exercised the values he was always spouting and defended the village.

In the face of that, there's no way Asuma wouldn’t look to the future, and the end of his father’s reign, with something very much like eagerness. He doesn’t want his father gone, but—out of power might be better. What comes next has to be better.

Hiruzen has always espoused one idea and then done the opposite, and Asuma hates it bitterly. Will of Fire above everything, unless it requires him to take a stand. Protection of Konoha foremost, except when it’s more convenient to sacrifice one of them. Family first, unless that family happens to be his own.

“Are you all right?” Ashura asks suddenly, and Asuma blinks, shakes off his dark thoughts.

“Fine,” he says, in a tone that hopefully won't invite further comment.

It seems to work, because Ashura just nods and turns, picking his way back onto the road and starting down it. “How much of this forest is there?” he asks instead, eyes narrowing faintly, as if in concentration, as he looks out over the sea of trees that stretches before them.

“Miles,” Asuma says, following him, and wonders how great Ashura’s range as a sensor is. Whether he can feel the expanse and just wants a measure, or if his senses get lost somewhere in the middle. Some sensors, like Inoichi, have very short, very detailed ranges, but wider, less specific ranges are fairly common too. “About a day’s travel in all directions except for this one. The approach from the Daimyō’s palace is about half a day’s worth of forest, if you move fast.”

Ashura smiles, bright and warm. “It must have taken years to grow,” he says. “Even with Mokuton. Hashirama must be an impressive man.”

“He was,” Asuma says, and can't quite decide whether it’s meant to be suspicious or not. “He died, though. Or everyone thinks so. He passed on the title of Hokage to his brother and left the village, but he never turned up anywhere else.”

Ashura makes a thoughtful sound, but even though that bit of mystery was always Asuma's favorite part of the story—he may have spent years as a child trying to reconstruct the Shodaime’s path as he left the village, so that he could find the body and solve the case—Ashura doesn’t dwell on it.

“How large is your village?” he asks instead. “Are there many clans? Many people?”

Asuma looks for the trap in the words, but—that’s all information anyone could find out. Konoha is the largest of the Hidden Villages by a fair margin, and all of the clans have at least a few members in other countries’ Bingo Books. There's no danger in answering, though Asuma is well aware that Ashura could still be a threat, and be working up to the rest of his questions.

“Currently the largest,” he says noncommittally, and finally gives in to the urge to pull a cigarette out of the pack in his pocket. A spark from one fingertip lights it, and he drags in a lungful of smoke, telling himself to ease back a little. There's no use obsessing over a stranger’s every word; all he needs to do is stay a little wary. He’s good at spotting dangers after his time with the Twelve Guardian Ninja, and he trusts his own instincts. “There are four noble clans—well. Three now, I suppose. But beyond them, a few hundred smaller clans. Fewer civilians, but it’s a shinobi village.”

Ashura’s wry smile says he understands the reasoning, just as he did with the woman earlier. Probably, Asuma thinks, a clan that wasn’t entirely cut off from contact, if he knows how shinobi are viewed by most of the population. “It sounds wonderful,” he says with a smile, and it looks like he really means it. “So many people able to use ninshū, living in one place—it’s like a dream.”

“Not really,” Asuma says grimly, because he remembers the Third War, the Hyuuga Affair, the news of the Uchiha Massacre just last year. Remembers his father’s best friend trying to kill him, and his father refusing to do anything about it. Konoha has its moments, but—

Asuma has never believed in it blindly. Not the way his father and Kakashi do. The Will of Fire seems like nothing but propaganda, something to inspire just a bit more loyalty, and Asuma refuses to accept it as fact.

When he looks up, Ashura is watching him, expression gentle in a way that doesn’t reek of pity. Understanding, instead, with something like rueful agreement underneath.

“Dreams are always better from a distance, aren’t they?” he asks, glancing away to fix his eyes on the road ahead of them. “Once I wanted my father to acknowledge me. But…it was better without it, and it cost too much.”

Asuma nearly winces, because that rather hits the mark. His father’s attention, even in some vague way, with the village coming second even for a moment. Some acknowledgement, in a small way, that it was more than a nebulous concept of a village that mattered, that not everything revolved around the Will of Fire.

“You're away from him now,” he says. Doesn’t add and I'm walking right back to mine because it’s his own personal business, but—he thinks about it.

“Maybe,” Ashura says lightly, and glances up. “It will be nice to see a village full of shinobi,” he offers, and the wryness slides away, replaced with a grin. “So many different clans, too! That many people coming together—it’s a fantastic idea.”

You sound like Hashirama in all the stories, Asuma wants to say. Doesn’t, though, and takes another drag on his cigarette instead. “It has its moments,” he admits, and wonders whether Shikaku will still be willing to open up his house for shogi games. It’s one of the only things that let Asuma survive his teenage years, honestly.

Well. Even if he doesn’t, Asuma's going to have something to occupy his attention, and it’s currently wandering along in front of him like an unconcerned puppy. Asuma doesn’t much like putting effort into things, but he was the one to invite Ashura back to Konoha, more or less, and that means he has to take some responsibility for making sure the man isn't a spy or someone aiming to destroy Konoha from the inside.

Asuma sighs, rubbing a hand over his shaggy hair. He should have just kept on walking instead of stopping to help. It would have made his life a thousand times easier.

 

 

The boundary wall takes Ashura by surprise.

It likely shouldn’t; ninshū has become a weapon, and Ashura knows that well. Had a hand in turning it into that, even, though he can never regret defending his friends and family. But—

Vast walls, each as tall as nearly ten men, with great gates standing open. They’re imposing, very clearly meant to withstand a massive force, and it takes effort not to frown in the face of them. Konoha has never been attacked directly, maybe, but they’re certainly prepared for it.

There's a heavy, resigned sigh from his companion, and Ashura glances over in time to see Asuma stub out his cigarette, then tuck the butt into one of his weapons pouches. “Of all the people on gate duty,” he mutters, eyeing the uniformed shinobi leaning against one side of the opening.

A rival? An enemy? A nuisance? Ashura can't quite decide, given Asuma's expression, but the man doesn’t try to turn and find another entrance. Keeps walking, instead, and when he’s a handful of yards away calls, “Yamashiro. Punishment duty again?”

The gate guard’s head whips around, and he re-rolls his scroll as he turns, expression lighting up. “Asuma!” he says with a grin. “Yeah, Ibiki’s on a tear right now and I managed to piss him off. What about you? The Twelve Guardian Ninja kick you out already?”

“Aoba, I retired,” Asuma says dryly. “Figured my bounty was high enough.”

“Oh, yeah, I saw that!” Aoba says cheerfully. “I think you officially count as a hot commodity right now. Congratulations.” Tipping his dark glasses down, he gives Ashura a curious look over their tops and asks, “You another Guardian?”

“I met him on the road,” Asuma says, before Ashura can answer. “A shinobi from an unaffiliated clan.”

“You saved me when I fell from heaven,” Ashura corrects, and offers Aoba a smile. “It was very heroic.”

Aoba laughs. “Asuma’s good at that,” he agrees, and then gives Asuma a meaningful look. “Heard from Toyoka in the last five years, by the way?”

The expression that crosses Asuma's face isn't quite a grimace, but it’s close. “I got her letter,” he confirms, though he doesn’t sound happy about it. “You shouldn’t encourage my sister.”

“Your sister encourages herself,” Aoba retorts, but waves them past, attention turning to the group of civilians approaching. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Asuma rolls his eyes, but he leads Ashura into the village. “There are inns along the main street,” he offers, waving a hand in a vague direction. “I need to report to the Hokage.”

It’s a little unfortunate to be abandoned so readily, but Ashura smiles at him, takes a step back. “Good luck,” he says, because Asuma feels like buzzing nerves and unhappy resignation touched with bitterness, and it’s clear he isn't looking forward to whatever comes next.

Surprise flickers across Asuma's face before it vanishes again, and he nods his thanks, raises one hand in a lazy farewell, and then turns and vanishes into the maze of streets. Ashura stares after him for a long moment, then shakes himself and turns away, raising his head to take in the village.

It’s lovely, is his first impression. Truly lovely, with stone and wood buildings that are covered in greenery that sings to his senses, awake and aware. Mokuton here as well, he thinks, stepping forward to ghost a touch over a trailing vine. It shivers under his touch, leaves turning towards his hand and seeking the energy beneath his skin. Ashura gives it just a touch, enough to make up for the movement, and then strokes its leaves and pulls away, not wanting to pull the entire building’s worth of plants down to him. Only one person with Mokuton in Konoha's history, and it saddens Ashura that his father’s gift has faded, but he doesn’t want to be outed as the second just yet.

He turns, studying the streets for the best direction to take, and lets his sense of the village stretch. People, so many with chakra, and it makes him smile because this gift at least hasn’t faded. The majority of people here have chakra, and use it frequently. It’s everywhere, spread like a thick net with hundreds of anchoring points, and Ashura breathes it in and—

Emptiness.

Startled, Ashura blinks, then glances in the direction of the blank spot. A large stretch of land with only scattered natural chakra, no human presence at all. It’s eerie against the sheer life of Konoha, and Ashura heads for it despite himself, pushing through the crowd and picking up a trot as soon as he’s clear. Something about it is—oppressive. Dark, maybe. He doesn’t like it, but it still tugs at him, draws him in. The familiarity of it, maybe, because Ashura has felt something like this before.

Eventually, the streets open out. The growth on the buildings lessens, then stops—this is a newer structure, Ashura thinks, and at the corner he comes to a halt. There's another wall, lower and darker in color than the boundary wall, and on it—

Indra’s mark. A red and white fan, stark against the dark wood. Ashura steps forward, presses his hand flat against the symbol and swallows hard. Remembers how it looked once, with his own symbol laid across it, and the careful way they designed it together as children, making sure every line was perfect.

“Brother,” he whispers, and splinters from the worn, weathered wood sting his fingertips.

Taking a breath, Ashura pushes down the sharp ache in his chest, calls up a touch of chakra, and leaps the fence, landing lightly on the other side.

The darkness is very nearly overwhelming.

Chapter Text

The feeling of death is everywhere in the compound, seeped into the earth, staining the air like a miasma of rot. Ashura has to fight not to gag, pressing one hand to the ground where he landed, and—

Someone died here, he knows, and it feels like grief, high and tight in his throat. He sweeps a touch across the earth, sensing the shape of the imprint, the depth. A woman, he thinks. Terrified, bewildered. She was trying to protect someone. And…that sense of furious regret.

She died knowing she had failed.

Swallowing hard, Ashura pulls his hand back, wipes his palm across his robe like that will do anything to rid him of the sensation. Like it will do anything at all when the sense of death is all around, heavy and cold. This wasn’t just one or two people murdered—this is the sense of hundreds having died, brutally and in terror. This is slaughter, and horror, and there’s no end to it.

Ashura rises to his feet, trying not to breathe too deeply, trying not to let the dark feeling in the air sink into his bones, because if it does he’ll never get it out. This place is so full of suffering and pain, so flooded with it, that he’s bewildered that no one has tried to burn it down yet. That no one outside seems to notice. That no one seems to care.

People were murdered here, tried to fight back or didn’t manage it at all. Were slaughtered, cut down, and—

He stumbles deeper into the compound, ears ringing like he can hear the screams. Here a child’s death, and here an old man’s. Here a woman tried to save her husband, but they died together, the lingering impression full of rage and betrayed disbelief.

Indra’s bloodline, he thinks, catching himself on a wooden wall that’s blessedly free of past terror. These must have been Indra’s kin, with that mark on the walls, but they were killed. Surely Indra’s blood couldn’t run so thin? Surely no one could take so many people by surprise, but that’s one of the emotions that lies beneath all the others, pervasive and clear. Shock, recognition, betrayal­—

Death, close behind. So much death.

Ashura slides down the wall, curling an arm over the back of his neck like he can protect himself from the feelings around him. Empathy was his father’s gift, one Ashura always had even when he was wholly useless, but this isn't something he’s experienced before. He’s never stood in the center of a killing ground and tried to bear the force of it. Never touched so many lingering ghosts, awash in their remembered pain. It hurts, aches all the way through him, but there's no way to ease the pain, no words he can say that will be anything close to enough to dismiss these phantoms—

In the midst of the dead, a step. A breath. A heartbeat.

“What are you doing here?” a child demands, sharp and high. Young, Ashura thinks before he even raises his head, and he’s right. Very young, well under ten, with dark hair and dark eyes that are watching Ashura full of accusation. But Ashura can hardly focus on that at all, because the sense of his chakra is so breathtakingly familiar. It carves a hole into Ashura’s chest, makes his heart trip over itself, freezes the blood in his veins.

This world will be mine, little brother, he hears Indra hiss, the last words his brother ever spoke to him, and it rings in his ears, all he can hear.

But the dark-haired boy isn't moving, isn't calling up his chakra and coming for Ashura’s head. He’s just watching Ashura instead, eyes widening, hand going slack around the strap of his schoolbag. Uncertainty flickers across his face for an instant before he takes a step forward, approaching like Ashura is a spooked animal.

“Are you…” he starts, and then can't seem to finish the question, caught between showing care and his obvious wariness.

Belatedly, Ashura realizes he’s gaping at the boy, pinned to the ground by the weight of his brother’s chakra, rough and undeveloped as it is. He pushes a little more upright, careful, feeling as if there's something made of particularly fragile glass nestled inside of his chest, and swallows hard. Indra's chakra attached to one of his descendants—the odds of that happening must be so slim as to be nonexistent, but it’s happened. The carrier of Indra's imprint is one of his clan, survived when no one else seems to have.

“Everyone—” Ashura starts, but the words lodge themselves in his throat, pressed down into a tight knot by the weight of all the deaths around them. “They're all—”

“Murdered,” the boy finishes from him, and it’s tight and furious and full of grief. His eyes are still on Ashura’s face, though, and he says like it’s an accusation, “You're crying.”

Startled, Ashura raises a hand to his cheek. It comes away wet, and he smiles without humor, titling his head back against the wall. “Sorry,” he says, because those dead are his kin, but the boy must have known them. Must have been family. If anyone has the right to tears it’s him.

But the child turns his head, looks away with a tight expression. “Did you—have a friend here?” he asks, clearly uncomfortable.

“A brother,” Ashura says, and his smile feels bittersweet this time. He presses his fingers into the dirt, and—he’ll always be grateful for the gift of Mokuton, loves it in the same way he loves the world it connects him to, but with Indra's chakra right in front of him, it hurts a little to think about receiving it. This was supposed to be Indra's birthright, not his.

There's a long pause, and then the boy moves. He steps up next to Ashura, still a few feet away, but he puts his back against the wall and leans there, eyes fixed on the ground.

“Even the half-Uchiha were killed,” he says. “But—I can show you where they're buried.”

A graveyard would likely be far kinder than this compound, so full of death, but somehow seeing the graves will feel even more final. Ashura breathes out, manages to open his eyes again. “All of them?” he asks, and it’s a plea for the boy to correct him.

“Everyone but me,” the boy says bitterly. His hands are white-knuckled fists. “It—they were all murdered.”

“They were so scared,” Ashura murmurs, pressing his fingertips into the earth. No death in this exact spot, but—ten feet away, a man tried to save his children, and died for it. The children did, too.

The boy makes a choked, angry noise, then turns. He slams a fist into the wall, and it’s only a child’s strike, unpracticed and unenhanced by chakra. The boards don’t so much as rattle, and the sharp metal tang of blood fills the air as his knuckles split.

In an instant, Ashura is moving, twisting to come to his knees and then catching the boy’s hand. He pulls it towards him, raising his free hand, and the splinters carefully draw themselves from the open wound, dropping down to the ground. Chakra bleeding green, Ashura presses his fingertips to the back of the boy’s hand, willing the skin to close. He doesn’t try to say anything, because there's nothing to be said. Just lets his chakra mend the wounds, and keeps his grip on that small wrist as gentle as he can.

“You’ve never been here before,” the boy says, and that’s accusing as well.

Ashura glances up, tries for a smile even though he knows it falls short. “This is my first time in Konoha,” he admits. “I didn’t know.”

That gets him a wary frown, and the boy tugs his arm away. “Were you dead,” he asks, cutting.

Yes, Ashura almost says, but—he’ll likely take it as a joke, and now isn't the time for that. “Alone,” he says quietly, and when the boy’s head snaps up to look at him, he offers a smile that feels wan. “I didn’t—well. I didn’t think there was any reason to go looking for other people.” Not when the only person he wanted to find was more likely to kill him on sight than greet him like the brother he used to be.

“Then why come now,” the boy demands, but Ashura can feel the way it’s fracturing around the edges, just like the boy himself.

Ashura looks up, meets those dark eyes that look so much like Indra's as a child. Grand-nephew, he thinks, with a start, but it’s true. For all this child carries Indra's power, his actual relation is by blood.

“Because,” he says softly, “someone reminded me that it’s better to keep walking than stand still.”

Something flickers in the boy’s face, some feeling sparked by the words, but it shifts too quick for Ashura to read it in his chakra. The fight goes out of him, though; in an instant he’s sagging, tired, and there's a bitterness in his face that no child should ever have to suffer. “That man might come back and try to kill you,” he says, spits the first two words like they're something poisonous he doesn’t want lingering on his tongue. “If he knows you're related.”

One man. One man managed all of this death? Ashura looks away, out over the still houses and the barren ground, the dying trees and the screaming, tearing fear of several hundred violently, mercilessly killed. In the face of that, it’s simple to meet the boy’s eyes, his own conviction burning, and say, “I would welcome the fight.”

Ashura has never been much of a warrior. Never a fighter the way Indra was. But he learned, over the years, in defense of his family and all the other people Indra targeted, and this is the same. It’s necessary. These people were murdered in their own homes, betrayed and slaughtered, and there's no way Ashura would ever turn from his family, Indra's line or not.

The boy’s face crumbles, twists. “I have to get my revenge,” he says, but it sounds like tears, like grief. Ashura reaches out before he can think about it, and the boy is so close, so small. Ashura had children this age, once. A son and two daughters, and he loved them desperately, comforted them when they cried. He does the same now, tugging the boy into his arms and against his chest, and there's a moment of startled stillness, so complete Ashura almost lets go again. Just as he’s about to, though, the boy lets out a choked sound, buries his face in Ashura’s robe. His hands fist in the cloth, twisting, and Ashura smiles sadly, rubs across his back and holds him tightly. No more sounds, but—

Surely some moment of emotion is better than none at all.

“Revenge,” he says quietly, “can be a lot of things. Sometimes living well to spite someone else is the best revenge there is.”

It was a lesson he learned well after his father’s death. Learned from Indra, like always. There was so much hate in his brother, and every time Ashura’s family grew, every time another person slipped into his clan and added themselves to the ranks of his friends and family, Indra's rage grew. He had his own people by then, more followers he didn’t care to kill for power, a wife and children of his own, but—

He’d never been happy, and Ashura had. At one point, as Indra grew stronger and stronger and Ashura aged, it was the only thing that mattered, that rage Ashura felt every time they clashed. A rage born of greed and jealousy, dark and hungry and never satisfied. Ashura had died in the grips of it, knowing his eldest daughter would take up the fight and hoping she could withstand the avarice. That she could live well, despite it and in spite of it.

The boy doesn’t say anything, and that’s fine. Ashura lifts his head, watching clouds slide across the darkening sky, and breathes out. Closes his eyes, just for a moment, and then says gently, “My name is Ōtsutsuki Ashura.”

There's a pause, and the boy pulls away from him. Wipes the backs of his hands across his eyes, head ducked like he doesn’t want Ashura to see, and says, “Uchiha Sasuke.”

Uchiha. After Indra's fan, Ashura supposes, and it’s a bittersweet thought, that the symbol they created together could become the name of Indra's descendants. “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” he offers, and when Sasuke glances at him suspiciously, he smiles. “I haven’t met any of my living family in—well. A very long time.”

Sasuke hesitates, glances away. His voice cracks a little when he asks, “Did you want to see the graveyard?”

Honestly, Ashura wants nothing less, but… “Did you want to show me?” he asks, and meets those dark eyes when they glance up at him.

“No,” Sasuke says bluntly, flatly, and his hands curl into fists at his sides. “No. I hate it. I hate going there.”

It feels like a confession, like a defiance, and Ashura takes it with a simple nod. “All right,” he agrees, and stays where he is. Looks out over the pain-wracked streets around them, and only belatedly thinks to wonder why Sasuke is here at all, if he doesn’t like the graveyard.

Before he can ask, though, Sasuke turns away, puts his back to him. “Are you going back?” he asks. Ashura watches the set of those small shoulders, pulled up so straight and stiff, and it aches somewhere in his chest.

“I have nowhere to go back to,” he says honestly. “I was just—planning to wander, before I heard about Konoha.”

Sasuke doesn’t give him the look that Asuma did, for not knowing about the village. But then, he’s a child. What should be common knowledge likely doesn’t register for him the way it would for someone older, no matter how self-contained he is.

There's no prompting as the statement settles, no glance back, but Ashura can feel that Sasuke is waiting, held still like he doesn’t know whether to feel anticipation or to brace for a blow. Ashura isn't entirely certain what he’s waiting for, what statement will ease the knot of anxiety and self-directed anger in his chest, and—

He doesn’t get the chance to try.

There's a thud of steps, a burst of clarity caution determination, and Ashura moves on instinct. He shoves away from the wall, rolling and coming to his feet in one motion, and turns even as the ground beneath him buckles and twists. It’s quick, practiced, efficient in its use of chakra in a way Ashura is entirely unfamiliar with. He staggers, caught off guard, and ducks beneath the blade of a sword that swings at his head. It reverses smoothly, and Ashura slides back, twists out of the man’s path and throws up a hand, swirling wind chakra coalescing around his fingertips.

It blocks the next strike, knocking the sword down, and Ashura sweeps the wind up like a shield around him, deflecting a flight of kunai before he lets it go. The third of the attackers lunges, weight shifting, but Ashura catches the change in her chakra and twists, leaping over her head as a surge of flame passes beneath him. Lands, and the first is coming at him again, sword tracing a path of silver in the air. Ashura grits his teeth as he turns to meet it, wishing he had his shakujō, had any sort of sword.

Beneath him the earth suddenly shifts again, falls away, and Ashura falls with it on a cry, unprepared for the change. It closes over him, slides back, but it’s just a moment too slow. Ashura leaps out, rock almost catching the hem of his robe as he twists through the narrowing opening, but he makes it, lands, dodges a shuriken that slices across his cheek. Sasuke is still behind him, and Ashura won't let these three get past him, can't—he pulls up his power, feeds it into the roots beneath them. Just binding, he thinks, and it’s near to desperate, but he doesn’t want to add more deaths to those already lingering here, and beyond that, there's no malice to these three, no desire to do harm even though they’ll still do it.

Behind Ashura, there's a thump like someone landing, a surge of tightly contained chakra. “Kage Nui no Jutsu,” a voice says, and the shadows writhe.

Something grabs Ashura, like ropes, like hands, drags him down to his knees and slams his palms into the ground, each finger pinned to the earth. He sucks in a startled breath, too surprised to even move, but—

This is chakra. This is ninshū. He’s never seen it used in such a way before, never thought to channel chakra into shadows, but how brilliant. How beautiful, like this, the strands of darkness so quick and agile, such a clever idea for something that looks so simple but isn't at all. Ashura is nowhere near the genius his brother was, but—this makes him want to study, learn. His father’s power, used in entirely new ways that Hagoromo would never have considered, and there’s a delicacy to it. Like art, maybe, and Ashura almost wants to laugh.

There’s no sound, just the steady presence of chakra to tell Ashura that the man controlling the shadows is approaching. He’s too tightly bound to raise his head, but a pair of sandals come into his line of view, and there's a heavy sigh from above him.

“Breaking into the Uchiha compound?” the man asks, sounding faintly exasperated. “Did you really think that was a good idea?”

“Well, it didn’t seem like such a bad one three minutes ago,” Ashura says lightly. He tries to flex his fingers but fails to find any give in the shadows. The roots beneath reach for him, but Ashura gently pushes them back down. He’s caught now, but there's no sense of threat from this man, or at least nothing overt. Duty, his chakra says, protect, and it’s louder than anything else. Not harmless, maybe, but—good. Ashura knows what it is to want to protect.

“Sasuke,” the man says, and Ashura can feel his attention shifting away. “Are you hurt?”

“He wasn’t trying to do anything,” Sasuke says, and it sounds like he can't decide whether to make it biting or questioning.

It’s apparently enough for the man with the shadows, though, because he huffs, then orders, “Spread out. Search for anyone else. I’ll take care of him.”

There's a sound of acknowledgement from three throats, and the other shinobi are abruptly gone, leaping away. The man sighs again, and adds more gently, “Sasuke, you should go home. Don’t go out again tonight.”

Before the boy can answer, there’s a hand on the back of his robe, and the shadows loosen, slide into bonds that drag his hands behind his back. He’s pulled to his feet, securely held, and sharp eyes study him for half a second before the man leaps, pulling Ashura with him. There's a whirl of wind, a tangle of leaves around them, and a rush of movement before they’re landing on a rooftop several streets over from the Uchiha Clan’s compound. The leaves swirl in, drawn to the Mokuton under Ashura’s skin, and attach themselves to his clothes, settle in his hair, but he doesn’t have the ability to brush them away right now. Can only stand there, watching his captor as the man studies him in return.

“Who killed them?” he asks, when the silence has stretched too long. Indra used to do that, too, when he was trying to make Ashura talk. Well. He did right up until throwing Ashura into trees proved more expedient. “All of those people, and Sasuke said—how could one man do all of that?”

The man pauses, eyes narrowing, and then raises a brow. “Playing innocent isn't going to get you very far,” he says dryly. “The whole world knows about the Uchiha at this point. Try a more convincing lie next time.” Tipping forward, he lets them both fall off the edge of the building, and halfway down he calls up another surge of chakra that carries them across the roofs, past stands of trees and over streets, through the village in a blur. There's a building approaching, full of chakra and life, and they pass over a schoolyard that’s still in the process of emptying. A flicker of familiar power catches Ashura’s attention, but before he can even turn his head they’re landing, and the man pulls Ashura through a wide set of doors, across a busy room, and then up a flight of stairs.

“Do I get to know the name of the man who’s kidnapping me?” Ashura jokes, even as he trips over the first unexpected step.

“Troublesome,” the man behind him mutters, but the grip on his collar loosens enough that Ashura can move his head without choking, and it lets his balance come easier. “Nara Shikaku, Konoha's Jounin Commander.”

“Ōtsutsuki Ashura,” Ashura returns, because that’s only polite. “That jutsu you can do—it’s beautiful. Did you invent it yourself?”

There's a pause, wary and a little confused, and then Shikaku says slowly, “No, I didn’t. It’s a traditional Nara Clan technique.”

Which likely means it’s not something he’ll be willing to share. But maybe, if Ashura sees it again—he’s nothing close to Indra when it comes to creating techniques, but maybe just copying them—

An arm covered by a dark guard reaches past him, and Shikaku raps hard on the heavy door. “Forgive the interruption, Hokage-sama,” he says, pitched to carry. “I caught a stranger entering the Uchiha district.”

Ashura has to wonder why they don’t put up signs if it’s such a terrible crime. And then he remembers the miasma of darkness, and realizes that most people probably don’t try to go in anyway, even if they don’t consciously recognize the imprints of chakra that are still scattered across the compound, remnants of those killed and still tangled up in the emotion that they carried into death. Anyone looking to enter would have to want to, and most people wouldn’t.

“I was just—” he starts.

“Come in, Shikaku,” a man calls, and Shikaku pushes the door open without hesitation, shoving Ashura lightly into the room.

There's a moment of complete silence as Ashura regains his balance, and then a loud groan. Startled, Ashura lifts his head, just in time to see Asuma drop into a chair and drag a hand over his face.

“Oh, damn it,” Asuma mutters, loud in the silence, and the old man behind the desk looks from Shikaku to Ashura to Asuma.

“Asuma?” he asks, faintly dry. “Is there something you’d like to tell me about this matter?”

Asuma makes an annoyed, exasperated, exhausted sound and waves a hand.

Raising a brow, the old man glances back at Shikaku. “The Uchiha compound, you said?” he asks mildly, but there's a sharpness in his eyes that puts Ashura in mind of Hagoromo.

“Talking to the boy,” Shikaku confirms.

And really, that’s more than enough. Ashura pulls himself up to his full height, curls a bit of wind chakra around his wrists, and lets it press up and outward. It strains against the shadows, but there's a fractured second of give and that’s all Ashura needs. He pulls his hands free, stepping away, when Shikaku makes a sound of alarm and snaps his hands up Ashura turns and catches one of his wrists in a hand.

“Please don’t,” he says quietly, trying to let it show in his eyes how very little he wants to turn this into a fight. “I didn’t come here with the intent to hurt anyone. But I felt all the death there, and then—”

Felt the death,” the old man interrupts, and that sharpness is back threefold.

“He did it on the road, too,” Asuma says, opening one eye to give Ashura a look. Ashura gives him a sheepish smile in return, not entirely sure why this is such a terrible thing to have done but apologetic for getting Asuma caught up in the middle of it. “Sensor abilities, able to feel emotion.”

“Chakra is tied to emotion,” Ashura says, letting go of Shikaku, and when all three of them look at him he tips one shoulder in a shrug, smiling. “It’s a part of the person it’s connected to. If you pay attention, you can feel the rest of that person, too.”

The old man hums, somewhere between thoughtful and skeptical, and rises from his desk. “A very interesting ability,” he concedes. “And what is it that I'm feeling at this moment?”

Ashura looks at him, at the knife-sharp gaze and the folded hands and the perfectly steady expression, and then glances over at Asuma. Easy enough to pick out the traces, given his experience in reading them. “Joy,” he says. “Regret. Determination. You miss someone. Someone that you used to love.”

There's a long, long moment of silence, and then the man takes a breath. “Biwako,” he says. “My wife. She is eight years dead, and I regret every one I've spent without her.”

The curl of Asuma's chakra goes dark, bitter, angry, and when he raises his head Ashura can see the heat of those emotions right behind his eyes, ready to come out. They don’t, but his hands close into fists, and his whole body is just a little more tense than it was before.

Shikaku looks from Asuma to Ashura, the lines around his eyes tight, and then says, “Sir—”

The old man nods without waiting for him to finish. “Take him to Interrogation,” he orders. His gaze drifts down to hold Ashura’s, and he smiles, thin and unamused. “Forgive me. Even if you are an acquaintance of my son, I cannot allow a threat to the last of the Uchiha Clan to stand.”

“Dad—” Asuma starts, rising to his feet.

“No,” the old man interrupts. “This is a security matter for the village as a whole, Asuma.”

Asuma's mouth tightens, and he looks past his father, meets Ashura’s eyes. There's something like an apology in his face, even as Shikaku closes his hand around Ashura’s bicep.

“Just tell Ibiki what he wants to know and you’ll be out shortly,” Shikaku tells him quietly, then pulls him away.

“Shikaku, I want a standing guard on Sasuke at all times,” the old man says, watching them go.

“Yes, Sarutobi-sama,” Shikaku murmurs, steers Ashura out the door, and lets it fall closed behind them.

Interrogation. That sounds less than pleasant, Ashura thinks, and doesn’t let himself grimace. “I don’t suppose there's any way you would take my word that I intended no harm?” he asks.

“Sorry,” Shikaku tells him, and it’s a credit to his control that Ashura can't tell whether he means it or not. “The Uchiha are one of Konoha's noble clans.”

It’s intended to be an explanation, but—

Ashura thinks of Sasuke alone in the compound, the grief in him that felt as thought it had never been eased. The way he spoke about taking revenge, as if no one had yet. It makes Ashura swallow down a seed of anger, and he feels the leaves dotting his clothes shiver, reacting to the wisps of power that bleed into the air.

“Then why is it that they're all dead?” he asks quietly.

Shikaku doesn’t answer. He spins shadows around Ashura’s hands and forearms, then pulls them into another whirl of swift movement and spinning leaves that carries them away.

Chapter Text

“Did he say anything to you?” Hiruzen asks as the traces of Shikaku’s chakra vanish. “Anything to hint at his goals here?”

Damn it. Damn it. Asuma takes a breath, forces his eyes away from the spot where the Jounin Commander just was. Tries to put out of mind the weight of Ashura’s dark eyes, not naïve but…understanding. Aware. He’s not stupid; he knows precisely what awaits him in T & I.

Asuma should have dragged him along to meet the Hokage. He should have kept an eye on the man. If he was a threat or even if he wasn’t, Asuma shouldn’t have been so quick to leave.

“Do you really think,” he asks, tries to keep his voice level, “that I would bring someone I thought was a threat back to the village?”

“I think that anyone can make mistakes,” his father says, which is exactly the sort of indirect bullshit Asuma was so happy to escape five years ago. “Asuma—”

“There was some kind of misaimed transportation jutsu,” Asuma saya, because there's an itch to leave, to do anything but this vibrating under his skin. “He fell from about fifty feet up and gave himself a concussion and some broken ribs. I helped him. He didn’t seem to know anything about the villages at all.”

His father frowns, reaching for his pipe, but he simply taps it against the edge of his desk instead of lighting it. “A rather unbelievable story,” he says noncommittally.

“Especially for a man who can feel emotions,” Asuma says, and it’s less of an agreement and more of a challenge. He wonders why Hiruzen is even bothering to interrogate him when he’s already so clearly made up his mind. Wonders, as always, why his father insists he believes in the village and then refuses to take the word or advice of the shinobi who populate it. “Don’t you think someone like that would know he had to come up with a more believable lie?”

With a vaguely dismissive hum, Hiruzen settles back in his chair. “What do you know of him?”

Well. At least it’s more obviously an interrogation than most of their conversations, Asuma thinks, grimly amused. “His name is Ōtsutsuki Ashura, and the rest of his clan is dead. They kept to themselves, and Ashura’s one of the most powerful sensors I've met, at least over a short range. He didn’t know anything about Konoha.” And maybe it really is stupid, maybe his father is right to treat him like a chuunin reporting in, but—

Asuma believes that Ashura was telling the truth when he said he didn’t know of Konoha or Hashirama. Believes that the idea of clans coming together was something foreign to him, as much as he liked that idea. And given his reaction to the woman with the broken cart, Asuma is also more than willing to believe that Ashura wandered right into the Uchiha compound just because he felt Uchiha Sasuke's grief and wanted to help. That seems like the kind of man he is.

“Thank you, Asuma,” his father says, already faintly distracted, and turns in his seat, gathering several blank pieces of paper and his pen. “You can go. I believe your sister would like to see you.”

He doesn’t say dismissed, but he might as well. If he realizes that he could leave the interrogation to T & I, could walk home with the son he hasn’t seen in five years and actually have dinner with his family for once, he doesn’t show it. Just buries himself in his work, and it’s important, it matters and Asuma knows that, but—

As far as priorities go, his family is fifth or sixth on the list, and even the Hokage's busywork comes before them.

Asuma breathes in, breathes out. Wants a cigarette desperately.

He pushes to his feet, inclines his head to his Hokage, since Hiruzen is far more Hokage than father at this point, and makes for the window instead of the door, not wanting to pass through the Administration Building again if he doesn’t have to. Running into an old friend would be less than helpful, given his current mood.

As soon as his sandals hit the earth, he starts walking. The streets are emptying of civilians, but the village proper is still too crowded for his tastes, so he passes the Academy and keeps walking along the outer road, lighting another cigarette as he goes.

“So much for cutting back,” he mutters to himself, even as he raises it to his lips. Stress can do that, though, and somehow being back in Konoha feels more stressful than all five years with the Guardians combined, even taking the coup into account.

He doesn’t want to think about Ashura standing in the Hokage's office, hands bound behind his back, a cut spilling blood down his cheek and all the signs of a fight on him. Doesn’t want to think about him probably trying to comfort a child, the survivor of a massacre, and getting jumped for it. Shikaku was just doing his job, subduing a threat, but…

His father could have listened to Asuma. There could have been a moment when his father respected his opinion as an experienced jounin and someone who dedicated five years of his life to guarding the Daimyō. But then, Hiruzen has never valued his family except for the honor they can bring the village. Status symbols, vessels of his beloved Will of Fire, rather than his own flesh and blood.

Damn it. Asuma should have stayed in the capital, even with half of their order dead.

Hopefully, Ashura will tell Ibiki what he needs to and escape relatively unharmed. Ibiki likes suggestive interrogation more than outright torture, so with any luck he won't pull out anything too painful. Ashura also doesn’t seem much like the type of person who’s able to lie, and Ibiki’s good at reading that kind of thing.

It’s stupid to believe in a stranger. Reckless to believe that he doesn’t mean harm. But Asuma has learned to trust his instincts, and Ashura seems too kind, too bright, to be any sort of enemy. Wishful thinking, maybe, but Asuma can't help but believe. Ashura is…like Hashirama probably was, he thinks. And in the face of that, with dreams are always better from a distance still ringing in his ears, a neat summary of all his feelings about Konoha as a whole, Asuma does believe.

A pebble skids across the dirt, not dislodged by Asuma's sandal, and he looks up automatically. He doesn’t know Uchiha Sasuke in any way but secondhand gossip, but one glance and Asuma is absolutely sure it’s Sasuke approaching down the road. There aren’t any Uchiha left in the village beside him, after all, and Sasuke looks a lot like Mikoto. Asuma is fairly certain he shouldn’t be out here, though, especially if Ashura is still considered a threat. Shikaku likely hasn’t had time to assign a guard yet, but still, the last loyal Uchiha is one hell of a prize for a bounty hunter—it’s likely why Shikaku came himself to take Ashura.

“Hey,” he says, despite the fact that he doesn’t want to get involved in this, either. “You're out pretty late.”

Sasuke gives him a dark, wary look, coming to a stop in the middle of the road like he’s bracing himself for a fight. “I need to see the Hokage,” he says, practically demands, and the expression on his face is the best definition of mulish Asuma has ever seen.

Well. If Sasuke's out, demanding to see Hiruzen so close on the heels of Ashura’s arrest, Asuma can only think of one reason. “Is this about Ashura?” he asks, and catches the moment when dark eyes widen.

“You know Ashura?” Sasuke presses, taking a step forward.

Asuma studies him, tries to pick out what he’s attempting in the lines of his face, but he’s pretty terrible at reading children. Lack of exposure, mostly; there weren’t many hanging around the daimyō except for Naho, and she had enough minders that Asuma never really interacted with her.

“We traveled together,” he says, which when he says it out loud sounds like it should mean a lot less than it does.

Something flickers across Sasuke's face, bright with hope before he buries it again. “Did they bring him to the Hokage?” he asks.

Asuma debates the merits of answering, of dismissing the kid and just walking away. Thinks about Ashura and his quiet but steady I didn’t come here with the intent to hurt anyone. But I felt all the death there, and then—. Considers Sasuke himself, small and pale in the descending darkness, all of eight years old with no family left, and sighs, exasperated with himself. So much for not getting involved in troublesome situations.

“You’re too late,” he says, and as sharp horror rises in Sasuke's expression realizes how that sounds. “No, no, he’s still alive. But they took him to T & I.”

Understandably, that doesn’t make Sasuke look all that much happier. His hands close into fists, and he ducks his head. Anger, Asuma thinks, and it’s not a surprise. The kid’s got a lot to be angry about. Asuma wonders if anyone’s taught him to channel it, though.

“He didn’t hurt me,” Sasuke says, like a challenge. “He was crying.”

That sounds like Ashura. Asuma's only known him for a day at most and it’s already obvious the man has a kind heart. A whole clan massacred by one of their own—that would be more than enough to hurt him.

“Yeah,” he says, a little tiredly. “I never thought he did.”

Sasuke looks up, and the anger has changed, shifted. Determination now, and it makes Asuma raise an eyebrow in surprise, because that’s the look of someone who has a plan. “Can you get me into T & I?” he asks, abrupt and expectant, and Asuma has no doubt it’s a tone copied from Fugaku. The crafty old bastard always knew how best to get his way.

“I can,” Asuma says noncommittally, and takes another drag of his cigarette. The way Sasuke's eyes flash is a little amusing, and he hides a smile despite the sense of tension rising in his chest. “But what’s in it for me?”

“You want to keep Ashura from being tortured, don’t you?” Sasuke asks waspishly, scowling, and then adds grudgingly, like it’s dragged out of him, “I’ll owe you a favor.”

Asuma can feel his other brow rising to match the first, and he gives Sasuke a look. “What am I supposed to do with a favor from a brat?” he asks, testing.

“I'm not a brat,” Sasuke snaps. “I'm the Uchiha Clan Head. That’s who’s going to owe you a favor.”

Well now. That’s certainly not the take Asuma expected, though he likely should have. Smothering a chuckle, he stubs out his cigarette and pockets the butt, then jerks his head towards one of the closer side-streets. “Come on. T & I’s this way. If we take a shortcut we might get there before they break out the thumbscrews.”

If the look on Sasuke's face is closer to pure relief than anything, Asuma doesn’t mention it. He can't entirely say he feels differently.

 

 

The chief interrogator is a very tall man, head covered with a bandana, chakra as still and calm as a bottomless well. It doesn’t so much as ripple when Shikaku marches Ashura into his office and closes the door behind himself.

“Good,” Shikaku says. “I was hoping you hadn’t gone home yet, Ibiki.”

Ibiki casts a glance over Ashura, then raises a brow at Shikaku. “Because you would have hated to settle from someone lower in the chain of command, or because you would have hated having to drag me out after hours?” he asks dryly.

The only answer Shikaku gives him is a smirk. “Hokage's orders,” he says. “We caught him in the Uchiha compound. Sarutobi-sama wants to know what he was doing there.”

“You know,” Ashura says, a little exasperated with being dragged around half of Konoha already, “you could just ask.”

Ibiki snorts, pushing back from his desk and rising to his feet. “I plan to,” he tells Ashura. “But I'm also going to make sure that you’re telling me the truth.”

There's nothing overly aggressive about him, nothing angry. Ashura has met men whose jobs it was to inflict pain, and all of them enjoyed it. Ibiki doesn’t seem like he minds the task, but he doesn’t take great joy in it, either. It gives him control, Ashura thinks, or maybe keeps him from losing it.

“I will,” he says evenly, meeting hard eyes squarely and not moving, even when Ibiki grips his shoulder with just a touch more force than is necessary. “I have no reason to lie.”

For a moment Ibiki simply watches him. Then, just a little, he smirks. “Go home to your wife and your spawn,” he tells Shikaku. “I've got it from here.”

Shikaku nods, and his shadows slide away from Ashura’s arms, falling back down to pool beneath their feet. “Send a message if you need me,” he offers, but there's a tone in his voice that says the statement is rote, that he doesn’t think Ibiki will actually need him.

Ibiki doesn’t seem to think so either. He nods to Shikaku, but the moment the man is out of the room he pushes Ashura to the other door, then out into the hall and down to a heavy door near what must be the far end of the building. It opens on a nearly bare room, furnished only with a plain wooden table and three chairs. Ibiki pushes Ashura down in the one furthest from the door, then rounds the table and drops into the seat across from him, puling a notepad out of his jacket pocket.

“If you try to use any chakra, you’ll trigger the seals on this room,” he says, absent, as if he doesn’t much care either way. Ashura rather suspects he doesn’t. “They’ll make sure you're in no position to try it again.”

As far as Ashura is aware, seals are able to contain things and that’s all. The most complicated one he knows is what his father put on Kaguya, and even that one is…simple, almost. Expansive, but the same as all other seals in that it contains without releasing. A seal like this one, capable of reacting to different things, producing results beyond just holding things in—Ashura has never heard of such a thing. He opens his mouth to ask how they work, but before he can, Ibiki cuts him off without even looking up.

“Name and place of origin?” he asks.

“Ōtsutsuki Ashura, of the Ōtsutsuki Clan,” Ashura answers readily. He can't afford to hedge around the truth too much—Sasuke is the one holding Indra's chakra, and Ashura needs to stay close to him. It will be nearly impossible to do that if they decide to throw him out of the village or lock him away somewhere. “From near the mountains.”

Ibiki glances up, one brow raised. “Which mountains?” he asks dryly. “Fire Country has a lot of them.”

Fire Country. That’s here, Ashura assumes, and one of those things he’s probably supposed to know. But if the land has been divided, if every part of it is split and portioned, he has no way of knowing how names have changed, or what places are now named when they weren’t before. A thousand years is a very long time, after all; there's every chance that even the landmarks Ashura remembers have changed completely.

“Ah,” he says, and offers Ibiki's narrow stare a smile. “I could show you on a map?”

With a sigh, Ibiki rises from his chair, walks to the door, and opens it, leaning out into the hallway. “Anko! Bring me a map. Geographical. Yes, now.”

A muffled but cheery voice calls an answer back, and Ibiki closes the door again, then settles into his seat. “What brought you to Konoha?” he asks.

Ashura presses his fingers to the wood of the table. It’s old, long since cut down and reshaped, but it still feels like a tree to his senses, held in stasis. Remembering Ibiki's warning, he doesn’t try to touch it with his chakra, though it’s tempting. Instead he pulls a leaf from his hair, turning it carefully in his fingers as he says, “I wasn’t planning to come here, actually. But Asuma mentioned it, and I've never been to one of the Hidden Villages before. It sounded like a good place to stop before I kept traveling.” Not that he’ll keep going now; how whole goal was to find Indra's chakra imprint, after all. His own will likely be drawn in soon enough.

Ibiki hums, making a note on his pad. It’s in code, from what Ashura can tell, but the marks are neat and small, precise like Ibiki practices calligraphy. His gaze slides up to meet Ashura’s, and he raises a brow. “Asuma, hm? How did you meet?”

“On the road. I was—traveling with chakra, and I came out too high. Asuma saw me hit the ground.” And—it makes him think of that moment with the Hokage, Asuma's rage and bitterness rising, itching at Ashura’s skin. Asuma doesn’t want to be here, and his words on the road made it clear that there are things about Konoha as a whole he dislikes. Ashura wishes he knew what they were.

It might be Ashura’s imagination, but he thinks he sees one corner of Ibiki's mouth tip up. Still, all he says is, “Were you aware he was the son of the Hokage?”

“No,” Ashura tells him, a little exasperated. “It would be hard to know that when I didn’t know anything about the Hidden Villages to begin with. I don’t know any of their Hokage.”

“Kage,” Ibiki corrects, then blinks, like he hadn’t meant to do that. A moment, and then he huffs out a breath. “Only Konoha has a Hokage. Because we’re in Fire Country.”

That…makes sense, Ashura supposes, rather dubiously. Shadows as the leader of every Hidden Village is certainly a neat parallel, even if it seems very…dramatic. Not that Ashura can likely talk, given both his father and his brother. His uncle too, come to think of it. And definitely his grandmother.

“I've never been here before,” he says, and spreads his hands like a plea for Ibiki to recognize that he’s telling the truth. “I didn’t realize that entering the compound wasn’t allowed. I just felt the deaths that had happened and wanted to know why a place like that existed in the middle of the village.”

“And meeting the last Uchiha, wanted by every nation from here to Demon Country, was just a coincidence?” Ibiki gives him a long look, then sets his pen aside. For the first time there's a flicker to his chakra, a twist of something, but all Ashura can read is determination.

Somehow, it feels like now would be a bad time to mention that Ashura is technically related—adding more unbelievable information to a story they're already so doubtful of seems less than smart. Ashura just tips his head up, following Ibiki's motion as the other man rises, and says evenly, “I can only tell you the truth. I didn’t come here looking for anyone, and I didn’t intend to cause trouble.”

Ibiki looks unimpressed. “Then I'm sure you won't cause trouble now,” he says, and raises a hand, shaping a sign with his fingers. Bands of rock whirl out of one of his pockets to snap around Ashura’s wrists and drag his hands down flat to the table, and he startles, pulls back but can't make them budge. Fast, that jutsu, fast in a way even Indra was hard-pressed to be, and Ashura wants to know how but there's also alarm rising in his chest as Ibiki steps closer.

“Easy,” Ibiki says, even as he lays a hand over Ashura’s head, the heel of his palm pressed to the center of Ashura’s forehead, fingers splayed over his hair. “If you struggle it will hurt.”

Ashura swallows, controls his breathing. “What are you going to do?” he asks.

“Read your memories,” Ibiki answers, like it should be obvious, like it’s something simple. “You won't be able to hide anything from me, so don’t try.”

The flicker of alarm has grown into a knot, sitting right on top of his lungs. If Ibiki sees everything about Indra, about his grandmother and his father and the beginnings of ninshū, what will come of it? The power of the Juubi has always been something that people have wanted, regardless of the cost, and Ashura is one of the few who knows where the pieces fell, where they were hidden afterwards. He stiffens, but chakra is already flickering around Ibiki's fingers, washing through his mind like a cool tide. It makes Ashura gasp, twist away, because it’s not painful but it’s foreign, in the same way as a hand through his chest. He can feel Ibiki touch the first thought, that desperate desire to hide his grandmother’s power, latch onto it and keep going. An image of the piece of the God Tree in Kanna’s village rises, awash in dark power that poisoned everything it touched, and then—

A night that Indra attacked, the ceilings shaking, the walls cracking. Chakra as corrosive as acid heavy in the air as Ashura had scrambled to his feet, unprepared, and the grip around his throat as careless hands tossed him at the feet of a figure in white—

I sealed it away, Hagoromo says, a fragment of recollection. It should never be allowed free. That is why

And then Ibiki's chakra meets a crashing wave of power, rising like a wave. It sweeps Ibiki out of his mind, bursts into the air with all the force of an explosion, and Ashura cries out as he’s thrown back, chair colliding with the wall and shattering. He tumbles to the floor amid the splinters, his entire head one throbbing ache, and the world swims in front of his eyes, spotted with darkness that’s rapidly growing to swallow his vision.

In front of him, he thinks he catches a flicker of white robes, long white hair, but everything is too much. Ashura pitches forward, the pain in his head too much to bear, and lets the world slip away.

 

 

“Hey, you're back!”

Despite himself, Asuma can't help but smile a little as a head of violet hair surfaces from behind the main desk, and he gives the woman a lazy nod in answer. “I guess I am,” he says dryly. “Hey, Anko.”

Anko beams at him, darting around the desk to throw herself at him. Her hug squeezes all the air from his lungs in a burst, and he wheezes, which just makes Anko laugh. “Kurenai missed you,” she says, pulling back to grin at him.

“I missed her, too,” Asuma says, though he probably doesn’t mean it as much as he should. Kurenai was his genin teammate, and at some point in his time away Asuma had looked at one of her letters and just…wondered. He’d liked her, always, but how much was because of their proximity, because of expectations of genin teammates falling in love and the last daughter of the Yuuhi Clan marrying the second son of the Sarutobi Clan? Too much, maybe. Kurenai is a strong jounin, more talented with genjutsu than anyone in decades, and she would likely give it up to raise a family if she thought it was expected of her. Asuma has never wanted to be the reason someone gives up something they love.

“But you managed to pick up a tagalong anyway!” Anko says brightly, bending down to grin at Sasuke with bared teeth. She’s terrifying enough to make Asuma want to take a step away, and Sasuke skitters back before he can help himself, ducking halfway behind Asuma.

“Anko,” Asuma sighs.

With a giggle, Anko bounces upright again. “I only bite when people ask me to, don’t worry,” she tells him cheerfully. And then, seeming to realize just where they are, asks, “What did you need from T & I? Or did you come to warn me off stealing your girl now that you're back in the village?”

“Kurenai likes poppies, if you want to bring her flowers,” Asuma says dryly. “Have you seen Shikaku?”

Anko blinks, then tips her head. “Yeah, he brought Ibiki a new victim and then went home. Want me to—”

At the word victim, Sasuke sucks in a breath, and Asuma opens his mouth, not sure whether he wants to berate Anko or reassure the kid. Before he gets the chance, though, there's a loud, ringing crash. A wave of chakra sweeps over them, knocking Anko from her feet and making Sasuke crumple. Asuma only just manages to catch himself on the edge of the desk, grabbing for one of his Chakra Blades and then throwing himself forward as the wave recedes. Not familiar, but strong, and Asuma follows the ebb of it down one of the halls at a run. A door is hanging off its hinges, and he shoves through the gap, trench knife coming up—

There's a creature looming in the middle of the room, in the wreckage of what was once a table. Gaunt and massive, with reddish-purple skin and a mane of shaggy white hair, wearing white robes and holding a tantō in one hand. As Asuma stumbles to a halt, it raises its head to look at him, and it’s like a sudden lance of ice driven through Asuma's chest. The cold sweeps out, spreads from his core to every limb, and he staggers back a step.

Then those eyes drop back to the figure on the floor in front of it, and Asuma swears. He hurls himself forward, putting himself between the creature and Ibiki as Ibiki tries to push himself up from the floor. Flipping his trench knives around, Asuma plants himself there, not entirely sure how to fight what looks like a demon from an old story, but willing to try if it will let Ibiki get out of the room alive.

The monster makes no move to approach, though. It just looks at him for a long moment, icy gaze and an intensity that crawls across Asuma's skin, and then it laughs. The sound rolls through the air, fading eerily around the edges, and Asuma can hear Ibiki's sharp breath, the way he scrambles to his feet, but—

The demon fades, going translucent around the edges and then disappearing in a ripple of chakra.

Fuck,” Ibiki says with feeling. “What the hell was that?”

Asuma is hardly paying attention, though. Behind where the creature was standing is a crumpled form in white, sprawled across pieces of a broken chair and perfectly still. Muttering a curse, he sheathes his Chakra Blades and picks his way through the rubble to crouch next to Ashura. The man isn't moving at all, but when Asuma presses his fingers to his throat there's a faint flutter of a pulse there.

“This is the second time I've had to check you for a pulse today,” he tells Ashura, sliding an arm beneath his chest and carefully lifting him.

A pair of hands help ease the burden as Asuma gathers Ashura, and Ibiki gets his arm around Ashura’s waist, supporting half of his weight as they pull him clear of the wreckage. Asuma does a quick check, but beyond a scrape on the side of his neck and a handful of splinters caught in his bandana, he looks unharmed.

“What happened?” he asks, laying Ashura out on a relatively clear patch of floor.

Ibiki grunts, but his frown is more thoughtful than hostile as he looks Ashura over. “I tried a mind transmission jutsu,” he says. “But that thing broke the connection and threw me out.”

Maybe that would be possible if someone less skilled were performing the technique, but Ibiki wouldn’t have gotten his position if he weren’t an expert at it. Asuma huffs out a breath, not quite sure what to think, but—

“I think,” Ibiki says slowly, as if he’s feeling out the words before he says them, “that his family tried to sacrifice him to some kind of god.”

What?” Asuma's head snaps up, and he stares at Ibiki, too startled to even try to debate it.

Ibiki meets his gaze evenly, and if he knows how ridiculous it sounds, he doesn’t let it show. “I didn’t see a lot of memories, but there were fragments that made me think so. He’s scared of its power getting out—didn’t try to fight back until he realized what I was doing.”

Asuma grimaces, checks Ashura’s skull for any more dents beyond the one the ground put in it this morning. There’s a lump forming on the back of his head, but no blood there, even if the cut on his cheek has reopened.

“Get away from him,” Sasuke suddenly snarls, and an instant later small hands knock Ibiki's away as Sasuke shoves in between Ashura and the interrogator. Ibiki rocks back on his heels, more out of surprise than anything, and Sasuke glares at him, fierce dark eyes and infinite stubbornness.

“Uchiha—” Asuma starts.

No,” Sasuke says. “I'm Uchiha Clan Head, and I've adopted him as a member of my clan! You can't touch him!”

Chapter Text

Well. That’s certainly a neat way to circumvent all the problems of Ashura’s presence in the Uchiha District, Asuma supposes, though it’s definitely not what he expected. He chuckles a little, largely at the expression on Ibiki's face, and sits back on his heels as an eight-year-old stares down the head of Torture and Interrogation.

Stares him down and wins, if Ibiki's snort is anything to go by. He raises his hands, clearly showing that he isn't going to touch Ashura again, and says, “Clan Heads have first authority over their people unless the Hokage chooses to contest it. He’s all yours, Uchiha.”

Asuma is at the right angle to see the way Sasuke's shoulders slump with relief, to hear the shaky breath that escapes him. Nerves of steel when he needs them, maybe, but he’s not even a genin yet. It’s impressive.

“You're not allowed to torture him,” Sasuke says stubbornly. “He was where he was supposed to be.”

“All right,” Ibiki agrees easily, and there's an edge of a smirk tugging at his mouth. “I’ll submit the report. Sir.”

Sasuke nods, accepting that as his due, and then turns to look at Ashura with worry clear on his face. He hesitates, and Asuma isn't entirely sure if it’s because he’s trying to figure out what to do next or because Ashura is so still.

Deciding to assume the latter, Asuma says, “He’s fine. Just needs to sleep off the knock to the head, but he’s got a hard skull. It won't keep him down for long.” After all, if falling from fifty feet up in the air didn’t put Ashura down for more than ten minutes, Asuma is fairly certain that…channeling a god, or whatever it was he actually did, won't have all that much more of an effect.

Ibiki hums, amused but clearly trying not to show it. Asuma was always sure he had some kind of sense of humor, and this is proof. “Shikaku's been known to wander back in to get the results in person,” he says. “Unless you want this hitting the Hokage's desk before he even leaves the office tonight, we might want to get him moved somewhere else.”

That’s a good point, especially with Hiruzen still being at his desk. If Shikaku brings him a report like that, he’s liable to march down here himself and get to work with the thumbscrews personally. Asuma would rather avoid that; he’d like at least a few days in the village before his next shouting match with his father.

“Your apartment—” he starts, looking at Sasuke.

But Sasuke shakes his head, cutting him off, and his eyes are very dark and grim. “I don’t have an apartment,” he says. “I live in my parents’ house.”

In his parents’ house, where his older brother viciously murdered the rest of their family. Something cold and unpleasant slides down Asuma's spine to settle in his gut, and he has to force himself to take another breath. A whole year now Sasuke has been living where they were killed, and maybe they're shinobi, maybe that’s a part of the life, but—

They were his family. He’s a child. Hiruzen can spend his time interrogating strangers who trespass but he can't be bothered to find Sasuke another place to live?

“It might not be best to take Ashura back there,” he says, as evenly as he’s able, though he has to force the words through the tightness of strangled fury in his throat. “He can feel emotions, and he said he could feel all the death there.”

Sasuke bites his lip, looking torn, but nods. He doesn’t offer an alternative, but—eight, Asuma reminds himself, he’s eight.

“Asuma?” Ibiki asks, raising a pointed eyebrow at him, but Asuma doesn’t even have to think about it before he’s shaking his head.

“Unless you want the Hokage to find out immediately, probably while we’re hauling Ashura into my old room,” he says dryly, “that’s out, too. I haven’t gotten another place yet.”

“I can—” Sasuke starts.

Before he can finish, though, Ibiki huffs out an exasperated sigh and says, “Fine. I've got a spare room, now that Idate’s gone. You can have it for the night.”

It’s a generous and entirely unexpected gesture, but Asuma wonders how much of it is motivated by a desire to help and how much by Ibiki wanting to keep an eye on a possibly dangerous foreigner. Then again, knowing Ibiki, it’s likely both; he’s good at multitasking.

“Thank you,” Sasuke says, and the words are unpracticed, a little rough, like he’s not used to saying them. He probably isn't—Fugaku certainly never said them unless he was forced to, and for all Mikoto’s civility and poise, she could be just as arrogant and cold as her husband. Asuma will never forget their campaign to reclaim Obito's eye from Kakashi, and the way Kakashi shrank in on himself a little more every time they confronted him. Minato probably put him in ANBU mostly to get him away from that, honestly.

Ibiki just nods, then pushes to his feet again. “We can head out the back way. Come on.” He heads for the door, and Sasuke follows quickly, almost trotting to keep up with the big man’s strides. In their wake, Asuma sighs, rubbing a hand over his hair, and looks down at Ashura again. He’s still bleeding, and Asuma wipes the freshest streaks away with the pad of his thumb.

“You’re quite the headache, aren’t you?” he asks, but gets an arm under Ashura’s shoulders and another under his knees, and rises to his feet, settling the limp form against his chest. Ashura isn't exactly a lightweight, but Asuma's had to haul Chiriku around like this, and the monk is significantly heavier, so it’s manageable.

Sasuke is waiting at the end of the hallway, where it supposedly dead-ends against a wall. A section has been swung out, though, and Asuma can hear Ibiki's steps from within the revealed passage. As he approaches, Sasuke takes another wary look at Ashura and then turns, matching Asuma's pace as he heads up the gentle slope. Asuma can see he’s wrestling with something he wants to say, but he stays silent, letting the kid work it out on his own. It’s not his place to push.

And, indeed, as they near the end of the passage and head up towards slants of streetlight filtering through the trailing branches of a willow, Sasuke finally glances up and asks, “Will the Hokage let me make Ashura an Uchiha?”

Ibiki was correct when he said that Clan Heads have the greater authority over their people, and the Hokage generally hesitates to get involved in clan matters unless they threaten the village as a whole. Given his take on Ashura, it’s hard to say what Hiruzen will do this time around.

“He might contest it,” Asuma says at length, because he’s not about to lie to the boy. Sasuke should know what he’s getting himself into with this move, not that Asuma thinks knowing will stop him. “It’s a pretty big thing to argue against, though. And if you get any of the other clans in on it, they’ll probably take your side. Independence in clan matters is a big sticking point for most of them.”

Sasuke chews on his lip for a moment, then nods once. He casts a glance up at Asuma, then away, then back again, and Asuma recognizes what he wants with a sinking sort of feeling. Damn it. He’s already way more involved in this mess than he wants to be.

Then again, he’s technically putting the good of a fellow villager and the stability of the village as a whole ahead of his own wants. His father should be proud of him.

With that vaguely satisfying thought at the surface, it’s easy enough for Asuma to smile, heft Ashura a little higher against his shoulder, and say, “I’ll talk to Shikaku, see what we can come up with. He’s good with politics.” After all, Shikaku is the Jounin Commander, but he’s also the one who let Asuma crash in his spare room whenever the fights with his father got particularly unbearable. If Asuma asks him as a personal favor, he’s far less likely to say no.

It’s…not inconsiderable, the amount of work Asuma is volunteering himself for here. It’s really not inconsiderable. If anyone had told him a week ago that he’d be signing up to dive headfirst into Konoha's murky politics, he’d have whacked them over the head to check for genjutsu. But Sasuke is eight, and there's no way that he can manage the tide alone. After all, the Uchiha name might carry influence, but as it is, it doesn’t carry weight. The entire clan consists of an Academy student, an S-rank missing-nin, and now a vaguely dubious stranger who may or may not have been sacrificed to a god of some sort. Sasuke is definitely going to need the other clans behind him, but they're far more likely to listen to Asuma than a child.

“So is Inoichi,” Ibiki says, and Asuma doesn’t allow himself to startle as the other man pulls back some of the willow’s branches, letting them out onto the street. It’s fully dark now, the streetlights illuminating patches of the empty road, and this neighborhood at least seems like everyone has deserted the outdoors for the comforts of home.

“Inoichi?” Sasuke asks, and unless Asuma is entirely mistaken he’s wrinkling his nose a little. “Like—”

“Yamanaka Ino,” Ibiki fills in for him, sounding amused. “Yes, her father. He was the head of T & I until last year.”

Asuma eyes him, because he might have some pull with Shikaku by virtue of Shikaku having had to endure all of his teenage angst, but he definitely doesn’t have more than a passing acquaintance with Inoichi, who he always found both chronically busy and incredibly intimidating. It’s possible that was the source of his childhood crush on the man, but Asuma isn't looking into it too hard.

“Why would Inoichi have an opinion?” he asks, testing.

The look Ibiki gives him dares him to push the matter. “I don’t know. Just a thought.”

Ibiki isn't the type to randomly share his thoughts, Asuma is fairly sure. But Ibiki also has no reason to advocate for anything to do with this mess, unless whatever he saw in Ashura’s head was really that bad. He raises a brow at Ibiki, questioning, and Ibiki snorts quietly.

“He knows something dangerous,” he says, and takes a few long steps to open the door of an apartment building for them. “There was a village in his memories, with most of the people dead. All he wanted was to keep that knowledge hidden where other people couldn’t use it. I don’t think he’s a threat.”

Well. That’s certainly an unlooked-for stroke of good luck. Asuma wasn’t expecting anything close, honestly, because Ibiki deserves his reputation as a suspicious, ruthless bastard.

Then again, something wrecked the interrogation room, and Asuma has never seen a creature like that before. There has to be some kind of explanation for it.

“He’s not a threat,” Sasuke chimes in, almost belligerent. He has to trot to keep up as they start up the stairs, but he manages well enough.

“You don’t actually know that,” Ibiki tells him, though it’s mild rather than challenging. He turns off on the third floor, leading them through a door and to the very end of the hall. “People can show all kinds of faces to get what they want.”

Sasuke scowls, opens his mouth in what’s likely going to be a child’s version of a blistering tirade, and Asuma cuts him off with a sigh. “His face would be a lot more convincing if he was actually conscious,” he reminds Ibiki. “Or if he’d been able to put up a fight. Shikaku is good, but most of his fights aren't one-hit knockouts.”

Ibiki accepts that reasoning with a grunt as he pulls his keys out. The door of the last apartment opens on an uncluttered space, vaguely messy in the way of homes whose owners are usually busy, and Ibiki drops his keys on the table and nods at the hall across the main room. “Room on the left. It’ll be dusty, but the bed should be made. I'm calling in for dinner, but I’ll add two extra orders.”

Asuma is fairly certain that Ashura won't mind some dust. He nods, following Sasuke as the kid runs down the hall to get the door. It does make him wonder what happened to Idate, though—this is clearly his room, with a few posters on the wall and a collection of rocks on the sill of the window. Last Asuma knew, Ibiki's little brother was in the running to enter the Chuunin Exams, but beyond his dusty room there doesn’t seem to be any sign of him in the house.

“Should I pull the covers back?” Sasuke asks, serious and solemn, like this is the most important question right now.

Just a kid, Asuma has to remind himself, yet again, as he strangles a sigh. “It’s still warm enough that we can just put him on top of them,” he says, though the truth is that he’d rather not undress Ashura without the man being at least vaguely conscious. No shinobi ever has had a good reaction to waking up naked in an unfamiliar place.

Carefully, he eases Ashura down onto the bed, settling his head on the pillows and stepping back. “Want to get his sandals off?” he asks Sasuke, because the kid looks like he could use a job. “I should talk to Ibiki about—all of this.”

“I can stay with Ashura until he wakes up,” Sasuke tells him, with all the solemnity of someone accepting an S-rank mission.

Asuma's more than ready for some space, so he nods, leaves Sasuke to it as he retreats into the main room again. Ibiki is in the kitchen, water running, but Asuma needs a cigarette desperately, so he heads for the glass doors and the balcony that overlooks the street. There's a tangle of greenery cascading down over one corner of it, a small tree anchored in the building above it, but the balcony itself is clear, and Asuma leans against the railing with a heavy sigh, dragging a hand over his hair. He pulls out a cigarette without pause, lights it and takes a long drag, and manages to be disappointed that he doesn’t feel any more sensible on the other side of a nicotine dose.

He’s on his second one by the time there are footsteps, the brush of cloth behind him. Ibiki settles against the railing, facing the inside of the apartment, and holds out a hand.

More than willing to share, given the kind of day it’s been, Asuma hands over the pack, and Ibiki takes one. The silence lingers for a moment as he lights it, exhales a cloud of smoke, and then asks, “You sticking your nose in all of this just to spite the Hokage?”

Asuma snorts. “To spite my father,” he corrects.

“I hate to break it to you,” Ibiki says dryly, “but your father is the Hokage.”

“Believe me, I've noticed.” Asuma stares down at the street three stories below them, empty of people and dimly lit. Pretty, like most of Konoha, but he can hardly even bring himself to care. “You don’t have anyone to spite, though. Why the interest?”

There's a long pause as Ibiki turns his words over, expression set in a frown that Asuma has seen make grown men quail. “I was only in his head for a second,” he says. “But he’s not the kind of person who wants to hurt people. And someone—his brother…” He shakes his head a little, mouth tipping in a humorless smirk. “How do you think a clan dies out like that, with only one member left? Especially when he’s scared of what’s inside him getting out.”

Asuma thinks of the creature he saw, horns and fangs and red skin like an ogre out of a twisted fairy tale. “You think it killed the rest of his family?” he asks, and can't resist a glance back towards the room where Ashura is sleeping.

“I think someone tried to play with a power they shouldn’t have, and it didn’t go well,” Ibiki says mildly, taking another drag. “Whether that thing was in him before, or whether someone tried to make him a sacrifice and it went sideways, it doesn’t matter at this point.”

Like the jinchuuriki, Asuma thinks, rubbing the bridge of his nose. Exactly like the jinchuuriki, really. He remembers Uzumaki Kushina, bright and vivacious, the only known survivor of her village. They dragged her to Konoha, used her as a sacrifice to the Kyuubi when she was only a little older than Sasuke is now. Mito died in passing on the creature, and that left Kushina all alone, by herself in a foreign village with a monster chained to her soul.

Asuma remembers his father telling him about that, after the first time Asuma met Kushina. He had framed it as a sacrifice that only she was brave enough to make, as a service to the village that no one else could perform, but Asuma had looked up at her, seen the edges to her smile and the sharpness as she laughed, and wondered how much she hated all of them for doing that to her. For sacrificing her for power, for a deterrent of war that didn’t even work, for a weapon they feared just as much as the enemy did.

There's another jinchuuriki now. Her son. Asuma left when he was only three, but…he’d already seen how the villagers reacted. He knows precisely what the boy is going to face. He never asked for this fate, but his own father put it on his shoulders.

In that position, Asuma is fairly certain he’d destroy what made him, honestly.

Ashura seems to have fled it, though. Picked himself up out of the wreckage of his clan and his former life and kept moving. Kept his sense of humor and his kindness, too, which is…impressive, really. Asuma wouldn’t have been able to.

“Sealed gods, huh?” he asks rhetorically, stubbing out his cigarette on the metal railing.

Ibiki snorts, almost laughing. “Not what I expected to come out of my overtime tonight,” he agrees. Pauses, and then says in a deliberate change of subject, “Toyoka is going to string you up for not seeing her immediately.”

Asuma groans at the mention of his sister. “Shut up, I'm not thinking about that.”

It makes Ibiki laugh outright, but then, Toyoka frequented T & I before she retired, dragging her bounty prizes home like a cat dropping dead animals in front of its owner’s doors; Ibiki likely knows her almost as well as Asuma at this point.

“Good luck,” Ibiki tells him, though Asuma's pretty sure he doesn’t mean it. He stubs out his cigarette as well, then turns away. “I'm going to pick up our food. Try not to let a god manifest in my apartment before I get back.”

“I’ll try my best,” Asuma agrees, though he makes it lazy and halfhearted, and Ibiki flips him off as he heads for the door.

 

 

The curl of chakra beside him is so perfectly, painfully familiar that Ashura’s breath catches in his throat before he even finishes opening his eyes. His hand reaches out of its own volition, and he croaks, “Indra?” through a throat that’s as rough and dry as sand.

There's a hesitation, clear and apparent even to Ashura’s sleep-foggy mind, and then small fingers close around his wrist, gripping carefully. “No,” a young voice says. “I'm Sasuke.”

Sasuke. Ashura blinks his eyes open and frowns, more than a little confused. He remembers the interrogation room, Ibiki, the mind jutsu. And then—

He sits up with a jolt, so fast his head spins, and staggers over the edge of the bed as he finds his feet. Sasuke makes a sound of alarm, but Ashura throws himself at the door. There's a faded sense of chakra that’s as still and calm as a bottomless well, but nothing immediate, no sense of life behind it. Ashura knows, knows that he caught a glimpse of Hamura in the moment before he passed out, though, and if the Shinigami decided to take offense, decided to protect the secrets Ashura carries by doing away with the one who might have glimpsed them—

“Whoa!” Hands catch his arms as he stumbles around the corner, and he almost crashes headlong into Asuma, only saved from bowling them both over by the man’s quick reflexes. Asuma turns them quickly, spending momentum, and keeps his grip on Ashura’s elbows as the world steadies.

“Ibiki,” Ashura says, the moment he can. “Is he hurt? Did—” Because Hamura puts his family before all other things, and protecting the secret of Kaguya’s existence right after that. He also has very little remorse when humans die in defense of either of those things, too, and Ashura has always tried his best to temper that outlook, but he’s rarely succeeded.

Asuma arches a brow at him, but just says, “He’s fine. Out getting food right now. He let us crash in his apartment, since lugging you back to the Uchiha District didn’t seem like the best idea.”

His house. That’s why his chakra is everywhere, but faded and inanimate. Ashura sags with relief, and offers Asuma a smile. “Thank you.” Turning, he gives Sasuke an apologetic look and adds, “I thought he’d been hurt. Sorry to alarm you.”

“He’s lucky he didn’t hurt you,” Sasuke says, and there's something mulish to the slant of his mouth as he folds his arms over his chest.

Gently, Ashura pulls away from Asuma, goes to one knee so he can be eye-level with Sasuke. Braces himself, too, with a hand on the wall like his balance is still wavering, so that Sasuke won't take it as condescension—Ashura’s eldest daughter hated having to crane her neck to talk to people when she was that age, but she also hated thinking that people had bent down just so they could talk to her.

“He thought I was dangerous,” he says, holding dark eyes that look far too much like Indra's. Easy to think, with that chakra so close, of his brother as a child, always so tall and strong, someone Ashura looked up to so very much. “Other people trying to protect you is never a bad thing, Sasuke. It simply means they value you.”

“As the last Uchiha,” Sasuke spits, and there's a banked fury in his eyes that’s also unnervingly familiar. But then it flickers, fades, and Sasuke looks down. Opens his mouth—

A door opens, and that perfectly still chakra washes over Ashura, along with another. Something sharp-edged like a scalpel, but touched with an incongruous faded flower-scent.

“—heard there was an explosion,” an unfamiliar voice is saying, polite but insistent. “When you didn’t turn up, Anko called me. I just wanted to make sure you were all right.”

“I'm fine,” Ibiki says, with the air of repetition, but it doesn’t sound exasperated. Ashura glances up and over his shoulder as a tall man with long blond hair comes to a stop in the doorway, not trying to enter the house but clearly hovering.

“Ibiki,” the man starts.

“I really am, sir,” Ibiki interrupts, facing him. “It was just an unexpected turn in the interrogation.”

The blond man pauses, then seems to accept that, inclining his head. “There's no need to call me that any longer, Ibiki,” he says, almost gently. “I'm just a retired man and a shopkeeper.”

“Of course, sir,” Ibiki answers, as dry as dust. “Yamanaka Clan Head is just an honorary title these days?”

The man laughs, stepping back. “Well,” he says, and pale eyes flicker to Asuma, then Ashura and Sasuke. “I know better than to ask how it went, but I'm glad it ended without injury. If you have any need of an old man…”

“I won't,” Ibiki retorts. “But I might need the former Head of Interrogation.”

It gets him a smile, easy and unperturbed. “That as well,” the man agrees, and then adds, “You should come by the house, or the very least the shop. Ino misses you, I believe.”

Without waiting for a response, he lifts a hand, then turns on his heel and walks away, and Ibiki stares after him for a long moment. Ashura flicks a glance between, interested, because for the first time he can feel a stirring in Ibiki's chakra, something quiet and deep-seated but still noticeable. He doesn’t say anything, just touches Sasuke's shoulder lightly and rises to his feet.

“Welcome back,” he says politely, and Ibiki closes the door like he never paused to begin with.

“You’re awake.” He looks Ashura over for a moment, eyes narrowed, and then glances at Sasuke. “You’ll want to keep to the apartment for the next day and a half at least. Until the paperwork gets processed, at least.”

Ashura blinks, glances at Sasuke, who’s glaring at Ibiki with an expression that’s halfway between aggressive and smug. “Paperwork?” he repeats, baffled.

“To name you as an Uchiha,” Sasuke tells him, like it should be obvious. “I made you part of my clan. No one can touch you without asking me now.”

It takes a moment for the words to register. Another moment for the meaning to sink in, and then Ashura has to swallow hard, his throat suddenly tight. Made an Uchiha, he thinks dazedly. By his own great-nephew. By Indra's descendent. He was named family by one of Indra's line.

The irony is so thick Ashura could choke on it.

He takes an unsteady breath, then looks up at Sasuke and tries to put all of the positive things he’s feeling into his smile. “An Uchiha?” he asks. “I—that was—very kind of you. Thank you, Sasuke. I'm honored.”

Something in the set of Sasuke's shoulders eases slightly. “It was the best way to make them listen,” he says, looking away, but it’s not the whole truth. Ashura stretches out his senses, feels the burn of Indra's chakra with that edge of brusque kindness, and laughs a little. Just like Indra, really, when he saved Ashura from the boar. Always pretending to be less kind than they are, but—very much kind, regardless.

“Thank you,” Ashura repeats, reaching out, and Sasuke stiffens as he’s pulled into a hug, but he doesn’t fight it. He lets Ashura wrap his arms around him, and a small hand fists in the back of Ashura’s robe, not quite hugging back.

“You’re welcome,” he whispers, like he knows just how much it means to Ashura to have this boy call him family after so many centuries. Ashura laughs, because he can't, but—neither of them is alone, and surely, that’s enough to know.

Chapter Text

Oh, Indra, Ashura thinks sadly, and with the roil of that chakra so close all he can do is smile bitterly. You would hate this so much, wouldn’t you?

Not just his descendant declaring Ashura family. Not just the death of nearly his entire line. Not just Ashura’s closeness to a child of his blood. This whole world, Ashura thinks, so easy in its use of chakra. He thought it needed to be burned out of existence, not shared, and to see whole villages formed around its use, clans with special techniques, the casual use of power that would have far outstripped his own—he would be furious.

Uncurling his leg from beneath himself, Ashura shifts forward, laying a light kiss on Sasuke's brow. The boy stirs in his sleep, hand reaching out, but it stops halfway, as if even in sleep he knows better than to think he’ll find anyone else present. It breaks Ashura’s heart, and he closes his fingers over Sasuke's, squeezing gently, and then tugs the blanket up over Sasuke’s shoulders and rises to his feet.

The apartment is small enough that even with the door closed Ashura can hear the low murmur of voices, the clink of glass. He doesn’t pause, but steps out into the hall and follows the sound, not even sure what he wants to come of a conversation but knowing that he wants answers. There are so many questions in him now, so many things he’s noticed and filed and away, and there likely won't be a better time to ask.

Asuma and Ibiki both look up when he steps into the main room, and Ashura smiles but doesn’t stop, folding himself onto the floor on the other side of the coffee table and pulling one leg up under him. He looks from Asuma to Ibiki for a moment, then takes a breath. “Can I ask you a question?”

Asuma studies him for a moment, sighs. “Now?” he asks, but it’s halfhearted.

Ashura offers him a wry smile. “I don’t want to ask Sasuke,” he explains.

“Probably best.” Ibiki sets his glass on the table and leans back into the cushions. He’s removed his bandana, and Ashura casts a curious look over the scars on his skull but doesn’t allow himself to get distracted.

“Does anyone know who killed the Uchiha?” he asks quietly.

Asuma looks at Ibiki, then at Ashura. Hesitates, eyes dark, and then makes a sound that speaks of resignation. “Of course,” he says, as if it should be obvious. “It was Uchiha Itachi. Sasuke's older brother.”

The words jar through Ashura’s chest, make his breath tangle in a razor-edged knot in his throat. His older brother did that, and gods, the parallels hurt. Indra tried to do the same to the Ōtsutsuki Clan, tried to wipe them out for having the audacity to use chakra and teach the method to others. But—this wasn’t Indra. This was Sasuke’s brother who betrayed him, who left him in such pain.

“No one has found him yet,” Ashura gets out, and it’s not a question, because he remembers how Sasuke spoke about getting revenge.

Ibiki grunts, and Ashura might take it for disinterest except his eyes are sharp. “Uchiha Itachi is a prodigy, and he was one of the village’s best. He was ANBU material at eleven. If he doesn’t want us to find him, we’re not going to.”

The similarities are enough to make Ashura want to curl in around the ache in his chest. He presses a hand there, trying to breathe through it, and has to focus, count each second of his inhale to be sure it comes. Kanna’s trick, and he misses her right now, headstrong and fiery. She’d know what to do; she always did.

“Is there—is there a risk to Sasuke?” Ashura asks, and then remembers Sasuke's quietly desperate That man might come back and try to kill you. Not an empty threat, he thinks, and curls his hands into the folds of his robe. There's horror in him, but—

“Yes,” Ibiki says, still watching him, still wary and intent in equal measure. “Itachi told Sasuke that he left him alive because he wasn’t a challenge. He said he’d come back when Sasuke had the same eyes as him.”

“The Mangekyō Sharingan,” Asuma clarifies, before Ashura can ask.

Something cold settles in Ashura’s chest, and he closes his eyes. The Mangekyō Sharingan. Indra's eyes. Eyes he gained by killing his closest friends, just for the power it would give him. And if Itachi wants Sasuke to have the same eyes, he’s likely going to return, keep pushing, leave hints until Sasuke thinks that the only way to face him as an equal is to do the same thing.

No child should have to live with that weight. Not when the village as a whole should be responsible for one of its members.

“That’s not the only threat,” Asuma adds, and when Ashura raises his head to look at him he cocks an eyebrow. “The kid’s currently got one of the highest bounties in Fire Country, seeing as he’s the last Uchiha someone could snatch to get the Sharingan. Konoha's dojutsus are the first thing bloodline thieves go for, and the Uchiha are especially tempting, since the Hyuuga have a seal put on most of their clan members to keep their eyes from being stolen.”

Which would be why they thought he was a threat, Ashura assumes. Stealing eyes, though—stealing bloodlines and kidnapping children and—and using them like that…it makes his head hurt, thinking of it. His eldest daughter would have been the one people went after, if she lived now, and Ashura thinks of her boldness, her brightness and kindness and light stolen away to be a benefit to someone else’s clan, and wants to be sick.

“They're not going to be a threat anymore,” Ashura says quietly. He runs a hand over his hair, then takes a shaky breath and raises his head, straightening his back. Too late to save the rest of Indra's clan, too late to stop the hurt before it happened, but—this he can do. There's something in him that’s small and hot and growing, and anger has never come easily to Ashura, never once, but—

He’s angry. He’s angry and he won't let Sasuke be hurt again. Won't let someone steal him away just for his blood, or let an older brother manipulate him into harming himself and those around him. No matter what it takes, Ashura will stop any threat to Sasuke, and maybe he isn't a fighter but for this, for family? He can stand against anything.

He lets out a slow breath, controlling even that spark of fury, closes his eyes as he evens out his pulse and lets himself settle, and then opens his eyes and offers Asuma and Ibiki a smile. “Excuse me,” he says politely, and rises to his feet, turning and heading back to the room where Sasuke is sleeping.

He has his answers, and he doesn’t care for them at all.

Carefully, gently, he eases himself down on the far side of the bed, closest to the window, and leans back against the wall. Outside, the night is deepening, growing quiet, and Ashura reaches out. Just a little, with just a touch of power, but Konoha is a world all its own, a tangled network of branches and roots and vines and leaves. There's more Mokuton here than Ashura has ever felt, or thought to use himself, and it’s green and shimmering with quiescent power like a heat haze.

Ashura stretches himself into the tangle, slips a seed of power into the heart of the network deep underground, to grow and expand. The plants shiver at the touch, groan and creak and thirstily drink the chakra down, eager for another taste of the force that gave them life to begin with. A touch of green curls towards Ashura as they test his presence, and branches scratch across the window from outside the glass. Ashura smiles a little, feeling the whole building breathe, and murmurs, “Thank you.”

The green world outside shivers, eager for more power, and Ashura settles it with a thought as he opens his eyes.

There's a weight against his thigh, a dark head turned towards him. Ashura strokes his fingers lightly over black hair, then curls his hand around Sasuke's shoulder.

“It will be all right,” he tells Sasuke, so soft it’s barely a sound, but he makes it a promise nevertheless. “Everything will be all right, you’ll see.”

 

 

Ibiki is staring at the spot where Ashura just was, and Asuma can't even begin to read the expression he’s wearing right now. He doesn’t try, just leans forward to retrieve his glass with a sigh, and rubs a hand over his eyes as he sits back.

“That went well,” he mutters.

Ibiki snorts. “I feel like I need a cigarette after that reaction,” he says mildly, but when Asuma shoots him a look he ignores it. Pushes to his feet instead, sighing, and says, “I'm going out. Don’t answer the door.”

“Out?” Asuma asks. He casts a glance out the balcony doors, checking that it really is approaching full dark, and asks, “Back to T & I?”

Ibiki nods. “Anko's liable to make even more of a mess if she’s not supervised,” he says dryly. “And I want to check the library. A creature that looks like that one did will be easy enough to identify.”

Asuma almost asks him why he doesn’t put the question to Ashura directly, then remembers the shattered furniture in the interrogation room and doesn’t bother. Maybe questions won't get the same reaction that a mental invasion did, but it’s probably better not to risk it. He tips two fingers against his brow in a lazy salute, watching Ibiki gather his hitai-ate and flak jacket. “Good luck,” he says, and doesn’t know whether he means it. Some things are better left unnamed, and he gets the feeling that Ashura’s god is one of them, especially if it’s so defensive of its secrets.

“Thanks,” Ibiki says, and locks the door behind him.

For a moment, Asuma stares down at the sake in his cup, then sighs and lifts it up in a toast. “Fuck you, Chiriku,” he says out loud, and hopes that wherever the monk is, he manages to hear it. “And your well-wishes, too.”

Chiriku is definitely laughing at him right now, Asuma is sure of it.

 

 

Kakashi wakes up to frantic knocking on his apartment window, a quick heartbeat rhythm that he recognizes all too well. Staggering out of bed, he trips over his discarded ANBU uniform, catches himself on the bedside table, and grabs the edge of the window, deactivating the traps with a flicker of chakra and then hauling it open before he even has his eyes fully focused.

A familiar figure spills through the moment there's space, and Tenzō hits the ground, rolls, and comes to his feet with only a fraction of his usual grace. “Senpai!” he says, and there's nothing but relief in his tone. “You're back early!”

Kakashi blinks at Tenzō, glances over at the clock on the table. A little after ten, and he went to bed at eleven this morning, the moment he got back from his mission. A lot of sleep, but not enough, and he drags a hand through his hair and tries to force his thoughts to make sense.

“Maa, Tenzō,” he says. “If you want a booty call, can this wait a few hours?”

Tenzō flushes brilliant crimson in a wave that washes from the top of his head, across his ears, and down his throat. “Kakashi!” he protests loudly, and Kakashi blinks, his fuzzy brain finally registering the fact that Tenzō is dressed in fuzzy green pyjamas dotted with flowers. He blinks at them, long and slow, and then presses the heels of his palms to his eyes.

“Please let this be you wanting sex,” he says, a plea to whatever gods might be listening. Sex with Tenzō is fun. It’s arguably the most emotionally healthy thing he’s ever done, at least according to Genma. Anything that drove Tenzō out of bed and straight to Kakashi’s window in a panic promises to be a lot less enjoyable, though.

“It’s not!” Tenzō hisses, effectively killing Kakashi’s dreams. “Someone in the village is using Mokuton!”

Kakashi is absolutely certain he heard that wrong.

“Mokuton,” he repeats, just to be sure this isn't some sort of auditory hallucination. Eleven hours of sleep is not enough to make up for almost a week straight without any, constantly on the move. It’s possible this is all some kind of mental break.

“Mokuton,” Tenzō confirms, and he looks up, dark eyes wide and worried behind the fall of his hair. “I don’t—if Danzō, or one of Orochimaru’s experiments—”

Kakashi’s known him long enough to catch the shudder Tenzō tries to hide, the swallow against the fear-induced dryness of his mouth. He hesitates, but—well. Something like this is definitely the kind of thing they should look into. “Dangerous?” he asks.

Tenzō worries his lower lip between his teeth. “I don’t know,” he admits. “I was asleep, and then all the plants around my building just—moved. I didn’t make them, and when I tried to find out why, there was…someone else’s chakra in them.”

One of Danzō’s experiments seems likely, as much as Kakashi doesn’t want to think it. He kept Tenzō hidden away for years, his own personal Mokuton user, and there's no saying that he didn’t do the same with another child. Tenzō has always believed that he was the only one that survived the labs, but—what if he wasn’t?

Judging by the hope and fear written across Tenzō’s face in equal measure, he’s thinking the same thing. “Should we go to the Hokage?” he asks.

Kakashi hesitates again. Wants to say yes, but—Danzō tried to have Sarutobi killed, and Danzō is still in power. Root is supposedly disbanded, but Sarutobi has to know that it still exists. Sarutobi is the Hokage, though. This could be a danger to the village, an enemy. If they don’t alert him, it could end badly for Konoha as a whole.

“We’ll investigate on our own tonight,” he finally says. “The Sandaime must have left the office by now anyway. If we find anything, we can bring it to him in the morning.”

“And if we don’t?” Tenzō casts a glance out the window, then back at Kakashi, and in this light his hair is black, long and smooth and falling in his face without his faceplate to hold it back. Kakashi can't resist the urge to reach out and touch it, tugging it lightly instead of smoothing it back the way he halfway wants to.

“Then there's nothing to be found,” he tells Tenzō, and smiles.

Tenzō takes a breath, then smiles back. He tips forward, burying his face in Kakashi’s chest, and says, muffled and barely audible, “I’m glad you're back, Kakashi-senpai.”

Not quite sure what to do, Kakashi gingerly rests a hand on the back of Tenzō’s head, letting it linger. “Sex later, then?” he asks, mostly joking.

Tenzō headbutts him in the center of the chest hard enough to knock him back onto the bed. “Kakashi!” he hisses, crimson again, stalks over to Kakashi’s closet, and grabs an armful of clothing. “I'm borrowing something,” he snaps, then ducks into the bathroom.

Kakashi stares up at the ceiling for a long moment, then reaches up to rub at his chest. “He’s so cute,” he tells the water stain above him.

The water stain doesn’t answer, which is probably a good sign where Kakashi’s mental stability at the moment is concerned. In thanks, Kakashi renews his promise to talk to maintenance about getting it fixed and hauls himself back up to get dressed. His regular jounin uniform sports a thin coating of dust, which is less than ideal and probably means Kakashi should try to take time off more frequently, but he ignores the implications and pulls it on, straightening his fresh mask just as the bathroom door creaks open. He glances over at Tenzō, and—

Oh, Kakashi thinks, a little dazed. Tenzō is eighteen now but he’s still growing into himself, slender even with his muscles, and he’s still half a head shorter than Kakashi. The sleeves of Kakashi’s spare uniform slip past his hands, and the shirt hangs off his collarbone. It’s way sexier than it should be, honestly.

“Maa,” he says, instead of that, because he has a reputation to maintain. “You look adorable, Tenzō. Like you're playing dress-up.”

“I do not!” Tenzō protests, but he’s flushing again, or maybe still. Kakashi can't quite tell. “Are you ready, Kakashi-senpai?”

“Sure, sure.” Kakashi eases the window open a little wider, grabs his tantō from where it’s leaning by the bed, and follows Tenzō as he slides back out into the night, slipping up onto the roof. It’s quiet, the streets practically empty except for a patrol on one corner, and Kakashi checks them over before he turns and raises an expected brow at Tenzō.

Tenzō hesitates, casting a glance over the village. “I don’t know where it came from,” he confesses. “It was—everywhere.”

A chill trickles down Kakashi’s spin, cold and unsettling. He really doesn’t like the idea of a strange Mokuton user who’s that strong. Konoha is built on a basis of Mokuton, and there's greenery everywhere. If someone could turn it against them—

He takes a breath, forces himself to think logically. Tenzō’s apartment is to the south, and he felt it there strongly enough to wake him up. “Where do you notice it the most?” he asks. “Is there a certain area?” He’s best with Doton and Raiton, but neither of them has ever felt even remotely like what Tenzō has described Mokuton as. Kakashi tends to assume it’s because Mokuton effects a living thing, rather than an inanimate one, but it means he has no idea how to phrase what he’s trying to convey.

Thankfully, Tenzō seems to get it anyway. He bows his head, bringing his hands up in a quick snake seal, and frowns in concentration. The tree on the corner of the rooftop shivers, leaves turning towards them, and Kakashi eyes it warily but it doesn’t otherwise move. A moment later, Tenzō drops the seal and says, “South, on the opposite side of the district from my apartment.”

Close to Tenzō, and Kakashi wonders grimly whether that’s a coincidence, what the odd could be that this was done to draw out Konoha's other Mokuton user for some purpose. There's no saying that Tenzō will pass on what Orochimaru did to him to any children he has, but—even a vague possibility would probably be enough for most countries to take the risk and try to capture him. It’s one of the reasons Sarutobi has always kept him in ANBU, out of sight and on the move.

Behind them, a throat clears politely, and Kakashi and Tenzō both twitch, jerking around. Kakashi has his tantō halfway out of its sheath before he recognizes the reddish-brown hair, the lazy grin. “Hey,” Genma says, twiddling his fingers in a wave. “If you two are planning to expand your horizons by screwing in public, I'm going to have to politely request that you take it elsewhere. I've got better things to do with my night than writing you up.”

“Genma,” Tenzō says with something like relief, and Kakashi tries to ease back a little. Genma is a friend, was Minato's main guard. He’s one of the most devoted people Kakashi’s ever met; there's no way he’s a danger.

Genma blinks, registering Tenzō’s lack of spluttering and instantly recognizing it as a side-effect of something serious. “What’s wrong?” he asks, pulling the senbon from his mouth. “Is this about the explosion at T & I?”

“Explosion,” Kakashi echoes, with a sinking feeling. “What explosion?”

“The one that knocked out one of the interrogation rooms about an hour ago,” Genma clarifies, flicking a glance from Kakashi to Tenzō and back again, the teasing sliding out of his expression. “Shikaku nabbed a stranger in the Uchiha compound. Some guy who wandered in with Asuma. Anko says Ibiki is fine, according to Inoichi, but he’s also not answering any messages. Stranger’s gone, too.”

“A stranger,” Tenzō whispers, and Kakashi can see the play of thoughts on his face. Orochimaru in disguise, or one of Orochimaru’s experiments here to cause havoc. Dangerous, without a doubt.

“Can you track the strange Mokuton back to its source?” Kakashi asks, ignoring Genma's startled sound.

Tenzō nods. “I should be able to,” he says. “It will be a lot stronger when I get close, and it’s…already impressive.”

Not exactly a good thing to hear. Kakashi takes a breath, loosening his tantō in its sheath and checking how many kunai he’s carrying. “Genma?” he asks expectantly.

Genma's smile is wry. “Yes, captain?” he asks, but he falls into step without hesitation as Tenzō leaps for the next building over. “Mokuton, huh?” he asks. “Aren’t you glad you're home, captain?”

“How many times have you been written up for cheek?” Kakashi wants to know.

Genma flashes him a grin. “About as many times as I've gone down on you,” he says, with extra cheek just because he’s a hundred and eighty centimeters of spite, and Tenzō trips over the peak of a roof and nearly goes spilling down the other side. Kakashi lunges to catch him just in time, giving Genma a dirty look, and Genma feigns innocence as he sails past them.

“So where exactly are we headed?” he asks, coming to a stop on the curve of a streetlamp. There's careful assessment on his face, and Kakashi warily pauses beside him, trying to ignore the redness on Tenzō’s cheeks. He may have forgotten to mention that he had history with Genma, but in his own defense he didn’t think it would come up like this.

Though, knowing Genma, he probably should have. His own mistake.

“Southeast,” Tenzō says, and points towards several of the lower apartment buildings beyond the market district. “Somewhere over there, I think.”

There's a long pause, and then Genma says, perfectly mild, “Isn't Ibiki's apartment building right in the middle there?”

Well. That’s too much of a coincidence for Kakashi, and he hums. “You were running a search?” he asks Genma.

“Raidō’s has guard duty tonight, but I told him I’d do a sweep, see if I could find Asuma before I headed home,” Genma says. “He and the Sandaime kind of got into it earlier, and Raidō was worried.”

Kakashi always forgets that Raidō was Asuma's genin teammate. The worry makes sense, though, and that’s another coincidence that Kakashi doesn’t particularly like. “So Asuma brings a stranger in, the stranger gets captured, T & I explodes when Ibiki interrogates him, Asuma and Ibiki disappear, and then the stranger is in the same area as Ibiki's apartment?”

“Once is happenstance,” Tenzō murmurs. “Twice is enemy action.”

The fact that it’s an ANBU saying doesn’t make it any less true. Kakashi hums in agreement, then tips his head at Genma. “Head for Ibiki's apartment. Tenzō—”

“We may as well just go together,” Tenzō says. He’s staring ahead of them, at one building in particular that looks no different to Kakashi’s eyes. “That’s the source.”

“Backup?” Genma asks, but he’s already pulling a handful of senbon out of his weapons pouch and sliding them up his sleeves.

Kakashi debates it, but they need to move fast. “If we need it I’ll send one of my dogs. Go.”

Tenzō drops from the rooftop without waiting a second more, hands snapping up into a snake seal. A massive beam of wood catches him, arching up over the nearest street and then down, and he shapes another seal as Kakashi and Genma leap after him, conjures up a handful of stabbing branches—

The earth trembles. Kakashi feels it like a vibration that shivers up through his feet, and it’s heavy, more chakra than force. It makes him stumble a step, pull up hard, and he opens his mouth to cry a warning but it’s already too late. Tenzō’s Mokuton leaps ahead, aiming for a balcony on the third floor, and—

There's a shiver of green light, a burst of chakra that almost knocks the breath right out of Kakashi’s lungs. A massive tree, as large around as any apartment building, bursts into being, grown so quickly it almost seems like it just materialized in front of them. Tenzō cries out, trying to pull up, to stop, but he only just manages to twist out of the way before his Mokuton collides with the other. He falls, tumbles down until he can call up another spur of wood, but there's a branch reaching out to grab him, reaching tendrils of wood, and Kakashi doesn’t even have to think before he’s moving. Lightning edges his tantō as he brings it sweeping down, slicing right through the branches, and Tenzō snatches him out of the air, flips them over to land on a burst of wood like a squared-off pillar. Lunges, and brings his hands up, but he’s not quite fast enough.

A man lands on a branch of the tree, clad all in white, with brown hair and dark eyes and a staff of twisted oak in one hand. At his touch the tree erupts, reaching out, and Kakashi barely has a second to brace before they're drowning in a sea of leaves and limbs. All he can do is grab Tenzō and hang on tightly, hoping that when they land it won't hurt too much.

“Hey!” Genma shouts, somewhere above them, and there's a sharp thunk, like metal needles striking wood.

Tenzō gets an arm around Kakashi as they fall, hauls him close and up and suddenly they're breaking free of the press of branches, bursting into open air. Kakashi gets a foot on Tenzō’s knee, flips over his head and brings his hands up to his mouth, shaping a ring. The fireball bursts from his lips, and he can just see the man’s eyes widen, but the branch he’s on drops and he’s suddenly landing a dozen yards down, the Katon jutsu striking harmlessly over his head. He raises a hand, no signs, no surge of chakra, and the branches bend again, twisting, twining—

Genma drops through them, and Kakashi hurls a kunai into the press, trusting Genma's reflexes. And Genma does catch it, flips the knife around his fingers and lashes out.

It collides with a familiar chakra blade, and Asuma kicks Genma out of the air, landing in front of the man in white in a defensive crouch.

With an extra burst of chakra, Kakashi changes course, catches Genma before he can hit a window, and lands them both on the rooftop with a thump.

“I think I found Asuma,” he says dryly, but doesn’t let himself look away. Asuma is watching him in return, irritated and annoyed and still not moving, and Kakashi thinks traitor and it feels like walking into the aftermath of Itachi having massacred his clan.

“Yeah,” Genma wheezes, pressing a hand to his ribs. “Thanks for that.”

Kakashi gives him a sunny smile as Tenzō lands next to them, out of breath but otherwise unharmed. And—

“Asuma, he has Mokuton,” the man in white says, disbelieving. “I thought you said Hashirama was dead.”

Chapter Text

“You don’t get to say that when you have it, too!” Asuma says, exasperated. “Why didn’t you tell me that?”

Kakashi blinks, trades glances with an equally baffled Tenzō, and leans over the edge to get a closer look.

“You didn’t ask,” the man in white tells him, though there's a curve to his mouth that says he knows precisely what kind of answer that is, and Asuma groans in clear disgust.

“I changed my mind,” he tells Kakashi, glancing up and across the street. “Stab him to death if you want.”

The stranger laughs, lifting a hand, and Kakashi and Tenzō both tense but there's no surge of movement, no attack. Some of the branches retreat, sliding back to more normal lengths and slotting into place, though the tree itself remains. The man in white glances back at the apartment building, and then across the road, and asks, “Are you Hashirama?”

Kakashi’s close enough to see the way Tenzō flushes, how he ducks his head. “No!” he protests. “Of course not!”

“That was a hundred years ago,” Asuma puts in, before the stranger can do more than open his mouth. “Of course he’s not Hashirama.”

The stranger pauses, and—well. Kakashi recognizes that look, because he’s felt that way before, even if he never particularly lets it show. I have something to say but I can't tell if it’s acceptable to normal people, he subtitles it, and it’s—confusing. Strange. Doesn’t make Kakashi any more likely to relax any time soon, of course. The man attacked them, and Asuma attacked them in his defense, and Kakashi doesn’t like that at all.

“All right,” the stranger says after just a moment too long, and takes a step. Asuma jerks, but he’s already leaping, a touch of chakra carrying him across the street. He lands on the roof of the building, and Kakashi is moving before he can even consciously consider it, putting himself between Tenzō and the stranger with a kunai up and ready.

There's no reaction, no defensiveness. The man raises his hands, smiling, and his eyes are dark and warm, expression calm. “I'm sorry,” he says. “You felt angry before. I thought you had different intentions.”

Felt angry? Kakashi risks a glance at Genma, who’s still and steady, gaze intent but with a thoughtful, wary slant to his expression.

“Ashura,” Asuma says sharply, landing beside them, but the stranger just waves a hand, dismissing the irritation in Asuma's words.

“They’re not planning to hurt anyone,” he says, and then goes to one knee, holding out a hand to Tenzō, who twitches back. Ashura pauses, almost like he’s surprised, and offers, “No, I just—thought we could put the street to rights.”

Kakashi can't quite read the expression that flickers across Tenzō’s face; it’s there and gone in a moment, a twist of something like pain, or maybe awe. He stares at Ashura for a long, long minute, then takes a breath. One hand settles on Kakashi’s hip, gently nudging him out of the way, and Tenzō reaches out, carefully sets his fingers over Ashura’s. A light press, not gripping, not holding, able to draw back in an instant, but Kakashi still tenses warily.

If Ashura even notices, there's no sign at all. He smiles at Tenzō, easy and unhesitating, and closes his eyes. “Thank you,” he says. “Ungrowing things is always harder than making them grow, isn't it?”

The twist to Tenzō’s mouth says he doesn’t agree, but doesn’t say anything. Doesn’t close his eyes, either, which eases Kakashi’s paranoia by a degree; if Ashura moves Tenzō will see it. “You're not—you're leaving the tree out of it,” he says, almost a question. “If we’re—ungrowing—”

Ashura hums, and there's a shiver across the street, branches pulling back, columns of wood retreating. Only the massive tree Ashura summoned is still there, unmoving, unwavering. Unwieldy, too, Kakashi thinks, eyeing it. It takes up half the street at least, and everyone in the apartment building who bought their place for the view is going to wake up and be massively disappointed.

“It doesn’t want to go back to being a sapling,” Ashura says, and dark eyes slide open to catch Tenzō’s. There’s something….old, Kakashi thinks, like a shiver of recognition directed at someone he’s never met before. Something very old and quietly powerful in his gaze. It kind of makes Kakashi want to stab him on instinct, before he can ever prove himself a threat. “Sending it back at this point would mean a fight, and I know better than to pick a fight with things bigger than me. Most of the time.” His smile brightens, just an edge of mischief to it, and Tenzō smiles back in a way that looks reflexive more than anything, as if he can't help it at all.

Kakashi doesn’t like that, either.

It’s apparently something that makes sense to Tenzō, though, because he frowns in concentration for a moment before the expression eases. “Oh,” he says, with faint surprise. “I see. That’s—that’s how you got it so big in the first place, isn't it?”

“I found the one that wanted to grow the most,” Ashura confirms, and glances back at the street. It’s clear of all the smaller bits of growth now, all the branches and vines and various limbs that so nearly caught them, and he smiles and sits back on his heels, letting Tenzō’s hands slip away.

“Are you done undermining the foundation of Konoha?” Asuma asks dryly, but he offers Ashura a hand up, and Ashura laughs as he takes it.

“The roots are the foundation,” he says, like that should mean something to the rest of them. Even Tenzō looks confused at the statement, though. Ashura doesn’t linger on it, turns to smile at Tenzō and says, “I'm sorry for attacking you. I thought you were a threat to Sasuke.”

It takes effort for Kakashi not to twitch. Sasuke, and Ashura was caught in the Uchiha compound earlier, taken to T & I because they considered him a threat, and now he’s close to Sasuke, supposedly trying to protect him. Kakashi likes that even less than Tenzō’s reaction to Ashura.

“Please stop talking,” Asuma says on a sigh, using his grip on Ashura’s hand to drag him back two steps and almost behind him. Ashura blinks, caught off guard, but doesn’t resist. Asuma takes another second to be sure he’s going to actually stay quiet, ignoring Ashura’s bemused expression, and then tells Kakashi, “He’s an Uchiha. He had every right to be in the compound.”

An Uchiha? Kakashi stares at Asuma, waiting for the punchline, but none comes. Asuma looks perfectly serious, perfectly set. Like he didn’t just tell Kakashi that the stranger he dragged into the village is part of a massacred clan with only two members left. Like he isn't trying to get them to believe that a man with Mokuton is an Uchiha.

Before Kakashi can laugh in Asuma's face, there's a cry. A small figure leans out one of the windows, and Ashura turns, expression brightening. He stretches out a hand, and Kakashi twitches as one of the tree’s limbs curves around, right up to the window. The child scrambles out onto it, and carefully, slowly, the branch straightens, then extends, until Itachi's little brother is stepping down onto the rooftop beside them.

“Ashura!” he says, almost accusing, but he catches Ashura’s hand and pulls him back, taking a step in front of him and scowling at Kakashi and Tenzō with all the ferocity of a wet kitten. “Are you okay?”

“I think you should be asking us that,” Kakashi says dryly, and gets a glare that says clear as words that he’d be getting kicked in the kneecap if Sasuke didn’t have to leave Ashura’s side to do it.

Ashura gives him a bemused smile, then kneels down, letting Sasuke meet his eyes. “I'm fine,” he says, and it’s not quite gentle, maybe, but it’s…kind. “I'm sorry I woke you, Sasuke. I overreacted.”

Sasuke studies him with dark, solemn eyes for a long moment, then nods. He still hasn’t let go of Ashura’s hand. “I don’t mind,” he says, then glances back at the tree. “Is that your jutsu?”

Right. If Sasuke doesn’t even know that, Kakashi is calling bullshit on the idea that Ashura is an Uchiha.

“Mine, now,” Ashura confirms, then glances over at Tenzō. “And his as well. It was originally my father’s.”

A Mokuton bloodline. A Mokuton bloodline that’s likely unconnected to the Shodaime. Kakashi trades glances with a wide-eyed Tenzō, and has to swallow. All of Orochimaru’s experiments, and all he would have had to do was kidnap a few children from an outside clan if he really wanted Mokuton.

“Oh.” Sasuke nods, then looks over at Tenzō again, eyes narrowing. “Is he your relative? I thought your family was all dead.”

For a moment, something sad and full of pain flickers across Ashura’s face. He closes his eyes, smile bittersweet, and says, “All my family is now you, Sasuke.”

Clearing his throat, Tenzō takes a step closer, and when Sasuke tears his eyes away from Ashura to glance at him, he offers a shy smile. “I'm not related,” Tenzō says. “My abilities are from experimentation, not something I come by naturally.”

Kakashi knows him well enough to see the tightness around his eyes at those words, the way he very carefully holds himself so as not to let his tension show. Taking a step sideways, he lays a hand on Tenzō’s back, just a hint of pressure, but it makes something in the set of his shoulders ease slightly. Kakashi doesn’t let himself relax the same way, though; there's still every chance Ashura is a threat.

“You certainly use them well, if that’s the case,” Ashura says, smiling. He rises to his feet, not pulling his hand from Sasuke's, and bows. “Please forgive me for my attack. I am Ōtsutsuki Ashura.”

“Uchiha,” Sasuke interrupts immediately. “You're Uchiha Ashura.”

Ashura pauses, like he’s been caught off guard, and then gives Sasuke a smile that’s warm on the surface but touched with an old sort of ache beneath. “I am,” he agrees, and it makes Sasuke relax a little, easing back. Ashura squeezes his hand, and—

Kakashi is very, very carefully not thinking about how that smile echoes one he remembers, one he hasn’t seen in fifteen years. Like his father’s, kind and soft even in the face of precocious children butting in, and Kakashi refuses, refuses to see the similarities.

“Adopted,” Asuma says mildly, and when Genma snorts he raises a brow at the tokujō. “Clan Heads are legally allowed to take on any new members they feel will improve their clans. It was put into every single contract when the clans joined Konoha, so that the Hokage wouldn’t be able to interfere,” he says, and Kakashi forgets he’s the Hokage's son right up until he says things like that. Asuma tried to get away with looking like dumb muscle all through his time at the Academy, but when he opens his mouth it ruins that impression of him immediately.

“Something tells me he’s going to try and interfere with this,” Genma says dryly, looking them over. “You’re the cause of the explosion at T&I?”

“Not him directly,” a voice says, and Kakashi twitches, turns just as Ibiki vaults over the edge of the building and straightens. He looks at the six of them, then at the tree, and sighs through his nose. “When I said don’t answer the door, I thought the don’t be stupid was implied.”

Asuma raises his hands. “Ashura felt them coming hell-bent for something,” he says dryly. “I think he felt a little twitchy.”

“Sir,” Genma says with a lazy wave. “Anko's pretty convinced you're dead and she’s about to be promoted.”

“Not even if I was a corpse,” Ibiki says with a grimace. “And I corrected her. I came from T&I when I heard the commotion.”

And probably when he saw the tree, Kakashi thinks dryly, eyeing it. It’s…very large, even for Konoha. “Tenzō sensed someone using Mokuton,” he says in explanation, and Ashura smiles sheepishly, rubbing a hand over the back of his head.

“I was checking for threats,” he says. “I'm sorry if I startled you, but there are so many roots, all over the village. I just asked them for a little help.”

Kakashi glances at Tenzō to see if that statement makes any more sense to him that it does to Kakashi, but he’s frowning faintly, eyes distant. Carefully, he presses his hands into the Snake seal, chakra flickering up around him, and then says, “You…you gave them power.”

“To wake them up a little,” Ashura confirms, and takes a step forward, offering his free hand again. “Can I show you?”

This time, Tenzō doesn’t hesitate to press his fingers over Ashura’s, even though it makes Kakashi tense. Closes his eyes, too, and Kakashi takes a step forward, wants to pull them apart, but Genma catches his elbow and tugs him back.

“Easy, Captain,” he murmurs, and his expression is amused but his eyes are serious. “I don’t think there's any threat here.”

“You don’t think,” Kakashi points out, but he lets Genma steer him another step away. Ibiki is right next to them, and Genma's holding a senbon. It’s fine. Probably.

Tenzō hasn’t moved, eyes still closed, expression softening with each moment. “Oh,” he says, and then glances up as Ashura opens his eyes. “It’s—it’s not just your chakra in them.”

“No,” Ashura says, and that smile is warm, almost wondering. “If Hashirama was the one to grow them, he put so much of himself in them, in everything that makes the village, that it’s no wonder no invasion has made it here. The plants are a line of defense. They wouldn’t harm the village they were grown for.”

The words seem to mean something, in conjunction with whatever they’re feeling, that makes Tenzō truly relax, and he smiles back at Ashura, a little shy. “Your Mokuton doesn’t feel like Hashirama’s,” he says, like it’s a good thing. Kakashi supposes it is; at the very least, it means Ashura doesn’t have the same cells as Hashirama and Tenzō by proxy.

There's a sigh, and Ibiki taps Ashura on the shoulder. “You still need to stay out of sight,” he tells Ashura. “The paperwork hasn’t been processed yet, and there's a chance you could disappear before it does if the Hokage thinks you're a threat.”

Sasuke's eyes go wide with panic, his grip on Ashura’s hand turning white-knuckled. Ashura doesn’t even wince, just tugs him a step closer, right up against his side. “Then we’ll go back inside,” he says, pulling away from Tenzō. He looks down at Sasuke and smiles. “Probably for the best.”

“This time try to stay there,” Ibiki says dryly. “I still have fires to put out. Genma, are you on patrol?”

Genma gives him a charming grin. “Would I be slacking off and loitering here if I were?”

“If there was trouble you could stick your nose in? Absolutely.” Ibiki gives him a look, snorts when Genma just grins, and waves him up. “With me. Inoichi already came to see me, but Shikaku's going to be breathing down my neck in about ten minutes and I need you to run interference.”

“You're only asking me because Shikaku never appreciates my sense of humor, so he’ll give up quickly,” Genma retorts, but he pushes away from the wall and straightens with a lazy salute.

Ibiki's sigh is tired. “No one appreciates your sense of humor. That’s why you're single,” he says, and over Genma's offended protest orders, “Go.”

“You’ll appreciate me someday,” Genma says loftily, and vanishes in a whirl of leaves. Kakashi watches them drift down, but—instead of spinning down to the ground like they normally do, the leaves twist, drift sideways, and settle on Ashura’s robes like he’s some kind of—of plant magnet.

Really, Kakashi hates this day. When he wakes up and this is all a vivid dream brought on by stress and sleep deprivation he’s going to be so relieved.

“Go back to bed,” Ibiki tells Kakashi, and a jerk of his thumb includes Tenzō in the order. “Everything’s fine here, and I don’t want more attention on this. Just trust me that there's no danger.”

“All right,” Tenzō agrees, though Kakashi is reluctant to. Noticing that, Tenzō grips his wrist and tugs him back, ducking his head to Ibiki. “Sorry about the confusion.”

Ibiki waves them off. “Clan politics are always terrible,” he says, like that’s explanation enough, though if Sasuke is actually claiming his position as Uchiha Clan Head it probably is. Kakashi definitely don’t want to be around when the Hokage realizes; it’s been a full year since anyone had to contend with the Uchiha having a voice in politics, while the Military Police Force is completely empty of any members. The Uchiha were always a fairly neutral voice in Konoha's policies, given the fact that they ran the police force, but with that gone, with their power up in the air because of Sasuke's age, that’s going to be changing, Kakashi is sure.

It’s absolutely not something Kakashi wants any part of, and despite a handful of lingering doubts, Kakashi turns away, follows Tenzō’s leap from the edge of the building, the chain of shunshin that carry him back across the village towards Kakashi’s apartment.

When Kakashi slides through his window and lets it fall shut behind him, Tenzō is standing in the middle of his bedroom, staring down at his hands with a peculiar expression on his face. Kakashi feels a flicker of something tangentially related to panic, mind immediately leaping to contact poison, possession jutsus, mental transfers—

“I'm fine, senpai,” Tenzō says without even bothering to look up. He flexes his fingers carefully, the spreads them, and the vines that trail down past Kakashi’s window shift against the glass. It makes Tenzō smile, and when he looks up there’s something bright and brilliant in his face. “Kakashi-senpai, he has Mokuton.”

“I thought we established that,” Kakashi says dryly. “Isn't that how all of this started?”

Tenzō hesitates, then shakes his head. “I—no,” he says. “That’s not—he has Mokuton that’s different than mine. It’s wilder. But—I think mine wants to be wilder, too. And if Ashura can teach me…”

Kakashi thinks of the massive tree Ashura grew, the ease with which he used his power, no hand signs, no hesitation. Not like the effort that Tenzō puts into each jutsu, the strain of it that Kakashi can see in him each time he pushes himself too far. But then, Tenzō was taught by Danzō, who was relying on half-faded memories of how Hashirama used his own power. Nothing about the mechanics, nothing about the feel, and what if that’s the difference? Ashura was likely taught by his father, who had the same gift; Tenzō never got that.

“Shimo and Kiri use such different types of Suiton you’d never know they were the same type of release,” he points out, and when Tenzō blinks, he tugs down his mask and gives him a crooked smile. “You picked up what he was doing pretty quickly.”

Tenzō flushes faintly, face turning pink. He’s so adorable Kakashi wants to pinch his cheeks. “It was just sensing,” he says. “I didn’t think—but all plants can hold our type of chakra. It makes them…a little more aware than normal plants.”

Kakashi actually really, really does not want to think about Konoha being overrun with semi-sentient plants. He’s pretty sure there are at least ten horror movies that start with that same premise. “That’s…special,” he manages, and probably keeps his tone mostly neutral.

Thankfully, Tenzō doesn’t seem to notice. “It makes things easier,” he says thoughtfully. “More immediate. I’ll have to try it on missions.”

“Are we done talking about Ashura?” Kakashi asks, maybe a little plaintively, but he got woken up from a much-needed near-coma with no reward except a probable false alarm and a host of political problems he doesn’t want any part in. If he’s not needed, if Ibiki really does have everything under control the way he says he does, Kakashi wants to go back to bed.

Tenzō rolls his eyes at him, but fondly, and grabs the hem of the shirt he borrowed. He peels it up over his head, then folds it and drops it over the foot of the bed, and reaches for his pants.

“Please,” Kakashi says with a groan, and pitches forward to collapse face-first into the mattress. “Please, don’t tease your poor senpai. “I've been on a mission for the last month.”

Tenzō laughs at that, and Kakashi can hear the rustle as his pants hit the floor, then a step. Hands settle on his ribs, slide up, and a moment later Tenzō settles astride his back. Long hair brushes Kakashi’s skin as he leans forward, and a soft kiss lingers on the nape of his neck.

“Who’s teasing?” Tenzō asks, and if he’s aiming for indignant it comes out far closer to amused.

Kakashi squints his eye open, cranes his head around to peer suspiciously at Tenzō’s face. He’s blushing harder now, but he doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, and Kakashi reaches back, touching one bare thigh. Grips it, a warning as he rolls over, and Tenzō shifts with the motion, settles in Kakashi’s lap as he sits up. Humming, Kakashi loops his arms around Tenzō’s back, and says lightly, “I could swear it was you, barely an hour ago.”

Because he has no respect for authority, no matter what he pretends, Tenzō rolls his eyes. “That was important,” he says pointedly, but he tangles his fingers in Kakashi’s hair and smiles at him. “It’s all right now, though. And this is important, too.”

It is. Very important, and Kakashi swallows, feels heat in his own cheeks that the mask thankfully hides. He skims his fingertips up Tenzō’s spine, chuckles when he shivers. “I like your priorities, though I don’t think the Hokage would approve.”

Tenzō makes a face and promptly tries to vacate his lap. “No talking about the Hokage in bed, senpai!”

“Sorry, sorry,” Kakashi says with a chuckle, and topples them sideways onto the mattress, pulling Tenzō close. There's still an uncertain buzz under his skin, skittering across his nerves, but Tenzō’s eyes are wide and dark and lovely, and when he kisses Kakashi his mouth is warm and sweet, yields easily to Kakashi’s tongue. Kakashi presses him down into the mattress, forearms braced on either side of his head as he carefully deepens the kiss. Tenzō is warm, and it was a long mission. Kakashi had found himself wanting to be back in the village more than once, and maybe part of that was the knowledge that Tenzō was taking leave soon, but—who’s to say. All Kakashi knows is that he wants Tenzō more than he wants sleep or solitude right now, and that’s probably significant.

Kakashi doesn’t want to think about, though. He focuses on the sweetness of Tenzō’s mouth, the slow slide of his hands up Kakashi’s sides, and shuts away everything else.

 

 

This time Sasuke stubbornly stays awake, always right at Ashura’s side, until Ashura gives up and retreats to the couch to see if he’ll finally fall asleep there. His youngest daughter always used to do the same thing after a nightmare or a fight that came too close to the clan’s lands, and it’s not the sort of thing Ashura ever thought to miss, but—

It’s sweet, he thinks, watching Sasuke's eyes get heavier as Ashura pages through one of Ibiki's books on the military history of Fire Country. Sasuke is listing slightly, trying to stay awake, but—he’s eight, and it’s been a trying day that’s now closing in on midnight.

“Here,” Asuma says quietly, soft enough that he doesn’t startle Sasuke. He offers Ashura a steaming mug, and Ashura takes it with a grateful smile, wrapping his fingers around the heated porcelain and inhaling the faintly smoky scent of the black tea. He watches through the steam as Asuma falls into the other chair, running a hand over his shaggy hair with a grimace.

“Thank you for defending me,” he says softly, and it’s still so easy to remember the way Asuma stepped in front of him, was ready to fight his fellow villagers for Ashura’s sake. After all his clashes with Indra, Ashura is used to being the defender, the one on the front line, taking the damage for the rest of his family. To have that reversed is…strange.

“Not that you needed it,” Asuma says, but it’s amused more than sour, and he’s watching Ashura carefully. “On the road—I thought you feeling up the trees was a sensor thing, or a weirdo thing. Guess not.”

Ashura laughs a little, reaches out with his free hand to touch Sasuke's shoulder as the boy lists, and with a grumble Sasuke tips the other direction instead, burrowing into Ashura’s side and settling there. For a moment, Ashura just blinks at him, but then he chuckles and lightly wraps an arm around Sasuke, keeping him close. “Not quite,” he says, brushing Sasuke's hair back from his face. Wonders, faintly, how much of Indra is going to linger in his features when he’s grown. “When you said no one but Hashirama had it, I wasn’t sure how to tell you that I did. Everything is…very different from what I'm used to.” Enough so to make him regret not keeping a closer eye on the living world, but—he was dead, and never intended anything like a return. And, of course, it’s been so many centuries since he was alive, and nothing is like it was. Not chakra, not ninshū, not the way people move and act and live. It’s unnerving, but—

Sasuke makes a quiet sound, turning his head to resettle himself more comfortably, and Ashura breathes out, smiles. Well. This is still the same, isn't it? He could just as easily be holding his daughter so long ago, with Takuma sitting across from him.

That’s a good thing to remember, really. People have changed, but at their core, they're still what they always were.

Asuma snorts softly, but rises to his feet. There's a blanket folded on the back of his chair, and he unfolds it, then tosses it lightly over Sasuke. “You should sleep, too,” he tells Ashura, and smiles wryly. “No matter how things go, tomorrow’s going to be a long day.”

“Thank you,” Ashura says, pulling the blanket up a little higher, and touches the back of Asuma's hand as he straightens. The flicker of his chakra is resigned, set, like he’s come to some kind of decision he isn't over fond of, but underneath that sense there's humor, a trace of satisfaction. Not wholly unpleasant, then. He smiles up at Asuma, and offers, “The bed in the guest room is free, since we’re out here.”

Asuma pauses, watching his face for a long moment, and then gives him a crooked smile in return. “Thanks,” he answers, and pulls away, vanishing down the hall.

The bedroom door clicks shut, and Ashura sighs into the silence, curling both hands around his tea again. The first sip is sweet and mellow on his tongue, and Sasuke is breathing quietly beneath his arm. He closes his eyes, letting himself settle, letting himself feel, and Konoha is a map of chakra and emotion and tangled humanity around them, beautiful and bright and dark.

It’s nothing at all like Ashura expected, but it’s certainly not a terrible place to be, either.

Chapter Text

Ashura knows immediately that he’s in a dream.

The training hall where he spent so much time as a child, trying—and failing—to earn his father’s approval is precisely as he remembers it, as if he’s stepped back in time a millennia as simply as opening his eyes. It’s even to scale with what he remembers from childhood, everything slightly too large, a space for adults seen through a child’s eyes, and the floor is rough beneath his feet, not yet worn smooth. Not yet destroyed, even though Ashura knows Indra took vicious pleasure in burning it down to ash and scorched stone during one of his attacks.

Here and now, though, it’s spotless. The perfect image of the past, right down to the banners on the wall.

Ashura breathes out, turns away from the open door that lets in the sound of long-forgotten voices. Steps back, and somehow it’s no surprise at all to see his father seated on the dais, straight-backed and stern.

“Ashura,” he says, and that tone is everything Ashura remembers from far too many years as the worthless second son.

Instinct has him sliding to his knees, bowing his head. “Father,” he says formally, and can’t quite stop the hitch of breath that makes the word waver. It’s been—years, he thinks. Maybe centuries. His father passed sometimes, in the Pure Lands, but he never lingered. Too concerned with the living world, with the war between those who bore Ashura and Indra’s chakra imprints, and Ashura has never protested, knows the seriousness of the task, but—

Years without him, and his first sight of his father is as a child again, stripped of whatever he managed to accomplish as a man, as the leader of the Otsutsuki. Stripped of the power his father granted him, when he scorned Indra.

The silence stretches, as heavy as wet sand and just as abrasive against Ashura’s skin. He opens his mouth, wants to ask why Hagoromo is here, now, but finds the words trapped beneath his tongue, unable to be voiced. Pauses, struggling, and finally manages, “Father, it’s been a long time.”

For a long moment, Hagoromo doesn’t answer, just regards him with sharp eyes. “My brother is meddling again,” he says at length, and Ashura buries a wince. That tone is anything but pleased. “That I expected. But for you to go along with him, Ashura…that is disappointing.”

Ashura swallows, raises his head just enough to meet Hagoromo’s eyes. “I didn’t know what he was planning,” he says, and tries to keep it from sounding defensive. Nothing annoys Hagoromo faster. “He didn’t give me any warning, Father.”

Hagoromo frowns. “That is indeed Hamura’s way,” he says, displeased. “He is a fool. This world’s balance is too fragile at this moment, especially with your added presence. Should you disrupt the cycle, centuries of struggle will be for nothing. I will not have it.”

It’s not as though Ashura expected any different. He know without a shadow of a doubt  that Hagoromo loves him, that he cares deeply about the world as a whole, but—

“Father, we have a chance to change things,” he says, meeting Hagoromo’s narrow stare. “It’s been centuries. How long can we watch everything pass without at least trying to fix what’s been broken?”

Hagoromo’s mouth tightens. “All that has broken is at your brother’s hand,” he says grimly. “Foiling his plans for the world must be the priority, Ashura. I had thought you of all people would understand this.”

It aches, a little. Irks even more. Ashura died by Indra’s hand, spent his whole life after that first attack throwing himself against his brother’s viciousness, protecting their clan, guarding the world. If anyone had to face what Indra became, had to understand soul-deep just how far he fell, it was Ashura, and being lectured on Indra’s mistakes doesn’t sit well with him.

Especially not when Sasuke’s entrance into Ashura’s life has brought back all the guilty, burning mess of certainty, that if Hagoromo had been just a little wiser, a little more attentive, a little fairer, it never would have come to this. Ashura never wanted the position as his father’s successor. Never expected it, desired it, sought it, and he’d grown up expecting nothing more than to be Indra’s support as the head of their clan. Indra was the clever, powerful one. It should have been his right, this power.

Green curls through Ashura’s veins, pointed reminder, and he breathes through the feeling, closes his eyes tight. Keeps his head bowed as he fights for words, and finally says, “I would never let Indra harm the world, Father. You have to know that. What he wants for humanity—I can’t accept it. But for generations we’ve doomed people to fight for us by proxy. It’s not—it isn’t fair, to make everyone else suffer in our fight.”

“It is the world’s fight,” Hagoromo corrects, and his voice is never sharp, but it’s an avalanche, steady in its speed, crushing in its tone. “I have seen this play out, and every time the balance shifts. You are too great a change, Ashura. One misstep and you will ruin everything.”

It is amusing, in a wry, wan way, that even after decades as a clan leader, a warrior, a man, a handful of words from his father can make Ashura feel precisely like the bumbling idiot he always tried so hard not to be. Digging his fingers into his thighs, he tries to breathe, tries to focus, but unease rises like nausea, and the doubts come thick and fast in a sudden flood. If Hagoromo is right, if Ashura fails, if Hamura’s plan doesn’t work as he hopes it will—

“You trusted me, once,” he manages, the words thick in his throat. “You trusted me to keep our family safe, to stop Indra. Please, Father, trust me again. You’ve spent so long watching, and you know the situation better than anyone, but—I think I can change it for the better. I think I can help.”

There’s a long, long moment of heavy silence, and Hagoromo lets out a breath. “Your heart is a boon, Ashura,” he says, but there's nothing of a compliment in the words. “You have always put it first, and fought for your brother’s soul. But your brother fights for something else entirely, and he has beaten you once before. This time, your death is not an acceptable outcome. It will destroy the world, and I will not allow your hope to risk everything.”

Oh, Ashura thinks, and sets his jaw. This time. And—of course it makes sense; Ashura was at the end of his life already when Indra killed him, with his daughter set to take over and no lingering business to attend to. And it is different this time, with so much more at stake, but—

Even on his deathbed, Hagoromo’s thoughts were for Indra, for what Indra had become, and the seed of resignation that had been lodged in Ashura’s chest since childhood bloomed a very long time ago. He understands, because he too has always held Indra up as the greatest of them, but at the same time, he has to think if you had let Indra know just how much you valued him when we were alive, Father, I don’t think it would have come to this.

Ashura never planned to return, when their father sent them out into the world. Hadn’t wanted to compete with his brother, and some small sense, some instinct trained by Hagoromo’s cold watchfulness, had said that he and Indra were being set against each other in a contest whose outcome had already been decided. When Kanna made him return, when she pushed and urged and didn’t understand the idea of family that wasn’t as loving and close as hers, when she gave Ashura a thread of hope that maybe things weren’t as bad as he recalled, he’d gone back, but—

The reality of his father’s test wasn’t something he’d prepared himself for.

Tell us how you want us to be, he’d thought, staring up at Hagoromo’s cold face. Don’t simply assume one of us is like Grandmother. Just tell us what you want from us.

If he had, if he’d tried, maybe Indra would have understood. Maybe all of this could have been a moment to learn from, instead of the end of everything.

“I understand, Father,” he says, carefully even and measured. “I just think—”

Hagoromo makes a sound, resignation and irritation at once. “Do you?” he asks, and his voice is like the crack of a whip. “Because I see little evidence of it, Ashura.”

Something pulls, sharp enough to make Ashura yelp. He snaps a hand up to the sudden stinging ache in his head, but even as he does, a shape rises before him. White robes and pale eyes and horns, and Hamura is larger than life, burning with his own power as he steps forward.

“Hagoromo,” he snaps, and the training hall around them blurs as if it’s been covered in a heat haze. “You are the one who decided to stay out of the living world—”

Hagoromo frowns, but rises, giving his brother a sharp look. “My son is my business, Hamura, and you have already interfered more than enough—”

Your son is trying to fix what your willful blindness led to,” Hamura interrupts, folding his arms over his chest. “We both are. He is in the living world now, and that is my domain, so I’ll thank you to keep your lectures to yourself. Or at the very least direct them at me, brother.”

“You are as hotheaded and reckless as ever,” Hagoromo says coldly. “Indra—”

“Ashura is not Indra, and you cannot—”

“I am well aware that Ashura is not Indra,” Hagoromo says, and Ashura flinches before he can stop himself. It’s too much like so many years spent in his brother’s shadow, and for all that Ashura knew Indra was better, that he was strong and smart and Ashura was a little too slow, a little too lazy, it still is a lance right to the chest, to hear it even now.

“Did you ever think,” Hamura says, cross, “that even Indra, for all his flaws, would have made different ones if you hadn’t looked at him and seen our mother’s choices?”

For a long moment, Hagoromo is silent. Then, slowly, he raises a hand, and says, “Hamura, that is enough. This is foolish, and a plan that’s sure to fail.”

“You have faith in two mortals reborn with your sons’ chakra imprints, but you can’t bother to have the same faith in your family?” Hamura demands. The heat haze grows thicker, and it feels like the floor beneath Ashura is melting, giving out. Startled, he scrambles to his feet, but his uncle’s hand catches his shoulder, pushes him back, and Hamura says distractedly, “Go, Ashura, go back—”

The ground gives way, and Ashura falls.

There’s a wrenching, dizzying moment of freefall, darkness, light. Ashura hits the ground hard, tumbles forward, rolls back to his feet, and—

A forest clearing beside a road, tall trees, warm sun. Tall stones rise behind him, too steep for a child to climb, and Ashura can feel the echoes of his own terror and grief here, the joy and relief when Indra came. He’s not a child anymore, when he looks down; young, still, like when he left on their father’s quest, and there’s a sinking feeling in his stomach, something cold and resigned. He closes his eyes, breathes in, and says, “Indra.”

“Ashura.” The sound of a step, just behind him, but Ashura doesn’t turn despite the urge to do so. Doesn’t want to look, even though he does, because his last memory of his brother is the face of the man who killed him, and here, in this place—

A hand touches his ribs, gentle, and an old ache blooms. The spot where Indra threw him into a tree, fought him with the intent to do harm for the first time, and Ashura contains a flinch.

“I can feel them fighting,” Indra says, low, almost amused. But then, he never wavered in the face of Hamura and Hagoromo’s spats, while Ashura hated raised voices and felt the anger all too clearly as a child.

“When aren’t they,” he says, forcing his voice to lightness, and—

The hand on his side tightens, going hard enough to bruise in an instant. Ashura yelps, but a hand catches his shoulder, hauls him back, and he gets one half-there flash of crimson eyes as Indra hisses, “Fighting about you, as if you had any hope of stopping me, little brother—”

“Indra, stop!” Ashura says, and wrenches forward, pulling away. Turns sharply, reaching out, and—

Indra’s sword drives into his chest, sinking deep with a burst of white-edged agony, and Ashura loses all of breath on a cry. Staggers backwards, vision going black, lungs vise-tight as he tries and fails to drag in more air, and over him a figure looms. Dark around the edges, but burning like lightning on a mountaintop, and Indra leans down over him, one cold hand on his cheek.

“Ashura,” he says, and it’s a mockery of what they used to be, the brush of a thumb beneath his eye to smear the wetness there. “Tears for me? You always did cry far too easily.”

With the last of his fading strength, Ashura reaches up, catches Indra’s wrist. “Brother,” he rasps, all he can manage, but—

"Still pathetic." Indra’s face doesn’t change, and the bloody madness in his eyes is the last thing Ashura saw in his mortal life. It’s the last thing he sees now, too, as Indra grips the sword impaling him and jerks it loose with one vicious wrench.

Ashura loses his hold on the dream with a cry, and has never been more grateful to be flung back into wakefulness. 

 

 

Asuma staggers out of Ibiki's spare bedroom sometime around dawn, unsettled by strange dreams he can't quite remember, to find Sasuke and Ashura sprawled out on the couch, the boy curled against Ashura’s chest. He has both hands fisted in Ashura’s robe, clinging unconsciously, and Asuma’s never been much of one for kids, but something curls in his stomach at the sight even so.

How long has Sasuke been completely alone, to the point that this is his first reaction to a friendly stranger? Asuma understands, logically and distantly, that his father is trying not to tip the balance of power between the clans, tentative as it is right now with the Uchiha dead. But—

Sasuke's only a little older than Konohamaru.

(Asuma wonders, for a brief moment, if his father would put Konohamaru in the same position, and then remembers just who it is he’s talking about. Of course his father would.)

Before the dark thoughts can drag him down too far, though, there’s a low, bitten-off sound, a jerk. Ashura’s eyes snap open, his whole body going stiff, and his arms go tight around Sasuke in a reflexive motion that speaks of instinct. Not bruising, not a threat, but…protective. Like he’s half a second from rolling them, putting Sasuke between himself and the couch and turning his back to whatever danger is looming.

“Morning,” Asuma says, careful, quiet. It’s the same tone he would use with the other Guardians, if one of them woke unsettled in an unfamiliar place. Chiriku, especially, was always sensitive to sounds and heightened emotion around him, reacted badly to loud noises right after being woken. The difference from the temple, he always said, and dreams that were too vivid.

Ashura looks like he’s in the grip of one of those, right now.

There’s a long, fraught second, and then Ashura closes his eyes again. His chest rises and falls, a silent breath, and then he shifts, sitting up and gently disentangling himself from Sasuke.

“Good morning,” he returns, hoarse, and straightens the strip of cloth around his brow. It almost looks like a hitai-ate without the usual metal plate, and Asuma wonders if it once bore a clan marking. Wonders, a little, if Ashura diligently removed the trace of his old clan, after they died. After they sacrificed him to the creature in his head. If anything would be worth cutting ties over, it’s that, in Asuma’s opinion.

Asuma doesn’t bother asking if he slept well; the proof that he didn’t is clear on his face, in the tightness of his features. In the faint, faint tremble of his hand as he rakes it through his hair. If Asuma wasn’t a shinobi, hadn’t trained himself to look for the smallest tells in potential assassins, he might have missed it, but it’s there. Ashura didn’t sleep any more pleasantly than Asuma did.

“I hope you’re ready for a shitshow today,” he says instead, and heads for the kitchen to see if Ibiki has coffee. There’s a hesitation, and then steps trail him, soft but unhidden, and when Asuma turns from locating the coffee maker Ashura is just sinking back against the doorframe, rubbing at his chest.

“Optimistic,” he jokes, and when Asuma gives him a look he smiles, though it’s a little wan. “The situation with Sasuke is going to be that bad?”

“Worse,” Asuma says dryly, and pauses. If Ashura didn’t even know about Konoha’s existence, the politics of the village are probably as foreign to him as the surface of the moon. More so, maybe; Asuma wouldn’t be overly surprised at this point if Ashura claimed to be an alien from the moon, given his lack of knowledge of even the most basic things. “When Konoha was founded, four noble clans joined, and they still hold most of Konoha’s political power. The Aburame, the Akimichi, the Hyuuga, and the Uchiha.”

He watches Ashura consider that out of the corner of his eye as he starts the coffee, making enough for three—Ibiki’s bedroom door is closed, and his coat is on the hook by the door, so it’s reasonable to assume he made it back well after the rest of them went to bed. Then, measured, Ashura tips his head, and says, “But the Uchiha are gone.”

“Were almost gone.” Asuma meets Ashura’s surprised blink with a crooked smile. “Even beyond being the last of the clan, Sasuke is the younger son of the Clan Head. And, with you, he has a clan. As long as those stipulations are met, Sasuke has full claim to all of his family’s political power.”

Ashura stares at him for an endless moment, and Asuma watches the thoughts war across his face. Watches them bleed, slowly, dangerously down into knife-edged conviction that hardens his dark eyes and sets a mouth that Asuma has mostly seen laughing into something with all the force or an immovable mountain. “They left him alone,” he says, and there’s a thread to it that’s halfway between incredulity and anger. “Because they were worried about his political power?”

“Not they, so much,” Asuma says mildly, and he should probably feel a little guilt for this, but—his father was the one to refuse to even assign Sasuke a caretaker, and Asuma is almost entirely certain that he’s failed to do anything for Kushina's son, too. It’s his own fault for the lack of action, and for that Asuma will wind Ashura up and send him off to Hiruzen, ready for blood, without an ounce of regret. “My father. Sarutobi Hiruzen, as the Sandaime Hokage.”

Ashura pauses, flicking Asuma a conflicted glance, but Asuma reads the emotions behind the look and just shrugs. “There are a lot of things we don’t see eye to eye on. This is one of them.”

The smile that gets him is wry. “I must have made things more difficult for you last night, too,” he says.

Asuma wants to feel annoyed, but—all he can manage is tired. “You didn’t. But…no more jumping over walls and into clan compounds.”

Ashura laughs, startled, and it’s almost a relief to see the humor slide back over his face. The grimness doesn’t suit him, Asuma thinks. “I try not to make promises I can't keep,” he says merrily, and Asuma very pointedly rolls his eyes.

“The whole thing is even more delicate,” he says, deciding they’ve slid off subject far enough, “because the Uchiha were always Konoha's police force, ever since the Nidaime established it as a power. When Itachi murdered them, he took out all of the police as well. Other clans have brought up contributing members and rebuilding the force, but they can't until Sasuke allows it, and my father’s kept him out of politics. I'm not even sure Sasuke knows about the requests.”

Long brown fingers tap at an elbow, and Ashura makes a thoughtful sound. “You know a lot about the situation, though,” he says, and smiles at Asuma. “And you're here with us, instead of with you family. Thank you, Asuma.”

Asuma waves that off. “My father is wrong,” he says, and turns away to find a mug. Hesitates, and then pulls down two instead, and fills them both. Doesn’t dwell on the spike of amusement, at the thought of what Hiruzen would say if he could hear Asuma so casually badmouthing him to a near-stranger. “And I don’t know everything. I’ve been with the Daimyō for the last few years.”

Ashura accepts the coffee he offers gladly, smiling at him, and takes a careful sip, closing his eyes. He has long lashes, and Asuma watches the expression on his face ease a little with something like distant curiosity. “Still, it’s very helpful,” he says, and glances up again, that smile still on his face. “We should expect a lot of politicking, then.”

Asuma can't help but make a face. “The worst politicking,” he mutters into his own coffee, and Ashura laughs.

From the main room, there's a rustle, a thump, and then quick footsteps. Ashura turns, automatic and instinctive, and Asuma watches that too, the brightening of his features, the way a touch of relief flickers across his face almost too fast to catch as he stretches out a hand.

“Sasuke, good morning,” he says warmly. “Sorry to leave, I didn’t want to wake you.”

Sasuke takes one look at his face and freezes. His eyes slide down, taking in the outstretched hand, then flicker back up to Ashura’s face, and he sways back like he’s going to step away. Firms his feet, takes a stubborn step forward, and ducks under Ashura’s hand to grab his wrinkled robes. “I was fine,” he says, daring them to correct him, and looks at Asuma. “When will the Hokage know I made Ashura an Uchiha?”

It’s a little surprising even now, to think of this little kid as a political power. But that’s a good question, and Asuma is mildly more willing to attempt this, no matter how much of a headache it promises to be, because Sasuke seems like a clever kid. “By mid-morning at the latest,” he says, because he knows his father’s work schedule. Early to the office every day, important paperwork done almost as soon as it hits his desk, and this will be one of the most important things he gets today. “You know he’s probably going to try and get you to go back on the adoption.”

“I won't!” Sasuke snaps, but when Ashura runs a soothing hand over his shoulders, he subsides with a huff. “I won't,” he says again, more a dare than anything, and…

Asuma is a little surprised to find that he believes him.

“Don’t let him make you meet alone,” he says instead. “Get the other Clan Heads in the room with you, too, even if you have to call a formal meeting to do it. They’re the ones who will keep him from running roughshod all over your rights. They know what’s in Konoha's charter better than you do, so they're good to have on your side.”

For a moment, Sasuke looks torn, angry. He glances up at Ashura, who smiles back encouragingly, and then says, “That was the Nara Clan Head last night, wasn’t it? With the shadows? He’s the one who took Ashura.”

“He was polite about it,” Ashura tells him lightly, but his hand stays on Sasuke's shoulder, gripping gently. “I think I confused him.”

Asuma snorts. “At this point you’ve confused everyone you’ve met in Konoha,” he says dryly. “That’s not an accomplishment.”

Ashura’s laugh is a bright, warm thing. “You included?” he asks, grinning.

“You didn’t meet me in Konoha,” Asuma points out, refusing to admit to anything.

“I suppose I didn’t,” Ashura agrees, and then crouches down to look Sasuke in the eye. “Sasuke, he didn’t hurt me,” he says gently, and Sasuke's mouth thins, expression turning mulish.

“He wouldn’t listen to me,” he says stubbornly. “He didn’t believe you weren’t a threat.”

Ashura doesn’t point out the age gap, doesn’t write off the complaint as Sasuke being a child. “He did what he thought was best,” he says instead. “It might not have been the best thing, but he acted to keep you out of danger, Sasuke.”

“You're not a danger,” Sasuke tells him, daring him to contradict, and then before Ashura can answer he glances at Asuma again. “How do I ask the other clan heads to be there for meeting the Hokage?” he asks.

Asuma considers it, then checks the clock on the wall. It’s still early, but for all Shikaku's lazy nature, he’s dutiful, especially about seeing his son off to school. Yoshino handles a lot of the day to day matters with the clan, since Shikaku is Jounin Commander and often unavailable, and that means she leaves Shikamaru to Shikaku more often than not. If Asuma goes now, heads off whatever message Hiruzen might try to send…

“I’ll get a warning to them,” he says, and raises a brow at Sasuke. “You have school, don’t you?”

Sasuke gives him a look that says as clear as words that Asuma is an idiot. “I'm not leaving Ashura,” he says, entirely unimpressed. “I’ll skip class.”

The fearful political clout of the Uchiha Clan Head, contained in a boy who has to play hooky from lessons, Asuma thinks with amusement, and drains his coffee cup, setting it aside. “All right,” he says, because really, who is he to tell a clan head what to do? “Keep Ashura out of trouble, all right? I’ll be back in a bit.”

Instead of getting offended, Ashura laughs. “We’ll be fine,” he promises. “I’ll try not to pick any more fights with your friends.”

Asuma rolls his eyes. “Keep an eye on the shadows,” he warns. “I wouldn’t put Kakashi to try to assassinate you out of jealousy.” It’s a good thing that Kakashi has Tenzō now, of course, and Asuma will never not be glad that Kakashi’s still capable of making connections after the ongoing train wreck of his childhood, but watching him stare at Ashura like a wolf with its paw caught in a trap last night was more than a little unnerving. Given the choice, Asuma would prefer to keep Ashura and Tenzō far apart, just in case Kakashi decides to do something ill-advised and messy.

Horror flickers across Sasuke's face, reminding Asuma that that actually wasn’t the wisest thing to say, and as the kid practically plasters himself to Ashura’s side, darting a wild look around the kitchen, Asuma winces and raises a hand.

“He wouldn’t,” he says, but—it’s logical that Sasuke would have a few hang-ups about killers in the shadows, disguised as loyal shinobi but just waiting to take away his family. “Kakashi wouldn’t, and if he tried, Tenzō would stop him.”

At this point, after so many years in ANBU, after the war, after starting as a shinobi so young—well. Tenzō is probably one of two people still alive who can. Asuma's smart enough not to say as much, though.

“We’ll be fine,” Ashura says, which is less than reassuring given the events of last night. When Asuma gives him a wary look, though, he laughs, and says, “Good luck, Asuma.”

Asuma sighs. He’s probably going to need it.