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Aiko slunk in as late as she could, half-expecting to walk right into a lecture about proper behavior.

"I thought you would return sooner," Tsunade mused. She was seated with her back to the door, ankles crossed and a pile of paperwork on her lap. Shizune glanced up from her seat on the other side of the table and gave Aiko a scorching glare, disapproval painted into the lines of her face. Shizune did not approve of tardiness. She probably didn't approve of making a scene, either. Uchiha Itachi seemed to be ignoring all of them, nursing a cup of something that smelled truly foul and medicinal.

'If Tsunade's going to ignore the elephant in the room, so will I.'

Aiko nodded in response, taking off her shoes. At least she had a good change of subject ready. "The Tsuchikage's granddaughter wants to solidify a political alliance by marrying a Konoha representative so that she has family ties to our administration. She awaits your suggestions."

Uchiha Itachi coughed politely behind a raised fist.

"I didn't hear that," Yamato protested from behind her. Aiko moved to the side to let him into the room. He raised an eyebrow at her and gestured for her to move first. Hands in his pockets, he shrugged. "Is that why she dragged you off?"

"You should get your hearing checked. I would have been able to hear more than that from where you were hiding." Aiko flashed him a dry smile. "No, actually, that's the means to an end and not the goal. This is about becoming Tsuchikage somehow." She shrugged. "She's talking about restructuring alliance tendencies that have held since the third war, but I don't know if that is a by-product or her actual goal."

"She dreams big," Tsunade drawled. The Hokage was frowning, but she didn't reject the idea out of hand. "It could be that she's orchestrating a coup and needs allies after she alienates her old ones. But she was all but guaranteed the robes, if she waits for her grandfather to die. Why do something so drastic?"

'Maybe because waiting for him to die is kinda morbid? And also I bet Iwagakure has been waiting for him to die for like thirty years. Apparently, it isn't going to happen.'

Shizune pursed her lips. "You think she's thinking ahead?" The Jounin drew her eyebrows together and stared into space, lost in thought. "She grew up in the vacuum after Iwa lost the war. It could be that she's decided she doesn't want to be our enemy. But she's young, and most shinobi her age or older in Iwagakure consider Konohagakure their worst enemy. She would have to do something drastic to quell dissidence. Having a marital tie to the village would help. Especially if her partner is either prestigious enough that Iwa feels they've won something, or personable enough to smooth things over."

"She actually wants to be our ally." A line formed on Tsunade's brow. "The Tsuchikage does have to retire eventually, and Kurotsuchi-san is the only prospect raised since his last one died twenty years ago... But the Tsuchikage has been acting as though he will rule indefinitely. Perhaps there has been a schism in Iwagakure's leadership in regards to how to move forward." The Hokage cleared her throat thoughtfully. "Her bargains should hold weight. For the sake of discussion, let's assume that we believe this is a legitimate effort. Would an alliance with Iwagakure work for Konoha? I take it that Kurotsuchi-san is offering to help our case with Konan, in the short term."

"Would that be necessary?" Shizune sat back, index finger on her chin. "If we have a strong treaty with Iwakagure, we don't need to fear that Kumogakure will use their resources to pin us in. At that point, even if Ame is parceled out to Kumo as reparation, we would be in good standing."

That was cold. A muscle twitched in Aiko's jaw, but she said nothing.

"Alright then, the idea's not bad. So, she wants to get married to seal a deal, and she isn't particular? We'll at least see her." A wicked smirk curled around Tsunade's lips. "I wonder if she'd take Jiraiya off our hands. He's not particular, either."

Shizune tossed her head back and laughed. "Would that we were so lucky," she rejoined. "Alas, I think that for the sake of a treaty, it will have to be a person who is less…" The woman struggled for words, but eventually settled, "eccentric than Jiraiya-sama." She paused. "Although someone who is also relatively well-known would be an excellent gesture of commitment."

The Hokage hummed. "Pity. Could we afford to buy her like that? Who would Iwa accept?" Clearly brainstorming, Tsunade cast a distant look around the room. She skated right over Yamato, but narrowed her eyes on Aiko and Shizune. It was Uchiha Itachi, however, who she gestured at in an imperious demand for speech.

Uchiha Itachi seemed no more than politely interested at best, but he set back in thought. "The bride of a kage should be of the highest standing possible to avoid the impression of a slight. That indicates a member of one of Konoha's most prominent clans, or a figure of other political importance. In order to enforce our interests in Iwagakure, the bride should be as independently powerful as possible, which makes a civilian candidate unlikely. But no active shinobi could be sent to Iwagakure."

"No, that'd look like a mission," Tsunade agreed. "A civilian is traditional, anyway. Optimally a shinobi who has retired, best of both worlds." She grimaced. "In a pinch, we could retire a shinobi for this purpose, but again, that resembles something rather nefarious and counter to the impression we would want. Does Kurotsuchi-san care-"

"She doesn't have a gender preference," Aiko answered. She shot Uchiha a sly sideways look. "Maybe she'd like Itachi-san, ne?"

Shizune rolled her eyes, but Tsunade was making a contemplative face.

'Oh my god she's considering it. Maybe we'll get rid of the creepy guy.'

Behind Tsunade, Shizune raised her eyebrows and ducked her head at Aiko. Confused, Aiko followed the older kunoichi's gaze back to-

Itachi, who opened his mouth and suggested, "Perhaps Kurotsuchi-san would take Aiko-san off of your hands, Tsunade-sama."

'Oh. So he does have teeth to bite back.' Aiko pulled back her lips to bare her teeth at him. It was not a smile.

"Maybe she'd take both of you headaches," Tsunade snapped. "Every time one of you opens your mouth, three pages of paperwork fall onto my desk."

'I don't do it on purpose.'

Sullen, Aiko crossed her arms and kicked back against the wall.

"I hope Kurotsuchi-san is a polygamist," Tsunade muttered bitterly. She cast a gimlet eye over both Aiko and Itachi. "Maybe she has a kink for administrative nightmares."

Aiko took a moment to consider that scenario. Polygamy? Sounded good. Polygamy that involved Uchiha? No.

'Other than that, being the Tsuchikage's wife wouldn't be that bad. Imagine having my own soldiers. A city that loves the idea of me, and has political pressure to follow my orders. If Naruto became the Hokage, I'd be set for life.'

Appealing. A lot more appealing than being such a loser that she could be kidnapped for a year and the information could be kept quiet.

'But gaining from someone else's position is something Obito would do. No, I don't like that. I wouldn't want to share authority.'

She discarded the fantasy of being Kurotsuchi's trophy wife. No. Better that it was someone else.

"So what's going to happen to Konan?" Aiko changed the subject. "Do we suddenly not care about Amegakure?"

Not that Aiko had ever really cared about Amegakure. And had in fact done them personal harm. Whatever, as long as no one knew about her culpability, it was like it'd never happened. But the idea of Konan being punished didn't sit right with her.

Shizune wrinkled her nose. "You're taking this far too personally." The brunette blew air out the side of her mouth. "I didn't think you were so touchy."

Tsunade interfered, waving her hand. "Don't lose perspective, Shizune. I've done worse than be blunt in court."

"She's not you." Shizune huffed, looking away. "You've paid your dues. Aiko-chan is a teenager who publicly undermined you."

Tsunade quirked an eyebrow. "Don't worry. She'll be paying for that." Aiko stiffened, pinned when the Hokage glanced over at her with a cool expression. "If she wants to be a leader so badly, she can have the opportunity to learn underfoot. I think the ANBU commander could use someone to do paperwork and delegate to. A few years of that might turn her into someone who has a right to talk back to foreign leaders."

Aiko winced.

'Did she... I'm going to be demoted to administrative duties?'

"Oh." Shizune actually sounded a bit surprised. "That's... fitting, actually."

Tsunade outright snorted, but indulged her apprentice with a nod. "Aiko-chan, why don't you go for a nice walk on the moral high ground while I manufacture farcical outcomes for my personal gain?" Tsunade drawled, looking much more amused than miffed. "Shizune needs to fume for a bit."

The medic nin ruffled up like a bird, mouth open in outrage.

"Shoo." Tsunade flicked her hand out, fanning air towards the door. "I don't need squabbling."

'I don't squabble. She started it.'

Aiko puffed up with her own wounded pride, drawing her brows down and pouting resentfully at Shizune.

"You can brainstorm about how the Tsuchikage knew about that encounter," Tsunade wheedled. She placed her chin on a palm and grinned. "Seems fishy, doesn't it?"

Aiko had to agree. It was fishy that he had enough certainty to call her out like that. To what purpose? He couldn't have been expecting confirmation. So… what, had he wanted to put her off her game? She didn't see Yamato give the Hokage a long-suffering expression as he followed Aiko to the door. Tsunade waved.

'Why would the Tsuchikage care enough about me to wrong-foot me? Was I a stand-in for his rivalry with Tsunade?'

"Aiko, where are we going?"

'Maybe. It doesn't feel right. That's petty. I wouldn't put pettiness past him, but at this venue? It seems unlikely.'

"Feel free to acknowledge me at any moment in time."

'What else is there? There might have been something about my testimony he feared, or he might stand to gain from demonstrating that I am either an imposter or shaming me.'

"I feel like I'm talking to a wall. A really fast, really rude wall."

'That could damage my career, if I'm unlucky. Tsunade might still have to launch an inquiry, just to ensure everything looks above-ground. I really could end up in serious trouble, if anyone latches on that accusation.'

Yamato sighed heavily and simply stopped walking. He was in the middle of the path through a park, but there was no traffic to block.

Aiko stopped and gave him a puzzled look. "Is something wrong?"

He seemed to deflate. "So mean…"

She felt her brow furrow. "You're weird."

Pink crawled over his ears. "You're one to talk," Yamato muttered to his collar. He cleared his throat. "Are we going anywhere in particular, or just on a power walk?"

"A power walk," Aiko mused, rolling the words around her mouth.

'Isn't power what all this bullshit is about? Who has it and who wants it? It really isn't about Konan at all.'

If it was up to Aiko, this bullshit wouldn't be happening. It was such a waste of time.

Something she didn't dare contemplate -she was acting like condemning Konan was a personal condemnation I'm not Konan I'm not we're not the same person but that's worse because I'm strong I shouldn't be taken advantage of not by anybody- crawled unbidden up her chest and spilled out onto her tongue. "Let's go see the defendant."

Yamato's jaw dropped. "You've got to be joking," he hissed. His face cycled through several shades of red, building in intensity. "That's- that's a terrible idea!" He ran a hand through his hair and looked upward.

Aiko tilted her head to the side and stepped directly in front of him. "Why." She reached up and tugged at his left wrist. When he gave her a wounded, 'why would you do this to me' look, she gave him a winning smile, working not to think too much. "I have a hunch. Besides, it'd only be polite."


His tone wiped the smile off her face.

"Tell me what's really going on." Yamato made steady eye contact, his free hand planted firmly on his hip.

Aiko wavered. He seemed so serious. If he was going with her he deserved to know what was going on. But it was her business. But he was her friend. Aside from the following and the actually having been ordered to watch her. He was her friend. She did like him. Not just in that 'wow I would tap that' way but in a 'wow what a good person' way. That meant something, didn't it?

"I want to try to get a read on Konan," Aiko explained in an undertone. "She's not getting a fair trial. I wonder how much of her actions she is culpable for, and how she was influenced by…" Aiko made a face. "Tobi," she settled.

'Too honest for my taste. I can just see him realizing this is personal.'

"She might have insight into the way he works," Aiko added hastily. "He's here. I know it. It would benefit her to advise me at this point."

Yamato held up a hand to stop her, gently removing the tightened grip Aiko still had on his other wrist. "Fine."

"What?" Aiko reared back. "Really? Because that wasn't really that persuasive-"

He shrugged one shoulder. "No, but it told me you're invested in this and it's not an impulse." Yamato scratched at the back of his head, looking sheepish. "I don't understand you." He held a hand up to stop her response. "I don't. Never have. But I trust you. Your decisions come from the right place, misled or hasty as they occasionally are."

Her eyes were probably open a little too wide. That was why they were prickling in that funny way.

The moment was uncomfortable, but he didn't look away. His voice dropped down a pitch. "So, we're going to go pretend we have orders to see the witness."

"But you're supposed to be watching me." Was that her voice? It was terribly small. "Tsunade is trusting you to keep me out of trouble and make good decisions. I might go haring off after an S class terrorist. Get kidnapped. Release a bijuu. Or three."

"I'm sure you'll have your reasons," Yamato said mildly. His hands twitched, like he was consciously refraining from putting them in his pockets.

"I might undermine international relations by doing something Tsunade doesn't like," she tried, wondering why she was trying to convince him not to trust her. "I'm not that interested in doing what she wants."

"You mean well, and you have good instincts. I've learned to favor that over blind obedience."

She bit her lower lip. "What," Aiko started slowly, "did I do to deserve a friend like you?"

Yamato shrugged, pink crawling over his ears. "You don't have to earn friends. But I'm pretty sure you took away the seal on my tongue and got rid of the man who put it there, so that's not a bad start."

How did he-

Her expression must have been proof enough, because something clicked smugly into place around the set of his lips. After a moment, she heaved a sigh and rolled her eyes. "Fine. Let's go find Konan and make friends."

'It'd only be polite. I am the reason her best friend was killed and mutilated. And we made the mistake of trusting the same person. I see a lot more of myself than I am comfortable with in her.'

"You, make friends-" Her friend closed his eyes a moment and looked up to the sky like he was praying for patience. "We'd better go, before my common sense returns."

Getting to see Konan wasn't hard. But privacy-

"I can't leave you alone with her," the mist-nin repeated, though his voice was shaking. He didn't quite make eye contact. His comrades were equally uncomfortable. It was hard to blame them. Aiko didn't exactly have the best reputation. "We have been charged with monitoring her state and presence. I can let you speak to her, but I cannot risk collusion or escape."

Yamato sucked in a deep breath, but Aiko held up a hand. "That's fine. I don't want to cause trouble for you."

They were doing the same job that Naruto was, after all. She could respect that.

Konan was watching this with an expression of cool disinterest, hair swept off her neck with a cheap plastic barrette instead of her paper flower. Even in a prison cell, deprived of her weaponry, she was imperious and collected, dressed in white and dove grey from her head to her feet. When Aiko took a seat, she inclined her head. "To what do I owe the honor of this visit?"

'Is it bad to hope she doesn't remember that I called her old and trashy and planted explosives on her?'

Why couldn't she have had a better relationship with the one person who cared about the man whose body had been mutilated for Aiko? She gave a queasy smile. Perhaps this was a sign that she should be less rude to strangers. "I have something of a confession to make. I think I owe you."

"Not at all." Konan looked away. "I am recovered."

She definitely remembered.

"No, not about that." Oh, shit, that made it sound like she wasn't sorry for all that. She wasn't, but still. Aiko rushed, "I mean, this is on a more personal level." She tugged on the end of her braid, wrapping the loose hair around an index finger. "Your former associate, Nagato-san. I believe he was a relative of mine."

Someone inhaled sharply. Konan was very still.

'That probably isn't common knowledge.'

But the Ame nin made eye contact, grey irises sparked with something dangerous. "Yes. I believe so."

Aiko winced. "Right. With that in mind, I regret the part I played in his death, though I did not make the final blow or ask for it to be done."

"You need not apologize for that. He set himself against you." Konan's voice was flat. "Against one such as he, only the most rigorous effort could serve as defense. I would never ask that a shinobi refrain from defending themselves."

"That's good." Aiko swallowed. "I actually…" How to say this?

There just wasn't a good way to say this.

"I know how he was killed, and I know why." At that, Konan did give her full attention. Aiko's spine was rigid, her muscles tense. "The man who styles himself as Uchiha Madara sought him out."

"For his eyes." Konan's voice was tight, raised a half pitch in stress. "I am aware. He desired their power."

"Not for himself." Aiko licked her lips. Something was dawning on Konan's face. "He must have intended Nagato as some sort of sacrifice. Whatever he wanted the Rinnegan for, he didn't want to be the one using it. He tricked me."

She went silent, because Konan was leaning forward, was reaching out and touching her face. Cold fingers tipped Aiko's face up, delicately cupping the left side of her face and pushing at her chin with an index finger. This close, it felt like Konan was sucking in all of the air with her presence, swallowing up the light in the room. Aiko's heart jumped, stopping entirely for a moment before it continued tripping over itself in haste.

She closed her eyes.

She opened the Rinnegan, and saw them reflected in Konan's eyes.

Konan let go of her face and closed her own eyes, grief welling up in drops on her eyelashes. "I hope," she started. Stopped. Inhaled. "I hope that you might be a worthy successor, then." A muscle clenched in her jaw. "What was done to you was not your fault, and nor is what you may have done under thrall. I absolve you of it." She looked pained, but weight was lifting off of Aiko's shoulders, weight that she hadn't consciously noted was there. "I hope that what you do with those eyes is worthy of them, so that Nagato sees good in this world through you."

Aiko blinked. Tears were welling up but she didn't brush them away. It seemed petty, somehow, to pretend she was unaffected when water was rolling down Konan's face undisturbed. Somehow, she forced out a depreciating laugh. "I can't say that I can live in a way he would approve of."

Aiko did not say, 'because he was a booger-eating lunatic and so are you,' but it was clear that Konan understood her implication. The older woman made a surprised kind of snort and shook her head before looking up.

She had never seen Konan smile before. That smile was dawn breaking through clouds, light in a fog, not the blinding sunshine that Naruto boasted but not anything rote and trite either. "I think," Konan said softly, "that he would be pleased to help you, and not merely because you share an enemy. I feel much the same." She tossed her head. "I have always liked insolent, cantankerous brats who do not give up when they should."

Aiko should probably feel insulted. "And I like nutty old ladies with bad eyeliner," she rejoined. She glanced around the cell, mildly surprised that the guards were still there. She'd forgotten about them. Yamato looked pained and vaguely confused, from what little of his face wasn't covered by his palm. "I was wondering. He'll definitely be here, won't he?" She trailed off, pitch low.

Konan nodded, hair moving gently around her face. "I assumed so as well. But I do not have the freedom of movement to perform security measures."

She made a face. "Perfect," Aiko said sourly. "Should I be checking under the bed at night?"

The older woman lifted one shoulder. "Perhaps in the bathroom mirror over your shoulder, or in the faces of your loved ones."

Aiko lifted her eyebrows. "My loved ones?" she repeated doubtfully.

Konan hummed acknowledgment. "If you love the kage," she suggested mildly. "He does favor extravagant solutions."

"I think I would notice if Tsunade was-" Aiko stopped.

She would, wouldn't she? She knew Tsunade well enough that most imitations wouldn't fool her for long- she'd spent a considerable amount of time with the older woman in settings of various levels of formality. She knew how Tsunade would conduct herself in a number of situations. Someone who was less familiar with Tsunade would inevitably slip with something that was at least odd, if not damning.

The same thing probably was true for the other kage, wasn't it? It'd be easy to impersonate a public figure in a public capacity. But fooling someone like Aiko or Shizune for days… That wouldn't be so easy.

'So if Obito is here, controlling a kage, someone will eventually know that something is wrong. The pressure of keeping international face will prevent anyone from going for help, so I'm not going to be told. So who do I look at?'

Tsunade was golden. The Raikage was accompanied by Nii Yugito and other guards. Without his brother B, there was a possibility that no one in his entourage knew him on such a personal level that they would detect inconsistencies. What about Mei? Utakata would know… and that might explain his especially shitty attitude. Then there was Gaara. He'd come without his sister, which was odd, given that his second was usually by his side. Then again, it made sense to leave his most trusted shinobi in charge of his dangerous situation back home, and Kankuro should still know if something was wrong. That left only the Tsuchikage. Aiko strained to remember- but no, Kurotsuchi really was the only face she had recognized in his party. That didn't mean that his closest confidants were not present. She just didn't know who they were. Kurotsuchi might know?

'So, if the kage are his approach, the Raikage and the Tsuchikage are the standout candidates. They represent the most politically stable nations, and their diplomatic parties are oddly configured.'

Then again, Obito would probably think it was funny to go after a Mizukage again. That bumped Mei up to the biggest suspect, honestly.

"Thanks," Aiko mused, head still far away. "I should probably go."

"Go in peace." Konan settled back, ducking her head. She managed to look wryly amused through her tears. "Perhaps we will meet again, once you are done testifying against me. My best wishes in your endeavors."

Well, it was her job. So she didn't feel sorry about that, specifically. Just that the affair was rigged. "Yeah, sorry about that." Aiko stood, blinked her eyes back to black, and laced her arm through Yamato's. He followed her with a beleaguered sigh, limp and tolerant of being tugged past security. Aiko stopped at the doorway and whipped around, finally registering something she had seen. Konan's left eyebrow was raised, but Aiko was looking at the older woman's feet. "Konan," Aiko started slowly. "Have you had problems keeping track of your shoes?" She could feel Yamato's arm jerk in hers, but she didn't take the time to explain.

Slowly, Konan looked down at her open-toed white boots, gauged the relative size of Aiko's feet, and said, "That bastard."

Aiko snorted. "He's so petty." With that mystery solved, she waved goodbye and stepped out. The door shut behind her on Konan's aghast, marveling expression and the confusion of the guards.

The two shinobi made it outside before Yamato spoke in a thoughtful tone.


"Yeah?" She nudged him with her elbow, fond and relaxed and feeling so good about lifting one of the burdens on her mind.

"You are an insolent, cantankerous brat. She really has your number." He grinned down at her, all boyish teeth and charm and she didn't know if she wanted to slap him for being sassy or kiss him for being so perfect and there when she needed. No, she knew. She wanted to grab the sides of his face, drag him down, and plant a totally-not-romantic kiss on him because he really was just the best fucking friend ever, and unfairly cute besides.

"Yam-yam. Get down here."

Yamato made a bewildered face and tilted his chin down, mouth opening, probably to comment on the 'Yam-yam' thing.

Aiko didn't let him. She slunk one arm around his neck, stepped onto his feet for the last bit of needed height, and kissed his cheek.

He went stiff.

'Maybe this was a bad idea.'

Aiko drew back, just a little, and petted at his chest with her free hand.

He didn't move.

Aiko cleared her throat and stepped off his feet, face burning. She pulled her arms back and linked her fingers. "Impulse, sorry." She cleared her throat. "That was a bit rude."

"Pretty sure you're supposed to ask, not just leap at a guy," Yamato frowned, tilting his head, a line in his forehead. When she glanced down, she saw that his hands were fidgeting, fingers rubbing and twisting.

Awkward. She coughed. She looked away. "Sorry," Aiko repeated.

"For example," He coughed, a hand at his chest. "I, uh, I find you moderately attractive and enjoy spending time doing inadvisable things with you. May I kiss you?" The side of his mouth pulled up into a lopsided facsimile of a smirk.

"Moderately attractive," Aiko repeated incredulously. She nearly reached out to punch him, but instead curled her hands into fists. Yamato's shoulders were shaking now, and his eyes crinkled. "Asshole."

"Well, I'm not the one who wanted to kiss me," Yamato said practically. He lifted his chin. "That was too sudden. I'm not that kind of girl. A Yamato Nadeshiko lady like me needs to be wined and dined. Besides, I thought it was Anko you were after."

'Why would I have to pick just one?'

He wasn't even being subtle about mocking her anymore. And he was using her own puns against her.

She gave in to impulse and elbowed him. "Fine!" Aiko scowled up at him. "I'll take you out." It sounded more like a challenge than an invitation. When she started walking, he moved with her, easily keeping pace.

"I look forward to it. Don't worry." Yamato tapped his fingers against her palm, but didn't lace their hands together. "I am aware that you are incapable of romance. I don't expect flowers or feelings."

That should have been a relief, but her brow furrowed. "Wait, what?"

Yamato rolled his eyes. "After your poor showing with that Tenten girl, I think the whole village knows."

The next day, Aiko was mysteriously dis-invited from court proceedings. That led to a very long and uncomfortable moment where the rest of the Konoha delegation exchanged long-suffering looks.

Aiko shifted from foot to foot, scowling at the letter that had been slipped under their door.

"Well, what the hell did you expect?" Tsunade asked practically. She gave Aiko a mildly unimpressed expression and ripped the paper out of Aiko's grip. Then she crumpled and squeezed it, condensing the paper to a lump the size of a marble.

"Um." Aiko shrank back.

"I will rectify this," Tsunade said to no one at all. "It is highly inappropriate to move to restrict my access to my personnel."

Shizune shot Aiko a look that very clearly said, 'To be fair…'

"You're going to miss my testimony," Uchiha Itachi noted. The fact that he spoke up on his own was nearly as odd as the hint of humor in his voice.

Aiko didn't understand what was funny, but she scowled at him anyway. "I'll write something sad in my journal."

He didn't wince, but his stare was suddenly piercing and assessing.

Wait. What?

'Did I inadvertently hit a weak point?'

Aiko tilted her head to the side, interested. But there was no chance to poke at him more before everyone else left, leaving Yamato and Aiko alone in the suite.

"Why don't you prepare for our meeting with Kurotsuchi-san tonight?" Tsunade ordered over her shoulder. "And hurry. Don't take all day."

"Prepare?" Aiko made a face. "Like what, vacuum? There's almost nothing to do." Aiko glared at the floor and considered kicking the wall. But that might hurt with bare feet.

"I'm sure there's something," Yamato trailed off.

Aiko perked up right away. "You're right."

"I am?"

She pointed rudely at him. "You are," Aiko agreed. "Get your coat. We're going out for real breakfast." She ignored the, 'wait, what?' that Yamato let out in favor of scrambling into her boots. "We can see if there's any interesting stores," she continued, warming up to the idea of an adventure. "Books, maybe. And bring home some refreshments for tonight."

Yamato sighed, but followed as he always did. They returned to the suite before noon. That was lucky, because Tsunade had apparently deigned to be frightfully efficient that morning. Shizune was concocting something that smelled truly horrible on the stovetop while Itachi stiffly haunted the kitchen table.

"You'll be returning with us after the lunch hour," Shizune said instead of a greeting. "And you will behave." She dropped green flakes into whatever she was making. Itachi seemed to tense in preparation for a blow, but his face was stoic.

"Okayyyy," Aiko drew out, giving the Uchiha a wide berth. He seemed a little less intimidating when he was so obviously waiting to receive dreaded medicine, but he was still Uchiha Itachi.

"You did miss Itachi's testimony," Shizune informed, eyes still on her work. "Pity. He did a lovely job."

Itachi did not comment. No one asked for clarification. Once Shizune was done and Itachi had rather miserably sipped down his bitter tea, they joined the crowd filing back into the deliberation chamber for another painfully boring session of testimony, cross-examination, and rebuttals.

The trial that day was significantly less interesting than the late hour at which Kurotsuchi-san arrived. Kurotsuchi and her companion came at three in the morning, which Aiko got to witness because Kurotsuchi-san was under the hilarious impression that Aiko was the Hokage-to-be. Shizune had graciously enough deferred her usual place at Tsunade's side for the meeting.

'I get the queer feeling that this is not being done through official channels. The question is whether it's being hidden from the Tsuchikage, the other diplomatic parties, or everyone.'

Aiko kept her face as pleasantly blank as possible, watching Iwa-nin slide in through the window Tsunade had left open.

'This is the worst kind of infestation. Is there a spray for that? Some kind of powder or sticky trap?'

"Kurotsuchi-san," Tsunade greeted. Unlike Aiko, seated in seiza slightly behind her leader, Tsunade was on a cushion with legs boldly folded to the side and a bored expression. "Thank you for coming."

"Of course, Hokage-dono." Kurotsuchi didn't seem any more interested. "Uzumaki-san. The pleasure is mine." Kurotsuchi settled in a mirror image of Tsunade, matching her cocky posture without comment. Her companion sank to her ground to Kurotsuchi's right in an altogether more proper posture.

That put the unfamiliar woman kitty corner to Aiko. Curious, she looked through her eyelashes.

'I don't know that woman.'

Whoever it was, she was a classic dark-haired beauty of about thirty, and dressed to the nines. While Kurotsuchi, Aiko, and Tsunade were in shinobi gear, the Iwa lady was in red oh-furisode that depicted cranes.

Which raised questions, like 'how the hell did she get through the window in those long sleeves?'

Definitely a shinobi. Had to be. She wasn't just an aide, despite the impression her well turned-out presence created. But she didn't look like a bodyguard, either.

"Konoha has only the best wishes for our future with Iwagakure," Tsunade said. She didn't perk up at all. "We would present possibilities for your ears. Would that we had more time, we would share dossiers. When next we meet, we suggest that the role of such a person be discussed in detail."

"Iwa hears," Kurotsuchi replied. "We need no apologies, Konohagakure. We would listen to Konohagakure's words, for they have many fine sons and daughters."

'Holy shit why are they talking like that? Is that a nobility thing? Did I miss out on important lessons for how kage talk?'

Both Tsunade and Kurotsuchi would have been raised as nobility, wouldn't they? Aiko felt a self conscious flush. In comparison, she seemed uncouth. She had the pedigree- from her mother's noble family, and from her father's acquired status as hokage; but she had none of the education.

"Konoha presents first the sons and daughters of their firstborn clans." Tsunade's expression was obscured from the angle Aiko sat at, but she sounded formal and disinterested. "Of the Senju, there are none. Of the Uchiha, there is Uchiha Itachi, brother to the head."

'Don't laugh. Don't laugh. Don't laugh.'

"A name that Iwa knows," Kurotsuchi admitted. She did not seem interested, which was pretty understandable. Aiko wouldn't want to marry him either.

Tsunade had to have expected that ambivalent reception. She ploughed on dutifully. "Of the Hyuuga, there is Hyuuga Neji, nephew to the head."

'She didn't say Sasuke.' Aiko frowned. 'Is she just saying one name from each group? Supposedly the best candidate or something like that? Or is she just picking and choosing who she can afford to lose?'

"An unknown son," Kurotsuchi rejoined crisply.

'Tsunade probably can't promise clan heads or their heirs,' Aiko decided. 'That seems like something the founding clans would have negotiated for.'

Before Tsunade could reply, the unnamed Iwa lady leaned forward enough that her long, loose hair swayed in front of her face. That stopped Kurotsuchi and put a contemplative look on her face.

"He is known to us," the young woman corrected. She offered no explanation for backtracking.

'What was that about?'

"Of the first great clans of Konoha, there are no more." Tsunade was clearly ready to keep moving. "Next to speak of are the scions of Hokage. Of the Shodaime and Nidaime, there are none. Of the Sandaime, there is one young son, not yet able to pledge. Of the Yondaime, there are two scions, the head of the Uzumaki clan, Aiko, and the brother of the head of Uzumaki, Naruto. Of the Godaime, there are none."

Hearing herself listed was strange, but Aiko had known that would come up. Tsunade had to list the available candidates to avoid snubbing their guest.

Judging by Kurotsuchi's face, she had not expected that suggestion to be raised even in theory. The girl straightened her back and lifted her head, eyes heavy-lidded and glittering through her lashes. Her contempt could not have been clearer if she'd held up a sign.

'Awkward.' Aiko squirmed under the weight of purposeful silence. She recognized the tactic as mokusatsu, but that didn't make it any more comfortable. 'I don't think Tsunade meant that suggestion seriously anyway. She can't pass me off while I hold a title, and she wouldn't risk losing Naruto.'

Tsunade didn't seem fazed. Her breath passed in and out, slow and untroubled. The silence stretched out. Instants turned to minutes. Aiko's feet were falling asleep and she was really bored.

'We're going to die here.'

Aiko didn't know how long it took, but Kurotsuchi caved first. Resentfully, the younger woman inclined her neck in the slightest, stiff acknowledgement. "Iwa hears."

And that was all.

Tsunade's casual continuation made the situation even more bizarre. "Next to speak of are the young noble clans, second born sons and daughters of Konohagakure," she intoned.

The meeting went on much the same way, listing off increasingly unlikely candidates including Karin, as the sole Uzumaki blooded clan member who had not been mentioned as one of Minato's scions. Thankfully, there were no more tactical refusals to speak, which was something of a miracle. Aiko had at least heard of every candidate that Tsunade mentioned, including a civilian niece of the woman Aiko had stolen from on her very first mission out of the village. Small world.

When they were done, Tsunade and Kurotsuchi exchanged bows. "Aiko, please escort our friends out," Tsunade ordered, gesturing to the door.

"Of course." Her legs had fallen asleep. Aiko pushed her prickling feet through the suite, keeping her face impassive.

Tsunade had shown her that conference for a reason. But…

"Kurotsuchi-san?" Aiko turned at the door and tilted her head. "I gather that Naruto and myself are unacceptable suggestions."

She let the unspoken question hang there, for Kurotsuchi to answer or not. For the first time, Aiko spotted an emotion in Kurotsuchi's unnamed aide: anger.

Kurotsuchi stared for a moment, and then gave a huffing laugh through her nose. "No treaty and no Tsuchikage's order could keep the Butcher's spawn safe in Iwagakure," she drawled. "It's madness. If I told my people that they would have to live with one of you, there would be blood in the streets. The person who I choose should become a beloved symbol of safety and security. A hated reminder of our darkest day will not work."

'I didn't think about that at all.'

Stiff, Aiko took a step back and let the older kunoichi into the street. Kurotsuchi gave the barest of nods. "Good night, Uzumaki-san."

'Konoha teaches that Dad was the only person to ever invade Iwa. Dad single-handedly destroyed the army that came toward Konoha.'

Factually, she knew that. She had capitalized on how foreign shinobi must feel about her father's signature technique. But that had been against Kumo nin. How much worse must that hatred and fear be for Iwa nin?

'Is that why Kurotsuchi wants this alliance so badly? She is making sure that if Naruto or I turn out like dad, Iwa won't be the default enemy?'

It was strange to realize that one of your heroes was someone else's worst villain.

The Butcher. Iwa called dad 'The Butcher'.

Well. It was apt enough at describing the power dynamics between Minato and his enemies. They wouldn't have had a chance to stop the slaughter, would they?

"Kurotsuchi-san!" The door had been nearly closed but Aiko yanked it open, hurrying onto the step. "Kurotsuchi-san," she repeated.

The older woman gave her an unimpressed expression, one thin eyebrow raised. "Yes?"

"I don't see why you would want this," Aiko half-asked, hip cocked stubbornly to the side even though she did not feel certain at all. "I wouldn't."

'If I were in her position, my aim would be to crush Konoha decisively so that it was never a threat again. Not make friends.'

For the first time, something intense lit up Kurotsuchi's otherwise dour, plain features. "It's true that we could hold that grudge forever," the kunoichi admitted lowly. Her mouth twisted down. "We are unchanging as stone, they say." She shook her head, one sharp movement. "That would only lead to the same failed scenario, Uzumaki-san." Kurotsuchi stepped back, tossing her hair. "I choose to look forward, not behind."

The Iwa nin took off without another word, leaving her unnamed assistant to stare at Aiko. The older woman was utterly inscrutable. When she eventually turned to follow, Aiko mutely stepped back and closed the door on the quiet sounds of the night.

'I admire Kurotsuchi-san,' Aiko realized.

That didn't mean Aiko agreed with her, per se. She wrinkled up her nose, trying to sort through her thoughts. Well. Maybe she could see herself coming to the same conclusions, but not for the same reasons.

Like Kurotsuchi-san, Aiko's aim was the welfare of the people she cared about. Aiko's impulse was to assure that welfare through proactive means, like breaking off their enemies' fingers.

'Then again, I'm not thinking like a kage. I'm thinking about a group of less than ten people, not a country and a system. If I were concerned about a larger group like that, I would approach things differently as well because I would have more resources and abilities to enact change.'

She stopped at that thought.

'That's not entirely right. If I had that same power, I wouldn't have to be concerned with the entire group, necessarily, in order to reap the same beneficial impact to my pack.'

Naruto wouldn't like that. Nor would Yamato, Kakashi, or… pretty much anyone but Hōseki and Mitsuo, really.

'I'm not sure if I care that much, when it comes down to brass tacks. I'd like them all happy, but I'd much prefer them safe.'

Well. That was all theoretical for now. But it was an interesting thought. She stored it for later deliberation.

The next day, Lord Mifune finally turned his eye back to her with an expression that implied he would tolerate nothing out of turn. When she was called up again, Aiko held her temper and finished her testimony. Konan was as visibly composed as ever, but something sick was nestling in the pit of Aiko's stomach. The five kage took their turns offering their recommendations- at that point, she paid strict attention. Mifune-sama was the arbiter, of course, but he would likely side with the majority of the kage.

The Raikage's condemnation was not a surprise. That the Tsuchikage calmly seconded was unfortunate. When her turn came, Mei dithered, claiming that she was sympathetic but could not condone Konan's actions. Tsunade believed that the evidence did not support a strict sentencing. Gaara-san disagreed.

"She's going to be convicted, isn't she," Aiko dully asked Yamato as the court got up and left. He rubbed at the back of his neck and shrugged.

"We'll find out tomorrow," Yamato deflected.

They did, of course.

"Guilty," Lord Mifune pronounced carefully, addressing the chamber. "Through her own actions, Konan-san has deliberately incurred harm against another shinobi at a conference of peace. This being a violation of the third international treaty's fifteenth statue, I must recommend sanctions and encourage that she step down from her position as leader of Amegakure. As long as Ame no Konan is in Amegakure, no country may expect the fair and equitable adherence to any treaty, ceasefire, or mutual agreement from Ame."

Konan was white as paper, except for the humiliated flush rising in her cheeks.

"Repayment of this debt should be rendered in equal parts to Konohagakure, Iwagakure, Kumogakure, Sunagakure, the village of Waterfall, and the village of Nadeshiko," Lord Mifune listed. "As the site of the offence, Mizugakure shall be rendered reparation equaling but not exceeding the reparations of no less than two of the other states." Lord Mifune nodded, and the jailors at either side of Konan removed the chakra binding cuffs on her wrists. There was no point in restraining her. Konan was the first to move, giving a low bow. Then she strode out with her head high. No one followed.

Aiko sat still a long moment after the judgment was rendered, dully watching the Raikage's relief pull years off his face.

That couldn't have gone much worse for Konan.

Mifune could 'recommend' all he liked, but no court could order a foreign power to step down. That was what the sanctions and rulings were meant to do: they would force Konan to retire and exile herself to keep her people from starvation and ruin.

They would have to pay the settlements regardless, of course. But a country could not go long without a single ally in the world. Mifune had only said what most present had been thinking- no treaty with Ame could be considered valid, because Konan was an oathbreaker. He couldn't forbid alliances, but who would want to make them?

'It's not my problem,' Aiko told herself. She wasn't convinced. She stood when Shizune did, following the rest of the party out. Tsunade stopped in the grand doors to survey the situation, eying first several important persons from Iwagakure, then Mei, holding court over two men from Iron and a Kumo shinobi.

'Pity we can't just leave Tsunade here to the boring work.'

All sorts of important persons were gathered in the antechamber, murmuring in groups of three and four. Servers moved through the crowds, offering drinks prepared to ease the strain of frantic gossiping on poor throats. One raised voice floated above the din.

"No, I am not concerned," Kurotsuchi-san laughed. Aiko looked over in time to see her toss her hair, posture relaxed. She looked like a warrior queen, a loosely leashed threat in her Jounin uniform. "Iwagakure had an alliance with Amegakure, it is true."

'That's right,' Aiko realized. 'She should be concerned. Amegakure was their major source of rice import. Most of Iwa's elevation is too high for growing staple foods.'

"Another alliance, of course," Kurotsuchi was answering an unheard question from a portly figure in red. "Iwagakure is honored to count Konohagakure among their friends. When I am Tsuchikage, our relationship will be formalized."

Conversation halted in half of the antechamber, though few were crass enough to jerk around to stare.

'She was not supposed to announce that. Nothing is finalized.'

Tsunade recovered well, giving a surprised laugh. Aiko was certain that she would like nothing more than to kill Kurotsuchi at this moment in time. "Konohagakure is lucky in friendship," she acknowledged, giving a smile that Aiko recognized as 'phony as fuck'. The room broke out in sound again, this time less dire and more gossip.

At least one mystery was resolved. Oonoki couldn't have known that Kurotsuchi-san was treating with Konoha, not with that black stare he was giving her. The cheeky little shit toasted her grandfather with a dangerous smile.

'What could she possibly gain from being so aggressive when he had all but announced she was his successor?' Aiko wondered, finding her own refreshment from an aide.

Maybe she was aiming to provoke him into a heart attack.

Tsunade had made it sound like he was dragging his feet. Perhaps Oonoki and his granddaughter had differing ideas about the timeline for his retirement. Perhaps Kurotsuchi-san had become impatient.

'Or maybe there's something else going on. She didn't seem impulsive to me. This was a tactical decision, probably to draw attention to her.'

Idly, she watched as Kurotsuchi laughingly detangled from her hangers-on, waving them off. The brunette tossed her hair and sauntered through the crowds, heading further into the building.

"Where's she going?" Yamato asked in an undertone, expression grim.

Aiko shrugged, not really thinking about it. "Bathroom, probably."

Her own words stopped her in her tracks, along with one possible interpretation for why Kurotsuchi was being so damn provocative.

"Oh, god damnit," Aiko bit out under her breath, shoving her drink at the closest person. The mustachioed old man took it unthinkingly and blinked down at the beverage. By the time he'd opened his mouth to call after her, Aiko was pushing and weaving around the hall-full of idling diplomats. Aiko noticed Yamato hurriedly signal Itachi before following her, but her mind was elsewhere.

"Aiko!" Yamato caught up to her with a jolt. "What's going on?"

"A hunch," Aiko answered honestly. "A really dumb one, about a reoccurring modus operandi. Just trust me."

She hoped she was wrong. But when she tracked Kurotsuchi to a ladies' room two halls away from the crowd, she was rolling her shoulders and making sure her hair was tied back.

"I trust you, but a bathroom?" Yamato sounded, disgruntled. "You think there's an emergency in the bathroom?"

"Yeah but it's the ladies' so you better wait outside," Aiko shot back unthinkingly, palm on the door. The sheer sense of incredulity in her stare stopped her. She rewound. Thought about what she'd said. "Or I guess you could come in, this one instance."

She pushed the door open before he could say anything, and nearly leapt back at the sudden explosion of sound and heat that came when she broke through the genjutsu.

'No,' Aiko realized. 'I didn't break the genjutsu.'

Kurotsuchi's well-dressed aide was pulling her hands out of the dispelling handsign, elbow up to block an expected blow that wasn't coming. Kurotsuchi was on her knees at the older woman's side, blinking off whatever vision Obito had just given her.

Something had clearly already happened- one of the sinks at the end of the room was spilling over with hot water, creating a sizable puddle that was seeping over to the doorway.

'Of course it's the bathroom. Why is it always something like this? Obito, you asshole pervert.'

Obito was leaning against the wall adjacent to the sinks, arms crossed and orange mask over his face. She could tell it was him. She'd know him anywhere, no matter what he had on his face. She knew his posture and movements and the fact that he was internally reminding himself to be cool.

He didn't look that dangerous to her. Then again, he never did, until he did something drastic. It was hard to reconcile Obito with the man who'd cut down one of her ANBU teammates without blinking

He was dangerous- to other people more than her. But also to himself. Talk about bad decisions.

'I'd still rather hit him over the head and get him psychiatric help than kill him.'

The next exchange passed too fast for her to muster up the will to interfere with. Kurotsuchi lurched to her feet as the aide reared back, mouth pursed for some kind of ninjutsu- leaving her neck open for the brace of senbon that Obito had readied.

The clone that Aiko had been looking at puffed away at the same time that Obito dropped his henge or whatever he had been using to blend into the wall.

'Good misdirection.'

Yamato lunged to stop the woman from falling forward but the senbon needles had already sunk in. All but their tips had disappeared into soft flesh. There was a horrible scream from Kurotsuchi that sounded like-

"Did she say mother?" Aiko asked the room in general. Kurotsuchi-san brought her mother to-

'Actually, that's traditional, isn't it.'

Kurotsuchi lunged at Obito, moving quicksilver and agile. She lunged right through him- missing the instant that he flickered with kamui. She didn't care, wheeling around and making a successful grab at his hip. She flipped him bodily, using her mass to send him over her shoulder.

Obito hit the mirror above the sink with a crack. Glass splintered and flew in glittering rain. Kurotsuchi landed catlike on the wall beside him.

With her eyes covered in protection, Aiko missed the instant that Obito must have righted himself and twisted to land a kick on Kurotsuchi's face. She did hear the skittering of a dislodged tooth on the floor and the crunch of a breaking nose. The force sent Kurotsuchi backwards into the ceiling, head cracking against the plaster.

Kurotsuchi howled, hand to her face and landed unsteadily on the floor in a crouch. The girl spat blood between her fingers. Obito was coming to a standing position, brushing glass off his shoulder and rolling his neck. Kurotsuchi pulled her hands away from her face. Chakra was building, filling up the room from floor to ceiling and when Aiko blinked open the Rinnegan she could see that it was accumulating in Kurotsuchi's lungs and hey, when had Obito put the genjutsu outside the room back up and-


"Don't!" Aiko yelled, pressing herself against the wall in an attempt to get out of the path of fire, despite knowing that the heat would cook her alive anyway.

Kurotsuchi hacked, eyes wide with the reminder that not everyone was heat-proof. She swallowed the lava that she'd been building up. Her legs trembled.

"Pity." Obito clapped politely. Once. Twice. "I am afraid that this is not the optimal environment for using such destructive ninjutsu attacks, Kurotsuchi-san. Fire and lava ninjutsu would be hazardous to your poor mother. How unfortunate that you have no ground access for your earth ninjutsu." Aiko froze like a deer, still and cold when he turned towards her. "And Konoha nin. I'm afraid that your presence is not required here."

He was right- an enclosed space hindered many ninjutsu. Was it worth attempting to force the fight out, or shoulder she adapt tactics instead?

"I don't suppose you'll just let us leave," Yamato rejoined grimly. He was gently laying down the still Iwa-nin, pulling out needles with the hand that wasn't supporting her head.

Aiko surveyed the situation with a blink. Kurotsuchi's mother was down. Kurotsuchi was wounded and hindered by the environment. Yamato's skill set favored open terrain as well.

'A good teammate would rally them. If we work together, we have a chance of winning. Maybe none of us will die doing it.'

That was not appealing.

All right. Her allies didn't look like a good option.

But her opponent… Obito… Obito was nothing but one, big, sore weakness.

'He wants to think that I've seen the light.'

Aiko lifted her head and made eye contact, zoning out whatever Obito and Yamato were saying. She let her eyes widen, brows go up sliiightly from the center, and opened her face into a welcoming, serene smile. With their backs to her, Yamato and Kurotsuchi couldn't see how she held up her open palms and cocked her head at Kurotsuchi while she indicated Yamato with her kunai hand. Obito did.

He took her offer, running at Kurotsuchi from the front. The Iwa-nin opened her mouth to shout, but whatever she said was lost in the roaring in Aiko's ears. She didn't pay any attention to their exchange of blows.

'Forgive me.'

Yamato must have thought Aiko was rushing to intercept Obito. He didn't even turn around before she knocked him down, flipped him, and bored into him with Rinnegan and the genjutsu suggestion that he sleep.

His eyes were wide, shocked. They closed.

'If I do it, then Obito won't touch you. He won't kill you.'

Yamato went limp.

-she couldn't help but think of attacking Shizune so that Danzo would think she was his ally-

Aiko forcibly released the white-fingered grip she'd had on Yamato's shoulders. Braced her hands on the floor. Got up. And swallowed. She looked at Obito. She didn't think about the fact that she'd just attacked a comrade. She didn't. "So, what's the plan?"

Obito's eyes flashed red through his mask. Aiko knew what had happened before he let go of Kurotsuchi's collar. The girl's knees bent and she collapsed to the floor.

"The Tsuchikage is politically the only neutral at the moment." He pushed his orange mask up over his face and grimaced. The drag of porcelain had caught and rolled small bits of broken glass, leaving scrapes and gouges on his face. He blinked away blood. "That gives him a lot of sway, and Iwa is already the second most powerful nation in the current climate. I put the Tsuchikage under the same genjutsu that worked in Mist, but Kurotsuchi-san is becoming uncontrollable." He gave the unconscious woman a pout. "What a difficult person, ne?" Then Obito winked at Aiko, exhausted but clearly happy.

'Not really. She knew something was wrong and smoked you out. She just couldn't follow through.'

Lack of follow-through had never really been Aiko's problem, had it?

Aiko nodded. Keep him talking, make this seem normal. If he's talking, he's not thinking. "How is that useful?"

Obito squinted and rubbed at his face with the back of a gloved palm. "I'm working on it, all right?" His voice was muffled. "I'll figure out how to power Tsuki No Me another way. In the meantime, I can steer the shinobi world in a better direction with only a few key individuals."

She hummed. "So why'd you bother Konan and Naruto on the trip here? That seems unnecessary."

The older nin gave an ugly snort. "Excellent question. That wasn't me. Someone impersonated me impersonating Madara. Who gained from that? I don't see it."

"So…" Aiko trailed off, absolutely ready to not contemplate the madness that confession hinted at. She didn't have time for that. "You don't exactly want to become the kage again via a puppet, like you did in Mizu?" Aiko tried. At his head shake, she furrowed her brows. "So… you want to be like the kage-kage? Rule all the kages and be like the extreme kage? Kage squared?"

He shot her a dirty look, marred by the blood sticking in his eyelashes. "It just sounds dumb when you say it that way."

'Because it is dumb. You need help. The only way to have actual power over all the shinobi nations would be to take them by force. The fact that you can't see that is indicative of severely impeded reasoning.'

Her hands spasmed. She pressed them against the front of her pants, forcibly quelling the shake.

'But he can't get help as long as he's a danger. And he is dangerous. Even without the Madara act for intimidation, Kamui is dangerous.'

She clenched her thumbs against the inside of her palms. They were sweating. "Honestly, Obito." Aiko forced a scoff into her tone. "Stop rubbing at the blood. There's still glass bits. You're making it worse." When he stuck out his lower lip, she pretended to roll her eyes. "Come here, you dork. Get on your knees."

Obito obediently stepped over, but bent down instead of doing what she'd ordered. Aiko yanked on his face and pushed the mask entirely off of his head to clatter on the floor. She ignored his yelped protestations in favor of picking at the shards of glass in his hair and behind his ears. Could he feel that her hands were shaking?

If so, he didn't comment. He relaxed into her touch. Of course he did. He was a tactile person. Aiko's heart shuddered in her chest as she worked her way closer to his hairline. Obito's eyes slid shut, and his breathing slowed. He let his knees hit the floor and water seeped up his pant legs.

'If he's going to get out of this, no one can know he's not Madara.'

"How much time do we have until someone notices they're gone?" Aiko asked in a light tone.

'No one cares about a long dead Chuunin.'

Obito's rumbled response was almost a purr. "A while. There's a genjutsu around the room, and Oonoki is causing a distraction."

'Kurotsuchi never saw his face.'

"Huh." Aiko didn't care that much. She was smoothing down his sweaty bangs and working to make sure there were no glittering shards worked into a scabbing scratch, or in the wrinkles between his eyebrows. She felt light and almost distant when her fingers made it to the dust in the corners of his eyes that were welling up with tears. Casually, she readjusted her hands so that her thumbs were poised to swipe gently at each tear duct.

And she pushed her thumbs in to the first knuckle.

'No Sharingan, no kamui. Problem solved.'

Obito screamed, wrenching away and backwards to the ground. His hands were over his face, pressed hard to stem the swell of blood but that wasn't going to help because one eye had popped out whole like a cherry on her left thumb when he'd ripped away and the other was a jellied mess and Aiko made an involuntary gurgling sound of disgust with the resolution, shaking her hands to get it off get it off get it off and she was going to be sick and-

-he trusted her like boar and ha that blew up in his face didn't it (which man was she thinking about?)-

And she was sick, on the tile floor, with her hands held out so that she didn't touch herself by accident. It was the clear, vile slick of an empty stomach and it spread like an oil spill over the water. That was embarrassing, but Obito was making more of a fuss than she was.

'He's probably dropped his genjutsu. Someone might come looking. I don't have time for this.'

Aiko lunged to grab Obito, hurting her knees and suffering an elbow to the face but she managed to get a good grip on one arm.

She took him to Kakashi. The interim Hokage rolled off his couch and attempted to block any incoming projectiles with his book.

Obito wrenched out of her grip, writhing away backwards to collide into the wall with a bang. He fell again, blindly jolting into a table.

Kakashi had one hand up, covering his sharingan eye. "Is that-"

"Kakashi, Obito, Obito, Kakashi," Aiko interrupted, pushing Obito away to rub her hands on her pants and not think about the squishy mess and how it had felt how the soft material had bowed and given under the pressure- "I know it's been a while and you should probably hug it but out he probably needs a doctor or something. Don't worry, he's mostly harmless now." She swallowed.

'I did the right thing. He gets to live this way and he can't hurt anyone. This is the right thing.'

Obito screamed, gargling out the blood running down his face, but she definitely made out the word, "No!" He contorted, hips thrusting upward, and hit the back of his head against the floor again and again and again.

Aiko winced. "Keep him safe," she half-shouted to Kakashi to be heard about the thrashing.

Kakashi was nearly green, staring at the bloody mess that had been his best friend. "From what?"

"From himself, mostly. Why don't you call my therapist and make him an appointment after Sasuke is done with him?" Aiko allowed herself one last look and pulled away, back to Yamato, who oh my god could be so rightfully pissed with her after this even if he'd just said he trusted her judgment.

Better mad than dead. Better safe than happy.

She ignored Kurotsuchi, not caring right now about what Obito had done to her mind. Aiko knelt in the broken glass and water by Yamato and dragged his head up onto her lap.

He'd wake up on his own. Eventually.

Not two minutes had passed before the door swung open. Uchiha Itachi blinked down at her and seemed to sigh. He looked around the room, distinctly unimpressed.

Aiko took mental stock of how Uchiha Itachi would see the room.

Three shinobi were unconscious or sleeping on the floor. There were two distinct swirls of pale vomit and red blood moving in the inch of water covering the floor. And there Aiko was, with blood that didn't match the injury patterns of anyone in the room.

"Should I locate a mop?" Uchiha asked dryly.

"Oh, shut up."

'I really should get rid of him.'

Talking seemed to wake Kurotsuchi. She stirred with a groan, peeling her eyes open. They instantly shot wide, surveying the scene.

It didn't look great, to be honest. Aiko made sure her bloody thumbs were concealed under Yamato's hair, and turned her forearms just that little bit more to ensure that the blood spatters were hidden in the wrinkles of her shirt sleeves.

"What?" Kurotsuchi-san bolted upright, tense. "Where- Madara-"

"Kurotsuchi-san-" Itachi began, but Aiko bowled him over with

"Itachi did it." Everyone looked at her. "He fought Uchiha Madara," Aiko explained. "Madara ran after that." Aiko turned her face up to Uchiha Itachi and let her face slide into a beatific smile. She could all but feel him recoil.

'Fuck you, Uchiha. You're not going to say shit, are you.'

The look she gave him was stone-cold, even with her face stretched in a smile.

"He saved everybody."

'And Christmas.'

Wait. What the hell is Christmas?

Uchiha Itachi shut his mouth. He wasn't going to say shit.

'That worked. I can't believe it worked.'

Kurotsuchi-san had a considering expression and was saying something to him that had the Uchiha turning white as a sheet, jaw stiff. Maybe it was a proposal.

Aiko didn't care. Laughter was building up in her gut and echoing around her head, but she didn't let it out.

'I think I am starting to see a correlation in my problem-solving. I might have found what I'm really, really good at.'

Aiko turned her face down, letting the angle and her hair hide her. And she smiled, because no one was going to be happy with her, but it'd blow over. And she'd gotten what she wanted, hadn't she? Obito was

-screaming on the floor-

home, Naruto was safe-

The rest would work out. But, shit-

'I wonder where I'm going to put all my 'friend of the year' trophies.'

The Beginning

No, I'm just fucking with you.

It's the End.

I would like to dedicate this chapter to an anonymous reviewer, Professor, who, a very long time ago, asked if I had left a typo in chapter 59 of Vapors, or if I "meant to type kagekage-sama, in which case Gaara is the mysterious shadow-shadow?" I noted the typo, but liked the phrasing of the review so much that I had to leave it. It's still there, in the ff version of Vapors, at least. I decided that the mysterious shadow shadow could not be forgotten.

Alright. It's over. There are so many people I should thank that it isn't even funny. All my reviewers, for starters. I can't even name you all. It isn't for lack of love, I probably can't count that high. So in general, special thanks to the reviewers who were consistent, and reviewers who were positive, and the reviewers who had cogent points and criticism, and the reviewers whose relentless negativity inspired me to new depths of pettiness and rage. Maybe not the last ones. Screw those guys. I'll fucking fight them all.

And oh my god, thank you, everyone who wrote about or recommended my story on other sites and forums. I looked at absolutely everything. In all honesty, I may have cried more than once or twice because there are some real assholes out there, but most of you are great.

Speaking of great, there is a stunning array of fanart for Vapors and Clarity. Almost all of it is linked through my blog at electraposts on Tumblr, although I am incompetent and some of it needs to be archived still. I'll get there. I love all of it. I love the other art too- meaning the fanfiction of my fanfiction. I don't know if I want to giggle or enjoy it unironically. It's so meta, but uh, I don't think anyone loves this 'verse more than I do, so content that is not by me is just the biggest thrill.

Next up is everyone who helped by pre-reading chapters on an occasional basis, or had long conversations with me about characterization or other details. Elelith, for sure, looked over a couple for me. Thank you, dude. You're great.

Finally, the two people who edited pretty much every single chapter in this monstrosity, and helped make it so much better.

If you like being happy, you should thank Crownsoflaurels. Crowns stemmed a lot of my bloodlust (including the possible ending where Vapors just ended when Aiko died) and apparently unnecessary character death (like Shizune and Anko. If you like them alive, thank her), and made the emotional arcs and interactions of so many characters what they are. Thank you for being so consistent, reliable, and kind about shooting down my really, truly, terrible ideas, like the time that I tried to name this story something about seeing moonlight through clouds. That was an impressively bad idea. I'm glad you stopped me

Archertheundreamed, I first need to thank you for not strangling me in my sleep. I probably deserved it a hundred times over for keeping you until the wee hours to ask things like, "Why do you think Aiko just grates Utakata the wrong way?" Thank you, for talking over every component of this story in far more detail than it or I deserved, and being the inspiration for so much world building. I am a little sad that no one gets the backstory on Kurotsuchi's frankly terrifying mother, Yuina. It is downright tragic that your conception for Iwagakure didn't make it into Clarity except as echoes and hints.

For anyone who isn't ready for it to be over, I'm… Well, I'm not that sorry. I had to finish it, and this did resolve the main premises of Clarity in particular, the parallel of Obito and Aiko's stories. Issue any complaints to the space underneath the basement stairs in a whisper, and I won't get back to you. Which is fine.

But there is more Clarity-verse content on my tumblr and there will probably be more as inspiration strikes. Again, the blog name is electraposts, for anyone who hasn't already checked it out. I have pre-loaded several posts with drabbles already that should automatically post a day or two from the date this is put up and continue from there.

In addition, I want to make it explicitly clear that I fully endorse anyone who wants to write more in Clarity or Vapors. Feel free, go nuts. But let me know, yeah, so I can check it out? If you want it to be 'officially approved', send me anything before you post it. I will gladly read it, offer edits, encouragement, and link it for others to enjoy.

I'm not done writing fanfiction in general, since a few people have asked. I'm still here. I'm busy, though, so anything on the scale of this verse is probably not going to happen for a while. But who knows, anything could happen.

Also, you know, loose ends that are not loose ends, for the curious.

If you didn't catch it, Scumbag Mei was the one impersonating Madara so that the international community would step up in mutual defense of their jinchuuriki, so she didn't have to do as much work.

Tsunade doesn't admit that 'Madara' is no longer an issue. She uses the threat to rally support.

Itachi followed Yamato and Aiko almost immediately. He opened the door to see Aiko gouging out Obito's eyes. He shut the door.

Kurotsuchi did get her war bride. You know who it is.

(Remember way back when I said 'One of these things is true' and promised that Itachi would get engaged? That was the thing that was true.)

If there's anything else you're dying to know, ask me on Tumblr.